A Trip to Zambia with Tearfund
by Anne E Thompson
October, 2007, I sat on an aeroplane and flew to Lusaka, Zambia. I was travelling with David and other members from the board of Tearfund. I was the ‘tourist’, sneaking along for the ride and to try and catch some of the vision that motivated these people.
It was a journey that had begun many years before. As a child, my parents always supported a charity called Tearfund. I knew very little about it, mainly that Cliff Richard, who my mum was rather keen on, had made a film where he had held lots of little black babies. I also remember collecting sixpences for ambulances in Bangladesh after some floods. I had no idea where these places were and was completely uninvolved with the issues that I occasionally heard about.
Then, when 23, I married David. David is an accountant. Really, I should have married a farmer because I would be a phenominal farmer’s wife but I fell in love with an accountant and that was that. (I sometimes suggest at parties that he lies and introduces himself as an actor, but there is no escaping the fact that he is an accountant and a rather good one. )This is a relevant fact because the way an accountant deals with life, looking for risk, good with the unemotional aspects of life and always noticing prices, means that David’s reaction to Zambia was somewhat different to mine.
David had, some years earlier been invited to join the board of Tearfund as Treasurer. This mainly involved a lot of meetings and numbers but also meant that he made the occasional trip to places that Tearfund works as he needed to be properly aware of some of the issues which he was making decisions about. I always stayed at home, happy to be looking after the house and children while he went off doing ‘great things’. I enjoyed the stories of him smothering himself in insect repellent in Nepal, only to then be presented with a garland of flowers around his neck. He then met village dignities whilst trying to not notice all the insects that slowly crawled out of his necklace. He also once had to ‘christen’ a line of toilets that Tearfund had funded! (It should be noted, at the time of writing this, that David’s ten year stint on the board of Tearfund has finished. Although we both continue to actively support Tearfund he is now also on the board of a different charity.)
Now, in 2007, I had decided to join him. We paid our own costs but used the expertise of Tearfund’s ‘Transform Trips’ team for our trip. The main aim of the trip was for David and members of the executive team to visit Zambia to live amongst HIV positive families in order to better understand the issues being faced. It also enabled David to see if the money they sent was actually reaching the places where it was needed. This is something that Tearfund takes very seriously. It receives several million pounds a year and is part of the DEC. However, David talks about regularly going to the room where envelopes of donations are opened and watching as individual gifts from pensioners and children are received. He said it is important to never forget the sacrifice of some of those gifts when deciding where to spend several thousands of pounds in a developing country.
Before we left England, we were invited to Tearfund to meet the other team members and to receive some advice. We were told about the dangers in Zambia, which is a country ravaged by HIV and AIDS. We were told that catching AIDS was unlikely if we were sensible and were assured that should there be an accident, we would be removed from Zambia and taken to a hospital in a safer country before receiving any blood. We were told to avoid dangerous situations, such as travelling in vehicles other than those approved by Tearfund and taking care with toilets. Many are pits and these have been known to collapse. Super.
We visited some of the people they were helping. First we went to a white stone house that looked a lot like my garden shed. Inside, it was very dark and very hot but it was clean and did not smell horrid. It had a television, which felt rather incongruous amidst so much poverty. A woman lived here with her grandchildren. Four of her seven children had died of aids and their orphaned children now lived with her, despite her being HIV positive. One of the children was also HIV positive, the others had not been tested.
The next home we visited was run by teenaged orphans. Their parents had died and they were living together in the family home. The church ladies checked regularly that they were eating properly, attending school, keeping clean. This is so much better for the children than being split up and sent away.
We heard that there are many many orphans in Zambia due to AIDS. My initial reaction was the same as one American charity we heard about. They sent lots of money and built a beautiful orphanage, fully equipped and staffed. However, Zambian people do not use orphanages and the costly building remained empty. I realised that my own reaction to Africa was not dissimilar to those white missionaries in ancient times who taught everyone to speak english and wear hats. To really help, you have to understand the culture and provide aid that is appropriate, not necessarily what is nice to give.
In Zambia, when parents die, their children are usually sent to a relative. Then, when this relative also dies, they are sent to a more remote relative. Often people are left to look after many children, some of whom are quite distantly related, and the level of care is erratic. No one who cares about the child knows where they are. In the meantime, the family home is sold (I assume the money is taken by the first carers.) As the child is passed from relative to relative, they become increasingly isolated. Then, when they are old enough to care for themselves, they have nothing. Their home has been sold and they have no entitlement. However, if when they are first orphaned, they can stay in their family home, then that possession is always theirs. When they leave school, they have a home, often with a garden where they can grow food. This is one of Tearfund’s initiatives. They hope to encourage local churches to enable orphans to remain in the family home, regularly helped and advised by church members.
