Friday, April 30, 2010

Bus Mottos and Advice

MEF is several kilometers from Kitwe. When going to town to shop for food or to take money from the bank, I usually walk to the highway and catch a minibus. The fare is about 50 cents, and buses are plentiful. However, many people walk all the way to town. Often the women have babies on their backs and burdens on their heads, which they somehow balance despite the roughness of the paths. They certainly develop perfect posture!

My initial bus rides were each learning experiences in different ways. The first time, while crossing the street I saw a very crowded minibus at the stop. It seemed so full I waved it on and decided to wait for the next one. I noticed that the bus went on a few yards, somehow squeezed in two more passengers, and then headed to Kitwe. Moments later, an empty bus arrived, and I happily boarded and chose a window seat. And waited. And waited. Several other people got on board, but still we waited. A full bus passed us by, and we waited still. Petreol (gas) is so expensive here that the bus will not take off until it has filled up with as many people as it can possibly hold, together with their packages and lap children and backpacks. I would have made it to town a good 15 minutes earlier had I boarded that crowded bus!

The next week, I was going at a later time of day, and had waited perhaps ten minutes without seeing a bus going my direction, when the driver of a bus across the street asked if I were headed to town. When I said yes, he motioned me into his nearly full bus. I assumed that he was going to turn around to head in the right direction, but I was wrong. Turns out there are two routes to town. The direct route, which I had taken before, and the back way, which involved meandering through many dirt roads and small compounds along the way. It took twice as long, but I got to see many settlements, a police station, and rows of roadside stands selling different foods and products.

There are two interesting features about busses in Zambia. The first is the bus mottos, and the second is the pre-departure rituals on long-distance busses. I noticed mottos right away, usually two or three word phrases stenciled onto the top of the front windshields, sometimes on the back as well. I was inspired to start collecting them on the day when I boarded a bus that said "Trust God" and found that we were following a bus that said "Slow Down". Good counsel, I thought, whichever way you read it, and I started recording the messages on busses as I rode to and from town.

Some mottos offer advice: Just Do It!, Remember God, Trust and Obey, Unity and Love, All Things Are Possible, Why Not?, Trust God, and Slow Down. Other are expressions of pride or commentary by the owner/driver: This Bus is Best, Big and Beautiful, Big Boss, 10 Years of Challenge, I Am the Champion of Faith, and No Panic: God is in Control. The most common message is an expression of faith: Amazing Power of the Lord, Do God's Will, In God We Trust, God is Able, The Lord is my Shepherd, Jehovah who Answers, God's Miracles, Blessed Hope, Blessings of God, Brotherly Love, The Holy Spirit, Grace, and Blessings. Occasionally it is hard to understand what is meant. One bus said "Face 2 Face" on its front window. Another had a saying in Bemba which translates "Teeth are Just Bones". But two were just plain funny, at least to English speakers. One was a truck which said "Father, Forgive Them" on the back window, and on the mud flaps "They don't know what they're doing." The other was on the side of the vehicle: "This bus is covered by the blood of Jesus."

Finally, there is the experience of riding a long-distance bus, from Kitwe to Lusaka, for instance. I am told that first, while waiting for the bus to finish filling up, it is common for a preacher to come on board and give a message about how to live a good life and be pleasing to God. Afterwards, he or she might pass down the aisle with a small bag to take any offerings passengers might want to give. After the preacher leaves and all the seats are full, either the bus driver or a passenger will stand and pray for a safe journey, for the needs of the people on the bus and their families, for guidance and help with all of life's struggles. Then and only then are they considered ready to start the journey, properly blessed.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

OVCs and Trust Community School

When I arrived in Zambia, I knew that I would encounter some commonly used abbreviations, like NGO for Non-Governmental Organization and the local MEF for Mindolo Ecumenical Foundation. But OVC was new to me. MEF offers courses in working with OVCs. Turns out it is the abbreviation for Orphans and Vulnerable Children. And there are far too many in Zambia! The life expectancy here is listed by most sources as 38, although I did find one study that reported a figure of 46. People die young from malaria, AIDS, pneumonia, and other illnesses made more deadly by the weakness of malnourished people.

