Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Visiting Villages

Kitwe is the second largest city in Zambia. It is about two-thirds of the size and population of Tucson. MEF is a few miles out of town. So are many of the compounds and shanty towns where I have visited community schools and helped with development projects.

Until recently, I had not experienced village life here. Now I have been "into the bush" twice in a month. The first time was when Jenny, Adrian and I took Violet and some of her possessions to the village where she will teach fifth grade.

Jenny has a sturdy Toyota pickup truck, a necessity for traveling back roads. Our first challenge was finding the village. Road signs of any sort--speed limits, warnings, how many kilometers to the next town--are almost nonexistent anywhere in Zambia. No streets or roads have names outside of the urban areas, or if they have names, they lack signage. If you ask directions, people talk about taking "the third road after the bamboo stand, where there is a big rock", for example. If you come to a fork in the road and no one is nearby to help, you probably end up choosing the more traveled, well worn road--and hoping for the best.

Violet had been to the school to sign paperwork, but she had ridden a bus to where the road to the village left the main highway, then she found a ride on a truck on top of piles of burlap bags. So she didn't really know the directions well. But we managed, after a few false starts, to find a fairly direct route. The paths into the bush are uneven, rutted dirt roads. We were glad it was not the rainy season yet.

The village includes a compound, or set of houses, clustered around the school, then lots of little dwellings spread out among the trees and brush. There are some permanent cement houses for teachers, each with two or three rooms, painted blue and white like the school. The teacher's house where Violet will live is still occupied by the now-retired headmaster, who refuses to leave until the government gives him his pension. So the pupils and teachers built a little one-room house out of mud bricks for Violet to live in until the other house is available. Most of the village houses are made of mud. Some have thatched roofs, others have corrugated metal roofs. The latrines are outside, as is the cooking area. The teacher's houses have electricity and stoves and refrigerators, but this is not the case for most villagers.

There is a well and a hand-pump near the school. We watched many children filling jerry cans with water while we were touring the school and meeting one of the teachers. As we looked into the classrooms, we saw rough wooden desks and benches, blackboards, cement floors. The classroom of one teacher had the letters of the alphabet with corresponding pictures painted like a frieze on the walls--"D,d dog" for example. Her room also had hand-made charts with multiplication tables and other information. It is up to each teacher to develop such materials.

Violet will return next week as school opens September 5. She will need to carry food staples and other supplies with her, since the nearest markets are far away. The teacher who showed us around has taught at the school for four years. She will be a good support for Violet as she begins her career.

The other village visit was to carry some food out to a cousin of Caroline, my friend who tried to feed me caterpillars. The cousin was recently widowed and is caring for about 10 children, some her own and others orphans. This village seemed even poorer than where Violet will live. There is no electricity. There is little water to irrigate gardens. Many people crowd into tiny houses at night to sleep. During the day the children play outside under the mango trees. They must walk several kilometers to the nearest primary school. Where the latrines in Violet's village had mud brick walls, here they were holes in the ground surrounded by four poles and three burlap walls. Again, cooking is done outdoors over charcoal. Probably most people eat only once, or at most twice, a day--nshima (corn meal mush) with a sauce of beans or perhaps a bit of chicken, and greens.

Life is hard here, but people still dance and sing and are thankful for what they have. The country is at peace, and people try to help each other. I am continually amazed by the resilience of the human spirit!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Another Success Story

Violet, who has been doing my laundry and cleaning my house for the past 18 months, has finally been posted at a school! She will teach fifth grade at Mukutuma Basic School in the Lufanyama District of the Copperbelt region.

Violet had completed her teacher training program and was awaiting the results of her performance on the national teachers' examination when I first arrived. A few weeks later, she received news that she had failed--as had 84 of the 89 students in her class. They were invited to register for some remedial classes (with a substantial tuition charge), continue studying, pay another examination fee, and try again.

Violet had been confident that she had passed, since all along she received excellent marks in nearly every subject. She went to the school officials asking to see her results so she could learn what she needed to study. They refused. Adrian, the Chaplain, and I discussed this situation and decided to investigate it. It just seemed unreasonable that the vast majority of students should fail, if the school had been doing its job preparing primary school teachers.

