Right, finally got round to uploading most of my Zambia pics to Flickr. Didn’t actually take that many (and even less that are any good) because we had the amazing Brenda with us for that. Mostly, I was busy taking notes and writing.
Lovely night last night at Ross Atherton’s (editor of PC Gamer) leaving party. He’s off to do exciting things in Paris. As it was also the first time I’d met up with Bath people since getting back from Zambia, obviously there were lots of questions about how it all went. Mostly the evening was spent deflecting questions – I won’t feel proud of the trip until we’ve actually raised some serious cash – but it did make me think of this story from the Economist, which I read while overseas.
The premise is that living overseas enhances your creativity. Sounds like a romantic notion cultivated by want-to-be Hemmingways, but psychologists reckon they’ve found a link. It’s a couple of weeks old now, as a story, and I only mention it because it’s rung very true for me this week.
I’ve written a lot since I got back – mostly laptop reviews for Stuff and finishing off bits and bobs for Gamer. (An aside – The Samsung X360 is awesome, by the way, although I don’t think I’ll be trading in my Eee 901 for anything else any time soon after its performance in Africa.) I’ve not had any time to work more on the LAO blog, or post much here. The thing is, while we were in Zambia, I couldn’t stop writing – I was exercising all kinds of journalistic skills that have lain dormant for a while and really enjoying work again. There are even – heaven forbid – a few short stories plotted out among my notes.
Now there’s a real danger of falling back into the same old routines again – working to deadlines, only writing for money, feeling exhausted because of the enforced early mornings which having a three year old daughter brings. This must be avoided at all costs – but it feels strangely hard.
So, two new targets are set. First up, I need to help Steve actually gain some profile for LearnAsOne and raise the money we need to build the school in Simakakata. Secondly, I need to find a job overseas. I don’t think I’ll ever move as a freelance, it’s just too much of a risk.
OK – my curiousity needs sating. Spotted this farm in the middle of what looked like salt flats or something while flying from Joburg to Livingstone two weeks ago. Anyone know what grows in fields that look red from the air?
…this was a new pair of boots. Most of the kids we trudged around with were barefoot.
Just time for one last bundle of thoughts before the plane leaves. Plenty more to write up later, but for now, this will have to do.
It’s as easy to play armchair politics as it is to be the world’s greatest football manager from the comfort of your couch. All the same, it’s impossible not to get frustrated when you know there’s a really simple solution to a major problem.
One thing about Simakakata has been bugging me, and asking a few questions has left me wanting to scream.
It goes like this: there’s no point anyone sending money to fund a school building that’s going to crumble away or lose its roof in a few years. Certified, permanent structures need to built now, or when the time comes for the government to take on the school properly, they’ll simply need to start construction from scratch again.
Building materials here are expensive, largely because the transport network is so poor. Getting metal sheets to Simakakata for the roof is going to be hard work and will require a decent truck. That it should be a sizeable part of the overall cost makes sense.
My question was that if the community can hand craft 60,000 rough bricks and fire them, why can’t they do the same for roofing tiles and save even more money? No-one seemed able to give me a decent answer: that’s fair enough. I don’t know enough about construction to know if it’s even possible: roof tiles may require a more accurate mould or a different type of slate. No-one really uses them in Africa anyway, so there must be some reason.
I asked Haakon, the Norwegian facilitator at Response Network who drove us around a bit, about it. He shrugged, unsure himself. Then he sighed. Then he explained one of the most teeth-gnashingly stupid situations here.
During colonisation, he said, houses were built to European designs and many traditional skills were lost. That meant a lot of buildings going up using entirely inappropriate materials, in entirely inappropriate designs. Like using metal for the roof – there’s barely a worse fabric for keeping temperatures stable, especially keeping the heat in at night. It corrodes quickly in the harsh climate, and is far too expensive for the communities to buy in.
One thing Zambia has in abundance, though, is grass. Great big savannahas-full of stalks that tower over your head. Why, then, can’t the school be thatched for free?
The very basic schools we saw in the bush were. The problem is, that when the villagers build their huts and these rudimentary structures, they just layer dried grass on roughly hewn timbers for the roof. As anyone who’s live in rural England knows, real thatching is a highly skilled, difficult and expensive affair. The two schools near Zimba already had holes in the roof after just a couple of years: when it rains, children have to huddle together near the blackboard to stay dry.
Apparently, no-one here knows how to create and layer thatch properly. It’s a skill which has been lost, and never reintroduced. If just one person in the community at Simakakata could be trained, the school could have a good roof which would last for many years for free. They could train others, and sell the skill on. There are obstacles: getting a trained thatcher here, finding a place to train, finding people to train, but surely it’s worth the effort?
I’m going to suggest it to George, the headmaster, as one of the evening classes he holds once the new schoolhouse is built.
Back with the program today – and everyone in Zambia has a ‘program’ which they stick to as tightly as African time allows.
