It was 2015, and we were on a long road journey in Northern Iraq, at the height of the ISIS conflict. As we travelled, my Iraqi colleague told me how he had met Jesus. Firstly, and by way of introduction, Abdul (not his real name) told me of his role in the Iraqi and then the Coalition Special Forces. He had been highly commended by General David Petraeus, who at that time was First Commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command – Iraq. General Petraeus had wanted him to travel with his unit in other countries, but Abdul declined. He wanted to stay in Iraq, and joined a telecom company in 2004.
It was whilst working for this company that he was kidnapped, and beaten daily by his Al Qaida captors, somewhere near Tikrit. He was repeatedly hit and stabbed; wounds which were inflicted by AK 47s, one of which punctured his cheek. On the third day he realised that the previously painful beatings had just completely stopped hurting. Why? Was he even still alive? As he closed his eyes to focus, and to get his mind around what he was experiencing, Jesus appeared to him.
“I am Isus,” He said. “Today I will lead you out from here.” As a Muslim, Abdul had only known of Jesus as a prophet, and he argued with Him about how he wouldn’t be able to escape. But when he opened his eyes, Abdul found that his captors were arguing among themselves, and then one fired a shot at the feet of the other. In the commotion, Abdul and those who were being held with him simply and quietly got up, and hastily walked out of the door.
Once outside, all the others ran in the obvious direction, towards an open street. But Abdul felt Jesus compel him to walk in the opposite direction, up an alley. The guards rushed out and chased all the other captives, leaving Abdul to walk free. He found a phone and rang his wife. “Where are you?” she exclaimed. “Where have you been? I have just had a dream in which Jesus appeared to me, and told me you would be coming home today!”
Abdul showed me the small hole in his face. For some reason, unknown by the doctors, his cheek has never healed over. From that day on he and his family have loved and proclaimed Jesus as the Son of God, much to the concern of other secret believers who, still to this day, often tell him to shut up for fear of repercussions. In the following weeks, it transpired that his boss and his next door neighbour, who he had known for years, were also secret believers. His father-in-law was a leading Islamic teacher who regularly lectured on religious affairs on Iraqi television. But when Abdul’s wife told her father that she’d met with Jesus and that she was giving her life to Him, rather than rejecting his daughter, he quietly told her that although he couldn’t admit to it publicly, he fully believed what she had said about Jesus.
Abdul says he personally knows at least ten Muslims in Iraq to whom Jesus has appeared supernaturally.
Saturday 18 May. My friends and I have just arrived in what is the one hundredth country or territory I have had the privilege to visit.
We had read that the centrepiece of the town was a giant plastic apricot, the fruit that had given much wealth to this Tajik border community over the years. And the apricot was the first and most obvious thing we saw as we stepped out of the taxi, as it took pride of place in the middle of the high street. It was respectfully albeit rather functionally being treated by passing traffic as a roundabout.
As we walked towards the apricot to get a better look, a policeman approached us, purposefully swinging a baton in his right hand. Was the apricot holy ground, an icon that must not be approached or photographed with our shoes on? Our concern that we’d already done something worthy of arrest was quickly laid to rest. “Welcome, dear tourists!” he said with a flourishing wave of the hand and a big smile. “Is everything good for you?”
We walked through the wonderfully intense semi-covered lanes that made up the Saturday market. Money changers were eager for our custom, and our presence was noted by all. But where were we? Could this be Iran? Turkey even? The language was Farsi, yet the writing was Cyrillic. From the men’s faces and appearance we could be in the Middle East. From the way women dressed, in beautifully coloured and embroidered calf-length dresses over matching leggings, and colourful headscarves, this could only be Tajikistan.
We found one of the ancient mosques, under reconstruction, and right by the market. I was about to walk over the threshold when a man told us that this was the ladies entrance. I sincerely apologised and he was easy about it, and helped us to find a better access to it.
Then another man, responding to our request for directions to the museum, decided he would take us there. It wasn’t far away, down a narrow, dusty lane where tradespeople sold wheelbarrows, and where two car drivers faced up to one another when they could not pass at the same time. When we arrived at the museum, ladies were sweeping the concrete steps outside, and an old transistor radio blurted out some clangy music. “Yes, we are open!” Big smiles and excited hand-wringing went on as we paid the entrance fee. “Come in. Come in.”
