Thursday, June 23, 2011

Preparing to Say Goodbye

I think most Princeton in Africa Fellows have run into this become to embedded in your life in your respective country and city that blogging becomes a distraction from simply living it. I meant to complete the Zanzibar version for my little three-part epic post, but to be honest, it would take me hours and hours. And that means hours away from Lusaka, from the city that has become my home. Is it possible to actively transition out of a life you've grown accustomed to? Can you prepare yourself for an inevitable departure when all you want to do is hang on to every last moment? My life has become complicated..finishing up last work (including closing down my long-term impact assessment that has eaten up 50% of my time and effort here), celebrating some important accomplishments (one of our students was accepted into African Leadership Academy, two waitlisted , probably the most important moment in KF's short history), preparing to leave, getting ready for my replacement Mark's arrival (today, actually).

It is fundamentally impossible to convey how much this experience has changed my life. When I look back at myself a year ago, I remember a different person: uncertain, naive, and in many ways lost. Yet, somehow, over several months, I fell in love with this beautiful country, the friends that became my family that grew alongside me, the frustrating yet invigorating flexibility and independence awarded to me in my position, the students who have left a permanent mark on my heart. And throughout it all, I found myself solidifying the things that I knew I had always cared about but was afraid to admit to. I found a strange, unshakable confidence--in my ability to adapt, to connect to people, to make things happen when they once seemed impossible.

A week ago I was sitting with my boys, Iwell, Dennis, and Penius outside of Ibex Hill School around a cement round table, talking about the future, about how quickly time can pass, about moving on and moving forward. It was my favorite time of day in Lusaka...chilly, like a New England fall, everything painted in a soft, dull orange glow as the blood red sun began to set over the yellowing savannah that covers the outskirts of the city. I knew at that moment that leaving Zambia, and these students who let me into their lives, would be one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. Not that they aren't used to it...KF students have been forced to become accustomed to people coming in and out of their lives. I think what I realized at that moment was that I had gained more from them than they ever could from me, and also that that was not a bad thing. My faith in these students, my confidence in their maturity and leadership, the discoveries that they, perhaps unknowingly, helped me to make, have dramatically altered the course of my life.

Next year I will be working in New York for the Opportunity Network, an organization that connects promising high school students with career exploration, networking, internship placement, and college access. Right now, that makes all the sense in the world to me, but a year ago I would have never guess what my next step would be. Although part of me always felt comfortable in the role of mentor (at Bowdoin, in Admissions, the McKeen Center, on Residential Life), nowhere have I felt most alive in this role than in Lusaka. I think that in many ways I needed this year...this opportunity for personal growth and reflection, this chance to have an impact on the lives of young people, to fully understand that working to provide educational opportunities to deserving students (or young people, generally)is what I am happiest doing.

I am so grateful for this, for everything, for the ups and downs, the contradictions and discoveries, the frustrations and accomplishments, the families, the students, the KF staff members, the trips and the friends and the many moments where I felt that I was exactly where I should be at exactly the right time. I will hang on to my piece of Zambia for the remainder of my life, not only because of the memories that I will continue to cherish, but because this country and this experience have permanently transformed what I believe I am capable of.

Coming here was a risk, perhaps the biggest one I have ever taken. For those of you who have been following, thank you, for sharing this experience with me, and for supporting me in my decision to make this leap. It means more to me than I can possibly convey.

This will likely be my last post before I get back to the States. I'm so excited to share stories with everyone in person in a couple weeks.



Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Worlds Collide, Part Two (Squeeze)

We (Me, Zack, Jess, Maxime, and Mike) left for Livingstone the next day, and aside from some minor incidents (as often happens on Zambian roads) we made it there in good time. I was very excited for Zack and Jess to see a bit more of the country, considering that Lusaka isn’t exactly a fully accurate representation of Zambia as a whole. After arriving at the backpacker, we met my fellow Princeton in Africa friend Hannah (Midd grad, working for Mothers2Mothers in Cape Town) and some other people. It was amazing to see Hannah again…the last time I had seen her was at orientation at Princeton about 10 months previously, and it was refreshing and reassuring to share experiences, successes and disappointments with her. The PiAf network is absolutely wonderful…everyone has had a shared (and typically similarly life-changing experience), and I feel lucky to know that I will be part of this network for the rest of my life. We almost immediately drove out to see the falls; and since it was April (when the waters of the Falls are at their highest volume), we could already see the streams of mist spraying up over the river’s end from a distance. This was my third time seeing the falls, but sharing them with my friends was a special experience. This is Zambia’s natural wonder, it’s source of pride and admiration, and it always lives up to its reputation. The Falls numbed the senses with their thunderous roar and ceaseless and often violent mist. As we walked throughout the park we were soaked within minutes. I remember standing on the famously narrow bridge over the canyon, which during April is pounded 24 hours a day by the spray, and taking in, once again, the incomprehensible and sublime power of Victoria Falls. Nothing I will ever see will compete with this sight. And this time I was fortunate enough to share it with two of my best friends.

