A Life Transformed

Once she couldn’t understand why her life was so full of hardship. Though she resorted to violence in the past, she now reaches out not to hurt, but to hug.

If it took you 50 minutes round trip to fetch a bucket of water for daily use, would you be willing to share it with others? If you had to walk more than two hours and take four buses to get to the nearest Tzu Chi office, would you make it a regular trip? If one of your hands were broken, would you use the other to volunteer?

Denise Tsai (蔡岱霖), a Tzu Chi volunteer in Mozambique, once shared an inspiring story at the Jing Si Abode, the Buddhist convent founded by Dharma Master Cheng Yen in Hualien, eastern Taiwan. The protagonist in the story was once a thug in the countryside of Maputo Province, Mozambique. Her name is Amelia Fabiao Chirindza.

Raging at the world

Mozambique, located in southeastern Africa, is one of the poorest countries in the world. Amelia Fabiao Chirindza, born into a destitute family in this poor country, never went to school. She suffered domestic violence while young and married early to leave home. She joined the army afterwards, but eventually decided to leave because of the difficult time she had there. Her husband deserted her after her discharge. She was even ostracized by his clan. Hatred took hold of her heart. Every time she was ridiculed or insulted, she resorted to violence. She even attacked one of her opponents with a knife during one such clash. In her mind, violence was the best option. “People are afraid of you if you are fierce,” she said. Her ferocious image struck fear in many.

She turned to alcohol and cigarettes to numb herself from the many tribulations she had to endure. One time a man from her village with whom she was drinking got so drunk he tried to rape her. Though she escaped in time, the episode outraged her. She kept thinking, “How could he try to take advantage of me like that!?”

The rage within her, instead of subsiding, grew and grew. It was like a fire aided by an accelerant. Late one night, she went to the house of the man who tried to sexually assault her and set fire to it. The man awoke during the fire and managed to escape with just minor injuries. The police were not able to connect her to the arson, so the crime remained unsolved. Despite having committed a serious offence, Amelia didn’t feel she had done anything wrong.

Her only son was later jailed for a crime he had committed. His absence left Amelia alone to raise his two daughters. Her traumatic background, the injustices she had experienced, her violent behavior, and the pressure of being responsible for her grandchildren often left her emotionally unstable.

In 2013, Amelia’s situation was brought to the attention of Tzu Chi volunteers. They reached out to her and invited her to a gathering at the Tzu Chi Home in Mahotas, Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. Denise Tsai still remembers what Amelia was like back then: “She was wary of others. There was a fierce look in her eyes.”

Tsai shared Master Cheng Yen’s teachings and the ten Tzu Chi precepts with everyone present at the gathering. Much to everyone’s surprise, Amelia took the teachings to heart, and began attending Tzu Chi events. One time, after listening to a volunteer’s translation of a Dharma talk given by the Master, Amelia shared her thoughts and then added, “I don’t understand why my life is so full of hardship.”

During that time, the Master often talked about the five mental poisons: greed, anger, ignorance, arrogance, and doubt. Like a door suddenly thrown open, those teachings dispelled the darkness in Amelia’s mind and filled it with light. It was as if she had finally come to her senses, realizing the many wrongs she had done. Amelia eventually confessed in a gathering: “Actually, I suffer from all those five poisons.” Feeling ashamed, she broke down and cried in front of everyone.

Amelia began to understand the reason why she had had so many tribulations in her life—that it must have been because she had been creating bad karma nonstop. She began reflecting: “What should I do? Is it possible to change my life for the better?”

Reporting herself to the police

She often heard the Master teaching everyone to do their best to do good deeds and sow blessings. Gradually she came to a better understanding of the law of karma taught in Buddhism. She had to let go of all evil thoughts and become a better person if she wanted to bring about positive changes in her life. She bravely took her first step by giving up drinking and cigarettes. Then she started showing care for people in her village.

With each gathering at the Tzu Chi Home, Amelia absorbed more and more of the Master’s teachings and learned how to better conduct herself in life. She also grew more confident about sharing the Master’s teachings with others. She was illiterate, having never had any formal education herself, so she asked other volunteers to teach her how to read. She wanted to learn to read so that she could read aloud the words in an illustrated version of Jing Si Aphorisms, a collection of sayings by the Master. She wanted to share the words with others.

