As we drive into the Zimbabwean village in the early afternoon, the heat is predictably intense.
At the village school, the kids are on break – playing traditional African games like Nhodo, as well as netball. Children’s voices, shouting and laughing hum in the background as we walk through the dirt streets towards the school.
We meet 12-year-old Debra* in the school yard and find a shady spot to chat further. We ask her what her favourite part of the day is, she answers with a smile on her face ‘Lessons and lunch breaks.’
‘(At lunch break) we tell stories, eat, laugh and sit around together with friends.’
And Debra* loves learning. Her face lights up as she shares how she can add and subtract, and about how much she loves her teacher.
‘My favourite subject is mathematics, because it is simple and easy.’
Like most 12-year-olds, Debra* has a close-knit group of friends. About her best friend in particular, she says, ‘We walk and talk, and share stories together. With my friends, we walk together – going to the oval, sharing food and talking.’
There’s something different, though, about Debra’s* group of friends. Even just from how she interacts with them, we can see that they all share a uniquely special bond and the other girls really look out for her.
You see, Debra* lives with a disability that restricts her movement. Due to a lack of access to medical experts, Debra* and her family don’t have an exact diagnosis for her condition, but they do know it has been developing since birth.
For Debra*, something as simple as walking isn’t an easy or straightforward task.
‘When walking, other students run – I myself cannot. Other students run, pushing me out of the way’.
‘It is difficult. At times I just fall whenever I try to walk.’
‘I use a walking stick to come to school. I live near the school, and I have friends who assist me with walking and carrying other heavy things.’
Walking is just one of the daily challenges Debra* faces.
‘I used to use the public toilets that everyone else uses, but it was difficult to get in without holding onto something. I used to get in holding onto the walking stick.’
She shares with us the two things she hated the most about using the bathroom: crawling into the toilet because of the lack of handrails, and coming into contact with waste matter. She would get nervous about eating after using the bathroom because of the chance of getting sick as a result of inadequate hygiene.
‘I would then go to wash my hands at a far away place, so that I would be able to touch food with clean hands.’
As Debra* shares so openly with us, we are incredibly impacted as we understand the real emotional strain she faced daily. But even more so, we’re overcome by the sense of joy and thankfulness that she exudes despite her challenges.
Fortunately for Debra*, these challenges now only exist in her past.
Recently, her school built a range of new latrines, including an accessible latrine (funded by Thankyou through implementing partner CARE Australia, with the help of Thankyou supporters), complete with a wider door, handrails, toilet seat and washbasin.
Her whole face smiles as she talks about how things have changed for her since the new latrines were built.
‘I can now get into the toilet holding onto the rails.’
‘It is so great because there are handles that you can hold onto when getting inside. I can use it well without any hindrance. I can as well wash my hands and go out.’
She says, ‘It is so exciting and encouraging. The day I first got into the toilet was the happiest day in my life.’
And Debra’s* hopes and dreams extend far into the future.
‘I want to be a teacher when I grow up. Because I want to teach everything that’s done in this school – I would understand these things and then teach others,’ she says.
Through meeting Debra*, we’re reminded again of the honour it is to partner with people to see them empowered. And for Debra*, it began with something as simple (or so many of us would think) as a latrine.
Debra* was able to dream of a brighter future as her dignity was restored, and her day-to-day physical and emotional challenges were removed.
We can’t wait to follow her story and see all that she achieves – we don’t think there’ll be a better teacher than Debra* in all of Zimbabwe.
You can be part of the solution, helping others just like Debra* with access to crucial hygiene and sanitation programs (like latrines). It starts with something as simple as an everyday purchase – every Thankyou personal care product funds hygiene and sanitation programs for someone in need. Head here for more info.
* Throughout this story Debra’s name has been changed to protect her privacy and anonymity