On 25th July 2013 I went back to Chipulukusu on the outskirts of Ndola, a small city in Zambia’s Copperbelt region, 320 kilometres north of Lusaka, where I have been working for a few years. As a slum of 68,000 souls who live in poverty and rampant disease and with no access to running water or a sewage system, it may be difficult to imagine Chipulukusu as an attractive place, but it is nonetheless one of my favourite places on earth. In Chipulukusu there is plenty of scope to do something good every day, and always hope of a better future. Habitat for Humanity, the charity with which I work, works in Chipulukusu in providing basic safe housing to those most in need, and particularly through its Orphans and Vulnerable Children programme. That is where I was working.
The Orphans and Vulnerable Children programme supports the very most disadvantaged family groups, where orphans are being cared for by people who are themselves beyond destitution. The carers are usually grandparents of the orphans concerned, who are trying to cope with the loss of their own children and struggling with age, ill health and poverty. Out of a national population of 12 million people, it is estimated that 1 million are child orphans. These people deserve our help and small things make a difference.
This year, I was joined by five others and again we were a mixed bunch of ages and backgrounds who managed to put aside some time to go out to Zambia to try to make a difference. Before we left, and with your help, we raised over €57,000.00. This money is what makes the entire project possible and it can achieve an enormous amount out in Zambia. The money was donated by friends, family and supporters and was hugely supported by Cooks Academy, and Christine Smith of Mackenway Wines, (again!) who held a major fundraising Pop Up restaurant event at Cooks Academy on 7th June last. We had about 80 people at the event, and Voster Tembo from Habitat for Humanity Zambia came over for the event. My sister Mary held another cocktail party in Waterford and many people just gave what they could.
In Chipulukusu, as usual, we lived in a Habitat house in the village the same as everyone else where we could lay out our sleeping bags and mosquito nests. We had no running
water, showers or toilets but with a bit of improvisation we quickly learnt how to get by. The difference between us and our neighbours, is that we had taken all our inoculations and vaccinations, we had proper mosquito nets and good food and of course we could escape safely back to Ireland after a few weeks. Our neighbours had none of these advantages and they are still there. Although therefore we could be said to have lived with the local people and in their conditions, I was always aware of our advantages.
The primary purpose of our expedition was to address the appalling housing problem in Chipulukusu, where many people live in ramshackle self-made dwellings which are grossly dangerous and unhealthy. Quite aside from the risk of collapse (which is common) many dwellings are prone to flooding when the rains come and are open to vermin and to disease. In such conditions, people become vulnerable to horrible diseases and illness and death is very common. The problems are enormous but Habitat for Humanity is making a start with the construction of houses for those who are the most vulnerable members of society.
Our daily work was to go on site with local builders, lifting blocks, mixing cement, fixing in doorframes and putting on roofs. It is unglamorous work, hard in the heat of the Zambian sun, but basic and simple and it gets the job done. Beside this basic work however, another important part of what we do is to listen to the voices of our friends and to learn what they really want – and what they do not want – from us. For too many years, people from our part of the world have been telling people from that part of the world what is good for them. In the model of Habitat for Humanity, it is our turn to listen and to learn from the Zambian people as we work at the most basic level.
I heard from our brothers and sisters in Zambia that life can be rough, even brutal, but that it is still worth celebrating. I heard again that what people want is not charity or to be told what is good for them, but just the chance to make a better life for themselves, by their own efforts. A bit of help, by way of assistance towards a basic home from Habitat for Humanity, is usually enough to protect people from the worst of disease and to give them a chance of education or work or sufficient security to look after themselves and their children. They asked me for nothing more than that we continue the support which we are already doing.
While living in Chipulukusu I noticed too how a smile can brighten your day. I also saw how a neighbour can ease your burden and how friends can be more important than time. I again tried (but failed) to really understand how people can make a life and find happiness, while living in unrelenting poverty and where illness is a constant presence. It was a privilege and an insight to work on first-name terms with people whose life experience is beyond my ability to comprehend, but whose humanity is the same as mine.
While in Zambia, we managed to physically construct two houses ourselves, but of course the money which we raised will help to build dozens more houses over the coming months. There is also enough money to bore a deep well so as to provide clean safe water for the community, who so often fall victim to disease from unclean water. That well should be operational within a few months and so the money raised in Ireland is really going to make a difference.
ADAM and KENNA
The first house which we built was for Adam and Kenna, an elderly couple in their 80s
who were looking after two orphan grandchildren. They had fifteen children themselves, but twelve of them are already dead and one of the surviving three is now missing. They suffer from Malaria and several other illnesses. They survive by getting occasional work in farming, but because of their advanced age they find it difficult to find such work. They can only manage one meal a day, most days. Some days there is no food. Their small self-made house was partially collapsed and certainly would not have survived the coming rainy season. They worry about what will happen to their grandchildren when they pass on. They are utterly charming people, always smiling and pleasant and I really enjoyed working with them. At least now we have constructed a Habitat home for this family and one of our local partner organisations, Samaritan Strategy Foundation, has pledged to support them with some food.
