Sunday, July 25, 2010

Taking Over

Last week was an introduction to Lusaka, and this week was an introduction to the work I’m going to be doing for the next ten months of my life. On Monday we had my first staff meeting in the office…Florence, Harrison, Mr. Mukena and I. It was great to start laying down my primary responsibilities, to begin structuring my time here with the other members of KF. We talked about student mentoring needs, tuition schedules (holiday test prep for the grade 9 and 11 students), work experience placements (grade 10 students are assigned to week-long internships with law firms, local businesses, clinics and more during the August term break), and transportation for the month of August. August is going to be a very busy month…the four of us are going to have to coordinate transportation for 15 or so students across the city for the entire month. I really enjoyed brainstorming ideas with the staff…I really enjoy how everyone’s opinion matters with KF. I guess that’s one of the many benefits of working for a very small grassroots organization. There are always ways to improve, and every suggestion is important.

I spent much of this week sorting through the many documents Libby left for me, calling and scheduling meetings with local partners and new mentors. I loved meeting with Mrs. Kumar at her house, an Indian literature professor at the University of Zambia. She will be mentoring one of our grade 8 students, and I could tell immediately that she would be a dedicated volunteer for KF. She also invited me back to her house for dinner and swimming whenever I want! One of the highlights of the week was meeting with the Leopards Hill students. Libby left on Tuesday, so I wanted to take these next couple weeks to just go to the schools and get to know the students as much as possible. At first, it was a little difficult to get the 12 students talking, but after a while they opened up. I tried my best to remember their first and last names, grades, and birthdays, and surprisingly they didn’t make fun of me that much for butchering the pronunciations. I ended up sticking around the school for two hours, and left feeling incredibly optimistic. It’s a lot easier to work at the office coordinating mentoring and work place plans when you actually know the people you are assisting. It’s so simple, but I recognized immediately why I felt so distant from these students last week, and why talking about my plans for the year did not feel quite right. It will be impossible to be successful at this job if I don’t form relationships with these kids, and I am going to have to work hard to build that level of trust.

Another highlight from the week was attending the International Society for the Study of Behavioral Development Conference. It was being held right here in Lusaka, and this was the first time it was being held in Africa. Florence wanted us to go to see what connections we could make to KF and its students, and of course to network with some of international scholars and NGO leaders that were present. I talked to some pretty interesting people—an ASU PhD student studying HIV and woman social influence, two Australian public health students, professors at UNZA. The presentation that stood out the most was one that centered on successful and unsuccessful behavioral interventions into the spread of HIV in Southern Africa. When the South African professor finished his presentation, the questions and debate from the crowd got pretty heated. When one man stood up and asked how people were expected to trust condom manufactures, people jumped at the opportunity to bring up the inevitable yet often overlooked reality that deeply embedded cultural beliefs and practices—not lack of information or awareness—are the most significant obstacle facing HIV prevention. The lecturer, and many in the audience, stressed that while developmental projects health campaigns must keep culture in mind, people tend to hide behind culture when faced with significant threats to their ways of life. The professor argued that certain things are inherently inexcusable—abuse of women, for instance—and that the only way to truly limit the spread of HIV is to acknowledge that practices which are part of many Southern African cultures—mistrust of birth control, men having multiple sexual partners at once—must be seriously reevaluated. It was a very interesting debate to listen in on, especially since so many in the audience had deep personal connections to the disease.

On a lighter note, the conference ended in a closing ceremony, a party outside that featured traditional dancing, and kudu (horned African antelopes) walking around freely outside the conference hall. I have to admit that it was pretty exciting to see my first African animal sighting of this year!

