Under the African skies

Elaine with some of the happy children.

Elaine with some of the happy children.

Elaine Divilly spent two months working in Zambia project managing a block production and building development as part of the Alan Kerins African Projects. In the process, she learned a lot about the realities of Africa and herself too.

My decision to travel to Africa came about quite suddenly. Over a coffee the suggestion was proposed, ‘What do you think of going to Zambia for two months as a project manager?’

Voluntary work abroad always interested me but later in life, rather than sooner. As I sat and listened to what was happening out there, I decided it was time it seize the moment. Next thing I know, it’s January 1 and I’m en route to Lusaka, Zambia!

Let’s get the facts on Zambia first.

The population is 11.9 million, of whom 6.2 million are under the age of 18. While the overall economic outlook for the country is good and possibly better than many other African countries, 64 per cent of the population live on less than €1 per day. Approximately one in six adults has HIV/AIDS. Because of this, one in five children there have lost one or both parents. Cultural traditions often leave widows without a home or resources. A married man’s siblings are entitled to ownership of his property and belongings once he has died.

Malaria is a leading killer, especially of children. Zambia’s healthcare system faces shortages of drugs, equipment, and qualified personnel, especially in rural areas. Within the educational system, there is a severe shortage of teachers.

In contrast, positives are that the gender gap in education is now less than one per cent. Organisations such as Alan Kerins African Projects are building schools, wells and latrines to bring clean water and sanitation to thousands of families helping to provide response to their needs.

Now that we have the nitty gritty down, here’s the real experience. Upon landing in Lusaka airport, my initial reaction was ‘this is pleasant’. It was warm, maybe 34 degrees - a far cry from the ice and snow I left in Ireland! I had expected more of a cultural shock. Perhaps my time spent living in South Korea and previous travels had honed the sharpness of cultural differences. But then again, there is this spirit – it’s difficult to put into words – happiness, a lightness in people that makes you feel immediately at ease in Zambia.

It was a nine-hour bus journey to my destination Mongu. Unsurprisingly it was very enjoyable. Entertainment was provided by multiple questions from children and adults sitting near me. ‘Do you have a car? Wow! Do you have brothers and sisters? Are they all living? Do they live with you? How big is your house? Will you be my friend?’

The journey took us through the Kafue National Park, where thousands of impalas live. Keeping my eyes pinned I was lucky enough to see elephants, monkeys, zebras and wildcats. Throughout the journey there are two rest-stops where women swarm you with bowls full of ground nuts, bananas, grilled maize, mangos, sitting perfectly on their heads. Their smiles radiated warmth. K2500 for 8 mini bananas – about 40 cents. If they were lucky they might make K10,000, or €1.60 each, a day.

The beauty of Zambia is that no one takes life too seriously. It’s a different pace of life completely and very much brought me back to my rural childhood where time is only a word, tomorrow is another day, deadlines and targets are non-existent.

In Mongu I began working on the block making and development project. The manual and very labour intensive work make it a slow process. The workers were an incredible bunch of guys and eager to improve, help, participate – always wanting to achieve their best.

The project itself was an expansion of a guesthouse which is an income generator to support the running of the Cheshire Home and part of the overall development, which includes homes for the vulnerable, schools, and training facilities. The home is the only facility for physically disabled children in an area two and a half times the size of Ireland, providing food, medicine, corrective surgery, education and rehabilitation.

With the help of the Alan Kerins African Projects, the guest house had been refurbished and is popular with NGO workers, visiting volunteers and local chiefs.

My days were varied. Up at 6am, arrive at the workshop for 7am start, have a team briefing and then work with Augustine, the project supervisor on managing the project. We discussed issues such as production targets, co-ordinating teams, stock control, purchasing.

My best days were working as part of the block making team. Mixing and pouring cement, placing blocks – it allowed me understand first hand how manual the process is and also how taxing the work is. Granted, the workers didn’t bat an eyelid at me mixing cement! Why? Women and children usually conduct most of the field labour.

