Immediately following our recent trip to Zimbabwe, I found it difficult to wrap my head around all the images, relationships and cultural insights, let alone putting it into words. Now that I’ve been home for a few days, I’ve had time to digest, and i’ll give it a shot here.
I’ll start at the beginning. The day before we left on what would be the trip of a lifetime, I had to sit for my doctoral boards. So the plans for Zimbabwe seemed a bit rushed for me. Luckily, I have a great wife who took care of most of the packing for me while I had my nose buried in books. We travelled to Manhattan to sit for the boards, then flew out of JFK the next day. Immediately following my boards, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that we would be boarding a plane to Africa in less than 24 hours. But we did some sight-seeing, grabbed a late dinner and got the last night of sleep in America before departure.
From the moment we stepped onto the plane in Queens, we knew something amazing was about to happen. It was hard to get some quality shut-eye on the overnight plane to Frankfurt, Germany, with the whirlwind of emotions and the anticipation of what was coming our way. We landed in Germany and met the rest of the team before spending our 10 hour layover wandering the streets of Frankfurt. After some soft-pretzels and traditional German hefeweizen, we made our way back to the airport for the next portion of our travels. We flew to Johannesburg, South Africa before assuming our home for the next two weeks, the incredible and beautiful country of Zimbabwe.
We were greeted at the airport by members of our host family, newlyweds Rob and Steph Davy, who would prove to be our sanity and our caretakers for the duration of our stay. We spent one night in Harare before embarking on the early morning 5 hour drive to Chiredzi. After one night in our host house, we travelled another 2 hours to the Gudo Village, 40km from the tar road that brought us there. We pulled in well after sundown to find members of the village anxiously awaiting our arrival. We had a short introduction ceremony, followed by prayers to keep us safe and healthy while working. We then broke out the tents and had a late night camp set-up before collapsing for the night. Early the next morning, the team started on various tasks. I assumed the job of bricklaying for the new bathroom soon-to-be-installed. My mentor, Robert was more than understanding with my lack of experience in this arena. He taught me well, and before you knew it, the walls were built and we moved on to the next of many jobs. The women worked hard, carrying buckets of stone and water from the river, really connecting with the women of the village. My wife found this to be one of the most interesting and touching experiences of the trip. The time when the women would get to the watering hole and sit momentarily for a rest. The women would open up to them, telling them about life in the village and sharing their experiences. Working with the men, my outlook was quite different. They were a little more quiet and less talkative during work hours. They were there to work and most of their talking with us was directing work flow to appropriate areas. I had a friendly connection with one man, who I found myself working with day in and day out. But even so, all I would here from him was, “TJ. Come,” and “TJ. Stop.” But I could tell by his demeanor and his half-smirk when working together that we had an immediate connection. One afternoon, he invited me to come with him to his home to fetch more buckets for hauling water. I was lucky enough to meet his two sons and two daughters, as well as his wife. I felt truly accepted by the community at this time. Being invited to his home to personally meet his family was a touching offer that I will never forget.
After a few days of working in the village, the volunteers were incredibly amazed at the increase in man power that occurred. Other members of the village had heard about our presence, the construction and the progress it was making and decided to come help. What started as twenty or thirty workers quickly morphed into one hundred. Although it was rather frustrating only having three wheel-barrows and four shovels, the impact that we had on the village after only a few days was incredible. They looked truly empowered and proud of what was being accomplished. The days turned into nights, and the nights turned into days, and before I knew it, it was time to head out. Although the clinic only had a few layers of bricks for walls, and there is much more work to do, we all left there with a feeling of accomplishment, knowing that it was our presence that provided bricks, wheel-barrows, shovels, buckets and hope. The community was sad to see us go, but after some heart-felt goodbyes, they were seen immediately returning to the work site. With no time to lose, construction once again commenced. I’m eager to return, to view the progress of what we were able provide.
We spent a few more days in Chiredzi before our light hearts grew heavy and we departed. Upon returning home, there is an insurmountable feelings of sorrow, pride, empathy, wonder, empowerment and global responsibility, among others. My wife has said on a number of occasions since being stateside, that she is feeling drawn to return to Zimbabwe. She has feelings of a certain magnetism attracting her back to the people, the scenery and the need for help that is so apparent there. We feel so blessed to have been a part of this trip, while recognizing the uphill battle for future endeavors. It is an exciting time to be associated with Eric, Scott and the Elias Fund. Big changes for the Earth are in store. With special thanks to the team, the hosts, the community and the trip leaders, until next time… T.J. Shaughnessy