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Linda Wilkinson/WORLD

Picking up pieces

Lifestyle/Technology | What one Christian in Africa started

Issue: "The Road to Cana," Feb. 23, 2008

Children are everywhere in Ng'ombe, an overcrowded, poor compound here. They play in the unpaved roads and dart around the cement blockhouses as curtains blow in the doorways. Men loaf outside the compound's numerous bars. Shoppers frequent the area's two main markets, "where almost anything can be found."

Ng'ombe is also home to Chikumbuso Community Center, a school and widow's project started by Linda Wilkinson, an American mother of five who has lived in Lusaka for the past three years with her husband, a World Vision project leader, and their 6-year-old son. "It simply started when I went to visit a widow in Ng'ombe who had no food for her five kids. The woman asked if I could start up a group that would help other widows like her."

Chikumbuso is located in a former bar and brothel that Wilkinson purchased for $15,000 donated by relatives in Atlanta. The project has grown from eight widows to a group of 80, including single moms, grandmothers, and widows. On Wednesdays they meet to study the Bible, sing, pray, and make decisions about the project, which includes a small business. Wilkinson wanted to meet needs without compromising the women's independence: "I was having a hard time coming up with a micro enterprise that worked, and one that united us as a group of women. A Dutch friend, Nelique Brons, heard about Chikumbuso and asked if she could help. The bags were her idea."

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The bags: colorful crocheted pocketbooks fashioned from recycled plastic grocery bags. Half of the revenue from each pocketbook goes to its maker, 25 percent goes to her bank, and 25 percent to a profit-sharing pool. Wilkinson notes that "because of this banking system the women are able to give out loans to each other. I have not given out a loan in over two years."

Chikumbuso also has a program for AIDS-vulnerable young single moms. The first group just graduated from a yearlong tailoring program and will now learn to use a "vita-goat" machine that turns soybeans into a nutritious supplement. The next tailoring class will include 10 men: "This is new for us, but I really feel like nothing will change for these women if nothing changes for these men."

In addition, children are benefiting: When Wilkinson learned that they couldn't afford to go to school, "we started a school in the Baptist church with 30 children and now we have 300," plus 50 more graduates who are sponsored at the local public school.

All involved with Chikumbuso receive $15 medical cards so they can go to a clinic and receive basic medicine for free. Wilkinson helps with larger health bills, and a Maine church sponsors 20 grandmothers, providing them with mattresses, blankets, mosquito nets, and food.

Wilkinson now serves on the executive board, raises funds during the summer, takes in interns, purchases furniture, drives women to clinics, and so forth. Her advice to others thinking about undertaking such a project: "Stepping out to help others can be scary but if you don't step out in faith then the Lord cannot use you."

Chikumbuso's mission remains simple: "To remember what God has done for us and to remember to do the same for others."

-with reporting by Donica Merhazion

Five widows

When Gertrude Banda met Linda Wilkinson in 2005, they talked about the HIV/AIDS disaster. Gertrude knew three widows struggling to raise their children. She arranged a meeting at a neighborhood church: "Rather than keep on giving the women food and other such assistance, we were trying to see what skills we could teach them so that they could support themselves."

That group became the nucleus of Chikumbuso. The cleaning of the bar and brothel began in May 2006. "As soon as you entered the gate, you could smell the beer and the urine," Gertrude says: "All the grandmothers, the children, and the widows helped in cleaning Chikumbuso." Where once was squalor, children's colorful handprints decorate the walls.

Gertrude is now the school's headmistress and teacher: "This is the career I have always wanted." She lives in a house behind one of the school buildings and cares for her two children, her elder sister's two children, and an orphan.

Several years ago Mary Mwale, 37, took a sewing course and became skilled at making dresses, bags, and other accessories. She made a modest living for herself sewing at home. Recently she taught 25 single mothers to sew at Chikumbuso, using 10 sewing machines purchased by money Linda Wilkinson raised.

Last month Mary's class graduated from the yearlong tailoring course. "Before they were out on the streets selling vegetables and fruits, and some were involved in prostitution in order to get enough money to feed their children," she said. The women now know how to make patterns, sew clothes, and more: One group recently hired the women to make 5,000 reusable sanitary towels to be distributed throughout Zambia.

Mary herself was diagnosed as HIV positive when she was in her 20s. She takes anti-retroviral drugs and teaches classes on HIV.

Esther Ngoma, 27, became the sole provider for her two children when her husband in 2003 died of complications from AIDS. She and her children moved in with her elder brother, where she began to drink: "His family would always eat first. Sometimes there was not enough food left over for us."

When her youngest child got sick, Esther turned to the neighborhood Baptist church for help. Gertrude Banda introduced her to Linda Wilkinson, who gave her the money to go to the local clinic and get an HIV test. "They said that my baby and I were both HIV positive," Esther said. "I had never been with anyone else but my husband."

Her brother threw them out. Chikumbuso members took her in and taught her to crochet handbags and hats: "Before Chikumbuso I was homeless and my children and I were sleeping on the floor. Now, through the money I receive from the bags I make, I am able to rent my own space."

After Jane Kapenda was widowed 12 years ago, she struggled to care for her five children by selling dried fish at the market to earn the $18 monthly rent for a two-room cement structure with no electricity or running water.

For almost a decade Jane and her family barely survived. One day she heard of a mzugu (white) lady who had come to Ng'ombe and was helping widows. Jane learned to crochet the handbags and now earns a regular income. Her children attend school. "I don't know how long I will be in this world and I hope that I will have a secure place for my children to stay by the time I leave," she said.

In 2004, when Agnes Nanfukwe was eight months pregnant with her fifth child, her husband died of AIDS. The ladies at the Baptist church invited her to join Chikumbuso. "The bags that I make give me more than financial nourishment," Agnes said. "Making them makes me feel good emotionally and spiritually, since I make them in the company of my sisters with whom I pray and share all my troubles."

Linda encouraged Agnes to be tested for AIDS and, when she tested positive, provided her with baby formula for the year. "Linda taught me how I should take care of my baby. I did not know that I should not breastfeed if I am HIV positive," she said. "Now I am taking medicine, my baby is well."

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.

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