August 11, 2011

Joshua is not the real name of the boy this blog entry is about. You’re very unlikely to meet him but somehow it seems right to ‘protect his identity’ as they say. Joshua is 16, looks 11, and is deaf.

I first met Joshua early in 2010. He’s one of five children currently being sponsored by a small European foundation to receive his secondary education at the deaf unit of Munali School, a large school on Lusaka’s Great East Road. (I became involved as the volunteer liaison between the foundation and the school and children when a friend of mine, who had previously done it, left Lusaka last year. I administer the funds – for school fees, pocket money, etc. – and generally keep an eye on the school and the scheme. This is entirely separate and unconnected with my VSO placement). Like the four others, Joshua lives in Kabanana, a shanty residential area on the northern side of Lusaka, and like them, he had previously attended one of very few community primary schools with a deaf unit, based in the same area. Such shanty areas, or ‘compounds’ as they are known in Zambia, are not quite as I expected based on the shanties of cardboard shacks I’d seen in South Africa in 2004. Many properties look solidly built, of concrete blocks, with tin roofs, and some have running water and are a surrounded with a security wall. But the majority are small, maybe just two rooms, and what water or sanitary facilities they have are shared with other families.

Back to Joshua. I like him. A lot. He’s bright, and cheeky. His last term report shows that he’s making good progress in all subjects except maths and science, but in that he’s no exception – the school struggles to find science and maths teachers who can also use sign language and therefore teach deaf children effectively.

At the beginning of each new term I send a text to my contact at Munali Deaf Unit to check the children have turned up. When I know they have, I go and pay their fees, say hello to them (they usually teach me some new words in sign) and give them their first month’s pocket money. The children board at the school and this allows them to buy things like soap and sugar. I didn’t worry too much when I heard at the beginning of the current term that all the children had turned up except Joshua, who was sick; I just assumed he would come in a week or so. But three weeks later he was still absent. So I called the specialist teacher who had taught Joshua at primary school. He had visited the family and told me he was shocked at how bad Joshua looked. He said he’d taken a picture of Joshua and would email it to me. He did. It was bad.

Now such circumstances always prompt a major internal debate. Extreme poverty in Zambia is very high and kills people every day. You can’t help everyone. But at the same time, do you want to be the one who does nothing when there’s a real chance of making a difference? My decision was fuelled by the fact that I’d been told the other four children at Munali were really worried about Joshua and my contact at Munali had asked me to take him to visit the family.

So myself and the boarding mistress from Munali, who is not deaf but can sign, along with my contact at the Unit and one of Joshua’s school friends, set off to see Joshua and his family. I was somewhat apprehensive. And the family was indeed one of the poorest I have visited. Four children and two adults living in two sparsely furnished rooms no more than 2m square each, with no bathroom. Joshua was resting on the tiny threadbare couch with sunken cheeks and moist eyes. He looked terrified. His mother, whose youngest baby was screaming, frightened at the sight of my whiteness, explained that he’d had diarrhoea and had vomited blood. She’d taken him to the clinic, received a prescription which Joshua had taken in full, but there had been little improvement. The clinic said Joshua now needed an x-ray but the family couldn’t afford it.

Joshua’s mum was speaking all this in Nyanja, one of the local languages, and Munali’s boarding mistress was translating into English for me. Joshua’s mum said ‘it must be witchcraft’; her two oldest children had been ‘taken’ and now it was Joshua’s turn.

If I had any doubt at that point that I would get involved, that pretty well clinched it. I called Dan, who works at a hospice-cum-clinic, and asked whether the staff there would see Joshua if I brought him. They would. So Joshua’s mum made him change into his school uniform – his only non-threadbare clothes – and off we went to Our Lady’s Hospice. Dan assisted us through the administrative process, which included Joshua – still looking terrified – being weighed and measured, and then we saw the Clinical Officer, with me listening in and Munali’s boarding mistress ‘translating’ for Joshua. The Officer initially prescribed the same drugs Joshua had already taken, so we queried this, and he agreed to conduct some tests (the Hospice fortunately has a lab). It transpired that Joshua had a parasite in his gut so we took him home with slightly different drugs, including painkillers and multivitamins.