One day, Amelia was deeply impacted by a story told by Master Cheng Yen. The story was about a rich man who lost his fortune because of his arrogance and other vices. The story led Amelia to review her past life and all her vices. Because of the story and her deepening involvement with Tzu Chi—she had been visiting the needy with other volunteers and continued to attend Tzu Chi gatherings—her remorse for having hurt people increased. She began thinking she ought to ask for their forgiveness, and eventually made up her mind to do so when she was about to visit Taiwan in 2019 to receive her volunteer certification from the Master.

She said to her fellow volunteers at the time, “I must make amends for the wrongs I did before I become the Master’s disciple. I must apologize to the people I hurt before and ask for their forgiveness.”

True to her words, Amelia visited the woman she had injured with a knife and the man whose house she had set ablaze. She sincerely apologized to them and begged their forgiveness.

The woman and man, however, refused to accept her apologies. They were infuriated.

“What do I need to do to obtain your forgiveness?” she asked in all earnestness.

They told her she’d have to report herself to the police, then apologize to them in front of the entire village.

Amelia did as told. She went to the tribal chief and the village leader and asked for their help in assembling the villagers for her. Then, under a large tree, she told the police and everyone else there about the things she had done, including the fire she had set. She asked for everyone’s forgiveness.

Her courage and the remorse she showed moved everyone present. They believed that she was genuinely contrite. She gained the forgiveness she had wished for. The police were so impressed they decided to go easy on her—in fact, they didn’t even arrest her in the end.

After this event, whenever a conflict or fight erupted between villagers, the police would call Amelia and ask her to help settle the dispute. After all, she had set the best example for how to resolve a conflict.

“The police officers have become my good friends,” said Amelia. “I share the Master’s teachings with them too.”

Amelia Fabiao Chirindza and her two granddaughters pose at their simple, crude house in Mahubo, Maputo Province.

Endless love

Amelia makes a living by farming. That’s how she supports herself and her two granddaughters. When she visits her son in prison, she brings an illustrated copy of Jing Si Aphorisms with her and shares the inspirational words with him and the personnel at the prison. Under her influence and guidance, something slowly changed inside her son. He has even expressed his hope to volunteer with Tzu Chi after he is released from prison.

Amelia is thankful that the changes in her have brought about changes in her son too. She said that none of this would have been possible if Tzu Chi, like a big family, had not accepted or accommodated her.

“Everyone in the village knew I was a bully,” she said. “They disdained me and avoided me. Only Tzu Chi volunteers treated me with sincerity and gave me support as I worked to change my ways.”

A few years ago, Tzu Chi volunteers from Taiwan visited Maputo to see how volunteers there were carrying out Tzu Chi work. During their trip they visited Amelia at her home as well—she was the first native volunteer in Mahubo, about 90 minutes’ drive from the city center of Maputo. That visit allowed them to witness the difficult life Amelia led.

The volunteers arrived at Amelia’s home, built of wood and earth, after traveling across some wilderness. The interior of her home was nearly bare, with only a partition dividing the inside. The only furniture was a bed. Next to the main building was a latrine built of straw. Mozambique has a tropical savanna climate and often suffers from droughts. To fetch water for their daily use, Amelia or her family had to walk more than 20 minutes to a pond or river, and the water they brought home was turbid and had to sit for some time before it could be used. Even though getting water was difficult and time-consuming, Amelia shared her water with a nearby family consisting of an older person and a youngster. She looked out for them the best she could.

Seeing what a difficult life Amelia lived, volunteers asked her why she refused to become a Tzu Chi long-term aid recipient. She answered in all seriousness: “If I became an aid recipient, the supplies I received would only last for so long. But as a volunteer giving away my love, I receive endless love back. Master Cheng Yen has completely changed my life. She has taught me how to give and helped me realize I too have the ability to give. I learned from her not to put myself first, but to think of others first, and to forgive, love, and care for others.” She added that she had become a lot happier and more at peace after her life underwent such fundamental changes. She hoped that more people would become like her.

More than 50 people in Mahubo, influenced and inspired by Amelia, have now become Tzu Chi volunteers. They provide care for over 300 needy local residents.

