In June of 2017, Michelle Walker, Content Developer for DentalXChange, attended Full-Circle Learning Center’s Conference in Lusaka, Zambia to represent the EHG Fund and see how the program’s influence has shaped the school system and to learn what more we can do to help the Zambian people. Michelle wrote a daily log of her trip to help us experience her adventures. Here is Day 1:
Shortly after Noon, Teresa Langness of Full-Circle Learning and I land in Lusaka. The airport does not seem particularly large, but that’s probably because the Customs area is small, by most Western standards. Everyone must stand single-file in one line to present our Yellow Fever vaccination cards, which are quickly reviewed and our Passports stamped. Then, we need to go through Customs. There are two Customs officials for Zambian nationals, one for Consulate employees and embassy officials, and one for visitors. The line for visitors seems incredibly slow, and there is family of 6 ahead of us who apparently need to pay an additional amount in order to get through. I am assuming they have the appropriate visas (otherwise they would have been denied boarding before entering Zambia), so I’m not sure why the Customs officer is not simply stamping their passports and letting them through. Teresa and I are next up, and she allows me to go ahead of her. I present my passport and Yellow Fever vaccination certificate, which the Customs officer barely glances at before stamping my page and allowing me entry. Once I make it through, I wait near the baggage area for Teresa to come through. However, 5 minutes stretches into 10 and then nearly 15 before she clears the Customs booth. I did not ask her whether she needed to pay an additional amount to enter the country, but I was definitely worried that they would deny her entry. Luckily, we managed to locate all of our bags and luggage tags, and exit the airport within an hour of arrival.
As we come out of the airport and round a corner, we begin to hear children singing. The first person I see is Davidson with a huge grin on his face, recording the welcome song that the kids are singing to us. The song and flowers are such a kind gesture; I barely know what to say. Clearly Teresa is loved here. I meet Davidson officially for the first time, and Beauty gives me a big hug, and we both greet all of the children and thank them for coming to meet us. Beauty informs us that the kids need to board a bus back to school, but that she and Davidson will ride with us to our rental apartment.
After loading our bags into the car, our driver begins to leave the airport, but is flagged down and told to pull the side of the road. After about 5 minutes of waiting, the driver explains that we are pulled over because the presidential motorcade will be driving through. As about a dozen cars begin to stack up behind us, I anticipate what a presidential motorcade might look like. Another 3 minutes, and we see about a dozen policy trucks, motorcycles, and cars whip past on this two-lane road that runs adjacent to the airport. Then two large dark SUV’s zoom past going at least 50 mph. I assume one of those vehicles contains the president of Zambia. Finally, about two-dozen other private vehicles careen past, with people hanging out of the windows waiving the Zambian flag and blasting music. The driver informs us that these stragglers are not official state vehicles; rather, just zealous supporters of the president, who is currently two years into his term, part of which he served as interim president, and the last year of which he was actually elected to hold the position (apparently Zambia’s political future has been in some upheaval since the previous president died suddenly in 2014, after a brief illness). Either way, almost as quickly as our waylay began, it was over, and we continued our journey toward the center of Lusaka.
As we drive, Teresa and Davidson chat about the economic progress Zambia has made within the past 5 years, and how it has changed the way Lusaka looks and feels. He notes that the house in which we are staying did not exist 5 years ago, and that the economy is really booming (Teresa is amazed by the number of people in Lusaka who have cars). Although he does not live in Zambia, Davidson is very knowledgeable about the country and the culture.
I mostly look out the window at the scenery, and as we leave the wealthier portions of Lusaka (where many of the tourist hotels and western-style buildings are), the buildings become more sparse. The area looks like a typical US suburb, except that all along the roadside are entrepreneur stands where people are selling everything from homemade dog houses and chicken coops, to headstones and grave markers, fruits and vegetables. At intersections people stand in between lanes, selling cell phone minutes, especially since wireless devices have become more ubiquitous in the last decade. In the expanse of space between the two-lane highway and the backs of the suburban sprawl, are high-tension power lines, as well as drying stalks of corn and heaping piles of garbage. The driver says that people do actually grow and harvest the corn when in-season. However, I cannot imagine growing food on land that is also a large open-air garbage dump. Children and adults are squatting atop the miles and miles of garbage, picking out items of value, and then burning the rest. The acrid smell of burning plastics and additional unknown fumes are a constant, day and night.
