She was my first interview in Zimbabwe. It was also my first day at work. After a 3-hour land trip, there I was face-to-face with Michelle.
Among thousands I have interviewed in different countries, her story did a caving hole in my heart.
She was 10, yet her story (almost) had it all – abandonment, poverty, hunger, deprivation, pain, hopelessness and more.
How do you write a story like this?
When we sat down at the headmaster’s office, her tears just dropped as she shared her life. It took us a long while to resume. I forgot my questions. I had to keep my emotions in check from time to time. It was hard trying.
She has five younger siblings. Her father abandoned them – her mother was jobless and sick. Most of the time – that’s daily – there was no food. They slept through the night – without eating.
The teacher said she found out Michelle would always keep more than half of her food ration in the school feeding project even if she was still visibly hungry – “…for my younger sisters at home”, she quietly confessed.
Most of the children, over a thousand of them in the school I visited, come in the morning with empty stomach. There simply was no food at home. Period. “The children look forward to their meal in school”, the teacher added.
The meal that consists of ground maize mixed with peas and vegetables was considered “special“. The line was long but the children were well-behaved and organzed, eager to fill the void.
In Michelle’s township, at least 35% of the children were either abandoned or orphaned. Just like Michelle, many of them go to school to get some food and survive – studying comes in a far second.
Looking at the almost endless line at the feeding station, and at the groups gathered under the trees for lunch, I felt my first of the many sinking feelings while in Africa.
I asked myself how others can have so much – and these little ones would have less, even almost none. It is unfair.
The teacher described the feeding program as a “drop in the ocean” considering the widespread hunger in her place, but “it means so much for the children here”. Maybe their only lifeline.
As Michelle innocently puts it, “I love going to school. I learn and I can eat.”
Then with sadness she shared her dream of “completing school and for my family to have what other families have – enough food to eat everyday.”
As we walked around the eating children, their youthful faces focused on their lunch, the teacher expressed wonder how the children were able to adjust to extreme hunger. “It is unthinkable how they can endure and survive”, she said.
Many of us skip meals for a smaller waistline. How often do we truly say thanks when we sit on a meal … and for the food that never runs out of our kitchen?
Many of us, that includes me, often forget – in the rush of days – how fortunate we are. Thanking God non-stop for a million years won’t even be enough.
What did I see from those faces? Gratitude. Appreciation. The day’s meal has been delivered. Hope. Tomorrow there will be another one.
There’s always a lesson to things that we encounter in our journeys. For me it is not just about work. I cannot work without loving what I do. I cannot do my stories without showing I care. God brings us to places for a reason.
That assignment in Africa, is one of the best of blessings in my life. I came to share the story of Michelle, Mapaseka and Maggie to represent the millions of lives like them.
People could say they have heard these stories a hundred times – but if they keep coming up, maybe it tells us something.
Maybe there’s a Michelle, a Mapaseka or a Maggie in our midst. She does not have to come from Africa. She is right there among us. Waiting to be heard.
“…human relationships are like a vast, fragile spider’s web. What I am trying to do with my work is to restore part of that web.” _ Restoring the Web, Like the Flowing River, Paulo Coelho