The plight of OVCs is not just that they live in extreme poverty, often in crowded conditions with extended family and sometimes on the streets. Many of them are not in school. At all. School here costs money. Government schools charge fees ($50-$150 tuition, plus exam fees of $35 or more) and require uniforms. Private schools do, too. I have seen a report that said 40% of all school age children are either not in school or attend erratically because of lack of money for fees. There are no public libraries, few parks or playgrounds (actually, I've seen none), and so I wonder what these children do. In town, some of the street kids are sniffing petrol and showing the effects of brain damage.

So visiting Trust Community OVC School was a breath of fresh air. Besides public and private schools, in some places people have organized at the local level to create a community school which is available free. Trust Community School (TCS) is located in the Chimwemwe-Recourse area, about 10 minutes away from MEF by car. The people of the community, inspired by a retired teacher, got together and decided to start a school in 2005. A land owner gave permission for them to use some vacant land, at least for awhile. They built two rough wooden buildings housing two classrooms each, plus an office and an outdoor class meeting area. A curtain divides the classes, and light filters in through spaces between the boards and from the open area between the top of the wall and the supports for the roof. I hope to have some pictures to post in the near future.

Children sit on benches. The older ones have composition books and pens or pencils, the younger ones draw letters in the dirt with sticks. The teachers use blackboards and a few hand-made teaching aids. There is a map of Zambia painted on one of the outdoor walls. The children are quiet and attentive. When resources are available, TCS has a feeding program to provide a bowl of porridge when the children arrive, since many of them are hungry and they learn better with food in their bellies. But when resources are scarce, they cannot feed the students.

There are 5 teachers and the school holds two sessions a day, serving 350 children. Three of the teachers are government certified, two are teachers in training. They could be considered volunteers, since they are only paid the equivalent of $35 a month. I didn't think to ask, but I imagine that some of them are paid a bit by families for extra lessons or tutoring, and there is surely another income in their households.

The school teaches children grades K-7. It also serves as a community center for HIV/AIDS education and adult literacy classes. Their mission and vision statements speak of educating OVCs and also of reducing illiteracy and providing survival skills and promoting self-reliance among widows, widowers, those living with HIV/AIDS, and "over-aged" school leavers.

The land owner has notified the school of his intention to try to sell the plot where the school is located. The principal, supporters and community leaders were aware that this might happen, so they have spent a good deal of time and energy working with the local government to secure recognition as a charity and to request a plot of land from the community. After many trips to the City Council and much paperwork, they have been given a plot large enough for an expanded school and a farm which can be income generating as well as teaching sustainable agriculture concepts to the children and families. (Most people here grow some food, if they have any little bit of land.)

Of course, the challenge is securing resources. They work with what they have in a way which exemplifies "asset based community development" (all my former students, take note!). But they must receive some help from donors to be able to survive even now, and more to build a quality structure on their new land. Once their income generating projects are set up, they think they can become self-sustaining, but that is quite far in the future. They envision selling produce from the farm, raising chickens, and setting up a carpentry shop.

For now, every day they teach the children that they have in the facility the community built. Some of the older students took the national exam required at the end of 7th grade last fall, and passed. TCS has managed to find sponsors to pay school fees so they can continue on to secondary school. An architect has drawn detailed plans for the new school.

I'm inspired by the spirit and the dedication represented by all the people who make Trust Community School possible. While the ideal solution for Zambia is developing a system of quality free public education, in the meantime, a school like TCS is making a difference for one group of OVCs.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Malaria Dreams

Malaria is endemic in Zambia. It is the leading cause of death in children under 5. It is also a major contributor to the deaths of persons with compromised immune systems from HIV/AIDS or severe malnutrition. The most dangerous kind is called "cerebral malaria," characterized by fever, headache, confused thinking, flu-like aches and pains, and disorientation. Untreated, it can kill even a previously healthy person.

Every Sunday, I take anti-malaria medication. It is called Mefloquine Hydrochloride, the generic form of Lariam. Two warnings are printed on the container: "May cause dizziness," and "Call your doctor immediately if you experience mood changes, such as new or worsening feelings of sadness, depression, or fear." Luckily, I only felt dizzy after the first time I took the pill, and then only briefly. I have not experienced mood changes. So far, anyway...