On Friday, Harrison and I did another family interview. This one will stick with me throughout my time here. When we pulled up to the house off of another pothole-laden dirt road, it didn’t hit me until we sat down (despite the uncommonly dark room we were led into) that the woman we were going to interview was blind. This was the sister of one of our students, who works as a telephone operator in order to support a family of about 6 or 7. Of course, it’s been a bit difficult entering these homes. I am an outsider, and that shows most when I am asking questions about a family’s income in an American accent that the person I am speaking to often cannot understand. I know that I am going to have to come to terms with that reality soon. But instead of reminding me how different we were, this meeting actually did the opposite. Although we had just met, I felt for this woman who given everything to provide for her family. Here was someone that had no choice but to live as if she did not suffer from one of the most difficult handicaps one could have. I was drawn to her…her calm voice, her honesty, her unbelievable selflessness. This was one of the defining moments of my introduction to Lusaka.

Though I’ve been getting lost once in a while, I’m starting to get to know the city. I’m already driving like an aggressive Zambian driver. There is something exhilarating about driving around alone in a foreign city and knowing that you can manage on your own. I had an awesome weekend…on Saturday I drove Paulina to the Soweto market, the biggest in the city, then went to another hash run. This one was on a farm outside of the city, and the route took us through trees, thorn bushes, and tons of free roaming cows. A huge group of kids from the area were running with us the entire way, and at the end of the run a group of us hung around with the kids, playing with paper airplanes made on the fly by Matt, a MIT aerospace engineering graduate. I’m still not used to the sunsets here…this one over the peaceful farmlands outside of Lusaka was especially spectacular. My future roommate Oliver and I met up with some BU public health graduate students later that night and had an awesome time. I’m so glad that many of them will be here until December. I feel like I’m meeting interesting people every single day here!

Today I drove out to Mrs. Mwenya’s family farm where she and her siblings grew up. There have been people living on this farm for decades, and it was awesome to experience a bit of where my host mom came from. None of her family members out there speaks English, but either way everyone was so warm and welcoming. I loved walking around the land with Daniel, listening to stories about his grandfather who built and maintained the farm well into his seventies before he passed away. Like I wrote before, it’s not easy being an outsider, and sometimes it’s very difficult to know exactly what your role is in certain situations. Yes, in many ways I am and always will inherently be an outsider here. But I am learning more every day, and to be honest, I find myself recognizing the similarities between me and those around me far more often than I am the differences.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

My first week, continued

On Monday I got a little taste of the infuriating inefficiency of Zambian bureaucracy, standing in line at immigration, spending hours trying to find a phone. Libby and Harrison also took me to the US Embassy to register, and then Harrison and I continued on our interviews. We drove to a teacher’s house, an impressive man who used to work for the HRC and dreamt of being a famer. He told us that he believed that if you receive assistance you have the responsibility of helping others. Many of the parents that I met were so grateful for KF’s assistance, and all of them expected their children to use their education to help their families and communities. Harrison took me to his church and then to the house of a friend whose 29 year old daughter had just passed away. I certainly felt like an outsider there…people were streaming in to pay their respects, woman were singing, and I sat on an old ripped couch feeling that everything was just so incredibly surreal. I began speaking with a young man next to me about why I was in Lusaka, about the girl who had just died, and how death always seems to creep up on families. Apparently this girl, one of 19 children, had been feeling sick for a while, and since the family could not afford medical care, she more or less wasted away until her death, completely unaware of what was killing her. Death seems to be far too common here. It is a part of life, something that people have to confront every day. From there, Harrison and I stopped by his church, where I was advised to call him “President Harrison.” We did one more interview that afternoon, but what was most memorable to me was driving around with Harrison, listening to him talk about all of the problems that plague his country—HIV and the lack of information about the disease, corrupt, greedy government officials, a failing educational system. He also seemed to have such pride in his work, and such faith in the potential of KF’s students. “Sometimes all people need is a chance,” he said. Then he began listing the top-ranked students at all three of our partner schools (Leopards Hill, Ibex Hill, Chalo Trust), all KF students.

