Friday, 27 July 2012

Zambia Part 5 – Donata‏

I really have to devote an entire blog post to Donata because quite frankly a whole book on her life wouldn’t be misspent. This woman is amazing. We met Donata on one of our last days at Ndubs when she brought her school, a disabled school that she founded in her name, for a day of activities and fun. I’ll start with a little of Donata’s life story and I’m sure you’ll be as wowed as I am.
The lady herself
Donata was orphaned aged ten and then went to live with her grandfather who also passed away shortly after. She suffered from polio in her first week of life and so she herself is disabled and struggles to walk. At the point of destitution she was found by a Catholic priest who took her to an orphanage run by some missionaries. There she was educated and cared for and eventually she married and had a family of her own.

Like all women in Zambia Donata didn’t escape the loss of children. Three of her children died including her son who died recently at the age of 26 leaving two small children behind. It was as Donata reached her fifties and her children were all grown up that she started to think about wanting to give back for the blessings she received by being taken in by those missionaries all those years before. She describes her life’s work as ‘one big thank you to God for looking after me.’

And that thank you became the Donata School for disabled children. The lot for blind, deaf and physically disabled children in Zambia is intensely sad and before Donata began her school none of these children in the area were being educated. This only compounds the hard lot they have in life and makes accessing medical care and other support all the more difficult.

Donata funded the school (you can see a video of their new building built by the UK charity Build International here), and continues to fund it, by walking from farm to farm begging on behalf of the children. She walks for two weeks at a time, sleeping on the road. When I stared at her, mouth open at this level of extraordinary tale, she said ‘Well, the Lord Jesus walked from place to place all his life and so can I’. Have you ever seen service like that?!

A few years into founding the school a particularly unexpected arrival appeared on Donata’s doorstep, a little boy. He was deaf and both his parents had died. His extended family, not knowing how to cope with him, left him with Donata who, though unable to fully provide for all her own needs, took him in. He is now a strapping sixteen year old, full of life and even better full of dignity. That is what Donata does best. The children performed a poem for us in sign language called ‘Disability is not inability’.Never have I tried so unsuccessfully not to cry in my life!! Donata’s unceasing commitment to these children and her constant instilling in them that they are valuable and precious no matter what challenges they face is truly fantastic.

Not satisfied with all the many children she has in Zambia Donata took me and Ben under her wing and pronounced us her English grandchildren! She loves the Queen and was seriously excited that I grew up in Windsor. If anyone deserves a letter from the Queen then my goodness this women does and I’m on a personal mission to get one for her. The school is very much on my heart and I’m mulling over what I can do best to help them. If this extraordinary story has tugged on your heartstrings then do check out the Donata school website or drop me a line.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Zambia Part 4 - Miloso

Our second trip from Ndubaluba was out to the area of Miloso. The purpose of the trip was to do some practical tasks to help people and projects in the area and just to visit some people and spread a little sunshine. The first day was spent visiting patients who are part of a home based care initiative run by the Miloso Community Church. They bring basic care and food supplies to people cut off from medical provision and as we drove out to the villages via dirt roads, sometimes directly over the bush, it was immediately obvious why such a scheme is needed.
The first person we visited had been complaining with stomach pains, leaving him unable to work, complicated by his developing HIV/AIDS. He had never been to see a doctor because the hospital is several hours walk, no one in the village has any kind of transportation and he’s not up to making the journey on foot. He had been suffering from the same condition since 1992 and has taken nothing but paracetemol for it.

The story was pretty similar with each patient that we visited. Desperate situations that go on way too long but thankfully supportive communities and families who rally round and support the person. The stigma of HIV is being reduced now that it is a much more openly discussed topic. This in itself is a wonderful breakthrough.

