When you travel to places like the rural eastern province of Zambia, every now and then you meet a remarkable person like Benson. He’s a jack-of-all-trades gardener, foreman, cook, tour guide, social worker and community leader. Benson was the guy you went to if you needed something to be done, like have your walls painted or organise a farewell dinner. And, above all, he is a kind and dedicated husband, father and grandfather.
Being able to speak English allows him to interact with people coming from outside. He is sharp, resourceful and just the nicest guy you’ll meet. He’s also passionate about helping his community, which faces challenges relating to poverty, access to education and communicable diseases, especially HIV.
Benson approached me a few months ago and requested a visit to a local school for orphans to see if we could help. So I grabbed my trusty Canon RP and off we went one lovely afternoon with my colleague and friend Alberto.
St John’s Orphans’ Pre-school
The preschool, like many non-government organisations in Zambia, is funded by a church group. Funds are hard to come by, as are qualified teachers willing to work in such a place. The school is comprised of two simple buildings with tin roofs and a lot of cute, disadvantaged kids.
We entered the class room where the students greeted us with colonial-style formality, but that soon evaporated as their playful nature came out. Among the children were many older kids who couldn’t afford to attend primary school, which is supposed to be free but which requires students to buy books and equipment, whereas the preschool allows them to attend nonetheless. Although it was cramped, and the walls a drab grey, the class room atmosphere was a lively, chirpy one – a testament to the happy aura that usually surrounds children, even impoverished ones.
That happy atmosphere was a wonder, given the sort of children that came here. Take for example Lydia. At 11 years old, she’s lost both her parents: her mother to cancer, and her father to unknown causes. As her grandmother explained her situation, Lydia’s smile gave way to a kind of apprehensiveness, as though caught between the carefree existence of childhood and the reality of the adult world that awaits her.
Lydia is still in preschool because her grandmother, Rosemary, can’t afford to buy her the correct school uniform, worth 100 kwacha (around $10 AUD) and a school bag (70 kwacha). Schools are strict and no uniform equals no schooling. Books are a bargain at 1 kwacha (7 cents)! And although ten dollars seems like a petty sum, it’s a large expense to the locals here, who mostly still live a subsistence life.
Prisca is another child at the school. She’s closer to preschool age at 7 years, but faces similar threats to her education because of lack of access to basic needs. Both her parents died of communicable diseases, her care falling onto her grandmother Christina. But Christina has two other orphaned children to look after. She relies on handouts for food and other needs, and can’t afford to send her grandchildren to school.
The cycle of poverty in Zambia
In Zambia, the disparity in wealth is enormous. The gap between the wealthy and the average person is very wide. Working in healthcare serves to underline a point taught in global health: that healthcare is only one factor that determines the health of a population. Working to ensure clean water supply, food security, economic opportunity, stable and transparent governance, family planning, empowerment of women and access to education are critical to break the cycle of poverty and promote health and well-being. Somewhere in this web of complexity, a bright-eyed little girl is missing out on schooling because her grandmother can’t afford a school bag.
I think countries like Zambia need teachers, economists and social workers more than healthcare workers (though they’re needed too!), because so many healthcare issues stem from poverty, sanitation, living conditions and education. If we can educate Lydia and Prisca, we can empower them into the future to face the challenges of living in Sub-Saharan Africa in the 21st century. It’s sad to see the potential of these kids being lost every day. Someone said potential is only ever lost, and it rings true in this setting.
The children who receive the best education in Zambia are those whose parents received a good education, and are most likely to receive an income as adults and educate their own children. It’s very hard for Lydia to break through the cycle that keeps her locked into a life of poverty. I’ve no doubt thousands of Zambia’s brightest children are destined to earn a dollar a day growing maize or riding transport bicycles, rather than designing Zambia’s future bridges, or indeed, reforming Zambia’s institutions.
Educating the next generation of Zambians
Naturally, Benson was concerned that these children were irreparably missing out on their education. I promised him that Alberto and I would try to help, so we’ve set up a little crowd funder to hopefully raise a little sum to help a few of the children progress to a school appropriate to their age. If you’d like to help, click here!
Luckily, we weren’t there to bore the children with all this adult talk. It was very easy to bring out smiles and cheers with some footballs (I mean, soccer balls!) and colouring books. It was a delight to see their cheeky side come out!