Sunday, July 24, 2011

Difficult Days

Four days a week I make peanut butter and jam sandwiches for kids. The other three days they get "biscuits" or cookies and juice drink when they come to visit. Somewhere around 20 boys and 8 girls come by each day, including a few little ones who only ask for half a sandwich. Each week, we use 4 kilos of peanut butter, 10 loaves of bread, and four large cans of jam, plus the juice drink and biscuits/cookie ingredients. It adds up.

Moses, my gardener, was in the house the other day when a big group of boys came asking for sandwiches. Perhaps he had overheard me exclaiming to Violet about how high my grocery bill was last week, or perhaps he was mad at the kids because someone had taken some of the tomatoes I was allowing to ripen on the vine. Whatever the reason, he started yelling at the kids. They shouted back, and before I could intervene, Moses had gone out on the porch an slapped one of the boys for being disrespectful.

I went out to put an end to the situation, but it was escalating out of control. I couldn't tell what they were shouting at one another because it was in Bemba, but the voices were loud and angry. One of the boys, visibly upset, ran to the field next door, picked up rocks and clods of dirt, and started throwing them at Moses, who continued to yell and shake his fist in a threatening manner. I stood between the warring parties and tried to make them stop, but it was several minutes before I was able to calm everyone down. The boy who was upset said that Moses had been insulting his father.

One reason it was so hard to resolve this situation was that we were dealing with cultural issues. In Zambia, it is acceptable for parents to beat their children. It is expected that children will respect and obey their elders. Even though I had told Moses that physical punishment is not permissible in my family and beatings are not allowed in America, he felt he was behaving appropriately. (Spare the rod and spoil the child.) The children know that I do not approve of yelling at them or striking them, so they felt free to go against the norm and challenge Moses. Once the conflict started, it gathered steam and only grew worse and worse.

I spoke with all the parties separately. Moses understood that I meant what I said about hitting children. I may not be able to prevent him from shouting, but there will be no more physical contact. The boys agreed that they needed to apologize to Moses and to show him respect in the future. I offered to teach them some non-violent problem-solving approaches during their school break.

Apparently the boys and Moses met and talked a couple of days after the incident, and things are calm again. And I do plan to follow up with some vacation activities with the kids. Constructive, non-violent problem-solving is a skill we all need to cultivate.

Just a few days ago, I heard about the tragic bombing and shooting spree in Norway in which nearly 100 people died. Most of them were youths who were at a camp on an island. One man, a native Norwegian who called himself a Christian, has admitted responsibility. As always, these incidents raise many questions. Before the perpetrator was identified, the bombing in Oslo was labeled as a "typical al qaeda attack." Once the shooter was found to be a native Norwegian, suddenly it was simply a "crazed individual." The evidence show that this was a carefully planned attack, not the sudden rage of a depressed or unbalanced individual.

Just as we try to keep track of the potentially dangerous al qaeda terrorists, I believe we need to recognize and watch the potentially dangerous far-right extremists (or any extremist, for that matter). And although I have heard no mention of it in any news reports, I suggest that we should be asking questions about access to automatic weapons and ammunition.

The one positive note in this situation was the report that among the many people who gathered at the cathedral in Oslo after the tragedy were many Muslim citizens. When asked why they were going into a Christian church, they said they wanted to show their solidarity and share in the grieving.

May that spirit of unity prevail in these difficult days.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Wise Words

Riding on a bus one day, I saw a motto on another bus that I didn't understand. "Teeth are just bones" it said. Puzzled, I asked one of my students what the meaning was. "It's a Bemba saying, and it means that you shouldn't trust a smile to mean friendship, teeth are just bones."

Since then, I have been collecting African sayings. Most are easier to interpret than the Bemba one. Some I have heard on BBC Africa, which broadcasts "wise words" every morning.