Sundays were my days for circulating among the community. Ambling off the beaten track to inner plains of reed huts, bouncing children and outdoor cooking of sweet potatoes – it was soul nourishing. Most locals attend church on Sunday mornings and some, all day Sunday. For those who don’t, it’s like any other day.

Cashew trees sheltered men and women chatting in the sun while children climbed the mango trees’ wide, masculine, trunk and shook a shower of juicy mangos to the ground for all to eat. Nature takes care of these people. Belief in God is apparent in their amazing songs of praise at church. Their joy vibrates through your body, it’s so full of belief and thanksgiving. It’s truly moving.

During my stay, a minor accident took me to the local Lewanika hospital, named after a previous King of the Lozi tribe. The Emergency Room could be renamed the Take it Easy Room! The sense of calm was like a medicine in itself. Most patients there are being nursed for TB or HIV.

It’s busy with family and friends visiting, bringing food and hope. Speaking with the young nurses, it becomes very apparent that women and education are key to Zambia’s future.

To pursue their dreams they need to travel to Lusaka. But this is difficult because of their commitment to provide for their families. One particular girl’s husband had TB so he is unable to work. She is single-handedly providing for him, their two children, her two nieces and his younger brother - on a salary equivalent to €200 a month.

Over the course of my time in Zambia, I became involved with the local community, chatting to children, women, and men about their situation, their needs and wants. What becomes immediately apparent is a that they are a group of very smart intelligent people who need stimulation and education, but a long term vision for employment too.

Once the basic needs of food, shelter and clean drinking water are met, schools and training centres will give power to people to believe in themselves and do it for themselves. There is entrepreneurial spirit – it just needs encouragement.

Thankfully there is a community effort to tackling issues. The Presentation Sisters -- Sr Cathy, Sr Stella, and Sr Ann Mary are immersed in supporting the local community in Mongu through building homes for the vulnerable, providing employment and educational support, instilling basic skills of gardening, sewing, and carpentry and ensuring sick and disabled children receive just treatment and rehabilitation.

Together with other local NGOs and missionaries they are empowering people to be resourceful and develop a self-sustainable life for themselves and their families. This is why Alan Kerins African Projects play such a crucial role in the development of Zambia.

Zambia is packed with safari parks and beautiful tourist attractions. I took some time to visit the world famous wonder, Victoria Falls, which was breathtaking. About two hours across the border in Botswana is Chobe Safari Park. It is a wonderful experience to see wild animals so close. I stayed close by in Livingstone, a thriving town and and met lots of backpackers and students on volunteer experience.

My time in Zambia was filled with new experiences daily. The cultural difference is massive, but at the same time easy to adjust to. The sun shines daily even when it rains. The children laugh, even when they are sick and sore. They run to school, some for miles and miles. There is always a ‘hello’ from someone on the roadside.

If you’re feeling down, a stranger will hold your hand and tell you God will fix it. Children play soccer with a football made from plastic bags rolled in twine. You hear ‘thank you’ everywhere. If an issue isn’t resolved today – it’s OK. Confrontation is met with laughter and humour.

Mothers, sisters, daughters are rocks of support to each other. Older children look out for younger ones. Negotiating must involve jovial banter. Respect is part of humanity. The heart is listened to, not just the head.

I paid a visit to the town of Kaoma in the Western Province. Here, Sr Molly runs a mind-blowing operation that includes three orphanages and two farms, and she also oversees community projects and works with Alan Kerins African Projects on the building of schools and a community centre.

It is a place full of hope. The children are being educated at the critical stage where they can learn about personal health, hygiene, and self worth. They know a better future lies ahead. They know they are the generation of change, and with the help of funded projects, this change can have a farther and wider reach.

It is difficult to put into words all the positive work that is being done by the Alan Kerins African Projects and the Presentation Sisters in Zambia. I saw the structural differences; the boreholes and wells providing clean drinking water; school blocks educating hundreds of children; building projects providing housing, employment and income to help sick children. More importantly I felt overwhelmed by the power of commitment to fulfill their potential.


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