Seeds of Hope: How one American woman is helping Africa help itself

Published: Sunday, Oct. 23 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

A Mozambican child smiles during a village celebration to thank Care for Life for helping the community.

Elizabeth Stuart, Deseret News

MOZAMBIQUE, Africa — The father takes a Fanta bottle in his hand and whacks it against a rock. CRACK. With the broken glass, he carves a name onto a roughly constructed wooden cross: "Cesilia." Nearby, the mother, draped limp and unmoving over a child-sized wooden casket, doesn't make a sound. A wiry black woman, body hardened by a life of hauling water and working in the fields of rural Mozambique, her eyes are blank, as lifeless as the five-year-old girl she is burying.

The funeral doesn't take long. Friends gather around as the men of the family take turns digging the grave. They sing as the casket is lowered into the ground along with the child's few belongings — a bundle of frayed clothing, a few handmade toys. The melody is heavy with the tears they don't shed.

When they've patted down the dirt and erected the homemade monument, two friends lift the mother, wailing now, from the ground. She claws at them, kicking as they drag her from the grave site. The father stays by his baby girl a minute more before turning to nearby grave and listlessly tracing his finger over another hand-made cross, remembering. Another daughter. Buried just a few months after birth. His friends offer to walk with him, but he waves them away. He makes his way back to his village alone with his thoughts. The sky is as gray as his mood.

Far from home

There was a time when Cindy Packard lived her picturesque life in Gilbert, Ariz., the wife of a well-to-do physical therapist, blissfully unaware of such pain. Statistics about disease and dying babies in Mozambique had little bearing on her daily dealings as a part-time midwife raising six children in a powder blue, clapboard house straight out of the iconic television series "The Waltons."

But today, Africa's troubles are very real.

Wearing a T-shirt and capris, feet slathered with DEET to discourage flesh-eating bugs from burrowing their way through her TOMS, the 60-year-old is 10,000 miles from home in a mud hut village outside of Beira, Mozambique. She has a naked baby in one arm, tugging a harness up over his legs with the other. Once secure, she hefts the infant up onto her hip and clips him into a hanging scale. He fusses when she lets him down, kicking his legs at the empty air. Packard coos. A nurse in a white coat scribbles down the baby's weight.

Five foot five, blonde and blue eyed, Packard couldn't look more out of place. Yet, as she works, it becomes clear the white woman, a warm, effervescent person who is easy to tears and quick to laugh, fits here somehow. It's been 11 years since Packard's first such visit to Mozambique and 10 since she and her husband founded the nonprofit Care for Life, which has brought her back dozens of times. Packard tries to go about life as usual, but, she admits, even at home in Arizona, she's never been quite the same since trying her hand at humanitarian work. And neither, the statistics suggest, has Mozambique.

In the villages where Care for Life works, the death rate has dropped from an average of 22 deaths every six months to five. The percentage of people with adequate housing is up from less than half to an average of 85. Thirty percent more children attend school. Employment statistics have more than doubled. Adult literacy rates have increased from 50 to 77 percent. More than that, though, Care for Life seems to have discovered a formula for inspiring hope among the destitute and giving them tools to help themselves. Even after the nonprofit pulls out of a village, the statistics continue to improve. The local people report using leadership systems established through the Care for Life program to reach community goals like bringing in electricity or connecting villages to the main road system.

"Cindy is like a gardener," remarked one Mozambican. "She planted a seed. The seed grew into a tree and now it is producing many mangos and feeding many people."

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