On Monday Libby took me to the office, a tiny room in a converted graduate apartment, where I met Mr. Mukena (the jolly finance officer for KF). We then began driving around to deliver applications for new KF sponsorships. KF will be taking on 5 new students this year, and this will be a big part of my next couple months. I’ll be reading applications, interviewing students and families, helping with the testing and evaluation strategies, and writing final profiles for the top candidates. KF partners with a number of different primary schools in the country, and each school gets 15 applications. The teachers and administrators are advised to select promising, vulnerable students to submit materials, and then we take over the process from there. Obviously, the question that remains is: what happens to the students who can’t afford to pay for secondary school, since the government charges fees starting in grade 8? The reality is that these students simply finish there, and attempt to enter the workforce with a grade 7 education. Libby and I talked a lot about her experience here, about how poorly run and mismanaged the educational system is, how USAID and other organizations only seem to be interested in improving the basic school system, and just generally how tough this position is. KF is a tiny organization. It does incredible work for these students, their families, and their communities, and it is still growing. What makes this job so interesting (and also what makes it so difficult) is that fellows are given tasks to complete, and are then given a lot of flexibility in deciding how to go about them. If you are not proactive, if you can’t think outside of the box, if you don’t work well independently, then there is little chance that you will get anything done. Libby has done an incredible job here. She is amazingly intelligent, resourceful, honest, and tough, and I have a lot to learn from her.

The rest of the week, Libby and I drove around to the different schools, meeting school officials, and FINALLY meeting the students. This is something else I was worrying about…Libby has worked so hard for these students, and has gotten very close with them. It’s going to take a long time for them to adjust to and trust a new fellow. I know that I can get close with them, but I am also being realistic. It’s going to take some time. At Ibex Hill, I met 14 of the students…Penius, Dennis, Grace, Barbara, Dalton, Lukonde, Iwell, Sonia, Phales, Mary, Edna P, Kate, and Martin. The kids were actually surprisingly talkative…we spent some time watching pick up soccer games, chatting, and doing name games. Before coming to Ibex, I had been feeling pretty down…I was exhausted, overwhelmed, missing home, and feeling like I had too much on my plate. But meeting the students…the reason why this organization exists…energized me. Suddenly I understood why Libby was working so hard, why she woke up at 5 am to help them study, why she spent months running around the city trying to decipher what tertiary opportunities are available to graduating 12th graders. Everything is for them, for this group of kids. Later on in the week we made the drive out to Chalo trust, where we met the quieter Justin, Elijah, Margaret, Ngosa, and Edson. The girls gave me a tour of their school, and I was relieved to see that they were opening up to me, at least a little bit. I am an outsider, and there is no reason for them to trust me yet. At Ibex Hill, we met Rosa, Vivian, Japhet, Abram, Jeffrey, Gaella, Mercy, Bwalya, Edna, Mailess, and Joseph. The Ibex kids were a lot more talkative then the other two groups, and we had a great time sitting around and chatting. Some were more outspoken the others, but the kids actually felt comfortable enough to show off their singing talent. It was sad to see Libby have to say goodbye to them, and I can see why she fell in love with these students. They are funny, witty, bright, and genuine…each of them has their own story, his or her own hopes and dreams, talents and interests. Meeting the students reminded me of the heart of KF, the thing that makes this organization such a success. It is investing in a group of amazing young people…there is a lot of pressure on them, from their families, from their communities, and especially from KF and its donors. But the reality is that they really do have a chance to take control of their own lives, to improve the lives of their families, and to make an impact on the communities in which they live. And KF is reason for it.

