From left, the Rev. Christopher Kardzis, Ruth Ann Leidorf, and the Rev. Bernard Boff have provided spiritual and practical help to the BaTonga people of Binga, Zimbabwe.
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The people of Binga, Zimbabwe, are hungry for food, water, and shelter.
But most of all, they are hungry for God, according to Ruth Ann Leidorf.
A lay missioner from the Toledo Catholic Diocese, Ms. Leidorf, 31, recently returned to the Toledo area after spending five years with the BaTonga people in Zimbabwe.
The Diocese of Hwange in northwest Zimbabwe has been a "mission of accompaniment" for the Toledo diocese since 1984, when it was initiated by the late Bishop James Hoffman.
In Africa, Ms. Leidorf saw firsthand tremendous suffering, poverty, corruption, and spiritual oppression among the BaTonga, a tribe of about 130,000 people in the nation of 12 million.
The BaTonga were forced to leave their homeland in neighboring Zambia in 1958 when the Zambezi River was dammed, flooding their area. The move not only changed their location, but forced them to change from a people who lived by fishing to developing an agrarian lifestyle.
Food in Binga is now scarce scarce, disease is rampant, and the nation's economy is rapidly deteriorating, said Ms. Leidorf, the Rev. Bernard Boff, and the Rev. Christopher Kardzis.
The three gave a presentation on the African mission Wednesday night at Toledo's Corpus Christi University Parish.
Father Boff has been the local supervisor of the Zimbabwe mission for 16 years and Father Kardzis, a native of Poland, is the mission director of the All Souls Catholic Mission in Zimbabwe.
Ms. Leidorf and Father Boff co-authored a book about the Zimbabwe mission, Surprises of the Spirit, with the proceeds benefiting the African mission.
The nation is reeling from HIV, which afflicts over 40 percent of Zimbabwe's population, and inflation, which is climbing at a rate of 600 percent per year, Father Kardzis said. A bucket of cement that cost $1.50 two years ago, he said, costs $12 today.
Making matters worse, the government of President Robert Mugabe is restricting the activities of nongovernment organizations, or NGOs, forcing them to obtain government permission for social work, Father Kardzis said.
"The church is being limited to pastoral work only" such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals, he said.
The Zimbabwe government, meanwhile, is passing laws that would bar the Catholic mission in Binga from continuing to feed 40,000 people a day, he said.
Ms. Leidorf described many of these starving recipients as "one plate away from death."
In her talk and in her book, Ms. Leidorf describes a people who are isolated from modern society, struggling for daily sustenance, oppressed by the government, and hindered by ancient superstitions.
When she felt that God was calling her to go to Zimbabwe, she said she really didn't know why. She went through a four-year process of discernment before being commissioned by Bishop Hoffman to serve the African diocese in 1999.
"Before I came on this mission, people would ask me why I was going. I didn't have a very good answer for them," she writes in Surprises of the Spirit. "Now I can tell people: I am here to preach the Good News."
Much of the book was taken from journals Ms. Leidorf wrote while in Africa. Father Boff added spiritual reflections and Bible verses to each of her thought-provoking chapters.
Ms. Leidorf said it was difficult to deal with the endless suffering: HIV-infected babies left at her doorstep, handicapped people crawling into church, emaciated natives lying in a hospital dying with no doctors or nurses to assist them.
"You either help them to live, or you help them to die," Ms. Leidorf said.
She provided baby formula, for example, to infants orphaned when their mothers died in childbirth, often from complications due to AIDS.
She faced difficult choices every day.
"Can I take all these babies into my house?" Ms. Leidorf asked herself. "Many of them have AIDS. They need milk and we give them formula. Otherwise, they would die sooner."
AIDS is a "disaster" in Zimbabwe, she said, and it's even worse among the BaTonga because many of them are so ignorant they don't believe it's a disease; they think it's a curse from a witchdoctor.
Some witchdoctors tell the AIDS victims that the way to end the curse is to have sex with a small child, Ms. Leidorf said, leading to the rape of children as young as 3 years old.
The Catholic missionaries are working to educate the people on spirituality and at the same time providing practical help by teaching them to grow crops, sew clothes, or learn other skills that can earn them a living.
The mission also provides thousands of blankets to the people of Binga, where temperatures often hit 115 degrees but can drop to 40. Blankets are so precious that most families have only one and will huddle together for warmth, she said.
Ms. Leidorf said in-line skating is one of her hobbies but she ended up giving her knee and arm pads to the handicapped people who crawled everywhere they went. The mission is now buying wheelchairs for the lame and has donated 17 so far.
Support from the Toledo diocese makes a critical difference in the lives of the BaTonga, she said. When a cholera epidemic threatened to wipe out thousands of people, a $6,000 emergency donation from the Toledo diocese paid for food, medicine, bleach, salt, and other essentials that "saved hundreds and hundreds of lives," Ms. Leidorf said.
A Sandusky native with a communications degree from Bowling Green State University, Ms. Leidorf returned to Toledo in July and has no plans to go back to Zimbabwe. But witnessing the struggles in Binga made her feel blessed to have made a difference in peoples' lives.
"It was an honor, a great joy, and a great responsibility to be there," she said.
Copies of Surprises of the Spirit are available from the Catholic Center, 419-244-6711.
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