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.

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