Our recent trip to Zambia had been overdue. We went for a variety of reasons, including to help a volunteer medical mission, to see schools, meet students we had been supporting for a number of years and run a life skills workshop for young people. Although it took us 30 hours door to door to arrive at our first destination, our journey began about ten years ago when friends invited me to get involved and eventually to formalise their intentions and ideas into Baraka Community Partnerships, a registered charity in England and Wales. We did not know what to expect. The experience was sobering and challenging at times, but most of all, we loved every single minute of it.
Zambia is a republic in southern Africa that gained its independence from Britain in 1964. It has a population of approximately 16 million, comprising 73 Bantu-speaking ethnic groups, principally the Nyanja-Chewa, Bemba, Tonga, Tumbuka, Lunda, Luvale, Kaonde, Nkoya and Lozi. Zambia’s economy has primarily been extractive (lead, copper, jade). It also has a large agricultural sector, with a large population of subsistence farmers in rural areas. There is both significant unemployment and underemployment, with piece-work making up a large part of the informal economy. According to the UN, 78% of rural Zambians live in poverty, with 68% overall and 53% in urban areas. Zambia also has significantly underserved water, sanitation and health needs.
Notwithstanding its significant challenges, Zambia is relatively safe and Zambians are warm and welcoming. Visitors will be blown away by the country’s nature and wildlife. There is Victoria Falls, the Mupata Gorge in the Lower Zambezi National Park and the national parks in North and South Luangwa and Kafue. It has great vegan food too.
Baraka is a small charity. Its purposes are to promote sustainable development for the benefit of poor communities in developing nations and to advance the education, healthcare and lives of the people in those communities. Baraka focuses on a variety of projects, including education, healthcare, clean water and direct sponsorship of students’ education. It works in close partnership with local communities and requires they take ownership of each project by identifying priorities and contributing in some way. To generate trust among all parties, Baraka builds strong relationships with the people and communities that it supports. Currently, Baraka has projects in Morocco, Laos, Zambia and India. Every two years, Baraka Canada organises a medical mission to Zambia to visit inner city Lusaka communities and isolated, rural communities who seldom, if ever, receive any attention, whether domestic or from NGOs. This year was the third such medical mission.
Some of the doctors and nurses on this trip had either been on a Baraka medical trip before, or had participated in similar volunteer trips and knew what to expect. The working conditions were a little bit like the old American TV series M*A*S*H – rough and ready. And even some of the medical complaints were unusual, but that proved useful to Nurse Laurie, who was able to immediately diagnose scabies on a patient back in Canada.
The doctors and nurses were remarkable, gutsy, smart and funny. They undertook all the challenges with open minds, hearts and lots of humour, some of it unsuitable for the squeamish like us – although, our tolerance did increase – and some of it scatological, which certainly appeals to me.
The patients came from near and far. They began queuing by 4am. One father brought his children who were both gravely ill with malaria. He brought them on a bicycle that he lovingly and determinitedly pushed for two hours under the hot sun.
The villages we visited are remote and difficult to reach (and just about impossible to reach during rainy season). No NGOs visit these villages and domestic government attention is also scarce.
By the end of the week, the team had seen approximately 1,000 people from three villages, Ndili, Kabwale and Siansowa, and one Lusaka inner city neighbourhood, Chawama. The team saved at least a dozen lives.
We are not medical people and both of us would have quickly become patients had we to assist with anything beyond putting a plaster on a paper cut. So we helped man the pharmacy, fulfilling prescriptions. Because we are ignorant about most medicines, this required a very hit-the-ground-running understanding of what drugs were for what, dosage and interpreting the doctors’ scribble. That last one was the hardest part!
We also had to quickly figure out the best way of communicating with patients about the medicines. Describing how to use two different types of asthma inhalers to an elderly village woman was particularly challenging. I muddled through with words and mime, which is super easy for me because I am Neapolitan, and with the help of a translator. The woman had never seen such a gadget (and neither had I because it was not the usual L-shaped burst one I have seen before). For her it might as well have been the Sonic Screwdriver. We went over it several times with my showing her and the translator translating. She then tried several times, to no avail. At one point she paused and was completely silent and immobile. I had no idea what was about to happen. Then she burst out laughing, grabbed it out of my hands and triumphantly inhaled the meds. Result!
What did the “pharmacy” look like? Here are some examples: a school room (Ndili, bottom right), a community clinic (in the atrium between buildings) in Siansowa, near Lake Kariba and an office in a community compound in Chawama, Lusaka (video).
No one in these photos/video is a pharmacist. There is an artist, a couple of lawyers, a travel writer, a medical equipment specialist (he knew the most) and K., an 11 year old boy (albeit the son of a doctor). K. held his own in the pharmacy, supervised of course, and was nicknamed the team’s “striker” by Dr Laurens. I’m not sure what the punch line would be if we all walked into a bar though!