On the way, the boarding mistress asked if there was food at home. Joshua looked at his feet and shook his head slightly. Charcoal? He shook his head again. So on the way we stopped at the local market and bought mealie meal (the local staple), beans, eggs, onions, tomatoes and charcoal for it to be cooked over. There was no way Joshua was going to recover without some basic nutrition. We also bought soap, as there was a good chance that Joshua’s illness might have been caused by poor hygiene. The Munali Boarding mistress did the shopping, with me ‘hiding’ down side streets so we weren’t charged ‘mzungu prices’. Joshua’s mum’s gratitude was huge. She listened carefully as she was told how and when to administer the drugs and how important it was that the whole family, especially the children, washed their hands with soap. She told us we would both be blessed in heaven.

A week of worrying and we went back. We had to wait a few minutes before entering the house as Joshua’s mum was bathing herself and her youngest children – which meant splashing in an inch or so of water in a metal bucket in the living-room-cum-kitchen-cum-hallway. Joshua was unrecognisable as the boy we had seen only six days earlier, and the household was clearly still benefiting from the provisions we had brought on our last visit. Joshua was eager to get to school and was disappointed when we took a detour back to the clinic to get him checked out. He’d gained 6kg in 6 days! Back at the school, both children and teachers came out to welcome him back, and he smiled at me shyly as I took my leave.

I saw Joshua earlier this week, probably for the last time before I leave Zambia. He’s made another leap in health, I guess thanks to the regular meals offered in a boarding school environment. He’s gained more weight, though still looks much younger than his 16 years, a sign of childhood malnutrition. He wasn’t so shy in his smiles this time, beaming at me broadly on the many occasions I couldn’t resist smiling at him, so relieved and happy to see him looking so well.

There are many occasions when I wonder if I’m doing much good at all here. Making much real difference. Anyone who’s read this blog before knows that I spend most of my time in an office in front of a PC, drafting policies or processes, fundraising proposals or budgets, much as I would at home. My direct contact with the people whose lives I’m ultimately here to improve is limited to say the least. I have no complaint about this – my skills are in the organisational field, and those are the skills VSO brought me here to share. But every now and again, you get a stark reminder of what the lives you really want to change are like, and this was one of them. Maybe if Dan and I, and the concerned staff at Munali, hadn’t acted over Joshua someone else would have. But maybe they wouldn’t and another child would have stayed ill, or worse, their condition being attributed to witchcraft when a simple course of treatment could make them well within days. So when I don’t really know what good I’ve done here, I’ll think of Joshua and remember that on one day our actions got one sick, hungry child well and back into school. And that’s enough.


The beginning of the end

July 25, 2011

The end of our time here in Zambia is fast approaching. We have just less than six weeks at our placements, one last gasp holiday, and then we’ll be on the plane back to Heathrow.

I’ve been on the downhill slope to Blighty for longer than Helen, as I’ve had two solo trips back to the UK in as many months for job interviews. In the first – for a large international development charity based in the centre of London – someone with ten years more experience than me beat me to it. I was disappointed at the time, but there was also relief; while it would have been in the area (international development) I’m most interested in, there was little in the role I hadn’t done before. Then, a month later, a far more inspiring job for another charity, one I’d never really considered, came out of left field, and before I knew it I’d had a phone interview and they were paying for me to fly back to the UK for a face-to-face one. Hours and hours of preparation came good in the second interview and they offered me the job.

The more I see of the RSPB – the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – the more I like them. I’ll be their first Procurement Manager, tasked with improving procurement practice and saving them money. The money saved goes ultimately towards their aim of preserving threatened natural environments, a cause I’m happy to support. As for birds, well, with the possible exception of pigeons they seem like a good thing, and if nasty corporates, or poachers, or whoever want to wipe them out then I’m all for protecting them (with or without the Queen’s help). So, indirectly, my job involves protecting our feathered friends; to borrow someone else’s joke, I’ll have to sign up to Twitter so I can tweet about it…

So we go back to the UK with one job between us, which will make life easier financially, as well as focussing attention on possible places we could at some point buy a house. The job is based not too far from where we used to live, near a number of our friends. Longstanding friends are one thing we’ve definitely missed here, so it will be great to have some on our doorstep.

