In 2009, Maryjane and Don Westra left Fergus Falls to begin a new chapter in their lives. They became missionaries. Global Ministries (affiliated with the Disciples of Christ and United Church of Christ) assigned them to work side-by-side on a mission station in Mt. Selinda, Zimbabwe, Africa, and what a life-changing experience this has been!

Providing Hope

Published 12:59pm Friday, November 9, 2012

Maryjane was appointed the administrator of the hospital and children’s home. Don was given the responsibility of over-seeing the farming operation. They recently returned to Minnesota after three years of service and are anticipating returning to Mt. Selinda for another four years later on this fall.

“We experienced a clash of cultures,” Maryjane remarked, “and we learned to adapt. For instance, the main staple in their diet is “sadza”, a starchy corn mush that is eaten with your fingers. I don’t care for it all that much. But, since we live at the mission station, we grow a variety of vegetables and raise pigs and chickens, so there’s always plenty to eat. In fact, the Zimbabwe husband is respected in their society as a good provider who has a wife of large proportions.”

Maryjane shared a typical day at the hospital and children’s home, “True, there’s lots of stress because we feel so responsible: feed the children, do the paperwork, try to communicate with the outside world (but the phones don’t work half the time), no mail delivery, sporadic electricity, no thermometers, no blood pressure cuffs, no stethoscopes, inadequate fuel supply to run the generator- the list is long of what we lack. The really good news is the pace of life is slower, nobody gets too shook up if something doesn’t work, and everything belongs to everybody. We didn’t go there to change them; instead we are there to work alongside them.”

Don remembers arriving as their new farm manager and being called “Eng (engineer) Don” and asking, “What do you need from me?” Their response was, “You provide the hope.” At the time of their arrival, the farm consisted of twenty-five acres and one unhealthy pig. Today, fifty acres are seeded, and there is a herd of forty pigs, and a hundred broiler chickens are ready for market each month.

Another aspect of Don’s work is fixing broken pumps for old water wells. He travels around the district within a one hundred mile radius of the station to return these wells to working order. Cholera outbreaks occur every year, so having access to clean water is vital to the health of entire communities, and a working well in the village is a life-saver.

Don believes he is instilling in his co-workers (just by being there and working beside them) a sense of self-sufficiency and accountability so that when he and Maryjane eventually leave the station, the leadership among the people who remain will continue to create opportunities for growth and provide reliable sustainability in the community.

For Maryjane, one of the ways this goal can reached for the children is through supporting literacy in the school by increasing the number of computers for the 800 students. The government of Zimbabwe supplies eight, and a combined gift from the Fergus Falls Sunrise Rotary Club, Rotary District #5580, and Rotary International will make possible an additional thirty-eight computers for the students’ use. Another encouraging sign is that three years ago ten students had to share one textbook and copy the contents into their notebooks, but because of the efforts of Rotary, UNESCO, and the Zimbabwe government, now there is one textbook for every four children.

Maryjane also enlisted the local AAUW club to help a young woman named Liazah, who had reached the age when she could no longer stay at the children’s home and needed to support herself. They contributed the funds so she could enroll in a sewing class and then purchase a sewing machine, fabric, and notions so she could become a seamstress. A member of that group, Jeanne Jensen, said, “It is gratifying to know that in our own small way, we have made a difference in Liazah’s life, helping her become independent.

In large and small ways, the contributions of various Fergus Falls organizations (Sunrise and Noon Rotary, AAUW, Federated Church, and others I may not be aware of), are helping to support Maryjane and Don and the work they are committed to as they engage the culture and meet the challenges of their posts at the mission station in Zimbabwe and to ensure it is sustainable,” Jensen concluded.

Donations from across America are received at the mission station. However well-intentioned they may be, they may not always be helpful. Maryjane offered several examples – first from the hospital and then from the school. A group from New Hampshire sent a shipping container of bed sheets for the hospital beds. The hospital staff had asked for white sheets. The American group sent winter flannel sheets with big bold red flowers adorning them. The staff started giving all kinds of excuses why they could not use them, and they kept it up for four months!

In a second instance, the school received a shipment of student notebooks, and they are a necessity, but in Zimbabwe the notebooks with the spiral bindings are not culturally acceptable. American contributors need to be informed of what is allowable in the recipient culture.

“We are in the education business,” Maryjane and Don chimed in, helping the people of America and the people of Zimbabwe to reach a better understanding of each other’s cultures.


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