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Home Our Volunteers Stories First in Zimbabwe

First in Zimbabwe

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Zimbabwe has set and broken many records in the last 20 years. Inflation in the nation was once the highest in the world. It was at one time a nation of abundant food, but now it relies on imports of foreign food aid to feed its people. The country boasts the highest literacy rate in Africa, yet it also leads the continent in unemployment.

Taiwanese businessman Tino Chu made his fortunes during Zimbabwe’s better days. That was before the nation’s economy fell into ruins, and before he was robbed four times. Despite these set- backs, he chose to stay in the country and has walked down a path to a very different life.

Mention Africa to people, and thoughts of famine, poverty, intense sun, and parched land will often come to their minds. But mention the name Zimbabwe, officially the Republic of Zimbabwe, and their thoughts will more likely turn to inflation, paper money with the largest denominations in the world, and the re-election in July 2013 of President Robert Mugabe to his seventh term. Mugabe is the longest-serving democratically elected president in the world. He has held the office since 1987, after serving as prime minister for seven years. At age 89, he also happens to be the oldest.

The landlocked country occupies 390,000 square kilometers (150,600 square miles) of land and has a population of 13 million people. Compared with Taiwan, Zimbabwe has almost 11 times as much land, but only 57 percent as many people.

In just 20 years, the nation has managed to set or break many records. It has changed from a major food producing country in southern Africa to one that relies on foreign aid for food; it has run up an inflation rate of 230 million percent in less than a decade; and, despite boasting Africa’s high est rate of literacy (91.2 percent), it leads the conti nent with an 80 percent unemployment rate. Taiwanese businessman Tino Chu (朱金財) came to Zimbabwe in 1995. He has witnessed just about all these incredulous events and cri ses. The situation in the nation has been over whelmingly mercurial and sometimes down right hazardous. He could have packed up and left the country, but he chose to stay.

Fall from grace

Zimbabwe has fertile land and rich mineral deposits, which colonial powers of the past coveted. Under British rule, the colony of Rhodesia was dubbed a “jewel of the British crown” for its copious agricultural and mineral output. After being granted independence from the United Kingdom in 1980, the Republic of Zimbabwe generally retained the policies, and hence the political and economic stability, of the past. Life was good for ordinary citizens of this new nation.

The economy of Zimbabwe was primarily agricultural, with 67 percent of the population working in farming. Mining came in as the sec ond largest industry. Few people were in busi ness for themselves when Chu arrived. There were more raw materials than finished goods, and demand was extremely high. It was a mer chants’ paradise. “Something that cost a dollar could be sold for three,” said Chu. “You only had to name the price.” Chu set up production facili ties for sweaters and opened 12 clothing and gro cery shops in Harare, the national capital, to serve that kind of a receptive marketplace. However, he and many others were later forced to shut down their production lines due to competition by cheap exports from China. “An article of clothing cost me $15 to make, but an imported item retailed for just $10,” Chu remem bered. “Very quickly, 90 percent of the light indus try in Zimbabwe went out of business.” Luckily for Chu, his fortune continued to roll in all the same for a while, thanks to his 12 shops. But even that didn’t last long. Political discon tent and labor unions incited civil unrest. Everywhere, rioters looted innocent shops and businesses. “I don’t know why, but every time a riot erupted, it was always near one of my stores,” Chu smiled wryly.

“Whenever we got wind of violence, my wife, my children, their friends, and I would rush to the stores and move as many things as we could back to the warehouse at home,” recalled Chu. Despite such herculean efforts, his businesses were still robbed. “After being robbed three times, I took to carrying a gun whenever I went out—and it was always loaded.” On August 16, 1998, he was robbed for the fourth, and last, time. Twenty minutes after he had left his factory, looters broke in and gutted it. “Anything that could be moved was stolen. Desks, chairs, clothes hangers, you name it,” Chu said.

In nine short months, his businesses were ransacked four times. The looters cost Chu more than 670,000 American dollars, leaving him unable to meet his payroll.

His father-in-law saw the news on TV in Taiwan and called him several times. He urged Chu to bail out and return to Taiwan to ensure the safety of his family. “Don’t worry about your loss, and don’t bother disposing of your other properties there,” he told Chu. “Whatever their value, I’ll make you whole. Just get your family out of there and back here.” All Chu needed to do was to go along with the proposal, buy plane tickets, and leave the troubled land behind. Upon returning to Taiwan, he would have received at least US$1.7 million from his wife’s father. “I was like an injured lion,” Chu recalled. The lion had been thoroughly bruised, but its pride and dignity were intact. To Chu, his father-in- law’s proposition was condescending. He shout- ed back to his father-in-law on the phone, reject- ing the well-meant offer out of hand.

