Many of my acquaintances think my job is very glamorous.
I seem to meet lots of interesting people, attend a range of exciting events, travel widely and laugh a lot. All of this is fabulous and generally easy for me.
The hard part of my job is the burden of caring.
Towards the end of last year NewsDay ran a story about a baby called Vimbainashe, who had a massive growth on her head and whose parents were looking for help from the public to enable them to pay for surgery to remove the growth.
Zimbabweans being the empathetic citizens we are, the money was raised from well-wishers within a week and the baby was admitted into hospital.
The story that followed is a complex and unpleasant one, involving domestic violence, a mother’s mental breakdown, a father’s alcohol abuse and an extended family so fed up that the bewildered parent and helpless baby found themselves homeless.
Months after the surgery was successfully completed, I would sit in the offices of the charity that was handling this case, listen to the updates and feel utterly bereft.
The story ends with a letter they sent two months ago, telling me that baby Vimbainashe was dead.
Two weeks ago, I heard about a woman who is feeding orphans out of her kitchen in suburban Harare.
When my colleague and I went to meet the woman she was very nervous and kept reiterating: “I don’t want to get into trouble. I can’t afford for any of us to get into trouble.”
She had been told that it was against the law to feed people and she was worried that if she was arrested, her beneficiaries would starve.
We put our notebooks away and just asked her to talk about how she got started and why she has now ended up feeding over 100 needy people a week.
Somewhere in that story was an anecdote about a brother and sister who were living with an “older” married sister (about 16 years old) whose husband was sexually abusing both of them.
The elder sister knew about the abuse, but felt powerless to act as they had nowhere else to go. The horror in the details left me overwhelmed.
As I write this article I am looking at a series of pictures from a front-page story we published last week about a 28-year- old woman whose husband attacked her with a machete in the name of “discipline”.
I can’t stop looking at these pictures and I am wondering what the lesson is here.
This woman supposedly went to a funeral, bumped into her husband on the way back and had a pleasant chat. When she got home he had turned into a machete-wielding lunatic.
What gives me comfort in this story is that she lost consciousness after the second blow and so did not feel the impact of the rest of the attack which left her with grisly wounds, including the one that sliced off her thumb. How she evaded death is a mystery.
In my inbox this morning there was a press release about how the US government has changed its policy on soldiers who commit suicide.
They have now decided to send condolence letters to the families of these soldiers because they recognise that they are not weak, but just “didn’t get the help they needed”. In the face of the desperately urgent needs that are surging around me, the issue of a condolence letter from one’s government almost seems like the ultimate luxury.
Over the weekend I took my children to Jabulani Children’s Home. We spent the afternoon getting to know the children there, comparing pretty dresses and patterned stocking (Jabulani kids have the best fashion sense of any children I know — seriously!) and generally being little girls.
There was a new baby there called Calvin who was 14 months old, but so malnourished he is the size of a four-month- old and had only just learnt to sit. Before the week was over, I got an sms saying “Little boy Calvin died”.
Who will bury baby Vimbainashe? Where shall we send condolences for the demise of little boy Calvin’s life?
These are just a handful of stories that illustrate the magnitude of our social problems. The vast differences between what we and others in the world can reasonably expect from our lives — and our deaths —and the enormous burdens borne by those who lead us.
So for all the glamour of the job I love, there is the burden of caring about these stories. Of wanting to make a difference and not always knowing how; of not having enough resources, material and emotional, to service all the needs that I encounter.
They say in Africa, life is cheap and I have seen this to be true as I observe how the different sectors of our society live, and more painfully — how they die.