Angela Zimmermann, Founder and Visionary of HOPE & WONDER
In the following interview she reports about herself and her motivation, the tasks of the association and the work in Tanzania.
What are important milestones on the way to the project?
This is a difficult question and there have been some events in my life that have influenced me and influenced me to start the project.
An important point is certainly my childhood and how I grew up. I grew up as the oldest of 6 children in a large family and have two foster siblings, both of whom are handicapped. They have shaped me very much and learned me a lot.
Another reason is my first big trip to the Philippines in 2011 to see my great aunt. She was a nun and active in the mission. We were on one of the islands in the mountains with the local inhabitants («mangyanen»). They live without electricity and running water and I could get an insight into the very simple life – partly the families only own a bamboo hut and in the hut there is a pot, the parents each have a knife and the woman a big basket, possibly each family member still has a piece of clothing, that was all they own. This journey has moved me very much and has ignited the «travel fever» in me. Since this trip I wanted to do more and helped in my summer holidays for about 4 weeks in different projects in different countries: 2012 I was in a Massai village in Kenya for four weeks and taught there and trained the teachers, 2013 I was in India, Calcutta, in a slum school and helped there, 2014 I was in Rwanda in a school for disabled people.
In all these projects there were many exciting things to experience and learn and in me the thought matured to do something like this perhaps for longer or even to start my own project.
But I didn’t dare to take this big step and I didn’t know where and what a «meaningful project» would be. How could I help as many people as possible and do something meaningful? How do you start something like that? So I decided to look for a project where I could spend a whole year and have time to get to know a project better and find out if it really is something for me. Because being in a project for only four weeks at a time is very short and you only know everything superficially.
So I took a year unpaid vacation, searched for a project and ended up in Tanzania in a children’s home for disabled children. The children’s home is run by a small German association and was reopened shortly after my arrival. I was in charge for one year and managed it.
During this time I was able to learn a lot and experience a lot. Unfortunately it was not only positive, so we were attacked four times in the night and I was robbed and beaten up. After this year the thought/dream of my own project was over and I could definitely not imagine starting something of my own.
So how did it happen that you started the project despite these negative experiences?
In the children’s home a girl, Neema, grew very close to my heart. I missed her very much, back in everyday life, and wanted to have her with me and tried to adopt her. Unfortunately this is not so easy and I had to give up this plan.
In February 2018, during a conference, I had the feeling that God was giving me the task to start a project. I liked the idea of starting a very small project, very clear with only 6-8 children and therefore little personnel and management effort, and I suddenly dared to do so.
Why are you building a home for disabled children?
There are several reasons why I am opening a home for handicapped children. Firstly, disabled children are the weakest link. In Tanzania, superstition is still widespread. Families with a disabled child are considered cursed. They are often excluded from the family or the village. To avoid this, many families abandon a disabled child or hide it from the public (there are always frightening stories that children are kept in a henhouse or in a hole in the floor with a grid over it or, if they are «lucky», they are hidden in a room, never see the daylight and never come out).
Another reason why handicapped children are abandoned is that poverty is very high and all family members (both parents, often even the children) have to contribute to their livelihood. This is the only way they can survive. If there is a handicapped child in the family, someone is needed to take care of the child, take care of it, feed it etc. However, this again means that there are two family members (the handicapped child and someone who takes care of the child). However, this again means that there are two family members (the disabled child and someone who takes care of the child/mother) who cannot contribute to the livelihood and thus the family slips even more into poverty.
Exposed handicapped children are usually taken to hospital first (because of their poor health). There they try to refer them to a children’s home. However, there are hardly any homes for disabled people in Tanzania. And «normal» children’s homes often do not want to accept disabled children. And if they are taken up in such a children’s home, then they perish. Often one caregiver is responsible for up to 50 children, the children all live in one room. The food is often simply put to each child at the bed, who does not manage to eat and provide for himself, dies sometime…
That is why the need for disabled children is certainly greatest.
In addition, my profession and the expertise associated with it are an important reason. I can pass on my knowledge down there, set an example in how to deal with handicapped children and try to support the children in the best possible way.
What challenges did you face when you founded the children’s home?
There are many challenges, still almost daily. After the idea of really starting and founding a children’s home, many hurdles had to be overcome. As a foreigner, I have no chance in Tanzania without the help of locals. So first of all I had to find local people who are willing to start such a project with me. Finding good people whom you can only trust halfway and who are serious about it and don’t just want your money is very difficult in Africa.