But we did our best, interacted with the patients whenever possible, tried to understand their body language if we could not understand their spoken language and worked at intense tempo for a full eight hour plus day. From time to time, we had to try to calm crying babies, which was sometimes quite challenging because in addition to being scared of the treatment they were receiving as most kids are, some had never before seen a mizungu, a white person, and we are quite scary with our ghost-like appearance. We experienced all sorts of emotions during the day, but most of all, a lot of heart.
Throughout the medical outreach, Baraka-sponsored young people were vital, whether in the pharmacy, translating, organising, or assisting the medical team. It was particularly good to see them getting stuck into the work despite never having done anything like it before and learning new things, whether medical or especially about themselves. Seeing someone rise to challenges, conquer them and be transformed right before one’s eyes is a marvellous thing.
On the bus ride back to our lodgings at the end of the first day, I sat next to Grace, a very reserved young woman. I asked her what she did during the day. She helped the nurses and doctors, she told me quietly. When I asked her what she liked the best, her eyes and face lit up, her eyebrows shot straight up and she gleefully exclaimed in a loud stage whisper, “surgery!” Fantastic. She spent the rest of the time working closely with the medical team and is now certain that she wants to pursue a nursing career.
The medical trips would also not have been possible without the groundwork (before, during and after) undertaken by the Zambia team, Timmy, Andrew, Cosmas and Handsen. These guys are talented, committed, determined, incredibly kind and a lot of fun. I miss them.
Apart from the founders who are very dear to my heart, none of Baraka’s involvement in Zambia or elsewhere would be possible without another key member, Andy. He is an extraordinary fellow with the heart the size of a mountain. Andy has managed to weave his years of experience in adventure travel into lasting and meaningful relationships that have touched and transformed so many lives. Among other things, Andy organises volunteer trips (to build, paint, teach) a few times a year, whether to Zambia or to other countries where Baraka supports projects.
The schools and Baraka’s young people
School in Zambia is meant to be free for primary school learners in government schools (two years of pre-school and grade 1 to 7). In practice, however, it is not the case. With respect to pre-school, the government is providing little to no support, despite its requirements. Thereafter, between fees for uniforms and user fees to cover additional community/volunteer teachers (in addition to teachers assigned by the government) and other costs, many families struggle to earn or save enough to send children to school. Government schools are also often overcrowded and parents are unable to access places, having to resort to sending children to private, fee-paying schools, which often also requires boarding. As a result, there are many children who never get to school or are forced to cut short their studies. Baraka supports schools, a boarding house for girls, a good number of individual children/young people from primary school to university and has built bore-hole wells for access to safe water.
There is little funding going towards the building of schoolhouses themselves. In many villages, children gather under large mango trees like this one at Ndili.
This might sound liberating, fun and romantic to us, but Andrew, who along with Lorna, travels all over Zambia to identify needy communities, told me about the first time he visited Ndili. He said the children spontaneously acted out how difficult it was trying to learn under a tree, while shivering in the driving rain huddled against each other, chasing after books and papers blown away by the wind, sitting on the ground for hours on end and struggling to hear the teacher if they were too far away. That is no way to learn.
We visited many Baraka-supported schools and, being half-term, there were only a fraction of the students who would otherwise have been present. I would like to write about each one, but that is just not possible. However, there are two schools that are perfect examples of the existing need and Baraka’s involvement: Jewel and Tulungili.
Miriam, the woman in the long skirt in the video below, founded Jewel School because she saw how many children in her neighbourhood were in need and did not have access. The school is in Lilayi, which is just on the outskirts of Lusaka. We have been following Jewel School since its beginnings. We were extremely happy to meet Miriam and Rachel and to see the school. We hugged as if we had known each other for ever. My heart could have burst with joy and the welcome song is just so sweet, especially the children’s little hands waving in tempo.
Miriam took it upon herself, with no money, children of her own and being a single mum (she is widowed) to rent a room in a warehouse/church compound, with a leaky roof and no glass on the windows.
Today, with the help of Baraka fundraising and a couple of volunteer trips to build and decorate, Jewel School has two colourful and good buildings. They are located in a lovely spot, away from the main road and have some land. Miriam and the children are cultivating the land to grow some crops to sell. There is a sweet little flower and plant garden too. Miriam also has an assistant teacher, Rachel, who is sponsored by Baraka. Fantastic results!
Another factor that encourages parents to send their children to school is for the village to have a conventional school building. It is always the case that upon construction of a new building, enrolment increases. In Tulangile, a remote rural village, the community currently uses a traditional long house with thatched roof as its school house for 300 children.
