India's stars spend time with Zimbabwe's orphans September 2, 2005

Worlds apart, but arm in arm

James Elder

Harbhajan Singh winds up during the visit to the Mavambo centre © UN / James Elder
With Indian vice-captain Rahul Dravid behind the stumps, Ifran Pathan at extra cover, and two dozen Zimbabwean orphans bouncing around the infield, India's match-winning Harbhajan Singh bowls another gripping offspinner. But as he surveys his handiwork, a strident call of "no ball" comes from nine-year-old orphan, Tinashe. It is a courageous and plucky call, and one that immediately curries favour with the sometimes roguish Singh. For the next hour he and Tinashe chat and walk together. India's cricketing hero and one of Zimbabwe's 1.3 million orphans. Worlds apart, but arm in arm.

And so it went throughout the morning as five of India's cricketing stars took time away from their busy tour schedule to meet more than 100 orphans at a UNICEF-supported education project on the outskirts of Harare.

In a country where since 1990, HIV/AIDS has slashed the life expectancy from 61 to 38 years, Zimbabwe's orphan crisis shows no signs of abating. One in five Zimbabwean children are now orphans due to HIV/AIDS. Another 160,000 will be orphaned this year. That's one every three minutes.

With the United Nations greatly stretched in its efforts to assist this burgeoning number of orphans, and with Government facing a rapidly shrinking GDP (and thus greatly reduced health and social services spending), together with a virtual freeze on major international funds, too often these orphans are largely alone.

But at the Mavambo learning and education centre, UNICEF reaches hundreds of the 100,000 orphans it supports across the country. And today, the children at Mavambo were stars for a day, playing cricket with some of the world's greats, talking on ESPN, and sharing the dance floor with Harbhajan.

"This is the best day ever," said Tinashe to the ESPN presenter. "This has always been a great place for me; it is where I first went to school [aged eight], but nothing compares with today."

Rahul Dravid takes guard © UN / James Elder
For Singh too it was a more confronting day than anything he is likely to face on the field during this tour. "It's not easy knowing just how many children are doing it this tough," he said. "But it's very special to connect with these children and to do whatever small amounts we can for them."

As the players walked around the education centre, they watched as children performed theatre and music aimed at HIV prevention and confidence building, took part in art classes where the orphans use drawings to express themselves, and of course then put on a coaching clinic for the youngsters.

Having swapped his straight bat to offer rare catching practice (he was dropped twice), Rahul Dravid went on to visit the home of one of the students at the centre. Omega is just 16, though since the death of both his parents, now takes care of his seven and five year old brothers. "I've been moved by everything I've seen today," said Dravid. "Not just by the hardship of children such as Omega, but by the motivation of these orphans to study and make something out of their lives."

"This project is a powerful example of the difference that can be made in the lives of so many orphans," says UNICEF's Representative in Zimbabwe, Dr Festo Kavishe. "But to reach all of Zimbabwe's orphans - and this must be our aim - Zimbabwe needs much more funding. Currently 100 babies are becoming HIV positive every day and Zimbabwean children have endured the world's fastest rises in child mortality. These are grave, complicated problems, but Zimbabweans across the country are showing their determination to defeat HIV/AIDS, but they cannot do it alone."

As Harbhajan Singh and Tinashe worked on practicing their offspin (and watching their run-up), Dravid took strike. Tinashe got one right at the toes of the great batsmen, who dug it out and smiled: "These children are inspiring," he said. "I don't know if they are Zimbabwe's next Test cricketers or not, but certainly given half a chance they can be the country's next teachers and doctors."

James Elder is UNICEF's spokesman in Zimbabwe