At the second family we visited the patient was an eight year old girl called Memory who also has HIV/AIDS. The family was very different from the first we visited. There was silence there, almost a cloud of sadness and Memory clung to her Mum, desperately shy. The effects of HIV/AIDS meant that she is under developed and unable to speak but since receiving antiretrovirals she has started to say a few words and is more able to play with her siblings and the other children in the village.

Memory and her mother playing with the hula hoop she loved
It took a bit of coaxing but the lure of a skipping rope and hula hoop had the children come out from behind the bags of maize and they were charging around with us in no time. One of the most touching sights was Memory running along the dust path rolling the hula hoop with an enormous smile on her face. The hoop belonged to the Ndubs but the team bought it off them so they could give it to Memory. Money well spent when we saw the smile on her face to be left with it.

Our final patient was an elderly lady suffering from what seemed to be the effects of high blood pressure but again she had only been given paracetamol. She had been suffering with intense migranes for eight years. It’s hard to comprehend that level of suffering. We painted her house, introduced her grandchildren to the wonders of bubbles and cooked the family dinner.

We love bubbles!
It felt like so little to offer but they commented that our being there raised their spirits, simply by being remembered by a world that seems to be racing on without them. We split into two team for the day and the other group encountered a lady who was unable to have an operation because it cost £25. The kids immediately pulled out their pocket money and gave it to her. For that lady the future has changed. Even the lifting of Memory’s spirits with a hula hoop felt like something. It might be a drop in the ocean but what is the ocean if not a collection of drops?

The next day we embarked on a practical project plastering a room in a recently built house for a teacher who would be teaching at the new secondary school. I quickly learned that I cannot plaster, AT ALL, but have some skills in cement mixing. It was hot, hard work but satisfying to finish and that evening we were treated to one of the greatest moment of the trip for me so far.

We set up a campfire and the word spread to the local villages that it was an open invitation. Soon people started emerging from the bush and tentatively taking a seat with us. We sang some songs and the Miloso Church Choir absolutely wowed, and happily upstaged (!), us with their singing. Sitting there, under the stars listening to these beautiful voices was one of those moments where I almost descend above myself and thought ‘I can’t believe I’m here.’

We then sang a song together in Bemba and in English called ‘There’s no one like Jesus.’ It’s a real Zambian favourite that I remembered from my last trip. There is something remarkable about sitting down with someone on the other side of the globe, where you have seemingly nothing in common, and talking about God. It’s truly amazing as you realise you have the same struggles, the same hopes and that there is something tangible in the nature of God that they have experienced too. There is nothing more unifying than that. We prayed together in our different languages and my perceptions of who God is and what he is doing in this world blew right open all over again. It was amazing.

Finally we spent our last day in Miloso at the local primary school where our team taught for the day. There are 1,500 children in the school and five classrooms. The teacher teach in shifts with eighty children in each class. They split them into groups of forty and teach from 7am to 12.20pm and then from 12.30pm to 5pm. Yes, that’s a ten minute break ALL DAY. Imagine the marking, imagine the lesson planning! These people are heroes.

Miloso Middle Basic School, that inside of the tyre on the right is the school bell!
Many of the children we had met in the villages or over the campfire were at the school and we were greeted like old friends before being thoroughly destroyed on the netball court. Those are some skilled children! I was hugely encouraged to see these posters on the walls in the classroom and reminded again of how fundamental, how life changing, education is.

It is here that norms begin to change, that rights for women and children that are so vital for development are discussed. Here the first seeds of change are planted. The secondary school will be another major step in the right direction.

While wandering between classrooms I also came across this little gem which I have adopted as my house motto, thanks Miloso School!!

 And that was Miloso, a remarkable few days that I would re live in a heartbeat.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Zambia Part 3 - Mount Mumpu

I promised it and here it is, the sad tale that is ‘Nicola attempts to climb a mountain’. I had mentioned my concern about this particular aspect of the trip on posts before I left. The news that we had two options in descending the mountain – climbing through poo-infested bat cave or abseil sixty metres - did not fill me with glee but I comforted myself with the news that Zambia year 7 children do this climb so it couldn’t be that bad…..Right? WRONG! For one Zambian children are way more hardcore than adult human beings in the UK, of that I am VERY sure, and secondly this is me we are talking about- camping phobic, exercise repellent me. This was never going to go well.