The next day Zack, Jess, and I got up early for a small safari at Mosi-au-Tunya national park, a small reserve that happens to boast Zambia’s entire population of (7) white rhinos. We got up early in the morning, hopped on the open-safari truck, and headed out into the bush. We saw some of the usual sights…hippos, zebras, monkeys, warthogs wildebeest, and more, and were thoroughly entertained by our guide, Crispin, whose favorite animal was the “gilaffee” simply because “it’s just so funny.” We had heard that it’s possible to track down the rhinos if you push the guides a bit, so we asked Crispin, who promptly called the rhino trackers on his cell phone. From there, we sped off into the bush in search of them, finally pulling up next to a group of 4-5 Zambian park rangers armed with enormous shotguns. We hopped off the truck and followed them into the tall grass, and after five minutes stumbled upon the most massive bull rhinoceros (the only dominant male in the entire country) I had ever seen. Somehow Jess got coaxed into taking a picture in front of it (dangerously close to it, I might add). After 10 minutes of rhino viewing we stumbled back onto the truck and headed back to the park entrance. We didn’t get to see elephants or “gilaffees,” but hiking into the bush with a group of Zambian park rangers to track down a rare rhinoceros was absolutely worth it.

Back at the lodge Alice joined us, and we spend the day relaxing by the pool. That night we went for sun-downer drinks at the Royal Livingstone, a classic, and watched another spectacular sunset over the river. After a delicious Italian meal at Olgas and a night full of mirror dancing at a local club (Zambian’s LOVE dancing in front of mirrors) we packed up our stuff to continue on the next leg of our journey.
This part of the trip was fairly uncertain…I had got some advice from a friend to check out a small town called Sinazongwe, which is a peaceful way to check out Lake Kariba, the huge manmade lack in southern Zambia. After we pulled off the main road from Livingstone we sank down into the Zambezi Valley, enjoying one of the most spectacular views of the Zambian countryside I had ever seen—rolling hills, clay huts dotting the landscape, fields of sunflowers, and everything painted in the dull orange-yellow glow of the afternoon African sun. And we also took turns playing dj, rocking five ipods at once. After stopping on the side of the road to buy charcoal from a group of Tonga children (it took us about 20 minutes to get what we wanted across to them…), we turned onto a typically atrocious Zambian side road and continued for another hour or so until we finally saw glimpses of the lake through the trees. SInzaongwe barely merits the term “town.” The downtown consisted of a few tiny shops, a deserted clinic, and a local men herding along cows and goats. Jess and I had somehow managed to find us a campsite right on the lake (the lodge owners, one of two in the entire town) offered to let us stay there for free. So they led us down to the campsite, which was a beautiful deserted stretch of grass right on the lakeside. There were bathrooms (no water though, and we were advised to be on the lookout for crocs when we filled the bucket from the lake), a bouldered-in area for a fire pit, and a braii. Pretty much everything we needed. We spent the afternoon setting up tends, relaxing on the water, and preparing dinner. The quiet and solitude of the place was addicting. It was our own little spot. Nobody disturbed us the entire night. Alice made a fire as some of us attempted to light the braii, and we enjoyed a delicious dinner of sausages and fresh grilled vegetables. We spent the rest of the night sitting by the fire, playing music softly from my car, and gazing at the stunningly clear night sky, the stars putting on a show for us.

Although I could have left the next morning and been happy with the trip, we had biggr plans for the next day. I had been communicating with a man named Squeeze (yes, Squeeze), a local B’hai man who had promised to show us around the local village. We met Squeeze, a calm, soft-spoken but warm man dressed in a vibrant yellow shirt, in “town”, then headed down another dirt road which snaked through a small river bed and into Sinzaongwe Village. The ultimate goal of the day was to have lunch at the “chief’s palace” with the chief himself, but until then we were unsure whether or not he would be in town. We arrived at the palace (which turned out to be a simple, green house) and sat outside on rundown wooden benches, chatting with Squeeze about the village and waiting for the chief to appear. When it became clear that he wasn’t home, we decided to stroll around the village. Sinzaongwe village is a fisherman’s town, and gets most of its stock from the lake. The village was moved from its original location when the government decided to construct a manmade lake; although a hassle, the village actually ended up getting running water and electricity as part of the deal. Squeeze told us about the culture of the village, the power structures, his family, the role of the chief. We met a local headman; headmen are the chief’s second hand men, and they are responsible for taking complaints and advice from members of the chiefdom (and eventually reporting to the chief if necessary). We met Squeeze’s family (his daughter, at 14, was pregnant…a common occurrence in Zambian villages), visited the primary school (and met Sinazongwe’s local DJ), and then headed back to the palace. It turned out the chief was in town, and he wanted to have lunch for us. When we arrived back at the palace, we sat outside waiting to be welcomed in. Even having lived in Africa for almost a year, I’ll admit that I was expecting the chief to fit more squarely into my perception of African chiefs. Yet, out walked a perfectly normal looking man dressed in khaki, sporting a cellphone on his belt. He offered us sodas to drink. In Zambia, traditional structures still exist, but it’s also true that things change and adapt to modern times. Nowhere was this more on display for me than on that porch.