I have to admit that by Friday I was ready for the weekend to start. It was great to meet Florence, the director of KF, who gave me a warm welcome to her country. But that night I was so exhausted that I passed out at 8:30. On Saturday I spent some more time doing interviews with Harrison. We went to a farm, to several houses, and even interviewed one man in the car. It was disturbing listening to this earnest, hardworking man talk about how little his UN employee bosses were paying him for gardening…less than a third of what his total expenses are for the month. There is so much about this country that defies rationality…yes, the corruption, inefficiency, and laziness of the government is one thing, but there are also so many contradictions embedded within the world of foreign aid. It’s really hard to make sense of a lot of what goes on here, especially after being in Zambia for only a week. Last night there was a big party at a new Mexican restaurant for Libby and two of the other grassroots soccer people that are leaving. I had an awesome time and had the chance to meet many more people that are working and living in Lusaka. People here are so friendly, and it’s kind of cool to see how age differences don’t really matter here.

It’s been an exhausting, overwhelming, whirlwind of a week, and it’s only going to get more crazy this week when Libby leaves and I have to start making my own plan and schedule. But I feel myself adjusting to Lusaka…even though I got lost twice today on the way to and from the mall (I’m truly terrible with directions). Anyway, if you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading! Time to get to bed early…

Saturday, July 17, 2010

First weekend

It’s amazing to me how different this feels…already. I am sitting on a plane to Johannesburg, completely by myself, and somehow everything still doesn’t feel real. I said my goodbyes, but everything was just so quick. The baggage assistance rushed me along even though I wasn’t done saying goodbye for 11 months to my family. I checked in, alone, went through security, and sat by my gate, and thought a lot about how different I was the last time I was waiting to get onto a flight to South Africa. I’ve been thinking a lot about what this fellowship is supposed to mean, what I really think it means, what my expectations are for this year, and just now naïve I really am. I suppose one has to be a little naïve to jump on a plane alone to a country that I’ve spent a total of three days in, with nothing but a small network of contacts, two small bags, and a whole lot of uncertainty. The truth is, I am excited beyond belief to be going back to Southern Africa, to keep an open mind, to learn as much as I can about the city, it’s residents, Zambian culture, to be in a new place armed with a sense of independence and adventure. But I am also terrified, and I still haven’t had the chance to confront that inevitable feeling. Obviously, it is difficult to leave everything I know and love behind…Bowdoin, my friends, my family. In many ways I feel like I’m denying myself of the things that make me feel at home, the comforts, the warmth of support and familiarity. But then I take a step back a bit, and think seriously about how incredible this opportunity is. I know that there will be times when I am frustrated, when I question my intentions, my qualifications, my ability to connect with these students and fully understand their lives and where they have come from. There will be times when I miss home, when I want desperately to come back, when I feel like life is going on without me back in the States. But I know in my heart that this is right for me, and that despite the challenges that will certainly come, I am ready to face them. I am ready to have the chance to grow, to be independent, and to learn to be alright on my own. However, more importantly, I am eager to explore the Kucetekela Foundation and the successes it has had, to see firsthand how providing an education to those who wouldn’t necessarily have access to it can impact individuals, families, and communities. I am, I have to admit, a little uncertain, anxious, and perhaps profoundly naïve. But I think the first step is to accept these things, keep them in mind, and learn from them.

My first noteworthy experience: I sat next to an international businesswoman on the plane from Wisconsin who is visiting her photojournalist son that is teaching at a school in Uganda. Apparently the school allows students to express themselves through art and writing, and is attempting to heal the wounds of the recent civil war. We talked about everything from family and relationships to sustainable development, Bowdoin, and religion (she is a recently converted born-again Christian). It was a fascinating conversation, made better by the fact that she has the same last name as me! What are the odds? Another Nadeau on the way to South Africa! Arriving in Joburg was even stranger…the last time I was here, I was with an enormous group of Americans and we were freaking out as porters attacked us to carry our bags. This time, despite the noticeable buzz of the world cup and the decorations and vuvzelas, the airport was strangely quiet. I bought a vuvzela at a tourist shop (why not?), and hopped right on the shuttle to get on the plane to Lusaka. I sat next to another awesome person…a professor from Australia who was flying to Zambia to teach for a week before moving on to Kenya. We talked during most of the two hour flight, so I didn’t get to check out the landscape, but once we touched down in Lusaka, I immediately felt a change. The welcome to Zambia signs were enough to make me realize that I was going to be in this country for a year of my life, and suddenly I felt exhilarated and terrified. The airport was tiny, the air was cool, and the landscape was dry and barren. I showed my visa to the immigration workers, walked through the gate, and immediately saw Libby, the Princeton in Africa Fellow I am taking over for. I gave her a hug and we left the now crowded airport to walk out to her car (my future car). It’s a huge Toyota Surf, four wheel drive, maroon, 1994, which enormous wheels. I would soon figure out why Libby decided to buy a car like this…