All five women, plus the three month old baby who was strapped to one of the young women, spent the next 45 minutes excitedly showing us around every room. It was a typical old, tired, Soviet-styled museum, with some rooms explaining exhibits only in Tajik. We saw samples of the bank notes that the city’s lady mayor invented for trading locally when, during the devastating civil war (1992-1997), no other money was available.
“She kept us alive,” they said with great affection and admiration. “Is she still alive?” I asked. “Of course,” they replied, as though she were immortal. “She still lives in the town. She’s 84 now, and retired.” We asked our hosts to send her our greetings from the UK. Other rooms had the obligatory stuffed animals and prehistoric stones (we’re on the silk route here and they have up to 3,000 years of local history to find and exhibit). Stuff is still being discovered in local burial grounds and nearby hills. In another room there were, a little bizarrely, photos of the fifty or so Soviet soldiers from Isfara who were part of the clean-up team after the Chernobyl incident in 1986.
This was a wonderful visit. Not so much for the exhibits (which were old and tired but still very interesting), but for the sheer excitement of these women, and for the respect we were able quite genuinely show to them and their town. When Irina couldn’t understand their second-language Russian, they would shout even louder, which gave Paul the giggles and Irina a headache. They took as many photos of us as we did of the museum, including several group photos at the end of our visit. In fact, they took so many photos of us that we thought we’d probably have a room dedicated to our visit by the end of the day.
What made it even more special was that as we left they told us (the only visitors for the entire time we were there) that today was a special ‘Museum Open Day’. Hence the sweeping of the steps and the blaring of the transistor radio. We asked for directions to one of the few open cafes (because we are here during Ramadan) and, as we walked off down into town, they all waved us goodbye. When we were further down the hill I glanced round one more time. They were all still there, and gave me another big wave.
My employment contract with Samaritan’s Purse ended on 30 September. But in the following few weeks I continued to do some consultancy work with them in Kyrgyzstan, Rwanda and Zambia. Each trip involves completing some wonderful journeys off the beaten track. This is an account of a visit I made earlier this month in the hills of South West Rwanda.
We had lunch and left for Gitarama. We were met by Pastor Alphonse from the Gitarama Presbytery. He drove ahead of us on his motorbike, leading us off road and up to Rutongo Parish, where we were to make two home visits.
We met local Pastor Didas by the side of the dirt track. He is a young man who had only recently arrived here to be the pastor of the four ‘schools’ (small village churches, two of which have been closed down because of the strict new government rules regarding church buildings) that make up this parish. He pointed out a cluster of about twenty people who were resting from their labours on the land, under some shade and way across the valley. “That’s where we are going,” he said.
Lengthy debate followed as to how we were going to get there, before it was decided we should drive further along the hillside ridge, then drop down into the valley, cross a bridge, and make our way up the other side. A quick mobile phone call to the distant labourers confirmed the arrangement. These days, even out here in hills and valleys that have never seen a telegraph pole, you still see many people chatting away on their phones.
The steep track down into the valley gave way to a flattish grassy area, where two twisted wooden posts perched mysteriously at either end. Francis took one look at the logs that made up the bridge over the river, and then another look. A couple of them had a crumbly, perished look about them. Pastor Alphonse thought that to drive across the bridge would be no problem, but Francis wasn’t ready to risk it. He is driving the Province’s brand new Mitsubishi L200 and, as he said, when you are nearly 60 (which he is, in December) you don’t take as many risks as you used to.
So we walked across the bridge and up the track on the other side. “Here,” said Didas, pointing to a gap in the undergrowth. “I know a short cut.” The climb immediately became steeper, and I reflected on how nigh on impossible this would have been for me earlier in the year, after some heart irregularities. But praising God for my healing, I made the climb without much more than a little of breathlessness which, at 2,000m above sea level, is hardly surprising. The group of labourers that we had previously spotted in the distance across the valley had made their way to the home of Epiphania.