There are lots of other positive things about life in the UK that I for one am looking forward to. Heating, for example; it is seriously cold in Zambia just now, at least overnight, and I’m sitting typing this with scarf, body-warmer and thermals on! To be able to flick a switch and warm up a room or whole house is something greatly to be desired! TV too; there’s been so much happening in the news while we’ve been away and we’ve largely missed it all, except for reports on the World Service and within Guardian Weekly. But most of all, for me anyway, I’m looking forward to a decent day’s work. Helen has been stretched and satisfied with her work for some time now, but I’ve been operating at a say 20% of what I could be doing pretty much since I arrived in Zambia. This has still resulted in some positive things being done, and my employers seem happy, but most of the time I am a long way from being stretched. Six months back in the rat race and I may be wistfully dreaming about the days where I could more or less come and go as I like and still do everything that needed to be done, but right now a demanding job and a collective Protestant Work Ethic is a very attractive prospect!

At the same time, of course, there are plenty of things it will be very hard to leave here. We have some good friends, and I’ll particularly miss the guys from Nomakanjani. There’s a friendliness and ease between Zambians that highlights how abnormal typical English reserve really is. (On my last trip back to the UK I spent some time on the Tube, where no one, except the foreigners, even looks at each other, let alone speak, and people bend over backwards to have minimal physical contact). There’s the extraordinary wildlife and the stark beauty of the African bush a few hours’ drive away. Last Sunday, for example, Helen and I were in a hide in Kafue National Park, overlooking a plain of scrub and trees that probably hadn’t changed for thousands of years, watching as three elephants majestically walked by. And lastly, hard to define, but there’s a freedom, an unpredictability, an openness to life here, or least life as a volunteer, that is largely missing in the 9-to-5, regulated and comfortable life in the UK.
But it is that life, comfortable and regulated though it is, to which we must shortly return. Not quite yet – a couple of months to go – but we’re now at the beginning of the end.

No Shit!

July 4, 2011

Several months after arriving in Zambia, I read Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux, in which he describes his journey across Southern Africa using various forms of transport, including the TAZARA train between Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia and Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania, a journey Dan and I did in Christmas 2009. Within the pages of this book Theroux is scathing about the various development agencies, represented by convoys of white 4x4s whose occupants never offer lifts to anyone.

On Wednesday 29th June I found myself, for the first and probably only time, riding within one of these convoys. There were three white 4x4s, one UNICEF, one JICA, the Japanese development agency, and one GIZ, the German development agency. We were all the guest of UNICEF’s water and sanitation section who had invited interested parties to visit an area in the southern province of Zambia where they were implementing a Community-Led Total Sanitation programme. I had been invited because of my involvement with the water Forum and myself and my colleagues Tuseko and Miriam were very excited at the prospect of a day out of the office.

‘Community-Led Total Sanitation’, or CLTS as it is known, was established in Asia as a technique for inspiring communities to decide for themselves that they want improved toilet facilities, rather than having them foist upon them, and to choose the type of toilets they want and oversee the building process. UNICEF has been championing this process in Zambia with some success, particularly in the Macha Chiefdom of Southern Province, where the charismatic and well-spoken chief is very proud that his chiefdom is now officially ODF (open defecation free – oh how I’ll miss these ubiquitous acronyms!)

The purpose of our visit was to witness a CLTS ‘triggering’ in the chiefdom adjoining that of the famous Chief Macha – this being the first meeting of the CLTS process in which the CLTS facilitators seek to inspire residents to want to have toilets rather than shitting in the open, to put it bluntly!

The day did not start too auspiciously. We had to leave Lusaka at some god-awful hour as the destination was a good 5+ hours drive away. Then there was some confusion as to the precise location – the car we were following turned round at least four times. But eventually, seven hours after leaving, we arrived at the village which was to be the location for the ‘triggering’; we, at this point, being myself and my two colleagues, JICA and GIZ representatives, at least four CLTS facilitators, plus some government, UNICEF and NGO guests visiting from Zimbabwe, and Chief Macha and his entourage; about 30 people altogether.

But the village was deserted. A few grubby children peeked round the corner of buildings at us, but aside from that there was nobody – presumably the villagers were out tending their crops. We began to think that we would see nothing, but slowly and surely, after an hour of us standing around in the blazing sunshine, a collection of about 30 villagers had assembled. Hurrah – we were finally going to see something.

