It was more difficult to complete my meditation about my time in Zambia than I anticipated. I’ve been sitting on my experiences for about a month, and honestly, I think I had some serious digesting to do. This trip was different than the trip I took 10 years ago. It was just as impactful; however, the ways in which I was impacted were not the same as those as a fresh-eyed college student who still thought diet mountain dew and peanut M&M’s were an acceptable option for a meal. Because of my previous trip, I had already seen zebras and giraffes and had my sunglasses stolen by a monkey; I knew not to drink the water from the tap, although this didn’t prevent me from accidentally brushing my teeth with tap water on my first day. To be fair, I was very tired and used a tube of hydrocortisone instead of toothpaste, so I clearly wasn’t functioning at peak alertness. I also had already met Fran and Lonnie Turner, who first came to Zambia over 40 years ago. The Turners have a home in South Africa but come to Zambia for months at a time to volunteer through the non-profit they started, Partners in Development. The Turners ensured I had an authentic experience in Zambia in 2007 by connecting me with a family who allowed me to stay in their hut, in the middle of nowhere, for close to 2 weeks. Most importantly, though, I was braced for an incongruous juxtaposition of extreme poverty and incredible natural beauty. In short, I didn’t come to Zambia blind this time, and prior to leaving Germany, I made a list of tentative objectives, knowing that I would have to be flexible, based on my group and what the actual needs of the villagers were. My group was to stay in Livingstone; we would would be shepherded daily into “the bush” via Lonnie’s rental truck, and included the Turners, my cousin, Ashlyn, who is a veterinary student; my father; my father’s co-worker, a social worker; and her 18 year-old son. I was told we would be in Munyanya Village, one of the same places I visited 10 years ago. I was informed that the biggest need in the village was education and literacy, but I should be prepared to talk to the villagers, to listen to them, to hear in their own words what their strengths were, but also what their needs were.
In preparation for my trip, I sought to arm myself with activities and games and ideas for both basic literacy and female empowerment. I contacted the Peace Corps in Zambia and scoured ESL websites. I was almost immediately struck by the lack of applicable materials for dealing with rural poverty. The ESL website has many activities for learning English; however, most of them pertain to urban life: going to the cinema, dining out, vacations, and travel. The poorest of the poor do not have banking accounts; many don’t even have electricity or access to clean water. They attend schools where more than 60 students must share a small classroom with one teacher. They have no pens, no paper, no books. There are no school buses; no carpool lines. There aren’t even paved roads. Many have never left the village in which they were born.
I knew better than to arrive in Zambia with a spoiled, white person’s view of the world, but in my attempt to find culturally appropriate materials, I came up empty. I made do with what I could find, but I was reminded of research I did about rural poverty when I was in undergrad and graduate school. Rural poverty is often invisible, because people assume the biggest problems are in cities, where homelessness and the impact of poverty are directly observable. Trying to assist rural communities isn’t easy, because often the message which gets conveyed is the only way to escape from the cycle of poverty is to physically leave it behind, whether it be through an exodus from the town in search of a job in a city, or by getting into college. Quality, successful programs aimed at addressing infrastructure in rural communities are rarely discussed. This is why I appreciate the Turners so much. They are attempting to put things in place in rural communities which will improve the lives of everyone and will ensure some sort of sustainability, whether it’s a well to provide clean drinking water, or a cleared field in which children are free to play soccer.
Zambia is a special place. The landscape, with Victoria Falls carving a deep gash through the countryside, is stunning; the thunderous falls necessitate a raincoat for any viewer seeking an up-close glimpse, but as long as you’re OK wearing a plastic poncho in all your photos, it’s an utterly incredible experience. Rainbows arch across the expansive falls.
The locals refer to it as “Mosi-oa-Tunya,” which means “the smoke that thunders.” One must be prepared to walk to get the full effect, because Victoria Falls spans two countries and offers drastically different viewpoints, depending on the angle of origin. Wild elephants, giraffes, zebras, monkeys, and impalas can be spotted on the grounds of many hotels in Livingstone, as well as along the roads, one of which cuts through a nature preserve. Without the light pollution of a fully developed country, an endless sea of stars is laid out like shimmering diamonds against a jeweler’s velvety display case.
Indeed, Zambia is beautiful, but the disparity between the wealth of natural resources and the poverty of the vast majority of the population is stark. It’s difficult not to feel angry when you witness droves of fellow tourists enjoying high tea on the lawn of a massive hotel, whose lobby features zebra hides and antlered heads, and parents let squirming children get way too close to the warthogs which freely roam the grounds. At the same time, it’s easy to be one of those people who geeks out when a monkey plops from a tree and offers what you assume to be a demure and unassuming expression, only to find out seconds later that all it wants from you is food, and it will brandish a branch and go toe to toe with you in a nest of tree roots in order to get it.
