Almost every Saturday for many months, a vacant St. John’s school has been humming with the work of a group of Rotary volunteers, and Linda Rowe has been contributing for both herself and someone else who tragically cannot be there.
“I had to come back. I feel like he was here,” Rowe said of her late husband, David, as the Rotary Club of St. John’s Northwest clewed up packing a shipping container bound once again for Tshelanyemba, Zimbabwe.
Tshelanyemba is a catchment area of about 44,000 people, but its centre is a village called Mazwi, which has about 500 people, as well as the hospital and schools.
On last year’s mission to the remote village, David felt unwell and told his wife they should return home early, which was unusual given his steadfast dedication to the project.
They got as far as a hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa, and found out he had pancreatic cancer.
He died there, barely 54, leaving his distraught widow to travel home to grieving family in Canada without him while arrangements were made for his remains to follow.
He loved the Tshelanyemba project and put his heart and soul into it for more than a decade, Linda said.
“He was a core team member,” she said. “Ten years he was here for that. He wouldn’t be anywhere else but here. … He would have been planning next year’s inventory already.”
In the village, he would spearhead plumbing projects and help wherever needed, she said of David, who was the branch area manager for Newfoundland for the Wolseley Industrial Products Group.
With him always in her mind, Rowe was among several people in a dimly lit room Saturday on a makeshift assembly line unpacking donated items, like the last of thousands of pairs of new old-stock children’s orthotic and regular shoes donated to the project.
Most people volunteering at the school have been to the village on past projects.
Outside, Greg Peddle was organizing the final packing of the container — the sixth to be sent over. It costs $4,000 to buy and about $15,000 to get it to the Mazwi hospital, he said.
The tradition has been for a team organized by the club to travel to the village for the container’s arrival.
But this year, said club past-president Jillian Gibson, they were advised they should wait for political unrest to subside, with an impending election.
So, the container will be sent on its own, the people of the village now well versed in what to do once it arrives. Due to an unforeseen delay, last year’s container arrived after the volunteers left.
The volunteers make sure they don’t send anything that isn’t useful — such as packaging, which they strip and recycle as they skilfully pack the container. Folded wheelchairs and garden hoses are placed in between the shelves of a metal hospital cart, so there is no wasted space.
The containers themselves are left in the village and repurposed, for a barbershop or tool shop, for instance.
Over a number of Saturdays, the container was loaded with items such as bicycles, surplus medical equipment, farm equipment, school supplies, chairs and other reusable items left behind in the city’s vacant schools.
Some science lab equipment and textbooks sent over last year have already changed lives. The year before that, no village students passed the science course. Gibson, a teacher, learned seven passed it this year.
Newfoundlanders have been connected to the village for more than two decades through a partnership between Rotary and the Salvation Army, which runs the hospital in Mazwi.
The village was first brought to the attention of Newfoundland and Labrador by Dr. Dawn Howse, who spent two decades working in the Mazwi hospital.
Teams have been going there since 2007 and as soon as one mission is over, the group starts collecting for the next one. Any items not useful to the village are sold at a metro yard sale, with the cash used to support the project.
Donated items like toys aren’t sent because they aren’t what children there play with, and it would be culturally inappropriate to introduce plastic toys to the community, Gibson said. They can, however, be sold at the yard sale here.
Some items in the past, like new mattresses for the hospital and solar panels, are purchased in Zimbabwe to help the local economy.
Last year’s project included IT work.
Steve Greene, whose day job is chief information officer and director of information technology services at Memorial University, got involved through a co-worker who was a Rotarian.
Greene said donations from around metro allowed them to repair and send 85 computers, laptop and tablets to the village for use at the local school, hospital and nursing school last year. They also sent five Raspberry Pi — which allow people there to connect their computer, phone or tablet to source content such as education and health information, as there is no internet access.
Solar panels were installed to charge the devices, and that solution involved design from MUN’s engineering students.
About 25 technology devices were sent over this year.
All the team members use their work skills when they go to Zimbabwe.
For example, Ellen Peddle and Roxanne Hounsell, both nurses, advise people at the hospital on such things as dressing burn wounds — as that is common there with the lack of electricity and use of open fire for cooking.
When a team travels to the village from this province, they connect through Johannesburg, and after flying into Zimbabwe, are met by a hospital bus for four hours of travel, a quarter of it paved, another quarter of it dirt road and the rest of the journey over a woods foot path, said Gibson.
By now, they know most villagers by name and they work with the local community.
“We’re not just like First World people coming in with a container like Santa Claus. There’s a lot of those projects,” Gibson said, adding it’s important that volunteers have been able to build trust.
“We listen to the community.”
Rowe, who has done a lot of the cooking for the team and village workers on the projects, said the spirit of the people there energizes her. She noted one woman, whose family had only two spoons and a knife, had asked for cutlery one year. But it had already been distributed. The next year, someone sent her a full set, but she would only take a few items and shared the rest with others.
“There’s no greed in that. That’s why you go back,” Rowe said.
“There is so much we waste here. They dispose of nothing.”
“A beef bucket is golden. We would never think of that,” Gibson said.
- time, some village boys who had been working hard to help the team were offered cash. But they preferred bicycles, as they had more value in their daily lives.
Simon Adu-Boateng, a Rotary sponsor from Ghana upgrading his education at MUN, said he became an enthusiastic volunteer on the project in St. John’s two years ago because of the dedication of the volunteers here.
“That people who have nothing to do with that country could sit down and think about, you need this and commit to that, to me is amazing and unbelievable. That is what gives me the energy and motivation to keep coming on Saturdays,” said the high school science teacher, who is working on a master’s degree and may go on to a PhD so he can bring more skills back home to Ghana.
The container leaves in the next four to six weeks.
“You got to figure that this group has been here week after week every Saturday and sorting and going through all this stuff. They have been (to the village). They know what they need,” said club president Brad Beckett. “They carry that passion home with them every Saturday. It must be tiring some days. You’re in this dark and dingy place every Saturday.”