Many children had toys they had made themselves from old tyres or pieces of twisted metal. Many of the houses had a water hole in the garden. A bucket on a rope was used to haul the water up to ground height. It was used for washing and cooking and had to be boiled before it could be drunk.
There was litter everywhere. Everyone seemed to keep their own space clean and tidy but along the roadsides were empty cans, pieces of paper and cloth, all just discarded.
David and I were then driven to the pastor’s house, as we are staying in his village. The pastor’s house was another mud hut. I think that each ‘village’ is actually made up of family groups. When a child is too big to sleep in their parent’s hut, they are given a hut of their own. There are also huts for cooking and for washing and for the toilet pit. The space between the huts is a living space and is kept free of litter. The family and their animals all occupy this same space. We could not see any other ‘villages’ from the pastor’s group of huts. In the pastor’s hut was an area for sleeping and another with a wooden table and chairs.
We were given chairs and cups of tuwantu. This looks like thin white emulsion paint with bits floating in it. It is actually made from a plant root and we were offered brown sugar to add to it. It tasted like watery yogurt. Luke warm watery yogurt. Drinking it required some effort.
They then served the food on dishes and the men (and me, as a guest) went into the house. We washed our hands in a chipped metal bowl of water, then rinsed them from water in a jug (which we took turns to pour for each other.) We then used our nice safe hand santisers which we had carried from England. Later, someone asked me if I had offered the hand sanitiser to our hosts. I hadn’t and had actually used it surreptitiously, fearing I would offend them. How silly! It would have been much better to use it openly and offer it to everyone.
There was already a fire burning and the women had heated water so we could wash. As I swept, I saw school children file past in their navy blue uniforms. They walked one behind the other, carrying their books and bottles of white tuwantu for their lunch.
Schools here were free but children had to wear the uniform to attend. If a family was too poor to afford several uniforms, the children would share, with one sibling attending school in the morning and then switching at lunch time with their brother or sister who would change into the same clothes.I can just imagine the comments if I suggested my children might like to share clothes……
The animals wandered around freely. The turkeys and hens all roosted in the trees at night and they seemed quite content to share the ground with dogs, cats, kittens, pigs, goats and cows during the day. They were part of life here and wandered in and out of the huts. It gave an added incentive to keeping our ‘bedroom’ door shut!
I found the people to be quiet and dignified. They greeted us with smiles and handshakes and a half curtsey. The women were beautiful with dark skin and clean bright clothes. I still do not not know how they managed to wear clothes that looked clean and ironed when washing involved a bowl of water heated over a fire. The children were delightful. They smiled with wide mouths and delighted eyes and loved to see themselves in photographs. The elderly and the sick moved slowly and carefully. They listened and nodded but said little. Around them, life seemed harmonious.
It was hard to accept the impact of AIDS here. Both our hosts were HIV positive. Most people who we saw were younger than us. It was odd to be the eldest people we saw in a country when we were only in our forties. I knew that life expectancy in Zambia was 35, it was altogether different to actually experience that.
I saw some cows being milked (this is the first job that I saw a man do – I was wondering what they did!) They tied together the cow’s back legs first, then milked it into a plastic bucket.
We were then called into the house for breakfast. They poured very milky tea out of a teapot (it looked like milk, there was hardly any tea in it at all.) We had it with bread and scones. The scones were sweet and tasty. We ate with Chris, our driver. I didn’t see the other people eat anything at all, though some were drinking tuwantu (I was very relieved not to be offered any.)
After breakfast, I washed up. This involved several bowls of water. One had detergent in for washing, then two others were for rinsing. It was all done on the floor with animals walking around. I had to keep pushing the pig away because he wanted to drink the dirty water.
The government owned this school. They had a lot of policies. It was regularly inspected but they were not given any feedback. I decided that my own feedback was probably also inappropriate to share.
After grade 7, the children could apply to another school. It was a long way away and they would have to walk, cycle or hitch a ride. Not all the children would go there. Many would fail due to financial problems or their parents would choose to keep them at home. If the parents had AIDS (which was common) then they would need the children to help at home. Before we left the school, the head teacher took our group leader aside and gave her a list of improvements that he would like Tearfund to pay for. When I asked her about it, she said she did not consider that they were areas that Tearfund would help. I found this to be very reassuring. When I give to a charity, I want it to be wise with how it uses the money. It would be very easy to give to whoever asks for help, but actually, this is not always the best use for the money.
