Michelle Walker in Zambia – Day 2

In June of 2017, Michelle Walker, Content Developer for DentalXChange, attended Full-Circle Learning Center’s Conference in Lusaka, Zambia to represent the EHG Fund and see how the program’s influence has shaped the school system and to learn what more we can do to help the Zambian people. Michelle wrote a daily log of her trip to help us experience her adventures. Here is Day 2: 

“The importance of what FCL is doing in Zambia is impossible to ignore.” 

After having a breakfast of a banana and some water, Teresa, Davidson and I take a car to the John Howard neighborhood, about 20 minutes north of our rental house. The streets through John Howard are paved, attesting to the importance of this long-standing neighborhood, which began growing in the 1920s, and continues to have an active railway running through the middle. The John Howard area was originally farmland owned by various British and South African families. As parcels were sold off through the decades, the John Howard construction firm purchased a large portion. John Howard later sold their land, in segments, to local Zambians. This area was desirable for the local folks because it was already established as a black neighborhood during a time when many portions of Lusaka were highly segregated. In other words, this land was actually available for purchase, when few other options existed.

The John Howard Community School is the first school we visit on Friday. John Howard was formed in 2014 or 2015. A middle-aged woman who goes by Frida runs the 3-room school, which has no lighting and no glass in the windows. There are about 300 children (and a few adults) who attend this K-8 school. When we drive up to the school, which is basically a squat cinder-block building with a corrugated steel roof, large water tower out front, a canteen to the left, and a dusty patch of dirt to the right, we see the Women’s Group sitting in white plastic patio chairs, meeting around tables out front. Roosters roam in between the people and chairs, as children run over to the canteen to purchase a banana or an apple for lunch. Some of the young children loitering out front do not attend the school, but they enjoy hanging around outside of it, swinging from the bottom of the water tower or playing with a makeshift plastic ball in the adjacent dirt field.

The Women’s Group appears to be made up of mostly older looking women—grandmothers—who plan initiatives and other community activities. One of their main projects involves teaching the fundamentals of agriculture and food storage to the kids, so they learn how to properly grow and harvest food, which may be shared with the rest of the community. The second main project relates to helping girls at risk of child marriage. Child marriage, or “early marriage” as it is often referred to colloquially, is the practice of marrying off girl children, often to older men. Frida spoke about how girls in poorer families are especially susceptible to early marriage because their families simply cannot afford to feed, clothe, and house them. Although Zambian law prohibits sex with girls under the age of 16, it is common for girls involved in early marriage to become pregnant before 16. The high rate of early marriage in Zambia is devastating to communities, as many of the pregnant girls eventually drop out of school. In response to these high dropout rates, the Zambian government initiated a campaign, now several years old, encouraging all girls to graduate from high school. The rates of girls finishing 12th grade have risen, especially among girls involved in early marriage. The Woman’s Group identifies girls at risk of early marriage, or who have already married, and tries to convince them to return to school. Sometimes this includes talking to the parents of the girl, or her husband, but often the decision is the girl’s to make. Frida reported that the Woman’s Group has been successful at encouraging at least 5 or 6 girls to return to the school.

At John Howard we see about 200 eager students, ranging in age from about 5 to 13 or 14, spread between the three rooms. I am struck by the fact that there are no lights, and several of the rooms are very dim. In addition, the roof has holes and the windows lack glass, so I wonder how the children stay dry during the rainy season. This is the first of two planned visits, and we do not stay longer than about an hour. During that time, several children recite a poem to demonstrate a FCL project they’re working on, and about 40 kids perform a dance for us. Teresa goes outside to see if she can speak to some of the women gathered for the Women’s Group. Although the national language in Zambia is English, due to the country being a former British colony, many Zambians speak a native language as well, the most common of which is Bemba. I am not sure whether these women mostly spoke English, Bemba, or some other language.

