Sunday, September 26, 2010


One of the challenges I occasionally face here in Zambia is recognizing my students and calling them by the correct name when some of them change appearance so dramatically from one day to the next. And it is mostly the hair that changes.

There are an amazing number of ways an African woman can arrange her hair. She can leave it natural and close to the head, or comb it into an Afro or an Afro puff (where the hair is pulled back and secured with an elastic, then puffed out from the elastic.) There are multitudes of braided styles. I have seen cornrows with and without beads on the ends. Sometimes braiding involves much more intricate designs than simple rows. Although "hair saloons" abound, offering braiding and other hair styling, braiding is often done by friends or family. Once, when I was younger and had longer hair, an African woman asked if she could try to braid my hair. Taking a small section, she began the process, but she soon gave up, complaining that "European hair is just too slippery!"

Braided hair can be augmented by long or short extensions, and these can simply provide longer braids or can be pulled into pony tails or other styles. Dreadlocks are not very popular here, but I see them sometimes. Little girls often have a knotted style, in which the hair is carefully parted in sections to make patterns (triangles, for example) and the hair in each section gathered into a knot with the end tucked under. Sometimes colored elastics or barrettes or beads are used with this style. Adult women may knot their hair, as well.

Perhaps because of the influence of international fashion, quite a few Zambian women use some kind of relaxer or other straightening process on their hair. They then style their hair in a bob or another smooth arrangement. Sometimes they leave the hair wavy, other times straight as a pin. There are also styles in which the hair is slightly relaxed and shaped into many long corkscrew curls. The possibilities seem to be limited only by the imagination. Studying different hair styles has become a favorite part of my people-watching here.

And then there are the wigs. A woman can dramatically change her appearance with a wig, and much of the time I don't even know it is a wig because it looks so natural. Some are full wigs, some just partial wigs integrated into the natural hair.

Occasionally women here wear scarves or elaborate headdresses that entirely cover the hair. Some of the scarf styles are quite fancy, both in the colors and fabrics, and the way the scarves are wrapped and tied. The uniform for the church women's society of the United Church of Zambia includes a white head scarf. The traditional dress of some regions, especially when worn for celebratory occasions, includes coordinated headdresses.

Men in Zambia seem to have only two choices in hair style: natural but short and kept close to the head, or shaved bald. I have seen no dreadlocks or Afros on men here.

As for me, I have been afraid to get my hair cut here, so far. This fear dates from 1993, when I had the worst hair experience in my life in Uganda at a beauty shop that claimed to know how to cut "European hair." The memory is still strong, so I have been letting my hair grow. It is almost--but not quite--long enough for a pony tail or other pulled-back style. But for the moment, it is at that scruffy, in-between stage, so I'm glad you can't see me!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Progress at Trust Community School

Skits. Poems. Songs. And from the gathered community, ululations and dancing and clapping. Three children were chosen to come forward and be dressed in their new school uniforms and sturdy shoes--with every child to be given his/hers before the end of the day. Piles of composition books, pencils and pens were stacked up for distribution. And the City Councilman was in attendance to congratulate them on finalizing the acquisition of the land for the new school.

On Friday I was an Honored Guest again. The occasion was the celebration at Trust Community School of their gifts and their progress.

You may recall an earlier blog about TCS, written on April 24. TCS is an example of a self-determined, asset-based community development project. It has been strengthened by partnerships and investments by individual and organizational donors. Little ceremonies like this one help the community express their gratitude for support. They also offer opportunities for the children to demonstrate what they are learning to the community and the guests.

Racecourse, where TCS is located, was originally a squatters' settlement populated largely by refugee families from the Congo. Now it has a mix of refugees and Zambians, all living in tiny houses without electricity or indoor plumbing. Many of the families are caring for "ovc", orphans and vulnerable children.

The original school was built by the community in 2005 on land loaned to them by a property owner, who planned to sell it after a few years. Knowing that they needed to work on a more permanent location, representatives of the community began the long and complex process of petitioning the Kitwe City Council for a plot of land for the school. Various fees had to be paid to register the school as a charitable entity, to record documents, and to apply for the plot. Many communities become discouraged by the multitude of requirements and give up. This community, and this school, did not. (What is that saying? Success is made up of 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration!)

They kept their vision strong by starting to plan the buildings they would construct when they had the plot. They had architectural drawings to look at, and the existing school to maintain. So they kept on.

The final fee to acquire the plot of land was paid at the beginning of September, thanks to the generous effort of a couple of individuals in the U.S. who sold some of their belongings on ebay to raise the money. The school uniforms and shoes were a gift from a Zambian Non-Governmental Organization impressed by the work of this school. And so we celebrated.

A parent gave thanks. The parents pledged to continue to work for the resources needed to build the new school on the plot of land they have acquired. Thanks were expressed to the teachers for their efforts, to the children for their attendance, to the donors and the board of directors. Prayers were said. There were tears of joy and a sense of movement.

Much is yet to be done, but for today, we celebrated the progress thus far in this tiny corner of the world with so many hopes and dreams.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

School Shoes

School for first through twelfth grades started back last Monday after a winter break of six weeks. So I was surprised to see several kids hanging around during school hours. I concluded that some of the schools must start on different timetables.

