The market was dirty and disorganized. Flies landed at will on the dried fish we were about to purchase. The fish are expensive this time of the year since it is not the season for the boats to go out on Lake Kariba. The lake acts as a border between two of the world’s most poverty stricken nations, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Since the lake was stocked with a small fish called Kapenta, it has become an important food source for the protein absent diet for thousands of people living in the villages nearby. Zimbabwe, once the food basket of much of South Central Africa, is now in desperation under the dictatorial regime of President Mugabe. Refugees stream across the border into Zambia, hoping to find a better life there. Zambia has its own problems, but at least there is some food at the markets to be purchased.
At US$90:00 a bag seems way too much, but I go ahead, knowing the protein value of the fish and the joy it will bring as we do distribution in the villages tomorrow. Kapenta is a luxury item on the menu and usually reserved for weddings and community celebrations. We also purchase cooking oil, maize flour (mealy meal) candles, school supplies, seeds, baby clothes and medications. At the bottom of the list in big letters we are reminded to bring plenty of soap. It takes us most of the day, making sure we get the best deals and load everything into and on top of our long wheel base Land Rover. The wet season failed to arrive this year and the maize crop suffered badly. Many of the villages have no little or no food. The children scour the surrounding woodlands in search of wild foods. There is not much to find, baboons have already been there, but out they go anyway.
Our Landrover can go places no other vehicle can go, accessing remote villages far off the beaten path. We are warned about a rouge male elephant, wrecking havoc in the villages. It has been wounded, most likely by a poacher’s snare and trying to get revenge on its attackers. The tall grass on either side of the track restricts our view giving no warning of a possible encounter. The day is already hot, unusual for this time of year, but ahead lays our first village with over 60 widows and 130 children already gathered under the huge spreading mango tree in the center of the village. We greet the elders and begin distribution. Everyone is called by name and equal amounts are distributed. It takes most of the morning but by doing it this way we make sure food gets to the people needing it most. The widows are amazing; many have no idea of their age but they do remember the year they were born. The records show us some are over 70 years old. They are survivors in a world where the average life expectancy is 32.7 years.
Some of the orphans don’t respond to their name being called. They are not used to it. They are the lost children of Africa, having to carry the stigmatism of their parent’s death from HIV/AIDS. They do not smile when given food. There is no eye contact and their heads are always faced downward. The kapenta works its magic, but nothing creates as much excitement as the soccer balls we bring. The few men in attendance gather around and break into smiles and excited chatter at the sight of the black and white imitation leather balls. Soccer is more than a sport. It represents an escape from the mundane and often depressing life in the village. The women are shocked as we bring them forward and present them with the same. They use the soccer balls to play netball, a sport similar to basketball that the women used to play in more prosperous times. Dancing and singing breakout as the netballs are being passed around and clung to.
There is now only the baby clothes left and two more boxes of soap to distribute. There are two young mothers, Melody and Innocence, and my wife discretely hands them a package each. There are baby clothes, cloth diapers, food supplements, t shirts and soap. Both mothers are orphans and aged 13 and 14. We know from our journeys to other villages that orphan girls have very little value on their bodies and will exchange sex for food or soap. Girls as young as 12 are getting pregnant in exchange for half a bar of cheap laundry soap. We look around knowing there are so many orphans, and even on this one day out of many, we will see this same situation repeated again and again. For now we distribute soap.