Back from Zimbabwe – My World Will Never Be the Same Again

It’s been nearly three weeks since I returned from an 11-day trip missions trip to Zimbabwe Africa. Ever since the day I returned, I’ve been trying to figure out how to best blog about the trip. Each time I get started, I find that it’s an overwhelming task for which the proper words just don’t exist.

Many people ask me, “So, did you have a good trip?” I’m never quite sure how to answer this question. In many ways, the word “good” isn’t nearly a strong enough word to describe what I experienced. In many other ways, the word “good” is far too strong of a word to describe some of the things I experienced as they were anything but “good”.

When people ask me to tell them about my trip, I’m never quite sure where to start. One of my friends asked me, “Well, why don’t you start by telling me the purpose of your trip.” That sounds like as good a place as any…

The Purpose

I was one of ten people from Rich Fork Baptist Church and New Directions International that went to the Hwange area of Zimbabwe from October 4th through 14th. Those eleven days changed my entire world-view–nothing in my life will ever be the same again.

My primary purpose was teaching The Book of Romans at a Bible College run by Simon Mkolo. There were three other teachers on our trip: Russell Brownworth, Pastor of Bethany United Methodist Church, taught eschatology; Ivan Crissman, Minister of Missions/Senior Adults at Rich Fork Baptist Church, taught Evangelism; and Vic Owen, a Sunday School Teacher and Deacon at Rich Fork Baptist Church, taught about Angels.

When I wasn’t teaching, I was helping James “Red” McAdams in doing masonry and building a new schoolroom for the Bible College; or I was helping Adrean Cromer, Chastity Evans, Tammy Smith, and Kathy Fuqua work with children in the area. Matt Smith, Director of Leadership Training for New Directions International, helped in a number of areas during the week–you can read his trip report.

Traveling to and from Africa

The first two-and-a-half days of our trip were spent just getting to our destination. I’ve often said, “It’s a small world,” but it’s not. The world is HUGE! I logged over 23,000 air miles over the round trip. Amazingly, sitting in an airplane seat for over 14 hours is exhausting work. Those 5-hour flights from North Carolina to Seattle for business seem much, much shorter now too. 🙂

The two long legs of our trip were served by Emirates Airlines. I must say that they are the nicest airlines on which I have ever flown. While most of our airlines in the United States are looking for ways to decrease service to their customers in order to increase profits, Emirates seems to be looking for ways to increase the value for their customers–it’s a totally different mindset. The Boeing 777s in the Emirates fleet are new and sparkling clean. They are well staffed and the flight attendants kept serving excellent meals and beverages throughout the flights.

I was especially intrigued by the ice (information, communication, entertainment) system that was in the back of each seat. A touch-screen monitor gave each passenger access to information about the flight, which included cameras in the front of the plane and under the plane, ground speed, duration of flight, and a visual map. The Communication section allowed passengers to communicate with the ground by phone and email. The Entertainment section gave us access to hundreds of movies, television shows, music, audiobooks, and video games.

We flew from Raleigh, NC to JFK, New York, to Dubai, to Johannesburg, South Africa, and finally to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Even with the luxurious accommodations on the long flights, I still found them quite grueling. However, I’m sure that we had it much better than the Apostle Paul did on any of his missionary journeys, and I’m very thankful for that.

Economic Situation in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe was once one of the most prosperous countries in Africa. In recent years, it has become the worst economy in the world in only a few years. I exchanged $60US to Zimbabwe dollars when I arrived. It exchanged to $23,000,000Zim. I had a stack of money that was almost two-inches thick and the smallest bill was a $50,000Zem with most of the bills being $200,000Zim. I read last week that the Zim dollar is trading 1 million to 1 US Dollar. In only 3 weeks, that same $60US would exchange today for $60,000,000Zim. In the 1980s, the Zim dollar and the US dollar were roughly equal. This is an incredible rate of inflation.