Just like that, without much thinking, Chu chose to stay in Zimbabwe. Only after things had settled down and order had been restored did he go to Taiwan: not to live, but to apologize to his father-in-law.

Hyperinflation

In the early 2000s, the Zimbabwean govern ment adopted a land reform policy established on the premise that the land owned by white people had been illegally obtained from its rightful black owners during the colonial times. After negotiations with the white landowners failed, the government confiscated most white- owned land.

The move drew international condemnation, and economic embargoes ensued. Large numbers of white farmers left their land, but not before destroying the irrigation systems. They also demolished or took away farming machinery. Most of the new black farmers lacked exper tise in modern agriculture, and they did not have enough capital to restore the irrigation systems. Farmland began to lie uncultivated, and the agricultural sector began to crumple in this agri- cultural country.

The nation could not freely import or export under the embargoes, nor could it repay its inter national debts. The International Monetary Fund also temporarily suspended its aid to the nation. In response, the Zimbabwean government printed money, lots of it, and in large denomina- tions. Some bills were as much as 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollars, making it the largest denomination of all the paper money in the world. It was hard to imagine that the largest denomination of currency in the nation in 1993 was just 20 dollars.

Flooding the nation with money caused the value of the currency to fall precipitously. Inflation went through the roof and reached 231 million percent by July 2008. The 100-trillion- dollar bill was worth a mere US$300 on the day it was issued, but just a few days later even that impressive amount could not buy a loaf of bread or a cup of coffee.

It was a losing proposition to sell anything for money. “Whatever you sold, you ended up losing money,” Chu explained. “The money you collected from selling something would become worthless in just an hour. The currency literally lost its value by the hour!” Li Zhao-qin ( 李照琴 ), Chu’s wife, tended the family’s shops. In the years when inflation was at its worst, she worried every day about how to get rid of the Zimbabwean dollars on her hands. “If we couldn’t exchange them for American or other foreign currencies, we’d treat ourselves to a big dinner just to spend them. Otherwise the money would have been as valueless as a piece of paper the next day,” Li said. “We ate out almost every day then.”

People reverted to bartering, and those who had no physical possessions ended up going hungry.

Turning point

Chu had mused over a question ever since his factory was looted on that August day in 1998, just minutes after he left the premises. “I’d been wondering why it happened just 20 min utes after I left the factory,” Chu recalled. The question persisted and simply would not be waved away. “If the thieves had come 20 min utes earlier, I wouldn’t have hesitated to shoot at them [and I’d never have incurred that big loss]. I felt that those 20 minutes were indicative of something significant.”

After that break-in, Chu waited in his empty factory for the police to inspect the crime scene and take his deposition. He waited one day after another, but still they didn’t come. With nothing better to do, he looked around the building. He noticed some Buddhist sutras and audio tapes that he had brought from Taiwan lying in a cor ner of his office. He wiped off the thick dust that had collected over the years and began to read one of the books. A phrase there caught his atten- tion: Giving dissolves bad karma.

“If what has happened to me is retribution for the wrongs I did in my previous lives, I should now try my best to do good deeds [to make up],” Chu thought to himself. “On the other hand, since my wealth isn’t destined to be mine, instead of giving it to the looters, why not give it to those who are in need?” With these thoughts in mind, he picked himself up and started walking down the path to charitable work.

Inflation impacted Chu, but not much. “My business connections provided me with conduits through which I could exchange local money for American dollars,” he explained. “Though I couldn’t exchange every day, my situation was better than that of most other people.”

He began distributing food in communities once a week, a different community each week. “I’d buy 700 loaves of bread each time, enough for about 3,000 people,” Chu said. He purchased unsliced bread directly from a baking factory, cut it into quarters, and gave it away to people who needed food.

“After 700 loaves of bread had been cut up, there’d always be lots of crumbs on the cutting board,” Chu said. “People would even line up for those.” He continued, with a frown on his face, “Those were really bad days.”

He’d also give away bread each weekend, when he took his family out for sightseeing. Before the trip, he’d load his car with loaves of bread. After sightseeing all day, they would enter a village and give the bread away. “People rather liked to see our silver car in their village.” Food shortages did not just happen in the countryside. The capital city, which had no food production and relied on external supplies for food, suffered as well. Chu helped there, too, but there were new wrinkles.