The ‘triggering’ was in Tonga, the local language, but fortunately Miriam and Tuseko understood sufficiently to translate for me. Anything about bodily functions is a huge taboo here so the facilitators started off by warming the villagers up using humour. Questions like ‘Who had a shit this morning?’ Villagers giggled embarrassedly but a few put up their hands. This went on for a while, then the facilitators moved into the next phase. This involved getting the villagers to draw a rough map in the sand showing the places near the village which they used as toilets. The villagers drew paths in the sand and were given stones to mark the various locations. They seemed a lot less embarrassed at this point, absorbed in their task. But then they were asked to stand at the location on the map that represented where they last went. Embarrassed laughter again, but they did it.

Then came the ‘walk of shame’. The villagers were asked to show the facilitators the actual location where they last went to the toilet, and to bring at least one piece of evidence back. ‘We don’t want a dried out one’, said the facilitators, ‘we need a nice fresh one!’ Embarrassed laughter again, but the villagers duly dispersed, with the facilitators following them. None of the adults seemed able to find one, saying ‘they must be covered up’, but the children were far less bashful and soon cheers were heard as the object of the quest was located, duly brought back by one of the young boys and placed on the ground in front of the seated villagers.

The facilitators weren’t too happy with the quality of the offering – too hard! – so they poked it about a bit to expose its softer inside – flies landing on it was crucial to the next part of the ‘triggering’. This involved the facilitator plucking a hair from the heads of one of the village women and using it as a prop for an explanation to show that flies have hairy legs. He dragged the hair over the shit and then put it in a bottle of drinking water. Would the villagers drink the water? Of course not! Then he washed his hands and offered a villager sitting far away from the shit one of his sandwiches. She washed her hands, took it and ate it happily. Then he went and sat near to the shit with his sandwiches and asked one of the other villages to come and take one – she wouldn’t. Why? Because one of the flies might have landed on the shit and then on the food.

So the message was clear. By shitting in the open you are increasing the likelihood of disease as flies go from your shit to your food and water and cause disease. The next very funny section involved helping the communities calculate how much shit the villagers produced in a year, and they were visibly shocked when they worked it out. They then worked out how much money they spent in medical bills when they needed care for poor-hygiene related illnesses.

Unfortunately we had to leave at that point. The bit we missed involved the facilitators finding out if the village wanted to have latrines, and, if so, help them put together an action plan to get them. I’ll probably never know what they decided.

But I was very impressed with the process. CLTS in Zambia does have some naysayers. Some say that it was devised in countries that are much more densely populated, and the Zambian bush is so extensive and the villages so well spread out that the risks of disease as a result of open defecation are much lower than elsewhere. Others just want to get on with building toilets, eager to attain the sanitation component of Millennium Development Goal 7 – no mean feat! To achieve this Zambia would have to increase the percentage of the population with access to adequate sanitation to 60%; the last reliable data is 2006 was just 43%, and we know it hasn’t increased much. And there have already been plenty of toilets built which the communities don’t use. One of my water and sanitation colleagues recently went to see a toilet that their organisation had installed last year; when they got there no one knew where the key was, and there was a little boy crapping on the ground right outside the toilet.

So community participation is essential. Certainly we couldn’t fail to be impressed by the humour of the CLTS approach and the breaking of such a major taboo. I have got pretty cynical about development during my time here, but I don’t struggle with donor money being used to give people access to basic water and sanitation. And if this means the odd convoy of white 4x4s, well, I can cope with that.


Nomakanjani to Zanzibar

March 8, 2011

On Tuesday morning, 8th February, myself and 20 members of Nomakanjani boarded a bus in Mtendere compound, Lusaka, and began the long journey to Zanzibar, and the start of a big adventure! For many of the group, especially those still in their teens and early twenties, this would be a trip of many firsts – first time out of Zambia, first time on a train, first time on a boat and to see the sea, first time owning a passport and, for everyone, the first time to perform at a large international festival. So the excitement, and corresponding volume, was high, and would seldom diminish for the next nine days…

I was going along as organiser – I had arranged all the transport, hotels, and logistics with the festival – but also as video and stills cameraman. More than this though, I was there as a combination of friend, advisor, and, it seemed, generic authority figure! It reminded me at times of school trips when I was a kid, except this time I was the teacher, in charge of twenty unruly Zambian artists! I have to confess I did resort to counting heads from time to time.

