PART 2 OF AN EXCLUSIVE 3-PART SERIES; READ PART 1 HERE
‘It had gotten so painful,’ Dr. Brad Guffey says of Richard’s oozing leg wound. By the time the boy was 15 ‘he was pretty much taking care of himself.’
‘Richard was changing this massive bandage full of pus twice a day on his own,’ he recalls of the stoic orphan, wincing at the memory of a scrawny kid treating his own drug-resistant infection for four years with homemade gauze.
The crippled, skinny teen made first aid supplies out of mutton cloth and strips of chitenge, the fabric Zambian women like his mother would wrap around themselves like a sarong during the day.
Richard’s father is dead, a casualty of HIV. His mother may be, too. He hasn’t seen her since before his clear-headed memories began.
AIDS took an entire generation of men and women from Zambia, an African nation of 17 million people. One million of them are orphans, left behind to make it on their own.
First World governments use money like a blunt instrument, and billions of dollars have saved millions of lives. But it takes the joyful elbow grease of smaller groups to accomplish the finer needle-work with the survivors.
TWENTY-THREE CHILDREN A DAY
The United States has poured more than $80 billion into the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the largest commitment a country has ever made to fight a single disease. More than $3 billion of the total has been earmarked for Zambia.
The biggest expense is antiretroviral drugs; the pills have raised Zambia’s life expectancy in the last 15 years from 45 to 62; more than 1.6 million people here have received the free medication.
At least 1.2 million of them are still alive, living with HIV. But by the time President George W. Bush pushed the global program through Congress in 2003, the virus had already killed millions, leaving a demographic disaster in its wake.
Zambia saw about 59,000 new cases of HIV transmission last year, making it 29 times as common as in the United States and 52 times the United Kingdom’s rate. From 2016 to 2018 more Zambians died of AIDS than Americans died fighting in the Vietnam War.
Fifty-seven succumb every day. Twenty-three are children, the main reason Zambia’s proportion of orphans is only the world’s sixth-highest. If more survived, the largest population in the world of children without mothers and fathers might be here. All of the top 25 countries on that list are in Africa.
Not all orphans are wholly abandoned. UNICEF defines an orphan as ‘a child under 18 years of age who has lost one or both parents to any cause of death.’
There are hundreds of thousands of ‘double orphans,’ but also ‘single orphans,’ whose remaining parents in isolated villages often send them to the cities, alone or in groups.
There are AIDS orphans and war orphans; native orphans and those brought to Zambia by surviving family who flee the Congo’s wars or Zimbabwe’s economic death-spiral.
Zambia, for all its Third-World-ness, is a relative oasis with a stable government. Its currency’s value has risen more than 40-fold since a low point in 1993, when AIDS was at its most overwhelming. It boasts the world’s second most productive copper mines. Elections, not coups, determine its national leaders.
But the government employs three-quarters of the employed population of Lusaka, the capital city, and regularly runs out of money to pay them. This year it will spend more than 90 per cent of its income servicing foreign debts, even after creditors forgave billions 15 years ago.
Asian businesses extended credit with ruinous terms. A Chinese company ceased construction of the new air terminal when the local government defaulted on its payments. Meanwhile, other Chinese firms build the roads and a Bank of China billboard greets every airplane that lands in Lusaka. South Koreans start and stop the work of building bridges.
Zambia expelled an International Monetary Fund representative last year rather than face a financial reckoning.
The rate of urbanization in this former British protectorate is the ninth-highest in the world. The villagers come seeking nonexistent jobs and escaping illnesses that can devastate remote areas where no one is vaccinated, and where the nearest Cipro might be eight hours away over bumpy dirt, if you know someone with a Land Rover.
Quarantines in mud huts are usually the only defense and it’s seldom enough. Government health agencies don’t know what kills 80 per cent of the lost. Death certificates are rare in Lusaka and unheard of in the backcountry.
THE LEAST, THE LAST, THE LOST
Holly Scurry is the public face of Family Legacy, a U.S. Christian organization that keeps 26 schools in Lusaka’s slums running on a shoestring. The group’s staff, almost entirely Zambian, educate 15,000 children and house nearly 800 more in 64 purpose-built homes, half for girls and half for boys, on 200 acres of land.
The once homeless orphans who live in those houses trade dirt for bunk beds. They learn to cook and wash their clothes. Insistent house mothers stun them with the alien-sounding claim that their bodies are their own, not community resources. They memorize ‘body safety rules.’
