The Trip That Changed My World

Visiting Africa with World Vision

by: Erica Ehm
shaking hands with poor child

I was dreading the holidays more this year than in the past. It's all because of a trip I took this summer.

I was invited to go to Africa with Worldvision. A couple of days later, a flurry of faxes come through - a list of vaccinations, more shots, a police check. But the one that catches me off guard is the form releasing Worldvision from any post traumatic stress I might incur during my travels. I sign with a shaking hand.

That's when the reality starts sinking in to this mother's brain.

1. I am going to leave my kids for over a week.
2. I am visiting a country plagued with diseases my body is not used to.
3. How will I react to meeting some of the three quarters of a million AIDS orphans?

The first obstacle is to explain to my kids the gravity of the situation over there, and why I was choosing to go. I thank them for letting these unlucky orphans share their mom for a week. They puff up their chests with pride. This they understand. It allows them their chance to give up something that means a lot.

I am gone for nine days. Four is spent traveling. Five days I am shuttled to tiny villages sprinkled along dusty paths with little car access. In fact, there is little of anything.

I meet several families, all in need, through no fault of their own.

Their homes, no bigger than our family bathroom, are built out of clay brick. The floors are red dirt. Most have no possessions, save for battered old pots, plates, spoon and cups. Few have blankets to sleep on or under. Clothes are tattered and shredded, clearly hand-me downs. I remember one little girl had one shoe and kept on switching the shoe back and forth.

Toys are non existent. Rocks are baby dolls. Balls are vines tightly wound.

I meet Ndazonia, a fifteen year old orphan left to raise her younger brother and sister after her parents succumbed to AIDS. She had to drop out of school to spend every waking hour scrounging for pennies to feed her family. Every morning at 5 am, she climbs a barren mountain, barefoot, to find wood. Eight hours later she lashes her stash, and carries it down the steep path on her head. It's a two mile trudge. I can't even lift the pile. She sells this at the market for 10 cents.

I'm told the translation for Ndazonia is "I have seen many things". Yes, she has - too much for a young girl with too much responsibility.

Later that day, I'm asked on camera how I'm feeling. I lose it. I'm bawling. All I'm thinking about is what my children would do if they were left to fend for themselves. How must these kids parents have felt knowing they were going to die and leave their kids alone?

On a positive note, I visited several Worldvision villages celebrating their newly dug wells with fresh water, their abundant crops, and happy children attending school. I see first hand how donations are wisely put to work to improve peoples' lives. My heart swells. Tears again, but this time, it's tears of profound joy and pride to be a part of the Worldvision team.

Five days in Malawi disappear and I'm back in Toronto. I squeeze my beautiful, innocent kids and bury my nose in their baby soap smell. But I can't get those kids on the other side of the world out of my mind.

It's suppertime. We order Greek. "I'm not hungry" whines my older one. I feel my temperature rising.

"Didn't I just explain how the children I met in Africa have nothing to eat!"

"Sorry, Mom." He gobbles up his food in honor of the hungry kids.

That night I tuck my four year old daughter into her Queen size bed, silky sheets, down filled duvet, surrounded by all manner of stuffed animals. She's a little princess. And it hits me between the eyes.

We have too much stuff. There's room for four kids in this bed. I have enough blankets in my cupboard to keep half a village warm. There's something very wrong with this picture.

Next thing you know, it's holiday time - the season of buying useless gifts for everyone who has everything they need. The thought of it makes me crazy. This year we didn't buy the latest electronic gadgets for our kids. Instead, we are sponsoring a child. Her name is Grace. I hope my kids understand what a gift this is.

Erica Ehm has gone from rock'n roll to rocking the cradle. After a decade starring on MuchMusic, she had kids and is the founder of and the Ehm & Co, a digital agency focused on moms. Erica's two teens Josh and Jessie, and hubby Terry help her put life into perspective.