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.