The airport is a little ways outside the city, and once we entered the central area of Lusaka, I quickly understood how vastly different this experience would be that the one I had in Cape Town. Lusaka is crowded, with people walking in bunches down the windy, car-packed streets. There are areas where you can easily forget you are in Africa—malls, restaurants, bars, nice houses with gates and beautiful gardens, nicely paved roads—and then there are packed markets with people everywhere and trash all over the ground, people selling handmade wooden furniture on the side of the road, compounds where the poorest live with enormous potholes poorly made dirt roads, little kids running and staring at you as you pass, enormous holes in the sides of the road for drainage that are also filled with water and muck. The city smells like a combination of smoke and soil. That was actually the first thing I noticed as we were driving around. Libby began telling me about her time in Zambia, both the positives and the challenges she has faced and I will likely face. I could tell right away that Lusaka had changed her, made her flexible and tough.

Libby drove me to my host family’s house, an upper-class residence in Kabulanga. I met Makasa, my host Mom’s 25 year old daughter and Daniel, her 20 year old son. However, despite the fact that the Mwenya’s house would be considered beautiful in any neighborhood in the States, the street it is on is not well maintained. It is another dirt road, bumpy, with big potholes and rocks sticking out of it. By this time I understood why Libby chose the car she did. The rest of the day Libby showed me around the city, pointing out the places to get groceries, showing me the different neighborhoods. She took me to the museum, which had a beautiful art display on the ground floor despite the fact that most of historical displays had shabby hand-written labels. I went over to the Grassroots Soccer house for dinner, the house where Libby currently lives and my friend Maxime will be living when she arrives in Zambia. The grassroots volunteers that I met are amazing…they know so much about Zambia and the problems it faces, and to be honest I felt a little embarrassed about how little I really knew about this area. Luckily, jet lag never really affected me because I planned my sleeping schedule out well on the plane, but either way I was exhausted and passed out by 10 that nignt.

I spend some time with my host family on Saturday morning, and I knew right away that I was going to love living with them. I am the first person they have hosted, so they were extra excited to have me here. Makasa is a student in Joburg and is studying international relations. She is an amazing woman…the kind of person who you immediately feel you can open up to. Though she is now back at school, I am really excited to see her again when she visits home in September. Mrs. Mwenya runs a sports store at Manda Hill, a local mall, and she has also been so warm and welcoming. She told me to call her Auntie Margaret, and has been really interested in learning about the foundation I’ll be working for. Her favorite thing in the world is relaxing and watching TV in her bedroom, and for some reason that makes me feel right at home. The Mwenyas have two relatives who come and do housework for them—Paulina, who only speaks Nyanja, one of the most commonly spoken local languages in Lusaka, and Frida, who cooks delicious food and has been teaching me a phrase in Nyanja every day. They also have a little niece Shekinah who is five years old and literally has not stopped asking me questions since I’ve been here (she was most interested in my computer and banagrams game). The Mwenyas have fed me all sorts of Zambian meals—nshima, a pounded cornmeal staple food, all kinds of relishes, fresh village chicken, whole fishes, and more. I actually love Zambian food so far, and it’s pretty easy to get a quick fix of American food at any of the malls or restaurants. A lot of the chain foods are actually from South Africa (so bizarre for me), and there’s even an Nando’s here!