Upon leaving the John Howard Community School, Beauty climbs into the car with us and tells the driver how to get to another community school called the Love School. The Love school is a few miles from John Howard, and is a small shelter with no solid walls. The school has four rooms, each about 10 feet by 10 feet, and rice sacks are sewn together to create room separators. The Love School is only a few years old, and most of the children appear to be between the ages of 5 and 10. The various classes are working on different FCL Habits of Heart, and Teresa asks the children about how the curriculum relates to the Habit of Heart they are learning. We go into the class for 1st and 2nd graders, and this is the first time I see a child with albinism. I am curious to see whether he is included, or whether the other kids treat him differently because of his genetic condition, as there are still a lot of negative connotations associated with albinism. It appears that the children do not treat him any differently than the other classmates, as all of the other kids are seated just as close to him as they are to others. We only spend about 20 minutes at the Love school, and although Teresa would like to learn more about how many teachers have had the FCL training, there isn’t time to do even brief interviews. This brief visit is the only time we will see these teachers and students.

We all pile into the car and drive across the city, through downtown Lusaka, past industrial Lusaka, to the Mildred Academy School. The Mildred School is located in an older suburb, and is the wealthiest of all the FCL community schools we will visit in Zambia. A more in-depth evaluation is planned for the following Tuesday, so we plan to stay only for an hour or so. It is mid-afternoon and none of us have eaten any food since the fruit and coffee or tea we consumed in the morning. The kids who open the gate greet us with curiosity. There are only a few kids scattered about, as most are in the middle of class. The large dirt courtyard in the middle of the school is mostly deserted. Although Mildred herself is not at the school, we meet the head administrator, who takes us to briefly visit each classroom. I saw approximately 250 students in 10 classrooms, ranging in age from 5 to 13 or 14 years old. Compared to John Howard and the Love School, Mildred Academy seems palatial in terms of scale and style. The head administrator explains that most of the children pay a small tuition to attend. No child is turned away, even if their family cannot pay anything for tuition. All of the teachers at the schools we previously visited were clearly volunteers, and I am not sure whether the teachers are Mildred are paid or not. My suspicion is that they are not. The level of dedication it takes to educate entire generations of Zambian children, without getting paid for it, is astonishing to me. The importance of what FCL is doing in Zambia is impossible to ignore.

After departing Mildred Academy we head to the city center on Cairo road, and have dinner at Hungry Lion. Hungry Lion is a Zambian fast-food chain with a limited menu of friend chicken items, much like a KFC. In fact, KFC is the only American restaurant I have seen in Zambia, with one a mere 50 yards from the Hungry Lion we are eating in. There is also a second Hungry Lion directly across from that KFC, in the same shopping center. Why there needs to be three fried chicken fast food restaurants in a 50-yard radius, I am not sure….The KFC is virtually empty, and yet both Hungry Lion restaurants have customers streaming out their doors, lining up to sit with strangers at any available seat. I ask Davidson about why people seem to love this food so much. I haven’t yet received my order, but I am pretty sure it won’t be any better than any other type of fast food (plus, I’m not a fan of fried chicken). Davidson explains that people enjoy Hungry Lion so much because it feels very big and over-the-top Western (specifically, American). When I ask why they just don’t go to KFC if they want American fried chicken, he laughs and says that KFC is too expensive for many Zambians. From a previous conversation with Teresa and Beauty, I have learned that many of the students we met today come from households that spend less than a dollar a day on food. The average Hungry Lion meal is about 46 kwacha, or $5. Many middle class Zambians can afford to spend this one meal, although not daily, and it’s considered a sign of status to be spending money frivolously on fast food that is 10 times more expensive than what you could make at home. As I look around the restaurant I notice that people do seem pretty eager to eat mediocre food. When my double fried chicken sandwich arrives, I barely eat half. Davidson insists I take the rest to go. I am learning that, in a country with so much hunger, it is incredibly offensive to throw uneaten food in the trash. It is eye opening for me.

We arrive home and the sun has set, so everyone congregates in the areas that have lighting (the living room, dining room, and kitchen), even though there is no real furniture in these rooms. Teresa talks briefly to Davidson about what they might need for preparations for the wedding, while I go into the kitchen and try to determine what to do with my Hungry Lion leftovers. I’m not a leftovers person, and quickly lose my appetite thinking about the soggy mess this meal is already turning into, and because there is no refrigerator, I am certain it will not keep well. I feel bad for both taking the leftovers, and for allowing them to now end up in the garbage.

