Volunteering in Zambia: 'This is the Growing'
“I am the traveler of the desert who, in the beginning, says: I’ve only travelled to look for my own footprints. Yes, I am the one who travels only to cover himself with saudades [approximate meaning: yearning]. Here is the desert and I dream myself in it; here is the oasis, and I don’t know how to live in it.”
-Mia Couto, Mozambican author, whose works have been published in more than 22 countries.
Back to life
The first question that I have been frequently asked is "Why go so far away to do volunteer work?" It is a good question. Better than the others like "Why are you going to pay almost 1400 euros to go to the middle of Africa or why are you spending your holidays in the middle of the poorest Africa?
I went to Zambia for two months because the opportunity came up and because doing volunteer work locally, would never, but never be the same as doing it in the real world of poverty, in the core of famine and need. I have volunteered locally, and even though I gained myself every day I did it, I never found what I found in Zambia, nor did I find myself the way I found myself while I was there.
I recall an old article from Candida Pinto, a Portuguese journalist, about the Strait of Gibraltar and the exodus of thousands of African emigrants who come looking for the European dream. They end up dying in the boats of no one, with no policies to defend them and earning nothing but death.
I do not see many Zambians in these reports. On the contrary, despite being a poor country fighting against famine and AIDS, Zambia welcomes a lot of refugees and emigrants from neighboring countries. That is the land God gave them, the land that lets them die and kills them out of work, but in which, out of inertness, lack of ambition, or simply because they at least suffer in their own country, they decide to stay, just as I decided to leave.
When you leave to another continent like this, you feel the weight of the passage out and because of that, everything that is experienced becomes much more real and strongly incorporated and embedded. At the end of the day there is no chance of going back home, to your family comfort and warmth nor to go for a relaxing glass of red wine. No.
When you leave like this, you go without a net, you must go with the notion that it is not going to be easy and that all the comforts must be refound within ourselves and for what we are living outside ourselves.
When you leave like this, you leave to go back to to see and resee everything you saw and felt, whether is good or bad, because there is no concert or play or a night out to alleviate us at the end of the day, to throw us out of the sad realities in which we often live, in the middle of Africa or at home. Away there are no palliatives. To leave like this is leaving with the certainty that it is going to be worth it. And it is.
What you gain out of this kind of experience is much more than what you give. And if my students used a trite expression like this one I would reprimand them saying that I hate clichés. But I do not intend to poetize the idea. It is simply like this: You earn more than you give, full stop.
I took more than 30kg of materials gathered within family and friends. I took balloons, kites, rubbers, markers and crayons, pens and pencils; I took stickers, plasticine, medicines, frisbees, water colors, balls and basketball baskets. But it was nothing. I brought plenty of more. And when I left I expected this to happen: to leave there as much as I could, but to bring myself more I.
When I travel I always say it is good wanting to come back, more than wanting to leave. Because when you want to leave you look for a balloon of oxygen to hold on a little more to the life we have chosen, coping with a dormancy and torpor which are not fulfilling nor satisfying any longer, nor could they be.
For having been confronted with this personal reality, before going to Zambia I already had in my luggage a fresh leave of absence for up to two years. There were not, therefore, any kind of anxieties, obligations nor straps that prevent us from feeling things as a whole. There was absolutely no reason whatsoever for the experience not being fully felt with clean eyes and a lightness in the heart that only someone who does not carry weights can have.
I soon forgot the doctor’s frightening recommendations, one of which was not to touch the children, or at least to verify if they were not ill. Any sign of infection could be fatal to me, if not for the lack of resistance to strange viruses, for the 400km that separated me form the nearest hospital.
You do not think when you have a child in front of you, begging to go into your arms or rubbing herself on you like a cat asking for care. It is impossible not to hold hands with all the ones who offer theirs, gazing with those big, dark, eyelashed eyes who speak the universal language of who is aking for warmth.
Who thinks about catching a disease from the baby with conjuntivitis who fell right onto your feet and who with the face on the dirt starts crying for not being able to stand up on his own?
When I recall these situations, it always pops to my mind the film based on the novel Papillon, starring Steve McQueen. To thank a leper who has given him a boat to help him flee, he shakes his hand. The leper, in a provocative way, asks him how he knew it was dry leprosy, the type that is not contagious.
"I didn’t," he answers.
There are times when nothing seems to stop us from doing things. There is need to help, you help, there is need to thank, you thank, there is need to risk, you risk, because it is better to risk the needed gesture at the time than smearing forever the memory of a moment with limited and petty fears disguised as protection. And it is curious. In all the times I have done this in my life, nothing has happened to me.
During all this time in Zambia, I only refused one gentle offer. A mother carrying a baby on her back who said hello to me every morning as I passed by called me to go round the hut. I went. When I arrived she asked me to come closer to what was the remains of a huge tin can, on the fire and with some boiling liquid inside. She sank a rusty mug in it and offered it to me.
