Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Last weekend KF tested 31 students (English, math, science, and verbal reasoning) who are applying to the program. It was incredible to see this enormous group of kids, some nervous, some enthusiastic, but all very proud to have been selected to this round of the application process. It’s funny to think that all of our current students started out here…they all seemed so young! When I walked into Leopards Hill School, two of our grade 11 students, Gaella and Abram, were standing in front of a class of students asking them questions, giving them advice, and trying to inspire them to work hard. “If you work hard, you can be here with me, with all of us,” she said. The students were also blown away by the cleanliness of the school, the athletic fields out back, and the free chicken and chips (French fries) lunch that we gave them. It is true that we can’t pick every one of these students, but it seems as if just getting this opportunity was very meaningful for a lot of them.

The director and I were sitting around with a group of teachers from our partner basic schools while the students were testing, discussing ways to make the application process smoother. One of the teachers brought up the fact that some of the other teachers in the school were complaining about not getting paid for helping with the application process. Then our director began talking about how important a service this is for KF, for these students, how sometimes people have be willing to sacrifice on behalf of others without anything concrete in return, and most importantly, how deeply we as an organization appreciate and value their help and input. One of the other teachers began speaking about how this was just not something that Zambians often think about and how discussing it is important. She acknowledged that, in her opinion, most of the people she knows are self-centered, and only focused on their own concerns and those of their families. The idea of a social consciousness, she was saying, was not something that people accept or subscribe too. We all began discussing ways to get the schools more involved in the program, and more importantly, ways for us to acknowledge and show our appreciation for their work. These teachers were not doing this for anyone other than the students sitting in the next classroom. They refused to let their own children apply to the program, and they showed immense appreciation for what the Foundation has done for their pupils. I hope they can inspire others to view KF in the same way.

The other day I went out for a couple drinks with one of my Zambian friends, a girl who studied in the UK and came back to Lusaka to work for a local publisher. I’m not sure how it came up, but we got into a huge debate about climate change (I was adamant that there is concrete evidence to prove it exists, and she was firmly of the opinion that it was completely over exaggerated or possibly not real at all). Then, some other people in the bar joined into the conversation…some people on my side, some on my friend’s. I found myself getting utterly frustrated to the point of exasperation, and kept my mouth shut when they all started talking about evolution (nobody at the bar believed in it, which is not surprising considering the fact Zambia is an ultra-Christian nation). At first I sort of brushed it off as a cultural difference, but then I sat back and realized that these same debates occur all over the States and the West. But It was so interesting to hear people discussing these issues in a super Christian environment, in a region that arguably would be one of the most affected, environmentally and socially, by climate change.

Later in the week I had lunch with a young man who had returned to Zambia after spending most of his life studying abroad (South Africa, India, the UK). He was a pharmacology major and did his masters researching the link between cancer medications and the treatment of malaria. I have been trying to set him up with some local contacts in public health (there are a TON of them here), because Kay is committed to putting his degree to work in an area that needs it most, his home country. I was asking him what it was that made him come back after so many years away, especially when he could probably be making a lot more money in the West. “People here believe that A=A,” he said. “They never question things, they never push things further. They accept the conditions here for what they are.” He went on to talk about disease and death. “There is so much death here. People choose to live with it instead of making small changes to their lives that could counteract it.” He is committed to changing that in every way that he can. And I have am confident that people like him will be the ones to actually implement change here. NGOs can only go so far. At a certain point, it is the local populations, the younger, well-education generations that will have to take control of the politics and social problems in this country if poverty and disease are to be effectively combated.

This weekend I returned to Victoria Falls (I had been there on a trip a couple years back when I was studying abroad in Cape Town). It was a short five hour drive through the bush from Lusaka to Livingstone, and the four of us took turns driving. I have to admit that I never expected to be back in Livingstone, and it was so bizarre to drive down the same roads I had been on before, this time with a completely different mindset. Everything looked so much smaller than I remember, I guess because my previous trip to Livingstone was such a blur (bungee jumping and getting attacked by a baboon were the highlights of the trip). We stayed at a cheap backpacker, and after dropping off our stuff we drove down the lone road to the entrance of the national park. On the way we spotted a big herd of elephants on the side of the road (which could have been more terrifying if we had known at the time that a Congolese woman was trampled to death by an angry elephant on that very same road). Ahhhhhh! Since we had Zambian work permits, we got to pay the local rate ($1 as opposed to $20 for foreign tourists). Seeing the falls this time was vastly different. It is the dry season now, so while you don’t have the roaring, rushing streams of water and mist blocking your view and soaking you, you do have the chance to actually see the canyon that the river has carved out. It was spectacular in a different way, and just as awe-inspiring as last time. We spend the afternoon viewing the falls…the only semi frightening moment came on this narrow bridge which crosses over the canyon. There was an enormous baboon sitting in the ledge cross-legged staring at everyone that walked by. We asked a Zambian guy what his name was, and he said “Josepher” (I guess a combination of Joseph and Christopher?). Why not? Somehow we made it by him without forcing us to answer an impossible riddle or straight up attacking us.

