Monday, March 14, 2011

Zambia can do this to you. Lift you up and slam you down within the period of a day and a half. It’s an exhausting yet inevitable reality of working in one of the poorest countries in the world, one that is plagued by dilapidated educational and desperate health care systems. And it’s bound to hit you harder when you work with the people who are impacted most by these failures.

This weekend we received the news that the father of one of our grade 8 students, a fiery, resilient girl who we just selected in December, passed away. He was in his low 40s. The cause of death, as usual, seems to be shrouded in mystery. I understand that death, even at young ages, is not a novel concept in the West. But there is just something inherently wrong about the way death seems to creep into people’s lives here. It moves slowly, stealthily, so much so that you might have no idea it’s coming before it’s too late. Or, it strikes randomly, unforgiving, on a Sunday when your family is at church. Either way, it’s rarely expected, and there is often no way to counteract it. Nobody ever seems to see it coming. And yet, there is this general acceptance, a resigning to it. People work so hard. They struggle for everything they have…the Zambians I have met here, particularly in the compounds, are some of the most tenacious people I have ever encountered. Yet, death in many ways is let in and it invades their personal lives and the many things they have worked so hard to build. Death, for many Zambians, is as much part of everyday life as eating breakfast, or going to work from nine to six.

This of course if not to say that people don’t mourn. That is not the case at all. I spent an entire morning and afternoon with my coworker Mwila as part of the funeral procession, and it was clear to me that this man would be greatly missed by his entire community. Funerals usually begin at the house of the deceased, or a close relative’s house. The men usually sit outside while the women are let into the house to be with the widow. From there, cars and trucks process from the house to the burial site (much like what we do in the States). As part of many Zambian processions, friends and relatives will sit or stand in the back up a large pickup truck (sometimes 50-60 people will fit onto one truck) and sing traditional songs as the row of cars makes its way through the city. I see these processions every single day as I drive throughout Lusaka, but being part of it, knowing the person whom these people were mourning, gave me a deeper appreciation for the tradition. It made something that is often commonplace, part of the sights and sounds of the city, inherently unique. Personal. We arrived at the cemetery—a massive, sprawling field of, muddy, puddle-dotted roads, overgrown grass, and occasional graves (some expensive-looking, others makeshift signs with personal notes scrawled across them). We parked, and I suddenly realized how many people were actually present. There must have been four or five hundred people there, men, children, and women whose vibrant chitenge dresses formed a sharp contrast with the bleak scene. We streamed to the grave site, and women broke into song as the coffin was carried to the ground. Men gave speeches in Nyanja, women wailed, and my heart broke for our student, so young and bright, now a single orphan at thirteen years old. I tried to think back to our interview, when I met her parents, her father so calm and proud and humble, a rare university graduate, her mother excited and hopeful, their daughter so confident and eloquent. I remembered their faces when we delivered the good news, that she had been picked for a scholarship—the disbelief, then the glowing smiles and tears of joy. And suddenly everything had changed. In the period of two days. Death poisoned the momentary optimism the family had enjoyed.

I felt deflated for the rest of the day. I gave our student a hug, told her to hang in there and take her time, knew that whatever I said would not do a thing to ease this pain or solve the pressing reality of the situation—that the family’s sole breadwinner was now gone. It’s foolish and arrogant to assume that what is the same for many Zambians was the same for this man. He got sick and passed away, and I have no indication that he died of anything other than natural causes. But the sudden death of a member of our small family was a harsh reminder of the ever-present threat of death and disease that permeates Zambian society. Yes, it is true that part of why people are always attending funerals is because the Zambian extended family goes on and on and on, so that your odds of being invited to a funeral are greatly improved. Still, what I have found most exhausting and disheartening is this sense of mystery around death and its causes, this unwillingness that I’ve observed in many people to confront its root causes, or this lack of information that many, particularly those in the compounds, have about disease and ways to prevent it, about how and where to seek treatment.

And this is precisely why education is so important, why I believe so fully in it as a tool for national and social development. It’s not just that proper schooling keeps children off the street, teaches individuals about national issues, and empowers families to better their lives. Even more so, it’s that Zambia needs committed leaders dedicated to transforming a monumentally deficient health care system, individuals who have experienced the hardships that afflict three quarters of the population and can thus begin to understand how to fight back against them. It needs people who can understand how policy, behavior, and culture are intertwined, people who can earn the trust of their fellow citizens and finds ways to prevent what is preventable.

Policy makers have always neglected education. Funds are poured into health, or business development, yet the system that has the most direct influence over the lives of children and families receives next to nothing in support. Education is the foundation, the lifeblood of a healthy society, and if it is not effectively distributed to all members of society than it can’t perform its most vital functions. And the essential power of education does not stop at basic or secondary level. Access to quality higher education is just as important in developing the sorts of leaders who can instigate the changes that countries like Zambia so desperately need. It is a natural extension, an invaluable next step for those who take educational development seriously.

To my knowledge, the last time scholars convened about higher education development, it was in 2000. This article, in my opinion, hits the nail on the head, but it needs an update, and needs to be taken more seriously (up to now it has not).

Despite the many frustrations of living here, the times when I have felt my beliefs being shaken, what has remained constant is my faith in the power of education, particularly for those who are most vulnerable.

Today I was reminded of the darkness that rests beyond the vibrancy and energy of life in Zambia. I was reminded of all that I have and all that I should be grateful, for a family that I can always rely on for love and support, for friends who have always been there, for the opportunities I have been blessed with. And, I was reminded of why I chose to dedicate a year of my life to this cause.