We sat on the chief’s porch for about an hour, listening to stories about his family (he had several wives, many children, and dozens of grandchildren), about how he was unexpectedly, due to family linage, selected to be chief, about his chiefdom of 54,000 people, about the relationship between the chiefs and the government. The chief told us all about the culture of the Zambezi Valley, which comes on display every July at an annual festival (the entire village was in the process of preparing for the arrival of thousands of guests). The Valley boasts a special traditional dance that includes dancing, singing, drumming, and a unique form of horn playing that is incorporated into the rituals. The chief and Squeeze showed us how to blow into the horns, which are taken from impala, kudu, cows, and other animals. After a while we were told that lunch was ready, and were led past goats (there were a couple goats that thought they lived in the house) into the living room, where out meal was already waiting for us…nshima (of course), vegetables, village chicken in gravy, rice, and fresh bream from the lake. We sat down and dug in, listening to the chief tell us more about the village, and about B’hai (the chief and his entire family were also of the b’hai faith). Before we set off we were led out back to meet the chief’s wives and check out his collection of elephant skin drums. After a couple pictures, we said our goodbyes and thank yous and were on our way. An absolutely random and incredible experience. And I still have the chief’s number in my phone.

Although we were absolutely exhausted the next day, Jess, Zack, and I still had work to do. Applications to edit, an interview prep to prepare for. We spent most of Tuesday preparing for the meeting, and after a quick trip to the vegetable market, we headed out to pick up our students. It was amazing to see my friends spring into action….Jess handled the case study review, Zack and my friend and mentor Patti handled interview prep (Zack had just completed medical school interviews, so these things were fresh on his mind). And I sat back and watched my friends fall so comfortably into my life and my work. It all seemed so natural. Again, I was reminded that this disconnect that I had previously viewed as permanent was nothing more than an illusion. It was broken the minute my best friends stepped off the plane. The meeting was exhausting and finished at 8:00 (my poor friends…). But on the whole, it was incredibly successful, and it would have been impossible without the help I received. That night, to add to the already exhausting day, I locked my keys in my car (while running) at the Grassroot house, and we worked for two hours trying to pry the door open. Eventually we were saved by my mechanic Bestus , a mechanic-superhero.

The next day I dropped Jess of at FINCA, a local microfinance organization, where she spent the day riding around on minibuses through compounds with Zambian loan officers (and apparently not stopping once for lunch). Zack and I went around to my schools, and then played Frisbee. He was getting to see all aspects of my life in Lusaka, and Frisbee certainly has been an important and possibly vital release for me.

Jess and I spent Thursday together (she was leaving two days later), stopping by the tailor to pick up our items and taking a trip to Mundawanga, a local animal sanctuary. We spent most of the day sitting on the grass under a tree, talking about how ridiculously far both of us had come in such a short amount of time. It was an incredible day, and it was capped an awesome birthday dinner for my friend Chileshe at a Korean restaurant. On Friday, as I had expected, KF hit a snag in its ALA applications. I left Jess and Zack with Maxime, and went to ensure that we had all the require forms for our students. Somehow, we had overlooked collecting grade reports from the schools. After a momentary panic, I sped to our two represented schools, and after some very frustrating conversations with school administrators (the schools don’t keep up-to-date transcripts, so we worked out an unnecessarily complicated system to ensure that the completed reports would be emailed to ALA while I was in Zanzibar. Sometimes things work that way here…you think you cover all of your bases, but at the last minute unexpected circumstances threaten all of your hard work.

On Saturday we went with friends to the monthly Dutch Reformed Church Market for
some last minute shopping and some food. Two weeks had sped by, and I couldn’t believe t hat Jess was leaving already. Zack and I drove her to the airport. It was really difficult…Jess works in Guatemala and I had no idea when I was going to see her again. Yet, somehow I felt like this experience, being able to share my life with her even for a short two weeks, had connected us in a truly unbreakable way. It had been a whirlwind of a trip for her. But it had, in many ways, been an accurate representation of the incredible randomness and unpredictability of my life here. I can’t possible express how much it meant to have her there, to have the opportunity to let her into my little slice of Zambia, to show her how and why Africa had subtly yet permanently found its way into my blood. In the airport I said a teary goodbye to my friend. Again, I was struck with a new sense of appreciation for the perplexing yet strangely rational way my life had somehow taken its course. Thank you, Jess. It meant more to me than you can possibly know.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Worlds Collide, Part 1

The thought of having friends visit has never felt real, even though I’ve known for months that Jess and Zack were coming across the world to see me. In many ways my life in Zambia has been a separate reality from everything I knew back home, something that disoriented me when visited the States for Christmas. Communicating with family and friends is helpful and necessary, but in the end there is only a certain point of understanding that can be reached…not because of lack of effort, but simply due to the fact that you can’t really understand Zambia unless you’ve seen it, experienced its bizarre yet strangely addicting contradictions.

