L’Arche – making the world a better place

The Bible story of Noah’s ark is a tale about saving species from disaster. Zimbabwe’s L’Arche – from the French for ark – is a real-world shelter for people with physical and mental disabilities.

“The world would be a better place if people lived like we do here at L’Arche.” – Alice Chatindo.
“The world would be a better place if people lived like we do here at L’Arche.” – Alice Chatindo.

“The world would be a better place if people lived life like we do here at L’Arche. We do not compete whatsoever, for everybody was born unique talents that need to be cultivated and supported,” says Alice Chatindo, former director and now co-ordinator of the home.

L’Arche exists in more than 142 countries worldwide and was first established in France by Jean Vanier, a member of the royal family who quit the Navy, arguing that he would not kill a soul to save another soul.

In Zimbabwe, L’Arche was set up in 1997 by Father David Harold Barry after his visit to a similar home in Canada.

Unlike other homes, L’Arche is based on a family approach, where people of all age groups live together under one roof as one family.

“L’Arche is a house for both able-bodied or assistants and the handicapped, called co-members. We believe our bodies are like envelopes that carry and cover a message (our souls),” said Chatindo. “We live together to read and understand these messages through living together and help each other live to their full potential.”

Permanent co-members are adopted through the government’s social welfare department, while other members of the society are welcome to bring their own physically challenged relatives, or join themselves as friends of the family.

L’Arche Zimbabwe has two houses in Waterfalls – Ngoma and Brook. There are 11 assistants and 16 full-time co-members, plus 23 others who come from other places as needed.

Just like any family in Zimbabwe, they need to sustain themselves, learn and have fun.

“We have friends who donate various things but mainly we do our own income-generating projects such as poultry-keeping and commercial gardening,” said Tavengwa Chinyowa, a long-serving assistant who joined the family in 2002.

They also have a workshop making candles, beads and batiks for sale.

“During my early days here, I thought had found a job, but as time went on I realised that this was actually a calling to God’s work. It is a family and you cannot be employed by your own family,” said Chinyowa.

“Yes, we get some allowances, but the core business here is to love and live together as brothers, sisters, mothers and daughters, sons and uncles and so on.”

The family has its own success stories too. Co-members Enock Sixpence and Tinashe Mandoza took part in the Beijing Paralympic games. Sixpence won a bronze medal in golf and Mandoza won gold in swimming.

L’Arche can be a life-changing experience, not only for the co-members, but for everyone it touches. Charity Chiwana, joined the family as an assistant in March 2011.

“L’Arche has transformed my life. Growing up with both parents, I was sulky and selective when it came to food, but here the children and co-members of all ages have taught me to appreciate what I am,” said Chiwana. “My parents have always encouraged me to soldier on with my work as at first I was not comfortable with the environment but have since adapted.”

Chiwana said the new family has taught her to love, respect and appreciate life.

“Before, I used to shun and run away from Down’s syndrome children, but have since learnt to love and live with them. When I visited my parents recently, I took Conciliar Chitatu, a co-member, with me. We had a nice time and she always asks me when we are going back to our home to see mum and dad,” she said.

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