The bus took us to Kapiri Mposhi train station – last seen when Helen and I did this trip over Xmas 2009 – and here we did a mini show in the station, to the slight bewilderment of our fellow passengers. (In a rare successful bit of ‘resource mobilisation’, I persuaded Tazara, the train company running the Zambia–Tanzania line, to give us all free return tickets to Dar es Salaam, so we put on a few shows to say thank you.) Then we all piled into our four sleeping compartments and, to huge excitement and much shrieking all round, the train was on its way. The guys spent most of the outward journey either looking out the window or watching bad Kung Fu movies in the train bar… We arrived in Dar on Thursday evening, ten hours late and, to save money, decided to sleep in the station rather than in the hotel I had booked. Well, everyone but me and the guys guarding the bags slept; I am far too bony to sleep on a hard concrete floor and spent an uncomfortable night dozing fitfully. But we were all up early to catch the minibus to the ferry and across the sea to Zanzibar.

I have some great video footage of the beginning of both the train and the boat journeys. In the former everyone’s shouting and laughing; in the latter they’re sitting in their seats, silent, nervous! I can’t remember my first time in a boat but no doubt I felt the same. Within 10 minutes or so though the fear had worn off and everyone was up and around, taking photos of each other with their ever-present mobile phones. Either side of the ferry trip I was in parent-teacher-organiser mode, buying tickets and processing passports and yellow fever certificates through immigration, and then we were through, bags, costumes and drums collected from the boat, and met by the festival team and taken to our hotel a 2 minute walk away. The festival had paid for 8 double rooms for us, and I’d booked accommodation for the others in a nearby hotel but, again to save money, we decided that the 8 rooms were plenty big enough and all 21 of us stayed here. (I’ll know next time – not everyone expects a bed all to themselves, or indeed a bed at all.) The rest of the day was spent organising (me) and resting (everyone else!) and attending the festival in the evening.

The highlights of the next day were the sound check in the afternoon, and then the show in the evening – an extra show I persuaded the festival organisers to give us when a group dropped out at the last minute. It wasn’t the best show I’d ever seen Nomakanjani do, but it was still far better than anything we’d seen at the festival so far, and the audience loved it, especially when some of the audience came up on stage to dance with the group. The Old Fort in Stone Town where the festival was held was a fantastic venue, and was packed with people from all over Africa and beyond.

Sunday was the big day and started with a very photogenic rehearsal on the beach, followed by another sound check and then the main show in the evening. I remember looking at the audience immediately before Nomakanjani charged on stage; the audience were all sitting and politely clapping the musicians. I said to one of the group that the aim should be to get the audience to their feet and up to the stage. Sure enough, by the time the high-energy drumming, dancing and foot-stamping of the first number was over the audience was on their feet, and the press pit, where I had been a solitary cameraman, was full of photographers snapping away! Nomakanjani did a storming set, immediately followed by various interviews on TV and radio, and one guy even talked to me about the possibility of a European tour… We were all buzzing after the show, and proceeded to have our own inebriated party within the festival audience, including various members of the group trying to teach me how to dance African-style! That party was a real highlight of the trip; I’ve never seen some of the group so happy!

Many of the guys didn’t get back until 5am, so the next day was a bit bleary all round – catching the return ferry, negotiating the anarchic driving to get to the hotel in Dar, and finding something to eat in the evening. Then Tuesday, with that month’s pay in Tanzanian shillings in their pockets, everyone headed off to the markets to buy cheap goods to keep, give away or sell back in Lusaka. (Some were far more successful than others, with a number of the I-phones, the most desirable purchase, broken without a warranty before we got back to Zambia.) My one really stressful organiser moment came when we left the hotel for the station, to perform in front of the Tazara staff and passengers, with only half the group in the bus, the rest missing-presumed-still-shopping. Thankfully the congestion of Dar’s roads came to our rescue, as by the time the bus got to the station the missing members had taken taxis and joined us, and we could put on a very ill-prepared but adequate show to our fellow passengers. In pouring rain we got back on the train, and began the long journey back.

