Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Day of Fasting and Prayer for MEF

These are hot, dry days in Zambia, made beautiful by the bright red, purple, magenta and yellow flowering trees--jacaranda, flame trees, and what look to me like magnolias. Rains were supposed to start the last week of October, but we are still waiting. Our water is brownish-orangish colored when it comes out of the tap lately, and we go for longer periods without water. The rains will be welcome, whenever they come.

MEF (Mindolo Ecumenical Foundation), where I am based, is facing severe challenges these days. Ongoing financial struggles, together with changes in leadership, have created a sense of uncertainty and worry. Classes and projects are going forward, but there are questions about the future of this well-respected institution. The chaplain and his student committee decided to sponsor a "day of fasting and prayer" for MEF. It took place yesterday.

Such events are traditional in the African Christian community. My congregation (Mindolo United Church of Zambia) holds all-night prayer vigils quarterly. I haven't attended yet, but I heard the praise singing wafting through my windows as I went to bed on the occasion of the last one, two weeks ago. They particularly pray for healing of members and for the work of the church.

Our MEF day of fasting and prayer started at 6 am and ended at 6 pm. Some of us were there for the full 12 hours (myself included), while others came for half-day segments. Some who could not come fasted and prayed around the edges of their workday or other obligations.

In the chapel, we sang. We prayed. We had Bible study. We prayed. We danced. We prayed. We joined in guided meditation. We prayed. We listened to reflections and testimonies. We prayed. People stood, knelt, or sat according to their preference and the type of prayer.

Our prayers took different forms. Some times of prayer were silent. Some were communal. We offered intercessory prayer for each population at MEF--the governing board, acting director, incoming interim acting director, administrators, support staff, volunteers, lecturers, students, retrenched workers, funding partners and donors. We prayed using Psalms (Ps. 86, for example). We did a body prayer of confession and forgiveness. We had a time of praying aloud. We did a walking prayer, touring the campus and praying in classrooms, the administration building, dormitories, the dining hall, and recreation areas. We prayed individually and in small groups. We illustrated our prayers by creating words and images with art supplies. Between times of prayer we rocked the chapel with our song and dance. Everything in Africa seems to have an element of joy, no matter how serious the event.

A day of prayer and fasting is hard work. We were tired at the end of the day, tired but energized and encouraged. There was a sense of unity of purpose and mutual support.

Perhaps I'll participate in the next all-night prayer vigil at my congregation!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Fun and Games at MEF

There is an amazing amount of talent on any campus, and Mindolo is no exception. We experienced the creativity of the students Friday afternoon and evening, in the first Inter-Class Festival organized by my Community Intervention class.

When we began the semester, I told my students that Community-Based Intervention Strategies was a practice class. We would certainly learn about community theory, but we would also learn how to bring about constructive change in the community. The students had three assignments besides the final exam. In small groups they were required to engage in a change effort in one of the compounds or shanty towns near Mindolo and report on what they accomplished and what they learned at the end of the semester. Individually they had to write a community analysis paper about the community where they were working (or the one they lived in.) Finally, as a class, they had to initiate a project that would improve the quality of life at MEF.

When they organized themselves for the class project, they decided to bring some new social activities to campus. They had complained last semester that there were seldom any activities on the weekends. They were learning about asset-based community development in the course, so we did an assessment of the community capital we might engage to create campus-wide social life. The students came up with four ideas--and decided to divide themselves into four groups and do all four: Saturday Movie Nights, a debate, sports competitions, and a talent show (Inter-Class Festival).

Despite some challenges, all these activities have happened, or are ongoing. The Saturday night movie sometimes becomes a games night (cards, chess, Scrabble, and board games) when the projector is not working. The sports competition was delayed by lack of equipment, but a request for a grant from the student activity fees has resulted in basketballs, ping-pong paddles and balls, darts, and soccer balls. The debate topic was "Is MEF a Christian Institution?" and created some interesting reflection on what it means to be a Christian, as well as a Christian institution. Finally, the Festival took place yesterday, at the beginning of a holiday weekend.

There were 4 categories of performance: sketches (skits), music, poetry, and dance. In each category, there were at least two or three acts. They included traditional dances from Zambia, a South African miner's dance done in red polka-dot rainboots, a men's dance group, a variety of kinds of poetry and music, and three outstanding skits. The media students presented a skit about Zambia's quest for independence. Education students presented one about AIDS, but my favorite was the social work students' comic tragedy about a marital drama. The husband is mean to his wife, and after verbally abusing her he goes to meet his girlfriend (an all-too-common occurrence here). The wife, desperate to make her husband happy, consults a witch doctor to get a potion to increase his desire for her (also an all-too-common occurrence here!). She goes home, prepares food, and awaits her husband's return. She waits and waits, and finally decides to take a nap. While she is napping, their teenage son comes home hungry. He sees the food set out for his father, into which the potion has been mixed, and he eats a bit, thinking that his father will never notice. The wife awakens when her husband returns, but he sees that someone ate part of the food and refuses it. He storms out, just as the teenage son comes in and sidles up to his mother, cooing, "I love you, Mom! Really!" as he begins to chase her around the kitchen...