When we spoke with the director of the teacher training school, he told us there had been rampant cheating among the students, and that was why they all failed. This was hard to believe, and certainly out of character for Violet. Not only did the director blame the students, he couldn't explain how this cheating had gotten past the supervision of the exam proctors. In addition, there was no acknowledgement that perhaps the school had prepared them poorly for the examination. Or that any kind of mistake had been made.

It just felt fishy. And as I thought about it, the main person to benefit from this massive failure was the owner of this proprietary private education college, as he now would get more tuition from the students and a second exam fee.

Adrian went to someone who had contacts with the Ministry of Education. He got an appointment for Violet to see this official to explore the problem. When she met with him, she found out that her name was not on the national list of students who had taken the exam. She showed him her documentation, and he said he would call in the school director to find out what was going on.

We still do not know exactly what happened between the Ministry of Education and the school director, but a few weeks later, Violet was told that she had passed the exam and was given an official results document. Then the wait began for posting at a government (public) school.

Before she received confirmation of her posting, Violet signed up for a course run by Kitwe Teachers College (KTC) to upgrade her teaching skills. It meets during school breaks, and then continues with independent study while participants return to their teaching duties or await their posting. KTC is affiliated with the University of Zambia, so we trust there will be no issues around corruption or malfeasance in this education program. Violet is both excited and anxious about being a student again. Mostly she is eager to begin teaching.

Lufanyama is quite a way off the main road, at the edge of the Copperbelt Province. While remote, it has electricity. The community has built a small house for each teacher. Violet commented, after going to visit the place, that if I think I have seen poverty in the compounds surrounding Kitwe, wait until I see the village life. Most of the children do not own a pair of shoes. They come to school barefoot and in ragged clothes. Many will not have a pencil to their name, let alone notebooks, pens or rulers. but they want to learn, and she wants to teach. Transport for Violet to get to a town to shop will most likely be by riding on the back of a truck loaded with lumber or sacks of corn or some other product. Busses only run to the main highway. After that, it is an hour or two on whatever vehicle passes by to reach the village, or from the village back to the highway. She will receive hardship pay because of the conditions.

So, another success story. Violet is employed in the field she trained for and has a calling to do. My new helper for laundry and cleaning is Memory. She just completed teacher training and took the national exam and is awaiting results.

Isn’t this where I came in?

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Current Events Here and There

Zambia will hold a presidential election September 20. The incumbent President, Rupiah Banda, is running for re-election. He succeeded to the presidency three years ago in a special election after the death of the third Zambian President, Levy Mwanawasa. However, his candidacy for the office is now being challenged. The issue is his parentage. His opponent claims Banda's father was born in Malawi.

Why should it make a difference where his parents were born? It does, and that's an interesting story.

After independence in 1964, Zambia had a one-party system. The first President, Kenneth Kaunda, served for 27 years before he lost his office in the first contested election. Candidates from the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) have won every election since then, although in the last election the Patriotic Front (PF) candidate came quite close to winning.

Once in power, the second President, Chaluba, was interested in securing his position. He therefore wrote an odd provision into the constitution he was drafting, and which was later adopted. It required that the parents of any candidate for the office of the President must have been born in Zambia. It was widely understood that the reason for this criterion was to prevent Kauanda, the former President, from running again. Kaunda's parents were born in nearby Malawi and Zimbabwe.

Now that constitutional provision is being used to question whether Banda, the incumbent, can be a legitimate candidate for election. One of his parents was allegedly born in Malawi. Banda has denied this, saying that his father only worked in Malawi as a casual laborer, but was born in territory now part of Zambia. His opponent has brought forth a challenge, and the court must decide in the next few days, before the ballot papers are due to be printed. Since this issue was not raised the first time he ran, just after Mwanawasa's death, I doubt that the court will decide for the challenger...but who knows?

Andy used to say that legislation based on one case was usually a bad idea. It may make the party in power feel good, but it often has unanticipated consequences later on. Banda tried to get the constitution changed with respect to this provision, but Parliament did not approve his request.

The other current events I have been following relate to the budget deficit battles back home in America. BBC has quite good coverage, and it is interesting to listen to commentators from another country as they try to understand and critique our system. They are knowledgeable and good critics, but sometimes seem puzzled by the degree of acrimony and pig-headed uncooperativeness they witness in Congress and between the GOP leadership and the President.

