BULAWAYO – For one thousand orphans who depended upon “Auntie Sheba”, the sudden death of Sennie Sheba Dube Phiri on February 7 means more than the simple loss of a benefactor.
“Sheba was our saviour” wrote the grateful widows of Avoca, praises brushed off by the humble Methodist grandmother who nonetheless rose before dawn to find and deliver endless packets of maize meal, beans, blankets and life-saving food in a time of famine.
For the orphans, Sheba found school fees, books, uniforms and shoes; for their younger brothers and sisters, Auntie Sheba organized Kidz Clubs; for teenagers, she taught classes in HIV prevention and positive life skills – and brightened each day with hugs and boundless good cheer. A light has gone out in Zimbabwe, one which will be sorely missed.
Unbeknown to the children, Sheba Dube Phiri was also one of the most courageous human rights activists in Zimbabwe, and Vice Chairperson of ZimRights. On the Friday before her unexpected demise, Sheba Phiri and Archbishop Pius Ncube were honoured as fearless and outspoken advocates for justice and peace by the newly formed Christian Alliance network.
Truth telling is a dangerous business in Zimbabwe. Most victims suffer silently rather than unleash further repression by bringing charges against their oppressors. Not Sheba. During human rights services led by Archbishop Pius in St Mary’s Cathedral, Sheba stood by the victims of abuse and recounted the gruesome tales that the victims were often too frightened to whisper. On Good Friday Sheba marched beside Archbishop Ncube and other Christians, holding crosses that symbolize the suffering of Christ’s poor under Robert Mugabe’s brutal regime.
Sheba’s work was unpaid and for the most part, unrecognized. Her rewards came instead from coaxing laughter from undernourished orphans, finding shelter for homeless families, and providing food for destitute widows. Often she worked miracles.
In June, Sheba needed to get to Filabusi. First, she coaxed a delegation from the Methodist Church in Zimbabwe into giving her a ride, and then into making a 20-kilometre detour into the bush to visit one of Sheba’s little scholars. The 12-year old girl had suffered from a brain tumor. Without funds for an operation, she was not expected to live. Somehow, Sheba had begged the necessary funding, transported the child to hospital, where the operation had been performed.
The 4-wheel drive vehicle rattled every bone and barely scraped over several ravines but finally arrived at a small farm where Sheba and her visitors entered a thatched cottage.
Lying on a bed in the middle of the room was a pale slip of a girl who could barely lift her head to see who had come. Like Jairos’ daughter, the child seemed to hover between death and life. But when she recognized Auntie Sheba, the child’s face lit up like a light bulb. Sheba embraced the girl and coddled her, singing praise choruses and praying at length.
“Now, you sing!” Sheba encouraged her little charge. And sing she did, in a very faint soprano, her faced wreathed in smiles. Before leaving, Sheba laid hands upon the child’s bandaged head and prayed for health and healing – in short, a miracle.
Sheba believed that God provides miracles and that little girls with gaping wounds can walk. Sure enough, weeks later, the child sat up and said to her mother, “I want to walk now!”
“Walk?” repeated her astonished parent. “Yes, Mother, Auntie Sheba told me I could walk now, that I’m ready.” And walk she did, in faltering steps, to the door where she could sit in the sunshine, and feel the kiss of cool breezes.
A miracle, but Sheba was in the habit of trusting God every day for miracles. To her small friend, Sheba promised resurrection and life, abundant life. And through prayers and hard work, Sheba made sure that Zimbabwe’s orphans and widows had clothes, and food, education and healing: daily bread in a time of famine. A miracle, indeed.
Archbishop Pius Ncube used to marvel at Sheba’s work with the poorest of the poor, calling Sheba a “wingless angel.” Sheba has her wings now, and the rest of us must take up where she left off, lest the orphans and widows starve.
To her family and friends and all who mourn Sheba anywhere, our prayers and condolences on the passing of one of Zimbabwe’s finest daughters. She was a light for the nation.
Providence Orphans and Caregivers Trust (POCT) will ensure that Sheba’s great work continues – but that cannot happen without funds. You can make the difference between life and death. Please give generously via PayPal at www.SWRadioAfrica.com or send cheques to “Alvaston Methodist Church – The Zimbabwe Fund”, c/o Revd Dr Martine Stemerick, 137 Shardlow Road, Derby DE240JR, UK.
Post published in: News