Entering her home, mud built and with zinc roof, my eyes took a few seconds to become accustomed to the dark. It gradually became evident that fourteen people were sitting quietly on the mud floor, leaning against two of the walls. These, I guessed, were the members of the local Church Action Group (Raising Families envisions and mobilises such groups around the world to serve and support vulnerable families in their neighbourhoods, and to equip them to lift themselves out of poverty).
The third wall was taken up by the door, and along the fourth were perched three small wooden benches, hastily brought from elsewhere and set out in honour of the guests. We were introduced to our host, or rather, the homeowner whose home had become the venue of our meeting.
Epiphania was maybe around 60 years old. Despite the heat of the afternoon, she sat propped up in the corner, knees under chin, and wrapped in a shawl. “I was unwell,” she told us, “and the group visited me, and cultivated my crops. I am not abandoned.” Filling in the gaps, the pastor told us that Epiphania’s husband had left her with four adult children, after which she had suffered some sort of stroke, making her paralysed on one side. The group had paid for her diagnosis, but sadly the doctors were still unable to understand what exactly had happened to her. The herbs that had been recommended to her didn’t help; in fact they made her worse. “I am relying on prayer now,” she said. Rather ominously, the pastor said that they were waiting for “the inevitable”. Epiphania silently and discretely wiped a tear from her eye.
The group shared with me how they had built the house for her, and then had successfully asked the government to donate the roof. They had also persuaded Food for the Hungry to provide a pig for her.
“Our goal is to lift up those who are weak,” said Pastor Didas. “We cultivate gardens together, and improve people’s shelter. At the heart of what we do is praying together. We also save together, including an amount that we set aside for the poor. We have become responsible for one another.” Without realising it, they were demonstrating this right now. Children were caring for one another, and the one baby in the room was being comfortably and naturally shared between its mother and those sitting near her, without fuss, concern, anxiety or possessiveness.
We left Epiphania and were taken to a second household, a little further down the hill. A crowd had gathered, and twenty eight of us, many who had accompanied us on the first visit, made their way into the courtyard of a home built for another older lady. Little by little, what was now a huge pile of sand had been painstakingly brought up from the valley that same day. It was due to become render for the house walls. We pressed around all the edges of the compound, with the mound of sand taking centre spot. Several people were keen to tell their story.
“I am Vestine. The group helped me to cultivate my land. I grew potatoes and sold them, and with the proceeds I bought food for my family, and some breeding rabbits. I sold some of their offspring and bought a hen, then a piglet, all from the potatoes! I’m also one of the ladies here who made the bricks for this house.”
“My name is Pricilla. I received a hen from the group, and now I have a pig. From the sale of eggs I have managed to get my health insurance and send my three children to school. I also have enough to take care of my husband, who is in prison.”
“I am Pauline. I am a widow. I used to live on land that was very exposed to mudslides. It was very dangerous, and I was very lonely. When I first met this group, it was their prayer life that impressed me most. Then they gave me a hen, which had chicks, which I sold and bought three rabbits. The group helped me build blocks, and build this house for me.”
The CAG leader said that when they cultivate gardens, they always deliberately leave a hoe behind. “The government closed our church building because they said it was unfit. Among other things, they want us to soundproof it. But the Iman’s wake us a four o’clock every morning with their loudspeakers, and they take no action against the mosques! But the closures haven’t stopped us from serving the Lord, and helping the community to work together to solve their own problems.”
As we were leaving, the pastor pointed out a glistening scar on a far-away hilltop. “That’s the tantalite mine,” he said. They opened it recently. Tantalite is used in electronics, and is the cause of much wealth, and aggression and environmental damage, in neighbouring DRC.
It only became evident upon our return to the valley what those twisted posts were at either end of the flat land. We had parked on the football pitch. A game was going on all around the truck, which was being stroked and protected by fifteen little boys, who were highly impressed with how shiny and new it looked. In fact, it was hard to tell if they were protecting it or worshipping it.
Lalish is a small mountain valley village situated in the Shekhan District of Dihuk Governate of Northern Iraq. It contains the holiest temple in the Yazidi faith, and the complex on which it stands is thought to date back to the times of ancient Mesopotamian civilizations. Later it became the location of the tomb of Sheik Adi ibn Musafir, a central figure of the Yazidi faith.