The week before Jess and Zack arrived, KF received news that out of 20 Zambian finalists for African Leadership in Academy, 9 were from our program. This meant that, for the first time, Zambia would host a finalist weekend. ALA would be coming to Lusaka to evaluate all 20 students based on a number of team activities, group discussions, personal interviews, and examinations. The fact that ALA had never conducted a weekend here left them in a difficult place, and I and KF offered to assist in the planning process. This meant recruiting interview observers from the community, finding a school to host (which ended up being Leopards Hill, one of our partner schools, which boasted 6 of the 9 finalists), and, perhaps most importantly, assisting our students in the application process and preparing them for the difficult yet sure to be moving experience of an ALA finalist weekend. Prior to my friends’ visit I had worked hard to finish a good amount of work so that I could spend a substantial amount of time with them. But this is Zambia, and this is the reality of work with a small but ambitious organization. Work comes in waves, and sometimes, as with ALA, in tidal waves. ALA gave our students 2 weeks to prepare applications, which included longer essays, teacher and community recommendations, extensive financial and visa forms, and examination results. Having visited ALA in December, I understood the uniqueness of this opportunity, and the life-altering experience that an acceptance would be for any of our students. Furthermore, it would almost certainly be a triumph for KF, which has yet to graduate a grade 12 student and is in the process of navigating through the infuriatingly mess process of college and scholarship applications for disadvantaged Zambian students.
My boss was away in Europe, and I jumped at the opportunity to spearhead this process. KF sprang into action, and it was amazing to see how the essential gears that fuel this organization set into place. Our accountant volunteered to collect the financial and visa information from all 9 families, while our programs officer embarked on the surprisingly difficult task of acquiring effective recommendations from teachers, mentors, and other community members. I chose to help our students with the applications, as well as prepare them for the interview weekend.

Then Jess arrived. Jess is one of my best friends from Bowdoin, and is working in Guatemala City for Safe Passage—the organization that introduced me to international service and educational access while at Bowdoin. She had never been to Africa, but I was confident that she would embrace this experience in every way possible. Seeing a familiar face from my other life walk out of the terminal was more shocking than I had imagined; at that moment, I felt my two worlds colliding and meshing together in a way that I had never experienced. I felt exhilarated, and then, suddenly, eternally grateful. That I would be able to share my world with somebody very close to me, but more importantly, that I was fortunate enough to have best friends who would fly across the world to see me. After a long hug we walked out to my car, and I was already feeling giddy at the thought of driving her back to the city, about letting her into this life that has for whatever reason always felt so separate. We went to the Sunday Market at Arcades, met my roommate Oliver, and then headed back to my flat on the other side of town. Maxime (another Bowdoin grad) came over, and we sat on my porch sharing experiences, reminiscing about Bowdoin, and enjoying the cool April air as the sun sank lazily over the palm trees in my yard. Catching up with Jess was so important to me…we are both having very similar experiences, working for similar organizations, and have the benefit of sharing similar career goals, and it was fascinating to compare and contrast the social realities in our respective countries, to admit to mistakes and disappointments, and to share our successes and achievements.

I didn’t really give Jess much time to adjust (or to sleep…). She was in Zambia for the first time, and there was so much I wanted to show her. The next day we drove out to Chibelo Basic School, the small, underfunded, yet progressive school met where KF began. While waiting for our host, I took Jess to visit the Mwenes, a KF family that lives on the Chibelo campus (our student’s father is a teacher at the school). The Mwenes are a n unbelievably warm and generous family, and we sat with Mrs. Mwene and her two daughters for a while, Jess telling them about her life in the States and in Guatemela, and them teaching her bits and pieces of Nyanja and Tonga (Jess is a language guru, so she learned rather quickly.) After an hour or so Constance, a special education teacher at the Chibelo who worked with Oliver to lay the groundwork for KF, arrived. She took us around the school and told us the story of KF’s inception when our president was here as a Princeton in Africa Fellow, and then we headed to Kalikiliki, the compound in which most of Chibelo’s students live. Constance is an amazingly bright and powerful woman, and she spoke passionately about the struggling children and families that live in Kalikliki (meaning busy, in Nyanja), the many social problems that afflict Lusaka’s poorest communities, and the fundamental flaws in Zambia’s educational system. After that we took Constance to lunch, where she told us about her life, her husband who went to America and left her to fend for herself and her daughter alone, her goal to return to university and complete a degree, and her faith in the resiliency of her family and of her fellow community members.

After that I put Jess to work…we went to the office, printed out materials for the essential meeting I had planned with our ALA finalists, and headed out to pick some of them up. The point of the meeting was on the applications and on the Interview preparation process. Jess was incredibly helpful, and it was so nice to see her automatically being welcomed into the KF family. Our students absolutely loved her, and felt comfortable around her right away. These students have defined my experience here. They have impacted my life in a profound and permanent way, and seeing the ease with which my friend connected with them meant more to me than I can express. After the meeting, Jess and I drove some of our students back home, taking an eerie shortcut through the Lusaka night over dusty, pot-hole laden dirt roads that wind through the compounds. One would think that would be enough for someone’s first day in Africa, but to top it all off, we went to a Passover Seder at the Grassroot Soccer House (which was a great way for her to meet many of my closest friends).

The next day we went to the Tuesday vegetable market, bartered like crazy, and acquired all manner of fruits and vegetables for dinner. After stopping by Kamwala (a busier market near town) for some chitenge (Jess wanted to make a dress, I wanted to make a bag for my bongo). We grabbed lunch with some friends at my favorite local nshima restaurant (which serves all sorts of local vegetables, game meats, and more). Then we headed back home and prepared for dinner with Steve and Alla (fried pumpkin with brown sugar, fresh salad with tomatoes and avocados, mango chutney pork). There’s something inherently refreshing about shopping and making dinner with fresh ingredients from the market, something I will greatly when I leave Africa.
Wednesday was full of errands…dropping off chitenge at the tailor (a toothless man with an ancient sewing machine and an umbrella parked outside a shopping complex near my house), getting a goodbye present for my roommate who was leaving, and packing my things so I could move out the next day (they really did come at the busiest possible time!). I also brought Jess to two of our schools, introduced her to some of the teachers and staff. Everyone took to her right away, and Mrs. Lungu, who was about to embark on a trip to Spain, was eager to get Jess’s advice (she had spent a full year there studying abroad). Again, I remember feeling so relieved at how easy all of this was…somehow, it was beginning to feel completely and totally natural, as if Jess had been living in Zambia for months.

