Sharing sadza and warm conversation with the Zimbabwean people

As I listen to the news from Zimbabwe, I don't think of Robert Mugabe and his desperate attempt to hold on to power. I remember Justice.

And Rueben, Matthew, Petros, Maxwell, and Memory, my "siblings" in the large Shona farming family with whom I lived for three months in west-central Zimbabwe.

When I started in the Peace Corps in October of 1998, as a youth and community resource volunteer, I was adopted immediately as sisi (Shona for sister) and given a Shona name (Chipo, meaning gift). Poor by international standards yet rich in generosity and tolerance, my family displayed warmth in every aspect of life.

They taught me to cook sadza, a thick porridge made from corn meal. Under my mother's supervision, I killed and removed feathers from a chicken, then boiled it for dinner. I lived without running water and electricity, bathing with water from a bucket and reading and writing by candlelight. I plowed fields and ate bugs. I sat beneath the African sky, with the moon and stars for light, listening to Shona spoken around me.

One experience stands out. As I was walking into the center of Harare, the capital, a man approached on a bicycle. As he passed, he greeted me with a pleasant smile and a "Good afternoon, Madam."

"Masikati," I quickly replied, meaning "good afternoon." I turned my head, expecting his reply, as there is a standard exchange of greetings in Shona.

Instead, upon hearing a salutation in his language, he stopped abruptly, nearly spiraling over the handlebars. A moment later, he was standing next to me. "Masikati," he finally echoed. "Maswera sei?" ("How are you?")

"Taswera maswerawo," I answered. ("I am fine if you are fine.")

"Taswera." ("I am fine.")

Our little verbal dance complete, he grinned and told me I am "able": "Unogona."

We continued in Shona, conversing about where I was from, where I was staying, and what I was doing in Zimbabwe. Excited, as well as puzzled by this white female from America who was speaking his language, he bade me farewell.

"Mufambe zvakanaka," we said, wishing each other a good journey.

In subsequent travels around Zimbabwe, a country the size of Montana, I discovered the same warmth. While posted in the east-central portion of the country, I lived and worked in a rural village, the only American among hundreds of Zimbabweans. The area was desolate except for town-council offices, a store with a meager selection of goods, and three bottle shops – the Zimbabwean equivalent of a bar.

Homesteads – fenced-in plots consisting of thatched huts and gardens – sprinkled the rolling hills. Impoverished as the area was, co-workers, friends, and strangers looked after me as though I were family. I was invited into homes, fed sadza and tomatoes and onions, as well as tea and biscuits. Sometimes I was given the luxury of meat. I was also invited to accompany people on journeys, to town, to a nearby school, to a family member's homestead.

Severe problems were evident throughout the country well before the ruling party's resort to violence and intimidation. Zimbabwe has one of the world's highest rates of HIV/AIDS infection, a crisis not helped by a male-dominated culture that resists awareness and early treatment.

Bureaucratic bungling blocked many social programs, including a youth and recreation effort by Peace Corps volunteers. While relations between the small (1 percent) white population and black people were peaceful, old colonial attitudes persisted. White farm managers often spoke to or about their black employees in a derogatory, patronizing manner.

But, as a Peace Corps volunteer, I experienced a side of the country and its people that few observe. Those I encountered welcomed me into their homes, their cars, and their hearts. The people of Zimbabwe shared their love of their country, wanting me to take the same pride in their beautiful nation.

It is these people who have been overshadowed by the harsh news. I hope that, some day, the people of Zimbabwe will be freed to live their good lives, serving as an example for the rest of Southern Africa.

• Sarah Hill, who lives in Baltimore, served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zimbabwe from 1998 to 2000.

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