Because of the inflation rate, most people prefer to use the US dollar–which holds its value–and trade on the black market. In fact, no one can afford to trade legally any more. Food, fuel, and other necessities of life are in very short supply and can usually only be purchased on the black market or by traveling to other countries. Essentially every Zimbabwean has had to become a criminal in the eyes of the government, just to survive.

Zimbabwe has a good road system, leftover from its more prosperous days, but very few vehicles travel the roads because of the lack of gasoline. One of the Deans at the Bible College walks 3-hours to the college everyday, and then walks 3-hours home every evening. He has to walk 2-hours to get to the church that he pastors. That’s what I call dedication!

The economic situation was reflected in our accommodations and food as well.

Accommodations and Food

While we were there, we probably lived like kings and queens as compared to most of the Zimbabwean citizens, but it was still much worse than how most of the people below the poverty level in America live. I’m sure we lived better than some people even in America though.

We stayed in two different lodges for the first two nights. The first night we stayed at Gertie’s Lodge. The second night we stayed at Miombo Safari Lodge. These two placed were much like authentic African dwellings with the thatch roofs. They weren’t like hotels or inns in America at all, and probably much more like camping. There was no air condition at night, and no screens on the windows, so we had to sleep under mosquito netting–we were in malaria country. We were treated like royalty by the staff at both lodges though. The food was cooked well, but sometimes foods didn’t seem to coordinate quite like they do in America. I don’t think that’s related to cultural, but rather to economics–they had to buy whatever food they could for us and find creative ways of making meals out of it.

I would compare our hotel for the week to a rundown Interstate motel from the 1960s. Sometimes we had water, sometimes we didn’t. Sometimes we had electricity, sometimes we didn’t. The electricity went out the second night we were there and the hotel staff brought everyone a candle and a box of matches. We did have electricity most of the time though and so we had air conditioning at night. We could usually have water if we were willing to wait up to 15 minutes for it after we turned on the faucet.

The food at the hotel was much the same as at the lodges–they served us what they had available. We did have meat each night–usually buffalo steaks, chicken, or sausage–served with potatoes, rice, or sadza (we call sadza grits in the southern United States). We had scrambled eggs for breakfast served with some form of bread, potatoes, and beans that were similar to our pork-and-beans, or baked beans, here in America.

I never considered myself a very picky eater until before this trip. However, I found myself with a lack of appetite the whole week. We were warned that there may not be any food for us besides rice and sadza so I took plenty of beef jerky, crackers, peanuts, and cookies with me. I didn’t even feel like eating more than a few bites of that at a meal. If you’ve ever been invited for dinner at the home of someone that has poor housekeeping habits, you’ll understand the feeling towards food that I had most of the week.

I want to make a couple notes about our water too. We could drink the water at Miambo because they had a deep well and there is lots of carbon in the soil to filter the water. Although the areas we were in were served by public water, they can no longer afford the chemicals to properly treat the water. We had to filter all the water we drank. Some of us had water bottles that would filter as we drank and we also took filtering pumps so that could filter several gallons at night and store it for the next day.

Victoria Falls and Hwange National Park

Since we arrived on Saturday, and didn’t have to get started working until Monday, we had some time to do tourist type things. Saturday evening we visited Victoria Falls. This was a breathtaking display of the beauty God has given us in this earth. It is huge beyond belief–pictures just don’t do it justice. If you get the opportunity, you really must try to visit this.

Sunday evening we participated in a game drive through Hwange National Park. We got very close to many elephants, giraffes, antelopes, water buffalo, monkeys, and several other types of wildlife. We didn’t get to see any lions, tigers, or other cats though. I really wanted to see a kill, but it was a good outing even without it.