That night we went to a goodbye dinner for Oliver at Mahak (our favorite rundown Indian restaurant with famous for its all you can eat, who was leaving Zambia the next day. It was unfortunate that he was leaving in the middle of all this craziness…Oliver had been such an important part of my life here; we came in at the same time and went through much the adjustment process together. I was fortunate to have him here. I know he will be a close friend for the rest of my life, but it was still strange and difficult to accept that the first of my core sources of support here was leaving. I had to leave soon after we arrived to pick up Zack, who was getting in that night. I have known Zack since the third grade, and he has been my best friend ever since. For me Zack is one of the people who, no matter how long we go without speaking, somehow things never change. And the randomness with which he decided to come was strangely fitting…one day I got a message saying…”when would be the best time to come see you?” A week later he forwarded me his flight itinerary. That simple. Zack is currently on an epic trip across the world before he starts medical school at Cincinnati, and a first trip to Africa (and any developing region) was first on his list. On the way there I got a call from him saying that he had cleared customs and was all set (which was weirder than I had expected…to hear Zack’s voice on a phone in Zambia). I rushed to the airport and picked up my best friend. Again, I felt this wave of gratitude and disbelief. I felt like things were coming together, that pieces of my very disconnected life were being fused together in an unexpectedly intentional way.

We launched into conversation, driving down the pitch black road toward town. Again, I didn’t give my friend much (or any time) to adjust, driving straight back to dinner, where Zack met all of my friends and listened, exhausted, to silly yet heartfelt goodbye speeches.

The next morning I woke up early to bring Oliver to the airport. The sun was rising, and we had one last epic car ride to Springsteen’s live version of Atlantic City in New York. It was hard to say goodbye, but I was lucky enough to have my best friends there waiting for me at home.

Zack was jetlagged, and unsurprisingly, awake at 7 am, so we went for a run down my favorite tree-lined path down Independence Avenue past the State House. I told him everything, about my life, about Zambia, about my kids, about the frustrations and joys I had experienced over the past 10 months. When we got back to the house Jess was awake, so we took a walk to the only cafĂ© in Zambia that sells bagels, enjoying the bright sunlight easy lull of the late Lusaka morning. I still had work to do, so I enlisted Zack to help. We met Edna, Bwalya, and Gaella in Garden Compound to collect applicants and visit some of my students families at their homes. Zack and Jess got along with my students so easily, and it was wonderful introducing them to the families and communities that had come to define my life here. There was a moment I remember when Zack and Jess were crammed into the back of my SUV with two of my students as we navigated the bumpy and treacherous dirt road (perhaps moving a little too quickly, considering we were bobbing up and down uncomfortably). Everyone was laughing and joking (mostly at my expense), and I suddenly couldn’t help but feel like this unpredictable yet steady logic that had come to define my post-college life was somehow there, in that car, with two of my best friends in the entire world, and three of KF’s most unique students. Somehow it all made sense, my life and all of its contradictions, its bumps and unexpected turns.

We spent the rest of the night moving out of my house into my new place, making copies of the students’ applications to hand out to a Zambian volunteer for review, and packing for Livingstone and Kariba. The week had been absolutely packed, and it would only get busier.

More to come…

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Three Months Left...Time to Reflect

If the first nine months of my fellowship were centered on getting to know Kucetekela as an organization, the last two have focused on examining the implications of the foundation within the Zambian educational system. One of my primary responsibilities in Lusaka has been to conduct a long-term impact analysis that seeks to assess the actual effect our sponsorship has had on the financially disadvantaged students and families that we support. After meeting with 31 families at their homes, I began to notice some interesting trends—parents were somehow able to put food on the table, siblings were back in school and working extra hard to emulate their older brother or sister, students from these communities were being inspired to believe that they too could someday earn a sponsorship. My student survey showed me that our students at our three partner private boarding schools were improving their IT, public speaking, and leadership skills, getting actively engaged in their studies and in student life at their schools, and growing more and more confident about their futures. After dozens of visits to ministries and government basic and secondary schools and interviews with previous unsuccessful applicants, I began to observe some different, more disheartening trends. Students at these schools were struggling—lack of text books and often desks to study from, classrooms packed full with 60+ students, teachers that were underpaid and overworked and uninspired. And at the end of the day, if one was lucky enough to pass their grade 12 exams with the marks needed for college, they were faced with the pressing reality that tertiary scholarship opportunities for low-income students, due to a monumental failure on the part of the government to invest in the future higher education, were exceedingly difficult to acquire. It was at this point that I believe I fully understood the implications of KF and the opportunity it offers to its students. We are investing in a small group of potential leaders, providing them with the support and guidance that they need to flourish, and supplying them with the tools needed to perform well enough to earn those elusive scholarships that many Zambian students struggle to attain. And it is our hope that these students, having worked their way through countless obstacles, will remember that there are thousands of students like them that need their leadership in paving the way forward.

