In June 2010 I went back to Zambia with Habitat for Humanity for the third time inside two years, having first visited Zambia in June 2008 with Gonzaga College and having been back again in September 2009 leading my own team.

Going to Zambia with Habitat for Humanity has become a recurring event for me and when I am back here in Ireland, half of my mind is still out there. I am already planning the next trip.

The urgency is still there

Having ventured to Zambia now three times, the awful first shock of seeing such poverty and illness has certainly diminished but the sense of urgency to do something about it has not. The scale of the problems is vast. What was most heartening about this trip however was to see so much dramatic improvement from the last two years’ efforts. The scale of the problems overall may well be vast and incomprehensible but the improvements made on a smaller human scale are real and tangible.

Confronted by a country of 12 million people, ravaged by Aids, dirt and poverty, where over 1 million are child orphans and life expectancy is 38, we simply have to start somewhere. This year again, it started with support and kindness from many friends here in Ireland. Early in the year, when I announced my intention to go back to Zambia again I very quickly found a willing team to go with me and a broad swathe of supporters offering logistical, emotional and financial support. I have to say that thanks to all of you, it came together more easily than I had thought.

Support at home

I was supported here in Ireland in particular by the staff in Habitat for Humanity’s Irish office who know from years of experience how to organise and inspire these expeditions on a shoestring budget. I also had many friends who gave of their time and organisational ability in my fundraising efforts, and in this regard I have to mention Christine Smith of Mackenway wines who presented the wine tasting evening, Vanessa O’Riain of Cooks Academy who supplied the complimentary nibbles and Peter McCann of the Merrion Hotel who hosted it. Dave Godwin single-handedly organised a race night. Many people gave generously in term of time as well as money. It is largely a testament to their enthusiasm and your generosity that in this economic recession we raised over €57,000.00. For this expedition, I was accompanied by six volunteers making us seven in all. We were a disparate group at the start, but worked well together and I am unbelievably proud of them and of what we achieved. I could not have wished for a better team. On the ground in Zambia I also had again my resourceful and invaluable translator, friend, guide and brother, Voster Tembo. Voster was appointed by Habitat in Zambia to accompany our team last year, and so we know each other well at this stage. He is patient, kind and humorous and Vosterwill organise and facilitate almost anything on request. He has gotten us in to and out of so many scrapes and situations, I really could not do the job without him.

200 miles north of Lusaka

The 2010 team. Gavin Kane, me, Tim Hurley, Sam Hodkins, John Foyle, Michael Kealy, Eoin Bevan and Voster Tembo

Just over 24 hours after leaving Dublin Airport on 18th June we were 200 miles north of Lusaka close to the border with the Congo and back in the village of Kawama, where I was last September. The sun, the haze, the dust in the air and the laughter and chatter of ragged children. It felt like coming home.

It was a great feeling and a huge logistical advantage to come back to a place where I was already known and where our mission was understood from the start. There was little need for explanations or introductions but just hugs all around from friends who had been left behind last year, but not forgotten. My friends were delighted that I had come back, and I was delighted to be back. We just took up where we had left off.


Kawama, my street
(Click for larger image)

The effects of the work which we had done last year were immediately apparent. I obviously had seen, because I did the work myself, that in September 2009 we had physically built two houses. However, with the money which we had raised last year, and to which you had contributed, Habitat in Zambia had built another fifteen houses for widows and orphans of the Aids virus. It also funded the installation of a system of cement-lined pit latrines in Tiyende Pamodzi which are intended to solve a problem of sewage entering the ground water near wells. Most important for the whole community in Kawama, the money which we raised last September has funded the installation and supply of a free treated water supply for the village. In a place where contaminated water is a huge problem (typhoid/cholera/diarrhoea) a clean treated-water plant is going to have a massive beneficial effect on general health. The air of optimism and things being done was palpable. I felt a tangible hope.

Even as we worked in Kawama in June 2010, the money which was raised last September 2009 still had not been all used up and the work was continuing. It made a huge impression on me to see how careful use of a small sum of money could achieve so much. We visited many of the houses built with last year’s money and we met many of the families. At up to 13 people to a three-room house, this is by no means luxury but you have to consider the awful conditions in which these people lived before the Habitat house was built. So very many people were better off, I could not count how many benefitted from what we did last September.

Beauty and Chiba

Inside Beauty’s house in Kawama, 2010.

One of several otherwise mundane incidents which struck home was an evening spent in the home of Beauty, a widow in her 40s, and her 17 year old daughter Chiba. Theirs is one of the two houses in Kawama which we physically built last September. Some of our team spent an evening in the candle-light listening to Beauty and Chiba and some of our friends singing and dancing and having a laugh. They seemed so healthy and happy and the house was so normal, it was difficult for me to picture them back in the conditions from which they had come. Their lives had been immeasurably improved by the teamwork of you, and me and Habitat.

AIDS and poverty

Aids testing starts early
(Click for larger image)

I cannot forget that things are still difficult in Kawama. HIV/Aids is still a big problem and tuberculosis an everyday killer. The poverty which one encounters in Kawama is on a level which we in Ireland cannot comprehend. However, by the provision of a safe house, clean drinking water and a basic pit latrine, lives and health are immeasurably better. Things are working and things are getting better. Amid the dusty deprivation I felt a real optimism this time.