Although food is in extreme shortage, the people seem to really understand the concept of conservation. Monkeys are as plentiful as squirrels are here in North Carolina. It wasn’t uncommon to be driving down the road and have a half-dozen baboons cross the road in front of you. It also wasn’t uncommon to be sitting under a tree studying and look up to see a monkey looking down at you. Although wildlife seems to be in abundance, I think they realize that if they killed it all to meet their needs now, they wouldn’t have it for the future. I’m sure they eat some of it, but they seem to really respect it as well.

Simon Mkulo’s Bible College

On Monday morning we got to work. As with most things in Zimbabwe, they are nothing like their American counterparts. I tell people that Zimbabwe isn’t just another country–it’s a whole other world. The Bible College is probably about 10- to 20-acres of desert savanna. It consists of a very nice prayer chapel at the highest point. This serves as the church for the campus. They had one brick building with two classrooms in it that probably measured 30’x30′. Part of our mission was to start building another building just like this one beside it.

The students would sit on the rough cement floor, or on very primitive wooden benches that weren’t very comfortable. Because there is no cooling system, the door and windows are always open. One day when I was teaching, my translator had to go outside and run off some guineas that were cackling just outside the door—I’ve been interrupted by a lot of sounds in the past while teaching, but this was the first time it was a bunch of chickens.

The students also have some mud huts where they cook food and perform other activities. I think that most students sleep on the floor of the prayer chapel or classroom at night. They have outdoor toilets and a place where they can bathe outdoors. Student life is probably very much like primitive camping in America.

Pastor Simon is one of the few people that I would call “a great man of God.” He is a wonderful spirit to be around and to fellowship with. He, and his converts, have started over 400 churches in that area of Zimbabwe. Many of these churches are quite small and will just meet under a particular tree–hence they are called “tree churches”. Most of the pastors of these churches do not have formal training. When someone evangelizs in an area, and the Word of God is received, the person that seems to have the best understanding of the gospel message becomes the pastor of that church. Many of these pastors have only a few weeks training with the evangelist that lead them to the Lord.

Pastor Simon started the Bible College to provide formal training to these pastors. They will attend the college 3-months at a time to get the training they need. If I remember correctly it takes nearly 3-years to earn their diploma.

Teaching at the Bible College

Academics are an important part of Zimbabwean culture. Because of the lack of formal training for most of these pastors–and pastors wives, I discovered–I initially underestimated my students. I expected that it would much more like teaching a Sunday School class here in America. These students took their studies very seriously. They wanted to dig deep into the Word of God and mine it for every nugget of wisdom they could get.

My students asked very hard and very deep questions for which I was not prepared. Several times, I would stop when they asked a question and ask God to give me the words to tell them because I didn’t know what the answer was myself. I think the most amazing thing on the entire trip was how in each of these situations God would give me the words to tell them. I became just a vessel for God to speak through and we all became students together of our Teacher, the Holy Spirit.

The students seemed to study all the time. Before class, during breaks, during lunch, and after class, I would see my students studying their Bibles and taking notes. They don’t take notes like we do either. They all seemed to have notebooks which were probably about 50 pages of thin paper stapled together with a card stock cover. They write on every little area of a page because those cheap notebooks are probably very expensive to them and incredibly precious. They don’t take anything for granted.

The Weather

It was hot! Where I live in North Carolina, we usually have a few 100-degree plus days. This past summer we had 60 days of temperatures over 90 degrees. It’s also very humid in North Carolina so it seemed even hotter. I didn’t think the 95- to 100-degree days in Zimbabwe would be a big deal, especially since there was practically no humidity at all. Boy was I wrong!

I quickly came to realize that the total lack of moisture in the atmosphere isn’t good either. It’s like everything just gets pulled right out of you. In the heat of the day, I found that I could only work for a few minutes before needing to take a break and replenish fluids. I probably drank over a gallon a day and wouldn’t use the bathroom all day until I was back at the hotel and cooled off some.

I couldn’t teach for long without having to drink water too. There are several scriptures that use thirst and heat as metaphors to convey a point. I realize now why God used these analogies. Many of us in America won’t fully understand them, but for people in desert regions, these passages have a totally new meaning.