Among many, many things, my fellowship with Kucetekela Foundation has reaffirmed my belief that education is the foundation, the lifeblood of a healthy society, and if it is not effectively distributed to all members of society than it can’t perform its most vital functions. And the essential power of education does not stop at basic or secondary level. Access to quality higher education is just as important in developing the sorts of leaders who can instigate the changes that countries like Zambia so desperately need. My work in Zambia has put a personal face to this incredible power—the amazing students, their tenacious, resilient families, the mentors who care so deeply about their students and their successes, and the hope that scholarship aid can bring—and a policy face—that developing countries must invest in access to education in order to foster successful development. It may be truly impossible to accurately portray the level of influence this year has had upon my life—the relationships which I will always treasure, the friends I have met, the challenges I have struggled through, the discoveries, both discouraging and enlightening, that I have made. My fellowship has carved for me a new, exciting, and fundamentally real path, one that has been molded by my unique experiences in this tragic yet beautiful country. It has proven to me that changing lives and changing policy can actually be intimately connected and has inspired me to continuing learning about and advocating on behalf of equal access to education, both across Africa and at home, into the future.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Zambia can do this to you. Lift you up and slam you down within the period of a day and a half. It’s an exhausting yet inevitable reality of working in one of the poorest countries in the world, one that is plagued by dilapidated educational and desperate health care systems. And it’s bound to hit you harder when you work with the people who are impacted most by these failures.

This weekend we received the news that the father of one of our grade 8 students, a fiery, resilient girl who we just selected in December, passed away. He was in his low 40s. The cause of death, as usual, seems to be shrouded in mystery. I understand that death, even at young ages, is not a novel concept in the West. But there is just something inherently wrong about the way death seems to creep into people’s lives here. It moves slowly, stealthily, so much so that you might have no idea it’s coming before it’s too late. Or, it strikes randomly, unforgiving, on a Sunday when your family is at church. Either way, it’s rarely expected, and there is often no way to counteract it. Nobody ever seems to see it coming. And yet, there is this general acceptance, a resigning to it. People work so hard. They struggle for everything they have…the Zambians I have met here, particularly in the compounds, are some of the most tenacious people I have ever encountered. Yet, death in many ways is let in and it invades their personal lives and the many things they have worked so hard to build. Death, for many Zambians, is as much part of everyday life as eating breakfast, or going to work from nine to six.

This of course if not to say that people don’t mourn. That is not the case at all. I spent an entire morning and afternoon with my coworker Mwila as part of the funeral procession, and it was clear to me that this man would be greatly missed by his entire community. Funerals usually begin at the house of the deceased, or a close relative’s house. The men usually sit outside while the women are let into the house to be with the widow. From there, cars and trucks process from the house to the burial site (much like what we do in the States). As part of many Zambian processions, friends and relatives will sit or stand in the back up a large pickup truck (sometimes 50-60 people will fit onto one truck) and sing traditional songs as the row of cars makes its way through the city. I see these processions every single day as I drive throughout Lusaka, but being part of it, knowing the person whom these people were mourning, gave me a deeper appreciation for the tradition. It made something that is often commonplace, part of the sights and sounds of the city, inherently unique. Personal. We arrived at the cemetery—a massive, sprawling field of, muddy, puddle-dotted roads, overgrown grass, and occasional graves (some expensive-looking, others makeshift signs with personal notes scrawled across them). We parked, and I suddenly realized how many people were actually present. There must have been four or five hundred people there, men, children, and women whose vibrant chitenge dresses formed a sharp contrast with the bleak scene. We streamed to the grave site, and women broke into song as the coffin was carried to the ground. Men gave speeches in Nyanja, women wailed, and my heart broke for our student, so young and bright, now a single orphan at thirteen years old. I tried to think back to our interview, when I met her parents, her father so calm and proud and humble, a rare university graduate, her mother excited and hopeful, their daughter so confident and eloquent. I remembered their faces when we delivered the good news, that she had been picked for a scholarship—the disbelief, then the glowing smiles and tears of joy. And suddenly everything had changed. In the period of two days. Death poisoned the momentary optimism the family had enjoyed.

I felt deflated for the rest of the day. I gave our student a hug, told her to hang in there and take her time, knew that whatever I said would not do a thing to ease this pain or solve the pressing reality of the situation—that the family’s sole breadwinner was now gone. It’s foolish and arrogant to assume that what is the same for many Zambians was the same for this man. He got sick and passed away, and I have no indication that he died of anything other than natural causes. But the sudden death of a member of our small family was a harsh reminder of the ever-present threat of death and disease that permeates Zambian society. Yes, it is true that part of why people are always attending funerals is because the Zambian extended family goes on and on and on, so that your odds of being invited to a funeral are greatly improved. Still, what I have found most exhausting and disheartening is this sense of mystery around death and its causes, this unwillingness that I’ve observed in many people to confront its root causes, or this lack of information that many, particularly those in the compounds, have about disease and ways to prevent it, about how and where to seek treatment.

