2021 was the second year in which I could not travel to Zambia; Coronavirus still having effectively blocked all travel to that part of the world. I miss Zambia dreadfully, but I am in regular contact with friends and collaborators, and the work goes on.

The first thing to say about Zambia today is that it is suffering the effects of Coronavirus the same as everywhere else, but with some differences. In September 2021, Zambia was just coming out of its third (and highest) wave, but recorded numbers of infections and deaths are thankfully still very low by international standards. The virus has been very disruptive of society, with various restrictions implemented from time to time but the people just get on with it. In truth, with only limited testing and medical facilities nationwide, the true extent of infections is difficult to estimate.

Notwithstanding the virus, life goes on as before. The people of Zambia seem to have accepted the arrival of Covid 19 as just another inconvenience to add to the mix of Malaria, Tuberculosis and AIDS, in much the same was as a wave of Cholera might cause the markets to close for a while, but people adapt and get on with it. Small amounts of vaccines have been arriving in the country recently, and that brings a little hope.

From my point of view, the pandemic has meant no fundraising events in Ireland and no team visits to Zambia. The lack of fundraising opportunities here in Ireland has of course slowed our progress on the projects in Zambia, and the inability to travel to Zambia has frustrated our plans to keep up momentum on the literacy and training initiatives of recent years. We have left in place in Zambia many good friends and teachers who are diligently working away on schools, libraries and literacy, but there is no doubt but that the work on the ground, training, building and conferences of previous years are badly missed. Allowing for these difficulties however, we have made some progress.

One success of the past year is the setting up of a Business Skills Integration Workshop to bring together skilled tradesmen, such as the carpenters we trained in 2019, in a more organised and supportive way. My friend and colleague, Emmanuel Phiri is managing this project in a workshop space near the main market in the centre of Ndola. This workshop is used by carpenters, mechanics, upholsters and welders who share their knowledge and resources to more easily establish, and then grow successful independent businesses. We invested 50,000.00 kwacha (€2,500.00) in raw materials, including wood, leather and steel as a start-up initiative. Emmanuel arranged for six tradesmen who had no access to funds or a place to run a business, to work together at this one location. This is a follow on from the previous training initiatives so as to ensure that those with training now have the opportunity to use that training to run a business and become self-sufficient. As of the time of writing, six young men have each established successful business, and we are planning the next stage of expansion of the project.

This Workshop idea is only a development of the other initiatives already in place. The support and materials which we have put in place in schools and the two libraries we have set up in Zambia remain in place and continue to bear fruit. Literacy rates are improving and those for whom we helped kick start businesses continue to earn and are more secure. Those for whom we built houses or schools, still have those homes and schools and clean water still comes from the pumps.

The most immediate good news from this month is that in August 2021 our third container of school books and materials and library books was collected from our warehouse in Glasnevin to begin its journey to Zambia. It left Rotterdam on 1st September on a ship which will take it through the Suez Canal and on to Beira in Mozambique, and we then have a truck booked to take it on the 1,400km overland journey through Zimbabwe and on to Zambia, continuing to Chipulukusu. All going well, it is destined to arrive in Chipulukusu some time in mid-November. As on previous occasions, the Irish Embassy in Lusaka has been immediately responsive and hugely supportive and is assisting with clearing this container through various borders, and the import of this container into Zambia. A very kind sponsor here in Dublin has paid the cost of freight for the entire journey. Many, many people donated books and materials, and their time, to make this possible.

This third container will deliver over 16 tons of books and school materials to Chipulukusu, to be distributed again among such of the local schools as have the facilities to take them. My partners, Voster Tembo and, particularly, Emmanuel Phiri in Ndola, will arrange this on the ground, in collaboration with the local schools who attended our literacy classes in previous years. It is hoped that this again, will be a boost to the culture of literacy and learning we are trying to foster. The container itself, will again remain in Zambia, where we will cut doors and windows in it and turn it into another public library.