The village is above the town of Shekhan, which is the political centre of the Yazidis. Prior to the grotesque persecution of Yazidis by ISIL, when those who survived were forced to leave, Shekhan had housed the second largest population of Yazidi in the world. Only Sinjar had more. The current ISIL stronghold of Mosul is about 36 miles northeast of here.
All Yazidis are expected to make a six-day pilgrimage to Lalish at least once in their lifetime, to visit the tomb of Şêx Adî and other sacred places.
So this small mountain village is of huge historic and religious significance to the Yazidi people. Today, at the height of the ISIL conflict, I am in Northern Iraq, and with two of my colleagues, have been invited to meet Baba Sheik (or Baba Shaweash), the spiritual leader of the world’s two million Yazidis.
As providers of emergency relief, my employers are primarily working in nearby refugee camps. However, we are also supplying a new water system to this village, and today I am travelling with our Country Director. This opens a door for me to the temple and its leaders. In fact, as we are passing through the area, protocols dictate that we really should visit.
We arrived at the distinctive temple, its conical towers making it look somewhere between a religious shrine and a malt or oast house. After a slightly strained disagreement between my travelling companions as to where in the courtyard protocol dictated we should leave our shoes, we climbed some twisting steps and shuffled our way along a tiny, claustrophobic corridor, until we found ourselves in the small windowless reception office of Baba Shiek and Baba #2 (who will succeed him). We were invited to sit, and Baba Sheik offered us cigarettes, which I declined. I slowly settled into our unique and rather intense surroundings. Sipping tea helped me relax, and before long we were comfortably discussing the nuances of the Yazidi religion. We learned about the Sheik’s appointment (“I am selected only by the will of the previous Baba”), of the fact that they are not allowed to marry, of the Shiek, Pir and Marul family groups within the Yazidi community, and how intermarriage is not allowed between these groups. As these two spiritual leaders talked us through even more complex subdivisions and strict protocols, I silently wondered how, with all these rules, restrictions and conditions on life, relationships, and practice, the Yazidi people had managed to avoid extinction.
All their holy books were taken by the Turks during some of the ‘73 genocides’ that Yazidis have suffered throughout the centuries. “If I ever found out who stole our holy books, I would kill them,” said Baba. “But we have Awals who are trained to recite the content of the holy books, and so their truths are not lost. And what is more, even now our present Prince Hazam is preparing our Holy Book for print once more. Only he can authorise its publication”.
Yazidis make pilgrimage to Lalish from all over the world, and Baba told us that other visitors such as tourists are always welcome.
We spent about an hour with Baba and his apprentice, before being invited to explore the temple for ourselves. To me our tour was a slightly uncomfortable mix of the fascinating, the creepy and the bizarre. In our socks, and being very careful not to stand on any thresholds (which apparently would have been the most dreadful faux pas), we made our way through various darkened rooms: one where baptisms take place, another where cloth is repeatedly tied and then untied whilst prayers are offered, and a third where lay the tomb of Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir (Şêx Adî), who died in 1162. It felt as though the whole temple, dimly lit and damp, and steeped in symbolism, had been hewed out of the rock on which it stood. Finally this darkened maize led us through two rooms where incredibly ancient oil jars are stored, our stockinged feet feeling the spongey effect of centuries of spilled oil on the greasy floor.
Eventually we emerged into the sunlight, and found our shoes waiting patiently where we had left them. I reflected on what for me was yet another surreal and phantasmagorical experience: one which seemed totally alien to anything I had previously experienced, and indeed, with the twenty-first century itself. I recalled my final question to Baba. I had asked him his thoughts on globalisation, and its impact upon traditional Yazidi families potentially leaving their faith after they emigrated. “That is a very sore point,” he replied. “You are right. This is happening all the time. We don’t know what to do about it.”
We were on the northern edge of the rather extra-terrestrially named ‘Zone of Alienation’, a title which for most people would probably conjure up images of rejection, zombies or death. In fact, this is the 30km exclusion zone around Chernobyl, the site of the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history. The catastrophe, which took place in April 1986, actually happened due to a fire after a failed safety test. Chernobyl itself is in northern Ukraine, but the northern edge of the ‘Zone of Alienation’ stretches into southern Belarus. It was here I met some people who were living on the edge.
