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!

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