From my place of distance, I think there is a lot of "fear-mongering" going on in America in the popular media. Yes, it is too bad that Standard & Poor's has downgraded our credit rating from AAA to AA+, but since when is Standard &
Poor’s such a good judge of creditworthiness? They gave all those sub-prime financial instruments [that are now recognized as junk bonds] AAA ratings! And I agree with the BBC commentator who said he found their declaration that we need to reduce Medicare outlays offensive. It is not their role to recommend policy directions, and if it were, how about recommending reducing spending on the wars, which are a major drain on our economy and the source of 35% of our debt?

What we need is more revenue (tax the wealthy again) and more investment in recovery. Unemployment benefits need to be extended, given the reality of the shortage of jobs. That money goes right back into the economy in purchases of goods and services. The extremely wealthy tend to save, or to spend on things like a second house, which does not stimulate the economy as much as buying food and gas and daily need items. The ever-growing gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots"--or, really, between the upper 10-20% and the rest of the people, is not only wrong, but I believe that it is dangerous.

We don't see such dramatic differences here in Zambia. Yes, there may be some wealthy Zambians, but I have never encountered one. There is a small middle class and mostly poor people helping each other and their families as much as they can. Sometimes they can't, and we have child-headed families and street kids and abandoned elders, but not by choice.

Living in a place where there is more equality feels good, even if the standard of living is low. We all feel as if we are in it together.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A Debatable Question

What do you do when the government fails to provide certain basic services that are generally agreed to be a public responsibility? This is a question we may be facing in the United States one day in the not-too-distant future. It is a question many Zambians confront every day.

Under this heading we could certainly discuss clean and safe drinking water, roads, a sanitation system, health care, and a social security system. Not to mention public education. In each of these areas, Zambia fails to provide even minimally adequate services in some or all parts of the country.

What happens when these services are missing? People suffer many preventable illnesses and do not live as long. Many children die before they reach school age. Road fatalities and injuries are common. In old age, people often descend into deep poverty. Citizens lack power when they cannot read or speak well. The country fails to develop.

One answer to what to do when the government does not fulfill its responsibilities is that the people come together and do their best to do it themselves. I've been thinking again about community schools here, especially because one of my students invited me to visit the school he has been helping, Jenna Community School.

I know he hoped I would have some ideas about how they could raise the funds needed to build a permanent structure. The foundation has been laid for a 6-classroom facility, including a small library and office. Currently the school is meeting in a flimsy church building that doesn't look as if it will survive the rainy season. Just as with Trust Community School, a third to half of the pupils are orphans, some living in child-headed families. Others live in very poor families where the parents can't pay the school fees attached to government schools, or buy the uniforms and school shoes and other things deemed necessary in the public system. Without the community school, these children would be home all day or on the streets.

The teachers are paid a small salary, the equivalent of US $35/month. You might wonder how anyone could work for so little. In some cases, they have a spouse who works a regular job and provides support. Sometimes they also farm or have a small business or income-generating project in their off hours. Sometimes they just cope somehow and see the position as volunteer work until they are posted by the government in a regular school. This, of course, means that there is frequent turnover of teachers, even when they love the community school and would like to stay on permanently. I admire the community spirit and the dedication of all those who work with community schools in Zambia.

The government has the capacity to tax, control of natural resources, and the power to create a stable and secure environment for the development of its citizens. We need to encourage people to be self-reliant and neighborly, to work productively and to care for their families. That is a given. But should we also expect that individuals provide alone--or at the community level--for all basic needs? Isn't there a proper role for government? Consider some of the many features of a good quality life that have traditionally depended on government support: safe medications, reliable water and power, universal opportunities for basic education and training, access for people with disabilities, public transportation, safe food, and social insurances. In all of these areas, Zambia has some services, but many deficiencies. And in America, there seems to be an acrimonious debate underway in which one side sees government as unnecessary, even evil.

I guess I feel more sympathetic to Zambia's situation and predicament because they have so many challenges and are so new at being an independent country. It is harder for me to understand why in America we are having this debate, why so many are unwilling to pay more taxes, why some elected officials are so resistant to continuing to provide basic services for all and compassionate care for our vulnerable populations.

Here's my final reflection to ponder these days: In Zambia and in America, how can we create a respectful process for conversation between diverse groups, to hear and understand what each fears and what each hopes for, and so we can explore the consequences of different policy choices? And in both places, how can we cultivate and strengthen our sense of community and mutual responsibility?