Priorities: Orphans or Air Conditioning

KATIMA MULILO, Namibia — Nestled under a grove of shade trees along the Zambezi River here is the Children of Zion orphanage. The blue of the sky and the river, and a splash of scarlet from a bougainvillea climbing a fence, contrast with the soft forest green of the children’s home and its sandy surroundings, bleached of color by sun and lack of rain.

The home itself with its 52 children is a scene of drama. Most residents have lost at least one parent to AIDS. Several — including one boy who had been living in a tire — were rescued from slavery. Two deaf boys had lived on the streets. Eleven children are known to carry the HIV virus. And they all have a home only because a Maryland pastor and church decided that children’s lives were a higher priority than air conditioning.

Children of Zion grew from the vision of Benedict Schwartz, CEO of a Maryland software company and a trustee of Mount Zion, an evangelical United Methodist Church just north of Baltimore. Schwartz wanted to save some AIDS orphans in Africa, and he reminded his fellow trustees of a promise made by pastor Craig McLaughlin: The sanctuary would get air conditioning only after the congregation built a church in Africa.

The church came up with the money, and from there, amazingly, everything — personnel, permits, property, governmental approvals, construction — went right. The orphanage opened in 2003 and now provides food, shelter, medical care, clothing and schooling for the children at a cost of about $11,000 per month.

What has Mount Zion gained from its investment? Here are five glimpses of a day at the Children of Zion home:

Early in the morning, all the children (except the very youngest) go to their daily farm chores. The job of 11-year-old Albert, the formerly enslaved boy who had lived in a tire, is to milk a goat — but yesterday, he forgot to take in the milk. Today, he discovers the spoilage and wants to cover it up by dumping the new milk on top of it. Another boy says he should ask someone, and — filled with fear about the consequences of honesty — Albert agrees to do so. He receives an admonition about responsibility but also praise for telling the truth.

Classes begin after breakfast. Many of the kids had never been to school before coming to the home because they couldn’t afford the fees (five dollars per term) or uniforms (the same amount).

All classes are in English, and in volunteer teacher Jaimie Bugaski’s classroom, 14 children crowded around two tables study the difference between possessive and personal pronouns. When the teaching turns to geography, one boy, Martin, can name all seven continents and all four oceans.

After lunch, another volunteer teacher, Lydia Alder, sits on the sandy ground outside the home while two almost-teenage girls painstakingly plait her long, blonde hair into tiny braids. They’ve been working on it during recess and free time for several days. The 3- and 4-year-olds try to braid another volunteer’s hair. Since they haven’t yet mastered braiding, they twist and tug at it, managing to tie some of it in knots.

At mid-afternoon, an African vet wearing a lab coat cuts into a goat that died from unknown causes. He suspects tick fever. Older children stare as the vet skins and beheads the animal, draping the skin over a wheelbarrow and painstakingly explaining his actions. An assistant sorts through the pile of guts to produce a stomach, kidneys, heart and intestines. The vet cuts open each organ, using his scalpel to point out signs of disease.

Late in the afternoon, Mark Chiyuka, a Namibian auto mechanic, teaches bicycle repair to five boys in the shade near a sandy drive. On a tarp are a few bicycle frames, flat tires and a box of parts. Each afternoon, the boys come and learn how to straighten fenders, adjust seats, tighten chains and repair wheels. Chiyuka and the boys work side-by-side. He often pauses from his own work to answer their questions and resolve disputes. When two boys start to fight over a wrench, he says: "Don’t fight. Why should you fight?"

Not a bad substitute for air conditioning a Maryland church.


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