Then one of the boys asked if I could buy him "school shoes." He had not started back because the only footwear he had now were shower shoes (flip-flops), and they were not allowed. He showed me the holes in his old school shoes and explained that a previous missionary had bought them for him. I know that he is an orphan living with his grandmother and other siblings. "If I buy you shoes, you will be able to start going to classes?" I asked, and the answer was "Yes." So he went with us to town today and I bought shoes for him.

Next a seventh-grade girl came by my back door looking sad. I asked her what was wrong. I knew that she had been attending school this week, so I expected her to tell me of an argument with a friend or something similar. She told me that "Madam" (her teacher) would not let her come back to school on Monday unless she came in "school shoes." I looked at her feet. She was wearing decent-looking flats. They were made of plastic, but the style covered her foot and looked fine. She said that the teacher had told her she didn't look respectable when she marched and sang the national anthem wearing those shoes. She asked if I could buy her "school shoes." Again, she is an orphan living with her sister and grandmother.

This request made me mad. What right did the government school have to demand that children wear a certain kind of shoe to school? Okay, flip-flops might be unacceptable for health and safety reasons, but Patricia's shoes would have been fine in the U.S. I told her I would write a note explaining her situation for her current teacher, asking that she be allowed to continue to go in her plastic shoes. (She had indicated that last year's teacher had not complained about her shoes.) She took my message to the school, because there were Saturday "extra classes" being held. She returned with the following note, written by the deputy head: "Please help Patricia buy shoes for here we don't allow plastic shoes. We chase away those who have plastic shoes until they buy school shoes. We can give her the stockings, please just help her with the school shoes."

Education is supposed to be free for grades 1 through 7 in government schools in Zambia, but the system does not work that way. By law, the parent-teacher association has the right to impose fees and require uniforms, and they all do. UNESCO estimated that one in five children of that age in Zambia is not attending school, and I'm sure they are counting community schools as well as private and government schools. The only reason a child would not be in school here is the family's inability to pay the fees or buy the uniform.

"Free" government schools are quite creative in finding ways to charge fees--fees to enroll in school; fees for gym clothes and uniforms; fees for study guides and booklets; fees to take the end of term examinations and fees to get the results officially recorded. And, of course, students must buy their own composition books, pens, rulers, and other school supplies. There are no textbooks, just review booklets. School sessions are short, and children are encouraged to take "extra lessons" (for which they pay the teachers) after school. The teachers are so underpaid that they must offer extra lessons to feed their families. It's a terrible system.

I know that we have serious problems with public education in America, as well. In most school systems, our teachers are underpaid and overworked. Families are expected to help with classroom supplies, and in some systems children share books and cannot take them home (at least in Arizona.)

How many pairs of "school shoes" will I end up buying? And when will we wake up to the consequences of the failure to invest adequately in quality education for our children, in Zambia and in America?

Saturday, September 4, 2010


It takes awhile for a newcomer to figure out the money in Zambia. For one thing, no coins are used, only paper money. Coins once were part of the currency, but inflation has caused their demise. Production of coins stopped when their value became less than the cost of the metal used to produce them. The smallest bill in circulation is now worth only the equivalent of a U. S. penny, so there is no need for anything smaller. Old coins, called ngwee, are sold to tourists as curiosities.

The unit of money in Zambia was the pound under colonial rule when Zambia was Northern Rhodesia. Now it is called the Kwacha. The largest note is 50,000 Kwachas (roughly equivalent to $10) and the smallest is 50 Kwachas (one cent). There are eight colorful bills, each with a different tree on the front and a different animal on the back--50,000, 20,000, 10,000, 5,000, 1,000, 500, 100 and 50 Kwachas. The ATM gives 50,000 and 20,000 bills. A loaf of bread will cost between 4,900 and 5,500 Kwachas, about a dollar. Bus fare from MEF to Kitwe is 2,500 Kwachas (50 cents). Shoes can cost from 20,000 to 100,000 Kwachas, or more, depending on the type. A fast food meal (hamburger and fries) would run 25,000 Kwachas.

One of the MEF program coordinators, Bruce Mubanga, told a good story about money in chapel Friday. He said the Kwachas held a meeting one day. The 50,000 note introduced himself and boasted that he often traveled with tourists and that he was well-known in ShopRite (our major supermarket.) The 20,000 note said he was found at restaurants, bars, and clothing stores and he frequently associated with taxi drivers. The 10,000 note spoke of being used to buy "talk time" for cell phones. The 5,000 note reported that he usually traveled around the stalls in the outdoor market. They all looked expectantly at the smallest bills, and the 1,000 note said he would speak for all of them--the one thousands, five hundreds, one hundreds and fifties, worth one dollar to one cent. "Well," he said, "We have never seen many of those places you have mentioned, but we are quite familiar with the church offering plate."

We collect an offering once a month in chapel to provide assistance for prisoners. This time, after Bruce told the story, the offering included many larger bills and was more than had ever been collected before. Maybe we all need the occasional reminder about our spending priorities!