I haven’t blogged much about leaving Simakakata school behind because, well, there’s no way I won’t be coming back to visit. The staff, George, Sonia, Beatrice, Loveness and Edwin, are quite possibly the most driven people I’ve ever met. The kids – Sonet, Vincent, Saviour, Vaalencia, Alex, Brighton, and of course, little Irene – couldn’t ask for better teachers. Now we just have to build them a school.
Today, though, we went what you might call off grid. At least 10km, probably more, into the bush to see two more schools. We picked up a Response Network volunteer along the way. Which meant the four of us were squashed onto the backseat of the 4×4. Cosy, to say the least. Painful and exhausting too.
The first school was much more basic than Simakakata. Makumba Community School isn’t too far off the road outside Zimba, but it’s a simple three room mud hut with no desks and chairs, no electricity and a badly thatched roof. It’s been here since 2004, but in order to attract government assistance would need completely rebuilding to something approaching acceptable standards.
Right now, the school is concentrating on putting up decent accommodation for teachers to stay. They have no salaried staff: the headmaster, Mark Sibalwa, is a retired teacher, he lives nearby and works for free. The other two volunteer teachers come from the community and have no training. At least there’s a borehole right next door so the kids have water.
Mark’s influenc is evident from the moment we turn up.
Even by the time we left Simakakata many of the children were still shy around us, running away and laughing every time we offered to shake their hand with a friend ‘mwa bukabuti’. At Makumba, though, three years of having someone with training around meant our greeting was much more confident and the standard of English incredible (English is the lingua franca in Zambia, encouraged by the first president to break down barriers and promote in a country with 78 official languages. All children have to learn it as well as their native tongue from grade one).
Mark joined us on our mega-off-road drive to Siakayuwa. This is the school LearnAsOne will be helping if enough funds are raised for Simakakata. It’s much, much more remote than anything else we’ve seen. Here, the arrival of mazungas is still greeted with dancing and feasting and a cute sign chalked onto one of the latrines marking it for ‘Visiters’.
Just as I was starting to feel uncomfortably like the colonial imposter, the head of the PTA turned round and offered me his email address. He commutes regularly to Livingstone by walking to the bus in Zimba, to see his university educated sons. While he’s there, he pops into the internet cafe. The lesson is you should never underestimate anyone you meet.
The school here is a poorly built structure with gaping holes in the thatched roof, no books and two volunteer teachers who only graduated to grade 10 themselves (GCSE equivalent is grade 12). They went for a day’s orientation at the nearest ‘proper’ school before taking up their posts.
We didn’t spend long enough here to talk to all the kids in these two schools and get to know them in the same way as Simakakata. I hope to be back here soon.
While we feasted on his excellent chicken, MacRon told me a couple of interesting stories. He’s very much of the opinion that people round here don’t want to save themselves: initially, I thought he was just another racist white farmer, but he told me a couple of stories which made me think otherwise.
Firstly, he said, despite business being down he was refusing to lay people off. A pretty good start. Then he told me his neighbour had been coming to his borehole every morning with an ox cart and two barrels for water – his own pump wasn’t working. Ron replaced all the piping in the pump and told the community they could pay him back the 500,000 kwacha (about £60) over as many months as they wanted. He hasn’t heard from them since – not even, he says, a thank you.
Then he was approached by the PTA of another school who wanted help to build a building. He gave them some bricks he had in his yard, and asked that they replace them over time (the community of Simakakata has already made 60,000 bricks by hand in preparation for construction). Again, he says, he hasn’t heard from them since.
Now obviously there’s more to the story than that, and I don’t have time to track down Ron’s bricks to find out the communities side. given the level of poverty and hunger round here, I’m not surprised they couldn’t replace them – but it helped me understand why Response Network can be so brutal in their insistence on self-help. Send the children of Simakakata money to buy expensive building materials they will never have otherwise, and a borehole that is essential, but let them learn how to buy their own shoes and textbooks is the message. It’s a kind of tough love – that the people rounnd here are so broken by years of starvation and hardship, they need to prove to themselves that they have the talent to pull themselves forward on their own.
Having seen the energy, pride and passion of the people of Simakakata for the school, it seems to be working. It’s not quite as vigourous as Livingstone – where I met an out-of-work actor who was arrested for two days for drawing cartoons of the president – but they were all fiercely independent. There are 300 or so communities here though, and it’s going to take a long time for Response Network to visit them all.
By the way, it may seem there’s a lot of words on MacRon and not as many on the school on my blog now, but it’s only because a lot of the school stories have to be saved for LearnAsOne, and I want to make sure that wheen I write in detail about them here, they’re more considered posts.
And just when the clouds are darkest and all that, things take a turn for the surreal.
The filling station in Kalomo is the only place to get gas between Lusaka and Livingstone (480km, I believe). It’s also the nearest thing Kalomo has to a general store. The family that runs it is originally from India, every other time we’ve been in a very nice old lady has served us. But today we met Scotch, her son.