Tulangile has approached Baraka for assistance in building a conventional school building. One of Baraka’s aims is to encourage communities not only to identify priority projects, but to contribute in some way to their realisation. Most often, that means that the communities will come together to make or source building materials. <
I did not know how villages were going to manage this until I went to Tulangile and saw the bricks being made. In the first scene, you will see the villager dip into a vat of used motor oil and spread it into the mould. This will make it easier for the bricks to slide out. The raw bricks are then placed aside to dry in the sun and thereafter are heated in a traditional kiln, which will also be built by the villagers.
Construction fascinates me and Andrew. He is often in the field, identifying and meeting with communities in need. He has extensive knowledge of architecture, building practices, art, whether traditional Zambian or otherwise, and a myriad other topics. Andrew regularly visits Baraka-supported communities to facilitate progress, communication and build relationships and mutual trust.
Here are photos from some of the other Baraka-supported schools.
Recently, Baraka has begun supporting a boarding house for girls in Maamba. In Zambia, such boarding houses are often referred to as “safe houses,” which has a slightly different meaning in Europe and other Western countries. In Zambia, because secondary schools are located outside of rural areas requiring long-distance travel, children will need to reside nearer to those schools to attend. Having young and vulnerable children in rented accommodations without appropriate supervision is a recipe for disaster. Therefore, the safe house very much becomes a necessity.
The Maamba Safe House came to Baraka’s attention when a large, international NGO suddenly and without notice cut off their support to the house. The girls in the house, some of whom come from difficult home lives, were going to lose everything. Particularly for girls, stopping school often results in child marriage. Baraka is very aware of that risk and does as much as possible to prevent it.
Currently, there are 20 young women living at the Maamba Safe House. Lillian is the wonderful matron. She loves the girls as if they were her own and the love and respect is mutual. She has her own children too, but they are grown and live elsewhere. Lillian is devoted to the safe house residents and you can see the beautiful light in her eyes when you meet her. I also had the pleasure of meeting three of the resident girls who had not travelled back to their homes, despite it being half-term.
Lorna, who is also a key part of the local Baraka Zambia team introduced me to the Maamba Safe House. She is instrumental in keeping track of all the sponsored young people, their school needs (and whether they need additional tuition). I have seen how the kids respond to her and how she manages to break through the natural barriers that children, adolescents and teens have and the cultural ones too. She is phenomenal. I also joke with her that she has passed her first year contract law course. About a year or so ago, she asked me to review a lease agreement. I happily did so, but I also shared with her my process for identifying issues and the basic framework of contract law. Now when there is a contract to review, she is able to have a good look and to identify the issues before she passes it to me.
In conjunction with its support for schools, Baraka also directly supports the education of a variety of children and young people through a sponsorship program. Donors directly pay for the educational costs of their sponsored young person and can be as involved as they wish. Some people choose to sponsor only, without having any direct contact with the sponsored young person.
We have been sponsoring a few individuals for some time, three of whom are now at university or college. Thanks to social media, messaging apps and mobile phones, and to the luck of the draw that these young folks have decided that I am an ok-enough-adult for them to talk to, I have had the good fortune and delight of becoming somewhat of a mentor to them.
One of the highlights for us was to meet around 20 of the older sponsored young people during a day-out/workshop, including all those whom we sponsor (Franny, Given – who travelled 11 hours by bus to join us – Happy, Mike and Theo). We devised role playing exercises for them based upon a conversation I had with Happy just before he started his very first internship. These exercises focused on life skills, useful at work or otherwise. Everyone got into it and participated. By the end, when we were talking about ethical issues, it got pretty animated. We could not have asked for a more successful day.
The cost of sponsoring the education of a young person is not prohibitive for many of us. The annual school costs are: primary, under £100; lower secondary, less than £150; and upper secondary, under £300. If you are interested in supporting Baraka financially, otherwise or have any questions, please contact me or Baraka.
The next medical mission to Zambia is tentatively schedule for May 2019. Baraka Canada will recruit the doctors and nurses. However, if you are interested in joining us next time and would like to contribute a non-medical skill, or man the pharmacy, or participate in one of the building-related volunteering trips departing prior to 2019, then please contact me. There is room for engaging with people in many ways, some of which might not yet have been tried. For example, some of the Baraka-sponsored young people are interested in art and it would be fantastic to have an artist (what about a street artist?!) share some of their knowledge with them. If you can imagine sharing it, then there is room for it.
Thanks to Andy, Dr Jeff, Nurse Laurie, Pharmacist Rod and Mr GoodEating for some of these photos.
What does all this have to do with veganism? Nothing and everything! You can simultaneously care about human issues and be vegan. If you care about human issues, you care about justice and fairness. There is nothing just or fair about using animals for food when the only reason to do so is that we like how they taste. Just because they are not human does not mean that they value their lives less than us. Applying our sense of fundamental justice and fairness to animals opens our minds to seeing the world in a much more connected way than ever before. Please consider going vegan. It’s easier than ever.
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