Sunday, July 02, 2006

GONE TO GOKWE

Before I launch into my "Zimbabwe blog," first some light housekeeping: SchlogNet is changing its name, and will henceforth be known as ShBlog.org. (I discovered that the word "schlog" has negative connotations to some, and decided a more neutral name for my blog would be better.)

So, you are now able to find this site at
http://www.shblog.org/. Until mid-August, the old URL (http://www.schlog.net/) will also continue to work. But after that you'll need to use http://www.shblog.org/.

Now ... before I tell you about our "interesting" week in Zimbabwe, let me relate quickly one "interesting" incident that happened on the way back (from Ndola, Zambia) to Johannesburg (to which we have been retreating each weekend).

We were flying in on a nice and newish little jet plane, courtesy of South Africa Airways. Before we actually reached Johannesburg, our flight attendant was taking our refreshment order when she apologized that the captain was calling her and she went up to talk with him. It was a few minutes before she came out again, and casually finished our order. This struck me for some reason as a little unusual.

Then when we reached Johannesburg, we began flying in tight little circles around the airport. This also struck me as unusual, since the airport is not usually that crowded with traffic.

After a time we descended and made our approach. We came down much faster than I have ever come down for a landing in any jet before. The real wheels touched down but the pilot kept the nose high in the air as he sped down the runway.

We seemed nearly halfway down the run, nose still high in the air, when we looked off to the right side of the plane and saw a row of fire engines and ambulances sitting and facing us, all their lights flashing. About this time the pilot, finally, and very gently brought the nose down. We noticed with some degree of concern that all the fire engines and ambulances pulled out after the plane and began pursuing us down the runway.

It took the remainder of the runway to stop the jet, but at the very end we turned aside. A bus pulled up and we were invited to disembark. (I have expected we might have to jump down the slides, but they simply wheeled up an ordinary ramp for us.) No word of explanation from the crew. The fire engines and ambulances caught up with us, turned their lights off and slowed down, then turned back to wherever they came from.

One other interesting thing was the fact that, as soon as we had disembarked, three uniformed engineers rushed up the stairs and huddled with the pilot and copilot, still on the plane. They were all talking excitedly. I would love to know what they were saying.

My best guess is that perhaps there was some sort of problem or indicator light on the nosewheel gear. The speed of landing and attitude of the plane was such that the pilot could have floored it and taken off quickly again. Perhaps they were waiting for a visual check that the nose gear had actually engaged or locked before putting it down. I can't imagine what would have happened, at that speed, if it hadn't.

It all happened so quickly, we had no time to be scared or to do anything but wonder what was going on. I've been debating ever since then whether I would have preferred for the flight crew to warn us of a potential problem, or to handle it just the way they did, with no announcement.

Harare

Anyway, that was Saturday afternoon, and Monday morning we were back on another South Africa Airlines flight, this time headed to Harare, Zimbabwe. I had read about Harare but was still surprised to see what a delightfully elegant city this was. The grounds of our hotel in Harare were immaculately cultivated. The only hitch when we arrived was the need to change rooms, in order to get into a room with two single beds. This later would prove a significant source of much heartache.

World Vision has a significant presence in Zimbabwe, more than 150 staff in our Harare office. Our second day in Harare, we were privileged to meet with our national director, Leslie Scott, who told us about the rural area to which we were headed later that afternoon. The project is called "Gokwe North" and it is located about 6 or 7 hours to the northwest of Harare.

Gokwe North

So we left our hotel on Tuesday and drove halfway to Gokwe, staying at a beautiful conference center in a town called Kadoma. The entire area northwest of Harare is predominantly devoted to cotton crops, although maize (similar to corn) and groundnuts (peanuts) are also cultivated by subsistence farmers.

Shortly after leaving Kadoma, where World Vision's Gokwe project office is located, the roads turned very rough. We were jarred for nearly four hours en route to Gokwe North, and I kept thinking about the recent concussion which I was hoping my jostled brain had fully recovered from.

Though it is a very rural area, Gokwe is home to large numbers of people. As usual we stopped and greeted the local officials (we were told this is a requirement wherever we traveled) before heading out to actual projects.

Juliet is World Vision's project manager in Gokwe.

On Wednesday we visited with Judith, an AIDS orphan who was being cared for by extended family. World Vision had helped build the small mud brick home which sheltered the family, and also provided cattle and other necessities. We also were warmly greeted by a large contingent of orphans and their caregivers, and got to see some wonderful gardening projects and meet with members of a sewing cooperative and youth organizing group.

Our tour to this very out of the way spot was sadly too brief. We started back late Wednesday afternoon and did not arrive back at Kadoma until well past dark.

Stuck in Zimbabwe?

Our arrival in Kadoma was overshadowed by the discovery that I was missing the packet which contained my passport, plane tickets, American Express checks and other important documents. While we visited the field project, World Vision staff in Harare searched the office, cars we had travelled in, and contacted the hotel.

I met with the hotel staff upon our return. Though we had ascertained the hotel as the most likely place of loss, the packet had not been located anywhere. The hotel staff seemed relatively sure that the packet had been stolen. So I began the tedious process of trying to reacquire the documents. I spent most of a frustrating day Friday at the U.S. embassy in Harare, at the Harare Central Police Department, at the Bronte Hotel where we were staying, meeting with staff, searching the WV office some more, at the Immigration office, and on the phone trying to get our tickets reissued.

On Saturday morning, we were 10 minutes away from leaving for the airport when we received a call from the hotel. The packet had been found, turned in by the resident of the room which we had been assigned initially but had moved out of. (This was the same room the hotel staff had assured me they had cleaned and searched thoroughly.) Why the room's resident waited three days to turn in the packet, I'll never know. I wonder if it took them that long to figure out that they would not be able to cash the traveler's checks, even with my passport.

I was grateful for the return of the packet, even though we had already purchased a new passport and new airline tickets. South Africa Air had refused to refund the lost tickets, but we managed to arrive at the airport in time to make our flight with the recovered tickets. (I assure you I will never again fly South Africa Air, if I can help it.)

Methinks Thou Prostesteth Too Much

My overall impression of Zimbabwe is somewhat mixed. I appreciate our staff there, and the work they are doing in a difficult environment. The country seems somewhat paranoid to me. Politics are difficult there and much of the world has condemned the Zimbabwe government for human rights abuses. This seems to have made everyone a little defensive; I don't know how many times people insisted to us that Zimbabwe "really is a safe place, despite what you read in the world press." Hmmm.

We were also a little creeped out by the many warnings that, whatever we did, we shouldn't appear to be journalists. Apparently journalists are not welcome in Zimbabwe, where the very idea of a free press is considered unpatriotic.

I was a little depressed when told by the U.S. Embassy that I might have to hang around another week to get my passport reissued. But fortunately everything worked out.

We appreciated the way the people in the rural projects we visited were taking their futures into their own hands. Many of the projects were started by local Zimbabweans long before World Vision arrived on the scene; we are merely partners in many cases.

But we also sensed a bit of an unusual "entitlement" mentality. Whenever we asked a beneficiary what they wanted to say to their sponsors or donors, without fail they gave us a laundry list or wish list of more things that they wanted. Not a single interviewee thought to stop and say "thank you."

I will be praying for the ongoing development, growth and freedom -- spiritually as well as physically -- of Zimbabwe.

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