40 Arms of Mercy

“Foster Mothering” for Households Headed by Orphaned Teens

When Vusile’s parents died of AIDS, the rural Zimbabwe teen became the head of his household—home to his five elementary school-age brothers and sisters.

Devastated, he struggled to add a roof to their then unfinished house so they at least had shelter, he recalls.

Volunteers from Firelight Foundation grantee Ingalo Zomusa (meaning “Arms of Mercy”) Orphan Care Trust recognized the precarious situation and took the six siblings under their wings.

Mrs. Rufaro Mutsau, a founder and lead organizer of the group, smiles broadly as she tells Vusile's life-affirming story.

Ingalo Zomusa's volunteer mothers visited the household frequently offering emotional support, advice, and companionship. They also regularly delivered food and soap, and paid the children’s school fees so they could remain in school.

Because Ingalo Zomusa volunteers paid his fees, Vusile was able to complete high school and enroll in nursing school. Now, as he completes his degree, he says he is “grateful” to the volunteers for “watching over us” and expects to “help look after my brothers and sisters.” Through their care and support, the volunteer mothers had completely changed the course of the lives of Vusile and his family.

Vusile and his siblings are just a few of the 270 orphans the mothers from Ingalo Zomusa are supporting in Gwanda, the small provincial capital of Matabeleland South. Vusile is one of a handful of young people they have been able to send on to higher education.

The small nonprofit group was founded in 2003 by 20 women from different local churches “who came together in order to find ways of helping orphaned children left in their homes without adult support or guidance,” explains one of the co-founders.

The volunteer foster mothers began by “adopting” one family per volunteer and personally supporting them from their own resources.

A Bible verse from the Hebrew Prophet Isaiah inspired their efforts and continues to motivate them:

“Learn to do good, seek justice for the oppressed, defend and care for the orphans.” (Isaiah 1:17)

Small Group -->Compassionate Response --> Widening Impact

The volunteer mothers’ ambitious personal response sparked community generosity.  With local funding, the group is now able to provide a safety net for several thousand vulnerable children in the town and in the surrounding rural areas. The lifeline they offer includes basic food deliveries—flour, beans, cooking oil—along with home-based health care, counseling, and life skills training.

An entirely voluntary effort, the group has no paid staff. In 2007 Firelight recognized the power of this dynamic group of open-hearted women and became their first international funder.

Ingalo Zomusa volunteers also work in partnership with the Zimbabwe Red Cross, Zimbabwe’s National AIDS Council, local government structures, and local churches.

Volunteers helped undertake a local needs assessment that underscored the crucial gap they are filling: the survey found that 80 percent of grandparents caring for orphans are age 65 and older and have no income at all.

To help fund the organization’s activities and offer the teens income-earning skills, Ingalo Zomusa mothers run a community garden and income-generating projects in tailoring, knitting, popsicle making, peanut butter grinding, as well as candle and soap making.

Recently, they have taken their work a step further.

They help youth build leadership skills and make a difference in the community by participating in child protection committees and educating their peers through campaigns against HIV/AIDS stigma, discrimination, and gender violence. The organization is also working to make sure orphans and vulnerable children have birth certificates so they aren’t denied access to publicly funded health services and schooling.

Ludbirga Schumach, a Roman Catholic sister with Sibambene AIDS Programme (another Firelight Foundation grantee) bestows high praise on the Ingalo Zomusa volunteers.

“These reliable, capable, and dedicated” women have “won the trust of town authorities, who often call on them when they have children in need,” she says. “These women deserve all the trust one can give.”

Like most of Firelight Foundation’s other grantees, Ingalo Zomusa is strongly rooted in volunteerism and linked to local resources. But the group stands out for its creative response to Zimbabwe’s seemingly impossible financial situation, which has included dramatic currency fluctuations and the highest inflation rate in the world.

The year Zimbabwe’s education department slashed school fees, the group was able to cover the enrollment costs for three times as many vulnerable children than they had planned. Another year, when the bank held their funds for three months, the women leaned on their community connections and wrote IOUs to headmasters.

Perhaps most distinctive is the group members’ personal relationships with young people like Vusile. In his case, the combination of loving attention and financial support has helped him move past his devastating loss and into a promising future.

COMING SOON! An in-depth interview with the founder and lead organizer of Ingalo Zomusa, Mrs. Rufaro Mutsau, conducted during her recent visit to Firelight.