Libby had been talking about this running event called the hash, and she and her friend Emily took me to it during the day. Apparently there is a running club that takes place in a bunch of cities across the world where people meet, usually in places outside the city, and either run or walk a set route. At the end of the run, everyone stands in a circle and drinks beer and basically makes fun of each other. There are all these set traditions—I, being a newcomer, had to stand on a torn red carper in front of everyone and introduce myself to the group. The hash was bizarrely amazing, and it seems like a great place to see different parts of the area, to get outside of the city, and meet people who are coming from similar places. I also met my future roommate, Jenny, there! I can’t wait to go again.

Anyway, Daniel, the Mwenays’ 20 year old son, who was very shy at first by eventually opened up to me, invited me out with his friends on Saturday night. We went to a bar named Smuggler’s, drank some Mosis (Zambian beer), and watched the World Cup Consolation game. All of Daniel’s friends were welcoming and down-to-earth, and some of them peppered me with questions about what I was doing in Lusaka. Raizor, from Botswana, asked me “Why are you here?”, and when I stumbled over an answer, he began talking about all of the different aid agencies in Lusaka and how and why many of them were failing. I wasn’t expecting to have my intentions questioned right away, but it’s probably good to start thinking more seriously about these questions. After Smugglers we went to a club called Hollywood and didn’t get back until 6 am.

On Sunday I went to see my possible future apartment with Oliver (a recent Georgetown grad) and Jenny (working for the International Olympic Commission). It’s in a neighborhood called Roma, which is a bit far away from the schools I will be working with. The house, though, is amazing, and I’ll be excited to move in in a month and get settled. Us future roommates went and got lunch together, and then I met Harrsion Lubama, Kucetekela’s program officer. Harrison is the president of a local Mormon church (Mormonism and other forms of Christianity, are very popular here). He is a calm, confident man, and he brought me to his house in Kalingalinga where I met his wife, brother, and two daughters. After that, we began driving around the city to different houses. KF is doing a series of interviews of the families of KF students to evaluate how KF has impacted them. It was a great introduction to the program…seeing some of the neighborhoods where these students come from. The first house we went to was Vivian’s, a new KF student. She was there with her Mom, and Harrison left the interview to me. It was difficult at first…this was my second full day in the city and I was already interviewing families about their incomes, their hopes and dreams. But it was definitely a good learning experience…I could already tell that these parents were working so hard to provide for their families and that KF was giving their children a chance to have access to an education that would be impossible without its support. After that we drove Vivian to Leopards Hill, one of our partner schools, and Vivian gave me a little tour of the school and its grounds. It is a small, peaceful school, but it also stands in stark contrast to the areas where many of these students are from. After that we drove to a crowded market to interview Mrs. Chonza, the aunt of a student Joseph who has been working to support her nephew and his family who still remain in a poor village far from Lusaka. It was amazing to me to see how much people cared for their families, how they would do anything to ensure that they were provided for. I also began to notice the stares as I rode around with Harrison…everywhere we went, people were staring at me. Kids would ask “how are you!” Harrison told me that white people don’t go into these areas very often, so it is always a surprise for people to see one. When we were leaving the market a young man started harassing us for money, claiming that we had parked in a no parking zone (there was no sign at all warning us of this). Harrison told me that he expected us to give him money because I was a Muzungu, a white person, which almost always equals wealth to people in a lot of these areas. I got back to my house, had dinner, and was too exhausted to go out for the World Cup Final, so Daniel and I watched it on the couch and passed out early.

More to come…

Friday, July 16, 2010


So I have been here for a week, and I can honestly say these has been the craziest and most overwhelming seven days of my life. Sorry about being so late in updating...this won't be a full update, but I wanted to post my address and phone number:

+260 975 389 686

Mailing address:
Post Net Box 214
P/Bag E891
Manda Cill Centre
Lusaka, Zambia

More to come this weekend, I promise!