We arrive at the rental home around 3:30pm, and set up our luggage. The house, like nearly all built in Lusaka, is modern looking, with tile floors, and a lot of marble accents. It’s located right off of a main road that leads out of Zambia (despite the increasing traffic, the newly paved road remains one lane in each direction), is made of cinder block with a tile roof, and a 7-foot tall cinder block wall and security gate.
Davidson lets us know that we have about an hour to relax before we head over to his fiancée’s home, where her family is making a special meal. I meet Peter, who is a friend of Davidson’s and a Full Circle Learning Zambia graduate. Peter works as a government health counselor, which involves him and a team of several others visiting 3-4 families a day, performing HIV testing, delivering test results, and connecting people with social services. Peter is very nice and friendly, and warmly welcomes us. He’s staying with us in the rental house, and is a Groomsman in Davidson’s upcoming wedding. During the week he goes to work, and in the evenings spends time talking to Teresa and I.
After resting for an hour we drive to Davidson’s fiancée, Bridget’s family home. When we pull into the driveway, I see Bridget first. She invites us into the house, where we meet her mom, and Davidson’s other Groomsman, Asante Kyei Baffour (pronounced “A-saun-tay Chay Ba-four), who is from Ghana. We watch a soccer game (Mexico versus Russia), and then Mabel (Bridget’s sister and the head administrator for FCL Zambia) brings us a pitcher of water and bowl to wash our hands. We eat a typical Zambian dinner, and Bridget has added a few extra dishes for the occasion. The center of all Zambian meals is a maize dish called shima. Shima has the consistency of congealed grits, and it is prepared by mixing corn powder in boiling water. Normally there is no seasoning to shima. Zambians prefer not to use utensils to eat, instead breaking off a piece of the porridge-like shima and using it to scoop up the other portions of the meal (e.g., beef stew, vegetable stew, sautéed pumpkin leaves, mashed beans and nuts, etc.). I heard the refrain over and over again that, in Zambia, you have not eaten unless your meal consists of shima. You can have a bowl of rice and an entire chicken, but if you have not eaten shima, you have not yet eaten.
Most of us eat that first meal with our hands. I notice that I am the only left-hander at the table. I also notice that most people do not wash both of their hands when Mabel offers the water, but just the right hand. I lean over to ask Peter if it’s considered rude to eat with my left hand, to which he gently smiles and asks, “Is your left hand the hand you write with?” I confirm that it is, and he laughs and says, “That is okay then.” Like many parts of the world, left-handed children born in Zambia are converted to right-handers, and so the rate of left-handedness there is far below the world average of 10 percent. One of the drivers noticed me using my left hand to write, and asked if left-handedness is common in the states. I explained that it is not any more common than the average in all countries, and he noted that it is very rare to see a left handed adult in his country.
Teresa and I say our goodbyes and return to the house to discover that, although we have lighting in our room and attached bathroom, we cannot actually get the lights to turn on. We look for signs of mosquitos (we closed all of the windows in the room and bathroom, since none have mosquito screens), and finding none, decide against trying to put up the mosquito nets that Teresa brought with her. I’m desperately trying to stay up until 9pm in order to avoid severe jet lag, and go to the kitchen looking for another bottle of water. While in the kitchen I notice what looks like a spider crawling on my arm, only to realize it is a mosquito. By the time I finish brushing my teeth using the bottled water, it is clear that I have been bitten. I resolved to take my anti-malaria pills religiously at the same time each day, in order to avoid potential malaria infection. After trying to get a wifi signal, and then trying to get a cell signal, I go to bed around 9:30pm.
Stay tuned in to read Day 2 of Michelle’s adventures. Check out Michelle’s interview on why she felt the need to help and find out more on what people can do to help.