To prevent unscrupulous businessmen from making windfall profits, the government set restrictions on the movement of foodstuffs. For example, policies stipulated that a person could bring only up to 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of corn starch into the capital city. These restric tions cut both ways, though. They effectively stopped the undesirable business practice of hoarding on the one hand, but on the other hand they also left many residents without food. Using his business sense and the connections that he had acquired over the years, Chu man aged to purchase several hundred ten-kilogram bags of corn starch from agricultural agencies in other locales. He drove a rented truck out of Harare and picked them up. However, he had to pass three police checkpoints on the way back to the capital city, and he was hauling tons of corn starch. How was he going to take so much extra controlled food through the inspections to help the needy in the capital?

“I showed the police a photo of me with the President,” Chu said, “and I gave each officer a bag of corn starch. That got me through all the checkpoints.”

Wider assistance

Though inflation and economic instability was the bane of life in Zimbabwe, it ironically helped propel Chu along the path of helping poor people. Gradually, he began to wonder what he could do to reach even more people. He quickly came to an answer: children. “They don’t need much, and there are lots of them in schools.”

But what could he give them? He noticed that because of poverty, most local children used pencils that were very short. In response, he bought large quantities of school supplies for them.

“Unlike adults, children often got close to me and talked to me after a distribution,” Chu said. It was during those times he noticed the white patches on the children’s heads. At first he did not know what they were.

Then he realized that the children must be suffering from scalp ringworm, a fungal skin disease. Water had long been in short supply in the nation, so instead of bathing or showering themselves, many people had to be content with a simple wipe down. Furthermore, their living conditions had not lent themselves to proper personal hygiene—an ideal setting for this high- ly contagious disease to pass from one person to the next. Just about all children had contracted this disease.

He thought to himself, “If you want to have a chance to solve the problem, you must have their hair removed and their scalps bared so as to get rid of hiding places for the ringworm fungi.” With this thought in mind, he went right to the barbershop he frequented and told the barbers his idea. “Surprisingly, they all supported me and were willing to join me,” Chu said. Chu was delighted, but he knew that it would take barbers from more than one barbershop to cut hair for an entire school, so he walked down a busy street and made his pitch at every barber shop that he saw along the way. Eventually three shops pledged their support.

Though the barbers were willing to give their time to help cut hair, Chu could not ask them to use their own tools for the free services. He knew that they all needed the tools of the trade to make a living, so he would provide the tools for the occasions.

“On their recommendation, I bought indus trial-duty electric hair trimmers,” Chu recalled. “Each one cost a hundred American dollars. I bought sewing machine oil to lubricate the trimmers. I also bought a generator to recharge the trimmers, but the most important thing that I bought was a purple antiseptic liquid— the final punch in my plan for killing off scalp ringworm fungi.”

As for the apron a barber wraps around a customer, Chu borrowed one from a barber and used it as a pattern to make some more for use by students.

With barbers, hair clippers, hair aprons, and antiseptics all lined up, Chu embarked on his haircutting endeavor—just a week after the idea occurred to him.

Tough hair to clip

The barbers switched on the clippers and glid ed them through the students’ hair. Clouds of white dust rose as the fast-vibrating cutting edges of the clippers touched the students’ hair. “In addition to the scalp ringworm symp toms, there was dust, little stones, and even twigs in their hair,” said Chu, marveling at the things the thick, curly mops of the students were capable of holding in place.

The clippers became dull after cutting the hair of just a few children. Chu got out the back- up clippers.

Not all children welcomed the service. Some of them had infections so bad that a hair clipper caused their lesions to bleed. The children broke into tears. While trimming off their hair, the barbers had to soothe the children the best they could.

After a child’s hair had been trimmed off, a coat of purple antiseptic was sprayed on the exposed scalp. “After just 90 minutes, it looked like a miracle had happened,” Chu exclaimed. “You’d see a truly shiny head, as though it had just been oiled, that was completely without any sign of scalp ringworm fungi.” The sight gave Chu tremendous satisfaction.

What they had accomplished at the first school prompted Chu to visit other schools, where he obtained permission from one princi pal after another to do the same thing for their students.

The volunteers would go to a different school each week. They cut hair and applied antiseptics to over a thousand students during each visit. Their free service was welcomed by so many schools that it took the volunteers three months to cycle through them all.

The ranks of volunteer barbers shrank with each outing, though. “After all, there was no pay to entice people to stay involved with the volunteer work. I later decided to learn to cut hair myself,” Chu said. “My action moved some parents and people in the community to join our ranks.”

Later, some volunteers suggested that Chu supply them with gloves and masks for protec tion. Chu could not have agreed more with them, but after visiting the pharmacies and stores in Harare for these items, he managed to get only six masks. “I took the masks to the next haircutting venue,” Chu recalled. “However, there were 30 volunteers. It wouldn’t seem fair no matter how I distributed the masks. In the end, I could only quietly put all the masks back in my pocket.” One day, Chu was working on a child whose scalp infection was particularly bad. “Usually I’d first use a comb to get little stones and twigs out of a child’s hair to make it easier to cut and easier on the clipper,” Chu said. “But this child had really dirty hair. I put a comb through it, but the comb became seriously stuck. I couldn’t even move it without lifting the child up.”

