Zimbabwe orphans' eyes seared in woman's memory

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WHEN EMILY Frye wakes up in the morning in her Crofton home, she still feels the dusty road beneath her feet. She sees the dark poverty inside the village huts. But, most of all, she sees the children, orphaned by AIDS, alone in the world, with no food, no money, no schooling and no one to hug them at night."How long," she asks, "will I remember those children's eyes?"

As her eyes fill with tears, Frye knows the answer. She will remember those children forever.

She and her friend, Cleo McCoy of Odenton, returned to Maryland on Wednesday after a six-week trip to Zimbabwe, part of the outreach mission of Crofton's Community United Methodist Church.

Both women had participated in a mission trip to Zimbabwe three years ago. But this year's journey touched their hearts in ways they could never have foreseen.

For Frye, the story began three years ago when she received a phone call from the Rev. Chris Holmes, her pastor. Could she visit him in his office?

She jokes that her first thought was, "Oh no, what have I done?"

But Holmes just wanted to invite her to join a project: Community United Methodist was sending a group to a small town in Zimbabwe to help complete a church building.

At first, she was surprised. After all, she was 70 years old and a self-described "June Cleaver." She lived surrounded by her three grown children, her grandchildren and her friends. Her life was comfortable and full of love. She needed a few days to think.

She told her children that she was thinking of going to Zimbabwe. Their response: "Great!"

And off she went.

The 12-person team from Crofton traveled to Zimbabwe, helped build the church and made friendships with the Christian community around the town of Murewa.

Since then, letters have flown back and forth between Crofton and Murewa. Over the past three years, the mission team members became more and more concerned about the growing problem of AIDS that was devastating the Murewa area.

AIDS had been a concern in Zimbabwe three years ago, but it was seldom mentioned. Recently, the problem has exploded into an epidemic, killing thousands of people and leaving children orphaned.

In a 20-square-mile area near Murewa, about 800 children have been orphaned by the disease.

To bring some assistance to these children, local groups called Orphans Trusts have been established. Small committees of teachers, housewives and principals distribute their meager stores of food and clothing to the most destitute children.

They try to find money for school fees so that at least some of these children can receive the education they need. And volunteer mothers travel miles by foot to visit the children in their homes, bringing food, advice and hope.

When Frye and McCoy talked with Holmes about the Orphans Trusts and the growing problem of AIDS orphans, he asked if they would return to Zimbabwe, study the situation and report on the best ways the Crofton church could help.

So in March, the two grandmothers returned to Zimbabwe. The conditions they saw were heartbreaking.

Frye said people in Zimbabwe are kind, generous and loving. But poverty and AIDS have been devastating.

She met a 9-year-old girl who was caring for her three younger siblings.

Their father had died of AIDS a few years ago. Their mother died of AIDS last year. A grandmother had taken care of the children until she died in December. Now the children are alone.

Frye visited in late afternoon, bringing food. There was none in the house. The children had eaten nothing all day.

A second orphan, 14 years old, was the head of his family, watching over his four younger brothers and sisters.

When Frye visited his house, she discovered another problem. In that area, if a woman died, her family took all the kitchen utensils. So even if someone brought the children flour, there was no pot for cooking it, and no plate on which to serve food. The Orphans Trust found bowls and pans for this boy and will try to help him.

Frye remembers attending the funeral of an AIDS victim. She traveled for miles by car through the countryside. There was no road; they followed landmarks until they were stopped by a line of rocks. They walked across a field of grass higher than their heads and finally came to an opening in the grassland with three small huts surrounding a flat area where big pots of grain were boiling. They prayed for the man who had died, consoled his relatives and gave advice on care .

The clergy in Zimbabwe have been active in dealing with AIDS because there are so many misconceptions about the disease, how it spreads and how it can be treated. Zimbabweans have a strong need to know how to care for those who are ill, how to protect the healthy and how to prepare the orphans for the future.

Because education is so important, Frye had been visiting schools in the area.

Education is not free in Zimbabwe, and part of the role of the Orphans Trust is to help the children find money for school.

But two weeks before her trip ended, Frye faced another problem.

The principal of a school she planned to visit came to the town where she was staying with a local minister and asked him not to let the ladies visit.

With an election nearing in Zimbabwe, political unrest has broken out, and the rural areas have become unsafe.

The school Frye had planned to visit was attacked by marauders. The teachers were beaten, one woman was raped, a car was burned and a house was destroyed.

Many more tales of danger were reported, and Frye and McCoy were forced to spend their last two weeks in town for safety.

They spent the days sewing shorts for the orphans they had met. And they talked with the local ministers and other people about the problems they saw.

Didn't it seem that God had forgotten this place? The ministers answered, "We have to believe that he hasn't forgotten. We have to trust."

Frye had gone to Zimbabwe expecting to find suffering and hoping to find a way to help.

Back home in Crofton, her eyes have a faraway look. She knows she will never forget the pain, the need, the suffering that she saw.

Those children wait for help. But political upheaval makes the help all that much more difficult to deliver.

She and McCoy will meet with Community United's pastor, to pray, talk over the situation and try to find the best way to help their orphan friends.

And Sunday, they will speak at the 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. services, reporting on their trip to Zimbabwe and on the desperate suffering they found.

One thing is certain. Frye and McCoy will never forget those orphans' faces.

And they will do everything in their power to see the children laugh again.

Women's club to meet

Four Seasons Women's Club will hold its last meeting of the season at 7:30 p.m. May 23 at Four Seasons Elementary School. Club meetings will resume in September.

Women living in the Four Seasons community are invited to attend.

Information: Joanie Frykman, 301-621-7228.

Honoring graduates

High school and college graduates will be honored during the 9 a.m. and the 11 a.m. services Sunday at Prince of Peace Presbyterian Church in Crofton.

The Rev. Jon Fregger will deliver the baccalaureate sermon.

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