It’s challenging to spin such things into a whimsical tale of elephants and waterfalls, bandaged knees and ABC’s. I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to pretend I’m a hero who saved a village and can walk away thoroughly satisfied and unburdened. I would be doing a disservice to my fellow volunteers and aid workers, as well as the people of Zambia, if I summarized my experiences as such. But I’m also not the sort of person to dwell solely on the negatives. I function best when I try on a variety of lenses and frameworks and adopt the one which uses a kaleidoscope of experiences, both good and bad.
What I can say for certain is this: Improvements have been made in Munyanya Village since I visited 10 years ago. On my last trip, women were being eaten by crocodiles while attempting to get water from the river, a bucketful at a time. They were then using these buckets to water gardens and small parcels of land. The Turners supplied the village with a treadle pump, an instrument which could be used to pump water from the river through a hose, eliminating the need to endanger one’s life in the river and also significantly increasing the amount of arable land. In the years since I was there, the land which was once dusty and dry now contains fields of crops, and the crops are being harvested and sold. This was so exciting to see. The Turners have also built a pre-K building, which is a place for students and adults to come for tutoring.
It was in the pre-K building where I spent the majority of my time. The pre-K building is used in the mornings as a place for children, ages 3-7, to go in order to learn fundamentals of math and English. Prior to its construction, the children had nothing to do and nowhere to go. The building has a meager library and is also used in the afternoons for tutoring older children and, theoretically, adults, although as I soon learned, adults were very unlikely to show up. The classroom has a concrete floor and has been filled with tiny, colorful plastic tables and chairs, as well as a few collapsible tables. While we were there, one of the volunteers made some beautiful posters to help decorate the classroom.
Most of the 30-40 children in the classroom were younger than the age of seven, but there was one student, a teenager named Robert, who had also been included in the group. Each day, he was seated at a table, off to the side of the rest of the students. In the United States, he would qualify as a student with a major learning disability. Among the many things not present in the classroom are training and appropriate materials for students requiring special assistance. Prior to the construction of the pre-K building, I have no idea where Robert spent his time. He is one of many who could easily slip through the cracks of Zambia’s public education system.
When I was a child seated in a cluster of desks in my classroom, I was one of the ones who thrust my hand in the air excitedly when a teacher asked a question. I was so excited to learn, and I saw that same passion in children in Munyanya. These children need a place to cultivate their enthusiasm for learning. When they advance to the primary school, they are easily lost in a sea of older children and must fight to make their voices heard in a classroom with numbers which swell to 60-100 students. The ratio of students to teacher makes it very hard for anything other than the most basic of skills to be imparted. Students lack textbooks and workbooks. Everyday materials which I took for granted in elementary school – pencils, an art-box, marble-bound notebooks, workbooks in which I could practice my letters and handwriting- are nowhere to be found. I actually spent part of an afternoon assisting a teacher who was writing out dotted lines in the shape of letters in neat rows on pieces of scrap paper which had been stapled together in a rudimentary notebook. The students had been dismissed for the day, but the teacher stayed in the classroom to prepare for the next day. Imagine the lessons she could plan and the energy she could save by simply being able to distribute ready-made workbooks! Education should be a basic human right, but for many, it remains a privilege.
In addition to working with children, I met several times with a group of women in the village. The women showed up wearing blue t-shirts with the words “Murphy USA” in boxy white letters. Many of them spoke little English, so a woman named Edith translated from the local dialect. Edith is a spirited, no-nonsense nurse with a huge heart. There were about 12 women who ranged in age from their 20’s to 60’s. Most of the women had lost at least one child to AIDS or another disease. Some had become mothers as young as 13 or 14. The women discussed the ways in which their lives changed when they became mothers, as well as their dreams for themselves and their children. We talked about how their lives had changed after a grinding machine was brought to the village for all to use.
The women are able to grind their corn into meal, which is used as a staple in Zambians’ diets. Having a little bit of money raises a new set of issues, as the women discussed. Some were dealing with abusive, alcoholic husbands who expected the women to bring in money to pay for their habits; one women stole money from others and gave it to a family member. There was mistrust among the women, so we discussed ways to work as a group and to take turns supporting one another. I strongly encouraged the women to continue meeting twice a week, indefinitely. They picked days of the week and a time that fit their schedules. I hope they do continue to meet and talk, but they could definitely benefit from having someone, preferably a local, provide basic counseling services.
In addition to discussing personal issues, the women also agreed how important education is and some even admitted that they have a desire to learn English. One of the things the Turners would like to do is employ full-time teachers, as well as someone to specialize in adult literacy. I definitely had moments where I considered moving to Zambia for a few months (or forever) to help provide tutoring and counseling assistance, but I don’t think that’s the most economically sound way to make a difference. I also strongly believe that a local, not a white American, should be the one to provide this service. I obviously can’t change my heritage and am perfectly proud of my background, but Zambians don’t need another outsider coming in and showing them how things should be done. They should have a hero who is also Zambian. Besides, I didn’t go to school for education, and it’s not my area of expertise. Hopefully the Turners will find the appropriate person in the near future.