Scotch was born and bred in Kalomo but left to live with family in the UK when he was 16. He stayed for another 16 years, qualifying as an accountant and working for the likes of Ing.
Last year, his brother died, and he moved back to Kalomo to take over the other half of the family business, running a transport firm. You could say this is a man with little luck: in the UK, he says, he was four months without a job last year because so many accountants have been laid off. In Zambia the transport industry has been hit very hard by the recession. Scotch has had to leave two children behiind in the UK, who, he says, he hopes he can bring here next year, when he’s earning enough to live in Lusaka.
He’s incredibly friendly. After he knocked off, he tracked us down at our hotel to offer to take us for a drink. It’s our photographer, Brenda’s, wedding anniversary today and she’s away from home, and we’d made plans to take her out to celebrate in absentia. So we made our excuses, thanked Scotch, and headed out.
Turns out the only place that serves food which isn’t nshima, the corn-pap staple you eat with you hands was closed. (on a sidenote, you can order a filling meal of fresh nshima with vegetables and meat in Kalomo which is served without cutlery. Order a plate of finger friendly chips and they come wrappped in plastic with a disposable fork. There’s a litter/recycling problem here you wouldn’t believe.)
Not fancying a second serving of nshima today, we called Scotch. He’d gone to MacRon’s, a truck-stop about 10km out of town, to see a friend.
He drove back to Kalomo, picked us up, took us back there in his pick-up, paid for our meal and drinks and drove us back again. His enormous generosity and refusal to take our money, so perfectly counterpointed by an incredibly clear African night sky on the drive home, makes me want to move here with Tamsin and Tabitha tomorrow.
It’s an odd and almost too soon contrast to the conditions we’ve just left at the school today.
MacRons, by the way, is a perfect dusty diner, with articulated lorries parked outside. Ron is a middle-aged, sun burnt White Zambian who’s lived here pretty much all his life. He’s a tough, Cllint Eastwood-style mix of hardness and heart that I think is typical of his generation out here. His farm has been hit hard by the droughts and his diner business is down 60% on last year due to lack of traffic. He slaps his hands and says “what can you do?” He looks like he probably slaughters the steak on the menu with his bear hands, but turns out to be a practical, resourceful man, not unsympathetic to the plight of the people around him – although he’s wary of simply giving cash to people who are already deeply entrenched in a culture of dependency.
He thinks the school is a good idea , so long as the right people are running it. I think he’d be amazed and impressed at the independent spirit of George, Sonia and the other teachers we’ve met, not to mention the near brutal insistence on self sufficiency of our NGO partner Response Network and their determination to change the way things are here.
He serves some of the best chicken I’ve ever tasted. If you’re in the area, it’s very highly recommended.
Back at Simakakata today, and the funny thing is that my brain is can no longer comprehend the incredible poverty here. Despite everything, the lack of food, of water, of teaching materials, of clothes for the kids, of shoes… it all seems so normal. Just another primary school. Now with added day nursery.
Even though my eyes are getting used to the darkness, the glass-less windows, the peeling paint and the broken furniture, the posters around the classroom walls still shock. The kinds of information printed up alongside everyday teaching sheets makes sex education in the UK look like we’re still in the nineteenth century. We should be glad we are.
Tomorrow is our last day at Simakakata, and I will cry when we leave. On Wednesday we’re going to document a school that’s even poorer. Tomorrow Sonia’s story is going to be posted at LearnAsOne. Anyone who’s ever felt vaguely dissatisfied with their lot should read it.
Forget everything I said about Livingstone being civilisation… the 3G is too slow here to use for updates, and the power’s been off all day, so we haven’t been able to use the connection at the backpacking hostel we’re staying at to do any work either. There are photos to go with this post, but I’m not sure when I’ll have time to upload them.
Since the hostel’s borehole is electric there’s been no water there either.
Still, gave us a good excuse to get very wet at Victoria Falls in lieu of a shower, where we did a couple of pieces to camera for Nerys. There’s a bridge which runs in front of the Falls over to an island in the middle of the river – it’s like walking through a cloud to a tiny tropical jungle. The spray from the Falls is a wall of water which rises way above the top of the cascade, and can be seen from Livingstone itself. There are rainbows everywhere, and every now and again there’s a gap in the mist through which you can see the top of the waterfall. The noise… there’s a reason the local name translates as ‘Sound of Thunder’..
This afternoon I’ve been transcribing some of the more in depth interviews we’ve done at Simakakata. There are two stories ready to go onto the LearnAsOne blog which I’m really proud of. Don’t want to post too much here as they’ll be going up unexpurgated on the main site, but Shabby is the leader of the nearby blind community, and without a school nearby for his kids he’d be begging on the street. Sonia is a teacher at the school and simply one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met. Since she lost both parents she’s put herself and all of her five brothers and sisters through school, and somehow managed to sponsor three of them through college as well.
She’s passionate about the reasons education is the single most important thing people in the rural areas need. Once that’s there, everything else falls into place.