Almost orphans: Two children receive unexpected help

Yollanda and her teenage brother find a band of mothers in Zimbabwe quietly rallying to their aid.

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The woman is well drawn. She wears a floaty purple dress and high heels. She has a wide smile and long, flyaway hair. Ten-year-old Yollanda lingers over that hair. She makes it curl up at the ends.

"Is that your mummy?" I ask.

The children at the club I help with sometimes in eastern Zimbabwe have been asked to draw things that are special to them. Most have drawn family members. There's a sprinkling of household pets. Ruvimbo has drawn three leggy mutts. "My dogs are called Foxy, Snoopy, and Spider," she says proudly.

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Baisel, who lives with his grandmother, has drawn a cellphone (G-TIDEs are all the rage here these days). Another child has sketched a flat-screen TV. His father bought it to watch the FIFA World Cup a few months ago.

I know very little about Yollanda's mother, except that she's not home very often. In the heady days of Zimbabwe's diamond rush in 2008, she disappeared to the Marange gem fields to dig. She reappears every so often with food and stays for a day or two, according to neighbors.

There is no father. Yollanda and her teenage brother live rent-free in a room at the back of a house. They are almost-but-not-quite orphans. Zimbabwe already has an estimated 1.6 million parentless.

"Have you drawn your mummy, Yollanda?" I ask again.

She looks at me shyly. "No. It's you."

'She's trying to tell us something,' says Mai Nigel ("Mai" means "mother" in Shona) when we're out of earshot.

We stand together in the winter sun, the other helpers and I. It is one thing I have learned to do in Zimbabwe: to move outside when it is cold, to soak up the sun's rays for a few minutes each day – not immediately switch on a heater, as I might have done in Europe 10 years ago.

"Yollanda is saying her mother does not care," Mai Nigel continues. "What do we do?"

My Western self wants to say firmly: "Call in Social Welfare. Report the mother for abandoning her kids." Growing up in England in the 1980s, I learned to voice what was on my mind, to have the courage of my convictions.

The woman I am, after a decade in Southern Africa, has learned to listen. (Just as she has learned to make a small curtsey when introduced to an older man and to always offer to do the dishes.)

As if reading my mind, Mai Judy speaks up. How can we hand the child over to Social Welfare when the department is barely functioning, she wants to know, when state orphanages (and private ones) struggle to feed the children in their care?

"If she runs away from one of those orphanages, she'll be a street child and that's worse," says Mai Judy.

Mai Nigel shakes her head. "We have to make a plan ourselves."

The plan is quickly made. We must join together to provide paper, pencils, a school bag, and sugar. We must ensure school fees are paid. Most days, Yollanda plays with the daughter of a neighbor, Beth, until bedtime. The donations, Mai Judy decides, must go to Mai Beth. Then we can be sure Yollanda will get them.

"I have a bucket of maize that my relatives brought from Bulawayo," she adds. "It needs to be ground."

Mai Caroline pulls out $2 from her handbag. Her teacher's salary comes to little more than $186 per month. "Get it ground for her," she says.

I know for a fact that Mai Judy's husband was not paid for months last year, that Mai Bruce worries about how her son will raise lobola (bride price) so he can get married, and that Mai Caroline must find money to buy diapers for her daughter's baby.

But these women will scour their pantries and scrape out their purses for a child who is not of their blood.

"I will give bath soap also," declares Mai Judy. She means the individually wrapped palm-sized kind, not the long green bars of soap used for everything from washing the floor to washing the feet.

Over the next few days, our plans for Yollanda are refined. Mai Beth agrees to distribute donations. (She will add to them.) Another mother alerts an organization that looks after street children: They, too, will help.

Midweek, I swing past Mai Beth's house to deliver candles. Yollanda arrives. I note that (1) she is wearing a thick, warm sweater, and (2) that she has a smile on her face.

"Auntie," she says respectfully. "I need a little Surf." Mentally, I add laundry detergent to our list.

I think my friends would be the first to admit that this is not an ideal solution. But it is a home-grown one, crafted in love.

I have not finished learning. Not yet.

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