The Turners are in the process of a having a 40-foot container shipped to Zambia. The container is somewhere in Kentucky at the moment, filling up with supplies which range from sports equipment to books. Once the container reaches Zambia, the supplies will be distributed and the container itself converted to a library. It is here where adults and children will be able to go to further their education. The vision is in place. The next step is to fully stock the container, and of course, to secure funding so the container can be shipped from Kentucky to Zambia. I will include information about how to donate to Partners in Development at the bottom of this page, if you are interested in doing so.
The Turners are also currently working on several projects in Munyanya, as well as other villages. Fran has been gifted a parcel of land which she hopes to clear and designate for planting peanuts. Have I mentioned Zambia has the best peanut butter in the world? The soil is ideally suited for growing peanuts, so once the land is cleared, peanut farming is another way to bring money into the village. In order to clear the land, however, the Turners need financial support, as well as appropriate equipment.
Additionally, the Turners support a veterinarian named Athens, who is incredibly hardworking and passionate about his profession. My cousin assisted him for three weeks while she was in Zambia, and they were able to do everything from treat a dog with cancer, to castrate piglets and trim goat hooves. Athens goes into remote areas where few, if any, have gone in order to vaccinate cattle, goats, dogs, cats, chickens, pretty much any animal, really. Protecting people’s animals against disease is important, not only for the animals but for the containment of diseases which can also impact humans. My cousin brought a bunch of donated supplies for owners to use for protecting animals from fleas, ticks, and heartworm, but ensuring appropriate veterinary care is a long-term issue. This is another way in which you can help the welfare of people and animals in Zambia.
So, you may be wondering about the fun stuff. Well, plenty of that happened, too, especially if you consider stomach problems in forested areas where lack of plumbing forces one to quickly become acquainted with nature. Fortunately I was in an area where the width of trees surpassed the width of my own body, allowing passable coverage from the van of travelers waiting on the side of the road for me to finish. It wasn’t fun at the time, but it’s really funny in hindsight.
Other fun things: I bartered with merchants touting their stone-carved animals and bowls made from coconut shells. I attempted to do the hokey-pokey with a group of school children. I took about a thousand pictures of Victoria Falls. I managed to get an entire giraffe in one of my selfies, and my cousin and I were taken to see a rhino who is protected around the clock by armed guards. I went on a safari, where an elephant came within arms length of our vehicle, and said vehicle was nearly rammed by the approaching elephant due to volume control issues from an overly excited fellow tourist. I guess not everyone received the pre-safari memo that elephants don’t respond well to the cutesy, baby voice one typically reserves for addressing kittens and infants. I’m grateful the elephant was in a forgiving mood and preferred to concern itself with bathing in the river instead of trampling a group of tourists. And speaking of near-death experiences with wildlife…
While walking along a pathway after viewing the Falls, my father, cousin and I came so close to a family of wild baboons that I could feel a rush of air when we passed each other. I’d like to say it was a dream come true to be so close to my favorite character from The Lion King, but I was terrified. Baboons are big, with dagger-like canines, and I really didn’t want my face ripped off. Ferocious, non-hominoid primates aside, if you are a lover of animals and nature, Africa is a dream. I am beyond fortunate to have seen parts of it more than once.
People have asked me if I want to go back to Zambia, and if I would encourage others to go. Absolutely, BUT, here’s what I would say to anyone who is considering taking a trip: Don’t go because you fancy yourself a hero. Don’t go because you want to impress others with your worldliness. Don’t go if you are unmoved by the beauty of nature and the best freaking peanut butter in the entire world. Don’t go if you care nothing about the preservation of wild animals and their natural habitats. Don’t go if you plan to be a tourist who thinks baby-talking a wild elephant will yield a successful interaction. Don’t go if you are afraid to get your clothes and shoes dusted by copper-infused soil. But do go if you want to see a culture drastically different than your own. Do go if you have an open mind and a willingness to hear the stories of locals, so that you might share them with others. Do go if you want to write odes to “the smoke that thunders” from within a rainbow-hued cloud of mist. I will return one day, and hopefully my husband will come with me. And maybe you will come, too. If you’re interested, let me know, and I’ll put you in touch with the Turners.
In the meantime, however, if you are unable to go but want to help there’s a way to do so. The Turners need books and teaching supplies, athletic equipment, tools for construction projects, shoes, clothes, pens, pencils, notebooks, art supplies, and just about anything you can imagine. They also need financial assistance in order to send the shipping container to Zambia. If you want to donate, I will enclose the link to the Partners in Development website. If you have a particular area to which you’d like to donate, you can do so when you submit your donation.
Thank you for supporting me through your donations and well-wishes, and thank you for reading my account of my experiences in Zambia. By doing so, you are helping ensure that the one of the biggest dreams of the rural poor -knowing they are not forgotten- has been realized.
If you are interested in submitting a donation, please see the Partners in Development website for more information. http://partnersindevelopment.org/