A few days into our ‘dad & son’ trip to southern Africa this summer, I realised I’d never been in this situation before. I’ve been a dad for 10 years, but this was the first time that I’ve had sole responsibility for any of my children for such an extended period of time. Here I was on a 21-day trip with my 10 year old son and we were spending every waking moment together, and then sleeping in the same tiny room too. The thing that surprised me was that I really enjoyed it! OK, there were times when the sole responsibility for his safety and well-being were all consuming, but we had a great time sharing some very special moments and building memories that will last a lifetime.
The main part of our trip was to be part of a Mission Direct volunteer team in Zambia, where we were decorating a newly-built rescue centre ready for a group of girls to move in and make it their home. However our ‘epic adventure’ started a bit further south, in Zimbabwe.
We were visiting ‘The Michael Project’ which was established about 20 years ago as a result of the needs of children at risk in Zimbabwe. Children make up half the population and 1 in 4 are orphaned, largely through HIV-related deaths, so the need is huge!
We visited several places where The Michael Project are working including a maximum security prison, a children’s home and a community based preschool. I recently became a trustee of the charity so this was a fantastic opportunity for me to see what they do first-hand. I met some of the children whose lives they have such a major impact on, as well as the staff team who make it all possible.
In Chikurubi Prison I met several children of the inmates in the female section who come to the day-care centre. The Michael Project provide a uniform, two meals a day and a pre-school education. The children live in the cell block with their mothers but the prison do not provide any food or clothes for them. Normally it is only children up to the age of 6 who are found here, but we met one boy who was 10. His mother had been killed in front of him and he was being cared for by an auntie who was imprisoned for being an illegal immigrant. He was malnourished, didn’t speak English and only had the clothes he stood up in. Tinashe, who heads up the centre, is finding him some new clothes and helping him to learn English and get a basic education, along with the other younger children.
If you would like to help support the work of The Michael Project, as a one-off gift or a regular donation, you can do so via ‘give.net’ on The Michael Project website
Before leaving Zimbabwe, we were able to go camping with our friends, the Hobbs family, in a safari park a few hours drive away. We saw buffalo, impala and monkeys, as well as hippos and crocodiles in the river – what a fantastic experience!
After a one-hour flight we arrived in Zambia and were taken to a church compound in an area of Lusaka called Chamba Valley. We were staying in some guest cottages along with 16 other volunteers who had just arrived from the UK. This was all arranged by Mission Direct who offer volunteer trips to about 8 different countries around the world, in partnership with local churches, to help build schools and accommodation in the poorest communities.
Our main project was finishing ‘Vision of Hope’, a rescue centre that will house at least 30 girls who had previously been living on the streets. The staff try to reunite them with their families, get them back into education and give them a better future to lift them out of the hopelessness they have found themselves in. The new centre will replace an existing unit that is too small and lacking in basic facilities. There were window frames to paint, floors to scrub and lavender colour to apply to the outside walls – very distinctive! Each morning we spent several hours there and my son really enjoyed the decorating and being part of the team effort to prepare the building for its new inhabitants.
In the afternoons we were able to visit several local projects and churches who were caring for the many poor, homeless and orphaned children in Lusaka. One afternoon we went to ‘Chisomo’, a drop-in centre for street boys, we spent some time with Crispin who was the same age as my son. He had lived on the streets for quite some time and had recently started visiting Chisomo. We read a book to him about dangerous animals and showed him some pictures of our family and friends back home. We then went outside and played frisbee and catch. The more they played together, the more they both opened up and they were soon having a great time playing and inventing new games. Crispin came and gave my son a big hug when it was time for us to leave – we hope and pray that Crispin is able to find somewhere to live, get into a school, and be surrounded by people to love and care for him.
One morning we headed into the centre of Lusaka and walked around behind the inter-city bus station. There we found a group of 10-15 boys who called this alleyway ‘home’. They emerged from doorways and derelict buildings sniffing rags soaked in some kind of solvent that makes them ‘high’. We started talking to a boy called ‘Bright’. He was the same size as my son but was probably a few years older. He had lost his parents and had been kicked out by his grandmother because she was unable to accommodate him or feed him. Many grandparents end up caring for a large number of orphaned grandchildren, but with meagre incomes and very small houses, they are not always able to offer a home to all of them. We were able to tell Bright about Chisomo and encourage him to visit it to give him the opportunity of getting off the streets. Soon we were surrounded by a few more boys, they found my son’s fair skin and blonde hair fascinating and were all reaching out to stroke his hair and touch his arms. One boy even tried to take his shoes off to put on his own bare feet!
Before returning to the familiarity and relative opulence of home, we had a chance to visit Victoria Falls on the Zambia/Zimbabwe border and had another opportunity to see more animals in the wild. This time we also saw elephants and giraffe as well as a wide variety of birds that live along the Zambezi River.
After 3 weeks away, neither of us wanted to return home. We had experienced the beauty and wonder of Africa, but also the hopelessness and despair in which many people exist. We know that our brief visits will have brought a glimmer of joy to the people that we met, and our efforts with a paintbrush have helped create a home for the girls who have now moved in to Vision of Hope.
If you’re a dad and would like to experience a volunteer trip with your child, you can join CVM and Mission Direct in Moldova next July. More details on the CVM website.