The second house was built for a 55 year old widow named Febby who looks after three of
her children and four of her orphaned grandchildren, all between 3 and 18 years old. She had seven children but only three are still alive. Febby has work as a house maid, and so she can feed her family, but it is difficult. The fact that several members of the family suffer with malaria adds to Febby’s worries and until we arrived she was living in a decaying mud brick house with a roof made of pieces of plastic and iron sheets, which was in constant danger of collapse. The house which we built for Febby will give her and her family greater security and at least they will now be able to stay dry when the rainy season begins.
There are many, many, families in Zambia in a similar plight to these two families, and some of those will receive a house from Habitat for Humanity with the help of the money which you donated over the coming months.
One of the more uplifting tasks this year was to inspect many of the houses which had
been built with the money which we raised last year. It was heartening to see the quality of life of so many families improved. There are many people in Chipulukusu who are happier, healthier and even alive because of the benefits of living in a safe house. Unfortunately, I discovered on my inspection that of the two ladies for whom we physically built a house while in Zambia last year, one did not survive the year. Lister Matani died in October 2012, just over two months after her house was completed. It is some consolation that the two orphans she was looking after last year, Lovemore and Grace, are still living in the house which we built. However, although a cousin is trying to look after them, I know that food is scarce and I honestly do not know at the time of writing if they will survive another year. Again efforts are being made to support the family, but it is difficult.
It is in the midst of this sort of society that Graceland School stands out. In a place where children have almost no opportunity to advance beyond the confines of their poverty, Graceland School strives against all the odds to provide education to the poorest of the poor and manages to reach the top of the grade averages every year. It is an extraordinary place.
Graceland school (www.gracelandschool.org) was established 9 years ago in memory of a
Zambian nun, Sister Grace Inambo, who trained in Ireland but died very soon after she returned home to Zambia. Until recent years the school had no books or resources at all, but it has been receiving some assistance from Ireland over recent years, and particularly from Scoil San Treasa in Mount Merrion, Dublin, and I doubt that you can know the importance to the staff and pupils of that school of having a connection with Ireland. The sense of support, in the midst of their otherwise desolate world, is palpable. The hope and dedication of the teachers is inspiring. This year (thanks to the generosity of many friends and supporters) we managed to bring out eight laptop computers, two microscopes, two telescopes, assorted laboratory equipment, pencils, copy books, mathematics sets and about 170kg of books. Included with this material were many books which friends kindly donated.
Delivering books to a school which some short time ago had none, is a big event. All of the classes had been told that books were coming and they turned out in their finest and proudest uniforms to greet us and to see what we had brought with us. They showed us their work in their copybooks and spoke to us in English which they had learnt in Graceland. The school still does not have enough books to go around and many pupils do not own a single book, but with the library now modestly stocked there is going to be the chance for every child to hold and to read a book for a few hours. Some of the more trusted students may be allowed to take a book home overnight.
The laptop computers and laboratory equipment was on another level. With electricity supply rare and unreliable, laptops are the only sensible way to work on computers. If the power goes (which it does frequently) the laptop battery will kick in and your work will not be lost. If you have no electricity at home, a teacher can charge his laptop in the school and then bring it home to use the laptop at night. We delivered eight laptops to Graceland. The staff gathered in the school library to try out these laptops, although it was clear that most of them had never used any form of computer before. For people who had never used a computer before, and some of whom did not even have electricity at home, there were obvious initial difficulties in comprehending how to approach a computer. Even for those who had previously seen computers and had some idea as to how things work, most did not know how to manoeuvre a mouse or what it meant to double-click on an icon. After only 20 minutes however, all of the teachers were able to open and close folders and to click icons sufficiently well to search on the Encarta encyclopaedia suite which I had pre-loaded on the computers. Luckily, one of the teachers in Graceland is highly educated in computers and has qualifications in programming and software and hardware maintenance at a professional level and so I was confident as I left the school that the laptops which we brought with us would not be a lost resource but are the opening of a new chapter for the school.
Overall, I have to think that the impact on the school and on the pupils of so much teaching material will be profound. The long term effect of producing more educated people out of one of the most deprived places in Zambia (and in the world) will be interesting to see. The fact that people from Ireland are supporting and encouraging from the sidelines is a major psychological support to the school. There is a real sense in Graceland that no matter how difficult things may appear, they are not alone.
On my own behalf and on behalf of all the pupils and staff of Graceland School, thank you so much for your generosity and support. There is certainly a lot more to be done, but for many young people there is a real chance that their lives have been changed forever by your generosity and support.
Zambia is a country of approximately 12 million people, of whom one million are child orphans. Estimates of HIV infection rates vary between 18 per cent and 40 per cent, but in truth so few people have been tested, no one really knows. Average life expectancy which was 38 three years ago, has now dropped to 36 years.
Give me a call if you are interested in joining us as we venture back to Zambia next year.