Instead, my reaction is what I call "malaria dreams." Additional potential side effects are listed on the enclosure that comes with the pills, and one of them is nightmares. I don't have nightmares, but I do have colorful, bizarre and memorable dreams. People from my past materialize, speak, even dance in and out. Sometimes I am floating, other times I am watching. There are houses with many rooms, open and locked doors, roads cloaked in mists and paths bathed in golden light. I remember fragments. Sometimes I wake up speaking out loud to a character in my dream.

Here at MEF, we all sleep under mosquito nets. The buildings and grounds are sprayed quarterly. And still people get malaria. Caroline (my hostess last week) stopped by today on her way back from a clinic where she had taken her baby for treatment after he was diagnosed with malaria. They do not have mosquito nets at her home. I recall hearing that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was working on the eradication of malaria and was providing mosquito nets in countries with high rates of malaria. The MEF nurse, Margaret, says that she has been notified by the government health ministry that mosquito nets will be coming from America. I pray that they will come to Zambia soon!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Hospitality failure: I couldn't eat the caterpillars

Back in my Peace Corps days, I vowed to eat anything offered in home hospitality. This seemed especially important when the invitation was from a family with limited resources who had prepared food especially for the guests. I have eaten some interesting things under that rule: guinea pig in Peru (yes, tastes like chicken), a hundred year egg in a Chinese home (blackish-greenish in color, kind of salty), "old ham" and beaten biscuit in Kentucky (dry as dust and hard as rocks), roasted goat (tough but good) and millet drink (bitter) in Uganda, but I had never before been faced with a bowl of roasted worms. If the food has a strong flavor, eating it while holding your breath so you don't smell it helps a lot. But these roasted caterpillars looked like caterpillars, had no odor, and the crispy-chewy texture--and then idea of eating a worm--was what I couldn't handle. I did manage to get half of one down, surrounded by nshima, the cornmeal mush that is a staple here, but that was my limit. Fortunately, I had only put two on my plate.

This happened in Caroline's home. She is a big-hearted Zambian woman I met recently who takes in orphans. She asked if I had visited in a Zambian home yet, and when I said I hadn't, she said she would invite me to her house. I don't teach on Fridays, so today she came by to take me for a visit.

She came with the baby tied around her back in a colorful cloth sling. We walked out of the compound, down the road, onto a dirt path through a market, down more dirt roads, to another market where she bought some local eggplants, onions, and the caterpillars. Mountains of caterpillars. She smiled and asked if I liked them. I confessed that I had never eaten one, it was not a food we ate in my country, but I would try them. We walked some more.

When we had walked about an hour, we reached a main road. She asked if I wanted to take a collective taxi the rest of the way, or keep walking. The sun was hot, so I opted for the collective taxi, and we squeezed in with 2 others in the back seat and bounced along for at least 15 minutes more on rutted roads. That was the best dollar I ever spent! When we got out, we still had a ten-minute walk to Caroline's home through wide dirt roads with houses close together, neatly swept yards, many trees.

Crispin, her husband, is a taxi driver. They have 3 children of their own, ages 1, 4, and 7. Caroline farms, cares for her children and the orphans, and is looking for other income generating projects. They feed, clothe, educate and support 12 orphans, none related to their family, in their rented 2-room home. You read it right, two rooms! Here's how it works.

One room is the multi-purpose sitting-room, semi-kitchen, and sleeping room and the other is the bedroom and clothes storage area. There is a wooden front door, but the two rooms are separated only by a curtained doorway. In the all-purpose room, there is a small refrigerator, two sofas and a stuffed chair, a TV (the only luxury), a low coffee table, rolled up grass mats, and in the corner a huge plastic tub filled with all the clean dishes and pots and pans. Cooking is done in the front yard, over a charcoal fire. Clothes are also washed there and hung behind the house on a line to dry. The youngest orphans sleep with the family in the bedroom, the others bed down on the floor and couches in the all-purpose room at night.

Some of us ate in the all-purpose room, others in the yard on mats. Most people eat with their hands in Zambia, just as they did in Uganda. We were given a bowl of water and soap to wash our hands before eating. There is no running water in the home. A latrine is out back.