I politely refused it, claiming I had just drunk milk and that the mixture with alcohol would not be accepted by my stomach at eight o’clock in the morning. She smiled. No harm done, maybe tomorrow and I was quite sure that tomorrow I would give the same exact answer. And I would give the same answer if the same had happened in Lisbon or in my clean and fancy neighborhood.
The basis of the project was to work on a community school in Tiwongue, Chibuluma, a former mining city. After being exhaustively exploited by foreign investors and when there was nothing else to offer, it was abandoned.
A lot of “our” students’ parents left Chibuluma to look for a job leaving their kids behind with the grandparents, other relatives or simply with someone.
Therefore there is a lot of self-management in the children’s behavior. To be able to attend school or leave home they have to carry their baby brothers and sisters on their back since the age of four; it’s babies carrying babies, but the responsibility and the care provided to their siblings is astonishing.
During a some kind of scavenger hunt organized by the volunteers I told a girl who was only watching that I could hold her brother for a minute or two if she wanted to participate. She hesitated, looked at me as if looking for some proof that I would not run away with the baby.
Eventually she gave him to me, ran for an already chosen game on her mind, made one run inside a sack and came running back. Even so, by the end of the morning she accompanied me home, always holding my hand without saying a single word but thanking me deeply within all of her silence.
The school was what I expected it to be: with nothing of a school. Three divisions pretending to be classrooms in a building of trembling piled bricks, no painting, no windowpanes, no effective doors, no floor. The desks were deteriorated, close to rotten, but still it was possible to fit in more than 20 students in no more than 14 square meters.
Crushed in a desk for two there were four, barefeet, focused, thirsty, not allowing anything to distract them, always asking, questioning, wanting to know, fascinated with the concept of aa pet or any other simplicity.
In Zambia the studies are paid, therefore attending school is a privilege that not all of them can afford. For this reason the government creates these community schools with no fees, where the goal is to provide these kids the foundations of a basic education.
The teachers are local volunteers, who also see in this job as a bridge to get into the official schools, but whose merit can by no means be denied. They accept and thank the precious help that the Marist missionaries give them and they try hard to keep these children at school. They demand punctuality, attendance, and hygiene, and they often write letters to the education officials stressing the children’s and the school’s needs and asking for more support.
I read one of these letters after I had been there for some time. Characteristics like famine, 15-year-old or less adolescents who are already mothers and fathers, orphans because of HIV, drug and alcohol abuse and even children who inherit HIV from their parents, were the ones that built the grim picture of our students life and families.
It is not that I did not know about this before, but after a while the information and details gain faces and names. It could be Eugene, or Patwell, or Universe and Tembo, it could be the one who leans on me without even noticing it, or the one who awaits me on the way to school and jumps into my arms, or the one who makes braids on my hair while singing in a perfect pronunciation a children Portuguese song that I had taught.
It was painful to personify the one who could have already been born with HIV, or the one who had a mother wandering along the streets of Kitwe and a father that drank till he dropped but not before giving him a good night beating.
I worked hard and not even for one second did I question myself about what I was doing there. I knew it when my name was called from the middle of the bush by mothers and children who did not even go to our school. I felt it in any hug or in any run in my direction that finished in a dive into my open arms. They always wanted to touch our skin, our hair and they laugh, they laugh with their mouth, with their eyes and even with their skin.
It looked like nothing tore down or blurred down those smiles. Along the way to the school and on every road they children appeared form everywhere. It looked like they came out from the bushes, from holes in the ground; they wre dressed, naked, torn, snotty, dirty, clean, all sizes and ages.
A lot of them were already running from other villages to accompany us to school, not even their schools. They stayed there and participated in all the games and activities we took every morning. Sitting on the ground, they waited for the break time to be able to be granted the opportunity to play again.
Some of them were skipping their school and along with our students and some were just hanging around with no school to go. We had almost 200 hundred kids waiting for us. It was overwhelming.
This recognition and joy made me understand why I was there and I why I did not give in to the exhausting miles walked along dusty roads, why I easily overcame not being able to take a shower when I most needed to, or having to wash my most sensitive parts with a bottle of water; or simply to forget my ocean back home, the proximity of water, the smiles of family and friends, our talks, our arguments and discussions, the dinners, the parties, the calls, the eating well, when I wanted, what I wanted, the sweets, that were nonexistent that I craved so much at the beginning, a beer or a glass of wine, which are luxuries not affordable in places like this: the lack of everything we miss even when we have everything, or almost everything.
At the beginning it was almost painful, after a while, not really; everything is a question of habit. It was very good to see and feel that what we lack so many times is only cuddles of eternally unsatisfied personalities. And it was even better to see that we are able to live perfectly without what we think it is so indispensable to us.
