Donations Change Lives-Thank you Melissa and CarolineApril 11, 2012
If you’ve been to Baobab in the last three years then you already know and love George Zakaria. He manages the health of our HIV+ kids, counsels outreach clients, farms and does about a dozen other odd jobs. He is Terri’s right hand and always knows where her phone, and often her mind, are when she doesn’t. He’s empathic and wise and the kids adore him. George has lived with HIV for 13 years and has thrived despite so many obstacles. He recently celebrated one year sober, which was a joyful day for all of us. Recently a friend of his, Melissa Byers of Canada, assisted by a different friend, Caroline Larsen of Denmark, did something amazing. They donated $2000 (1500/500) to build George’s parents and his orphaned nephews a house. For several years George’s parents have been squatting on the property of a pretty mean woman. One night about two years ago George told me his life story until the wee hours of the morning, clearing up lots of lies and secrets he had told to protect himself. I have held it close to my heart since then, sharing bits and pieces with people, but it’s a story that deserves a fair telling. For fans of Joseph Campbell, it’s a true hero’s journey. But this essay focuses less on George and more on his family and how it came to pass that they were so desperately in need of help. Thank you Melissa. Thank you Caroline. You’ve helped a family in an extraordinary way, by giving them what most of us take for granted, a roof over their heads.
1980 Portrait of a happy family in the Nyaturu tribe. George’s father Zakaria was a relatively wealthy man. He had four wives and 8 kids. Each wife lived in her own dirt house on his compound and they helped each other. Cows are central to Nyaturu existence and he had many, which meant prestige. In 1983 just after George’s sister Neema was born his mother Magdalena, lay dying of an unknown stomach problem. George’s father assessed his wealth and decided that he should take her to a doctor rather than a traditional healer. It turned out that she required a colostomy. The operation cost a lot of money, so cows were sold. They had no money for colostomy bags and to this day she uses rags to protect her stoma. In 1984 she became pregnant with her seventh child. She was told that she couldn’t deliver normally so she was flown to a hospital a few hundred miles away and George was born by C section, named after the white doctor who performed this miracle, the same one who had led the stomach surgery. C sections were a rarity in Tanzania then so this had to have cost a LOT of cows. George was her first son, her last born.
1994 Magdalena was shunned by her co- wives because of her health condition and the toll it had taken on their social standing. Zakaria’s wealth was disappearing. He was drinking and resentful. George sided with his mother, but her desperate situation upset him so he ran away a lot and lived on the street. George’s sister Miriam was 19 years old with two children and no arms because they’d been burned off when she’d fallen into a fire during an epileptic seizure. She had stayed in the hospital for months healing. Five years prior she had graduated at the top of her 7th grade class and earned a full scholarship to prestigious high school, but couldn’t take the position she’d been offered because she had been impregnated by her seventh grade teacher. Then, Magdalena lost her third child. She was overcome by grief. A month later she decided that she had to escape the curse that was chasing her and one night, when George came back after a few weeks on the street, she took her armless daughter, the two kids, and George and just began walking. She had no idea where she was going. She carried her 4 year old grandson on her back and George and Miriam took turns holding the baby. They walked until they dropped about 150 km later in a town called Igunga. They lived in a field for weeks until they got shelter from a pastor.
1996 Miriam was the breadwinner and life was pretty good. She was the town’s most famous beggar and definitely the smartest. She wouldn’t let anyone mistreat her. She challenged anyone who mocked her and proved her intelligence by writing with a pen held in her mouth. Bus drivers gave her free rides to bigger towns so that she could make more money. She saved 50,000 shillings (less than $50 in today’s money, a fortune then) which bought a small plot and a mud house. They bought a cow and a plow. Magdalena farmed and sold donuts. Neighbors who had no money paid her in rice. She did very well for herself but her son was lost to her. George was on the street, smoking pot and drinking, coming home only occasionally. He spent a lot of time at a shelter several hours away where one of the teachers saw his potential and took him under her wing. One day the teacher brought him home to see his family. Miriam was overjoyed. Her brother was back, and he lovingly fed her again and helped wash her face and her feet. She begged him to stay but Magdalena knew that this was George’s only chance at and education and she urged him to go back with the teacher.