On our visit this time we completed two houses, and half-built a third house which no doubt has been finished since we left. The families with whom we worked were those most in need as selected locally in the village for assistance from Habitat. All of them were, by any standards in need of help and did not deserve what life had dealt to them. I spent most of my time working on a house for an extended family of three sisters and their children who shared a house with a brother, their mother and grandmother. Their individual stories are a microcosm of the problems facing people inZambia.

Maureen Makwaza and family

Sharon Makwaza in the garden, Kawama June 2010

The mother of the family, Maureen Makwaza, is a widow who is the mother of eight children, three of whom were dead. Her daughter, also called Maureen, is about sixteen years old and still at school. Her second daughter, Sharon, who is not much older, never finished school because she has one child as a result of being raped by a policeman while on her way home from school and while we were there Sharon gave birth to a second child by her husband who was in jail, apparently for attempting to steal building materials. The third daughter, Scholastica, is a deaf mute who has one small baby, but due to lack of space and poverty, she and her husband cannot live together. A brother, Dismas, who is about ten years old also lives with them, as well as the grandmother, Violet, who seemed very unwell and on some days was unable to get out of bed. While we were there, a brother of Maureen (the mother), Collins, arrived from Lusaka to move in with them, because (having reached retirement age from the army and having then no income) he had nowhere else to go. The three sisters and their children all lived and slept in one room of a semi-collapsed house which had no front wall. It was therefore open to the elements and all that it might bring, including mosquitos and malaria, cold and weather, theft and physical violation. These people needed a Habitat house.

We spent our working days with these people while we were building the house for them. They were good fun to be with and as curious about us as we were about them. Knowing the personalities and the background of our hosts made the build all the more worthwhile.

Looking up old friends

Mary died within a month of this photo being taken, September 2009

On personal level, I was saddened that so many friends of last September did not live until June. I already knew that Innocent Mutele’s aunt Mary had died in October, but I was surprised that some others (including a girl as young as seven) had not made it. We did not dwell on it, but it was a bit of a jolt and at times as one learnt of one more casualty it brought me back to the reality of where we were. Zambia just seems to be a place where they have a lot of funerals and that is not likely to change in the foreseeable future.

Innocent Mutele

Innocent takes a rest

Innocent takes a rest

As for my friend Innocent, he has been through a bit of a time since last September. Many of you will remember me tell of Innocent, the 16 year old orphaned boy who was being looked after by his aunt, Mary, and for whom we built a house last September. Unfortunately, Mary died last October leaving Innocent again unprotected in what is a very harsh world. Soon after her death I understand that an uncle moved in and seized the house which we had built for Innocent and Innocent ended up in a far off village perhaps sixty miles away, living with a family which did not want him and where he did not want to be. Things looked very bleak for him but the good news is that Habitat in Zambia has a well organised structure and they found out what had happened. Habitat Zambia intervened and the uncle was ejected and the house taken back.

Innocent and Gavin working on Maureen Makwaza’s house, June 2010.

Innocent came back to Kawama last June when he heard that I was visiting. I am not sure how he made the 60 mile journey or how exactly he even found out that I was back in the country, but someone let him know. We spent an all-too-short time together. He had been through a very rough time, but he looked well. Habitat Zambia again took up with Innocent and as I left Kawama plans are well advanced to have the legal title of the house secured for Innocent and to re-unite him with his deceased aunt’s children whom he dearly loves as his own family. They will form a new family unit where they can all look after each other and the house which we built will be the centre of this stability. Innocent’s long wished-for ideal of meeting again his own sister and his grandmother seems to be still a long way off, but things are improving. If Innocent can find a job of some sort after he finishes school, this too may be possible. I am hugely looking forward to seeing him again next year.

More to be done

Celebrations when Maureen Makwaza received her house
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And so, coming back from Zambia this year I have to say that I am heartened. I do not underestimate the huge work that there is to be done or the scale of human devastation, but I am optimistic about what we can achieve. Inside the past year, from the expeditions of September 2009 and June 2010, we have raised over €100,000.00 for Zambia. The achievements of September 2009 are impressive and ongoing and Habitat Zambia has only begun to access the money raised in June 2010. Plans are being drawn up for further housing, water and basic sanitation. Lifting people out of the worst of poverty and ill health has to start there, with housing, water and sanitation. After that, food, clothing, education and improved health quickly follow. I have seen the improvements. I am optimistic.

There is still much more to be done. There is human tragedy and deprivation to be addressed, but there are also plans to be made, schemes to be implemented and friendships to be renewed and all going well, I hope to go back to Zambia with Habitat for Humanity next summer.

At this stage, I can only again thank you from the bottom of my heart for your generosity and for changing lives. You may never know how profoundly you have touched people with your support but I can only assure you that you have. There are people in Kawama today who still bless you in their prayers.

Michael Nugent

September 2010.

Habitat for Humanity Ireland is a registered charity. Charity No: CHY 15187. Registered in Ireland. Company Reg No: 362823. Registered address: Unit F, The Liffey Trust Centre, 117-126 Upper Sheriff Street, Dublin 1. Tel. 5310033.