I did not rest. I did not read more than twenty pages of the book I took; I managed to write a journal and I went three times to the Internet, slow of nearly dead, where I wrote to the family and friends describing the success of the materials they had given.
Relaxing, I did only on Saturdays, lost in the middle of the city of Kitwe where I wanted to observe, smell and feel the throbbing hearts of that people, in the markets, in the stores, in their looks, manners and conversations.
To see a mzungu [foreigner] there was quite rare and for that reason it was easy to make people speak, inquire and answer. In the markets I talked to the sellers and I bargained. They tried to sell for the highest price and many times the money is rapidly converted into alcohol. A lot of the peoplewho sell in these markets are alcoholics, therefore is not easy to convince them that you are not going to give them the exorbitance they are asking for.
Alcoholism is a problem in Zambia. For despairing, for illness, for starving or for any other miserable reason, people drink heavily and many times in he city we had to pay attention not to stumle on men and sometimes children on the sidewalks, laying flat as if they were dead.
Either for alcohol abuse or gasoline inhalation they sleep their pains away and lie there in an abandonment that no person should be subjected to, much less a child.
These scenarios were far worse than the ones we think we can bear, and they made me think how healthy was the poverty, the snot, the torn clothes, the barefoot and the ill children we saw on the villages.
A lot of these children from the town had run away from home or they did not have families. One in five Zambians has AIDS and people die every day from uncontrolled epidemics and the consequence is too many children wandering lost in the towns, with no strengh nor spark in the eyes like the ones from the villages.
At 7.20 a.m. every Sunday I was already by the gate to get a ride to the church. At home I do not go. There I did not miss a Sunday. And gladly. No one forced us to go, but besides my usual curiosity which would drive me there anyway, it was a good way for the community to rely on us and know about our work there.
The first time was a brilliant experience. The eucharist was celebrated in Englsih, the official language, even though everyone communicates in Bemba, the dialect widely spoken in Zambia. Everyone, specially children, were staring at us, no malice whatsoever, just curiosity.
In the middle of the celebration, the father asked the visitors to stand up. We did it, shyly. The father thanked us for our work and presence in Chibuluma in the name of the whole community, he stated their satisfaction with our being there and suddenly all the congregation, led by the priest, clapped their hands three dry times. This short moment made me feel like I was being held by the whole church, by the God inside and all the gods outside.
The whole mass was a celebration in the real sense of the word. When they sang, the voices of the choir and everyone else filled the church, and by watching them singing, clapping and dancing with their eyes closed, I wondered about the reason our masses have been transformed in something so solemn, sad and conventional, colorless, without the real music that we feel in our souls when we sing it with conviction, intensity and meaning.
The first time I went to St. Michaels’s church I knew I was keeping on going, just as I was sure that in Portugal I was keeping on not going. The father talked about the importance of safe sex to control the transmission of the HIV and I found it amazing. He did not mention the word condom, the church is against it, but there it was, the whole information, enlightened and bold, with a appeal to the control of ignorance.
For me, the eucharist moments were translated into moments of purging. It was right then and there, during those two hours of ceremony that I most thought about the mistakes I make in my life, about the words I say and most specially the words I don’t say.
I thought about the direction my life was going, the decisions I had made and my life from then on. I understood, during those moments, how close I felt to the person I insisted so much on keeping away from me, and I clearly understood words and gestures. There, very far away from home, a lot of things became so easy to understand.
And there it is, by the end of the day, while I was picking strawberries from the missionaries’ small vegetable plot, I had everything throbbing, the good and the bad. It might have been Derek, who had never come back since he had gone to a doctor somewhere to show his huge and pustulent tumor he had on his neck, or Christopher who didn’t come to class because his mother couldn’t get him anyhting to eat for two days now; but it could also be the smooth song in Bemba that the teachers from the poorest schools sang and danced to thank us for the computer lessons we gave them, leaving me with tears in my eyes and goosebumps on my skin.
I wanted to penetrate and linger inside my head in an invasive way. I increased the volume of the music in my ears and still everything was throbbing in the back of my head. I wanted to rest for a while, not to think about anything, just listen and sing Maria Callas’s power or the Damon Albarn’s sweetness, but no.
It was like an insistent disruption that makes us want to disconnect, that makes us crave a glass of wine, or two, or three, but there wasn’t any. It was like that annoying feeling that makes us want to turn off, but there were no escapes that could allow it.
Sitting on the wet dirt, I kept on picking strawberries, listening to music and letting everything be absorbed in a slow and inexorable way; there was no point in fighting it.
This is the learning which is constantly mentioned in the trainings before you come here, I thought, this is the growing: feelings being felt in an irremediable raw way, with no euphemisms nor painkillers, letting all of our existence become involved in what is happening to us and allow it to mould itself, change and become better. So this is growing. And growing hurts, hurts like hell.
Read more GoNOMAD stories about volunteering
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