Let me tell you about when I was first in sub-Saharan Africa.
In the beginning
I cannot quite remember now how I found myself signed up for a charitable expedition to Zambia, but I do know that, like many people, the idea of doing some sort of foreign service to those who are less fortunate than us was in my mind for a long number of years. The trip to Zambia organised by my son’s school, Gonzaga college, presented itself and gave me that opportunity.
By way of introduction, I should say that Gonzaga has in recent years teamed up with Habitat for Humanity [an international charity which targets the world’s poorest people by helping them to obtain decent housing] in sending teams to Zambia. What the people from Gonzaga do on these visits, is they physically mix cement and mortar, lift blocks, carry water and labour on building sites to construct a few houses in a two week time frame. The people who receive these houses do not get them for free, but have to buy the houses by paying to Habitat for Humanity a small subsidised amount over a long number of years, or by helping to build their own house, or by helping to build a house for someone else. This approach fosters a self-help ideal rather than a culture of dependency and as this approach is also very much evident in the teachings of St Ignatius of Loyola and the Jesuit emphasis on empowering people to help themselves, Gonzaga and Habitat are natural partners.
We stayed in a house in the village the same as everyone else in the community. The houses have no water or electricity or shower or toilet or cooking facilities and no furniture (not even a bed) and are (by our standards) basic beyond belief. As a part of the experience, we lived in and with the community we were trying to help and we tried to build an understanding, a bond, even a friendship with some of the people in the village. All of this was done in a community ravaged by AIDS, Tuberculosis, Malaria, Polio and desperate heart-wrenching poverty. It is not the role of this short report to recount the horrible deprivations in which these people live, but I ask you to accept from the little set out above that they are poor beyond your comprehension.
I travelled to Zambia with a disparate group of volunteers, all past pupils, teachers or parents of a Gonzaga student. There were 18 of us. Before we travelled to Zambia we took our vaccinations and we raised funds to pay for the cost of our travel and air fares, for the expenses of the expedition, for tools and to pay for the cement and the blocks and the building supplies which were to be used. When all of that was done, and due to the generosity of you, to whom I am sending this report, we still had a significant sum remaining to support the charity and the people of Zambia in their further endeavours.
I have to say that the raising of funds from friends and family was easier than I expected. I had never done anything like this before, and I felt very awkward asking you to send me money for this project. In return, I only met what was to me unbelievable generosity and support. People were overwhelmingly supportive and soulfully kind, generous and understanding when I appealed for funds. People said kind things to me, and about me, which one would normally only expect to hear said at a funeral. I genuinely was surprised by the depth of affection and support which was out there, and even if I never ended up physically going to Zambia, I have to thank you for this.
Before travelling, I felt trepidation about how I would cope living at close quarters with a team of fellow travellers who I did not know and how I would deal face to face with the local people in Zambia and with the disease, death and misery which I anticipated I would encounter in Zambia. I imagined that it is one thing to see all of this on the back of a Trocaire box, but something else entirely to see it in the eyes of people who stand before you. Having survived the trip, I can tell you that these encounters in fact presented the greatest reward of the experience.
We left Dublin airport on 20th June 2008 for a different world. As we approached the village of Tiyende Pamodzi in which we were to stay, I recall that my heart sank. Tiyende Pamodzi is located only a few kilometres north of Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia. It is at the side of a dusty, dirty road. Tiyende Pamodzi is a community of about sixty houses, all built by Habitat for Humanity for those who are widows and orphans of AIDS sufferers as well as those who are physically disabled by illness or injury and nearly all of whom themselves are infected with the AIDS virus. The village, at first sight to me, was frightful but the truth is that in less than a week I had discovered that what so appalled me at first glance was in fact one of the happiest places I had ever been.
