The main focus on travelling to Zambia in 2016 was again to support the wonderful work of Habitat for Humanity in the township of Chipulukusu, where I have been helping to build houses and to provide clean water supplies for several years now. Over the first half of 2016, friends like you helped to raise funds here in Ireland to keep the Habitat project in Chipulukusu going and we also laid our plans as to what should be achieved in the other projects in which I am involved.
I arrived in Zambia in August in the middle of the post-election chaos which followed the result in favour of the incumbent president, Mr Edgar Lungu. Although the challenger was not successful and accusations and denials (much like the recent American elections) were exchanged, all arguments were resolved in the ballot boxes and in the courts. That is by no means to be taken for granted in Africa, but the peaceful and democratic nature of Zambia inspires confidence in putting my time and effort into helping the country.
We drove again 220 miles north from Lusaka to Chipulukusu, that impoverished township where I feel quite at home. I was accompanied this year by, among others, my son Shane and my sister, Mary, and it was a personal pleasure this year to introduce my family to so many people.
During my time in Zambia, I tried to look up as many people as I could and of course Mary and Shane had to meet everyone. Most people had made it through the last year, but, as ever, some did not. If you remember my talking of him, Mr Adam Katubile is still in good health, but he was hungry when I met him and had not eaten in a few days and I am a little concerned for him and for his wife, Kenna. Betina Mwansa is substantially recovered from the illness which had struck her last year, and young Abram, her grandson, is still with her. Moira Moloshi, Elizabeth, Gift and Kalunga, Helen, Adam Baraka, Febby Chabu and Eliza Kabangasha and their families (all of whom received a Habitat house in the past few years in Chipulukusu) remain safe and well and in good health. That is very rewarding to see, given their circumstances when I first met them.
This year we again concentrated our time on constructing houses for two families. One of the ladies for whom we were meant to build a house died a week before we got there, and so we had to adjust our plans.
We built a house for Failet (Violet) Bwalya who is a 72 year old widow trying to raise three orphaned grandchildren. Like many in Zambia, Failet had five children but three of them died and she has been left to care for three of her grandchildren (Matthews 12, Charles 14 and Catherine 9) without any income or means of support beyond the kindness of her neighbours and what people like Habitat for Humanity can provide. Failet was living in a broken down shelter which had partially collapsed and when we arrived she had already a broken arm as a result of her dangerous living conditions. Life was difficult for Failet.
The second house was built for Jennifer Ngandwe. Jennifer is also a widow and she had seven children but six have already died and she is trying to care for her one remaining daughter and two of her orphaned grandchildren. Jennifer, not alone has no work or source of income, but she is also HIV positive, and so very vulnerable to ill health and misfortune. Her current shelter was also partially collapsed and she was badly in need of assistance.
Between us and our Zambian counterparts we managed to build a small house for each of Failet and Jennifer. Each house has three small rooms, about seven feet square, and a corrugated tin roof, in a style and to a standard which is very basic by Irish standards, but which is considered extremely good in Zambia.
The school library project, which has taken so much of my time over the past two years, is going very well, although it has taken a lot longer than I had at first thought. It took me a while to realise that I had taken on an awful lot more than I had imagined when I committed to found a library in Zambia, but with a lot of help from a lot of friends in Ireland and in Zambia, we are getting there. Early this summer, I secured from Habitat for Humanity Zambia a site for the location of the library in Chipulukusu, on a 20 year licence agreement.
A kind sponsor in Ireland has bought and paid for a 40-foot steel shipping container to transport the books to Zambia and to house the library when it gets there. The container is now full to the brim with books and ready to sail, save only that (ironically) we are overweight and we have to take some books out of the container before it can be transported. Wonderful people in schools, libraries and publishers all over the country have donated books. Friends have lent me vans to drive around the country to collect books and one very kind sponsor has provided us with a warehouse in Glasnevin where the books are stored and sorted before shipping. I had great difficulty in negotiating my way through Zambian import regulations, customs clearance and import duties, but when in Lusaka in August I met with the Irish ambassador who immediately offered to assist and he has now cleared the way so that we can ship the container through all ports and borders without difficulty.
My Zambian partners in the library venture, Graceland School, continue to grow in strength and achievement. They continue to produce the very best exam grades in the Copperbelt province and now, thanks to a donation of equipment from UCD and the kindness of some Habitat volunteers to Zambia who transported the equipment, they boast a science laboratory with university-grade microscopes and equipment which would put an Irish secondary school to shame. All of this cost nothing, but the kindness and help of well-wishers.
