The Matron

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

The Matron's house is settled towards the back of the Children's Town compound: beyond the quartz-stoned entrance gate, past the middle grade classrooms and the school bell, through the thatch-fenced kitchen with stoves of boiling rep cabbage and onions, and just by a garden of herbs. Nestled in a small village of thatched-roofed chalets, you will find young girls buzzing around a proud but humble red-brick home. Some girls are braiding or platting each other's hair; others are washing dirty pots or clothes. They may be filling up plastic tubs from the water pump for their afternoon bath, inventing new games, or dancing to reggae beats. They are sweet little bees, working and playing with boundless energy.

A voice gently resounds from inside the Matron's house: asking for water, demonstrating how to pluck a chicken, and laughing with consolation as she dresses a child's small wound. Up two steps, her home is small but full. Her kitchen boasts a small cupboard of china and cooking pots, her living room has a radio and tired sofas, and her bedroom hoards extra clothing for children and a secret stash of jam and instant coffee. She sprawls out in the living room on her favorite chair, exhausted and smiling at the busy girls who run in and out of her open door. She fingers her braids and then beats the dust from her color-faded shtenge before her afternoon gardening.

At night we cook shima, a prepared cornmeal resembling mashed potatoes, on an open stove of charcoal and she tells me about her life. Janet Jama was born in Zimbabwe forty years ago. Her parents were humble farmers, but she was able to advance to college and became a salesclerk as a young woman. In town, she met a young railroad worker and fell in love. In a matter of months, they married and Janet adopted his 2-year old son Brian as her own. They were both hard workers and from their earnings were able to buy a sewing machine, 4 televisions, and 2 cars. They were happy and had 2 more children together, Timoth and Precious. But in 1993, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe privatized the railroad and slimmed its labor force. Janet's husband and her husband's father lost their jobs. As a devoted son, her husband sold the cars, the televisions, the sewing machine, and every valuable possession in their home and gave the money to his aging parents. Janet was unauthorized to speak against her husband's wishes. Her husband sank into a fatal depression, and Janet was pressed to support her family. Jobs were scarce, but she was able to find employment at a local mine. With newborn Precious on her back, she shovelled coal, only taking breaks to breastfeed.

The Matron stirs the steaming pot and pats my knee at my awe-inspired expression. She nods and shrugs with acceptance, "Life isn't easy, but we manage." She wraps a rag around the pot's metal handles and I follow her inside for supper. We say grace and eat our food, wordlessly listening to public radio. The announcer gives news about Zimbabwe's 5,000 percent inflation rate, fatal bush fires, and African wars. Her silence seems like a prayer, and I too acknowledge this great opportunity to know her. I study her face, her cloudy eyes, her thin arms, her clean fingernails, how she eats her chicken bones clean, how she admires her daughter Precious, and how she smiles at me. The Matron reminds me of my grandmother, and my heart embraces her as my family.

A former teacher once told me, "The saddest thing in the world is that people have so much love to give and not enough places to put it." Janet Jama has a bottomless heart, joyfully giving love to over 200 orphans, while setting an example of resilience and diligence. Along with dedicated administrators and teachers, she has given the children a new start for a happy life. During my 8 days in Children's Town, the Matron also took me under her wing, and I aspire to be the life warrior that she is. She exercises all the power in her body and all the spirit in her heart, giving herself completely for future generations.