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How far can Zim dollars go?

"How far can Zim dollars go?" Continued...

Issue: "Obama," Nov. 15, 2008

Her pilaf and chocolate mousse cake now finished, Leen walked to the podium of the Lynnwood banquet hall for a brief presentation of ZOPOM's work. Massive images of diseased and starving people juxtaposed with those of smiling African children flashed across a giant screen behind her. In a grand-motherly voice, quivering with age, she delivered her most impassioned plea for the hundreds of guests in attendance to incline their hearts toward Africa.

"A pint of milk is four days' work, a bar of soap one week's work, a loaf of bread two weeks' work, and a bag of mealy meal two months' work," she said, imploring her listeners to lay down Western comforts if only for a season and come see what economic disaster really looks like. "It's a life-changing experience, and I hope some of you will get to have that opportunity."

One recurring picture on the screen behind showed a woman's leg with an infected grapefruit-size cancerous growth protruding prominently. Leen explained that she had begged the woman to go to the hospital when the growth was small. But devotion to a brand of faith dubbed "apostolic" precluded the woman from seeing a doctor. Only when her husband had abandoned her and her life hung in the balance did she finally agree to undergo surgery. By that point, amputation was her only option.

Such bizarre religious commitments often inhibit Leen's best efforts to help hurting people, underscoring Zimbabwe's need for spiritual and cultural renewal as much as political change. Many locals with whom Leen interacts profess strong commitments to the teachings of the Christian Bible. But understanding of biblical truth is often rudimentary or misguided.

Leen has developed a basic distrust of African men who routinely quote scriptural mandates for making babies and yet often abandon their wives and families to avoid hardship or pursue other women. She seeks to convince many African mothers to slow their rate of childbearing. "The one no-fail crop in Zimbabwe is babies," she says. "They quote me the verse 'Be fruitful and multiply,' and I tell them, 'Yes, but you can stop when the job is done.'"

Zimbabwean parents have no problem with multiplication; it's the fruit-fulness that is often left wanting. About a quarter of all children in the country are orphans. That number stems largely from a national AIDS epidemic that has 1.8 million people living with the disease today.

The problems are too large for Auntie Paula, and she knows it. She must make decisions daily about whom to feed among the too many hungry mouths begging for help. "Right now the hunger is so bad that the workers are stealing the food that we're growing. They steal it at night, and we know it's the workers because the dogs aren't barking," she said. "I can't really blame them too much, but I tell them, 'Look, if you need some food, just ask. I won't say no.'"

Leen has built a ministry on saying no as little as possible. She mothers dozens of children, employs hundreds of workers, and feeds and provides ambulance services for thousands more. "People say to me, 'You've got to be able to say no.' I say, 'I can't say no and watch a child die.'"

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