Nearly all of them suffer from complex emotional traumas. Most were physically and sexually abused before age 13. Many live with HIV.
‘When we first get them they don’t know how to use a toilet. They stand on the toilets, so we go through broken toilet seats all the time,’ says Scurry, 37. ‘They don’t know how to brush their teeth, so they’re literally eating the toothpaste. They’ve never seen a fork. But God does his best work with people who are broken.’
Family Legacy’s seven-week ‘Camp Life’ program matches 700 Americans with 7,000 Zambian children each June and July in a mass-triage for the young and needy.
The charity buses 1,000 children in every day for a Vacation Bible School-like program heavy on evangelical preaching – already the bread and butter of a 96 per cent Christian country – but supplemented with danger-free play time, psychological counseling and nutritious food whose absence has stunted their growth.
Worship services are raucous affairs, equal parts rock concert and revival tent for the least, the last, and the lost. The kids know the songs. They dance. They sing at the top of their lungs. The exit music is a Jock Jams mix tape.
One young African preacher booms a lesson culled from the Gospel of John, a story about Jesus of Nazareth healing a man who was born blind.
‘The Bible is full of stories where God uses suffering for good,’ he says on a June Sunday, first in native Nyanja and then in English.
For some of the children, their week of camp meals include more protein than they will eat the rest of the summer. They’re placed in schools by the hundreds. The full-time homes await those who reveal life-threatening traumas to trained counselors.
Almost no one has a father to see them off when morning buses arrives in the slums.
‘There’s a dad problem in this country in a big way,’ says Family Legacy CEO Mario Zandstra, 62. ‘It’s literally a nation of children raised by children.’
Some child advocates object to the short-term blending of impoverished children and wealthy Americans who donate thousands of dollars each for the chance to come to Zambia and roll up their sleeves. The online charity world is awash with tales of ‘voluntourism’ gone wrong, of children who form attachments and feel deserted a week later.
Family Legacy’s donors tend to stay involved, Scurry says, sponsoring the children when they go home, and funding the salaries of community development workers, child protection officers and staff whose job is to oversee character development. Many come back. Some pay for the construction of entire new houses.
Camp Life is the table ante.
American and European groups that work on the ground in sub-Saharan Africa are acutely aware of suspicions that they might see themselves as ‘white saviors,’ driving the more effective charities to flood the zone with every qualified native employee they can find.
‘Short-term mission experiences should always be paired with longer-term, more sustainable initiatives,’ Katie McGinnis tells me. She is Family Legacy’s psychosocial services director and boasts that her dedicated child protection and counseling teams are ‘made up entirely of Zambian nationals.’
She says the organization works ‘to equip local Zambians with specialized knowledge, training, and skills so that they can provide holistic care for all of the children in our programs year-round.’
Those locals include Country Director in charge of Country Operations Sam Musyoki, a Kenyan national who is responsible for Family Legacy’s day-to-day operations inside Zambia. He is an 12-year veteran of the better-known Plan International humanitarian charity.
HEALING AFTER ‘FERAL LIVING’
The first day of each week of summer camp begins with a medical check-in for nearly a thousand kids, a quarter-mile-long line of seizures, bloody urine, HIV, open wounds, maggots and lice.
Dr. Guffey, 44, works here with a team who deworm every child. Some arrive with scars from witchcraft ‘healing’ rituals.
‘We have kids that have grown up in dog cages, and kids who have grown up on the streets. In chicken coops,’ he says. ‘When you talk about a child-raised home, that’s pretty close to feral living.’
Others climb into a branch high up on their family trees where their grandparents are, because AIDS, cholera, malaria and tuberculosis have chopped off all the lower limbs.
‘Mom and dad are gone,’ Guffey says.’ The problem is the aunts and uncles are dead too. That is what we see over and over. Nine kids in the grandmother’s house. The community has collapsed.’
The lack of medical care leaves its own scars on the smallest ones, preschool-age and younger, who deteriorate with Victorian-era ailments from sheer neglect.
Some don’t eat unless they’re lucky enough to steal a staple food they know how to cook. Worse horrors await others.
‘We’ve seen children admitted with golf ball-size tuberculomas in their brains,’ Guffey says. ‘Like five years old, 15 pounds, never walked, never talked. Never, ever went to a clinic.’
