A Tuesday afternoon in Harare: it is my first day back in Zimbabwe, and I am driving home from town. As I stop at the intersection between Second Street and Chinamano, I see a woman begging on the street corner. Slight, and light in complexion, she has a bandanna tied around her head, and carries a young child hanging in a cloth sling at her side. As she passes, it seems to me I recognize her. She approaches the car behind me, then returns. I look again, and I know I recognize her; I have met her here before.
In this post, I want to tell the story of Mai Chipira, the woman begging at the corner of Second Street and Takawira. Her story, and the story of her daughters, is also Tariro’s story; it is the story of the challenges we face working with Zimbabwe’s most vulnerable orphaned girls.
As I drove home one day during my previous trip to Zimbabwe a year ago, I noticed a young girl begging on the street corner. With a clean skirts and flipflops, she did not appear homeless. Neither did she seem old enough to be the mother of the young child she carried on her back. When I passed her again the next day, I asked to speak to her, and pulled over to the side of the road to hear her story. Her name was Viola, she said. Thirteen years old, she had lost both her mother and father, and lived with her stepmother and two young sisters in her family’s home in Epworth. When I asked where her stepmother was, she gestured to the corner opposite us, where a slender woman sat nursing a young child. Let’s go, I said. I want to talk to her.
When I introduced myself to Mai Chipira, she told me her own story; how she had been orphaned herself as a young child, growing up in an orphanage together with a sister, who was blind. Mai Chipira had married Viola’s father after the death of his first wife; however, soon after their second child was born, Viola’s father also passed away. Now a widow with two small children and a stepdaughter, Mai Chipira was trying desperately to make ends meet. On the small plot of land outside her husband’s home in Epworth, she grew corn and vegetables. Using her hand-powered sewing machine, she sewed clothes for neighbors. However, she was still not making enough money to survive.
Thinking back to her childhood, Mai Chipira remembered how she used to beg on the streets of Harare with her sister, and thought that perhaps begging would enable her to feed her daughters and stepdaughter. Soon, she had decided on this particular corner, where many cars waited in the right-hand turn lane to cross oncoming traffic, slowing down the flow of vehicles for just enough time to approach individual drivers. Together with Viola and her own children, she made the two-hour walk into town each day, taking a bus on days occasionally, when their earnings were good. I asked her how much she brought in on a good day. Two dollars? Five? Five dollars was a lot, she said. She never made that much in a single day.
I’ve come to see the corner of Second Street and Chinamano as Mai Chipira’s office, and begging as her job. Like any other, it is a job which enables her to maintain her dignity, and the dignity of her family, providing for her children in the best way that she can. Like an other job, it entails regular hours, and a sometimes long commute from home. And like any other job, it provides a measure of dignity and self-respect for Mai Chipira and her family. Even on the brink of total disintegration, as their world shattered into a million pieces, Mai Chipira was able to maintain a remarkable degree of stability and consistency for Viola and her daughters. The stability of a place to sleep, of food to eat, of the presence of a caretaker. Mai Chipira had succeeded in providing the basic necessities, even as the luxuries such as school receded further and further into the horizon, an unattainable dream.
The challenges of working with a family on the edge of collapse can be overwhelming, and Viola’s story illustrates the type of challenges Tariro faces in working with Zimbabwe’s most vulnerable girls. Soon after meeting this family, I enrolled Viola in Tariro, putting her back in primary school. Her attendance was erratic, however, and only a few months after she began attending school, we lost touch with her entirely. I heard nothing further from the family until this week, when I recognized Mai Chipira begging at the corner of Second Street and Takawira.
When I spoke to Mai Chipira on Tuesday, said that Viola had been taken by relatives to go live with her grandmother in the rural village of Rusape shortly after I had left Zimbabwe. Mai Chipira had herself moved from her late husband’s home, making it impossible for Tariro to find her and follow up on her family’s situation. After losing touch with us, she continued to beg on the street with her own daughters, the eldest of whom, now six years old, should by now be enrolled in school.
What can Tariro do for Mai Chipira’s daughters? The challenges of enrolling children in these desperate situations in school are overwhelming. When there is little or no food at home, and a child is more effective than an adult in begging for money to support the family, how can we encourage children to continue attending school? What kinds of support are necessary for a family facing such overwhelming odds? I don’t know all the answers, but I do know that Tariro’s small size, and our flexible, family-centered approach means that we are able to take on these challenges in ways that larger, more bureaucratic organizations are not. Working with families like Mai Chipira’s family entails high risks; however, the potential rewards are just as high, if not higher.
I believe that Tariro can pull together our financial, administrative, and social resources for Mai Chipira’s family, and I’m dedicated to figuring how we can ensure that her oldest daughter is able to attend school alongside our other Epworth students. Mai Chipira has also offered to contact Viola’s relatives, so that we can sit down with them and talk about what options exist to reenroll Viola in Tariro. I am meeting with Mai Chipira on Monday at her “office” on the corner of Second Street and Chinamano, and I will report back next week after speaking with her.
Today, I’m asking all of our readers to get involved with our effort to help the Chipira family. There are three ways in which you can contribute to our efforts.
First, I’d like for Mai Chipira to know that her story has been heard, and that she has support from friends around the world. Please write her a letter of encouragement, to help her sustain her dedication to her daughters’ education. If you’d like to include a photo of yourself, or your own children, that would be wonderful. Letters can be sent to Tariro at 3480 Kincaid St., Eugene, OR, 97405. They will be hand delivered to Mai Chipira in April by a Tariro volunteer.
Second, I’m asking all of our blog readers to take the step of sharing the news about our work with one or two friends. Mai Chipira’s story is one which I will continue to report on during the next two months, as we continue to discuss how best to address her family’s needs. I’d like to share this story with as many readers as possible. So please help us to get the word out. Tell your church group, school, band, or other group about this family’s unique situation. Or send out an email, post to your own blog, or link back to our blog through your Facebook page, alerting readers to Mai Chipira’s story, and Tariro’s work with this family.
Finally, if you would like to make a donation specifically to help the Chipira family, that would help us immensely to have the flexibility to try a new and innovative approach to helping this family. One of the options we are considering is to give the Chipira family a small monthly financial incentive of $20-40 per month, based on regular school attendance. If Viola can find a relative to stay with in Harare, where Tariro’s programs are based, we would like to offer a similar incentive for her to attend school. This type of financial incentive for school attendance is a proven intervention for educating the world’s most vulnerable girls, and has been discussed recently by Nicholas Kristof in his book “Half the Sky.” I’d like to try it with the Chipira family, but this will take additional financial resources which are not currently in Tariro’s budget.
Thank you for reading. I love being able to share my experiences here with friends around the world. More news, about Tariro’s participation in International Women’s Day activities, about our traditional dance program, and about our recent graduates, will follow soon. I wanted to start with Mai Chipira’s story, though, as for me, it is emblematic of our commitment to working with the most vulnerable among Zimbabwe’s orphaned girls.