CANNON BEACH - Meg Hall faced many challenges during her year in Zimbabwe working with street kids.
She washed her clothes by hand, took baths with a bucket of water and ate mostly sadza - a porridge so thick she tore off pieces and used them to scoop up beans. She was also the only "kiwa," or white person, in the area, and often felt lonely because of the language barrier.
"It was good to learn that Christ is sufficient when you don't have your family or your friends or all the ways you can find to fill yourself up when you're in this country," Hall said at the Cone 'N Beach, her parents' ice cream store in Cannon Beach.
She went to Zimbabwe as part of the Mennonite Central Committee relief work. The Mennonites are a Christian denomination that emphasizes service to others and peacemaking.
Hall worked in Bulawayo at a rehabilitation center for children who choose to leave the streets. They can stay there for up to three years. The organization counsels them and works on reconciliation with their relatives, Hall said. She worked with kids who had been abused, had drug addictions or were trying to earn money for their families on the street.
"The goal is to reunite them with their families," Hall said. She led religious devotions, helped children who went to the public schools with their homework and taught English, art, computers, music and games.
Soccer was an especially good way to bond with the children, she said. "It was counseling, but it was through relationships."
At first, Hall was lonely. Zimbabwe was the former British colony of Rhodesia, so many people spoke some English, but church services lasted three or four hours and were rarely translated. As the novelty of the new experiences wore off, she said she grew angry with God and asked why he had sent her.
A youth, Prosper, 17, became Hall's best friend. "He would always encourage me and say, 'We love you, we just don't know how to show it,'" she said. Prosper also told her no one had ever loved him like she did.
Later, as Hall learned the local language of Ndebele, she began to find a place. She said most white Zimbabweans don't bother to learn the native languages, so her efforts brought excitement. "People feel that you respect and appreciate their culture," she said.
Gradually, she met people who showed her love and became part of a bigger family. She said an aunt is either called a "big mother" or "small mother," and there is no word for cousin because everyone is "brother." "It's such a communal society," she said.
Hall was on hand to witness much of the heartbreak as President Robert Mugabe's troops destroyed homes and businesses of thousands of people. She said city regions such as Bulawayo were being punished for favoring Mugabe's opposition in the recent elections. The government wants to move people from the cities, where they have a chance to become educated, to rural areas where the government can control politics by bribing local chiefs.
"It was sad; it became like a ghost town when it was a lively, bustling city before," Hall said. She said it was tragic to watch people who were already suffering because of Zimbabwe's economic problems lose what little they had. She witnessed soldiers in riot gear arrest a woman and confiscate the box of oranges she was trying to sell. Homeless people suffered in the cold. When local churches opened their doors for housing, the pastors were arrested and people were moved to camps in rural areas. "It's really just an evil dictator who obviously shows no care or compassion for the people," Hall said.
Hall said most people are worn out and no longer try to demonstrate, strike, or even gather publicly. She said many people are leaving the country, although the government restricts visas and controls borders tightly. "For the country to improve, you need good people to stay," Hall said, adding that she deeply respects people who stay and fight corruption. "They're dedicated to make their country better for their children," she said.
Back in America Aug. 1, Hall is trying to adjust to a fast pace and fast cars, 80 TV channels instead of one and so many choices in the stores that a trip to Wal-Mart made her nauseous.
It's good to be back, with plans to go back to Seattle and work with refugees, but Hall said she gained a lot from her experience. She learned creativity by working with her students, often without paper or pens. Other important skills were flexibility when her plans didn't work out and patience with Zimbabweans' casual attitude toward time management (tea time is important.) She also learned to carry things on her head.
"It's the kind of experience that you can't buy," she said. "You find where your true joy needs to come from when you can't buy it."