Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 20, 2000
Calgarian helps Zimbabwe orphans
Three weeks on World Vision project gives microbiologist a new view of life
Special to the WCR
Calgary microbiologist Tony Bruno believes everyone should share in the responsibility of making the world a better place to live for the less fortunate - especially children.
That's how Bruno, 30, a member of Calgary's St. Anthony's Parish, ended up spending his holidays helping out at a children's orphanage in the heart of southern Africa earlier this year.
Bruno arrived in Zimbabwe as a volunteer with Operation Helping Hand, a program run by World Vision, an international Christian development organization best known for its child sponsorship program.
By the time he finished the three-week assignment, he had learned a valuable life lesson: "Never underestimate the power of experience."
"I think we all have our own ideas of how life in a Third World country must be like in terms of poverty, famine, disease, and have an idea of the day-to-day battles one must go through to simply survive," says Bruno.
"But I truly believe we're a little too comfortable sitting at home in Canada thinking we understand and can relate."
When he left Canada, he packed along a suitcase of preconceived notions. Having digested World Vision's thick briefing book, Bruno figured he had prepared himself more than adequately.
As it turned out, nothing could have prepared him for what he experienced, he said during an interview while sitting in a restaurant at a shopping plaza in Harare, attired in shorts, sneakers and T-shirt.
"You simply don't know what it feels like to have dozens of children run behind your truck as you drive through their village laughing and waving simply because they want your attention," he says.
"Nor do you know what it feels like when a child you helped take care of at the orphanage never makes it back from the hospital after falling ill.
"You can't prepare yourself for the mixed sounds of laughter and crying that echo through the orphanage constantly . . . the smell of sadza (a staple dish made from corn meal) being overpowered by the penetrating stench of soiled clothes."
But the most vivid memory in Bruno's mind is the smiles on the faces of the gauntest children he had ever met.
"Without a doubt all the children are dying for affection, . . . the less fortunate are simply dying," says the Calgarian.
Before leaving, Bruno, a research scientist at the University of Calgary studying cystic fibrosis and HIV/AIDS, had considerable experience working as a volunteer in a wide variety of roles from a morgue assistant at the medical examiner's office to children's soccer camp instructor.
Last year, Bruno, who is applying to attend medical school, began looking for an overseas volunteer experience.
He came upon the World Vision opportunity and attended an information meeting at a local hotel last September.
World Vision established Operation Helping Hand in the mid-1990s as a way of providing volunteers to orphanages in Romania and Zimbabwe.
For many years, World Vision Zimbabwe funded Chinyaradzo. But as it pulled away from small, community-based projects and moved into larger regional projects, it withdrew from helping to manage and directly fund the home.
Today it provides volunteers who can help orphanage staff meet the needs of the home's 70 children, from newborn infants through to age 12.
And it is seeking to make more Canadians aware of the home and its needs so that they, in turn, can help it financially.
The dates for the Alberta team's visit fit in with Bruno's schedule. He applied and was accepted.
In January, he joined Sandra Hea, another Calgarian and member of Westside King's, an evangelical Christian church, and two Edmonton women, Gina Johnson and Rae Nilsson, members of Beulah Alliance, for the trip.
He arrived in Africa with Hea on Jan. 8. The two Edmonton-area women arrived two days later.
While the women ended up working directly with the children, Bruno applied his skills as a handyman around the orphanage.
"That's what I can do without breaking babies," he said with a laugh.
Located in a high-density suburb called Highfield, the orphanage is a set of buildings centred around a courtyard decorated with two bright murals - a zoo-like jungle scene and a street scene depicting a bus pulling away from a bus stop.
Children living in the orphanage have either been abandoned or their parents are incarcerated or have died.
Furthermore, Zimbabwe is the epicentre for the HIV/AIDS epidemic gripping southern Africa. More and more children are arriving at the orphanage after their parents have died of AIDS.
The volunteers lived off site at a lodge frequented by employees of non-governmental organizations.
They shared daily lunch with the children, comprising the staple of sadza, a white, gooey, bland corn meal concoction accompanied by a vegetable soup/stew mix and the occasional bit of chicken. The meal is eaten using the right hand.
Bruno worked with staff caretaker, Joseph Ruwojo, helping repair some boilers, put up a ceiling, paint some walls, renovate a kitchen, and construct some window screens to keep out mosquitoes.
An avid soccer player who at one time hoped to make the Italian national team, Bruno also packed along seven soccer balls. Every afternoon, he played soccer with the school-aged boys.
On weekends, Bruno and the other volunteers went sightseeing, visiting Victoria Falls where they went on a suicidal river-rafting trip on the Zambezi River and later, camped out on safari.
En route they almost ran into an elephant sitting in the middle of the road. Later, they sat in an open Land Rover watching a pride of lions, only a few car lengths away, devouring a couple of freshly-killed water buffalo.
In Harare, they witnessed first-hand the impact of the country's battered economy with its rampant inflation, urban decay and random violence. Images of Zimbabweans standing on street corners with cell phones at their ears competed with scenes of roadside vendors hawking fresh vegetables from curbside tables.
The Helping Hand volunteers generally go on a three- to six-week assignment. Bruno went for three weeks, paid his own way (about $3,000) and rounded up five Canadian sponsors for Zimbabwe children.
After completing his assignment in late January, he travelled on to Italy where he visited relatives and hooked up with a research colleague to do some studies.
Bruno returns to Calgary a different person. "I think it makes one humble. You appreciate the little things like hot water, clean water.
"More than anything, it makes you realize when you think you're having a bad day, a bad week, a bad month, it puts a new definition on the word 'bad.'"