So it’s been a busy couple weeks…I think I underestimated how much time coordinating, preparing, and implementing our work experience program would be. Luckily I’ve finally settled into a new place, and it’s surprised me how much of a difference this has made. Oliver (a friend of a friend from my hometown area) and I were forced to do some scrambling a couple weeks ago because our original landlord more or less went behind our backs and signed the house in Roma to someone else. So we spent the last week or so doing last-minute flat searches. It’s funny…after all the work I put into looking for housing before I got here, all it took was a simple question at Oliver’s office and we were set up with a really nice place in Woodlands, a suburb of the city that is in a perfect location (near the people I know and the schools I work with). It’s a two bedroom cottage out behind an older couple’s house, has great security, and came more or less completely furnished (aside from the fact that the water in t he shower doesn’t work). It’s going to be great to have a quiet place to come back to after busy days. So a couple weekends ago I said goodbye to my host family, which was surprisingly hard. Mrs. Mwenya has been like a mother to be here, and I couldn’t be more grateful to have had such a warm, welcoming family to live with during these first unsettling weeks. I gave her a little piece of my hometown as a gift…a Johnny Appleseed apple carving (yes, they actually make and sell these) because Leominster, MA’s claim to fame is the fact that the legendary apple-planter was born there. I think this was the first time that I started to really pick up on certain subtle cultural differences between me and my host mom and the other Zambians I’ve gotten to know. There is the fact that Zambians almost always eat with their right hands, the muted, sometimes frustrating way people say “ok, ok” instead of thank you or goodbye, the way people will always take the time to stop and ask you how your day was. People can move slowly sometimes and can be relaxed to the point of ridiculousness, especially when you are coming from a society that is permanently on the go. But there is also something refreshing about being forced to slow down a bit.
Oliver and I moved into our new house on a Sunday, and Mrs. Mwenya came over the next day to check in on us and make sure we were in a proper house. She even let me borrow her sheets so I don’t have to buy them! Sadly I didn’t have much time to unpack the first week because the KF staff had to transport the grade 9s to holiday tutoring and the grade 10s to work experience. This meant that I was getting up at 5:30 everything single day to drive across the town to pick up three kids and drop them off at their respective destinations. One girl lives all the way out in Chongwe (not even technically Lusaka) on a beautiful farm out past the airport. I did get a fresh bag of beans and tomatoes out of it (a very kind gesture from the girl’s Aunt), but this also meant that I had to fight Lusaka rush hour traffic on one of it’s main roads at the worst time of day. And the same went for the way home, which means I was getting home at 7:30 e very night. It was absolutely exhausting, and very difficult because I found myself spending half my day driving and not catching up on the work I was already behind on. KF is a small organization, which means the director, finance officer, and programs officers also need to double as shuttle d rivers.
On Tuesday the director and I met with the Ministry of Education to learn more about scholarship opportunities for our students. I left flustered and infuriated. We sat in an office for an hour listening to a government official pepper us with questions about our program and our selection processes, all the while not really giving us a chance to offer an appropriate response. He accused us of “abandoning” the students after grade 12, even though KF is developing tertiary plans for each one of these kids. At that point the director fired back a response that hit the nail right on the head: “so let me ask you this,” she said. “What happens after grade seven when the government no longer allows for half of Zambia’s young population to access an education? Isn’t that abandonment?” At that point I realized that the biggest issue they saw with us was that we were sending students to private schools, that we were purposely avoiding the government-run schools because of their overall poor performance. It was infuriating to listen to a government official question our sustainability when there have already been so many failed policies implemented by this government. Still, we came out of the meeting realizing that we also had to find a way to partner with the Ministries…no NGO can completely circumvent the government in which it operates, and the Ministries can actually be a pretty useful partner when we are looking to find scholarships for our students to attend college here in Zambia.
The meeting left me feeling considerably overwhelmed. Again, KF is a small, new organization, and there are a lot of ways that we can improve the program and the services it offers to these students and their families. That is of course something that every nonprofit goes through, but I think my exhaustion coupled with my frustration with the government here left me feeling like we all had too much on our plates. But then I took a step back, thought about the immediate successes KF was already having, and began to push these concerns away. What matters most is that KF is giving students an unbelievable opportunity. Yes, there are ways that we can tone and streamline our programs, and yes, it is important to critically examine how we go about the process of sponsoring students, but at the end of the day what matters most is these 31 students and how KF can continue to help them achieve their goals. The frustrations will inevitable arise…that is something that is inseparable from this sort of work, but it is impossible to argue that Kf isn’t having a monumental impact on the kids’ lives. I know I’ve only been here for a month, but I’ve seen these students’ homes, I’ve met their families and heard about the challenges they face every day. I’ve listened to the hopes and aspirations of these students, I’ve seen their top-ranked grades, learned a about their talents and community involvement. I’ve seen them open up to me, and I’ve seen their confidence, maturity, and unshakable faith they will continue their schooling, succeed, and use what they have learned to help their families and communities. At the end of the day, these are the things that fuel a small organization like KF. The intangible yet potentially more powerful successes.
After a grueling week I was very much ready for the weekend. On Friday Oliver and I met up with our friend Keith who was leaving the next day (the expat community is always shifting here, so it’s easy to get used to saying goodbye). Then we went to a new Mexican restaurant for burritos, where I met a huge group of Peace Corps volunteers. They are having such a different experience (most of the are wayyy out in t the villages with no water or electricity), which made me reevaluate some of the silly things I have been complaining about. It ended up being a late night, typical of the Lusaka club scene. On Saturday we brought all of the KF students to a conference on teen leadership, which most of them seemed to enjoy. This was actually my first time seeing all of the students together in one place, and I could tell that despite the fact that KF has three separate schools, this organization is like family network to them. I looked at the grade 11s and began to envision what their plans might be after secondary school, saw the grade 10s talking a about their various work experiences, the grade 8s trying their best to emulate the older students. At a time when I was feeling drained, here was an image of everything that KF was about: this group of bright, ambitious kids who, with a few pushes here and there, have the opportunity to achieve incredible things.
My friend Maxime from Bowdoin got here last week, and it was awesome meeting the new grassroots volunteers who are going to be working with her. On Sunday we made brunch with Maxime and her friend Alice and went to the market at Arcades. I felt like an expert showing her and her friends around the city, especially since a couple weeks before I was getting in car accidents and getting lost every day. Now here I was pointing out all the various sites of the city and offering all the same advice Libby gave to me earlier. Lusaka forces you to adapt quickly. I’ve fallen in ditches, learned to navigate potholes, negotiated speeding tickets with Zambian police officers, gotten lost and found my way home 20 times, learned to find houses in sprawling neighborhoods without street names, and so much more. And all of it feels completely normal now. A month ago already feels like a completely different reality. That afternoon we watched some premier league soccer at Smugglers, an awesome sports bar, with the grassroots volunteers, the full time Zambian employees, and my buddy James who works as an accountant at one of our schools. Sunday was the first day where I think I truly felt settled. I had an incredible day, and while I was still thinking about my family and friends at home, I began to notice an even more significant change in me. I wasn’t just feeling adjusted anymore, I was feeling comfortable, happy, and interestingly enough, right at home here in Lusaka.