But oh how badly it went! We started off the climb with a 6.5 kilometre walk through the bush to our campsite carrying our kit for three days, tents and climbing helmets. Think army boot camp. The kids, god bless them, slept under the stars but we were blessed with a tent and what a blessing it was. That particular side of the mountain experiences extremely irritating flies until sunset and then ‘mountain gales’ of really strong winds after dark.
The night before the climb, as we stared at each other apprehensively over the camp fire, our Zambian instructor took the opportunity to fill us in on why no locals lived in this particular bit of bush. They think the devil lives in the cave we were about to climb through. GREAT. The whistling winds and demonic stories left us less than giddy about the climb the next day which began at….5.30am!

Now not only am I categorically not an outdoors person I am also NOT a morning person. I hate early starts and have actually been known to rearrange holiday plans to have later flights and avoid the dreaded three am wake up call. So off we went, at 5.30am, in the dark to the foot of the mountain and began our climb. Strangely, as the sun came up was when things began to go from bad to worse. I was bringing up the rear of the group and they had reached a point to stop and admire the view which they assured me was amazing.
Now I blame what happened next partly on the altitude, partly on the fact that I had never been that high before and so really couldn’t have known how I was going to react and partly on the fact that my short little legs had already slipped countless times leaving me just a little tetchy. I reached the viewpoint, I turned around. I had a panic attack. Not just an ‘oh my, that’s high’ kind of panic attack. No. A full blown, ‘get me down from here, I genuinely think I’m going to die’ panic attack. From which I was roused with a shot of glucose. Shame face.

Once I had come round I was informed, very kindly, of my options. Keep climbing or stay where I was. As the height was already freaking me out and I didn’t want to leave poor Ben with solo charge of the group I opted for continuing to climb but just not looking back. Ever. The rest of the climb was not my most dignified moment, lots of being pushed up rocks that, honest to God, no one of under 5ft 5 could ever hope to climb until we finally reached the summit. 6000ft up. Now from what I’ve heard the point of mountain climbing is the enjoyment of the view from the summit. This doesn’t really work when you’ve discovered a big ol’ fear of heights. You’re more just wondering how on earth you are going to get back down.

We all made it! And celebrated by impersonating meercats at the summit. I'm the one still in my helmet fearing for my life...
You would think that things couldn’t get much worse from here. Oh how I chuckle at you naïve optimism! It got MUCH worse. As I was descending the mountain, which was much harder than ascending oddly, I found that the only way to stop spending the majority of the time clutching the side of the mountain in horror was to slide down on my bum. This was all going as well as it could until I realised my trousers had caught on a rock and pretty much the entire bum portion of my trousers now had an enormous hole across it.

The trousers....
I swiftly wrapped a jumper round my waist to cover my dignity and within minutes we were at the site of the abseil - the 60 metre, off the edge of a cliff, into the abyss with 30 meter drift through nothing but thin air abseil. AND you can’t abseil with a jumper wrapped round your waist. You have to be unfettered by dignity saving devices and descend, in my case, with underpants to the wind. Think Bridget Jones sliding down the fireman’s pole. More shame face.

After a lengthy rummage in the first aid kit I found some safety pins and at least managed to partly reassembly my trousers before being harnessed up. Of course this turn of events was particularly hilarious for the team. We were the first visiting group to ever do the abseil so as each member of the team descended over the edge into the abyss they called out their own personal first, think ‘I’m the first 16 year old to do this abseil!’, ‘I’m the first female student to do this abseil!’etc. And what did they give me? ‘I’m the first Vicar-to-be to do this abseil with her bum hanging out!’ Thanks guys.

