This September, I was back in Zambia with another small team of volunteers and again the main focus was to work with Habitat for Humanity to build houses for the poor of Chipulukusu. In addition to that however, I also needed to sort out some issues locally to advance our plans to start a new school library service in the Ndola area, and there were a few decisions to be taken in order to keep up the momentum of our micro finance project which had started off so well but which was beginning to flag a bit in 2015. All of this is very difficult to do from as far away as Ireland.
Being later in the year than usual, the sun was hotter than I am used to and the air was dustier, but the Jakaranda trees were in full purple bloom, the sunsets were spectacular red and the feeling of optimism and humour which Zambian people find in every day was still the same. The road out as far as Chipulukusu has now been surfaced with tarmac, making it much more accessible than in the past, and a shaky electricity supply has arrived. Beyond the main road, deeper into the slum, life goes on very much as before but I definitely got a feeling that things are looking up.
This year, Helen and Elizabeth had been locally selected by their own community as being most in need of a Habitat house.
Helen is a 31 year old woman struggling on her own to raise her own three children; Michael, Mapalo and Natasha and her orphaned nephew, Douglas. As is common for the families chosen for a Habitat house, her current house was mud-built and in the course of collapse around her with cracks evident in all walls. It was feared that it would not last the coming rains. Michael and Douglas had a sleeping spot in a hollow in the mud floor close to one wall, and Helen and the smaller children huddled in another corner where some timber planks were intended to give some support to the sagging roof. On meeting Helen for the first time, I had the impression of a woman for whom her last hope was slipping away and if that house collapsed, she had no ideas or options left. Although Helen had been chosen for a Habitat house, she did not seem to really believe that it could happen to her until the work started.
Once we started work on Helen’s new house, her mood and that of her family started to change. Over the course of several days, she saw how the foundations were dug and the walls were built and Helen started to believe in her own future. Michael and Douglas worked with us every day when they came home from school, and Helen herself hauled water to mix the cement, while still looking after the younger ones and keeping her family together. When the house was finished and Helen received the key to the door, she cried for joy and relief and the tears rolling silently down her face said all that needed to be said.
The other house was for a 72 widow named Elizabeth who was surrounded by a large family of grandchildren and babies and in-laws but with no visible means of support between the lot of them. It seemed that her own children, the middle generation, had all died. Her existing house was also in a state of collapse and when we arrived she was suffering a bout of malaria. Her grandchildren were depressed by the despair of knowing no way out and it seemed like things could not get any worse. Elizabeth’s new house was however intended to accommodate seven of her family and even while suffering malaria, Elizabeth found the strength to come outside to see for herself the start of the build.
By the time we had finished Elizabeth’s house, we had come to know Gift and Kalunga, two of Elizabeth’s older teenage grandchildren who worked with us every day, and there was talk that perhaps with the new-found stability Gift might be able to go back to complete his schooling, and that the health of those who were destined to live in the new house might improve. Time will tell.
Over the course of our stay in Chipulukusu, we worked with the two families on a daily basis and, guided by local builders, we managed to build two small and very simple houses. After work, we stayed in Chipulukusu, where we lived very much as they did, without access to running water, electricity, showers or toilets, but cooking on an open fire, sleeping on the floor, rising with the sun in the morning and going to bed when it got dark, and together with our neighbours we learnt to thank God every day for the wonderful things which happened.
In addition to the construction of two basic houses while we were in Zambia, the money which we raised in Ireland this year (almost €46,000.00) will continued to fund the building of many more houses and quite a few bore-holes and water kiosks in Chipulukusu for some time to come.
Every day in Chipulukusu is a day of surprises and simple joys. Every day, we meet new people with a story to tell and although the place may at first seem harsh to our eyes, the people who live there do not see it. Our neighbours are kind and welcoming and their children are full of life. As intrigued by us as we are by them, they ask about Ireland and about the people who have sent us so far to visit them. When interviewing Brian, one of our Irish volunteers, about his lifestyle in Ireland for what seemed to be a school project, and having seriously noted that Brian lived in a house, one boy asked whether it was a house which had a table. When Brian confirmed that indeed his house did have a table, the young interviewer seemed quite satisfied, and did not have any more questions to ask about the house. This was the report which would go back to school the following day.
The time not spent working was invariably spent getting to know our neighbours and our surroundings. Just going about our daily life in the village atmosphere of Chipulukusu is interesting. Walking around, we frequently met people with a story to tell, or a mutual friend, and we were always welcome to join singing or dancing classes or bible reading, or just to chat with our neighbours about life, family, politics or whatever seemed to be going on around us. In a very normal way, there was never a dull moment.
The only almost serious misunderstanding of our trip was more directed at the Habitat Zambia organisers than at us. On the third day, a confident deputation of six year old boys approached our local Habitat Zambia guide, Paul Chishimba with a formal complaint. “What were you thinking?” the spokesboy demanded “sending us only five Muzungus. How on earth do you expect only five of them to play with all of us?” Pausing for effect, he repeated at the top of his voice “What on earth were you thinking?” When the story was relayed to me, I had to promise that we would all try harder next year.
A particular pleasure in Chipulukusu these days is the number of people I bump into on the street. Over the years I have built so many houses and worked with so many families that it would be an unusual day, even in a slum of 65,000 people, not to bump into someone I know. And always there is a smile and a welcome and a chat about family and friends who are doing well for themselves, as well sometimes as stories about friends who have not thrived and those who have passed on. I feel very much at home in Chipulukusu.