1999 George completed the fourth grade. He was 14 years old. He missed his family terribly as he had no word from them for over two years. He went home to find that Miriam had died during another seizure. Magdalena was left with the two young boys and George’s sister Neema had come to help. George decided to quit school and stayed home for about a year to help farm. Before George had arrived home, Magdalena found a woman curled up in the street, emaciated. She had been kicked out by her parents and left to die on the street. Magdalena carried her home on her back and fed her. She nursed her back to health but never told her family that the woman was HIV+ for fear of stigma. By the time George came back from the shelter, the woman looked reasonably healthy and George slept with her. A few months later the woman died and people began talking. George got sick and didn’t respond to any medicine so a nurse urged his mother to get him tested. George didn’t really understand what HIV was or the implications, but his mother did and she was wrecked. She had just lost her fourth child and believed that she was responsible for the imminent death of the fifth. In those days there were no drugs and HIV was a death sentence. She was scared each time he got sick. He hated the pressure and he was mad at her for not being open about the woman’s status, so he left.
2000 George hit the streets again. People liked him so he got lucky breaks and stayed with people for months at a time, but he was restless and moved from town to town chasing odd jobs. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to George, his father Zakaria went to Igunga to visit his long lost wife. He still had 20 cows and some land, but he sold it all to go to live with Magdalena. He converted to Christianity and stopped drinking. They lived there for two years together with the boys and then the rains had stopped. There was no food. There were no jobs so they had to sell their farm and in 2003 moved to Arusha. Zakaria knew people from his days selling cows. He got a job as a security guard. It enabled them to rent a room for a few dollars a month and get by for a year or two.
2005 After many twists and turns that belong in a different essay, George wound up in Bagamoyo at a different street boy shelter and was trying to finish primary school at age 20. He fell in love with a girl, but had a deadly secret and knew that he couldn’t hurt her. Just before he was set to graduate the shelter was shut down and the boys scattered in different directions. A representative from the shelter contacted me, Terri, and urged me to find a young boy named George, HIV+ in need of medication. I dispatched the Baobab boys to go look for their friend, but he was nowhere to be found.
2008 Pascal shows up at the Baobab Home with George…….several years after he was sent to find him! At this time Steve and Mdoe, young HIV+ brothers were living at Baobab. George was a brilliant big brother. He was helpful with Steve and Mdoe but it was hard on him emotionally because he hadn’t grappled with his own demons yet. I got mad at him for a lie that Steven told and George got fed up. He stole money and ran away, first to Singida where he learned his father and mother are now reunited. His mother had assumed that he had died. George found his parents in dire straits, squatting on the property of a woman who mistreated them. George’s mother was going to the dump every day to see what she could salvage. Zakaria was too old to keep a job as a security guard. He was raised to herd cows and city life was not easy for him. Magdalena and Zakaria are talented singers though so they sing in their church and people give them money. George’s learned that his nephews were being sponsored by a pastor in the area an doing well. I sent someone to find George and bring him back. He had wronged us, but I had not lost faith in him by any means. He paid his debt to Baobab and continued to work. He drank to drown out thoughts of his family’s condition but he did his job well.
Late 2010 George quit smoking pot and was happy and a little more focused. He still had drinking binges that were self destructive. I helped buy his family a plot of land in March 2011 but just after, George smoked again and hit bottom because he was so disappointed in himself. Thanks to some amazing timing I got him into a 12 step sober house in Zanzibar where he stayed 3 months and completely overhauled his life. His sobriety now means everything to him and he has helped several others overcome their addictions. He is a brilliant counselor.
March 2012 Melissa Byers sent $1500 to build Magdalena and Zakaria their very own house. Caroline Larsen covered the rest. George was scared at first, but he headed to Arusha and handled the building management beautifully and frugally. The design is for three rooms. We only had the money to build two and put a roof on one room, but it’s enough for now. He got them a toilet dug and they are on their own. No more cruel treatment from the landowner where they squatted. When I spoke to George’s mother she was so shrill with excitement I couldn’t even understand her. She said Haleluya a lot. One day the third room will be small shop so that they can have an income and not live off handouts at their church. George’s nephews Amani and Ibra, the children of his deceased sister Miriam, are thriving. They are in high school with terrific grades and they play music. Ibra is an artist.
Thanks for reading this far. There are so many people out there with circumstances like this and it’s been an honor to get this story told, and to be a part of such a life changing project. Melissa and Carolina, thank you for what you did. You’ve changed lives and alleviated the suffering of an entire family.