Afterwards we drove out to the Royal Livingstone Hotel (and absurdly and unnecessarily excessive hotel on the river) for some drinks on the veranda (a rare, one-time treat), listened to some flute playing, and watched the sunset over the river with hippos snorting in the distance. We had met a British girl named Jess at the falls, and she and her friend Nathaniel joined us at the hotel. Nathaniel was a fascinating guy—he was spending a year traveling around Africa doing research for his PhD from Yale, which is centered on the reasons why African leaders choose to and not to stay in power. He had met the presidents of Mali, Ghana, and Guinea Bissau, and seemed to be traveling only with a cowboy hat and white t-shirt. He was also sporting an impressive moustache. After that we met up with Mary Reid at a braii (awesome to see her again!) and then hung out at the backpacker with a huge group of Norwegian nursing/physical therapy students. How ridiculous the backpacker life is…

The next day we went back to the falls and hiked down to the boiling pot, the rocky area down at the bottom of the canyon at the edge of the river. The hike down was unbelievable…lush, tropical vegetation, crystal clear streams, and baboons screaming and running around us (luckily no attacks this time, haha). We spent the morning taking dips in the small area of the river that wasn’t dangerous (the Zambezi river has some pretty terrifying rapids) and basking in the sun at the bottom of the canyon underneath the bridge I had leapt from a year and a half ago. Then we hiked back up to the top of the canyon and walked across the relatively dry riverbed, through steams and over slippery rocks, to Devil’s Pool, a pool of standing water right at the edge of the falls. We spent the afternoon jumping from the rocks into the cool blue water and sitting at the edge of the pool looking down into the canyon. After that Jess joined us for a ride back to Lusaka, and we got back late Sunday night with no problems at all. A cheap, awesome trip!

Now we are all preparing for a visit from the president of KF. It’s going to be a busy weekend, but I am really looking forward to having the entire staff together to talk about the Foundation and make plans for the future. Almost three months in. I’m a quarter of the way through my fellowship, which is just unbelievable to me. The time is flying by here, and there is so much more to do.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Anything but Familiar

I think that in many ways I was prepared for the beginning of September being a strange/difficult time. It is true that being here has removed me from the ebb and flow of life that I am used to. Here, September doesn’t mean changing leaves and the beginning of a new year. It means that the weather is heating up, that the students are in full swing in term three, that the rains will be coming in only two short months. Being separated from people back home can be easier when there is very little in your immediate vicinity to remind you of them, and life in Zambia really is a completely different world, a different reality almost. Still, the fact remains that back in New England, life is going on, people are starting school and jobs. The fall is here, which to me has always represented a new year, opportunities, excitement, family and friends. It’s so surprise to me then that my first bit of true disorientation has come. I knew there would be times when it felt like things were moving along back home without me. This is an inherent part of up and leaving everything you know for a year to live and work in a foreign country. Life goes on as usual without you, and it’s something that anybody doing this type of work must come to terms with. Still, I am trying to remember that it would be wholly unnatural to not feel this way from time to time, to not miss everything and everyone that I know and love when they are so very far away. I suppose the key is accepting these feelings, acknowledging them, and moving forward regardless. This is something I am learning to do, and it inevitably has made me stronger.

Work has slowed down a bit the last couple weeks. I’ve been attempting to develop a tutoring plan for all of our 31 students, focusing on the grade 11s (and on English and history) to help prepare them for the vital exams at the end of next year. There has been a lot of trial and error (I am not a teacher, obviously), and I think it will take some time to really fall into a groove with this element of my job, to feel like I am actually helping the students improve in their weaker subjects. It has been frustratingly difficult trying to arrange schedules with the schools (there are new programs starting at each of them, so it won’t be as easy to just show up for three hours and give extra help on a set schedule). I have also tried to be careful not to make it seem to the administration like I am giving KF students special treatment, so I have invited any other students along for extra help as well. Again, I am trying to be patient and realistic about what I can really do in this respect. Lately I have noticed a bit of a change in my relationship to KF’s students. It’s difficult to explain, but I really do feel that they are beginning to trust me. Opening up is one thing, but trust is vastly different. Students have confided in me on numerous occasions, and it’s these moments more than any other that snap me away from feeling homesick or nostalgic and back to reality.