Sometimes the same idea appears in two expressions:
The ax forgets, the tree that has been axed will never forget.
He who gives the blow forgets, he who bears the scar remembers.
Or another pair:
A cutting word is worse than a bowstring.
A cut may heal, but a cut of the tongue does not.

Here are more sayings I have collected:

A chattering bird builds no nest.
If you are in hiding, don't light a fire.
He who cannot dance will say the drum is bad.
Don't hunt what you can't kill.
Money can buy a bed but can't buy you sleep.
Cross the river in a crowd, and the crocodile won't eat you.
No matter how tall your father is, you must do your own growing.
The hen does not attend the meeting when the fox is the chairman.
Ashes fly back in the face of he who throws them.
There is nothing more expensive than a lost opportunity.
If the camel once gets his nose in the tent, his body will soon follow.
Water all seeds--you don't know which will grow.
He who inherits the leopard also inherits the spots.
Like ants, eat little and carry the rest back to your home.
There is no shortcut to the top of a palm tree.
Never start a quarrel with fire when you are dressed in dry leaves.
Not everyone who chased the zebra caught it, but he who caught it chased it.
It is a fool who rejoices when his neighbor is in trouble.
Pray for a stronger back rather than a lighter load.
A word to the wise is wasted--spare them for the dumb.
He who receives a gift does not measure.
If you run after two hares, you will catch neither.

And my four favorites:
When elephants fight, the grass suffers.
He who forgives ends the argument.
The path is made by walking.
In the school of life, the lesson comes after the test.

I was reflecting the other day that not all "words of wisdom" that we might have been taught are truly wise. As a child, I heard that "Sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never harm you." It wasn't true. As adults, a friend and I, discussing the effects of taunting, gossip, and name-calling, re-wrote the saying: "Sticks and stones may break your bones but words may break your heart." My grandmother taught me to "consider the source" when dealing with painful words, but how much better if we can sometimes prevent them from being spoken at all.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Success Story

Samuel Mwanamundu, a tall, slender young man with a confident walk and an intense sense of direction, came by to borrow my camera. "We are having a sports day and I want to get pictures of the kids in action. Then I will put them in an email to send to our supporters." The event was sponsored by the Zambian Institute for Youth Development, an organization Samuel has helped establish. Its purpose is to involve street kids and other vulnerable children in activities that will develop life skills and equip them for independence and self-sufficiency.

Samuel, age 21, knows firsthand what these children need. He lived on the streets for awhile. He knows the risks, the attractions, the desperation, and the exploitation that are part of that life. Kids end up on the streets for several reasons. Some are orphans. Some have fled abuse or neglect. Some are on the streets during the day to earn money for their families and go home at night with food or supplies.

Samuel was born in 1990 in the northwestern part of Zambia. His father died before he was born, and his mother succumbed to TB when he was 6. He and his younger brother were taken in by their grandmother. There was not enough money to pay school fees, so he went out on the streets to sell matches and paraffin. His great-uncle then took him in so he could go to school. Unfortunately, the uncle drank heavily and mistreated him. After 8th grade, when he started to resist the beatings, the uncle threw him out ("chased him away" as they say here). On the street, he slept in the bus depot and tried to find odd jobs so he could feed himself. Some days he was hungry, and many days he was afraid. Someone told him about Victim Support, so he went there. They took him to Salem Children's Village, an orphanage. There he attended grades 9 and 10, but the orphanage ran out of funds and closed. A church offered him a place to sleep for awhile, and he encountered a missionary who helped find a sponsor to pay his school fees so he could finish grade 12. He passed all the national exams.

When I met him last year, he was living in a shed about the size of a typical bedroom. The shed was behind a house and contained a bed, a table, a chair, and all Samuel's belongings, mostly clothes and books and eating utensils. He had a goal, to go to Bible College. He said his faith is what has helped him survive and grow and he believes he can help others through becoming a pastor as well as through work with the Zambian Initiative for Youth Development. He felt the strong call to ministry when he was living in the orphanage.