The People

What can I say about the people of Zimbabwe except that they are some of the most wonderful people I have ever met in my life? They are certainly the most humble people I have ever met. I have always heard people talk about the arrogance of Westerners, and I never really understood that–sure, I knew that some of us westerners were arrogant, but I didn’t see that as a generalization. On the Saturday when we left, after spending a week with the people of Zimbabwe, I was shocked at the arrogance and pettiness of tourists I encountered at the Victoria Falls airport. As I saw people complaining about the most petty of things my heart just broke realizing that they didn’t have a clue about what genuine humility is.

The people of Zimbabwe live in extreme poverty conditions–never quite sure where their next meal is coming from, or if there will be a next meal. They have no hope, yet they have the most beautiful smiles I have ever seen. Somehow, they seem to find hope where there is no hope. If the entire infrastructure and economy of America collapsed, I can’t help but think that most of our country would be bitter against God for allowing it. In Zimbabwe it seems to draw so many people closer to God because they realize they need to trust in Him. He is ultimately the only source of hope.

In America, God has blessed us with so many other things we can trust in–money, jobs, government, insurance, self, etc… One would expect that those things would drive us all closer to Him out of gratitude and appreciation for His blessings. Yet most often we choose to focus on the blessings and take the One who Blesses Us for granted. We complain about petty things that inconvenience us and don’t have any idea what the rest of the world is really like. We do have it incredibly good here in America, and we would do well to properly express our thanks to our Creator for those blessings. They can all be gone in an instance. If that happens, I pray that we will draw closer to Him, like the people of Zimbabwe, rather than growing bitter and more distant.

One of my students started a question by saying, “Because you are from America, where everyone is so close to God, can you explain…?” I don’t remember exactly what he wanted me explain, but I remember addressing his opening comment first. Because of the immense trust and faith that the Zimbabwean people, and my students in particular, have to put in God, I believe that they are much closer to God than most of us, and we can therefore learn much from them. When was the last time you prayed the model prayer and didn’t give a second thought when you said, “Give us this day our daily bread?” For the people in Zimbabwe, that is an earnest cry of their heart. We take for granted, not only that we’ll have food for the day, but that we’ll have delicious and enjoyable food. They hope just for something to fill and nourish them.

One member of our team asked them if they had somewhere they could obtain new clothes. The student’s reply was that they don’t think about clothes–they’re mostly concerned with where their next meal is coming from. Everyone did seem to have at least a few changes of clothes, but much of that could be left over from the more prosperous times in the country. They seem to take very good care of everything. Most of our team left most of their clothes, and all of our leftover food, and in some cases other belongings. We realized that we could always buy more after we returned to America, but they won’t have that opportunity.

One of the students mentioned a prayer request to a member of the team. He shared how he had a wife and two children. He had some land on which he grew food to provide for the family, but his two oxen had died. The rainy season was only a few weeks away and he didn’t have any way of working the ground. My friend planned to get his church involved in raising the money to replace his oxen after he returned. He shared the story with me and I inquired about the cost of an ox. I was told that an ox costs $40US–not several hundred like I expected. A couple of us had enough cash to go ahead and take care of that need.

Did we make much of a difference in Africa, of Zimbabwe as a whole with that small act? No. But we did make a difference in the lives that man and his family. I think that Africa in general has great needs. I don’t think these are all needs at which we can just throw money and expect them to be resolved. Much more needs to be done there.

Africa and My Future

Except for the fact that I missed my wife immensely while I was away, I could easily have made the decision to stay in Hwange and continue to work with these people. That’s quite amazing when you consider that before this trip I never had much of a heart for Africa. If God had asked me where I might want Him to send me, Africa probably would have been the last place–right after Antarctica, and I hate the cold. Yet He called me there and touched my heart for these people.