Abseil I did, and hated every minute of it, but finally, twelve hours after setting off, we arrived back to camp thirsty, exhausted and in quite some degree of pain. The next day, and after another 6.5k walk, we arrived at base camp and were treated to the best tasting coke of my life and a trip to the waterfalls. Never has washing been such bliss. I was restored to some semblance of my former self and awarded myself a couple of hardcore points for actually finishing the climb.

The waterfalls, the best swim of my life!
And that is the story of my one and only (please God!) mountain climb. Told you it was a good ‘un!

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Zambia Part 2 – Arrival at Ndubaluba

I loved Ndubaluba from the moment I arrived there. There is something in the atmosphere of the place, something light-hearted but sincere that made me feel very at home there. Ndubs was our base for the rest of the trip and from there we went out on a couple of different trips, one up a mountain and another out into the community.

Our house at Ndubs, I miss that deck chair!
Ndubs itself is owned by the Chengelo School and is an outdoor activity centre largely for the school but also for local schools in the community. One of the greatest pleasures of being there was seeing local children, who have never had the opportunity to go on a school trip let alone do the activities you can do at Ndubs, break into a smile when they got to have a go at a climbing wall or raft building.

Some local kids with our team getting ready to scale the wall
Our first few days there was the perfect balance between getting to know the community and clarifying our aims as a team for the rest of the trip. After the intensity of our time in Masaiti (and several doses of food poisoning!!) it was the perfect time to stop and reflect. For me our time kicked off brilliantly on our first Sunday at Ndubs when we went off to the Ndubaluba Compound Church.

The church itself was basically a small brick building with a corrugated iron roof and the 'pews' were made out of brick and mud. The altar was a simple wooden table with two baskets of plastic flowers on each end that I saw someone painstakingly dusting outside the church before the service. The music was provided by a seriously retro Casio keyboard which we were kept entertained by while the congregation turned up in 'African time' with some of it's sample tunes including a rendition of 'Jingle Bells'! They were very shocked when we all started singing along!!

Ndubaluba Compound Church

The inside of the church (also used as a classroom hence the blackboard and times tables!)
As I sat in that service, which was so full of colour, of the most amazing singing I have ever heard and was absolutely and wonderfully raucous I was reminded again why I'm on the path that I'm on. I took some photos to remind myself one day, should I ever be involved in a church redevelopment project in the UK, that God can just as well be sung to in a multi-purpose brick shack as he can a grand cathedral. Somehow being there brought me back to the heart of the matter, what I'm doing this all for. For that joy, that love of God that is greater than any theories or styles or buildings.

That evening we went to a Christian youth event called Fusion at Chengelo School. With about 1000 young people and a fantastic band made up of teachers (you would not BELIEVE these people were teachers, the kids were cheering like it was Will.I.Am up there!!) the place was absolutely buzzing. In Africa singing to God is not a stand up sit down affair. You use your whole body and no more so than at a youth event. They had us spinning around, dancing to the corners of the room, cheering, singing to our neighbour. My pride in our team swelled to new proportions when one of their dance moves swept the room mexican wave style and had the whole room going!

Our team sang some songs and performed a drama and short talk which went down an absolute storm. There is something amazing about teenagers talking directly to teenagers about life and faith. Being a Christian teenager in the UK isn't easy, you are automatically different at a time in life when you just want to fit in. It takes courage. Watching them speak and perform with such sincerity and in a way that moved so many people was another hugely pride-making moment.

When we returned to Ndubs that evening an even bigger challenge was looming, Mount Mumpu. Yes dear blog readers THAT part of the trip. More on that coming up......

Monday, 23 July 2012

Zambia Part 1 - Masaiti

We’re back! In many ways I have no idea where to start when it comes to talking about all the many things that happened on this life changing trip to Zambia. We ate an alarming amount of starch, we watched amazing sunsets, we sang and danced with the locals under the stars, we (ok I…!)lost the will to live half way up a mountain. I watched a pretty great group of teenagers get even greater. I loved every minute of it. It was inspiring, overwhelming and absolutely joyful.