Since he couldn’t get the comb out, he gave up trying and began to use the clipper. As he sank the clippers into the hair, a cloud of white smoke erupted into his face. “I thought nothing of it,” Chu said.

But that night, his throat felt scratchy, as if he had swallowed a mouthful of sand. He could not make a sound for three days. “The doctor said that I’d been infected and ordered me to stay on medicine and oral spray,” Chu said, remembering the episode with emotion. After collecting himself, he continued: “I’m glad that it happened to me, not to others. If it had instead happened to a black volunteer who couldn’t afford medical help, the consequences could have been horrific.”

Chu and his volunteer barbers have provided haircuts for students since 2008. So far they have logged 30,000 haircuts, and they are still at it. They have worn out more than 200 electric hair clippers in the service of the students.

Despite his experience of being infected, Chu wasn’t daunted. He is happy to see stu dents cured of the scalp infection. Even if a child’s ringworm was not completely eradicat ed by his humanitarian treatment, the condition was less dreadful than before. The sight and the thought of all this have kept him going. “I’m now a super barber, and I not only cut hair—I can even fix clippers.”

Tough to do good

It is not easy to do charitable work in Zimbabwe. The nation has laws that limit the size of an assembly to ten people or less with out permission. Therefore, before Chu holds haircutting services or distributes aid supplies, he has to apply for permission from concerned authorities. The application has to go through 11 steps. “Though I’m very familiar with the process now, the laborious paperwork that I have to do each time still takes me a lot of time,” he observed.

One day Chu went to the public health agen- cy to apply for an assembly permit. The final approver worked on the 18th floor of the build- ing, and the elevator was out of service, a com- mon occurrence in government buildings. Chu, 58, climbed up all those stairs and got the approval he needed.

He has not only gone high to do good, but he has also gone far. Sometimes he travels as far as 280 miles from home. Aside from spending his energy and time, he has spent hundreds of thou- sands of American dollars for his charitable deeds since 1998.

“Giving dissolves bad karma.” These few words altered Chu’s life path. However, he admitted that at first he carried out those good deeds with a motive. “I was making a deal with the bodhisattvas,” he said with a smile. “I did good deeds for them, and they in return kept my family safe.” Though that was not a wholesome thought, “The bodhisattvas really did honor my wishes, and they’ve kept us safe and sound.” His attitude only began to change in 2006.

That year, he installed at his house the necessary equipment to receive satellite signals from Da Ai TV, a station run by Tzu Chi. “After seeing its programming, I stopped thinking of my good deeds as a kind of deal with the bodhisattvas,” Chu remembered. “I saw Tzu Chi volunteers helping the destitute and holding relief distribu- tions internationally or locally in their own com- munities. I thought to myself, ‘I’m doing the same things! That makes me a Tzu Chi volun teer, doesn’t it?’”

Since he began thinking of himself as a Tzu Chi volunteer, he believed he should work in the Tzu Chi spirit of giving without asking for any- thing in return, in a spirit of selflessness. That was a turning point for Chu. He has since conducted all his philanthropic work, not in his own name, but in the name of Tzu Chi. And he did so quietly until he got in contact with Tzu Chi volunteers from neighboring South Africa.

After attending required volunteer training sessions in South Africa, Chu traveled to Taiwan at the end of 2011 to receive his Tzu Chi certifi cation. What did he feel the difference was between doing good on his own and doing good as a Tzu Chi volunteer? “With the help of Tzu Chi’s resources, more people in Zimbabwe will be able to receive assistance,” he comment ed. “For example, our foundation sent 120 tons of rice to Zimbabwe this year. Imagine how many people that can feed.” The rice was pro vided by the Council of Agriculture of the Taiwanese government.

With Tzu Chi’s assistance, Chu has also been able to have seven classrooms built for Rusununguko Primary School, where students used to have to receive lessons outdoors. Now officially part of Tzu Chi, Chu has much more to do in Zimbabwe, and he is the only certified Tzu Chi member there. When asked “Do you feel the responsibility heavy?” he replied, “Yes, I feel it heavy, but I feel peace of mind, too.”


By Tu Xin-yi
Translated by Tang Yau-yang
Source: Tzu Chi Quarterly Winter 2013
 

" Abide by your principles in everything you do. Never do things just to satisfy others. For rather than satisfying them, you may be in over your head. "
Jing-Si Aphorism

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