Heavy rains resulted in flooding in the Nhamatanda District in Sofala Province, central Mozambique, in February 2020. Afterwards, Amelia and other volunteers assessed damage and carried out relief work. In this photo, Amelia (second from right) talks to flood victims at a rice distribution. Su Po-chia

Spreading good messages

As dedicated as Amelia is to Tzu Chi and her volunteering, it has never been easy for her to participate in the foundation’s work or attend its gatherings. In fact, it’s a lot of effort for her just to get to the Tzu Chi Home.

Volunteers followed her home one day to better understand the trouble she has to take to get to the Tzu Chi facility.

It takes about two hours to travel by car from Amelia’s home in Mahubo to the Tzu Chi Home. Amelia, being poor, doesn’t have a car, so she can only travel to the Tzu Chi office on foot or by bus. She typically leaves home at 3:25 in the morning to attend a gathering there. She has to walk two hours and 20 minutes to the bus stop, and she even has to cross a river on foot. When she finally reaches the bus stop, she still has to take four buses before she arrives at the Tzu Chi Home.

Amelia never feels traveling to the Tzu Chi Home is hard work, nor does she ever complain about it. She is eager to volunteer at the Tzu Chi Home, and regards any opportunity to learn the Master’s teachings as too precious to miss. Amelia is so determined that no distance would be too far.

Master Cheng Yen encourages all volunteers to introduce Tzu Chi to everyone they meet. Amelia follows those instructions to the letter. On her way to the bus stop to go to the Tzu Chi Home, or when she is waiting for the bus, she approaches everyone she sees and talks about Tzu Chi to them. She invites them to learn at the Tzu Chi Home with her.

“A life of abundance lies not in material possessions but in the heart.” These words of the Master’s have been deeply implanted in Amelia’s heart. They motivate her to give ever more mindfully of herself with love.

In 2019, Cyclone Idai devastated Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi. After carrying out emergency aid efforts in hard-hit areas in central Mozambique, Tzu Chi needed volunteers to stay there on a long-term basis to help implement the foundation’s longer term reconstruction work. Amelia lived in southern Mozambique but she volunteered to go to the country’s central region to help. “I’ll take the Tzu Chi spirit there,” she said.

Unexpectedly, the first week after her arrival, she was injured in a traffic accident. She had gone to visit villagers in the Nhamatanda District, and on her way back was knocked over by a speeding motor scooter. Her right arm suffered a fracture. She was rushed to the hospital, where her arm was put in a cast.

Despite her injury, Amelia didn’t want to return to her hometown to recuperate. “I just came up from the south,” she said, “and there are so many things to do.” Denise Tsai thought of how the Master always teaches everyone to focus on what they have, not what they don’t have, so she encouraged Amelia by saying, “You still have the other hand to work with.”

Amelia quickly responded: “Yes, and I still have a mouth with which I can invite others to volunteer for Tzu Chi.”

One day, Amelia said she felt very sorry for the man who had knocked her over. She said that if she were still her old self, she’d have been incensed at him, but now all she could think of was that he must have had a bad scare too. Besides, his leg had also been injured.

She tried to track him down, not to “settle the score with him,” she said, but to apologize to him. “I wasn’t careful when I walked on the road. That’s why he hit me.”

Everyone was amazed by Amelia’s magnanimity—both the volunteers who had come from Maputo to serve in central Mozambique and the newer volunteers locally.

Everyone was also impressed by her dedication to Tzu Chi’s charity work, especially given that she was so poor herself. But Amelia said that even though she struggled financially herself, she had met many people through her work with Tzu Chi who were worse off than her. As a result, she believed she was in a position to give, to help others.

“We often see Amelia’s happy and adorable smiles,” said Tsai. “We all find her smiles very ‘therapeutic.’” Tsai gave thanks for the Master’s teachings and for the warm, selfless support of her fellow volunteers for helping bring about Amelia’s transformation.

Now 66, Amelia says she will make the best of her life and volunteer until her last breath. Her story shows how love and giving are life’s true treasures and can lead one to find true, lasting joy within.

Amelia (middle) pictured in Taiwan during a 2019 trip to receive her volunteer certification from Dharma Master Cheng Yen. Volunteer Denise Tsai (right) has witnessed her transformation since she joined Tzu Chi. Liang Rong-wei


May 2022