In Namibia Breitenbach is bringing love to the forgotten food to the starving

GUILDERLAND — “They’re my babies,” says Jessica Breitenbach.

She is talking about children who live on the other side of the world in the African bush of Namibia.

Breitenbach works, without pay, in an orphanage there and, at age 30, feels she has found her purpose in life.

The children, she says, don’t talk about their past. “They don’t need to be reminded,” she said. But, as she has come to know and love them, she has learned pieces of their history.

A boy had been sold into slavery by his poverty-stricken family.

“He was sick; now he’s a strapping young man,” said Breitenbach. “He went from being a little boy to a young man. He plays soccer and guitar. He wants to be a pastor one day. He’s one of the reasons I went back.”

Another of her favorites is an 11-year-old girl who had suffered abuse and abandonment. “Her laugh is so contagious,” said Breitenbach. “She strives to learn as much as she can in school and to better herself and encourage others...She’s one of the most compassionate kids. She’s learned so much about the Bible.”

Another boy was living in a hospital because he had no place to go. Yet another, as a sickly infant, was nearly thrown into the grave with his dead parents.

“They thought he wouldn’t survive and he couldn’t be cared for,” said Breitenbach.

The stigma of AIDS, said Breitenbach, keeps the children from naming the disease. “They were sick,” the children say of their dead parents.

A dozen of the children she cares for are HIV positive. “We take normal precautions,” said Breitenbach. “When a little guy climbs in your lap, you don’t think, ‘He’s diseased.’ You think, ‘He needs a hug.’”

She said, “I feel like I’m actually accomplishing something...I see the real face of AIDS. These are real children, really suffering; they have nobody left.”

Breitenbach has learned to look where she sets her feet as she walks — to avoid the poisonous black mamba snakes, the cobras and the adders. She has fallen asleep to the sound of hippopotamuses talking to each other as they bathe in the Zambezi River.

“It sounds kind of like a demented Santa Claus,” she said of the hippos’ ho-ho-ho-like grunts.

She describes the place where she lives as “gorgeous.”

Food for the starving

Breitenbach is home for six weeks, staying with her parents in Guilderland, while she raises funds to return to Africa. She hopes to raise enough to pay for a vehicle that will allow her to truck food to starving villagers who live in the Caprivi Strip.

When Breitenbach returns to Namibia in a month, if she has raised enough money for a vehicle, she will work with Jimmy Kearney of Joint Compassion Keepers to bring food to children along the length of the Caprivi Strip.

Joint Compassion Keepers places huge unused shipping containers in African villages and turns them into feeding centers. The rectangular metal containers are brightly painted and look like modern mobile homes once they are set up.

“They’ll provide us with food for a year to get us off the ground. I’ll be the director of the new centers,” said Breitenbach. She’ll drive the length of the strip, from Katina to Runda, picking up food at a warehouse and leaving it in villages with large numbers of orphans.

Breitenbach lives at the far end of the strip, inland from the coast, in a compound established by two Americans, Rebecca and Gary Minks; their work is supported by a Maryland church, the Children of Zion. The village has modern buildings, including a house for the Minks and their adopted children, a barn, a school, and two dormitories — one for the girls and one for the boys — connected by a large common room. Fifty-seven orphans and vulnerable children — whose parents may be too sick to care for them — are housed there.

“Our littlest guy is 2; our oldest just turned 18,” she said. “They play and bicker just like a good old-fashioned family.”

Learning about AIDS

Breitenbach graduated from Guilderland High School in 1995. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in the ministry with a concentration in education from Roberts Wesleyan College near Rochester.

While in college, she had taken a church trip to Kenya and Uganda. “I hated it,” Breitenbach recalled. “I felt like a spectacle...and it was so rustic... We showered in a bucket. I thought, ‘Lord, call me anywhere but Africa.’”

She stayed on at Roberts Wesleyan, working for the college in alumni relations and fund-raising, earning a master’s degree in theological studies and then working for the chaplain.

Breitenbach felt, though, that her life lacked purpose. Then she was asked by Roberts Wesleyan students to be the advisor for a club dealing with AIDS.

“The more I started studying HIV and how it looks in the world, my heart was broken,” she said. “I had thought that, if you contracted HIV, it was your own fault. You were a drug user or promiscuous...The real victims are the children who are born with it and the children who are left behind when their parents die. In Africa, women are victims of HIV because their husbands bring it home.”

When some of the club members wanted to take a trip to Africa, Breitenbach, at first, was dead set against it. She began looking into it, though, when the club members persisted and she found the Children of Zion Village in Katima Mulilo.

Forty-three percent of the people who live on the Caprivi Strip are infected, said Breitenbach. “It’s one of the hardest hit areas.”

She went on about the AIDS epidemic, “Normally, a disease kills off the weaker people, the young and the old. This is hitting the working class, the young and the middle-aged, the healthy, active child-bearing people...It’s hitting the teachers, the police force, the farmers, leaving the children and the elderly with no one to care for them.”

The life expectancy in Namibia is 45, she said.

All this convinced her to take the trip to the Children of Zion Village. “As soon as I set foot there, I fell completely in love with the children,” she said. “I was still searching for what I should be doing.”

She found it.

She was devastated when her three-week sojourn was over and she returned to Rochester. “Now I know what I’m supposed to be doing,” she said.

