June 27th 2010 Lusaka, Zambia

October 15, 2010 | lgabe

These past few weeks have been rather hectic. Like I mentioned near the beginning of our placement, we met with the community facilitators. Like most of us know, when hosting, it is crucial to provide your colleagues with food and drinks. In Canada, we might offer some coffee/tea and cookies, but here in Zambia fritters and pop are customary. While I have yet to try one, fritters are dough directly fried in cooking oil. Needless to say, we gained a few bonus points by feeding our new and esteemed colleagues.

In our meeting, I was really nervous. What would the community facilitators think of us? Expect from us? Want from us? I noticed soon enough however, that they also seemed nervous, making the initial experience more bearable. As time passed, they became increasingly comfortable and were not afraid to share their stories with us.

There are 10 active community facilitators and each are responsible for a specific compound in and around Lusaka. I was surprised and impressed to hear that some of these facilitators had been doing their job for many years on a volunteer basis. Every facilitator is in charge of numerous community-based groups (Self-help groups or Family Circles of Care and Support – targeting the ‘poorest of the poor’ as they say) that spearhead their own initiatives to face their every-day challenges. After getting to know these amazing and passionate individuals, we set dates to meet with their community groups that week. Thus began our trek into the lives of local Zambians living in great poverty.

That week we were introduced to the peri-urban lifestyle in Lusaka as well as the ultra rural Zambian life. Walking through the urban compounds, I was overwhelmed with the amount of garbage covering the unpaved roads. Women sat in the doorways of their congested homes, hand-washing or selling charcoal. The children ran free through the potholes filled with garbage, with no sign of caring whether or not they wore shoes. Most of them did not. To be honest, it was difficult to see this harsh reality, however I don’t believe I’ll ever be able to fully understand what it is like to live in such poverty. My lack of complete understanding is perhaps my biggest challenge here.

Our first meet took place in a community centre, beside one of many community schools. As I walked into the yard, the teacher quickly invited a couple of us into the one and only classroom to meet the kids. Nearly 20 kids sat around what look liked picnic tables in small dark room. The teacher explained to me that the kids ranged from the age of 6 to 12, grade 1 to grade 6. It baffled me to see one teacher instruct six different grades at once. She said, they do what they can with what they’ve got, which is barely anything. Inspiring, I think.

That week, I experienced the best day of my life up until now. I do not exaggerate when I say that June 24th, 2010 was the best day of my 22 years. Early that morning we met up with the supervisor from Lupwa Lwabumi Trust (the NGO where I am doing my placement), our beloved leader Masiliso, escorted us to our next stop: Katuba, rural village outside of Lusaka. After thirty minutes in the minibus, we got off at our stop: 15 miles. In what seemed to be the middle of nowhere, Masiliso explained that we were supposed to have transportation to Katuba but that it wasn’t there. So we walked. An hour later, we found ourselves in the middle of the BUSH and wondering where in the world we were. Feeling lost in what looked like the Lion King felt SO serene! Nothing surrounded us but rural Africa. Every now and then we saw mud huts, but up until we arrived to Katuba, an hour and a half later, nothing was in sight. It was amazing. When we finally arrived to Katuba, nearly a dozen women began dancing and singing traditional welcoming songs. This is the first time I’ve understood the true meaning of hospitality. Over the course of the first hour, groups of women from the 11 surrounding villages arrived to the Pache pache land (‘slowly but surely’) to meet with us. To begin our meeting, we (all sixty women plus a few men!), Masiliso, Caro, Nat, Jeanne and I) sat in a circle. Facilitating the meeting, Masiliso encouraged each group of women to share with us their initiatives. I was surprised to see that the rural women could mobilise the community so efficiently to spearhead projects for the benefit of all community members. Individuals in these rural villages still face harsh realities such as the prominence of HIV/AIDS, however manage to come together to find ways to help each other out, whereas some of the groups in the more urban region carry the burden of poverty, unable to see the opportunities that may rise before them.

The groups in Katuba were more than happy to share with us their successes and challenges. Many of the groups farmed cabbage, sweet potatoes, ground nuts or managed poultries. Some of the women were proud to share that their groups had been able to save nearly 2 million Kwacha (approximately four hundred American dollars), to further new initiatives.

Katuba faced many challenges, one of them being accessibility to clinics of hospitals. Since the villages are more than an hour and a half walk away from the roadside, accessing medical facilities on time during an emergency is nearly impossible. A few years ago, a small clinic was built on the Pache pache land, but there are no medical supplies for the community to use.

In honor of our presence, the village slaughtered one of their goats and a few of their chickens to feed us, which by the way were absolutely delicious. Before heading back to Chazanga, each group ended the meeting by singing a song. They encouraged us to dance, but were soon very disappointed (yet still managed to laugh at us!) with our Canadian abilities, or lack thereof. After each group presented us with a song, they asked us to present one in return. I have to say that while this day may have been my favourite to date, it was perhaps one of the most embarrassing as well.

(Sidenote: traditional music and dance are at the forefront of Zambian culture. In other words, in every situation we find ourselves there is some sort of dancing or singing going on. The Zambians I’ve met are always so surprised to hear we don’t have any substantial Canadian culture to offer in return. During my second week in Zambia, I found myself playing with the students from Bwafwano community school late one morning. To pass the time, they taught me common Zambian games and songs played amongst most children. About an hour later, with nothing left to offer, nearly fifteen children stood before me, waiting. Waiting for what you may ask? Waiting for our brilliant Canadian songs… Either Canada has no original songs or I have worked TOO many summers at camp, because the only song I could think of offering to these beautiful beaming children was the “Banana Song”. Our lack of traditional songs and my inability to come up with anything more creative has made the “Banana Song” a running team joke.)

Back to the minutes before departing Katuba for the first time, where the women cornered us and demanded a song. In all of our brilliantness (and the influential words of Caro), we performed THE “Banana Song”.

So there it is. Four young women, standing in the middle of a circle of nearly 60 women – some of which were the village elders – after listening to enriching Zambian songs, singing a song about Bananas! Humiliating! Somehow in the midst of the chaotic bananas, the women actually caught on to the song and began singing along. Following many ‘goodbyes’, ‘safe journeys’, and ‘musale bwinos’ (stay well), we rode away on our prime luxury coach cart pulled by our friendly neighbourhood bulls General and Standard only to see the women singing and dancing the ‘Banana Song’. Best day of my life.

To top off a great week, we ended our needs assessment in Kabangwe. A perfect in between of rural and urban, the women of Kabangwe were incredible. Sibo, the community facilitator, is a force to be reckoned with, putting the entire world to shame in regards to community involvement. She is one of the most dedicated and inspiring woman I’ve met, waking early every day to care for her children, her massive gardens and her community. Her groups are successful in pursuing income generating activities because she guides them through the process of creating detailed action plans. Her eldest son, twenty-two year old Pride, a good friend of ours now, is the perfect demonstration of a motivated youth. He spends his early mornings tending to the gardens and farms, and the rest of his days caring for the community youth. Her youngest, Timothy, is school-oriented and a model for all thirteen year olds. You’d think this family originated from an ideal galaxy of dedication and motivation, especially considering they don’t even make enough money to support their full schooling. Those obstacles, however, don’t pull them down for one second, instead face life head-on, offering to those around them the opportunities they may not have had. When I first met them, during this initial meet, I felt so privileged to be in their presence. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to spend much time with all three, and feel as though I’ve learnt a great deal.

All in all, our needs assessment taught me more about people and life than school has in the past three years. From this process, my partner and I assessed where we could lend a hand, choosing two projects we thought possible to achieve.

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