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The Gates of Remembrance – die Weihnachtsgeschichte aus Simbabwe auf englisch :: Blog von Paul-Josef Raue

The Gates of Remembrance – die Weihnachtsgeschichte aus Simbabwe auf englisch

Geschrieben am 5. Februar 2016 von Paul-Josef Raue in Reisen.

Christmas report: In Zimbabwe one in two inhabitants is younger than 18 years old. In their villages and families, violence is prevailing – especially against girls and women.

By Paul-Josef Raue (text and photos)

At Christmas, they saw Nathanda for the first time, a girl who was only 15 years old and full of fear. During a period of three years, they had only heard her voice, sometimes 20 times a day. She had dialled 116, the telephone number had become part of her life.

When dialling the cost-free telephone number 116, the callers will be connected to a villa in Harare, where a British officer might have lived one day. At that time, Harare was still called Salisbury, and Zimbabwe was part of the British colony of Rhodesia in the south of Africa. Today Harare is the capital of Zimbabwe, a rich country where many people are poor.

“116 – cry for help” is written on the leaflet of the children’s hotline called “Childline”. Nathanda was screaming for years, but not very loudly. It was rather a choked scream of someone who cannot relieve her pain from the prison of remembrance, and even less from the prison of the present.

She was trying to do so for a period of three years. The staff members who were listening to her via their headphones encouraged her to talk: what do you want, Nathanda? What is worrying you? How can we help you? May we visit you? No! Nathanda was just crying, she sometimes called 20 times a day.

One day the gates of remembrance suddenly opened. Nathanda called the helpline and talked about her uncle who had raped her again and again for years, who had even raped her when she was only 10 years old. It is the story of tens of thousands of children in Zimbabwe, the country of lost children.

The children’s hotline receives 40,000 telephone calls per month

At Christmas, she came at last. She wore her beautiful red dress. At Christmas, Nathanda dared to come to the villa in the green quarter of Harare. She rang at the gate and ran away immediately. She was watching the house from a distance, rang again at the gate and ran away. The staff members went to the street, but they only saw the red dress shining from the hiding place.

After ringing at the gate for the fourth time, she entered the house and told the staff member the whole story of her suffering. She said that she did not know what to do since her uncle also forced her into prostitution. The staff members of Childline do not only listen to children on the phone, they also assist them. They helped Nathanda on her way back to life. Today she is living in Mutara near the Mozambican border, she is married and a mother of twins. She has driven away the demons of the past. Her uncle was sent to prison for 18 years.

“We know what is really going on in the country”, says Maureen Kambarami, a staff member of Childline. “We also talk about it in public. The government uses our statistics.” She is pointing to columns, pie charts and lines on documents hanging on the wall: statistics of shame.

Almost 40,000 telephone calls were received only in December: two out of three callers talk about violence, most frequently sexual violence, especially against girls, but also about corporal punishment and torture, even attempted murder as on June 3rd.

At 11.30 a.m. the helpline is receiving a call from a distant settlement near Triangel, a village in the south of the country where it is hot and dry. A neighbour sees that a man is beating his nephew, Peter, by using an axe. He seems to be out of his senses. 14-year-old Peter is bleeding briskly. He is screaming. A leg has been chopped off and is lying on the ground.

The Childline staff member immediately calls the ambulance, which however proceeds only slowly due to the poor road conditions. When arriving, the scene is too much for everyone. “What shall I do?” someone shouts and uses his iPad to take a photo of the head covered in blood and of the leg and sends it to the hospital in Harare. He gets advice via telephone. Later the surgeon at the hospital says: “The iPad saved the boy’s life. We were able to tell the ambulance how to treat the boy.”

At night, Peter is being transported to the hospital in Harare by plane. His wounds are healing slowly, and Peter says that he would like to be a teacher.

The topic of violence against children is a taboo

What has happened?

His parents, who are poor people, sent Peter to his uncle to work there as a shepherd. He is playing outside when he hears his uncle shouting at his female cousin who should prepare a tea for him. The cousin is running out of the house, the uncle is following her. He sees Peter and takes the axe.

Excesses of violence against children and women are a taboo in Zimbabwe: people look away; they do not talk about the things happening in the hut next door. They observe a code of silence to prevent threatening cohesion within the family and the village. However, Peter’s uncle was detected by the neighbours and committed to the police. The neighbours told the police that the uncle had abused to other children before.

“We are talking about justice”, says Cletus Mhenhe, the judge in Mutara. He knows about hidden violence in his district and wants to change the society in which the power of clans is deeply rooted, with nepotism and a wrong conception of solidarity: there should be civil courage instead of fear – perpetrators should be brought to court, they should be punished and they should not continue to abuse and rape children.

The law is in favour of the children, perpetrators face severe penalty. “But many cases are not brought to court and do not come to my attention”, says the judge. From the court building located on a hill, people can enjoy a panoramic view of an idyllic and fertile landscape with mountains, lakes and forests. The judge had a dream: a new court in the province to make sure that perpetrators, victims and witnesses no longer need to take the only bus to reach the court in the district capital – in many cases they were sitting in the same bus together.

