Social Work on the Titanic

“Arden, the truth is that I am not as concerned about your safety as your mental health, I am afraid that going to work in Zimbabwe right now is going to be a lot like doing social work on the Titanic.”

I sat there stunned.  My old Professor had a reputation for being painfully honest, but I was expecting a little more encouragement when I stopped by his office to say good-bye.  It couldn’t really be that bad over there, could it?

Social work on the Titanic?

The first month we arrived, the situation did not seem so bad.  But as the food supply has dwindled, prices for basic commodities have risen to a level people cannot afford.  Our kids are hungry, the parents our HIV support group are getting sicker and there is at least one staff member gone every single day attending a funeral.  I would also say that every single day at least one child tells me their family does not have food at home.  People are desperate. This week we had no phone service because people are cutting the telephone wires and selling them over the borders for money for food.  At times it seems hopeless.

The truth is, we are living in a country with a collapsing economy, where a drought has caused 2/3 of the population to be on the verge of starvation.  We are also fighting to serve the most vulnerable children in the middle of the worst epidemic in history.  We are fighting hard, but our chances of winning are slim.

The latest statistic I read stated that 50% of the children in Zimbabwe under age 15 today will die of HIV.   What does that mean to me?  It means that ½ the kids I know and love will never see age 40 and if our children are no better off than the general population, the money we are using to feed them will only insure that they can die the same way their parents did.  Every time I allow that to sink in I fight back the tears.

It means that culture is stronger than prevention interventions and that orphans will create orphans. It means that more children than I think are already positive; that it is not just malnutrition that has caused Catherine to come down with Shingles.  And that Gift is not just small for her age.  It means that I must admit that some of our girls will prostitute if they get hungry enough. And I have to wonder if some already are.  It means we can’t save them all.

Social work on the Titanic?

So why am I here and why am I doing this work?  What kind of a difference can I really make? Are we really helping?

Then I think of Adonis.

He is only one of  the 150 children we serve at the agency.  His story is not any different than most of our kids.  His mother and father got married and had 4 boys, somewhere along the way someone contracted HIV; his father got sick first and died. His mom was left to care for all the children, she did the only job she could to put food on the table. She now has 6 boys, the youngest is too sick to walk and she is losing weight quickly.

Adonis is the fourth boy and although none of the older brothers have been able to pass their classes, somehow Adonis has managed to be first in his class every year.

He is smart and knows it.  He comes across as arrogant at times, but it is an act.  He smiles to hide his fear. He fakes what he can’t understand.  If he gets overwhelmed, he looks like he is going to vomit.  He likes sunglasses.   Behind his smile, he is scared, I know this because when he comes to me with a problem, he cries.

If he just got one break, he could make it.  If someone would just reach out their hand and help him up, he could do it.  I know he could.

Adonis was one of three children who received a scholarship to attend boarding school.  I took him to Dudley Hall on Tuesday.  For the first time in his life, he has his own bed and he has guaranteed food 3 times a day.  Not only does he have soap and toothpaste, but someone else is doing his laundry.

Yesterday, I walked the 3km with 8 other kids to visit the boys.  As we wandered around the campus, I listened to the kids’ amazement at how nice the place was and  I realized each of them now has an added incentive to really work hard.  Someone finally spotted Adonis on the cricket field and I got nervous.  Would he want to see us?  Would all the other kids know he was an orphan and begin to shun him?

As we walked up, I watched his reaction carefully.  He looked at us, looked at his new friends, looked at us again and then came over. The first few seconds were uncomfortable, no one said much, then Delight started asking questions.  We all sat down.  Marlon (the other child who got the scholarship) joined us and within a few minutes they were all talking.  I could not understand everything, mostly because everyone was talking at once and the two boys were answering questions so quickly that my basic Shona could not keep up.  At one point Adonis turned to me and wanted to be sure that he got to stay here for all 4 years.  When I said, “as long as you keep your grades up,” he smiled. He knew he would.

On the way home the kids just kept saying, “Adonis anofarira, Adonis anofarira.”  That means, “Adonis is happy.”

I do think we are making a difference by being here.  I don’t know if ten years from now 50% of our children will be infected with this disease, I hope they won’t.  I hope that while we are feeding them we are also giving them the skills to have an income that does not require putting themselves at risk.  I hope that we are empowering them enough to make healthy decisions for themselves and their families.

I do know that sending Adonis to boarding school is giving him a chance, a chance to get out, to really make it.  We are pulling him from a place where he is living with a sick mother and  brother, where he has no electricity to study and no food, to a place where his only job is to study, where all the adults around him are paid to focus on him, where he will be encouraged to think about tomorrow.

If I am on the Titanic, then what we are doing for most of these 150 kids is simply giving them life jackets and hoping they can survive, but for a few we are actually doing more.

Psst, Adonis come here, there is a place on this life boat for you.

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