‘I’ve seen rabies. I’ve seen one dog kill 11 kids. One dog. Eleven kids died.’
His ‘definition of hell’ is a scene he recounts from a compound near Lusaka’s commercial district known as a well-armed narcotics trafficking haven, a place where police fear to tread.
‘Chibolya,’ Guffey says, naming the slum. ‘Side of the road, in the gutter, a woman passed out drunk in a drainage ditch, her baby trying to open her blouse to drink.’
Guffey lives among the 64 orphans’ homes, overseeing a cheerfully muraled clinic on the property that dispenses 1,500 HIV pills every week.
The quadruple board-certified doctor left a medical school professorship at the University of Alabama at Birmingham to work in Africa. His team opened the clinic last November, fully accredited, six months after sketching it out on a napkin. Dallas-based donors picked up the tab.
TEACH, DON’T ADOPT
‘We’re Texans,’ one oil-wealthy contributor tells me. ‘We do stuff big.’ More than half of Family Legacy’s 10,000 donor families are from the Lone Star State, a product of its Dallas roots.
Their biggest impact might not be food and clothing, but classroom time.
The schools, branded ‘Legacy Academies,’ serve as first lines of defense for the most vulnerable children Zandstra’s social-service team can identify.
Children International, WorldVision and assorted other groups solicit sponsorships for children and operate community programs here. But a government official says Family Legacy is overseeing the most ambitious private expansion of schooling in sub-Saharan Africa.
The official requests anonymity, however, before admitting that ‘the books and lessons and houses and medical care and the 4 million meals they give the children this year will not be enough.’
Zandstra sees his enrollment growing. ‘Five years ago we had 3,000 kids. Now we have 15,000,’ he says. But those who can’t physically or safely walk to school are still on the outside looking in.
‘If the statistics are right, we’re only caring for 10 per cent of the uneducated population that’s vulnerable in the city,’ he says.
The ones they reach get free uniforms, lunches and classroom time with a 25-to-1 ratio of students to teachers. Government schools operate at 70-to-1 and charge tuition after primary school.
Zambian Department of Social Welfare official Sandra Mhango says she ‘couldn’t safely say’ how many children are going without any schooling at all.
UNICEF reports that 800,000 school-age children in Zambia are in that group. Of those who get an education, more than half fail to finish the equivalent of the seventh grade.
Still, the government here frowns on the idea of foreign adoptions, and discussion of Westerners rescuing even the youngest and poorest children is met with stern resistance.
‘The child who is in Zambia needs to stay with those people here,’ Mhango says, allowing no wiggle room for children who wander Lusaka’s charitably named ‘compounds,’ its perpetually decaying slums.
Asked how many homeless orphans might be in Lusaka, she has no answer.
Zambian law requires foreigners to relocate to Zambia for at least three months and foster children inside the country before leaving with them. In some cases red-tape delays have pushed that to 12 or even 18 months. It’s an unwieldy obligation for willing American parents that Mhango brushes off as unimportant.
‘People from outside the country are free to come and adopt,’ she says with a nod, but only after ‘they get used to the child.’
Preventing the First World from scooping up the young, a national obsession, is driven largely by concerns about an adoption-driven generational brain drain and fears that the children may be later discarded.
When the Republic of Zambia delivered its Instruments of Independence to British governors in 1964, the newborn country – previously a protectorate called Northern Rhodesia – had just two medical doctors and about 1,000 high school graduates. Fewer than 100 of them held university degrees.
‘These kids are going to grow up and be the leaders of their nation,’ a determined Scurry says of her charges. ‘I cannot wait to see 10 years from now, 20 years from now, who they will become.’
‘I truly believe we will have a wide spectrum of children,’ she continues, including blue collar tradesmen ‘but also children who have become the teachers, who have become the accountants, who have become the nurses and, Lord willing, who have become the doctors.’
There are redemption stories here among Zambian orphans who are safe now, or whose unimaginable childhoods are mercifully over.
There are girls who know the pain of sexual abuse and have survived knife attacks. Boys who attempted suicide by refusing to take their AIDS medication. Children burned in fires but still alive enough to sing.
They’re beautiful and tough, and they’re like us. They sing in the shower. They love getting lost in mystery novels. They want to see an ocean someday. A few have jobs and cellphones and Snapchat and WhatsApp.
They have stories to tell.
SOURCE: Daily Mail, David Martosko