Returning is never as exciting as going, and Tazara lulled us into a false sense of optimism about our progress; on Wednesday evening we went to our bunks after a heavy drinking session, just two hours behind schedule, anticipating a return to Lusaka by lunchtime. By next morning the train was ten hours late, and one of the bags of newly acquired goodies had been stolen from one of the carriages (thieves are a real problem on the train) – the lowest point for us all on the trip. To crown it all, the minibus, booked to take us back to Lusaka, was late, and driven very badly, so we finally limped into Lusaka about 1am; me to the waiting arms of Helen, everyone else back to their homes in Mtendere, only to be up again at 6am for a show at 8!

So, the last 24 hours of the trip were rubbish, but overall the trip was a real privilege to be involved with and a high point of my time with VSO so far. Exhausting – not only am I no longer 20 but I seemed to be on call 24 hours a day. But I really enjoyed getting to know my friends better and I’m very pleased to have facilitated it happening – a trip that will stay with the group members for the rest of their lives, whatever happens to their shiny new phones…

You can see some photos of the trip here; videos to follow shortly.


What a difference a year makes

February 9, 2011

I remember Dan and I coming back to Lusaka in January 2010, after a marvellous Christmas trip to Zanzibar, trying to feel positive about the dead-end placements we were in, determined to find some good in them. This was difficult, and not helped by our first day back at work. We turned up on Monday morning at the office where we both worked, to find no one. Dan called our boss to find out what was going on to be told, “we didn’t think you were coming back till tomorrow.” This about summed it up – it was only our presence that was keeping the place going, and that’s certainly not the VSO way! The following weekend, we tried to restore our spirits in time-honoured fashion – shopping! I vividly remember walking to the craft market in the pouring rain (this was before the days when we owned our trusty car, Merl!) to buy wall hangings to brighten up the blank walls of our flat. If our jobs were a waste of time, at least our home would be bright and cheerful! The craft store holders were beside themselves – we were the only customers daft, or desperate, enough to visit the market in the miserable weather!

As the first few weeks of early 2010 passed by it just got worse – for the organisation where Dan and I both worked, the lack of money and accruing debts made the inevitable happen – they were evicted from their office premises and we had nowhere to work. For my other organisation, it became increasingly evident that – how can I put it – there were some transparency issues, and that my time there was limited. Dan and I were very happy in Zambia, enjoying the diverse experiences, but how we were to pursue our VSO dream and contribute in our own small way to the development of the country was increasingly unclear.

January 2011 could not be more different. True, we returned to Lusaka from another brilliant Christmas holiday – this time in South Luangwa National Park in Eastern Zambia, followed by five days on Lake Malawi, both in the company of Dan’s Mum who was visiting from the UK. But work-wise Dan and I have now two placements each, which keep us extremely busy. Dan works with Our Lady’s Hospice and Nomakanjani Arts whilst I spend half my time with ZARAN, which campaigns for the recognition of the human rights of people living with or affected by HIV and AIDS. The other half of my time I’m helping to establish the NGO WASH Forum (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene), a membership organisation of NGOs (international, national and community-based) which seeks to improve coordination, collaboration and knowledge-sharing in water and sanitation programmes.

At ZARAN my colleagues are busy completing their activity planning process for 2011, using a system we developed together, and which hopefully they’ll continue to use after my departure. But the biggest change is my work for the Forum. I would never have believed that my VSO experience would see me sitting round a table with the Director of Public Health for Lusaka, the Head of Water of Sanitation of UNICEF Zambia, the Head of Medecins sans Frontieres Zambia, other senior people from the likes of Oxfam, as well as people from the Ministry of Health and community representatives, discussing how to reduce the number of people in Lusaka who would contract cholera this rainy season. The Forum is going from strength to strength in other ways too – attendance at meetings has increased since I started supporting it – there was the highest turnout ever yesterday of 31 participants – as has participation in shared activities. Most importantly, commitment from donors has also increased, which means in the next month or so we can hopefully hire a Zambian national to take over from me running the Forum, allowing it finally to deliver on the considerable promise that has gone largely unfulfilled for so many years.