And this is precisely why education is so important, why I believe so fully in it as a tool for national and social development. It’s not just that proper schooling keeps children off the street, teaches individuals about national issues, and empowers families to better their lives. Even more so, it’s that Zambia needs committed leaders dedicated to transforming a monumentally deficient health care system, individuals who have experienced the hardships that afflict three quarters of the population and can thus begin to understand how to fight back against them. It needs people who can understand how policy, behavior, and culture are intertwined, people who can earn the trust of their fellow citizens and finds ways to prevent what is preventable.

Policy makers have always neglected education. Funds are poured into health, or business development, yet the system that has the most direct influence over the lives of children and families receives next to nothing in support. Education is the foundation, the lifeblood of a healthy society, and if it is not effectively distributed to all members of society than it can’t perform its most vital functions. And the essential power of education does not stop at basic or secondary level. Access to quality higher education is just as important in developing the sorts of leaders who can instigate the changes that countries like Zambia so desperately need. It is a natural extension, an invaluable next step for those who take educational development seriously.

To my knowledge, the last time scholars convened about higher education development, it was in 2000. This article, in my opinion, hits the nail on the head, but it needs an update, and needs to be taken more seriously (up to now it has not).

Despite the many frustrations of living here, the times when I have felt my beliefs being shaken, what has remained constant is my faith in the power of education, particularly for those who are most vulnerable.

Today I was reminded of the darkness that rests beyond the vibrancy and energy of life in Zambia. I was reminded of all that I have and all that I should be grateful, for a family that I can always rely on for love and support, for friends who have always been there, for the opportunities I have been blessed with. And, I was reminded of why I chose to dedicate a year of my life to this cause.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Locked In

In many ways I think going home for the holidays was one of the best decisions I’ve made since coming to Zambia. I saw family and friends, visited familiar sites, and after a couple weeks found myself craving my life and work in Lusaka. I got back on the plane eager to return to my new home, and found the country stifling hot, greener than I had ever seen it (due to heavy rainfall), lush and bustling and just as I had left it. At that moment I was surer than ever that this is where I belonged, that my next six months were going to be different, that I was refreshed and reenergized and ready to take hold of the rest of my short time here and make it into something truly great. An enormous shift has taken place in my mind…when I left in December I NEEDED to get a taste of home. It was a half-way point, a chance for me to regroup and refocus, a much needed break. But now, five months seems like five weeks. When I got back to my house, I got a call from Edna Lungu, one of our dynamic young leaders…”Mr. James, just wanted to check to see that you were back in the country.” At that moment, as I unpacked, things just clicked. Yeah, this is where I belong right now. Right here.

Much has changed since I’ve returned…we oriented five bright new students and their families to the program. We hired a new programs officer, Mwila, a young social worker from the University of Zambia who has already shown that he is going to do amazing things for KF and its kids. Mwila and I were forced to get to know each other very quickly…a week after my return we took all 36 kids on a community service and leadership retreat to a lodge about five hours north. It was another experience that ended up reminding me that I was exactly where I wanted to be…the Zambian staff leading the retreat connected so well with the students, and we spent days doing sessions on leadership, life skills, and community service project planning, mixed in with rock climbing, canoeing, problem solving, and telling stories around the campfire. I grew closer to KF during those three days. I was even given a Zambian named around the campfire…Chikumbuso, meaning “remembrance.” I think it was very fortunate that I came back to Lusaka and was immediately reminded of what I was doing there. After getting back to the city, I could already feel my mindset shifting, my nostalgia for home fading away, and my consciousness focusing almost fully on the places and people in front of me.

Things have certainly been busy…we have a new fundraising consultant who already has big plans for finding donors and expanding and improving our programs. Our grade 12s are in full swing preparing for the most important exams of their lives, and I‘ve been teaching entire history classes at one of our schools (our students tend to bring friends…many of them). Our new students seem to be adjusting well, and it always makes my day when I see them walking toward me with smiles on their faces. I can’t help but remember each of them sitting with their families several months ago, nervous and excited, hoping and praying that they would be picked.

I feel locked in. Zambia is my home right now, yet, I can’t seem to defeat this nagging realization that I am leaving in July. There are things that I have been thinking about that are new and exciting, possibilities I’ve been pondering that I never would have guessed six months ago. Yes, in six months, I have experienced a fundamental change. I am me, yet it’s a different me. Perhaps it’s more me than ever before.

Monday, December 27, 2010

A Potential Turning Point

Please forgive me for taking such a long time to update this…I suppose I could blame it on a combination of incredible busyness and stress, preparing for a very important trip home, and/or a concern that once I started writing I wouldn’t be able to stop. The last couple weeks of November were a whirlwind of constant work, confusion, and excitement—partly due to the fact that I was beginning to understand the true weight behind my experience in Lusaka so far, partly because I knew come mid December I would be home, and partly because I was beginning to think that no matter how hard I tried I would be leaving this country knowing that I could not accomplish everything I had hoped I could.