The costumes were excellent, especially the traditional dancers and the witch doctor. I wish we could have videotaped it. We had prizes for the participants and cookies for all. We will do a class evaluation next week (what we liked, what we didn't like, and "bright ideas" for the next time we do something like this). So far, we have learned two lessons from our efforts. The first is how important communication is to the success of a project. That is a challenge here, with no email network among students. We post notices and use word-of-mouth, mostly. The other is that there is a lot that can be done with whatever resources already exist in a place, if you look around and expect to find them.

Once I figure out how to post pictures on the blog, I'll attach some from this event. I wonder what next semester's students will want to do in the Community-Based Intervention Strategies class?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Time Patterns

"Don't you get bored?" one of my students asked me one day. "There isn't much to do around here."

"No," I replied. "I don't have time to be bored." Which is the truth. I seem to use up all the hours of the day in work, visits from students and others, domestic duties, chatting on Skype with my family back home, and an assortment of activities and events that punctuate the week. I brought a Kindle (electronic reader) filled with 49 books I intended to read in my spare time, and I've finished just two in the 8+ months since my arrival.

That got me to thinking where my time goes, and how time is a bit different here in Zambia compared to time in Tucson.

Many things do not start on time. If you are invited to a Kitchen Party that is supposed to start at 1 pm, plan to go at about 3 and you'll find the dancing is just starting. I was walking to the church for a wedding scheduled for 9 am, when the bride's mother passed me going the other direction in a truck with the sound system for the reception. She stopped and advised me to go back home, since the wedding couldn't start without her and she was not yet bathed or dressed for the event. That wedding actually got underway at 10:30! And most of my classes start 15 minutes late, but I keep them an extra 15 minutes so it all works out.

On the other hand, church starts promptly at 8:30 am, and you'd better be there on time if you want a songbook and a good seat. I haven't quite figured out which things are flexible time and which are exact. Some long-distance busses post a schedule which they keep to (more or less, within an hour or so) and others post a schedule but don't leave until the bus is full. You have to ask to learn the usual practice of each bus company--and be willing to be surprised even then. The "wait till the bus is full" policy seems to predominate. With the cost of fuel here, it makes sense.

Back to the question of where my time goes. There are the teaching hours, preparation for classes, and grading papers--that takes half of every day, including weekends most of the time. I use the Internet, the library, and books I brought to prepare handouts for the students, and it takes time to get those printed since there is only one good printer and one copy machine easily available. This term I'm teaching human behavior, community intervention, and social services in developing countries. The last is a course I took over mid-semester when the instructor began her maternity leave. It has been fun, but demanding. The comparable social services and policy course I taught for years was based on the situation in America, and developing countries face some different issues and have different systems. So I'm learning together with the students.

Where else does my time go? I cook for myself daily and offer cooking lessons a few times a week. Cooking everything from scratch takes a bit longer than when you have packaged and frozen things to work with and blenders and mixers and diswashers to help. My cakes and cookies are in high demand, not to mention the peanut butter and jam sandwiches and water or juice drink I provide for kids and other hungry people. For financial reasons, my supply limit is one loaf of bread a day, 3 kilos of peanut butter a week and two huge cans of jam, as well as three bottles of juice concentrate. When it runs out, I offer cookies if I have any, and I always keep jugs of boiled water in the fridge for the kids who play soccer and basketball nearby.

Then there are the regular activities--chapel every morning, Saturday night Movie Nights (or Game Nights when there is no functioning projector), Bible study Thursday evenings and singing on Wednesday nights, Sunday services, and going to the market Saturday mornings. About once a week I invite someone to dinner or have an invitation to dinner.

Finally there is the uniquely African habit of "dropping in" to visit. Nearly every day, several times a day, someone or some group will stop by my home. Sometimes they come with a purpose. Students deliver their papers or ask for clarification of an assignment. At least once a week I have someone, usually a student but not necessarily from Social Work, who comes for informal counseling over a broken relationship or a conflict situation. Of course there are the people who want to tell me their story and who are asking for money to pay school fees or to feed their family or to start a small project. I always listen, at least, even when I cannot help. And then there are the people, especially teenagers/young adults, who just come to sit and ask how my day has been. We usually talk about their school or whatever they are involved in, but sometimes we just sit and eat cookies.

And so goes my week. At one point I thought I would have time on my hands, time to read (I started the project of again reading the entire Bible, but have only made it through Samuel, so far), time to write poetry, time to practice yoga. Walking is my main exercise, and there is plenty of that, and I've created spaces for reflection, meditation and prayer in the early mornings. But time seems to be in short supply, at least extra time, empty time.