After I found people we had to find a plot of land. That turned out to be difficult, too, because whenever I showed up and they saw me as white, the land prices suddenly became at least twice as high. Even if I wasn’t there at the official viewing dates, but looked at the properties later alone, some neighbor always snitched on me and we couldn’t get many properties for this reason.
In order to be able to work officially in Africa, we had to found an NGO (non-governmental organization). As a foreigner I am not allowed to be an official member there and it was very difficult to get a license for it. The bureaucracy, the corruption and the other lifestyle made me almost despair sometimes.
When we had a property and the NGO license, the construction started. In Tanzania, almost everyone builds just like that, without a building permit. But the danger that someone will come from the office and there are problems, especially when they see that a «white woman» is there, is very great and therefore we had to obtain an official building permit. That also turned out to be very difficult. When we finally had a building permit, we were able to start building, but there is no architect or construction manager/company that builds houses, but you have to find every construction worker, negotiate the price with him and monitor daily that he works and also take care that he works halfway exactly.
Since I am still working full time in Switzerland and only in Tanzania during the holidays, the balancing act between the two tasks is very difficult. Every day someone has to send pictures to the construction site and to me. From here I try to check, negotiate and correct. This is not always easy and many things go wrong. The culture, working methods and thinking in Tanzania are simply very different from those in Europe… Punctuality, cleanliness, tidiness, accuracy – to name just a few general terms – are interpreted quite differently there.
A few examples: «If I don’t come today, I might come tomorrow – or not», «Meeting at 10 o’clock agreed, the first appear at 15 o’clock, the rest only one day later» «measure only by eye» «the material/money is not my own, so I can be wasteful with» «White skin color = very rich/millionaire».
What are your long-term plans / visions for your project?
In the long run, my goal is to educate families about disability and give them tips and advice on how to support a disabled child. I want to show them that every child can make progress and is able to learn and it is worthwhile to offer the children love, affection and support. A kind of counselling and support centre for the disabled is to be created. To simply come to a foreign country as a white person and give advice is however very difficult and is usually not accepted. Therefore I want to have the home as an example and as a contact point. So families and interested people can come by, they can see how we deal with the children in the children’s home, how we support them and what kind of progress they achieve through support. And with this example we can then help other affected people in a low-threshold way.
There are no schools for the severely disabled. There are a few schools for the slightly disabled in the country. But they are very expensive (only very rich families can afford them) and it is a condition that the children can move themselves, wash themselves etc. and eat themselves.
This in turn means that hardly any handicapped children go to school and their parents don’t get any support. So they are on their own 24 hours a day. That is very exhausting
Rahel Actor, board member of HOPE & WONDER Switzerland
I am happily married and we are blessed with two children.
My everyday life is filled with being a mum, as well as working as a nurse in a hospital. Both give me great pleasure. I love to spend my leisure time in nature, biking, ski touring, jogging or climbing mountains.
I am inspired by the vision of HOPE & WONDER. To offer a home to marginalized, handicapped children. I am happy that the children get love and attention, because they are worth it!
Veronica Oberholzer, board member of HOPE & WONDER Switzerland
My world consists of three great, adventurous kids and an even more adventurous husband. With him I was able to travel the world and as a family we were often on the road, also in Tanzania. I get to call two countries my home – New Zealand and Switzerland – and am very grateful for the privileged life we get to lead.
Through a close friendship with Angela Zimmermann, her experiences abroad, her passion for disabled children in Switzerland, Germany and Tanzania, we as a family have been able to witness the creation of HOPE & WONDER from the very beginning.
I am thrilled to be able to support HOPE & WONDER with a brilliant board team and am very much looking forward to the lively development of the NGO.
Michaela Germann, board member of HOPE & WONDER Switzerland
Africa! When I see, hear, smell or feel Africa, my heart leaps with joy. In 2015 I had the great fortune to meet Angela during a prolonged stay in Tanzania. Our paths crossed for the first time at an NGO that housed and cared for multi-handicapped and severely ill children. At that time we had no idea that HOPE & WONDER would one day really exist. Today, I am all the happier to be a part of this wonderful organization. What Angela has built up within a very short period of time is extremely remarkable and only possible if one has sincerely put one’s heart and soul into it.
Melissa, board member of HOPE & WONDER Germany e.V.
Since my childhood I am in touch with people with disabilities. This imprint led me to choose the wonderful profession of special school teacher. During my training I got to know Angela. I am happy to be able to support her great project with my function as a board member of HOPE & WONDER Germany e.V. I find it truly wonderful to witness that the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of children with disabilities is the top priority of HOPE & WONDER. Simply WONDERFUL!
I live with my husband and my son in Rottweil.