I go back to my dark room, and go to sleep. It is 7:30pm.

Stay tuned in to read Day 3 of Michelle’s adventures. Check out Michelle’s interview on why she felt the need to help and find out more on what people can do to help. 

Michelle Walker in Zambia – Day 1

In June of 2017, Michelle Walker, Content Developer for DentalXChange, attended Full-Circle Learning Center’s Conference in Lusaka, Zambia to represent the EHG Fund and see how the program’s influence has shaped the school system and to learn what more we can do to help the Zambian people. Michelle wrote a daily log of her trip to help us experience her adventures. Here is Day 1: 

Shortly after Noon, Teresa Langness of Full-Circle Learning and I land in Lusaka. The airport does not seem particularly large, but that’s probably because the Customs area is small, by most Western standards. Everyone must stand single-file in one line to present our Yellow Fever vaccination cards, which are quickly reviewed and our Passports stamped. Then, we need to go through Customs. There are two Customs officials for Zambian nationals, one for Consulate employees and embassy officials, and one for visitors. The line for visitors seems incredibly slow, and there is family of 6 ahead of us who apparently need to pay an additional amount in order to get through. I am assuming they have the appropriate visas (otherwise they would have been denied boarding before entering Zambia), so I’m not sure why the Customs officer is not simply stamping their passports and letting them through. Teresa and I are next up, and she allows me to go ahead of her. I present my passport and Yellow Fever vaccination certificate, which the Customs officer barely glances at before stamping my page and allowing me entry. Once I make it through, I wait near the baggage area for Teresa to come through. However, 5 minutes stretches into 10 and then nearly 15 before she clears the Customs booth. I did not ask her whether she needed to pay an additional amount to enter the country, but I was definitely worried that they would deny her entry. Luckily, we managed to locate all of our bags and luggage tags, and exit the airport within an hour of arrival.

As we come out of the airport and round a corner, we begin to hear children singing. The first person I see is Davidson with a huge grin on his face, recording the welcome song that the kids are singing to us. The song and flowers are such a kind gesture; I barely know what to say. Clearly Teresa is loved here. I meet Davidson officially for the first time, and Beauty gives me a big hug, and we both greet all of the children and thank them for coming to meet us. Beauty informs us that the kids need to board a bus back to school, but that she and Davidson will ride with us to our rental apartment.

After loading our bags into the car, our driver begins to leave the airport, but is flagged down and told to pull the side of the road. After about 5 minutes of waiting, the driver explains that we are pulled over because the presidential motorcade will be driving through. As about a dozen cars begin to stack up behind us, I anticipate what a presidential motorcade might look like. Another 3 minutes, and we see about a dozen policy trucks, motorcycles, and cars whip past on this two-lane road that runs adjacent to the airport. Then two large dark SUV’s zoom past going at least 50 mph. I assume one of those vehicles contains the president of Zambia. Finally, about two-dozen other private vehicles careen past, with people hanging out of the windows waiving the Zambian flag and blasting music. The driver informs us that these stragglers are not official state vehicles; rather, just zealous supporters of the president, who is currently two years into his term, part of which he served as interim president, and the last year of which he was actually elected to hold the position (apparently Zambia’s political future has been in some upheaval since the previous president died suddenly in 2014, after a brief illness). Either way, almost as quickly as our waylay began, it was over, and we continued our journey toward the center of Lusaka.

As we drive, Teresa and Davidson chat about the economic progress Zambia has made within the past 5 years, and how it has changed the way Lusaka looks and feels. He notes that the house in which we are staying did not exist 5 years ago, and that the economy is really booming (Teresa is amazed by the number of people in Lusaka who have cars). Although he does not live in Zambia, Davidson is very knowledgeable about the country and the culture.

I mostly look out the window at the scenery, and as we leave the wealthier portions of Lusaka (where many of the tourist hotels and western-style buildings are), the buildings become more sparse. The area looks like a typical US suburb, except that all along the roadside are entrepreneur stands where people are selling everything from homemade dog houses and chicken coops, to headstones and grave markers, fruits and vegetables. At intersections people stand in between lanes, selling cell phone minutes, especially since wireless devices have become more ubiquitous in the last decade. In the expanse of space between the two-lane highway and the backs of the suburban sprawl, are high-tension power lines, as well as drying stalks of corn and heaping piles of garbage. The driver says that people do actually grow and harvest the corn when in-season. However, I cannot imagine growing food on land that is also a large open-air garbage dump. Children and adults are squatting atop the miles and miles of garbage, picking out items of value, and then burning the rest. The acrid smell of burning plastics and additional unknown fumes are a constant, day and night.

