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Olivia's story, part 3: Malaria

By Marilee Pierce Dunker
Jul 3, 2014
©2013 Collins Kaumba/World Vision
In November 2013, Marilee Pierce Dunker and her former sponsored child, Olivia, reunited after seven years.
©2013 Collins Kaumba/World Vision
Seven years had passed since my last visit, and I had to look into Olivia's eyes to make sure it was her.
©2013 Collins Kaumba/World Vision
Then she smiled and I opened my arms. It was Olivia, all grown up.
©2013 Collins Kaumba/World Vision
Olivia's five-year-old son Talent was a bit reserved when we first met.
©2013 Collins Kaumba/World Vision
But he was all smiles the next day when he saw me.
©2013 Collins Kaumba/World Vision
A nurse led us to a shaded courtyard where we could sit and talk.
©2013 Collins Kaumba/World Vision
I had brought my laptop with me so we could look at the video World Vision had made of my first visit, in 2003.
©2013 Collins Kaumba/World Vision
Olivia and Talent watching the 2003 video of the first time I met Olivia.
©2013 Collins Kaumba/World Vision
Olivia shares her heartache and the toll of malaria. "I never got to hold my babies," Olivia confided as we sat beside her red brick house. "I find hope in knowing one day I will see them."
©2013 Collins Kaumba/World Vision
Olivia and Clever have malaria nets over their bed at night, but the nets don't protect them when they're outside after dark.
©2013 Collins Kaumba/World Vision
I had the joy of praying a blessing over Olivia's new child.
©2013 Collins Kaumba/World Vision
Olivia and Clever had a healthy baby girl. They named her Marilee.

I had to smile when I saw this month’s World Vision Hope Prayer Team is focusing on ways to pray about malaria. God’s timing is perfect, because this insidious disease plays a major part in Olivia’s story. (Read part 1 and part 2.)

In the months leading up to my visit to Zambia last November, my former sponsored daughter, Olivia, and I wrote back and forth to plan exactly how we would spend our four days together. I would arrive on Saturday afternoon and she and her family would be waiting for me at the guest quarters by Lake Kariba where I would be staying. 

World Vision staff had arranged for us to go out on a boat, a treat I knew my “grandson,” Olivia’s son Talent, would never forget. The next day, Sunday, I would have the joy of worshipping with Olivia at her home church. Then on Monday and Tuesday I would spend time with her in her village, and she would tell me about her life. This is what I looked forward to the most — time to talk, time to pray, and time to just enjoy being together.

Change of plans

I was counting down the hours until I left for Zambia when I received an email from Fred Mazumba, the director of World Vision’s Sinazongwe development project (where Olivia and her family live). 

“I am sorry to tell you that Olivia is in the hospital with malaria,” he wrote. “She has been very sick, but she is going to be OK. However, she will not be released until Sunday.” 

My heart dropped. I knew Olivia had suffered with malaria as a child, but World Vision had provided her and her family with treated nets for years. How could this happen? And why would God allow it to happen now?

I have spoken to groups many times about the ravaging impact of malaria, but I was about to learn firsthand about the human toll it takes on the young and the old and even the unborn. 

A surprise upon arrival

Along with Eddy Rodriguez, a videographer from World Vision in the U.S., and Collins Kaumba, a photographer from World Vision in Zambia, I arrived at the guest lodge just as the sun was beginning to set over the lake. We had taken our time driving from Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city, because we knew there was no rush. The boat trip had been canceled and we did not expect to see Olivia’s husband, Clever, or her son, Talent, until the next day when we would go to church together — without Olivia.  

As we pulled up to the lodge I saw a small group of people standing off to the side. I didn’t realize they were waiting for us until I recognized the little boy peering curiously out from his father’s arms. It was Talent! He and Clever and several World Vision staff had been waiting for hours for us to arrive. 

Surprised and delighted, I rushed over to meet my new son-in-law and grandson. At first the 5-year-old was put off by my blond hair and light eyes. But the pieces of candy I dug out of my purse soon bridged the cultural gap, and he was all smiles the next morning when we arrived at his village to attend church.