In order to explain, I have to tell you that the houses in Tiyende Pamodzi are themselves very basic. They are two bedroom single story houses with a corrugated iron roof and each is built on its own plot. They fall well below what we would ourselves desire, but they are considered good by local standards. As there is no sewage or water supply, each house also has a basic pit latrine on the plot, and these latrines have their own stench. The village is separated from the road by a dirt track which is lined with strewn rubbish, and the rickety stalls of traders in all sorts of meagre goods. These stalls are made of empty plastic bags and discarded cement bags wrapped around a flimsy wooden frame. From such stalls (which seem to line all roads) a trader might offer for sale as little as just 10 eggs, or perhaps three bags of cane sugar and some washing powder, or these stalls are even used to offer haircuts. To complete the picture I have to tell you that there is no refuse collection service here, and so all domestic rubbish is simply dumped behind the house or shop were it falls, sometimes partially burnt, and left there. All that the eye can take in is therefore pocked with rubbish and the detritus of daily life. Fine dust and airborne sand whirl around all corners and into everything. The visual picture therefore is appalling, but misleading.
Inside of Tiyende Pamodzi we met the triumph of the human spirit. We were met by beaming smiling faces, speeches and handshakes of earnest welcome. As the days went by, we got to know these people better and we got to know some of their names and a little about their lives. As I write these lines I still wonder at their resilience. In all of the time we were in Tiyende Pamodzi, I did not hear a word of complaint or lament for their fate, and no one, not once, begged for anything. Despite all of the things which I saw, I only met immensely kind and happy people. It was infectious.
I cannot explain why these people are so happy as all of the rules and indicators for happiness which I have ever learnt simply do not apply. These people are sick, and poor and deprived and in so many ways disadvantaged, but they are not sad. They are happy people. Perhaps they simply decided a long time ago that they did not want to be sad. Perhaps it is as simple as that. Maybe it is just a matter of choice. Meeting the people of Tiyende Pamodzi was humbling. It is difficult to describe back at home the dignity, friendship, welcome and the quiet pride and the raw happiness of these people. “Incredible” is a word which we all used to describe them.
The people of Tiyende Pamodzi are a gentle and calm people who have found in their lives a fundamental happiness which eludes us in our vastly complicated and rich lives. I found in this place proof positive of that old adage that money cannot buy you happiness. Happiness appears to be utterly independent of factors outside of the individual person. Even good health appears to be irrelevant.
We all noticed early on that there were remarkably few men in the village, and this was quickly accepted as being something to expect in a village built especially for widows and orphans. What took longer to realise was the lack of teenagers. I was later given to understand that in this place many children just do not live that long.
The children of Zambia are remarkable. They have nothing. They have absolutely nothing, and I never knew before this summer how gaunt and vacant the word “nothing” really is. You have to actually see “nothing” to appreciate how stark that word can be. These children have absolutely nothing. They have no toys. An empty plastic bottle is a toy or a piece of wire is a toy. The dust on the ground is a “toy”. Despite the poverty, and because these children have no toys to play with, they spend the whole day playing with each other. They are happy and laughing and running all day. Despite all illness and disadvantage, these smiling children are always there and always shyly, curiously watching and with only the slightest of encouragement, only a smile, a wink, a shout or an outstretched hand these children willingly become friends. They beam with happy smiles and they laugh delightedly with a handshake. In this village I met and was adopted as a friend by Junior, Abigail, Luka, Blessings, Macy, James, David, Happy, Iris, Sean, Ruth and so many other children who waited for me to finish work before enticing me to silly games and songs. I was conscious that in lifting up these children, they may never have been lifted or whirled by a father figure before.
There seemed to be about forty or fifty children out in the street on the first night we arrived in Tiyende Pamodzi, singing and playing in the dark and celebrating our arrival. I was at that stage, on our first night, dumbfounded by my surroundings and I only stared at the chaos. I just did not know how to deal with it.
While I stood silent in confusion, the younger members of our group (who at 19 years old had left school in the previous year or two) strode out into the pitch darkness and joined the children in chanting and playing. They accepted the chaos, noise and joy. While I agonised on the sidelines as to how I could deal with these people and what I could possibly say or do, Philip, Andrew and Chris just went out and did it. I was struck by the simplicity of their response and I had to wonder then, what exactly was the impediment to my own involvement with these people. In a short while I took my lead from these 19 year olds and I too joined in. I did not find it the easiest thing in the world but it was not the hardest thing either. Within a day or two, I was a ringleader of nonsense games, of lifting and swinging strange, laughing, poor children and having a good belly laugh with any one or fifty of them. For this lead and example, I can only thank the lads. I learnt a lot from them, and particularly I learnt that very first night how the goodness of simple response requires no planning or expertise, but just the willingness to venture and try.
