Monday, December 27, 2010

A Potential Turning Point

Please forgive me for taking such a long time to update this…I suppose I could blame it on a combination of incredible busyness and stress, preparing for a very important trip home, and/or a concern that once I started writing I wouldn’t be able to stop. The last couple weeks of November were a whirlwind of constant work, confusion, and excitement—partly due to the fact that I was beginning to understand the true weight behind my experience in Lusaka so far, partly because I knew come mid December I would be home, and partly because I was beginning to think that no matter how hard I tried I would be leaving this country knowing that I could not accomplish everything I had hoped I could.

I spent Thanksgiving with my roommate, Brandon, and my landlords, and was amazed that I felt right at home (despite the fact that this was my first Thanksgiving away from Massachusetts…ever). I was lucky enough to see the famous bat migration at the end of November (one of the most spectacular things I have ever witnessed), along with the mysterious and eerie “Africa House,” a colonial mansion that was constructed in northern Zambia by an eccentric (and probably arrogant) Englishman with the hopes of putting into place his version of a British-African empire, and the hot springs that lie twenty minutes north of the grounds.

I was graced by an amazing visit by my friend Keki, my first Zambian friend that I met at the University of Cape Town, and I had a wonderful time showing her my life in the city, introducing her to students and families (Keki is, in a way, the perfect model of a successful Zambian student, on the PhD track), and talking with her about the problems I have seen so far in her country, my frustrations and disappointments, successes and goals.

It was certainly an emotionally exhausting couple of weeks…I finished 31 family interviews over about two and a half weeks, finally completed a pile of vital administrative work for KF, and participated in the final states of our student selection for January. During December, our students are supposed to be beginning/continuing their community service projects, and I am excited to see what they have accomplished when I come back. We are also hoping to have a service leadership retreat with all of the students sometime in January in order to help the students solidify their plans, reflect on the challenges they have faced, and make plans for the future. I was able to accompany Harrison in telling the students whom we picked that they were selected…this came at a very busy and stressful time, and when the first family we told erupted in a sea of joy and emotion, I was once again reminded of what makes this position so unbelievably special. After interviewing all of our families (including those of the five newly selected kids), I feel as if I am at a place where I can finally begin to understand where these students are coming from. I had some unbelievably enlightening conversations with parents and siblings about problems with access to higher education in Zambia, the challenges that kids face in the compounds, the struggles each family is confronting, still, and the hopes and dreams that they had for their child. I think it was during the month of November that I finally realized that whatever it is I do in my life, I need to be around people, interacting with families, sharing information, and learning from others on a daily basis. I think I have really had a chance to take my communication skills to a different level in Zambia, and I was very proud when my students told me that their parents and siblings found it incredibly (and surprisingly) easy to trust me right away, even though I was just a random foreigner appearing in their houses, often for the first time.

KF had to say goodbye to Harrison (who is moving on to another job), and that was difficult. He has developed and fostered such amazing relationships with these students, and I am sure it’s very hard for them to have to keep adjusting to new programs officers and new interns coming in all of the time. It’s a very tough situation. He will be missed very much by all of us. Luckily the new PO coming in, Mwila, seems like an exceptionally smart and hardworking guy. He’s just out of the University of Zambia, and I think he’ll be a fine addition to the team.
On the last day before I began my long journey to South Africa and Boston, KF had it’s annual mentor luncheon. It was wonderful to see all of the inspiring professionals that have had such a monumental impact on our kids and the program. The students all did songs and dances, and one of the minister’s wives came as our guest of honor. I had a wonderful time hanging out with all of the kids after, taking pictures and just goofing around. It was a hectic, stressful day, but in the end, like it all came back to the time I was able to spend with our students. It always does.

My director and I left the following day for Johannesburg, where I was reunited with a fellow Princeton in Africa Fellow, Veda. Veda is doing some amazing work at African Leadership Academy, a two year A-level (pre-college) and leadership/entrepreneurial development program that brings together the best students from across the continent. Florence and I spent the day at ALA, and we were absolutely blown away by the brilliance and diversity of these kids, the amazing successes the academy has already had (getting three quarters of their recent graduates into top schools with full financial need met, for instance), and the inspiring enthusiasm of the teachers and administrators who we met. Our mission was to advocate on behalf of our students, and we are hoping to get at least one student into the program. It would be an unbelievable achievement if we did. I could really feel the uniqueness of this place as I walked around, sat in classes, sat in on an end of the year assembly, and even played ultimate Frisbee in an impromptu faculty-staff match. People really support each other. They are a family of young, hypermotivated, innovative students who will change their countries and their continent. ALA has a requirement that graduates must return to their home countries for five years upon graduation from college, otherwise the student is required to pay back any scholarship aid they received to attend ALA.

The academy has an ambitious fifty year vision, and the backbone behind its success is the philosophy that quality education is a key to development, that young, African leaders are the ones who have the best chance to implement change—not outsiders. It is often during college and university that students begin to solidify their goals and values, and it is hear that the sort of social consciousness necessary for social change can be fostered. I left feeling invigorated. And perhaps more important, I left feeling fairly certain that improving access to quality higher education for young leaders is a cause that I could see myself pursuing in the future.

It is impossible to describe the wave of emotions that coming home has been. I recognize that it has only been five months, but surprising my parents in my basement with a Santa hat, seeing the look of sustained shock, then joy, on their faces was something I will remember for the rest of my life. Thank you, to you who made it possible. It is true, I do feel different at home. And I think I have started to realize the extent of this difference over the past week or so. I am trying to sort out these feelings, and possibly use them to refocus and refuel upon return. But it’s comforting to have been able to see my friends, to see that despite the changes everyone has inevitably experienced, everyone is moving on and moving forward together, albeit differently. I am expecting that upon return, I will be able to use this burst of energy to make some important improvements to my life and work in Zambia. There is a tutoring system that needs more work, a long research project to continue, service projects to help develop, and 10 separate futures to think about. I am eternally grateful for this trip home, and I think it will eventually be a key element to some great successes over the next six months. Happy holidays, everyone.


  1. Glad to hear your update! You are a powerhouse!

  2. Very happy for you, and I'm glad you're both making real progress and getting a chance to step back and process it all a bit. Have fun in the States, and I'll see you in Zam soon :)