30th august 2020- I should be in Zambia now, but I’m not. Coronavirus has stopped everything here and everything over there. For the first time in 13 years, I am not going to be in Zambia this summer.
I have held off writing to you until now, because I was always hoping that things might change, and that a reduced or amended project might be carried out this year, but it has not turned out that way. Accordingly, please forgive the lateness of my bi-annual update on our Zambian projects.
Apologies too that we could not hold our fundraising evening this year. As they have done for many years, Cooks Academy and Mackenway wines offered to host an evening of fine wine and food in May, and we had a date booked and all arranged, but we had to cancel. I did hope to be able to have the event later in the year, but it is now clear that nothing like this will be possible for a good while.
The virus situation on the ground in Zambia is similar to here, with the Government having closed schools and businesses, and everyone being conscious of social distancing. However, with the much slower pace of life, limited international contact compared to Europe and different circumstances generally, Zambia is only now at the beginning of its Covid 19 experience, and cases are rising steadily. It is only in the past few weeks that things have become really serious. However, long before things became as bad as they are now, restrictions on travel to Zambia and on meetings in Zambia were in place and so there is no possibility of a volunteer team going to Zambia this year and no chance of teaching seminars or meetings or further development in the schools. With great regret, everything which we had planned for this year has had to be postponed until next year.
Naturally, our plans for the construction of the library in Chipulukusu have been delayed. We still have the architectural plans, a large amount of money donated towards the cost of construction, and willing partners in Zambia, but everything has slowed to a standstill. We are using our time to continue active discussions with the Ministry of General Education in Zambia about a possible joint venture whereby we will build and fit out the library, and the Ministry of General Education might supply a librarian to help run the library. My colleague, Emmanuel Phiri, is leading the negotiations with the Government in that regard and although progress has been terribly slowed by current circumstances, the prospect of establishing a formal partnership with the government is heartening.
Our latest shipping container full of books and school materials is now fully packed in Glasnevin waiting to be lifted. Again, the Coronavirus has closed borders and the Irish ambassador, Seamus O’Grady, has advised that I hold off from sending the container just yet. The route is difficult, as it must pass through Tanzania, and transit is just too unpredictable at the moment. I am hoping that we can ship the container before the end of the year, but it may be next year. I should mention that the Irish embassy in Lusaka is, as ever, an inspiring and invaluable support. On that note, I regret to say that Seamus O’Grady is leaving his post as ambassador to Zambia soon, for a new post in Malawi, but I am looking forward to working with the new ambassador in our continuing endeavours.
I understand that life in the streets and fields in Zambia continues as it has always done. My friends in Zambia are not too put out by the Coronavirus. After all, they remind me that the government closed all of the markets and meeting places twice last year, and also in the previous year, due to cholera epidemics. They are used to this sort of disruption. The reality too is that illness and untimely deaths from Covid 19 are unlikely to be prominent in the context of so much illness and death from AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis. In regular WhatsApp calls, my friends in Zambia tell me that they are getting on with their lives, as they have always done, and they take this novel virus in their stride.
We must put this virus in context, remembering that Chipulukusu, is a slum of about 65,000 souls, with almost no electricity or water supplies, no sewage system, refuse collection or proper streets, and it is still one of the poorest and most deprived places on the planet. Here, where hunger is rife and life expectancy hovers around 38 years and it is estimated that one person in eight is HIV positive, the Coronavirus will have its deadly impact, but it is unlikely to change much of the overall situation. Life will go on, and we must not be daunted by a virus and we must continue what we are doing.
In Lusaka, my main organiser and long-time friend, Voster Tembo, did get the virus, but he has thankfully recovered. And my main friend, organiser and helper in Ndola, Emmanuel Phiri, tells me that his 2 year old daughter, Jolene, is just recovering from a dose of malaria. With the resilience which is typical of the Zambian spirit, they just get over it and move on.
In the overall context of the country as a whole, it has to be said that the rains earlier this year were the best for decades, probably a record, and so the harvest has also been excellent. Last January, years of drought had led to food shortages and famine had appeared in some regions of Zambia, with attendant breakdowns on social order and society. As such, the rains were very welcome and from a food-security point of view this year should be, for many people, a very good year. Out of this challenging situation, we must build and we must keep going, so the following are our plans.
Firstly, the main focus must be on continuity. We have established a small core of schools with access to books and learning materials, and who have benefitted from instruction in teaching methods from our past volunteer trips. We must continue to nurture the growing literacy and educational standards. Where we have container libraries, we must ensure that they keep running. Where we have established small businesses with the micro finance and vocational training initiatives, we have to continue to support and assist in the growth of an enterprise culture. We have seen what a small amount of support, education and guidance can bring, and we simply cannot let that wither. Although I cannot this year physically be in Zambia, we can continue to support from afar.
