September 30, 2013
My experiences in Zambia have yet to culminate into a cohesive set of ideas that will help me find purpose and meaning in my life. Instead, there are a variety of experiences that have pushed me first one way and then another. Even now I am still trying to make sense of them. I have already learned so much from this fellowship and I am sure that I will continue to learn how it has affected me for a long time to come. For me, the biggest impacts came from my interactions with the local people and realize the harsh realities of abject poverty.
The most powerful relationships I had in Zambia were with Mrs. Molimo, our cook, and Boniface, the agroforestry technician. Mrs. Molimo taught me many things, the most important being the significance of radio in her life. Every day without fail the radio would play from breakfast through dinner. She would cook to music from all around Africa and beyond. I made spaghetti to both Tonga drumming and Justin Bieber. However, the music was just filler in between life lessons. Mrs. Molimo listened to talk shows about agriculture, development, and government policy. She faithfully listened to the Tonga Market teaching programs, all three grades that were broadcasted. She told Laura and I that Tonga Market was her favorite program because it helped her with her English. For Mrs. Molimo, it was hard to understand native English speakers because of our accent, but the Tonga Market radio spoke with a Zambian accent that helped her learn.
Mrs. Molimo also taught me everything I know about traditional Tongan cultural practices. While making n’shima or chocolate cake, I questioned her about marriage practices, celebrations, dancing, and singing. I knew the anthropologist in me had gone too far when I started asking about kinship structures. We danced together in the kitchen, to both Tonga drumming and Jay Z. All the Tonga greetings we learned were drilled into us during our time in the kitchen. She demanded we learn the proper greetings as soon as possible. Mwabugabuti (Hello, how are you?) was a lifesaver in the field. People in the outstations were shocked and pleasantly surprised when we sputtered our infantile Tonga. Her knowledge of the gossip and goings on around town helped me appreciate the social structures and her connections. One day she took Laura and I to the Chikuni hospital. Not only did we get a private tour by one of the directors, we also had a chance to meet a variety of patients. We even met a woman in labor. Mrs. Molimo’s connections within the town helped us become accepted by the wider community and I cannot imagine how I could ever repay her.
Similarly, Boniface helped me understand the importance of informal knowledge as well as the impact that one person can make in a community. Boniface is one of the most inspiring people I have met because of his force as a catalyst for change. Boniface directed the entire agroforestry garden program, teaching both mentors and students about the worth of the environment. His vision and ambition changed Chikuni. Almost all of the Tonga Market schools had a blossoming garden with live fences, a variety of crops, and children who will become a new generation of eco-conscious citizens. Boniface’s work in the school gardens spread to the communities. In the interviews we asked if anyone replanted trees after they cut others down for firewood or charcoal. A surprising number of community members replied, “Yes, I replant trees because Mr. Boniface tells us how important it is”. When I feel insignificant and feel like the world’s problems are too big to solve I think of Boniface. If there was one motivated and inspired person like that in every community, the world’s problems would become much more manageable. I also learned about the rapid impact and dissemination of information. These agroforestry gardens are all relatively new and since their inception, Chikuni has become one of the leaders of agroforestry in the area and possibly in all of Zambia.
In contrast to the hope and comfort I feel when I think about Boniface and the impact that one person can make, I was overwhelmed and shocked by the social realities of absolute poverty. I have seen poverty. Travelling to over twenty developing countries has given me a glimpse into the lives of the three billion people living under $2 a day. However, I could never have prepared myself for the poverty that I experienced in the outstations of Chikuni and Lusaka. I loved working in the outstations because people seemed happy with the little they had. They lived in communities where everyone was incredibly poor. Every day was hand to mouth for most people in the outstations. Laura and I were always incredibly impressed when someone had saved enough money to buy a solar panel – not because solar panels were incredibly expensive, but because there is no culture of saving in these rural villages. If people had any money they would spend it on airtime for cell phones or extra food. In comparison, I was weighed down by the abject poverty in the townships in Lusaka. Missus, one of the worst townships in Lusaka, was riddled with alcohol, drugs, prostitution and an epidemic of HIV/AIDS. People seemed dejected during our interviews and even our attempts to reduce one of the burdens of poverty failed. Jack, Laura and I went with Kristine, the CEO of Lifeline Energy, to interview three families in Missus. To thank them for their time we gifted each family a small solar lantern. When we went back to visit the same families the day before we left, we learned that one of the lanterns had been stolen and the other two families lived in constant fear of theft. This is only one example of the numerous frustrations that I experienced while there. Every time we tried to help people, there was a possibility it could make their life worse.
There were many days in Zambia that I felt like I had taken the wrong trajectory in life. I had always wanted to work in the non-profit industry, make a difference on the community and, one day, the global scale. I often felt like I was In Zambia but I was not making a difference, I was just taking up space and reinforcing neo-colonialist attitudes. Every bus station we entered people would swarm us asking if we were going to Malawi, one of the poorest nations in Sub-Saharan Africa and where the vast majority of aid workers were headed. If so many westerners were coming to help people, why weren’t thing getting better? I began to question my own motivations for helping other people or trying to influence the world. So far, I have come up with hundreds of questions and few answers.
One of the most impactful answers that I have come up with is empowerment. We, as educated people, have the opportunity to solve the world’s problems with our skills and education. But at the community level, leaders from the local community should be empowered to help their own people. Father Kelly asked both Laura and I to speak to a young group of girls to inspire them to work hard and go to college. I felt that it would be much better to have a successful, educated Zambian woman come motivate them. I have learned that I would prefer to use my skills and talents to help local community leaders, preferably women, so that they can make a difference in their own communities and beyond. Training people like Boniface to teach agroforestry or life skills can be more impactful than sending money or westerners to help. The more I reflect on my experiences in Zambia, the more I believe that women’s education and empowerment are the most powerful tools for global change.
As I gather these experiences and new perspectives, I will use them to determine what trajectory I should take in the future. Although there are still so many questions to answer and experiences to distill, Zambia has helped me by increasing my self-awareness and contributing to my vocational journey.