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.

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