A significant development this year is that we have taken on a new partner in our work in Chipulukusu with the directors and promoters of the Youngnak Christian School. This is a new school in Chipulukusu which seems to be well run and managed, but is, as ever in Zambia, poorly resourced. We are hoping to do for Youngnak school what we have done in the past with Graceland School.
Youngnak school only started in 2013 and now has 354 pupils. They primarily target orphans for their school and after that, if there are any spaces free they prioritise children who are vulnerable in other ways. The director of Youngnak school, Percy Muitwa, explained to me that in their first year of operation, 2013, when they only had 80 students four children died of Malaria and two died of malnutrition. This is the reality of where I work, and sometimes when I am engrossed in one idea or another, I need reminding of that reality. That is why we go there.
Having learnt the hard way, Youngnak introduced a feeding programme for all students so that every child gets at least one meal a day, and they now also have an active Malaria detection and treatment programme. School in Zambia often means far more than just learning to read.
Youngnak school has so far been wholly funded by a Korean Christian missionary, who is however coming to the end of his available funds. (Youngnak means “Eternal Joy” in Korean.) The school has a large plot of ground and relatively well-constructed classrooms but has few books and little school equipment. This is where I hope to be able to help. In consultation with my partners in Graceland School, we have agreed to provide a part of our container load of books to Youngnak School and I am also in a position to send them a large amount of laboratory equipment for a school lab.
The teachers in Youngnak were trying to teach the children computer studies (which is part of the official school curriculum) on the basis of one laptop belonging to the school and one borrowed laptop with a broken battery. With those resources, the school director was showing the teachers (who had never held a computer in their lives) the rudiments of how to work a computer and how to open and close documents, and when the teachers had figured that out, they were going to draw a keyboard on the blackboard and then “teach” the children how to use a computer from the blackboard. I was able to give them four laptop computers (donated by friends in Ireland) to improve things but I am currently trying to source perhaps another 30 laptop computers so that we can equip a full classroom. These resources are simply not available in Zambia, but if I can source them in Ireland I know that I can get them shipped over, as we did with Graceland. Our goal is that the most vulnerable orphans will get the very best education in Zambia and will therefore be best-equipped survive personally, and to help develop their country in the future.
While we were in Chipulukusu, my sister, Mary (who is an educational psychologist with a particular expertise in literacy) took some time out to conduct workshops with the teachers of Youngnak and this has developed into the start of a teacher-training project which is largely her doing, but which I am proud and pleased to support.
I found in August that the micro-finance project (Zambian Development Support Foundation) which had been very successful and had started 34 new businesses in its first year, had all but ground to a halt in my absence. That is simply one of the difficulties of trying to manage something from Ireland. By a series of unfortunate co-incidences ALL of the key staff who were administering the project in Chipulukusu had left that part of the country over the prior six months, so that by August we had no one on the ground actually administering the project. My tireless friend and fellow campaigner, Voster Tembo, who is my key collaborator in all matters in Zambia, had himself left his employment with Habitat for Humanity Zambia, for a government job in development in Lusaka.
Voster has enthusiastically agreed to continue working with me on the various projects which we have in train, including the library project and the micro finance project. We have taken on the task of building up the systems and putting in place again a new team for the micro finance project from scratch. The good news is that we are now well advanced and we hope to re-launch the project in the new year with a fresh series of loans to take vulnerable widows out of poverty by helping them to found a new business. The record so far is that every loan has been a success and every business which was started with a ZDSF loan has been a success so that every widow we have helped has been permanently taken out of poverty. The cumulative effect on their families and the small community has been profound. That simply must continue. Furthermore, several Irish supporters have made significant financial donations to the micro finance project over the past year so our fund is larger so that we can expand operations to try to meet the great need for small business loans. 2017 should be a good year for ZDSF.
Taking all of the above into account, I have to say that 2016 has been a very challenging but also rewarding year for our Zambian projects. I have, in truth, failed to get the container of books filled, weighed, certified and shipped so as to get it out of Ireland this year as I had intended. I have however finally got everything in place and I am confident that it will be shipped in January or February 2017. ZDSF has stalled, but is back up and running and 2017 should be its best year yet. My partnerships with Graceland School and Youngnak School and others in Zambia have made far more possible than I ever could do on my own. Above all, Habitat for Humanity continues to do wonderful work in supporting those who are most vulnerable and deprived in our world, and it is only with the unstinting help of Habitat for Humanity Ireland and Habitat for Humanity Zambia, that all of this has been possible. Without their help and their network of friends, support and local knowledge, I could not have done anything.
Most of all at this time, I wish to thank you and all of my supporters, friends, sponsors and donors for your continuing and unstinting trust and support. You really are doing a lot and all that is described above is made possible by your help. As ever, I can only thank you on behalf of many, many Zambian friends whose lives have been made better because of you.