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…

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