We arrive at the rental home around 3:30pm, and set up our luggage. The house, like nearly all built in Lusaka, is modern looking, with tile floors, and a lot of marble accents. It’s located right off of a main road that leads out of Zambia (despite the increasing traffic, the newly paved road remains one lane in each direction), is made of cinder block with a tile roof, and a 7-foot tall cinder block wall and security gate.

Davidson lets us know that we have about an hour to relax before we head over to his fiancée’s home, where her family is making a special meal. I meet Peter, who is a friend of Davidson’s and a Full Circle Learning Zambia graduate. Peter works as a government health counselor, which involves him and a team of several others visiting 3-4 families a day, performing HIV testing, delivering test results, and connecting people with social services. Peter is very nice and friendly, and warmly welcomes us. He’s staying with us in the rental house, and is a Groomsman in Davidson’s upcoming wedding. During the week he goes to work, and in the evenings spends time talking to Teresa and I.

After resting for an hour we drive to Davidson’s fiancée, Bridget’s family home. When we pull into the driveway, I see Bridget first. She invites us into the house, where we meet her mom, and Davidson’s other Groomsman, Asante Kyei Baffour (pronounced “A-saun-tay Chay Ba-four), who is from Ghana. We watch a soccer game (Mexico versus Russia), and then Mabel (Bridget’s sister and the head administrator for FCL Zambia) brings us a pitcher of water and bowl to wash our hands. We eat a typical Zambian dinner, and Bridget has added a few extra dishes for the occasion. The center of all Zambian meals is a maize dish called shima. Shima has the consistency of congealed grits, and it is prepared by mixing corn powder in boiling water. Normally there is no seasoning to shima. Zambians prefer not to use utensils to eat, instead breaking off a piece of the porridge-like shima and using it to scoop up the other portions of the meal (e.g., beef stew, vegetable stew, sautéed pumpkin leaves, mashed beans and nuts, etc.). I heard the refrain over and over again that, in Zambia, you have not eaten unless your meal consists of shima. You can have a bowl of rice and an entire chicken, but if you have not eaten shima, you have not yet eaten.

Most of us eat that first meal with our hands. I notice that I am the only left-hander at the table. I also notice that most people do not wash both of their hands when Mabel offers the water, but just the right hand. I lean over to ask Peter if it’s considered rude to eat with my left hand, to which he gently smiles and asks, “Is your left hand the hand you write with?” I confirm that it is, and he laughs and says, “That is okay then.” Like many parts of the world, left-handed children born in Zambia are converted to right-handers, and so the rate of left-handedness there is far below the world average of 10 percent. One of the drivers noticed me using my left hand to write, and asked if left-handedness is common in the states. I explained that it is not any more common than the average in all countries, and he noted that it is very rare to see a left handed adult in his country.

Teresa and I say our goodbyes and return to the house to discover that, although we have lighting in our room and attached bathroom, we cannot actually get the lights to turn on. We look for signs of mosquitos (we closed all of the windows in the room and bathroom, since none have mosquito screens), and finding none, decide against trying to put up the mosquito nets that Teresa brought with her. I’m desperately trying to stay up until 9pm in order to avoid severe jet lag, and go to the kitchen looking for another bottle of water. While in the kitchen I notice what looks like a spider crawling on my arm, only to realize it is a mosquito. By the time I finish brushing my teeth using the bottled water, it is clear that I have been bitten. I resolved to take my anti-malaria pills religiously at the same time each day, in order to avoid potential malaria infection. After trying to get a wifi signal, and then trying to get a cell signal, I go to bed around 9:30pm.

Stay tuned in to read Day 2 of Michelle’s adventures. Check out Michelle’s interview on why she felt the need to help and find out more on what people can do to help.