Spring Break is usually a time of much needed reprieve during a busy semester of studies and school commitments, when students typically go home and visit family and friends, or perhaps jet off to a tropical location for some relaxation. However, for the 5th year in a row, an eager group of eleven LAS students and two teachers took the opportunity to embark on a two-week “Service & Safari” adventure to Zimbabwe. Partnering with Sethule Orphans Trust, they dedicated their school holiday to working in the rural communities near Bulawayo, exchanging cultural experiences with the locals as well as each other, and creating truly indelible memories. They veritably embodied the LAS mission statement by being innovative, compassionate, and responsible citizens of the world.
Sethule Orphans Trust is a non-profit organization that was founded by Mrs. Thabbeth Cotton. It is community driven and seeks to provide financial, educational, and emotional support to orphans and communities in rural Zimbabwe. Mrs. Cotton is one of our very own LAS nurses who was born and raised in Zimbabwe but now lives and works here in Switzerland. She works alongside Ms. LeighAnn Braatz, an LAS nurse and chaperone on this year’s trip, who co-led with Ms. Brittany Holsapple, an LAS learning support teacher.
There were several fundraising efforts throughout the year to raise money for this year’s proposed service projects. These included a bake sale and breakfast-in-bed check-ins on select weekends; but the main source of fundraising was the infamous “Zimbabwe Auction.” This year, with the support of faculty donations, were able to raise 13,000 Swiss Francs. The trip itself is parent funded so all of the fundraising efforts went directly toward the proposed projects and other explicit needs within the communities.
For the service component of the trip this year, LAS worked primarily in a rural area called Matopos. This area of Zimbabwe was recently hit by a terrible Cyclone, called Dineo, and suffered major flooding and damage to many homes and properties, including the Sethule Garden which is the main food source for the Natisa Emarika Preschool and community. We spent two afternoons repairing the garden’s fencing, clearing debris from the garden, tilling the soil, and planting new vegetables like carrots and chomolia (a local staple). A portion of this year’s fundraising will go toward feeding the preschool children and staff for the next several months while the garden grows and replenishes itself.
At Natisa Community Center, we also installed tires in the dirt around the border of the playground which we built last year, which the students then painted with their original artistic designs. It was here that we hosted a preschool sports day as well as an orphan care play day involving organized games, playing with bubbles, and face painting. The interactions of our LAS students with these young children truly highlighted their compassion and humanity.
LAS also worked at another community center called Hope Fountain near Bulawayo. This is a site that was founded by the LAS group during the first trip to Zimbabwe in 2015. This year, the LAS team helped to erect a fence around the center to provide safety and security. This will also go a long way in reducing cases of theft and damage of property. The students also provided a general clean-up including the back-breaking task of pulling weeds! Aside from the fencing, a large portion of our fundraising money this year will go toward building an eating shade next to the preschool at this site. We could see the need for this after spending some time there, seeing the amount of people who utilize the site and the need for a respite from the hot Zimbabwe sun!
We spent some of our time touring several schools that Sethule has chosen to support with specific improvement projects. One school is in the process of building a new preschool building, funded by last year’s LAS team. The same school is also part of the new Ride for Education project which was the brain-child of last year’s LAS team after recognizing that some students have to travel up to 20km one-way to school each morning. The Sethule team has done extensive research and preparation to kick-start this program in the community. They have developed a policy to address potential problems such a maintenance, theft, and safety, as well as collaborated with school headmasters in effort to be equitable in student selection. It was satisfying to see this idea coming to fruition!
For the sightseeing component of the trip, LAS headed up north to witness the spectacular grandeur of Victoria Falls which forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. The columns of spray from the falls made it as though it were pouring rain and we were soaking wet by the end of our visit! It was on the Zambezi river that we tested our courage and moxie with an action-packed white water rafting trip. The river, full of Class III and IV rapids, was an exciting adversary and turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip! While in Victoria Falls, we did a safari on horseback, as well as a lion encounter where we interacted with two 17-month old lions. They were majestic creatures and it was a once in a lifetime opportunity for most of us!
After the excitement of Victoria Falls, the group headed into Hwange Game Park for two nights of Safari Lodge adventures! When we pulled up to our lodge, situated in front of a large meadow, there was elephant strolling past; it was magical! The lodge had private bungalows with balconies perfect for viewing the wildlife. We saw baboons, zebra, wildebeest, elephant, and kudu all from our bedrooms! We dealt with such a deluge of insects while in the game park, it would have tested the tenacity of even the most seasoned camper, but thanks to our trusty insect repellant, we all escaped with relatively few bites! Everyone had a great attitude and made the best of our adventure, even though they had to survive without wifi for 3 whole days! In the early mornings and evenings, we did several game drives in Open Game-Viewing Vehicles and spotted a plethora of animals, including elephants, giraffes, zebras, monkeys, hippos, crocodiles, wildebeest, impala, kudu, water buffalo, and yes, lions! There was a diverse, colorful collection of bird species as well.
At the end of the trip, the team spent a day with local students and community members at Natisa Center for a cultural exchange. This was a program where the locals performed traditional Zimbabwean dances and songs, then our LAS team performed a dance that we had practiced for several weeks. On a previous cultural exchange day, the students also performed a comedy skit where they got to showcase their acting and improvisation skills. One of the most entertaining parts of the program was the language exchange where LAS students had to attempt to pronounce sentences in the the local, Ndebele, language; and the locals had to try to pronounce sentences in Spanish and Chinese. Laughter was inevitable!
Some touristy amusements in which we indulged included visiting a local art gallery, seeing a theater performance at the Amakhosi Theater in Bulawayo, hiking up the famous rock formations of the Matopos region to a panoramic viewpoint, seeing live snakes at the National Museum in Bulawayo, climbing on old locomotives at the National Railway museum, and of course, souvenir shopping! We were well taken care of by the Sethule Team. Overall, the food was delicious and plentiful, and we tried several local specialities, but our spirits were truly fed on this trip as well.
With two weeks of rewarding service work, and quintessential African exploits now behind us, we returned to Switzerland to finish out the rest of the school year. Although, the students have jumped right back into classes, trying to resume a normal routine, they will not soon forget the incredible experience we all shared together. I am sure they hope to pass on the LAS legacy to future students just as I hope to pass it on to future leaders so that others will know the joy of serving others and stepping outside one’s comfort zone in the most beautiful way imaginable.Are you interested in sponsoring a child? There is no such thing as free school in Zimbabwe; students need to pay for their education even at the preschool level. Did you know $50 provides an orphan with food and school fees for 1 month? There are also some orphans who are in greater financial need due to their age and locale, requiring them to attend a boarding school at a much higher cost. If they do not receive sponsorship, they will not continue on to the next grade level of their education. You can also sponsor one of these children for $125 per month. If you want to know more about Sethule Orphans Trust, become a donor, or sponsor a child in need, visit their website: sethuletrust.org