Overall, my fellow travellers were fantastic. This random group of parents, teachers and past pupils were unfailingly generous and welcoming to me. I found myself with the kindest and most humorous of fellow adventurers. I had the time of my life and the best fun I have had in years. I hung out with the 19 year old guys and for two weeks I felt (and behaved) like a 19 year old.
Together we dug into the red, red soil, we loaded wheelbarrows and pushed and lifted and dragged blocks and sand and cement and water, by the barrel, which had to be rolled up and down hills to the nearest pump and back to the site. We gave it our all and as we clambered to achieve the targets set, every man and woman on site helped. If I put down a shovel and straightened my back, there was always someone quick to offer to take over whatever task was on hand, inviting me to take a rest for a minute. Everyone was supported. The houses which we built, were basic. We built to the standard of the place in which we were building. Although they would be disappointing for a garden shed in Dublin, they were a dream home in Tiyende Pamodzi. I am proud of what we built.
Whereas I will not here record the heroics of everyone on the trip, I have to say that everyone on the trip contributed uniquely. I particularly was impressed with Bernadette, who is unfailing in her optimism and who can see the good in everything. She went from hovel to hole and from wall to window commenting on how “brilliant” and “fantastic” everything was. She brought her nursing skills to the aid of those of us who fell ill and her common sense to every day. She brought to us the easy gift of involvement and I watched in admiration time and again as she approached and engaged with the people we met. On top of all of this, she lugged and she carried and she mixed and she dug and she laboured like the rest of us. Thank you Bernadette.
The second person worthy of mention is Kevin, who was our group leader. He marshalled his troops, not by command or by giving orders, but by splendid example. I do not recall him issuing orders, but he just made arrangements and did things and we followed. We were at all times well cared for and looked after and Kevin alone carried the burden of responsibility for everything. It is not an exaggeration to say that because Kevin was for all things responsible, the rest of us (and me especially) had the luxury of being irresponsible. We could not have done it without him.
Without Bernadette and Kevin, and without the lead and support of Andrew, Chris and Philip and the other members of the team, this experience would have been very different for me, and I would not have managed to see and engage and understand as much of the people of Zambia.
Together we built four houses. The first house which we built was for a lady named Iris who lived with her three children in a shelter made of plastic bags and cement sacks tied around a wooden frame, and with stones and bricks to hold them down. She was a calm, elegant, smiling lady in her 30s who raised three children in that home, of which the oldest one, Ruth, was about 11 years old. Ruth used to go to school every morning clean and neatly turned out in her thin school uniform, and holding one or two copy books folded in a piece of cloth. In the way that child appeared every morning, scrubbed clean and well turned out, one could never imagine the disadvantage of the home from which she came. And yet, the dignity and the courage of that lady, Iris, who raised those children impressed me. She had no discernible source of income save for a flimsy stall on which she offered for sale perhaps eight or ten tomatoes, at the side of the road near her home where no one ever passed. In all the time we were there, I did not see one single transaction take place. The only explanation offered for her survival is that she said that her neighbours are very good to her.
In building these four houses it is worth while recording that we did so while working alongside some local builders engaged by Habitat for Humanity. We could not have done it without them. These young men were another group with whom we interacted every day and from whom we had the opportunity to learn a lot. It is with these men that we could discuss life and death, music and politics in Zambia. We laughed and learnt with Lloyd, Peter, Maxwell, Even, Joel, Isaac, Miko and Felix and the other members of the team. They taught us patiently the rudiments of building a block wall and in quieter moments taught us useful phrases in the local language, Nyanja, such as “Musaka Chan?” – Why are you laughing at me? It is also due to this cultural exchange (and partly due to my poor grasp of Irish grammar) that a Zambian builder named Lloyd is now going around saying “Tá mé múinteoir”.
