What I’m Doing, Part I

If you asked me what I would be doing before I came to Zambia, I probably told you some of the following:

  • Teaching preschool
  • Teaching elementary/middle/high school English
  • Teaching adult ESL
  • Teaching literacy
  • Teaching elementary school math and/or science
  • Teaching middle school math and/or science
  • Teaching sex ed or, as it was delicately put, “reproductive biology”. (Zambia has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in a part of the world with notoriously high rates, so good sexual and health education is especially important here.)

All of these were ideas Lonnie Turner posed at some point in our conversations leading up to my arrival. (Although he vehemently denies discussing some of them, I took notes.) In short, before my arrival I had little idea of the details of my volunteer work other than that it would involve teaching. As some of you may have guessed, not knowing made me very nervous (though the chorus on iTunes as I write assures me “I had it under control”).

Any confusion I had on the matter was cleared away within minutes of my arrival: “You’ll be teaching preschool,” with a heavily implied “of course” thrown in for good measure. Good to get that cleared up.

 *       *       *       *       *

I’m in Zambia with Partners In Development, a non-profit which, as Fran says, the Turners incorporated for tax and coordination purposes. (Plus, labeling things as “Partner in Development” makes everything feel more professional.) Essentially, the organization consists of Lonnie and Fran Turner, assisted by a financier, a webmaster, and network of professional and personal connections, all volunteer. The Turners are on the ground for 3 – 4 months of the year and spend many of the remaining months fundraising in the U.S. The Turners, Fran a social worker by trade and Lonnie with degrees in philosophy and international relations, have lived in Zambia for the better part of 40 years, initially as missionaries, and also as teachers, organizers, and social workers. Although both are retired according to the U.S. federal government, they now full-time manage Partners In Development, working on projects to improve the lives of the (primarily rural) poor.

Much of the work of Partners in Development in the last ten years has focused around Katambora – the name of both a township and the nation’s only juvenile reformatory (think juvenile detention, only worse). The Turners – excuse me, Partners in Development – have installed a basketball court, used by the Katambora schools and the Reformatory, and have funded, built, and licensed with the government a clinic complex, the only such service for miles around. They have also drilled and outfitted freshwater wells up and down the valley.

Work in Katambora led to connections in Munyaya village, the site of their current projects and the school where I am teaching. Munyaya sits on the banks of the Zambezi upriver of Victoria Falls, miles in the bush and accessible only after ten kilometers of gravel and dirt road. (This road is the closest thing to being at sea I have ever felt on dry land – driving to the village is quite a core workout.) Last year, Partners in Development they built a small one-room schoolhouse in Munyaya, intended for preschool.

Just as in the U.S., rural areas in Zambia commonly lack the services and infrastructure to support a high quality of life for a growing population, a dearth which includes schooling. The nearest school is in Katambora, a several kilometer walk from Munyaya. Students attend class two hours a day on a staggered schedule, with one class coming to school when another class leaves. You can imagine the quality of education when even high school students only attend class for ten hours a week. To make things worse, sometimes teachers don’t show up and often classrooms do not have enough learning materials for all the students, if they have any materials at all. A basic preschool education – the sort of familiarity with letters and numbers that, for one, take for granted – will give these kids an advantage starting first grade.

Hence, the construction of a preschool. At the time of construction, a young woman from a nearby village, recently graduated from Year 12, agreed to teach. By all accounts she was wonderful, practically a miracle worker to hear the Turners talk of it. She lived in the schoolhouse and taught for nearly a year. Now, she has moved on to nursing school in Lusaka, the capital.

Which is where I come in. Lonnie and Fran asked me to teach preschool, and spread the word in the village that an azungu teacher was coming. The first day, nearly 50 two-, three-, four-, five-, and six-year-old children showed up for class, all excited to be there (and all excited to see the azungus). As Lonnie has pointed out to me on numerous occasions, there is not much in the way of places for kids to go, so when an opportunity arrives, all the children – and all the parents – want to come.

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