As ever, I visited some of the families for whom we built houses last year to see how they were getting on. I found that Moira Moloshi’s family is thriving, buoyed up by optimism and the chance of a better life since she received her house last year. Moira told us that she no longer has to sleep with buckets under the roof in the rainy season, and with a secure house for her family, she can now sleep peacefully. Her three grandchildren, all orphans for whom she is the only guardian, are now going to school and Moira is really proud of that. Moira looks a lot more healthy than last year and her grandson, Adam Baraka, looks more confident and he now smiles a lot. Adam and his new wife and child live in one of the rooms in the new house, while Moira has another room and the other grandchildren have the third room. The family has been kept together, and it works.
Unfortunately, Bettina Mwanza’s family did not fare so well. Since we left last year her granddaughter, Jane, has died and whereas Bettina is still looking after one of Jane’s four children, the other three children had to be sent away to be cared for by others. Bettina herself is in steep decline and although she is being supported by neighbours, she was so confused when I met her that she was neither able to remember me building her house last year, nor even able to remember her granddaughter Jane, who had lived with her for years and who had only died a few months ago. Bettina was patently ill and barely aware of her surroundings, and yet she is the only living guardian of Jane’s child. When I met her, two kind neighbouring women were trying to assist her in her home, but I fear that her strength and health have passed.
On the plus side, most of the other people and families I know in Chipulukusu are still alive and well. Adam and Kenna are both thriving in the house which they received in 2013, their grandchildren are attending school and they are all in remarkably good health. Eliza and her enormous brood are full of energy and Febby’s family are still safe and well. Unfortunately neither Lovemore nor Joyce were anywhere to be found, and the reports are not good.
In addition to the families with whom I have worked, I had the chance to catch up with Pastor Francis, whose school for orphans is continuing to grow, but which is still chronically under-funded and under resourced. In order to better look after his pupils, he has started rearing chickens and he has had a massive water tank constructed with which he can irrigate the vegetable plots from which he feeds his orphans. He even has a small mill for grinding the corn which he grows. His orphans are not just being fed and educated, but they have the guidance and inspiration of a loving Christian man. His resourcefulness and enterprise continues to develop in so many different ways so that on the rolling dusty hill above Chipulukusu there is now a large patch of growing green and an ever improving sense of the impossible being achieved. I am greatly impressed by that man.
Among my many friends, I met numerous builders such as Paul and Dominique, Jack and Julius, the chairman of our community Jedoh and the vice Chairman, Paul, my kitchen helpers Mary and Margaret and Anna. Among our group of friends, there was an especially celebratory day when Anna, who was my direct next-door neighbour in Chipulukusu, the secretary of the community, a reliable friend and advisor, and a devout catholic who brings to me to mass on Sundays, took a day off work to attend her daughter, Elizabeth’s graduation with a degree in law from the University of Lusaka. Elizabeth will now become the first lawyer in Chipulukusu. Anna, as a poor and vulnerable widow, got the benefit of a Habitat house only ten years ago so it was impressive to see how just giving someone shelter and a chance, can improve the destiny of an entire family so quickly.
In addition to the matter of Habitat housing, I also got a chance to again support some schools around Ndola city. Graceland school is now at the top of the rank for schools in the area, being consistently the best performing school in terms of exam grades in the Copperbelt province. This is largely down to the hard work of dedicated teachers but is greatly assisted by the books and materials which we have brought over in the past few years. We again brought with us a large amount of valuable resources, such as pens and books and even laptop computers for Graceland and for two other schools which cater for orphans in Chipulukusu.
My really big project this year is that together with Mr and Mrs Daka of Graceland School, I am trying to found a large central school library which can be maintained as one single unit but which can be located in perhaps ten or twelve schools in the Ndola area. My task is to source the books here in Ireland and to ship them to Zambia. Mr and Mrs Daka will receive the books and administer their allocation between the local schools which they choose. This new library will be called the “Sister Grace Library”. (Graceland school was named after a nun, Sister Grace, who died very young while helping the poor in the area.) At this stage, I have a 40 foot shipping container in Glasnevin two-thirds full with children’s books and school books but I am still looking for more books. While in Zambia in September I met with responsible people on the ground to arrange for customs clearance and to get clarity on import licences and taxes. When the container is full, I will ship it out to Zambia. The container itself is going to be a community library where those who are not going to any school can come to borrow a book. If we can pull this off, it will be the only functioning public library in the greater area around Ndola.
The other successful project is the micro-finance endeavour which has been incorporated as the Zambian Development Support Foundation, to provide small scale financing to business ideas of those very poor people who have no access to money. By the end of 2014 it had financed the creation and the expansion of 34 separate small-scale businesses from chicken rearing to cement block making and has become very successful. It continues to expand in Chipulukusu and there are many requests to extend into other communities, but at this stage we are just not able to expand as much as we would like to.
I intend to go back to Zambia again in 2016 and I will again be seeking financial support for Habitat for Humanity at that time, but now is just a time to give thanks and to remind you of what you have helped to achieve. In the meanwhile, I am always looking for laptop computers and children’s school books and teaching material and any ideas or support for any of the above projects would be very welcome.
Please enjoy the photos. Thank you so much for all of your help and encouragement in the past and please also accept the thanks of numerous people whose names you may never know, but who will forever appreciate what you have done for them.