A 77 year old babushka chatted to my colleague and me outside her izba, her little wooden home that was hiding modestly behind the undergrowth of twenty years of neglect. She wore a purple summer frock, and had a white scarf over her head. Although her appearance was neat and tidy, as though she was waiting for guests, her soiled finger nails offered a indication of the challenges of living off the land whilst having limited water supplies. “My old home,” she waved a hand up the road, “was no longer safe, so I moved to this abandoned home in Gubarevy, where it is safe”.
The previous owners had obviously not thought so. They had heeded the warnings of the government officials, who had estimated that, due to radiation, the area would not actually be safe to live in for 20,000 years. But still, maybe 5% of the houses were occupied in this village on the very edge of the dead zone. The old lady was happy to talk. We chatted easily about life in the village, off the beaten track, and with no shop, no school; in fact no amenities whatsoever. As we listened to her story, a car drove up, kicking up a cloud of dust from the track. It came to stop where we stood, and out jumped a well-dressed couple and their happy children. The babushka had indeed been waiting for guests. Her children and grandchildren had come to visit, from the city of Homel, two hours’ drive to the north.
I glanced across the road and noticed the twitching of a filthy net curtain in the window of what I had assumed was another abandoned home. Then out of the door a few moments later came a bedraggled teenage girl holding a tiny baby to her hip. The location might not have been ideal, but for some, free housing is a bonus too attractive to turn down. A middle aged woman slowly rode past on her aging velocipede, leaning laboriously into each downward turn of the peddles. Occasionally one or two other locals walked along the road. After twenty years, they hardly glanced at us. We were simply the latest group of disaster tourists who, with slightly guilty looks on their faces, were having a look round their allegedly abandoned village.
These days the forsaken houses of Gubarevy - some brick, some wooden - are merely shells. What had been the one local shop had fared no better. Roofs had collapsed, creepers had crept, and shrubs, bushes and whole trees grew through them. There were still signs of planted gardens, with the occasional ornamental pine tree and random cultivated clump of flowers still fighting for space among the brambles and undergrowth. We were warned to beware of the snakes, and to look out for wild boar and other wild animals that now increasingly populate the area. Later, we were to stop at a collective farm actually positioned in the dead zone, which still rears cattle and sells the meat locally and to Russia.
Tarmac roads and established dirt tracks were becoming narrower and narrower, with vegetation creeping from verges in a gradual takeover of the streets. Many could now only be accessed by foot. Down one such road we found Gubarevy’s war memorial, hidden in the undergrowth. We found a way to access it. Interestingly, it looked to me as though it had been painted fairly recently. It commemorated the devastating loss of around 200 villagers who had died in WW2. But surely the builders of the memorial could not have begun to imagine the impact of the disaster that would befall them all forty years later.
Taken from 'Tears and Generosity in Serbia'
11th September 2015
In Serbia people were sheltering from the rain all day and Christian partners are being lined up to provide assistance at key points.
Alan Cutting is in Serbia, on the northern border with Hungary, working in partnership with local church networks to deliver compassionate services to the thousands of refugees currently making their way up into Europe. Alan says, “It’s a rainy day in Serbia. Not sure if it rained on the road to Emmaus, but we want the resurrected Jesus to surprise the traumatised traveller with hope again in Serbia today.”
Alan sent back the following stories:
The official statistics estimate the daily throughput (arrival and departure) of 2,500-3,000 people at this well publicised location on the present refugee trail north. Some arrive here having walked the length of the country, but as this is the point that the road runs out and that the Hungarian border can only be accessed along an old railway track; this is also the point that those who have had the means to pay for some road transport have to exit and walk.
From a steady stream of taxis and coaches spill hundreds (yes, up to 150 people are crammed into some of the buses) of young men, older men, and families. This afternoon two police cars, a local church presence and the Samaritan’s Purse distribution point were the only markers on this crucial point in the refugees journey. People don’t stay here long. They don’t stay anywhere long. On and on and on they go. With a local Baptist Church pastor, we distributed food and non-food items carefully selected by our partners on the ground. As expected, hygiene items were snapped up with particularly grateful thanks.
