The Province – October 12, 2011
By Elaine O’Connor
As a girl growing up in rural Zimbabwe, Dr. Hester Vivier remembered the struggles her father had growing crops on their farm when the rains didn’t come.
So as an adult, the Langley family physician decided to help her former neighbours and other rural poor in the country to sow their fields and provide for their families by co-founding a charity called the Hear Africa Foundation.
Dr. Vivier’s family were some of the white homesteaders in Zimbabwe who farmed the land and later had their lands expropriated by the government and redistributed to black citizens, land reforms that sparked violence between neighbours and destabilized the country. But long before this, she recalls identifying with the plight of impoverished Zimbabweans as a teenager.
“I kind of realized that the people that were really poor , for them it doesn’t matter who is in power. If you don’t have an education, you don’t have options. If you don’t have any resources, education or money, you don’t have any choices. You are kind of stuck in this vicious cycle. So I always felt I wanted to do something and wanted to get involved, but I wasn’t sure what,” said the 49-year-old mother of five.
The Fort Langley doctor put things on the back burner as she studied in South Africa, then moved to Canada, living on the East Coast and the Praries before settling in B.C. in 2002. It was in here, through mutual friends and members of the Fort Langley Evangelical Free Church that she met a fellow Zimbabwean, Bediam Zimbiti, who was living in Aldergrove. She began supporting his efforts to help his former countrymen following a drought in 2002. Dr. Vivier recalls he had sold his car to buy food for the community and was purchasing clothes at thrift stores to send them and holding barbeques to raise funds.
She was inspired to help him in his efforts and joined the board of what eventually became the Hear Africa Foundation. Fellow Langley residents Ray and Virginia Sawatsky, Erich Schurch, and Jonathan Roth of Surrey are also key organizers on the board.
The group started collecting clothing donations and sending them to needy communities, then food rations of corn meal, a local staple and seeds and fertilizer to about 120 farming families following another drought in 2008. To fund their efforts the grassroots group has held bake sales, social teas, garage sales and car washes.
They earned charitable status in 2009 and since then Dr. Vivier has been back to the country twice to meet villagers and launch projects in the four areas they operate in: Harare, Mt. Darwin, Mutambara and Odzi.
During one visit, Dr. Vivier was struck by the sorry state of the local school in her former childhood farming community of Odzi in eastern Zimbabwe about 60 kilometres outside of the city of Mutare. “They had hardly anything at the school. The kids didn’t even have desks, and hardly any books. It was in an old farmhouse with a garage and even the old chicken coop was used as a classroom,” explained the charity’s vice-president.
Once back in B.C., Hear Africa joined forces with students from the Langley Fundamental School in 2010 to help improve conditions at the Gandidzanwa Primary School. The students held a coin drive, sold lemonade and went door-knocking and raised almost $20,000 and were able to buy the school some desks, but also fund the building of two new classrooms and possibly a library.
“We want to engender the idea in children that they can make a difference and that there is a wider world out there,” she said, “to give children the idea of generosity and awareness of what is going on in the world and of their place in the world.”
Her own children have also helped fundraise: at the recent Fort Langley Cranberry Festival, Dr. Vivier’s 12-year-old daughter, Liesl, rented out her mother’s office parking space to attendees and earned $90 for the charity’s projects.
On her next visit to Zimbabwe, Dr. Vivier met with a group of villagers and heard from one woman how hard it was to start businesses to earn income. Several of the women, who were also caring for orphaned children of relatives, crushed rocks with crude tools for a living. So the foundation launched a pilot project in the spring of 2011 providing micro-loans to about 10 women. Several have used to capital to start chicken-selling businesses.
“I don’t think it is something we would have thought to have done, but that woman was the one who started it when she said this is what we need,” Dr. Vivier recalled.
“That’s where the name Hear Africa came from. We don’t want to go and do what we think needs to be done. We want to go and listen to the people and hear what they need and see how we can come alongside them and hear them and empower them and help improve their lives.”
In the future, the charity would like to expand its work with schools, help start up other local businesses, like chicken-raising and school uniform sewing and support households caring for large numbers of orphans.
Apart from her Hear Africa involvement, Dr. Vivier also launched a social business selling the works of Zimbabwean artists together with Zimbiti. The effort, calledMukiwa Art, donates 100 per cent of the profits to the foundation.
“Aid has a place, but there is just a dignity in working and being able to be paid for what you do,” she said. “A lot of people in Africa don’t have money, but they have time and with that time they can make some beautiful things. It’s amazing what those artists can do.”
Zimbabwe has been stuck by crisis after crisis in recent years. The 12 million citizens of the land-locked southern African country have been under the rule of despot Robert Mugabe since 1980. Politically, the country has suffered internal strife, most notably with the forced land redistributions in the early 2000s (due to its colonial past, whites in Zimbabwe owned about 70 per cent of the fertile land, but made up just 1 per cent of the population.) Violence accompanied the land reforms and agriculture suffered, in part due to subsequent droughts. In the early 2000s, the country lost its Commonwealth membership over claims of human rights abuses and faced Western sanctions.
The country also battled extreme hyper-inflation through the middle and end of the decade, reaching an improbable 11,200,000 per cent in 2008, putting even basic food staples out of reach of many poor citizens. It permitted the use of the US dollar in 2009. But conditions had deteriorated to the point where life expectancy plunged from 60 in 1990 to 42 years today, as infant mortality has increased. In 1997, for instance, about 25 per cent of citizens were infected with HIV/AIDS, that rate is now around 14 per cent, but more than 1.2 million people are now living with the disease. As a result of its troubles, an estimated 3.4 million people have fled the country to neighbouring states. Life there remains hard.
“There is still a lot of unemployment and a lot of people are surviving on less than two dollars a day,” Dr. Vivier explained.
“Health care isn’t free so you have to pay anytime you need to go to the doctor or hospital and often you have to pay cash up front or they won’t let you through the door. And school isn’t free either. You have to pay school fees of $30 or $40 a term, and if you are surviving on less than two dollars a day, that is a big amount to budget. Buying food in the store is still expensive as well, so most people tend to grow their own. And there are so many children orphaned in the country [due to AIDS] … it’s mind boggling.”
The physician said that it means a lot to be able to give back to the community where she spent her youth, especially given the challenges her former countrymen face.
“To me, it’s amazing. It is such a priviledge to be able to help the people of Zimbabwe, with the political situation and everything that has been going on,” she said. “It feels like it’s not mch that we are doing, but at least it is something.”
“It’s a lot of work, but it is very satisfying. The people are just so grateful for evertything you do.”
Hear Africa has an upcoming fundraiser on November 5 at 6 p.m. at Langley’sSouthridge Fellowship Baptist Church at 22756 48th Ave. The family-oriented evening will feature desserts and musical entertainment with traditional Zimbabwean instruments, like the mbira and drums, as well as activities for children. Donations to Hear Africa will be accepted at the event. To RSVP firstname.lastname@example.org.
Support the foundation with the purchase of a piece of Zimbabwean art from Mukiwa Art.
If you have any tips on B.C. residents’ work in or for the developing world, email them to email@example.com.
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