Zimbabweans make best of bad situation

Church conference partnership approved

Staff writer

Faced with widespread poverty and government corruption, people in Zimbabwe continue to make the best of what they have, Bob Unruh of Durham said.

Unruh, with nine pastors and four other laypeople, spent a week in Zimbabwe, Jan. 28 through Feb. 9, as part of a fact-finding mission for the Kansas West Conference of the United Methodist Church, which includes all of Kansas west of U.S.-77, he said. The conference was interested in starting a partnership with the Zimbabwe East Conference of the church.

Zimbabwe’s economy has been in shambles since the mid-2000s, Unruh said. Runaway inflation led to businesses increasing prices multiple times per day, and eventually the country’s currency became worthless. The country uses American dollars for money now.

“It was obvious nobody traded in their currency,” Unruh said. “Nobody even prices things in their currency.”

He stayed with a host family while he was in Zimbabwe, and one of his hosts showed him boxes full of Zimbabwean dollars. Unruh asked to buy some of the money for souvenirs, but his host refused, saying he couldn’t in good conscience accept any money for the worthless currency.

The country’s infrastructure has also deteriorated, Unruh said. There are power outages almost every day.

“It’s such a step back in time,” he said. “Some of the roads we were on weren’t even good cow paths.”

Despite all of the issues facing the country, most Zimbabweans he met were friendly and welcoming, he said.

During the trip, Unruh saw Chingombre United Methodist Church in rural Zimbabwe with no roof, doors, or windows, but the congregation used it regardless.

“Their worship services are extremely spirited,” he said.

Worship continues until everyone in the congregation is done praising. Sometimes services last four or five hours, Unruh said.

Unruh was most interested in seeing a specific church. Hillsboro United Methodist Church has a partnership with Fern Valley United Methodist Church. Fern Valley is a suburb of Mutare, a city on Zimbabwe’s eastern border with Mozambique.

He toured a school with the headmaster and principal. He asked if the school had a lunch program, and was told it didn’t. He asked if the students brought sandwiches for lunch, and was told most don’t have food at home to bring to school.

The principal said most of the children have what he called “air food” for lunch. The children gulp air so they at least feel like they have something in their stomachs, he said.

“I was a little astonished by the comment,” Unruh said.

Later in the day, he and the group were offered a lunch of sandwiches and crackers, but he found it difficult to work up an appetite knowing the children were going without.

The Hillsboro church sponsors a meal program operated by the Fern Valley church. The program provides three or four meals per week in the community. For many children, the program provides the only meal they will have that day, Unruh said. After seeing the program in action, he thinks Hillsboro United Methodist Church’s aid is being used efficiently.

One of Unruh’s hosts had an amazing knack for sewing. She sewed a shirt that was a perfect fit for Unruh without ever measuring him, he said.

The Kansas West Conference approved creating the partnership during its annual conference in May, Unruh said. At that time, the bishop of the Zimbabwe East Conference toured the Kansas West Conference with his wife. The two spent an evening visiting Unruh.

Unruh hopes to return to Zimbabwe someday. He made many friends during his tour of the country.

“I sort of fell in love with that part of Africa,” he said. “You couldn’t help but have a great appreciation for the people. They were so welcoming, so friendly.”

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