And has anyone else noticed that the older we get, the faster time seems to go?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Soccer Feet

Whenever I have visited Trust Community School or other projects in the poor areas near MEF, I have seen groups of kids, usually boys, playing football (soccer) on dirt lots, most with bare feet. Ow! They are intent on their game, having fun. Sometimes the ball is a genuine soccer ball. Other times it is a makeshift or homemade ball. Always it is well-worn. Spectators cheer.

Yesterday I went with Jenny, a mission partner from the United Kingdom, to see a football match. The team we were to watch was young boys from a shanty town where she has been working with a local self-help group on nutrition and income-generating projects. The game was part of an informal regional tournament, with teams from all the area compounds competing on a brown grassy field. (It's the dry season.)

I remember well watching soccer tournaments at Fort Lowell Park and other Tucson fields when Michael, Miles, and Johnnary were on teams. Before we would leave home, we had to find the shin guards, uniform, soccer socks, soccer shoes, water bottles, was a production getting ready to go!
So when Jenny and I arrived at the tournament field, many things were familiar. Groups of boys were clustered around coaches. Red, blue, green, black, white, and striped shirts distinguished one group from another, mixed in with kids wearing the usual variety of thrift-store leftovers from America that find their way to used clothing stalls in Africa.

Right away, however, I noticed the differences. All the teams had matching shirts, but not necessarily matching shorts. Shoes were another matter. A team would come off the field after their game, and immediately the boys with shoes would sit down, take them off, and pass their shoes and socks to some other boys about to play in the next game. A few pairs were real soccer shoes, the others were athletic shoes of some sort. I never saw a shin guard, let alone many soccer socks. And a number of boys played barefoot. Here and there a team had one or two bottles of water to be shared among the players, but I saw no sign of snacks.

How had they gotten to the tournament? A few teams had a coach with a pickup truck, one team had rented a minibus, but most of them walked many kilometers in the hot sun to arrive at the tournament site. And would walk back afterwards.

Jenny's long-range vision is to help her compound's self-help group to create a community park where the kids can have a sports field, playground equipment, and an activity center with a children's library. There are many kids not in school, and even those enrolled attend only half-days because overcrowding necessitates double shifts at most schools. A playground would give a location for healthy activities and could become a center for community gatherings and literacy education. And a place for soccer practice, of course.

The main reason we had gone to see this tournament was to take photos of the teams from Jenny's compound. A group in Scotland had sent money for six pair of soccer shoes. They were being used for the first time this week. And they brought good luck--the teams tied or won their games.

Ole, Ole, Ole!!!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Dreams Deferred?

We are all interconnected. What happens in one part of the global community affects another part, until it ultimately comes down to the local area. When the world is in an economic downturn, institutions that depend on charitable contributions and donor grants receive less. Sometimes, much less. The needs do not decrease, just the resources.

We are seeing this interdependence in a painful way at Mindolo Ecumenical Foundation these days. Money is short. Services are being cut back, employees are facing layoffs and retrenchment, and student fees are increasing. MEF runs programs such as Peace and Conflict Transformation Studies through grants. The diploma programs in social work, education (primary school teacher training), and media studies increasingly depend exclusively on tuition and other student fees.

Of course, the students and their families do not have more resources than they did last year. Substantial increases in tuition and accommodation fees hit them hard. Some are contemplating leaving the program half-way through as deadlines for paying delinquent accounts approach and the Kwachas to pay are not there. Families are struggling to come up with whatever they can pay, students are working part-time if they can find work, and every means of economizing is being tried. (I am sure this is a familiar story to many of my American readers, too!)

There is no easy solution to the difficulties faced by the institution or by the students. In the U.S., student loans have become a lifeline for many attending college--although I worry about the debt load some students carry into their careers, especially for lower paid professionals like clergy and social workers. But here in Zambia, there are no student loan funds, either at banks or through educational institutions. And the institution has no easy access to resources, either. It depends on the tuition to pay its bills. Electricity charges in Zambia have just increased dramatically, and an educational institution uses a lot of electricity. Food prices have been increasing, as well. Nothing at MEF is luxurious. There is no “fat” to cut.

I can see the dilemma from both sides. As I sit with a distraught student worried about being evicted from the dormitory, I see the institution struggling to pay its employees. So many elements conspire to create this reality: some inadequate financial planning and management skills on the part of MEF, the students, and their families; loss of donor funding and investment income due to the world economy; absence of a system of support for higher education in Zambia; the high incidence of orphans because of HIV/AIDS and the demands this places on family resources; Zambia’s 40% unemployment rate and abysmal wages.

MEF has a dream of educating leaders for the needs of Africa. These students have a dream of improving themselves and becoming productive social workers, teachers, journalists.

And I think about the powerful Langston Hughes poem that starts with the lines: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” and ends with “Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?”

Hard times, hard questions, but hope that a way through will be found and the dreams will not have to be deferred.