It’s a bit harder to explain how non-work life also feels different; somehow more settled, more routine, but not in a negative way. I think it’s something to do with us no longer being new here, so there are fewer surprises, and we know better how things work. But also we are no longer new to other people – I feel treated more like a ‘normal’ friend, neighbour or colleague than I did in the first few months of my arrival, when I definitely felt like a novelty, even a curiosity to others. This is partly because I now mainly work with people that are ‘more like me’ – they are educated, motivated, and while not necessarily rich, have enough money to be able to rent or own a decent home, get to and from work, and feed their families, rather than scraping around for every kwacha (the local currency) and being under the constant threat of eviction from their homes. High points of my current life often feature sitting round the lunch table with colleagues from my organisations, discussing the latest in Zambian politics – an election is due this year – or discussing what happens in different cultures if a man gets his girlfriend pregnant – my colleagues seemed surprised that in Britain, unlike in Zambia, such an occurrence does not include him paying a significant sum of money to her family. A topic that is always bound to cause heated debate is MSM – God, I hate that expression! – it stands for Men who have Sex with Men – a community of people who like any other have the right to healthcare including HIV prevention support. However in a country where same-sex relationships are both illegal under the law and highly immoral to the vast majority of the conservative Christian population, opinions are strongly held and passionately expressed!

So compared to last year I’m ridiculously busy and feel far more at home. There will always be things about living in Zambia that I find difficult and/or annoying, ‘Zambian time’ which means turning up for meetings up to two hours late, being top of the list! Being asked for money fairly regularly is also something I won’t miss when I go home. But I will miss the openness and friendliness of practically everyone, and I’ve even developed a fondness for my lunchtime meal of ‘nshima’, the Zambian carbohydrate staple, balls of which one therapeutically turns round in one’s hand before eating together with whatever meat and veg is available that day.

Dan and I are hoping to extend our time here until December 2011, so we can see a full year through with our new – functioning – organisations. This means we will return to the UK to the delights of a Christmas with family and long-term friends, which after two albeit wonderful Christmases away, we are certainly ready for. This will also sweeten the pill of leaving a country and people that we have come to love! But it also gets me thinking ahead to what January 2012 might be like…will I be applying for – or already doing – a job that is challenging and significant, or will I once again be addressing my miseries with therapy of a retail nature!


Mobilising Resources

October 30, 2010

Before I proceed I need, as do all VSO Volunteer bloggers it seems, to disclaim VSO’s responsibility for this here blog, so let me this do so paraphrasing the words of a friend; “the views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not reflect those of VSO. Indeed they probably won’t reflect mine in 10 minutes, so chill…”

Return to Zanzibar?
Nomakanjani, the vibrant dance/drama group I volunteer with, have been invited to a festival in Zanzibar in February 2011. I’ve been temporarily promoted to be their manager so I can be included in the invitation! Most of the group are in their early 20s and have yet to leave their country, see the sea, travel in a train or boat, let alone experience another country so it would be great if we can go. The problem, of course, is money. Buying passports for most of the 18 people in the group, then getting them to Zanzibar and back is out of our league, so I’ve been trying my hand at ‘resource mobilisation’; trying to persuade the Zambia-Tanzania train company that 18 free tickets is money well spent given the great PR we would give them. They haven’t as yet said no. Keep your fingers crossed.

And another placement
As hinted in my previous entry I’ve recently changed placements (yet again), and now work 4 days a week in a hospice-cum-AIDS clinic. (The fifth day is with Nomakanjani, although it seldom works out that neatly). It became clear that my previous placement didn’t actually need me – maybe they just fancied having a mzungu (white western) volunteer to show off to visitors. So, with commendable haste, VSO moved me to placement number 4 – a hospice in one of the poorer compounds (or ‘peri-urban areas’) of Lusaka. The need for my services there is all too clear.

Due to alleged dodgy dealings in high places some of the big international funders have withdrawn from giving money to health projects, leaving organisations like the hospice in dire straits. Over 3,000 people use its clinics on a regular basis, whilst hundreds of people come for intensive treatment in its 30 beds, or to die pain-free and with dignity. Zambia’s overall adult HIV prevalence rate is around 15%, but this rises to 40% for women aged from 25 – 39 who live in urban areas (such as where the hospice is located). An estimated 89,000 people die as a result of AIDS a year, (dying from ‘opportunistic infections’ such as TB, Gastroenteritis, Meningitis or Malaria), contributing to the 800,000 AIDS orphans, and to an average life expectancy of just 42 years. Many of the services of the hospice will be forced to close if funding is not found, so more resources for me to mobilise, somewhat urgently.

