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A Tilted World

I am overwhelmed with gratitude from the generosity of friends and family for the donations to the orphans in Zambia so thank you so much for your contributions.

I just returned from the final long run of my marathon training for the kids and with just two weeks now to go till race day, I’m overcome with emotion. It’s on my long runs that I’m taken back there to Mazabuka, Zambia. I want to share some memories, some excerpts from my journal, that will perhaps inspire others to consider a donation to this cause.

November 1, 2010

Today I arrived in Mazabuka, Zambia to the orphanage where we’ll spend the next month. Today, I cried my eyes out.

I must be honest here. These weren’t tears of sadness for the desperation of the faces before us, faces that represented a generation of shattered lives in a tilting world. These were shameful tears, steeped in a selfishness that comes from a sheltered world of egoism, our world of riches, pleasures and perpetual comfort. I didn’t know if I could do it.

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Seemingly a world away, we stepped off the bright blue bus this morning to the sound of Coldplay crackling out of the bus speakers to face the sweltering heat of the African sun. We’d arrived to our destination: Mazabuka, Zambia. That small little dot on the map of our guidebook and a place few Zambians could tell us really anything about, Mazabuka’s claim to fame was that it was the home of Mazaubka Sugar. We didn’t know much more about the sweetest town in Zambia accept that it was awash in fields upon fields of sugar cane plantations. From the looks of the dusty roads and sparse fields around us, it was hard to believe anything could grow here much less an abundance of sugar, but that was beside the point. We’d arrived for the children, twelve abandoned orphans living on the outskirts of town in the rural village of Riverview in a home called Oz Kids.

Few looks compared to what can only be called the Indian stare – the way Indians look at you so deeply and intently you feel like they are looking directly at your soul – but here in Mazabuka we stood out more than ever. We’d been the only ones to exit our bus at the Mazabuka stop and from the looks thrown our way, it looked like very few ever did, especially two Western backpackers. With our packs fully loaded we trudged on with our safari sun-burnt faces past the maze of dilapidated shacks made of cement blocks topped with corrugated tin roofs.

Our befuddled faces soon attracted the attention of a team of youngsters huddled on a stone wall, and anxious to make a buck, they ushered us into their rickety vehicle. As our taxi pulled up, we bumped along the dirt road to the shrieking sound of gleeful children running out of mud huts and roofless homes. From the rearview mirror, I could see tens of children excitedly flapping their hands in the air amidst animated shouts of “Mabua! Mabua!” (white man) on bewildered faces.

Oz Kids International A Tilted World

I’d seen the home in a picture so I recognized it right away. We’d arrived to Oz Kids Orphanage, a home run by a couple from Townsville, Australia who had been so disconcerted or inspired (or perhaps both) on a recent visit to Central Africa that they decided to do something about it. They bought a plot of land, a cement block of a house and filled it to the brim with kids.

As we pulled in, I could see faces coyly peeking out behind barred windows and the unforgettable smile of an adolescent boy, I’d soon grow to know and love so well. On the heels of his orphaned brother, a bashful young boy trailed closely behind and together they greeted us with hesitation, with hope and grace. With an innocent graciousness, they proudly carried our bags to our room and here I got the first glimpse of the place I would soon call home.

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We’d be living in the home with the children for our month’s stay. Of course I expected the most basic of living situations, but not even our year of travel could have prepared me for life here. Following the pitter patter of calloused feet on a cement floor, we made our way to our room. Looking back and knowing them now so well, the boys were so proud to show it to us. It was, after all, our own room, something they’d never know. The kids, I’d learn, had grown up with entire families of eight to 10 sharing one bed in single-room shacks. This was a Zambian luxury, but what I saw at the time was an oversized closet, a tattered mattress on some wooden beams beneath a hole-ridden mosquito net.

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The bathroom would be shared with the twelve children. We had a toilet (which we later learned most of the children had never seen before arriving here and were equally awestruck and confounded with the innovative apparatus) and a faucet under which to wash our sweaty bodies. Above the faucet hung an abundance of dirty diapers dripping on a roped line. And creepy crawlers, those I never before knew existed, graced the white walls and would play witness to our daily bucket-like showers.

“We want to learn from you,” said Autie Monde, the Whitney Houston look alike and so-called mother of the house. We’d soon learn that this would be a theme of our stay. Everyone was looking to learn from the mabuas who’d just rolled into town.

