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.


  1. Hi Jamie--Thanks for your thanks for the small amount of $ we contributed to your fellowship! You are overly grateful, I'm afraid--but I know you are sincere! I do read your blog and find your insights quite interesting. I am so glad it is turning out to be the experience you hoped for--and much more! Your blog will be a valuable record forever and ever!
    Cheers from the U.S.,
    Rosalind Flynn

  2. Thank you so much Rosalind. And thank you again for your contribution!

    Hope all is well in D.C!

  3. Sometimes the most exciting journey you can make is through your own imagination. Cheap Flights to Lusaka