The first pages take time
￼Xetshelihle at her home in the Nkayi community in Zimbabwe.
Farmers who wait for perfect weather never plant. If they watch every cloud, they never harvest.
It’s a Tuesday morning in February in Zimbabwe.
The sun’s out, so it’s warm, but it’s also cool. The contradiction is a quality of the country’s wet season. For the last several years, the “wet season” has scarcely existed here. Rainfall has been uneven; drought, persistent. Because most who live here are farmers, many have struggled. “Here,” by the way, is a community of 21,000 called Nkayi.
It is in the arid Matabeleland North province, 150 kilometres from Bulawayo, the country’s second city.
Many families in Nkayi’s district struggle to earn a living. They live in homes that are far walks from schools and sources of clean water. Fewer than 20 per cent have latrines. Forty per cent of the people here don’t have access to food year-round. Cases of prolonged malnutrition in mothers and young children are common. This partly explains why 30 per cent of the children are below average in weight and 40 per cent are below average in height for their age.
Those statistics are why World Vision came to Nkayi in 2011. Staff established a sponsorship program to help reverse those figures and to help change the story in the community from one of poverty to one of prosperity.
Xetshelihle in class.
I’ve come to a primary school to check out the 10 desktops in the school’s computer lab. The Microsoft computers are part of an education project World Vision started a month ago, in January 2014. I take for granted knowing how to create a document in Word, but for many of the students who take part in the classes, which are available to all grades, learning those basics in this lab is their first exposure to using a computer.
That’s true for eight-year-old Xetshelihle. She’s in Grade 3 and has computer class once per week. So far, she’s only had a couple. When she moves the mouse, I see that the cursor still throws her off: sometimes she loses sight of it. But she’s not deterred. She sits still. She types slowly, focusing on the keyboard’s keys. Maybe she’s just choosing her words wisely. Away from the computers, talking with her, I quickly discover that Xetshelihle has more energy than I’d have if I were to drink a pot of filtered Zimbabwean coffee. Later, I try saying Xetshelihle’s name in Ndebele, the language spoken in Nkayi. My translator shakes his head. I can’t pull off the sound of the first two letters, which is a clicking noise much louder and pronounced than the computer mouse makes. I settle for a butchered version that makes Xetshelihle laugh. When I ask what her name means, I learn it has two meanings: the first is “good time”; the second, “perfect opportunity.”
Xetshelihle with her family’s dog, Pula.
At Xetshelihle’s primary school, there are more than 1,000 students across kindergarten to Grade 7. To accommodate that large number, the school has two shifts of classes. Finishing school is a problem in Nkayi—only 60 per cent of kids graduate from primary school. Low incomes make it hard for families to pay their children’s school fees. What’s more, the schools are typically in poor condition. They’re understaffed and over-enrolled.
So why bother with computers? Because students are expected to know how to use them in secondary school and this program will prep them for just that. Xetshelihle tells me that she would like a computer at her house to do homework. Speaking of which, after school, I visit her home.
Xetshelihle and her brother, Bhekumuzi, walk to school.
A family portrait. Clockwise from top left: Linet, Sikhumbuzo, Bhekumuzi and Xetshelihle at their homestead in Nkayi.
Xetshelihle lives with her parents, brother and two cousins a short walk from the school. Actually, I should say short drive. The walk takes her about two hours one way. Today, my crew gives her a ride. In 25 minutes, I’m meeting Xetshelihle’s mom and dad, 30-year-old Linet and 46-year-old Sikhumbuzo. Both farm, while Sikhumbuzo is also a traditional healer. His patients include both locals and travellers. Linet and Sikhumbuzo met by chance at a store in Nkayi. It was, in Sikhumbuzo’s words, love at first sight. They’ve been married now for 10 years.
Surrounding the family’s home is a 40-by-60-metre field, where the parents grow maize, pumpkin and sugar cane. They also have a second field where they grow groundnuts, round nuts and sorghum seed. They don’t sell their harvest; they live off it. When I visit, Linet is preparing dinner.
Tonight’s meal is pumpkin leaves with the Zimbabwean staple sadza
, which is maize porridge. Sikhumbuzo says his daughter is particular about food and this meal isn’t her favourite: she’d prefer rice and chicken. She likes her after-school snack of maize and soybeans even less, sneaking some to Pula, the family’s dog.
Xetshelihle is one of the more than 2,500 children registered for sponsorship
in World Vision’s program. Because the program is new, there are still many who need sponsors. When World Vision staff arrived, they surveyed community leaders and residents, asking how the organization could help and what to do first. The priority projects launched last November. I ask Xetshelihle’s parents about their daughter being registered. They tell me they see World Vision’s presence as a path to good nutrition and a better education for their daughter and their 10-year-old son, Bhekumuzi.
Xetshelihle’s after-school routine includes washing her uniform, packing her lunch for the next day and doing her homework. She says she actually likes doing homework because it prepares her for the following day’s classes. Whether she finishes before dinner de- pends on how inspired she is. Xetshelihle may get down to the task right away. Or she might delay. She’ll sing or dance. Sometimes, she’ll recite poetry.
At a pond, Xetshelihle gathers water.
Xetshelihle poses with a broom—sweeping is one of her daily chores.
That Xetshelihle has energy to entertain so late in the day is all the more remarkable considering the time she wakes, which is at four to do her morning chores before class. First, she’ll go with her mom to fetch water at a far-off borehole. Then she’ll sweep in front of the bedroom that she shares with her brother. Before breakfast, Xetshelihle will take a bath and put on her school uniform. Finally, she’ll leave for the long walk to class. Her school shift is usually the first one, which begins at 7:30.
A day later, I return to the primary school and visit Xetshelihle during an afternoon environmental science class. She literally stands out from the 41 kids in the classroom—she’s standing at her desk, ignoring her seat, writing in her notebook. Xetshelihle is her usual vibrant self, attentive, not disruptive. She follows the school’s rules and expects her peers to do so, too. If not, she’s been known to speak up.
It’s a good trait, especially if Xetshelihle becomes the police officer she says she wants to be. When I visited her family, I asked her dad what he’d like his daughter to become after she graduates. He said a teacher or a clerk, but a police officer would be okay as long as Xetshelihle was happy. What actually comes next for her is of course still unwritten. She may decide to do something other than fight crime. But I’d like to believe that if Xetshelihle were sponsored, the program would be a good chapter in her personal story.
From left: Bhekumuzi, Sikhumbuzo and Xetshelihle check out the crop in their cornfield.
Xetshelihle gathers more water—this time from a faraway borehole.
Xetshelihle hopes to one day be a police officer.
On both the day I arrived in Nkayi and the day I left, it rained—so much so that I had to zigzag through a maze of puddles. I’m tempted to attach some sort of significant meaning to the weather of those two days, but know better.
When I think back to that first day, I realize I made the mistake of being unrealistic. Even though I was aware the community’s projects were new, I still expected to see more results. I wanted instant development. It doesn’t exist. The mistake is dismissing early progress; the difficulty is accepting that change is measured in years. Two days’ rain won’t bring green fields forever.
Instead, I will hold on to the week I spent here. I met children, adults, families and World Vision staff. They are the people who give me hope. Although work has only begun, the story of Nkayi’s journey from poverty to prosperity no longer starts on a blank page.
This article appears in the Winter 2014/2015 issue of Childview.