The construction of the purpose-built library is still the main goal. There is a growing interest in books, but aside from the few schools we have been able to support, and the two existing container-libraries, there are no books publicly available and no libraries in Chipulukusu or in the greater Ndola region. We have two options for the site location for the new library and talks currently ongoing with the Ministry of General Education about the running of the library, but the construction and fitting out of the library is for us. For this, we urgently need more money and if you feel that you can contribute anything to this project, please donate. Amid all else, our plans have been badly delayed, but they have not been dampened. On the contrary, this library is needed now more than ever.
Sending the next container of books to Zambia is a matter which is already largely achieved, in the sense that the container is full and packed and ready to go and one kind supporter has agreed to pay the cost of sending the container to Zambia. All that we are now waiting for, is for the borders and import facilities in Zambia to open up sufficiently for us to dispatch the container. This is another huge achievement and a milestone in our endeavours for which I must earnestly thank so many people for their donations of books, school equipment, transport, warehouse facilities and so much more. It is going to have a massive impact now in Chipulukusu, where there is a real hunger for these books and materials. We will be able to equip several schools and make-shift libraries with the contents of this container.
With the new library in mind, we must now start collecting materials to stock that library in particular, so I wish to appeal to everyone to search for us for anything which might suit as library shelving (ideally collapsible steel cantilever shelving). As there are almost no books in Zambia, you will understand that there are also no bookshelves available in Zambia. This sort of shelving is however, in every old library and school in Ireland, and is frequently replaced and sent to the dump. Many people in the past have been able to alert me when it has become available, and it is invaluable to us. Please help me to find good shelving for our library.
Also, please bear in mind that we are always on the lookout of children’s books. School books (but not gaeilge or foreign languages) and story books are the basic ingredient of all good schools and libraries, and this year, more than ever, we have a massive need of books to stack the new library. Also, teaching materials, pencils, markers, flash cards, reading and maths schemes and teaching aids of all types are needed.
Unwanted school desks and computer desks and chairs are also needed, to provide a small amount of furniture for the library, and any surplus we manage to collect will be eagerly accepted by any number of local schools, for most of whom furniture would be considered to be a luxury. Please be on the alert for anything that you think might be useful.
We are also always, permanently, on the lookout for unwanted laptop computers. There is a huge hunger in Zambia for access to this technology, but there is, for most people, no prospect of having access to a laptop. Over the past few years, we have brought out about 48 laptops which are now located primarily in two schools, and we have conducted intensive workshops in basic computer training, thereby leaving behind both the laptops and competent teachers in the use of this technology. At the moment, one particular teacher (whose university education is being supported by some kind sponsors in Ireland) is in his second year in university, studying computers and education. When he graduates, we would like to have the makings of a computer lab where he could provide permanent quality instruction in the use of computers to the community. In this manner, we will have established a basic infrastructure in teaching computers which no longer relies on visits from foreign teams, but which is permanent, self-sustaining, Zambian run, and independent. For this, we need a large amount of laptop computers. Please see what you can find for me.
For the organisation of all of this, here in Ireland, we rely on the help of numerous people who help with organising, collecting and delivering. If you have a van to help collect books, or a network of schools you can contact for books or materials or any other resource or skill which you can use to help us in any of the above, let me know.
We also need volunteers who are willing to travel to Zambia. We desperately need volunteers every year, to travel with us and to spend some time implementing and organising the plans and schemes which we have drawn. We still need teachers, librarians, educational psychologists, computer experts and anyone who can contribute their time and skills to make a difference. Vocational training is hugely needed, so carpenters, electricians, plumbers are equally needed and, if there is a skill which you have and which I have not mentioned but you think would be useful, let me know. The need in Zambia is great, so almost any skill or opportunity you can bring will be very, very welcome. This is a big ask, but it is the volunteers who come with me every year who make the real difference on the ground, and who make things come to life. It is our volunteers who can change a bundle of books into a vibrant literacy, and a lifeless laptop into a thrilling source of learning and opportunity. In 2019, one volunteer set up five young men with the basic skills to earn their living as carpenters. If you are willing to risk the adventure, it may be the best of your life.
All told, our general activities in any year probably cost no more than about €20,000.00 to €30,000.00 but the really big requirement for funds is definitely the construction of the library building, which is going to cost something over €90,000.00. We have already raised over €54,000.00, so we are more than half way there, but there is still a lot of money to raise. If you think that you can help, please do. Please donate whatever you can afford by cheque made out to “Michael Nugent (Zambia)” or donate on line by clicking the “Donate by credit card” button on my website at http://www.mnugentzambia.com. All money which you contribute will go straight to these projects in Zambia and no money is paid out in Ireland or used to fund volunteer trips. As usual, I and all of our volunteers will fund their own involvement in this project.
In the overall, the virus pandemic has set us back and delayed and hindered our plans, as it has everything else. However, it has not changed our plans. If anything, the real damage to our Zambian projects will be a break in continuity and support, which it is going to be difficult to overcome. As against this, we must double down on our efforts and be ready to re-launch with renewed vigour when the current restrictions end. Your support, and the support of many others like you will make this possible.