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.