“Those who long for justice, should realize it quickly”, says the judge. His dream is becoming true and he is content – not because he has a shower facility and a modern toilet, but because there is a small room with toys next to his desk. It is separated from his office by a pane of glass. Behind it, children are playing. These children were humiliated, abused, tortured and raped, in most cases by relatives and friends. Here they tell the judge during the legal proceedings what they experienced, without seeing or hearing their rapist or feeling that he is in the proximity.

“The court near the crime scene is reasonable”, says the judge. “The trial can take place quickly after the crime as children forget very soon. The neighbours and the villagers do not need to cover long distances to observe the trial in court. This strengthens them and encourages them to break the silence. It is about justice.” He had never dealt with as many cases as this year: three dozen until October.

Also young people are brought to court. The high level of violence induces young men – many of them are not even of legal age – to have their will by all means. “But after all, I cannot send them to prison”, says the judge. “In prison they will only learn how to become a bad person.”

Zimbabwe is almost as big as Germany, but it has only 13 million inhabitants. Like in most African countries, the population is very young: one citizen in two is under the age of 18, only 4 % are older than 65. What a contrast to Germany and most western countries!

So many children, so many future perspectives – but also such a need. When travelling in the country, you will see only few things that give hope for a better future:

  • Only one child in five completes school. There are too many pupils per class, the teachers are poorly trained and sometimes tend to use violence. In addition, the children suffer from violence within their families.
  • Although child marriage is forbidden by law and the African Union conducts a campaign against child marriage, early marriage of young girls, some of whom are only 12 years old, is still widespread because poor families rely on the bride price.
  • Most children are born at home, far away from any medical assistance. 90 out of 1,000 children die before the age of five. In comparison: in Germany the mortality rate is 4 per 1,000.

The baby-friendly hospital in Mutara

A cry – a cry of life! A child has been born while I am walking through the hospital in Mutara. The hospital is located at the outskirts of the city. It can only be reached via a bumpy road, but the clinic boasts to be a child-friendly hospital. That is saying something in Zimbabwe.

It becomes obvious when Shila, the chief of the nurses, talks about the kangaroo method or when the staff members perform a wild welcome dance – this shows the enthusiasm of the nurses and the doctors.

The hospital is a model clinic for young mothers because most children in the district, almost 90 %, are born with medical assistance. The project is funded by the World Bank.

In addition to increasing the chances of survival of the new-born babies, the mothers return to their villages as ambassadors. In the clinic numerous posters are hanging on the wall to inform about breastfeeding, healthy nutrition, but also about the rights of the patients.

Shila, the chief nurse, is particularly proud of the kangaroo method: premature babies often died because there were no expensive incubators. Therefore, the nurses applied a method used by kangaroos to protect their helpless offspring: they put the babies on the warm skin of the mother and thus ensure their survival. Everywhere in the clinic, posters inform about the kangaroo method. It is highly esteemed now, not only for premature babies.

Apart from the kangaroo method, many other activities aim to improve the situation. But there are still many girls who are too young to have a baby: the youngest mother was only 13 years old when she gave birth. And 12 % of the mothers still transmit HIV to their children. This is a problem even the most baby-friendly clinic cannot solve.

But isn’t the baby-friendly clinic only a drop in the ocean? Or the children’s drop-in centre in Mutara, which is a safe place for numerous street children? Or the judge and the playing room next to the court room? Or the hotline “Childline” in which 250 volunteers commit themselves?

Without donations from rich countries, without the World Bank and other organisations, there would be no baby-friendly hospital, no drop-in centre for children, no new court building and no children’s hotline. And no hope.

Those who think that this is not enough and who are waiting for a big solution, or maybe even for a global political solution, should consider the Talmud, an ancient Jewish script of wisdom, dating back to the time of Babylonian exile: “He who saves a single life, saves the entire world.”

The author travelled to Africa together with the Board of the child-focused organisation Plan. Organisations such as “Childline”, the construction of a new court building or the installation of an air-conditioning unit in the operating room of the hospital are being funded through donations from Germany.



  1. 250 volunteers from the whole country commit themselves for the children’s hotline “Childline” in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. Only in December almost 40,000 telephone calls were received. Two out of three children calling the helpline talk about violence, in most cases sexual violence against girls.
  2. Shila, the chief nurse in the baby-friendly hospital in Mutara. Nearly 90 % of the children in the district are born with medical assistance.
  3. Two young mothers with their babies in Mutara. The hospital is a model clinic – the project is financed by the World Bank and through donations of the child-focused organisation Plan in Germany.
  4. The nurses and doctors are very enthusiastic about the project, as expressed by their welcome dance.

Übersetzung organisiert durch Kathrin Hartkopf (Leitung Plan Stiftungszentrum Hamburg / Head of Foundation Management)

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