With all of this progress on literacy, I must here sadly report that Catherine Daka of Graceland School (who first suggested to me that we should send books to Zambia and support literacy training, and who inspired so many people) died after a short illness last year. She was a larger than life character, a great friend, and a wonderful educator. She will be hugely missed. Her husband, Bornwell, and her daughter, Duba, are continuing on the good work in Graceland School.

A rural school near Ndola, Zambia

Many schools in Chipulukusu will not benefit from this container of books, as they simply do not have the facilities to hold them. Far too many schools simply do not have a secure roof, windows or doors, sufficient to hold books, or almost anything else. For those schools, exposed to the elements and with no resources, we have been struggling to support them with the facility of borrowing books from our established public library in Chipulukusu, which is run out of the first shipping container which we sent to Zambia. The reality however is that our small library is simply not well-enough stocked or organised to support all of those schools. For those schools, we are hoping to greatly increase the stock of books in the public container library in Chipulukusu. We are also setting up now a formal partnership, so that each school which does receive books will agree to share those books on a lending basis with one other school which does not have the capacity to hold books itself. In this way, even the poorest of schools will have some limited access to books and we are hoping that the pairing of schools will bring long-term benefits for both.

We have now reached agreement with the Ministry for General Education in Zambia that they will provide a site at a central location, close to the market in Chipulukusu, where a library can be built. We have identified and agreed the site. I have agreed that I will arrange and pay for the construction of a library on that site. The government will then supply a professional full-time librarian and the library will be handed over to be administered by a small committee of local schools for the good of all schools and the public in Chipulukusu generally. This agreement took some time to negotiate, and to Emmanuel Phiri in particular who personally conducted most of the negotiations, I owe a lot of thanks.

Our initial modest plans for this library proved too small for demand. Whereas, initially we forecasted a limited demand for our library, the reality of our success in promoting literacy means that there is now a huge demand for books and reading and we have had to double the seating capacity in the library. This has naturally resulted in an increased cost. When one adds to that the chaos of Covid, oscillating foreign exchange movements and rampant inflation in Zambia, it has been a challenge to raise the money needed to build this library. However, we have now fixed the budget for the library at €130,000.00 to fully build, of which we have raised about €68,000.00. We could have raised the entire of the money over the past two years, were it not for Covid, but Covid has dramatically reduced our fundraising ability. In order to bring this dream to fruition therefore, we need some significant sponsors and donations to bridge the gap.

The almost-permanent solution to providing books and teaching materials to schools which do not have the physical structure to hold them is to build a proper, purpose-built library of large enough dimensions to hold a large stock of books, and sufficient to allow the students to attend and to read there. We are also including in the plans for this library provision for a computer lab, which will be run on laptop computers so that they will be somewhat protected from the frequent power cuts which plague Zambia. This library building is something I have been trying to establish for a few years now, and I have to confess that it is taking far longer than I had hoped. There has been a lot to do along the way, but we have now almost reached the point where we can begin to see construction.

Building this library itself is not going to be enough. Once built, the library will have to be equipped with books and bookshelves and laptops and furniture. The next container to Zambia (our fourth) will be dedicated to equip this library. That means that we require a huge volume of children’s books and school books and bookshelves. I have already received, thanks to one Dublin school, a huge amount of desks and chairs, and also an offer to purchase the next shipping container, but no doubt we will need much more. The next year, therefore, is going to require a big drive in collecting more books and laptops and bookshelves and materials, and we will have to aim for sending our fourth container to Zambia next summer.

The summer of 2022 will definitely see us back in Zambia. Already, travel restrictions are easing in Europe and one has to predict that travel to Zambia will again be possible next year. At that stage, I will be seeking more volunteers to travel to Zambia with me, and particularly those who have skills in teaching and literacy, but in reality everyone who has a skill to contribute is welcome.

So as we come to the end of another Irish summer, I wish to thank you for all of your past support and to let you know that despite all difficulties, the plans for Zambia are moving ahead. If you can contribute in any way at all, especially financially, or with books, or laptops or if you are willing to come to Zambia with me, please get in touch. All help is most welcome and very badly needed.