I have traveled enough to have seen my share of Third World Poverty. From Swaziland, to the Amazon Basin, to India poverty has a somewhat familiar face. There is a difference between the rural and urban face of poverty but generally speaking when you see rural poverty in one country it looks a lot like rural poverty in another. The same can be said of urban poverty. Or so I thought. A few days ago I was introduced to rural poverty like I have never seen it before. The Western Province of Zambia is about the size of England yet has only a million people. Mongu is the largest town in the province with about 30,000 people. But don’t let the word “town” fool you. From what I could tell most of those 30,000 people live in grass huts no different from the rest of the province. Folks outside the town live in small grass hut villages ranging from a few dozen to a few hundred people.
It is estimated that in Western Zambia there is close to a 50% HIV/AIDS infection rate. Before the introduction of ARV’s or antiretroviral drugs, the infection rate was about 30%. So why the rise in infection rates? The ARV’s are helping people live longer. The tragedy in that is that lots of those folks are not changing their sexual habits and simply passing on the disease to more people. Included in that culture is what young girls go through after they experience their first menstruation. I small, closet sized straw enclosure is made outside the house. It has no roof and no door. It is a glorified walled fence with no door. it is built-in such a way that you can’t see directly in. The girls are placed their as the place where they now live and are forced to keep silent in order to learn submission. But every sex offending guy in the area knows this. So it is common for these young girls to be repeatedly raped and they must keep quiet the whole time. Not only do they suffer the trauma of that violation butit comes with the astronomically high risk of HIV infection.
As if it could not get more shocking, three out of five children in Western Zambia die before the age of five. So 60% of all children never see their fifth birthday. What do they die from? Well AIDs is a big factor but so are very preventable and basic things. Scores of children die from drinking water that is not clean. In little ones, the diarrhea that results is quickly followed by death. Also high on the list is death from malnutrition. Even though Zambia is a net exporter of agriculture, the western province has been shut out and ignored by the central government. There are almost no roads leading into the area. Roads the do exist are either crater filled dirt roads or subject to flooding several months out of the year. So because of tribal disagreements, apathy, and the lust for power, children die.
As painful as that reality may be, the most shocking reason for this mortality rate was that some children are killed by their own parents in obedience to the dictates of the local witch doctor or shaman. Friends who I stayed with told me of the horror of learning that a family just a hundred meters down the road killed their baby. The local witch doctor told them the baby was cursed and the needed to kill it. So they buried the child alive. By the time my friends heard this and rushed to save the baby, it was too late. Lest you think that is one, extreme, unique situation we heard similar stories on several occasions.
But there is hope. My friends, Paul and Marinette Van Coller are living in Mongu and leading an effort called The Zambia Project. Along with an amazing team of people, including their 5 and 3-year-old sons, the Van Collers are providing education, health care, job training, a safe house village for abused children and are taking the Gospel to all parts of the province. Their vision is to plant a church within walking distance of all 1 million people in the province. Walking distance for them is not what it is in the west. Six or seven kilometers or about an hours walk is their target. That means they are working towards planting 6,000 churches.
The reason for planting the churches is simple enough. The only way to break the hold of animism and witch doctors, and sexual abuse of kids, and provide clean water and dignity is if there is a healthy church that is serving people in Jesus name. These folks need the freedom and power that can only come from the Gospel.
The process is actually rather simple. A group of people, including Zambians who are being raised up for leadership will head off into the bush in four by fours. They will go to a village and live out of their vehicles for a week or two at a time, building relationships and talking about Jesus. Eventually some people come to faith and become the beginning of a church. The team then stays in contact and trains local leaders to begin the process of improving their lives in the village. Eventually those new believers duplicate the process in villages nearby. If that all sounds very “first century Book of Acts” to you, you’re right. It is exactly that.
What inspires me is that people like Paul and Marinette and James and Jess, Lehana, Moses, Stephen, Maurice, Scott and Naomi, and Ruani, have dedicated themselves to serve others as Jesus would. Some of them are from the province and they are struggling desperately to bring Jesus to their homeland. Others are from outside Zambia but they know that God would not let them ignore the needs of others. In the developed world we find it easy to insulate ourselves from the harsh realities faced by most people on the planet. Just by reading this blog you have allowed yourself to move out of your isolation and see the stark reality of life that is normal for others. The question is, will you slide back into your comfortable world in the next five minutes or will you allow what you have learned to change you into a different person? Will you live more simply so you can give to others? Will you give up your vacation in order to go and spend two weeks feeding babies or even planting churches in Zambia? Will you reach out to the homeless person you pass each day on the corner? Will you spend more time with Jesus so you can learn to love as He loves and tell others about Him?