CORINNA, Maine — Any way you look at it, Zimbabwe and central Maine could hardly be farther apart.
The Rev. Grace Mazhandu of the Corinna United Methodist Church, born and raised in the southern African country, ought to know. Then again, so much has changed since Mazhandu left Zimbabwe in 1997 that in some ways she hardly recognizes it.
That was her reaction to a lecture Saturday evening by the Rev. Ellen Bridge, of the People’s United Methodist Church in Newport, who described a recent mission trip to Mazhandu’s homeland.
“I’m heartbroken,” Mazhandu said to the small gathering in Corinna after Bridge’s talk. “Life in Zimbabwe didn’t used to be that way. I cry out to God for my people because they need help.”
Zimbabwe, which just a few decades ago was a thriving agricultural hub for millions of Africans, now has an unemployment rate of some 80 percent despite an adult literacy rate of more than 90 percent. For that, Mazhandu and much of the world blame Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who is widely considered one of the world’s most ruthless dictators.
But the economy and Mugabe are only part of the problem in a country that bears the ominous distinction of having the highest HIV and AIDS rates in the world. As many as 20 percent of adults are infected in some regions, according to the World Health Organization, a tragic circumstance that among other things has created millions of orphans. Life expectancy at birth hovers around 34 years.
“All the progress has gone down to zero,” said Mazhandu, a second-generation Methodist minister who came to America in 1997 and has ministered in Corinna since August 2008. “I get so nervous when I see people here losing their jobs. That’s how it started in Zimbabwe.”
The Rev. Bridge visited Zimbabwe in October and November as part of a contingent in support of Project Tariro, or Project Hope, a program that provides medical care and other support for HIV and AIDS patients. Not the least of its missions is helping infected people — most of whom are shunned by their communities — live with the disease’s stigma.
Bridge, who has a background in nursing and public health, is also a board member for Friends of Project Tariro, a U.S.-based organization run by the Methodist Church in partnership with Africa University. Her purpose was to evaluate the project’s operations, but she was quickly swept away with emotional turmoil borne from witnessing the tragic situation. Despite that, she saw triumphs of the human spirit abound.
“What I didn’t expect to see was the resiliency of the people,” said Bridge. “I was just blown away by that. I went there with what I thought I knew and came back with something different.”
Hardest to bear were the orphan children, most of whom introduced themselves the same way.
“They would tell us their name, how their mother died, how their father died and how they’re surviving,” said Bridge. “We heard this from child after child after child. I often found myself turning around so people wouldn’t see me cry.”
Even in their desperation for food, clean water, clothing and medical care, few Zimbabweans asked Bridge for those things.
“They said, ‘Go back to the United States and tell our stories so people don’t forget we exist,’” said Bridge. “That’s what they wanted.”
Linda Smith, of Corinna, who attended the lecture with her husband, Carl, said it triggered thoughts about the comparative luxury enjoyed by most Americans.
“We have just a bounty of everything,” she said. “It’s pretty scary that those people have to live that way.”
To learn more about Project Tariro, visit www.projecttariro.com or call 617-758-4635.