After the service, we drove about an hour to the hospital where Olivia was recovering. Unfortunately, the doctors would not release her to go home until the next day but we could visit briefly with her there.

I expected to find the patient in bed, but once again we were taken by surprise. As we parked I saw a familiar figure walking towards the car. 

“I think that’s Olivia!” I cried out, jumping out of the car with Eddy and his camera scrambling to keep up. 

Catching up on seven years

The two of us stopped for a moment and just looked at one another. Seven years had passed since my last visit, and I admit I had to look into her eyes to make sure it was her. Then she smiled and I opened my arms. 

It was Olivia, all grown up.

The nurses led us to a shaded courtyard where we could sit and talk. I brought my laptop with me so we could look at the video World Vision had made of my first visit in 2003. Clever and Talent watched with amazed expressions as the screen lit up with images of Olivia and me when she was 10 and I was…younger. 

When the video ended I asked Olivia to tell me how she had gotten sick. “Don’t you use the nets we give you?” I asked, sounding a bit like a nagging mother. 

“Yes, we do,” she answered, “and they make a big difference. But my grandmother passed away a few weeks ago and my family camped all night outside her house to mourn,” Olivia explained. 

“The mosquitoes are bad right now,” Clever added. “They come out after dark. When we go to bed, we use the nets. But the nights are warm and most people want to sit outside to be cool and to talk in the evenings. It is hard not to be bitten.”

“Have any of you had malaria?” I asked, addressing Fred Mazumba and the other World Vision staff with us. 

“Oh, yes,” answered Fred. “We have all had it at one time or another.”  I was beginning to understand how complicated the problem is and how little I really knew. 

“So tell me what it feels like. How did you know you were sick?” I asked Olivia.

“I started feeling weak, like I had the flu. I ached all over and couldn’t eat without throwing up. I knew immediately what it was, and when my temperature went up, Clever took me to the [local World Vision-run] clinic. Because of my history, they sent me to this larger hospital.” 

Malaria’s lasting effect

Olivia spoke in a low, flowing voice, the last words coming out in a mere whisper. There was not a lot of emotion in her tone but I could hear the sadness behind the words “because of my history.” The year before, she had been pregnant with twins: a girl and a boy. She was in her seventh month when she was stricken with a bout of malaria. She recovered but went into early labor. The babies were too small and weak to survive without incubators, and the local maternity ward only had one. Unfortunately, it was being used. 

Everything possible was done to rush the babies to the larger hospital where we now sat, but they didn’t make it. 

“I never got to hold them,” Olivia would share with me a couple days later as we sat in the shade outside of her red brick house. “I don’t know what they looked like.” 

Her words pierced my heart. My sister, Robin, lost her second child just days before he was due. I can remember her sharing the pain she felt that she never got to see his little face. Now I saw that same pain in Olivia’s eyes. 

“Tell me how you survived this loss,” I asked softly, overwhelmed with my own emotions. “Has your faith in God been a comfort?” 

“Yes, very much,” Olivia replied, taking a moment to choose her words. “I know that God loves me and that He loves my babies. I find hope in knowing one day I will see them.”

Moved beyond words by her strength and faith, I took Olivia’s hand. We just sat for awhile, envisioning the joy of that heavenly reunion. 

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” —I Cor. 15:55


P.S. Before I left to return to the U.S., Olivia confided that part of the reason the doctors kept her at the hospital an extra day was because she was expecting another baby. Her due date was June 10. I have been praying daily since I returned home for her health and safety, and awaiting to hear that the baby has arrived. 

Today I got an email letting me know that Talent now has a beautiful new sister. Mother and daughter are doing well.

They named her Marilee.

Marilee serves World Vision, the organization her father, Bob Pierce, founded in 1950. Like him, she travels the world, witnessing and fulfilling God’s mandate to care for the poor. Request Marilee to speak.

Read the rest of Olivia's story

Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?
I Cor. 15:55