Wendy Phillips co-ordinates the Matilda Project, a partner project of ACET Ireland since 2001 which funds a range of responses to HIV in Zimbabwe. She is married to Richard Phillips who was the CEO of ACET Ireland from 2007 to 2011.
The Matilda Project story is about heroes. The name was to honour one who had already passed away, and that’s how it has gone on. One hero is Modester, who is around 70 years old. She was one of the first five volunteers trained in home based care in 2001 in ACET’s Community Care Programme in Matabeleland South in Zimbabwe.
In the 11 years since, she has cared for hundreds in her small village, all of whom died up to the gradual roll-out of ART (Anti-retroviral Therapy). As late as 2010, 14 patients died in her village from AIDS. Some still do. Modester and her husband Willard live in a homestead of eight acres, with San rock art on the overhang above their well. In the mid-90s they moved to the area from further south where it is even drier and life is a lot harder for the subsistence farmer. At first she knew no one and wondered to God, “Why am I here? What do you want me to do?” Not anymore!
For several years now, Modester has been co-ordinator of the Home Based Care (HBC) volunteers in her village. She keeps the register of patients and orphans, matches volunteers with patients, based primarily on proximity of volunteer to patient. As one of the 11 co-ordinators, Matilda Project recently presented her with a replacement bike. Walking 10km each day to visit a patient is too demanding in the heat.
What is it like to live in a small village of less than 1000 people which has been in the thick of a pandemic for over 15 years? If you were 50-55 years old when deaths from AIDS started to peak, it would mean watching your own children and those of your friends and neighbours have their babies and then get sick, sicker. After three, four or five pregnancies they would be so sick that they could no longer feed their baby, stand, eat, breathe, live. Person after person in their 20s and 30s died slow wasting deaths, full of suffering, with their small children watching and helping to nurse them. It means being surrounded by little ones who are full of trauma, loss, sometimes sick themselves, who have no social security or health care, no financial provision made for them, often no birth certificate, and no parents to raise them, love them, hold them, teach them who they are and how to live. Some were babies when their mother died and have no memory of a parent. How does a person live with that? When each time you see another young parent starting to get thin and sick, you know they will die soon*? When you and your peers are reeling from the agony of losing your children, and having the responsibility of their children? And yet each morning you get up and go out to care for those who are terminally ill, to sit with them and their family.
For Modester and so many others, it’s a matter of utter trust in “Nkulu nkulu”, the ultimate Father. Every part of her day is turned over to him, from waking to lying down to sleep. How do I know? Because when I stayed overnight with her in her home, we lost count of how many times she stopped and gathered us to pray in thanks and to offer all she is to God, and to ask for his help to rely on him, letting him be all she needs.
Modester was one of the delegates at a workshop on palliative care in 2009 for 70 HBC volunteers. The first session teased out the international definition of palliative care in words and role play. In the break after it, Modester called me over and whispered triumphantly in my ear, “That’s what we do!”
In 2005, when we set up a trial school breakfast, it was in Modester’s village because it had the smallest school. Modester organised the volunteer cooks into four teams, who each did a week each per month. The trial was such a success that head teachers from the neighbouring villages immediately came to Willard (director of ACET’s Community Care Programme) to ask if their school could also have school breakfasts. By feeding all the children at primary level from the 11 villages, the orphans are not stigmatised at school. In a year of drought and failed harvest like 2012, breakfast will be the only guaranteed meal of the day for many of the children.
Modester knows each of the double orphans in her village by name. In fact, she knows every child in the primary school by name. Very little that happens to them goes unnoticed, although she can’t always sort out the problems. When food packs are being distributed, she and her volunteers notify each child to come and collect their supplies. She has spent herself on behalf of the hungry and many of the needs of the oppressed have been met through her years of effort. The only token the volunteers get in recognition of their months of work is a periodical food pack or uniform. May she continue as a “well watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail”! (Isaiah 58: 10 & 11)
*At least 20% of the children in the villages have lost one or both parents.
More details available at www.matildaproject.com