Our lunch was tuwantu. I just could not manage to swallow any, which was very embarrassing. It made me gag. There was nowhere to dispose of it and a nearby chicken showed no interest at all when I offered it. I tried pouring some on the ground but it left a white puddle which our hosts would have noticed. I then got the giggles (feel I had failed being an aid worker several times already.) In the end, had to just leave the unfinished drink coagulating on the table.
We went to see the pastor’s garden. This was more like an allotment or small field. It was next to the river so he could easily water the plants. He grew lots of vegetables and also herbs such as aloe vera, for their medicinal qualities. The garden had to be guarded, usually by a boy, to keep cows from wandering over it.
We ate very well while in the village. It interested me at how well the people here ate. We often heard that people in these places exist on less than a dollar a day but that seemed a fairly meaningless statement. There was nothing there to spend a dollar on! People grew their own food and raised their own cattle and made their own houses and furniture. If nothing went wrong, it was not a bad life style. It was different to life in England but I am not sure that it was worse. Yes, there were hard things, but there were lots of excellent things too. The thing that threw everything off kilter was any kind of disaster. If people were ill (and many were due to AIDS) or if there was a change in climate, then they had no back up plan. There were no safety nets.
We ate the fish for supper. They were like sardines, small and fried whole. They were crunchy but not unpleasant. They were served with the mapawpwee, rape and tomatoes. I would have liked to eat outside with the women but I think that would have been odd, so ate at the table with the men again. It felt very strange being seen as a ‘special’ guest and I had to keep asking if I could do things if I wanted to spend time with the women.
Went to church. Women sang (brilliant!) It was nice to see lots of people who we recognised from our visits. I felt a real bond with the women. Our interaction had mainly been them trying to teach me tonga and then laughing, but I realised that our day to day focus was very similar (childcare and meals) even if the mode was different. Lindsey did a talk, which was translated and then the school children sang (they looked very fed up!) We were presented with a basket of groundnuts. Then we stood outside and everyone filed past and shook our hand. When they shake hands, the left hand holds your elbow, then they squeeze your hand, then link thumbs, then squeeze hand. If we wanted to show respect to an older person we also did a dipped curtsey.
One man said to me, “When you go back to England, you may forget us. But never forget that we are part of the same church. Tell people at home, God has one church. The part in Zambia is part of you. We need your help.”
We had chicken and rice for lunch. I got to hold a baby. I told Rosebunda that when I was small, I had always wanted a black baby. She laughed and said she had always wanted a white one! We held our arms together and compared skin colour. She was so dark, I felt pasty beside her.
The ‘work’ bit of the trip was finished and we all wanted to rush off to Livingstone for some sight seeing. But nothing happens quickly in Africa. We went to say goodbye to the bishop. It took ages. More photos. Went to another church. Met more people (who are all beginning to blur into one by this stage. Too much new stimuli.) There were lots of rag rugs on the floor and the stained glass windows all depicted Bible scenes but were set in Africa. It seemed odd seeing a black Jesus but I guess is no more weird than the Italian looking one that tends to be in English churches!
We had to introduce ourselves again. When I introduce myself they always laughed. This was because I was very old and only had three children.
We went to the home of a young single mother. Her previous baby had died of AIDS because no one had told her to boil her milk before feeding the baby. Would such a tiny detail have meant the baby would survive and not catch AIDS? I still don’t know if that is true. However, her second baby was healthy and was not HIV positive, so maybe it is true. The girl’s mother attended church and they had given her lots of advice which she then passed on to her daughter. The house was hot and smelt of urine. It had lots of flies. She grew vegetables in her garden and sold the surplus on a table at the end of her garden.
We then visited a yong girl who was HIV positive. She looked about seventeen. Her house was tiny but it had a television, a DVD player, a video player and a HiFi. I found that very strange but maybe not so different to the things my teenagers would strive to own. I like to think they would buy food and clothes and education but maybe they would prefer electrical products too.
We saw baboons fighting next to the road. We couldn’t find the guesthouse so phoned and they sent a car for us to follow.
Ate pizza for tea. Normal food was a novelty.
Thank you for reading this extract. You can read more of my diary in my new book:
The Sarcastic Mother’s Holiday Diary.
I have always written a diary on holiday, so last Christmas, I decided to find all my old diaries and blogs, and make a book for my children. However, several other people also asked for a copy, so I have written a public version – it’s available on Amazon and has been described as “The Durrells meet Bill Bryson”!
Why not buy a copy today? I think it will make you laugh.
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