Last weekend I felt the need to get away, so my friend Brandon and I hopped on a trip to the Lower Zambezi (a river valley about two and a half hours from the city). My friend Chileya who works at the magazine I mentioned earlier has a friend who owns a yet-to-be-opened lodge right on the river, which means we were literally the only tourists there. The drive out to the river was stunning…the road snaked around hills and mountains and eventually down into a valley, past tiny villages, random monkeys and baboons, and endless expanses of dry, dry vegetation. The road to the lodges leads up to the river to the north, and to cross it you have to drive your car onto a pontoon (a small, rickety ferry). As we are about to drive onto the dock the pontoon driver approached us, seemingly telling us that Brandon would not be able to cross with me. We looked around trying to figure out how he was supposed to cross (there were no other boats or bridges in sight), and began arguing with the man, all in vain. After about ten minutes we finally understood that they didn’t allow passengers in the cars (I later found out that this was to avoid unnecessary deaths in case the pontoon sinks…comforting, haha). When we finally crossed the river we drove down a dirt road for about a half hour, past enormous baobab trees and a massive banana plantation, and finally found the turn for Kwalata Lodge (the sign was painted on a tiny wooden post). After driving into the bush for twenty minutes, we arrived at Kwalata. The site was beautiful…right on the mighty Zambezi River (which forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe and leads all the way down to Victoria Falls), with plenty of grass and trees, a few chalets and tents scattered about, and a very small amount of people. The owner of the lodge, a guy named Regi, spent time in the States studying at Kansas. He is a pretty prominent businessman in Lusaka and is making an attempt to bring the sort of lodge/safari vacations that usually only target tourists to regular Zambians.

We spent the day sitting on the river, fishing, reading, and relaxing, which was unbelievably nice and exactly what I needed. When dinner time rolled around the owners of the lodge drove back with two goats for dinner. I decided to watch the slaughtering process out of curiosity (I rationalized it by thinking that if you can’t watch your food get killed then you probably shouldn’t be eating it). Sadly, the knife the lodge workers used was exceptionally dull, which clearly made the process more painful for the poor goats. Even more difficult to watch was the first step (before killing goats, the common practice is to cut off their testicles to avoid getting urine on the meat). Somehow I was able to stomach the whole thing (including the skinning process), and the goat ended up being delicious. As dinner was being prepared I sat by myself at the edge of the river watching the blood red African sun set over the Zambezi, reflecting on where I was, and eventually just letting my mind clear and take in the scene before me.

That night we sat around the fire with the lodge owner and his family, eating, talking, and playing music. Brandon and I started a random drum circle with some Zambian students that were at the lodge for a retreat (complete with bongos, guitar, and whatever pots and pans we could find). On Sunday we all slept in, made breakfast, and then went for a boat ride on the river. We spotted plenty of crocodiles and a huge group of hippos that seemed to be protecting a baby nearby (which meant they were staring at us with angry eyes until we passed by). The drive back to the city was quiet and peaceful, the sun setting slowly over the hills and mountains, the roads virtually empty. It was a much needed break, especially since the next couple weeks are going to be crazy busy. This weekend we are administering a test to 38 students who are applying for a scholarship starting next year, and after that we will be short listing students and conducting interviews at the homes.

It’s September, and my life is anything but familiar. It’s disorienting and perplexing, but in many ways terribly exciting. I knew the time would come when I things wouldn’t quite line up like I’m used to, and I am working through it. I am looking forward to getting back on track next week.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Two months!

Lusaka is a city of highs and lows. One week I found myself feeling frustrated and overwhelmed, and the next I found myself feeling energized and invigorated. The past few weeks have been some of the most fulfilling times I’ve had in the past couple years. There was nothing in particular that sparked this feeling….in fact, I first realized the change at a completely random moment. I dedicated last week to finishing up work experience debriefs and meeting as many of KF’s mentors as possible to show my face, distribute the newsletter I put together (with the students’ help, of course), drop off term two grades, and make sure that each mentor was making an effort to connect with his or her student. I found myself driving all over the city, meeting with an established Zambian medical doctor, the head of the Law Association of Zambia (who gave rave reviews of the two students we sent there), a woman from South Carolina and her Zambian professor husband (she insisted on me taking home some fresh spinach from her garden), the director of a beautiful lodge and plant nursery (she wouldn’t let me leave without taking home an enormous house plant), the manager of a local vehicle repair shop, and many more. I was about to start the car after having the plant thrown into the back of my rugged SUV when I decided to sit for a minute, take a step back, and think about what this has experience has really been so far. After a month and a half, I feel completely comfortable arranging dozens of meetings on my own, driving across the city to unfamiliar neighborhoods, and interacting with so many people whom I have never met. I feel perfectly happy waking up, arranging my own schedule for the day and the week, writing reports, and taking the initiative to branch off from my set job description. I am beginning to wholeheartedly embrace the flexibility and unbelievable independence that are essential for this position—the same things that made me feel overstretched a week before. I am settling in to a post that is profoundly unique, and beginning to appreciate this opportunity for what it truly is—the chance to grow on my own, to learn, and to produce tangible successes that I and the staff here can be very proud of. The contradictions and frustrations of this sort of work and the Zambian educational system are no longer holding me back. In fact, I have started to embrace them too, as part of this amazingly difficult yet exhilarating experience. And everything always comes back to the students. Even if I wasn’t feeling this way, they would still make everything worth it. I am proud to be part of an organization that allows its workers to form meaningful relationships with the people it has committed to supporting. That is probably the most essential element of this job, and its drives the organization.