There were many highlights of the trip. I recall putting the finishing touches to a perfect doorway with Kevin and finishing a window lintel with Llyod. The day that the bus broke down is one of my favourites, and swimming on the rim of the Victoria Falls with Phil was insane! There were several visits to the Bwafwano Orphanage, a few long walks through Chazanga and an interesting experience in the Alpha club. When the lizard got into Dingo’s mosquito net, it was hilarious. I recall the night that Phil and I stayed back at the site and helped some neighbours carry timber supplies for their own houses and I remember the incredible sight of two men who had dug a well 15 meters deep by hand, and were still going. The sound of the church choir at mass in Lusaka was incredible beyond belief. Trips to the village water pump were always good for a laugh and I recall also the delight of children seeing their own image for the first time on a digital camera screen. Because they had no mirrors or photographs, they had to ask their friends to identify them with cries of “Which one is me?” and then peals of laughter when they saw what they looked like.
If one moment must be selected from a very full list, it must be the sight of Iris, with her three well kept children, standing together in the doorway of her new home. The look on her face, and on the faces of her children, will live with me forever.
There were times also when things did not go well, but this does not mean that at any time things were bad. We were frustrated when things did not work out, when plans failed and targets were missed, but we tried to accept these events and move on. We became more accepting. When the window frames arrived the wrong size, we just broke open the block-work walls to make them fit. When the bus broke down, we fixed it. It is true also that we had illness among our ranks but even this, unpleasant as it was, served as an opportunity for kindness and support and bonding. While we were there James’ father died and he had to fly home for the funeral. The message came through at 2.00pm while we were working on site and we stood around as Kevin led us in prayer. As James broke down and we prayed together, it occurred to me that we were only reflecting what must have been happening in countless houses all around us. James’ loss and grief was all the more poignant because of where we were. His loss to the team when he went home was palpable. And yet, like the people of Zambia, we went straight back to work.
Illness and worse
There were moments too when I held back tears, but I did not cry. I could not cry when all around me the people were so happy, so I held back tears and watched and tried to understand. I have cried those tears since I came home. I stood in Bwafwano orphanage, with 11,484 children under its care and I talked with these happy, laughing children. They showed me their school copy books, with lessons handwritten of AIDS, Malaria, Polio and Tuberculosis, and how to avoid, recognise and treat them. And they were only eight years old. One small boy in our village told me that his sister would not be coming out to play any more, because she had malaria. And late one night a young, gaunt sick boy called Sam told me that he was going to the shop “one last time” before he had to “go away for a long time”.
For all of this, I have come back from a remarkable experience. I have travelled with, met and lived with extraordinary people, and shared their lives for two weeks. I have come back from one of the best trips in my life and from perhaps the happiest place on earth.
As we left Tiyende Pamodzi, that place which so appalled me at first sight, I have to say that I felt sad. I think we all did. I knew as I left the place that I would miss it, and I do. I left behind my spare clothes, my mosquito net, blankets, my boots, penknife, hat, medicines, sunglasses and everything else that I did not need for the return journey. The only things I took back from Tiyende Pamodzi are the memories and a nickname, and these I treasure beyond all of the possessions left behind.
There are undoubtedly a myriad of lessons to be drawn from my experience in Zambia and mine is only one experience of many. I do not pretend to know or to understand what these lessons are. I cannot work out the paradox of how the people of Tiyende Pamodzi have all the ingredients of misery, and yet live in such happiness. It is to those people of Tiyende Pamodzi, and perhaps to my fellow travellers, that you will have to turn for insights and advice and for the lessons to be learnt.
Where do we go from here?
As I finish this account, may I offer one thought only. If anyone has the opportunity to participate in this project, you should do so in any way that you can. Any level of participation, from organising, to fund-raising to physically going to Zambia is immensely productive and rewarding. This project changes lives. It is hugely worthy. The magic which it works in the people in Zambia is immense, but the magic which it works in those who go out from Ireland is no less.
21 September 2008.
Habitat for Humanity can be found at http://www.habitatireland.ie/
Tiyende Pamodzi can be found on Google Earth at 15.21.12 South 28.16.30 East