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Bishop Denis on his visit to Zimbabwe 2016

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Zimbabwe – the ‘Great House of Stone’

When the very kind invitation arrived last January from Éamonn Meehan, the Executive Director of Trócaire to join the Trócaire team and travel with a few other Bishops to either Ethiopia or Zimbabwe – the dates for Ethiopia didn’t suit the diary, so it was off to Zimbabwe on an Ethiopian Airlines flight that would by coincidence stop off in Addis Ababa on route to Harare! In the end both countries became part of this memorable trip.

On the plane the Trócaire Christmas Gift Appeal catalogue for 2016 slipped out from inside the paper. Here was I going to see exactly how that appeal money made a profound difference on the lives of those, thousands of kilometers away from the donor. Like the even more familiar Lenten Trócaire box, this trip would allow me to see at first hand the projects Trócaire supports, often working in partnership with the local Caritas people on the ground.

Sarah McCann heads up the Trócaire Office in Harare; the office itself is young as country offices go, set up in 2010. Her immediate predecessor Sean Farrell who is now Trócaire’s head of the International Division was an invaluable companion on our trip. Bishop Noel Treanor of Down and Connor Diocese, Bishop Brendan Leahy of Limerick Diocese and Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan of Waterford and Lismore joined Éamonn Meehan, Sean and myself in the visiting party.

Sarah has a great team around her. We met all the team on the first day. Sarah spoke of poverty and inequality. She reminded us of the threat to introduce Government Bond Notes to replace the US dollar; we had noticed the huge queues outside banks earlier that day. Africans know how to queue and how to wait; we in the Western world are more interested in the instant, whether it’s cash or food – the ATM or Supermacs! Trócaire’s projects in Zimbabwe seem to deal with water, irrigation, livelihoods, human rights and crops. Zimbabwe ranks 156th out of 187 countries on the human development scale. Violence to women, human rights abuses, drought as a direct result of climate change become very much the narrative of the Zimbabwean story and the subject of much of our short stay.

On our visit, we heard the heroic stories of Irish Missionaries – the Carmelites, the Franciscan Missionaries for Africa, the Little Sisters of St. Francis, the Presentation Sisters and the Kiltegan Missionaries to name just a few, many of them worked in Mutare Diocese – the shadow of Bishop Donal Lamont is still well remembered there. While we didn’t get to visit Mutare, Mutare came to us, at least in the presence of the wonderful Sr. Eunice on our very last night in Harare. Sr. Eunice, a native of Dundalk in Armagh Archdiocese has been thirty-five years working with young people.

Zimbabwe was one of the worst countries affected by HIV/AIDS. While it might seem that more women are infected by the virus than men, that may be because only 2% of men present themselves for voluntary testing for the virus. We visited two projects, one in Mutimurefu Prison in Masvingo Province and the second in a more urban support group. Entering the prison was for us reminiscent of being on a screen set in Hollywood except this was reality for the 700+ male inmates, a third of whom are infected with the virus. The men of all ages were living with a sentence that might be simply eight years for stealing a cow. Of course, a cow is a family’s livelihood in rural Zimbabwe, but it certainly left us thinking.

Last year’s drought brought huge hardship on many rural communities. The initiative of Trócaire through Caritas Masvingo in constructing a dam at Masvanhi offers great hope for drought stricken lands. Sustainable water allows for plant and vegetable irrigation. Nearly 170 families benefit directly from the construction of the dam and the irrigation that stems from that dam. We prayed for rain for that rural community. Water is in my opinion a very real currency in Zimbabwe. The further examples of borehole projects where simply repairing the borehole can be the difference between remaining in poverty or finding a path to a sustainable livelihood.

There is always the perennial danger that a trip lasting short of five days of action packed schedules and at times grueling journeys can make you an expert on a country, a people, a place. Nothing could be further from the truth. Zimbabwe people have an enormous capacity to rise above the challenges and concerns that living there entails. I was privileged to be part of a simple delegation on a visit, nothing more, nothing less. The visit makes me much more aware of how our contribution to Trócaire is used, whether it is during Advent or during Lent. I give thanks to the vision of those who founded this agency back in 1973 and equally to those who support it most generously in 2016. This year’s Trócaire Christmas Gift Appeal catalogue features for the very first time the gift of a Solar Lamp for families in the Congo (€15); Bee-keeping to supplement the income of poorer families in Kenya (€65) and the usual favourite little chicks for families in Ethiopia (€7). As you purchase your gifts this Christmas, please spare a thought for the people of Zimbabwe.

Link to iCatholic video