Meanwhile, in not so high places…
The Executive Director of a Zambian NGO, whose raison d’être is to disburse funds to HIV-AIDS organisations (like the Hospice) is currently under investigation. Reportedly the salary she has been paying herself – in full knowledge of the auditors it seems – is pretty much identical to the entire salary costs of the whole hospice. There’s just one of her, and 67 people employed by the hospice.
Fat cats in the developed world who pay themselves over 100 times what their subordinates earn are fairly contemptible in my book, but those that do so in this context – depriving people on the ground of money they need literally to survive, so they can have more cars or bigger swimming pools; well, what can you say?

To finish on a cheerier note, check out a couple of websites. Firstly, Helen and I went to Kafue National Park, a few hours west of Lusaka, last weekend, and saw some lions! You can see photos of them on my Flickr site; Secondly, have a look at Nomakanjani’s website;, designed and implemented by myself and a couple of friends in the UK. We now own a video camera so links to performances online will follow as will, no doubt, appeals for cash to get us to Zanzibar! Look after your resources before I mobilise them in our direction…


Sanitation Week 2010

October 30, 2010

In the blog entry I wrote on August 23rd, entitled ‘On Workshops’, I talked about some of the work that has recently taken my time for ZARAN, the Zambia AIDSLaw Research and Advocacy Network.

Now it’s time to talk about my other placement – working to develop the Zambia NGO WASH Forum. WASH stands for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene education, and the Forum was set up as a national networking and sharing facility for NGOs working in that sector. We’ve got about 22 member organisations as members, including the ‘big boys’– WaterAid, Oxfam, etc. – but also small community-based organisations working at grassroots level to improve water and sanitation in their communities.

The Forum has been going in its current form since 2007. The idea is that by working together the NGOs – as representatives of civil society – can have a louder voice in terms of influencing national water and sanitation policy, but also learn from each other, ensure minimal duplication of efforts, and work together for the benefit of communities rather than be in competition. The Head Office of the Forum – or Secretariat being the term they use here – transferred from UNICEF to a local NGO, the Water and Sanitation Association of Zambia (WASAZA), in April of this year, and that’s when I joined it. Working with the WASAZA staff members allocated to support the Forum – particularly Nina and Annie – I was set the objective of transforming the Forum from an informal network to a formally registered organisation. This involved supporting the member organisations to come up with a Constitution and Strategic Plan that reflected the purpose of the Forum, formalising the membership process, and working towards the holding of the organisation’s first AGM.

These things we have done, or 90% done. But plans and constitutions are all well and good – they don’t mean an organisation is effective! I’d bet most NGOs in Zambia have shiny Constitutions and Strategic Plans that no one ever reads and bear very little relationship to what the organisation does on a daily basis. The Forum will never get independent funding, or be sustainable, if it can’t demonstrate that it delivers added value in practice, not just in theory!

And then along came Sanitation Week 2010. A great opportunity for the members to work together to achieve something tangible. And nicely timed a few weeks before the start of the rainy season when all sorts of nasty water-borne diseases including cholera can hit the capital of Zambia. And we did it!! Between Sunday 10th October and Friday 15th October – Global Hand Washing Day – more than 10 member organisations worked together to make some amazing things happen. Six teams of staff and volunteers from Forum member organisations distributed soap, chlorine, and hygiene training to hundreds of children from 26 schools in cholera-prone areas of Lusaka. On Global Hand Washing Day we held a Sanitation Fair and Concert attended by just under 300 children, also from these areas. We had exhibitors, art and drama competitions for the children to participate in – the very popular ‘draw and colour in a picture of a toilet’ coordinated by Nina on the WASAZA stand being my particular favourite! – as well as three live musical acts. The children all washed their hands together before having the lunch that had been laid on. The event was even opened by the Mayor as well as being attended by a representative of the Minister for Local Government and Housing, both of whom washed their hands to demonstrate to the children how to do it properly – to the great interest of the TV cameras!

By all accounts the week was a great success, and it was so wonderful to be working together with such motivated and committed people towards a common purpose. The challenge now is to get the other 10 or so members of the Forum who didn’t participate this time to see the value of this kind of cooperative working and to do their part in future. And to start working with donors so the Forum can be sustained into the future. And to find and support someone to replace me in coordinating the Forum activities when I return to the UK. Good thing I’m still here for another year!

And it’s World Toilet Day on November 19th!

See the Sanitation Week photos on