The orphans range in age from 2 to 16. All but the youngest are in school, which means that this family pays most of its salary for school fees. (Public education is not free in Zambia. School fees run between $50-$125 per child per year, depending on school and grade level.) Much of what they eat grows on the family's small farm plot, a short diatance away. Our meal was nshima, the staple food here, a firm ball of cornmeal mush, together with sweet potato greens cooked with onions, and the roasted caterpillars, which the rest of the family ate happily. I hope they are a good source of protein. We drank chilled boiled water.

Caroline says that she was helped by others when she was growing up, so that is why she takes in the orphans. The older ones try to find part-time work in addition to school to supplement the family income, and they somehow get by. Caroline shows me pictures of some of the people who help her with money when they can because they know that she struggles to find the resources to care for all of them. She lives by faith, and God has never let her down. It is a family full of love.

What an eye-opening and amazing first experience with home hospitality in Zambia!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

On Teaching without Textbooks

When I first arrived at MEF, I met my neighbor, Jenny, a mental health social worker from England. She is teaching the counseling methods course, and is the only other non-Zambian faculty in the program. I asked her about teaching materials and methods. She explained that Zambian students are expected to learn from the lecturer. They will copy down everything the instructor says in their composition books. She said she had prepared a set of handouts for her students when she was back home.

Textbooks are simply not available, and if they were, they would be beyond the resources of the students. The average laborer earns about $100 a month. I don't know what professionals earn, but our students mostly live in dormitories. No one has a car or even a bicycle. They walk everywhere, or take a minibus from the highway. No student has a personal computer or laptop. A few have cell phones. In this program, students receive a diploma, and the level is roughly equivalent to our community college AA degree. The accrediting body is the Technical Education, Vocational, and Entrepreneurial Training Authority within the Ministry of Education.

I was given my teaching assignments by Mrs. Kamiji Malichi, coordinator aof the social work program. She asked me to teach a one-week intensive module on community social work, and then to teach the full semester psychology (human behavior in the social environment) class this semester. She gave me a 3-page outline of the content to be covered in the HBSE course, and one page for the community module. The outlines came from a standardized curriculum manual issued by the government. I asked about resource materials for the instructor. She searched among a set of books in the social work office and came up with a psycholgy textbook from Great Britain, published in 2000. She also gave me a supply of chalk and a dry erase marker. I had told her that I brought several community practice texts with me.

Well, I thought, I'll visit the library and explore what's available there. And, of course, there is the Internet. The library is an appropriate size for the size of the studentbody, but most of the reference and resource books are long out of date. (Possibly discards from some university cleaning out their shelves, or the gift of a 1980's donor.) I found the American Corner, a mini-library set up by our government. It is designed mainly as a resource for students seeking information about the U.S., especially our educational institutions and opportunities. There I found a recent sociology textbook in their collection of materials.

The Internet has been my salvation for supplemental lecture preparation materials when I can access it, but that is the problem. I have a mobile Internet device that plugs into a port on my computer (and on which I load airtime several times a week). It is great for my gmail account, but the strength of the connection is inadequate to allow me to open many web sites, especially during the week. So my daughter Cathy has been finding resources for me and pasting them into emails. It works!

The students are attentive and respectful. In the beginning, they would rise when I entered the classroom and wouldn't leave until I left. Students who were tardy to class would knock timidly and ask permission to join the class late. We set up new class expectations, including that they were to let me know when they did not understand or when what I said didn't seem to fit with or make sense in their culture. It has taken awhile, but we now have more class participation and even debates over some issue, such as the wisdom of corporal punishment as a form of discipline. It is commonly used in the K-12 schools here, where class size may be 50 or more students, but even within my class the students disagreed about its effectiveness and impact. (I had been teaching about social learning.)

Teaching without textbooks has challenged my creativity. I have developed handouts, but even that is difficult in a campus with only one copy machine and limited supplies of paper and toner. The people are poor in Zambia, and so are the institutions. I have put the students into study groups and discussion circles and have slowed the pace of presenting material to accommodate thorough note-taking. All assignments, even research papers, are neatly hand-written with margins drawn by ruler. (I'm sure that at the university level students can access computers, at least in the capitol, and better libraries...I hope.)

Some of my ASU colleagues learned about the lack of books. They, along with a book publisher, have donated some recent textbooks. I am returning to the U. S. briefly for the birth of a grandchild next month. I'll pick up the books and bring them with me when I return to Zambia to add to the social work resource collection and the library. Many thanks, friends, they will be well used!