Watching the steady stream of people passing our simple distribution point was mesmerising; overwhelming. Whenever I saw a family with 0-2 year olds I was reminded of Matthew 2, and the journey south that Jesus made as a baby. Once again these days, weeping and great mourning is heard; mothers weeping for their children and refusing to be comforted, because some of them are no more. But this time they are fleeing north. North into what? North into where? Wherever I could find English speakers I abandoned my post and walked a little way with them.
I cried and cried for hours
X (most people told us fictitious names when we asked them) is a father of four. This family tumbled out of a taxi they had shared with another family, and he gathered his children together, a young son and two teenage girls.
“We are from Aleppo (Syria),” he said. “I am an engineer and an interior designer.” I was not surprised. There was a creative style and dignity about him, even in these conditions. “I know Europe well. I have travelled to several European countries. My sister lives in London and my brother in Paris. But I’d never even thought of leaving Syria, and even now, I’m waiting for the day I can return. But what could I do? We firstly went to Istanbul and I looked for work, but you have to speak Turkish to have any chance. My wife was exhausted so we agreed she would stay there and rest awhile, and I would bring the family into Europe.”
His 16 year old daughter took up the story with an openness, an innocence and a trust in her voice that, considering her circumstances, seemed to me extraordinary. “We crossed a huge river and then the sea. It was at night. I was so scared. I cried and cried for hours. We’ve been travelling now for two weeks.”
“Where are you heading for?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Where do you think we should go?” she asked me.
In truth, they had no idea. Purposefully travelling north, but not knowing where they were going. I’ve never before had a complete stranger ask me with total sincerity where she should spend the rest of her life.
Turning back to her father, I commented on just how many people I’d met today who were from Aleppo. “I know,” he replied, “We keep seeing people we knew from our neighbourhood.”
I asked him what he’d left behind in Aleppo. “Nothing,” he said. “Everything was bombed. My house, my new car, my land, my father…’
It was then that his voice cracked, and he swung his head down and away, taking a few steps out of reach of our conversation, completely unable to say any more.
There was such grace upon the young families. A young father not only carried a large rucksack on his back, but also his three year old daughter on his shoulders, whilst his English-speaking wife carried their sleeping baby in her arms. They came to my attention as they patiently waited behind a swelling crowd of people who were crowding around the Samaritan’s Purse distribution point and, spotting their remarkable patience, I slipped through the pressing crowd and introduced myself.
“I’m really sorry”, I said by way of introduction, and having learned the biggest need of the moment, “but we have no water left.”
“You have no water?” she replied, looking anxious. “Don’t worry. We have some water you can have. It’s in our rack sack. Just a second whilst I put the baby down and I’ll get it for you.”
At that moment an older man, who had just opened a packet of cookies that my colleague had given him, dipped his grubby hand into the packet and with a toothless grin, thrust one of them into my hand.
“For you” he said.
We all walked along the railway track together.
“So how are you feeling today?” I asked.
“We’re fine, thank you. We’re really tired, but we’re fine. Thank you very much for asking.”
I was deeply stirred by the grace and shalom that came off this little family as we talked easily together, but I had to pull myself away and return to my colleagues.
“I really must turn back now,” I said, “Although I’d love to walk with you further. God bless you and protect you as you travel.”
“Thank you so much,” they said with a big smile. And with that they were gone.
Salomao Chicanequisso Cuinica is the Community Leader in the village of Nhampugnaune, in Guija District, Gaza Province, South-Western Mozambique. Nhampugnaune’s 2,300 people are spread across four barrios or districts. Each barrio has a secretary who reports to Salomao.
I met Salomao at the World Food Programme monthly food distribution in the village, managed by Samaritan’s Purse. He was overseeing the event, ensuring equity amongst the twenty-five participant families. This is how it works: at least one family member has to work for a minimum of three hours a day on a Samaritan’s Purse food-for-work programme, such as building a dyke to access fields across a flood plain, or cultivating a seed multiplication initiative. In exchange, the family receives a monthly food package consisting of maize (75kg), yellow split peas or beans (7.5kg), and 3.7 litres of Soya bean oil.