Samuel's story could be told over and over here in Zambia. He was fortunate in not staying on the streets too long, and on finding sponsors and organizations to help him. There are many young people, equally talented, who are not so lucky. Their potential goes undeveloped. Their leadership capacity may be diverted into criminal activity if no other means of survival seems to exist. Every time I go into Kitwe to shop, I see the street kids begging. Some are high from sniffing petrol. Scuffles often break out as they compete for jobs guarding cars, unloading grocery carts, or washing windshields. Some have adapted so well to life on the streets that they resist efforts to put them into training programs. They like the freedom of the streets. But most never have a chance for any other life, since there are few services and many vulnerable children.

I helped Samuel with his application to Bible College. He was admitted and provided with a scholarship. He has done well in coursework and now is also going out to preach and teach at different churches on the weekends. He continues to work with the Zambian Initiative for Youth Development, as well. Go Samuel!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

"No Woman Should Die..."

Caroline came by to tell me the sad and shocking news. One of the driver's wives (the group she is organizing for mutual aid) died in childbirth this week. The baby died, too. She wondered if I would like to contribute to the collection of funds for the family. The husband is left with four children to care for, the youngest only two years old. Because three of the four children are girls, and it is not considered suitable in this culture for a single father to raise girls alone, Caroline thought the children might have to go live with the grandmother.

This was not the first death in childbirth I had heard about, but the first where I had met the woman. The maternal mortality rate in sub-Saharan Africa is more than twice as high as in other developing countries in different regions. The United Nations adopted a set of eight Millennium Development Goals to guide its work for the period 1990-2015. Countries were asked to sign on and to give priority to the goals in their budgets and their development plans. One of the eight goals is to reduce maternal mortality by three-quarters by 2015. Zambia signed on and has succeeded in making some progress, although not enough. The rate was 750 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2000, and today it is 591/100,000. Eight Zambian women die each day from pregnancy related causes. Infant mortality is significantly higher, with 48 newborns dying each day. Zambian women carry a lifetime risk of maternal death of 1:38.

Maternal mortality rates also include pregnant women whose death is related to abortion. Abortion is culturally unacceptable in Zambia. It is viewed by most people as sinful or even as murder. While medical abortion is legally available under certain limited conditions, it is a rare occurrence in clinics or hospitals. So some women die from botched or "backstreet" abortions. Many don’t die but suffer serious illness or disability. Newspaper articles have reported on women swallowing battery acid, taking herbs which turn out to be toxic, and being internally injured by other means to try to cause a miscarriage.

"No woman should die while giving life." This is the motto of a Zambian campaign to reduce the number of deaths that occur to women during pregnancy, delivery, and the month immediately following childbirth. The needs are many, especially for trained birth attendants and accessible clinics and hospitals. Only 47% of births happen with a skilled attendant present. Only 60% of pregnant women receive four prenatal visits with a health care provider. Few receive postpartum checkups. Early marriages are common in villages, and very young girls who become pregnant often experience prolonged and obstructed labor. One UNICEF report called the high rates of maternal mortality "the scandal of our times."

The maternal mortality rate is much higher in rural areas than in cities. There, medical facilities are often too far away to reach by walking, and transport is expensive or unavailable. One innovative project in a rural district in Zambia involves providing villages with sturdy bicycles to which a trailer is attached designed to carry the pregnant woman to the clinic when she is in labor. Another program is extending and improving the training and equipping of midwives.

Just for comparison, I looked up the figures for maternal mortality in the United States and was troubled by what I read. Thirty-nine countries have rates lower than ours, which is reported to be 17 per 100,000 live births in 2008. Our rate has been increasing; it was 12/100,000 in 1990. And it is four times as high for African-American women than for white women. So I would suggest that we have some work to do at home on this issue.

"No woman should die while giving life." Good goal to keep in mind as we look at our health care system in its brokenness and limitations. Of course, not all maternal deaths are preventable, but most are. And so we should.