Children of Zion come to America

They had never flown on an airplane, tossed a snowball or tasted macaroni and cheese.

Upon their arrival in Maryland, 10 teenage girls from an orphanage in Namibia discovered a world in stark contrast to their homeland, where hunger and illiteracy prevail and losing parents to disease or war is a daily reality.


"When we lived outside the children's home, we didn't receive care," said Annia Moyo, 15. "It was hard, with never enough to eat."

Ranging in age from 13 to 16, the girls live in Children of Zion Village, a 17-acre farm near Katima Mulilo, a small town near the Namibian border with Angola, Zambia and Botswana. The orphanage was founded by Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Bel Air, which bought the land, built the home and a school, and supports the village where 55 children live. They are among thousands who have been orphaned by the AIDS epidemic and war in Angola.


The girls came to the United States two weeks ago to visit Mount Zion and several other churches in the Baltimore region that support the orphanage, bringing their gratitude and serving as symbols of the effect the project is having.

"Children who have lost parents, who have been sold into child labor and abused, who have been through more in a lifetime than most adults imagine, are thriving and learning," said Rebecca Mink, a Mount Zion member who, with her husband, Gary, runs the orphanage. "They are coming to grips with what has happened in their lives and moving forward."

The teens are scheduled to visit the congregations throughout Harford County, as well as others in Baldwin, Chestertown, Pasadena, Westminster, Bowie and Baltimore, meeting church members and performing songs and dances from their native country for church members.

They also are taking in some tourist attractions, including a skating rink in Abingdon, a horse show in Pennsylvania, and museums and a performance of "Disney on Ice" in Washington.

While visiting Havre de Grace United Methodist last week for a supper with church members, the girls overcame initial shyness and shared their stories. They talked of the farm where they live, attend class, raise livestock and tend a large garden.

Maggie Sakutiya, who played a drum solo during the girls' musical performance, told of how she came to the village with her two younger brothers three years ago.

"I did not know my ABCs or 1-2-3," said Maggie, who now reads at a sixth-grade level.

Maggie's father died when she was young and her disabled mother could not provide for the children.


"It was hard for my mother, hard to get food," Maggie said. "My life is better now. I am in school with so many friends. And here I am in the United States."

Inonge Dorothy Mwila's parents died in 2003 when she was 9.

"It was the saddest thing that ever happened to me," the 13-year-old said. "I used to have nightmares and be afraid of the dark. Now I am not afraid."

At the gathering, two pen pals met for the first time: 13-year-old Nicky Priscilla Berego and Ruth Fender, a Havre de Grace resident and church member.

"She writes to me, and I write that I am studying English," Nicky said of Fender, who was holding a photograph of a smiling girl dressed in white.

Fender said, "She also asked that I pray for her that she will be a good girl."


Nicky never knew her parents. She lived her early years with an aunt, who died. A social worker sent her to the village.

"I had no family, but now I have a big family, and I like it very much," she said.

Dozens of Mount Zion parishioners, including pastor Craig McLaughlin, his wife, Lisa, and their four children, have traveled to Namibia and stayed for months at a time to help at the village. Other Maryland churches have joined the effort, with many parishioners contributing to the care of individual children.

In addition to the children who live at the village, another 100 children who live nearby are fed daily, Rebecca Mink said.

"The need is huge, with about 5,000 orphans in our area alone," she said.

When Mink planned a trip home so her teenage son could undergo a surgical procedure, the suggestion was made to bring some of the orphanage children. Donations from church members helped cover the travel costs.


Their visit to the United States has been a foray into another world. The girls say they are enjoying the sights and the people, but the traffic intimidates them. In Namibia, which is about half the size of Alaska, they can drive hundreds of miles without so much as stopping at a "robot," the local term for a traffic signal. On that same road, they might encounter an elephant.

"I liked the train that goes under the ground. ... But here there are too many cars," said Anna Amy Jamba, 13.

The girls said a dog show they attended in Pennsylvania reminded them of the two pets recently lost to crocodiles on the banks of the nearby Zambezi River. At museums in Washington, a dinosaur exhibit convinced them that there were animals "bigger than our biggest elephant." And a few have mastered ice skating after an afternoon at a rink in Abingdon.

The girls will give a public concert at 7 p.m. Friday at Mount Zion United Methodist Church, 1645 Churchville Road, Bel Air. Information: 410-836-7444.