Some families live on this alone – I’d just witnessed both their payday and their monthly shopping trip, all rolled into one. Other families have a little meat, I was told. Indeed, I saw the evidence of this myself. As I walked around the village, I saw one large fish cut open and left to dry on the straw roof of a mud house, and about fifteen to twenty charcoaled rats waiting for preparation outside another. Even the empty Soya bean oil cans themselves come in useful. Six or eight of them had been beaten flat and made into the door of one family’s little circular mud-and-thatch hut.
There was no electricity in the village, but the government had promised to supply it. “When did they promise?” I asked. “Oh, years ago,” came the reply. Malnutrition levels in Gaza are showing worrying levels of 11%. The official figure for HIV/AIDS in the country is 1.4m, with 13% of 15 to 49-year-olds living with the virus. But come to Gaza Province and the official figure becomes 19%, the highest infection levels in the country. Local district estimates put it at more like 50%.
The previous owner of Salomao’s jeans was clearly an entirely different shape from him. His ancient vest was full of holes. I guess his attire was a reflection of his financial status. Salomao Chicanequisso Cuinica was not a rich man. He also looked like a man on whose kindly shoulders rested many a care. An observant man, I thought, though a man of few words. But with the food distribution over, he was happy to tell this strange white visitor to his village something of his life and aspirations.
Appointed as Community Leader in 1976, just twelve months after independence, Salomao witnessed Mozambique slide into civil war. The village of Nhampugnaune was on the front line. The fighting was bitter, and atrocities were committed on a massive and horrific scale. One of Salomao’s early tasks was to lead his community to safety, across the Limpopo River to the nearby town of Chokwe. It was six years before they returned. Upon venturing back, Salomao re-established the village in a position he considered was far enough away from the river to protect it from flooding, but close enough to access the water for crop irrigation. “It’s a good place to be,” he told me.
Droughts followed. Then floods. Either way the crops failed. Salomao couldn’t remember the years. But he remembered 2000. While the West mopped its collective brow with relief on discovering that its computers had survived the Y2K scare, the inhabitants of Guija District had other things on their minds. On 27 February, 2000, the Limpopo burst its banks. In the few hours that followed, 700 people died. A total of two million were affected. Around here, it is spoken of as “the time of the floods”, perhaps more accurately written as “the Time of the Floods”. Capital T, capital F.
The flood water stopped just short of the village Salomao had repositioned. There was no proud smile upon his face when he told me this, but I think maybe his shoulders went back just a little. His people were spared their lives. But of course, their harvest was not so fortunate. 2000 was yet another year of nil return.
So Samaritan’s Purse opened a field office in Guija, providing simple and appropriate relief initiatives such as water filters, seed multiplication, food for work programmes and HIV/AIDS awareness training. The transition from relief to development is well under way. The hand-out is giving way to the hand-up.
I asked Salomao what were his major concerns for the future of Nhampugnaune. His replies were clear, simple and realistic. He wants a well for the school, in order to save the children from having to walk such a long way for water. And he looks forward to the day when each family in the village has a water filter.
I realised with a degree of embarrassment how Western my questions were. “When were the worst drought years?” He didn’t remember the year. “How many families in the village have a water filter now?” He didn’t know. “Quite a few now,” he thought. I sensed him looking at me inquisitively. “Why is this white man so obsessed with mere numbers?” But I continued. “How often were people sick before they used the water filter compared with now?” Again, he didn’t know. All he knew was that they used to be sicker than they are now. Fair enough. So much for my quantifiable research!
Just before I left in the back of the Samaritan’s Purse 4WD, I gave Salomao a tiny token gift from the UK. And I realised he had come out of his shell a little. He put his arm round a young lad’s shoulder, and his weary burdened face gave way to a big smile. Then he raised his arms above his head and applauded our departing vehicle, rather like a substituted footballer acknowledges the crowd. Against the odds, over maize and rats, through conversation and respect, we’d somehow connected. But the next monthly shopping trip is still a full moon away.
...has visited 108 countries and territories around the world, and always jumps at the chance of adding to that list.