One of those Zambian sunsets
Over the next week I’m planning on writing a series of blog posts on our adventures and short of any better ideas I’m going to take it chronologically figuring I will at least be less likely to miss something this way! So starting off where we began, our first stop, after a 24 hour trip via Kenya and a whole lot of very bumpy dirt roads, was the Foundation for Cross-Cultural Education(FCE) in Masaiti, an hour or so from the town of Ndola in Northern Zambia.

The centre itself was a veritable Eden after the long journey and certainly seems to be an Eden for the local community. Nested in the middle of the bush, it is a buzzing education centre for the purposes of development. From teacher training to farming techniques, and providing courses for visiting groups like ours, the centre has a varied and far reaching programme. The ethos of the place is firmly on giving your best, whether your role be in hospitality, laying bricks or tending an orchard - and it shows.

Mango trees being organically grown and then sold on to local people to cultivate at home
Their view on development was infinitely practical and empowering. They teach that Africa is rich in resources and work to empower people to access them through education and training. They don’t train people to use fertilizers other than ones they can make themselves from what they can find in the bush. Bricks for house building are fired on site and made straight from the dust of the earth.

After a night of catching up on sleep we were off to the local school for assembly and then into the villages (on foot with the help of some sympathetic school children who took pity on us and lead the way!) for an overnight stay to see the situation that FCE is working in to for ourselves. Doing the walk that the children do twice daily to school in the baking afternoon heat was itself an eye opening experience. Particularly when you consider that most children eat once a day in the evening and so are walking for several hours daily on an empty stomach.

The village, like most of them in this incredibly rural part of the world, consisted of a few dozen straw roofed huts surrounded by basic crops such as maize and tomatoes. Houses are one or two rooms to house families of five to ten people. Chickens scratch around in the dust but are only eaten once a year for Christmas. The intensity of poverty struck me immediately. There is no back up here. One failed harvest and the result is starvation.

The village we stayed at with traditional huts made from bush grass and mud
Men and women rarely mix in this traditional village culture and the father of the family sat as far away from me as was physically possible while still keeping within vague shouting distance. I quickly excused myself to join the women (who sit on the floor, only men get chairs!!) and very soon the stories started rolling.

The most remarkable person I met was Foibe. Aged just 14 she had set up a micro business from her front door selling drinks and snacks to fund her secondary school education. Dressed in a long grey suit skirt and pink shirt she stood out immediately, a shiny example of future hope. When I asked her about her plans as she taught me to cook, Zambian style over a camp fire, she laughed at the possibility of marriage. ‘That is the problem, girls marry so young and everything stays the same. I am going to get a job and help my family.’And trust me, she will.

The stories from the women were heartbreakingly similar. No one has escaped the pain of the death of a child, bracelets from the witch doctor around the babies ankles attest to that very real fear. The mother of the family we were staying with counted off on her fingers the five of her children that had died and at what age. It’s hard to comprehend that level of suffering.

It was a stark introduction to the grinding realities of poverty. I couldn’t look around and give vain platitudes about how nice it is to live in community or glorify the ‘simple life’. That life is painful and unspeakably hard. Poverty has no golden hue of times gone past around it - it is rough and gritty like sand paper. And yet the next morning, as we gathered the nursery age children together for some activities to prepare them for starting school, the promise that Foibe displayed was shown over and over again. 
Just one of the grogeous children we met
We sang, we laughed, they charged around in the dust and my heart wanted to burst for how wonderful it was. At that moment there was nowhere better on this earth than sat there in the brilliant African sun with those children, so full of life. Laughter was a common sound in the villages and it spoke to me about how resilient the human spirit is. What a privilege to see, what an amazing few days.…and that was just the start of the journey! Much, much more to come….!