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Westras represent Otter Tail County with work in Zimbabwe

Don and Maryjane Westra, who have a summer home at Eagle Lake south of Battle Lake, have spent three years in Zimbabwe as part of Global Ministries, working for the United Church of Christ of Zimbabwe. They plan to return for four more years of work in the African nation.

"We wanted to be in a country where we could both work, and help people in need," said Don. "We do our part in helping people survive."

They work in a variety of capacities in Zimbabwe, including farming, at hospitals, children's homes, schools, water facilities, churches and in other endeavors.

Zimbabwe is located in the southern part of the African continent.

The church's mission is to promote Christian living and to relate humankind to the larger body of Christ through teaching, healing, stewardship, preaching and farming. The church revolves around the core values of hard work and self-reliance, and works to eradicate poverty and disease.

Medical facilities and supplies are often outdated. As an example, Maryjane said an anesthesia unit dating back to the 1940s was just recently replaced, thanks to donations from residents in New Hampshire.

"Maternity huts provide a place for women during their final month of pregnancy," said Maryjane while she and Don addressed Fergus Falls Kiwanis members in early August. "Husbands and fathers, as well as other children, are not allowed to be with them, so other family members need to help out back at their homes until the newborns arrive."

Don, who is deeply involved in what Global Ministries refers to as food security, said that white corn and sugar beans are two of the major crops grown in Zimbabwe.

"Women join the men in harvesting everything by hand," he said. "When we have a job to do, we'll get from 40 to 60 people from a wide area. They'll stay until the work is done, oftentimes for a week or so."

Children wear uniforms to school in Zimbabwe, said Maryjane: "They're proud of what they wear, and they have a zest for learning."

At one time, in primary schools, there was only one textbook per 10 students. Things are much better today, said Maryjane, with one textbook per four students.

As for children's homes, she said funding comes from child sponsorships, but that government support is limited. The goal is to move the children's home settings from dormitory (open) style to cottage-type homes.

Don, who formerly ran West Tool in Fergus Falls and who has handed over the business to his two sons, puts his mechanical abilities to use in agriculture and other endeavors. One of those is drilling for wells, something completed this year just before the Westra's return to Otter Tail County.

Worldwide agencies such as UNICEF augment the goals of Global Ministries in Zimbabwe, but it's a daunting task, said the Westras.

"The people, however, remain optimistic," said Maryjane. "You see young people, such as those in high school choirs, keep their spirits high. They appreciate music as something positive. You'll often hear a minister break up his sermon and start singing."

The Westras plan to return to Zimbabwe in November, after speaking and traveling in various areas of the United States.

They have their own home in Zimbabwe, but have to do many things there the old-fashioned way.