Last week I was checking in with a guy John who works at INZY, an innovative local photography studio. We were talking about one of our students and the general work of KF when he suddenly sat still for a minute, took a deep breath, and told me that he genuinely believed that what we were doing was worth the effort. He was an orphan himself, he said, and he had to work incredibly hard to be where he is today. INZY also films documentaries for BBC and publishes a hip magazine with a mission to celebrate Zambian art, fashion, and culture and to bring to the surface unique and inspiring stories that are sometimes forgotten. I actually noticed startling similarities between KF and INZY…both are small organizations with staffs that are forced, due to limited resources, to do a little bit of everything. I was honored when he asked me to do an interview on behalf of KF for the next publication. I met with Chileya, a Zambian girl who had just returned to Lusaka after studying in the UK, over coffee. Though I gave her some information about the organization, I also mentioned that it was probably more appropriate for her to be speaking to the Zambian staff, considering this was a Zambian magazine committed to focusing on Zambian stories.

On Friday, I followed through with a contact I met at a local cable provider and appeared with our director and Bwalya, a grade 10 student, on Q FM, one of the most popular Lusaka radio stations. At first I was a bit worried that the DJ was going to misinterpret KF’s mission and what we had hoped to get out of the interview, but he actually asked all of the right questions and let Bwalya and our director do most of the talking.

I came back home on Friday feeling like I finally understood what this fellowship could be, and also acknowledging that the next week could be a tough week and that I would have to learn to embrace both the highs and the lows here. Last weekend was very busy because Mary Reid, the other Zambia Princeton in Africa Fellow who is working for a voluntourism company in Livingstone, was visiting for the weekend. She came to Lusaka to get her work permit but ended up staying for 3-4 days. It was awesome to see her and bounce ideas off of each other about Zambia and our respective jobs…Mary Reid’s post is very similar to mine—it requires a lot of flexibility and individual initiative and seems to have similar highs and lows. We went out to Mexican, played some poker, enjoyed the Lusaka nightlife, visited City/Soweto Market (the dirty, cluttered, sprawling market in the vicinity of the town center) with James as a guide, ran the Hash, went to a birthday party for one of the grassroots employees, and saw the last games of a huge rugby tournament featuring teams from all over southern Africa. It was fun showing her a bit of what my life is like here, because I know that despite the similarities she is having her own unique experience in Livingstone (and now I’m even more excited to visit!).
This week has been a little slow…this kids are going back to school next week, so I’ve been looking at their grades to start creating a preliminary tutoring plan for their weakest subjects and meeting with more of our mentors. With a few exceptions, our mentors are very involved in the lives of their respective students. They take them to their homes, have met their families, and monitor their grades and overall growth. After meeting the mentors I have began to understand how important this component of KF is, how influential it can be to have an older, successful individual taking an interest in these students’ studies and lives.

On Tuesday I gave a presentation at the American Center on the value of the liberal arts, using Bowdoin as a case study. I felt like I was right back at school in the Admissions Office, though the challenge here was selling an educational philosophy that I took for granted as being the best to a group of people that have never been exposed to it before. It was difficult convincing to people that a liberal arts degree does not necessary train you for a specific career but instead teaches you skills—leadership, critical thinking, social engagement—that can be applied to any career path. I backed up my talk with research on top-rated academic programs (many of which subscribe to the philosophy of the liberal arts), job and graduate school placements, and the many advantages inherent to having a close social and academic community. The students there seemed very interested, and I had a huge group come up to me afterward to get my email address. I think I even convinced one kid to apply to Bowdoin!

Last night Oliver and I had the Mwenyas (my host family) and our landlords (Bill, an English guy who has been here since 1965, and Rhetta, a strong-willed Capetonian woman) over for a classic American dinner. We grilled burgers and corn (which ,despite some difficulty with the grill, actually ended up being delicious). I’ve really missed my host family, and it was good to see Danny before he leaves for college in Canada. I am so confident that I will stay in touch with them throughout my time here.

The last couple weeks have been remarkable. I understand that life here is going to be full of ups and downs, that things could change very quickly. Yet, I feel a new sense of independence, a fresh confidence in my abilities. And I continue to be surprised every day.