She let go of her apartment and started saving, then quit her job, and with money raised from her friends, made a six-month commitment to work with the Minks in Namibia. The flight cost $2,000 and living expenses amount to about $300 a month.

“For a long time,” said Breitenbach, “I felt I shouldn’t do it alone.” She thought she would work with a husband and family. Then I thought, ‘What are you scared of?’ I’m a much happier person now,” she said.

“If that blessing ever comes,” Breitenbach said of marriage and a family, “I’ll accept it. But I’ve found alternative ways to have a family or significant relationships.”

Day in the life

Breitenbach says there is no typical day for her at the Children of Zion Village. She teaches pre-school; does paper work; helps in the kitchen; takes care of the babies; and helps with barnyard work caring for chickens, goats, sheep, and horses.

Each day starts early as she attends a staff devotion and meeting at 8 a.m. “We discuss everyone’s concerns,” she said. “Africans are really all about community.”

Most days, she drives four kilometers to the tar road and then travels 10 or 15 minutes to Mafuta, the nearest village, where the Maryland church supports a feeding center. There, cornmeal is cooked until it becomes thicker than porridge, and more like bread. This pap can be ripped off and dipped in soup or gravy.

“It’s really odd to eat with your hands,” said Breitenbach. “If we have goat milk, we bring that. We bring them whatever we have.”

About 116 orphans and vulnerable children in Mafuta are eligible for this meal; served at around 10 a.m., it is their only meal for the day. Without the program, those 116 children probably wouldn’t eat, said Breitenbach.

Although there are UNICEF and government programs, said Breitenbach, “Most of the food is not really getting to the children...and there are just so many children in need.”

She said of the children of Mafuta, “I don’t know what the future holds for them.” The country has thousands of homeless children, begging in the streets.

“When I go to Mafuta every day,” said Breitenbach, “I want to take one home.” She says she has thought a lot about adoption.

One of the girls she has befriended in Mafuta was thought to be handicapped. Her name means “suffering.” She came from a different tribe and simply couldn’t understand the language.

“Now that she’s spending time with me, she speaks English,” said Breitenbach. “She’s actually quite smart.”

For the villagers, much of the day is spent getting food and water. To get the wood for the fire to heat the cornmeal, said Breitenbach, “We go out into the brush.”

By contrast, the orphans living in the Children of Zion Village are well fed and have ample clean water.

“We’re trying to teach our children life skills, like farming,” said Breitenbach. “We wish we had a carpenter or bicycle repairman to teach them useful skills.”

All of the children work in the garden to learn how to grow food for themselves.

“The best part of my day is sitting in the baby room,” said Breitenbach, smiling as she describes the way the children love to surround her.

Bridging cultures

“My African friends are amazing,” said Breitenbach. Twenty native Namibians work at the Children of Zion Village cooking, doing laundry, gardening, doing barn work with the animals, teaching, and caring for the children.

“Africa is very tribal,” said Breitenbach and the children and workers speak a number of different native languages. She is trying to learn Lozi, one of the languages. Lessons at the village school are taught in English.

One of the biggest cultural differences between America and Namibia is the sense of community, said Breitenbach. “America is more of an individualistic society.”

She gave an example from her life, as seen through the eyes of one of her new African friends, Benstien, a staffer at the Zion village. “I lived in the city of Rochester for years and barely knew my neighbors. He said, ‘If I have food on my table and my brother next door doesn’t, I would not let him starve.’”

The constant sharing, said Breitenbach, is a change from the American attitude: “It’s my stuff. I work hard for it. Stop asking.”

She also said, “They’re big into gifts.” Benstien’s fiancée, Doreen, for example, sent Breitenbach a few ears of corn. “That was a huge sacrifice for her,” she said. “It means she cares we’re friends. I did actually eat that corn, after boiling it.”

Breitenbach also said, “It’s with caution I crossed that barrier of having men as friends...As a Christian, I don’t want to form insignificant dating relationships.”

Breitenbach has had to fight some stereotypes of being American, such as the assumption she is wealthy. She points out she is working for no pay and has to collect contributions to do her work.

She also said, “Being an American, people look up to me. I don’t like having a different status, being the center of attention. I want to earn friendship because I’m me.”

She doesn’t wear native dress — the colorful cotton wrapped skirt worn by the natives as well as many visiting American women. Instead, Breitenbach wears conservative shirts and pants.

“I try to accept them for who they are and they have to accept me,” she said, adding, “I definitely don’t wear revealing clothes.” This means keeping her shoulders covered, even in extreme hot weather.

“Some days,” she said of the children she cares for, “They just want to play with my hair or stare at my eyes to see the contact lenses.”

She concluded, “I want to be part of their lives. I don’t want it to be me and them; I want to be all together.”

To contribute to Jessica’s project

The Children of Zion Village opened in 2003 in Namibia, in southern Africa, and now houses 57 orphans and vulnerable children. The village is run by missionaries, volunteers, and Namibian staff and is funded by the Mount Zion Methodist Church in Maryland.

Jessica Breitenbach, a 1995 Guilderland High School graduate, is passionate about her work there. She is raising funds to return and hopes to collect enough to pay for a vehicle that she will use to transport food to starving villagers in the Caprivi Strip in Namibia.

Contributions may be made to support her work to: Children of Zion, Inc., Post Office Box 413, Churchville, MD  21028. Contributors should write “Jessica Breitenbach’s support” on the memo line of their checks.

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