I spent Thanksgiving with my roommate, Brandon, and my landlords, and was amazed that I felt right at home (despite the fact that this was my first Thanksgiving away from Massachusetts…ever). I was lucky enough to see the famous bat migration at the end of November (one of the most spectacular things I have ever witnessed), along with the mysterious and eerie “Africa House,” a colonial mansion that was constructed in northern Zambia by an eccentric (and probably arrogant) Englishman with the hopes of putting into place his version of a British-African empire, and the hot springs that lie twenty minutes north of the grounds.

I was graced by an amazing visit by my friend Keki, my first Zambian friend that I met at the University of Cape Town, and I had a wonderful time showing her my life in the city, introducing her to students and families (Keki is, in a way, the perfect model of a successful Zambian student, on the PhD track), and talking with her about the problems I have seen so far in her country, my frustrations and disappointments, successes and goals.

It was certainly an emotionally exhausting couple of weeks…I finished 31 family interviews over about two and a half weeks, finally completed a pile of vital administrative work for KF, and participated in the final states of our student selection for January. During December, our students are supposed to be beginning/continuing their community service projects, and I am excited to see what they have accomplished when I come back. We are also hoping to have a service leadership retreat with all of the students sometime in January in order to help the students solidify their plans, reflect on the challenges they have faced, and make plans for the future. I was able to accompany Harrison in telling the students whom we picked that they were selected…this came at a very busy and stressful time, and when the first family we told erupted in a sea of joy and emotion, I was once again reminded of what makes this position so unbelievably special. After interviewing all of our families (including those of the five newly selected kids), I feel as if I am at a place where I can finally begin to understand where these students are coming from. I had some unbelievably enlightening conversations with parents and siblings about problems with access to higher education in Zambia, the challenges that kids face in the compounds, the struggles each family is confronting, still, and the hopes and dreams that they had for their child. I think it was during the month of November that I finally realized that whatever it is I do in my life, I need to be around people, interacting with families, sharing information, and learning from others on a daily basis. I think I have really had a chance to take my communication skills to a different level in Zambia, and I was very proud when my students told me that their parents and siblings found it incredibly (and surprisingly) easy to trust me right away, even though I was just a random foreigner appearing in their houses, often for the first time.

KF had to say goodbye to Harrison (who is moving on to another job), and that was difficult. He has developed and fostered such amazing relationships with these students, and I am sure it’s very hard for them to have to keep adjusting to new programs officers and new interns coming in all of the time. It’s a very tough situation. He will be missed very much by all of us. Luckily the new PO coming in, Mwila, seems like an exceptionally smart and hardworking guy. He’s just out of the University of Zambia, and I think he’ll be a fine addition to the team.
On the last day before I began my long journey to South Africa and Boston, KF had it’s annual mentor luncheon. It was wonderful to see all of the inspiring professionals that have had such a monumental impact on our kids and the program. The students all did songs and dances, and one of the minister’s wives came as our guest of honor. I had a wonderful time hanging out with all of the kids after, taking pictures and just goofing around. It was a hectic, stressful day, but in the end, like it all came back to the time I was able to spend with our students. It always does.

My director and I left the following day for Johannesburg, where I was reunited with a fellow Princeton in Africa Fellow, Veda. Veda is doing some amazing work at African Leadership Academy, a two year A-level (pre-college) and leadership/entrepreneurial development program that brings together the best students from across the continent. Florence and I spent the day at ALA, and we were absolutely blown away by the brilliance and diversity of these kids, the amazing successes the academy has already had (getting three quarters of their recent graduates into top schools with full financial need met, for instance), and the inspiring enthusiasm of the teachers and administrators who we met. Our mission was to advocate on behalf of our students, and we are hoping to get at least one student into the program. It would be an unbelievable achievement if we did. I could really feel the uniqueness of this place as I walked around, sat in classes, sat in on an end of the year assembly, and even played ultimate Frisbee in an impromptu faculty-staff match. People really support each other. They are a family of young, hypermotivated, innovative students who will change their countries and their continent. ALA has a requirement that graduates must return to their home countries for five years upon graduation from college, otherwise the student is required to pay back any scholarship aid they received to attend ALA.

The academy has an ambitious fifty year vision, and the backbone behind its success is the philosophy that quality education is a key to development, that young, African leaders are the ones who have the best chance to implement change—not outsiders. It is often during college and university that students begin to solidify their goals and values, and it is hear that the sort of social consciousness necessary for social change can be fostered. I left feeling invigorated. And perhaps more important, I left feeling fairly certain that improving access to quality higher education for young leaders is a cause that I could see myself pursuing in the future.

It is impossible to describe the wave of emotions that coming home has been. I recognize that it has only been five months, but surprising my parents in my basement with a Santa hat, seeing the look of sustained shock, then joy, on their faces was something I will remember for the rest of my life. Thank you, to you who made it possible. It is true, I do feel different at home. And I think I have started to realize the extent of this difference over the past week or so. I am trying to sort out these feelings, and possibly use them to refocus and refuel upon return. But it’s comforting to have been able to see my friends, to see that despite the changes everyone has inevitably experienced, everyone is moving on and moving forward together, albeit differently. I am expecting that upon return, I will be able to use this burst of energy to make some important improvements to my life and work in Zambia. There is a tutoring system that needs more work, a long research project to continue, service projects to help develop, and 10 separate futures to think about. I am eternally grateful for this trip home, and I think it will eventually be a key element to some great successes over the next six months. Happy holidays, everyone.