My last day there, my students asked me, “When will you be back?” I wish I knew. Because of the current extreme conditions, and the possibility of civil war within the country, our church isn’t currently planning to do this same trip again next year. Although this was my first foreign missions trip, I was told that these are the worst conditions into which our church has ever sent missionaries. I don’t know when I might be able to return, but I do hope that God gives me that opportunity again.

Also, on my last day, my students prayed, “Lord, although his body returns to America, allow his heart to remain in Africa. And allow our hearts to go with him.” I believe God has honored that prayer. I can’t get Zimbabwe our of my mind. Even weeks later, everything I see and do seems to go through a “Zimbabwe filter”. God changed my life on this trip in ways that I may not realize for months or years to come. I’m thankful that He gave me this opportunity to serve Him, and I look forward to continuing to serve my King for the rest of my life, regardless of whether it is in America, Africa, or anywhere else.

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  • Reply
    Reinout van Rees
    11/6/2007 at 2:43 am

    Thanks for taking the time to write this down. I read it in full, very impressive.

  • Reply
    Ann Jones
    11/13/2007 at 12:17 pm

    Ricky, I am sooooo glad to hear about your mission trip! Just makes me miss you here at AFCU even more. Would love to hear you speak about it. My son has been to Venezuela twice, and wants to go to Rwanda next year if safe. (Your diet/exercise page is entertaining too!) Ann Jones

  • Reply
    Jessie Moser
    11/19/2007 at 3:38 pm

    Just stumbled on your website and read this entry about Zimbabwe. Thank you for sharing. I know we have a lot in this country. Our poverty may be spiritual. Thank you for letting me glimpse the hearts of the Zimbabwe people.

  • Reply
    Cindy Burris
    11/19/2007 at 4:29 pm

    Although you have mentioned several of these things in SS, I was happy to read all of the details. Really fascinating!

  • Reply
    Mindful Worship » Mindful Worship Meditation #3 - When I Consider Your Heavens
    12/6/2007 at 2:35 am

    […] guided meditation. I sincerely apologize to everyone. For a short part of that time, I was on a Missions trip to Zimbabwe. For the rest of the time, I was doing a lot of travel for work, and generally had a lot of other […]

  • Reply
    J. Mark Fox
    1/25/2008 at 10:24 am

    A friend of mine sent me the link to your blog, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your trip. Especially since this friend of mine and I were there in Zimbabwe, with Simon, last summer! Rob Mancuso and I spoke at one of Simon’s church conventions, in the Binga district, last August. There were close to 1000 people there by the last day. It was amazing. I wrote three columns about Zimbabwe as a result and can send you the link if you want to read them. Or go to my Xanga site: pastormarkfox.
    You did an excellent job capturing the sights and sounds of Zimbabwe, and describing the rich faith there. Thank you!
    Rob and I are planning to go back next summer, Lord willing, in 2009. The church I pastor is also hoping to bring Simon here, for a week or so, sometime this fall or next spring.
    The Lord bless you!
    In Christ,
    Mark Fox

  • Reply
    10/20/2009 at 9:24 am

    My name is Grace, Simon’s daughter. I was just reading through and i’m so glad that you enjoyed your time in Zimbabwe. It is a sad situation of how things have changed for the people of Zimbabwe, the amazing thing is that people are turning back to God as the Author and finisher of their faith.

  • Reply
    10/23/2009 at 8:06 pm

    Grace – Your Dad is an incredible man of God and one of my heroes in the faith. Thanks for stopping by! I hope to be able to return to Zimbabwe again sometime.

  • Reply
    kimberly dube
    8/19/2010 at 11:31 am

    shalom.its good you came to our country.thanks for the input and impact you left on our time you come or know someone coming to zimbabwe please notify me.i would love to a pastor.maybe next time you can also extend and come to my area.its about 5 hours by bus from hwange towards southern part of the are a blessed man.loving you dearly,kimberly

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