But, what did I have to share?

Within moments of arrival, soiled babes were passed off to us, looking up at us with blank faces. Dear, precious Joseph was placed in our hands and basically put under our constant care from that minute on. Ryan welcomed it, them, this…without reservation, without hesitation.

Retreating to the privacy of our own little room, I began to unpack a few things, placing my clothing items in neat stacks on the dusty shelf and floor as tears streamed down my face. We’d come all this way. I wanted this, I reminded myself. I didn’t expect to react this way. Why was it so hard?

And then, they broke me…

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November 21, 2010

I hardly recognize that person who walked through those doors three weeks ago. Living, eating and spending every waking moment with the kids we have become completely immersed in their lives. I’ve had my hair twisted, yanked and tugged into tight cornrows umpteen times and the girls try fruitlessly through tearful laughter to get my dancing hips to move the way theirs do. They spend hours admiring the white palms of our hands and rubbing fingers through Ryan’s beard has become a favorite pastime.

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It took some time to develop our place in the home. We wanted to give some purpose to our visit and leave the kids with something greater than they had before we arrived. We knew this wouldn’t come in the form of our pocketbook, but we were hopeful there was a piece of us we could leave behind.

When they weren’t scrubbing the toilet or beating their laundry clean, the kids spent their time under the hot sun staring silently, aimlessly into the distance. It’s hard to imagine what it is like to have absolutely nothing and what nothing really means. We lived it. Minutes passed like hours, hours like days. No toys, no books. Shoes that don’t fit. A little shoe box with a few tattered shirts and pants was all they had to call their own. And the pride they took in caring for those little boxes, you’d think they were filled with gold.

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We had to be creative to bring some structure and happiness into the home. This came in the form of daily activity sessions with the kids. We held English and baking lessons and health and geography classes. We held epic hangman tournaments and fierce sessions of musical chairs and Red Rover (now known in Zambia as the mistakenly dubbed “Land Rover” game). With the help of our trusty iPod we also brought music into the home. Hosting dance parties rivaling Disco Fever became a daily ritual, attracting kids from a two mile radius. Out on the front stoop in the heart of Central Africa, we raised a whole generation of Zambian kids to the beats of Laga Gaga and Boom Boom Pow.

We grew closer to the kids faster than we could have ever imagined. It didn’t take long before they opened their hearts to us, and heart-wrenching stories of disease, abuse and death soon followed.

“My father died of AIDS and my mum no longer wanted me.”
“My mother is dying of AIDS and we didn’t have any food to eat.”
“My father drowned and my mom stopped looking after me.”

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Nothing prepares you for how to react to the children retelling their life stories. Some fight through tears others talk about their parents’ deaths as if recounting their day at school. You want to hold them, hug them, take it all away. You want them to forget it. You want to help them start a new. We felt helpless.

They craved our affection and seemed physically hungry for our love. We took turns bringing a child at a time into town. Each child had their day. We thought this would be a great way for the kids to get a little individual attention and I don’t think they could have enjoyed it more. On their day, the girls each spent hours combing their hair and dressing in their Sunday best. The boys ironed t-shirts and wore a smile from ear to ear as they walked hand in hand with us to town.

We found a little spot that served up chocolate milkshakes and we thought this would be the perfect treat for each child. We certainly weren’t trying to buy our way into their hearts, but we thought it would be a nice gesture for the kids. And well, maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. We were acting out of love and for some of the kids this may have proved to be too much. Some had never ventured out of the village before and being in town now, in a little cafe, with well-to-do Mazabukans, a few seemed quite out of place. They held up the place-mat in wonderment and pointed inquisitively at the vase in the middle of the table filled with flowers. I could see their hearts tighten as they saw friends and schoolmates traipsing through town with their mothers and fathers. Though we tried to make them forget the pain, if only for a day, we knew the word orphan, resounding like a punch in the stomach or a dart in the heart, echoed still in their heads.


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On October 9, we’re hitting the pavement, running 26.2 for these kids. Hope you’ll consider making a donation to make their world a little bit brighter.

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For more details on our efforts, click here.

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Comments (1)

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  1. What a beautiful post! I recently returned from a volunteer stint in Ghana and your experience reminds me so much of mine. I’ve been home for 5 months now and I still miss the children so much!
    Jessica Festa´s last [type] ..Travel Movie Monday: Surfing and Meeting Locals in Sri Lanka