Hard Decisions

I met Tendai when he was in first grade and knew no English. But it didn’t matter – his smile climbed the language barrier and wiggled into my heart. One day I winked at him and for the next year, each time we met he would flash me his gorgeous smile and wink back.

So when I saw him this summer, I was shocked. He arrived at my door shivering in a dirty white shirt and torn shorts, his legs were covered in sores and he was barefoot. He did not smile; instead he looked away from me and quietly delivered a message to one of the other children in the house. I tried to get him to come closer to me but he stared blankly. I asked if he remembered me. He nodded. “How are you?” I asked. When he said nothing, the older children filled me in, “Ahh this one, Arden, he is bad now. After his mother died he went wild.” The story was told as if he wasn’t there. After his mother lost her long battle with HIV, Tendai and his older brother were evicted. They stayed with a family friend for a few months, but during the government sponsored “Operation Clean Up” the small shack they were living in was destroyed and there was nowhere for them to go. Tendai’s teenage brother quit school and tried, unsuccessfully, to get a job to pay for their food. Eventually Tendai moved in with his great grandmother whose “home” is inside a storage room at the back of one of the local bars. She “runs a business” there and Tendai is regularly chased to the street at night, where he has joined a gang. Children report that they have seen him eat out of a trash barrel, skip school and get taken by the police for stealing. When I asked what he was stealing, I was told it was food. Throughout this update, Tendai was staring at the computer game a couple boys were playing, emotionless. As he turned to leave, I thought I saw him wipe a tear away. I called after him, “Come see me tomorrow,” and hoped he would return.

I was heartbroken. In my mind I flashed through various photos we have of Tendai and his bright smiling eyes. I knew this child and I knew his mother. She was a friend of ours, someone who took her children’s education seriously and someone who was always willing to help. And here was her nine year old son, a street kid. I had been gone for a few years, but I knew enough to know Tendai was not a bad child. In fact, he was one of the smarter kids. He was not stealing to be bad, he was stealing to survive.

Living in Zimbabwe changed me on a level that is hard to explain. As much as I am proud of what we have done for many children, I am haunted by the faces of people we could have helped and haven’t. For some it is too late. Tendai’s mother was one of those people.

After Tendai left, I could not sleep. My mind was spinning. Where is he tonight? How could this happen? This child had been slated as a potential boarding school scholar, but as the economy has plummeted and inflation has risen, the cost of boarding school has risen each year. Not long ago, we sat down and decided that although we were dedicated to funding all those children already in boarding school, we couldn’t add any new primary school scholarships. I thought of Tendai and I thought of our donors. I turned on the light and looked at our last newsletter. There was a picture of me with Tendai. I thought of the letter I would write in the next newsletter. How can I adequately articulate the suffering I am seeing here? The children have no shoes and the agency is struggling to feed them. How can I justify finding a sponsor to save this one child when there are so many others that need help too?

How do we choose who to fund through Coalition for Courage? How do you decide what you want to give your money to? We all make choices, and when I am in America those choices are easier. For example, it was easy to decide that it was unreasonable to fund any more primary school scholarships; ten years of schooling would be a commitment ten years of fundraising and at least $10,000. In America I could make this decision based on cost-effectiveness and intellect. But sitting in a quiet house, knowing that Tendai was out there on the street and that one of our donors could change the course of his entire life, cost effectiveness was not so easy to justify. I barely slept.

At 5:45am there was a knock at my door. It was Tendai. I was relieved but puzzled. He came in and sat down at the table. How did he get in this early? The gate was locked, the guard was not on duty and the dogs were still pacing the perimeter of the agency. The only place he could have slept was in the children’s bathroom in the center of the grounds. I fed him, made him bathe and gave him some clothing. I tried to talk to him and although I was pretty sure he could understand me, he did not respond and he did not smile. By 8am Linda had arrived and I was ready to talk to Tendai. She translated. I asked him what happened and he told his story. I asked why he was on the street and he glared at me as he told Linda, “Tell her to come to my house; she would not stay there either.” I asked why he wasn’t going to school and he stated there was no place to bathe and he would not go to school dirty. He had sold his uniform for food. I told him that his mother was a friend of mine and that I wanted to help him, but I was not sure what to do. I asked what he thought would help. He said, “I know you send children to boarding schools. You told me when I was little that if I worked hard I could go to one. Where I live is bad, but if you send me to boarding school I will be number one in my class.” he paused and then said “I know you can help me.” I took a deep breath. “Okay, Tendai, let me see what I can do.” I made no promises to him in that moment, but to myself I swore that this child would be in boarding school by the beginning of the next term. He had to be. I could not return to America and ignore what I now knew he was facing.

I spoke to the Director and he agreed with Tendai, boarding school was the only option. I made some calls and was blessed by a connection we have with a headmaster at a Catholic boarding school outside of Harare. I told him the story and he said he could interview Tendai on Friday, and if he passed, he could start school on Monday. I was shocked; nothing ever happens this quickly in Zimbabwe.

I found Tendai in the afternoon. I had someone there to translate, but as soon as I said we had found him a place, he smiled and gave me a huge hug. There was no need to translate.

Tendai stayed with me the next few days as we gathered the supplies he would need for school. I visited his grandmother’s “home” which was a small one room storage shed. The floor was dirt, there was no running water or furniture. Beer was stacked in the back. It was clear what kind of business was going on at night. It was no place for a child. Tendai was safer on the streets.

On Friday morning he dressed in a new uniform to go for the interview, and as he looked at himself in the mirror, he called Linda in to the room to say something to her in Shona. When she returned to the kitchen she had tears in her eyes. She told me that he had said, “Look, my skin looks like it did when my mother was alive.” I glanced back into the room where he was still smiling, looking at himself in the mirror.

He was beginning to heal.

-written by Arden (C4C board member) after her trip to Zimbabwe in the summer of 2006

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