Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Snapshots of Mulenga Life

The real truth of what I "do" in Zambia?  I just spend time in Zambia. I don't "do" or "teach" or "train" or "bring" anything substantial. Sure, there are opportunities to take part in things that may, as part of being there spending time, turn into teaching or doing...but for the most part, the best part, I just spend my time with people that have become my family. And I have a lot of family in Mulenga. Even with photos, it's hard to convey the reality of life in Mulenga. It's always just a snapshot of any given moment and I guess there is always a tension I feel that portraying things one way is to write it in stone for many people who have never been or will never go. If anything, life in Mulenga is always in flux. It can be painful and difficult, anxious and consuming with thoughts of how to find food and get food and eat food and share food. It can turn a healthy family into a vulnerable one in just a heartbeat. It can turn from nightmare to security in days. And vice versa. It can be incredible joyful and filled with songs and dancing. It can be incredibly painful and filled with abuses and inconsolable grief.  Sometimes I think life in this little community is much like a game of chance. Some days your odds are good that your little home will be spared and that there will be food and good health and a chance to earn an income to get by. Some days, life is stacked against you. Illness means job loss and loss of food security and even death. A child can get a basic running-down-the-road-tripped-over-a-rock scraped knee that can turn into an infection and suddenly you're dealing with life and death or loss of limb. The rains come. The dry season comes. The fires burn and the smoke lingers. The day to day work of staying alive is always present. And yet, there are moments of laughter and play and friendship and support that can equal the difference between hope and hopelessness.

The beauty of spending time in Mulenga is that the more time I spend, the more glimpses of the "real" life and love and hope I get. Sometimes I can capture them - if I'm quick and no one is looking - and sometimes you just can't. And that's ok, because to be witness to them is often more beneficial that capturing it outright. Like this little moment between friends. Genuine love and laughter between care workers Dorothea and Joyce.
 Yet when I turn the camera on them, it's all African seriousness as quickly as they can! Catching just a HINT of Joyce's smile while Dorothea tries to get serious, makes me laugh because these ladies are just full of joy and laughter but for some reason, Zambians tend to want their photos to be stoic and serious...despite a lot of cajoling to just please smile! It's always a challenge but I love these women too much to let the world think of them as stoic or stern...though let me tell you, if you're thinking of dropping out of school or getting married young or having a baby, you don't want to mess with these ladies. They will grandmother you into recommitting your life to education and the betterment of all people before you even finish your sentence!

At the care point, this is a lot of what I "do" in Zambia. I sit. In the company of some of the most incredibly selfless people I've ever heard of. Sitting in the shade of the care point, waiting for the kids to arrive for their lunch, there is a lot of beauty on one cement ledge. These women share their lives so deeply that you can not help but want to just soak it in. Sometimes I sit for over an hour, listening to them chatter in Bemba, catching only 1/3 of what is being said but taking in all the laughter and love and concern that is being transferred between them. This particular group of care workers have been exemplary in how they care not only for the vulnerable in their community, but for each other, in times that are difficult, embarrassing, humbling and that I dare say, that if we could only learn from, our world would be a much safer place to mess up and recover. 

These care workers practice selfless love every single day. By the minute at times. With each other. With those they are responsible for.  For those that don't deserve it. For those who can least repay it. 

If that, only that, was what I take time and energy and money to sit and take in...it is more than worth it on my end. And yet, what is it worth to them? There's that always-with-me-nagging-thought that perhaps just sending a cheque for the equivalent of the airfare would be more useful and valuable than showing up once a year or year and a half and stumbling through my inadequate Bemba and cultural differences to walk through their community with them. Please hear this...if all I was doing was showing up and being an observer and then coming home and going back to my daily life as usual, then yes, it would be more valuable to cut them a cheque and stay out of their way and let them be continue to shine in the work that they are doing in their community.  There is only value in going and bringing others, when there is something on this end of the trip. Advocacy. Change. Education. Involvement. It's about fostering that relationship and standing together,  in spite of the distance. 

Spending time in communities like these can be so fulfilling and enriching that we forget to tell the reality of the story to others. Yes, the children are joyful and willing to play but they also go home at night,  having had only one meal that day. The mornings we woke in our beds with blankets and mosquito nets, it was chilly to get up and going, yet these little ones that greet us slept on cement, without mosquito nets and get up in the same clothes they wore the day before and before that.  Sometimes, it's difficult to imagine that the children that play with such tireless energy are sick or exposed to abuses we can't see. On this past trip, many of our home visits were pretty encouraging. Kids were doing well in the program, benefitting from the meals they were given, and being cared for and visited by care workers regularly. And yet, as good as that is, I think perhaps this team saw a bit less of the vulnerability of the families we visited. One home visit we went on was the home of an older grandma who was caring for 6 children, all her grandchildren and great grandchildren. She had buried 9 out of her own 10 children. We asked if we could help her with chores, though the one room they lived in was spotless, there wasn't much to mess up. We asked if she needed help with laundry and she smiled, though sadly, and told us that they were wearing all that they owned. Does that get by anybody? That everything that 6 children and an elderly grandmother own are the rags on their body. That there is not more than three plates on the cupboard and a few threadbare blankets folded beside them. This family sleeps on the floor, huddled together in a space where 4 or 5 of us were crouched knee to knee, because the only bedroom is rented out so that they can make a small income of less than $20 USD a month. Vulnerability looks like an aging grandmother eking out a living by renting the only bedroom in her house so she can feed her grandchildren. 

And then this beautiful girl, Lana*, and her aunty. She is living in a small home by herself for months on end. Her parents were married and raising 8 children together when they both became ill and passed away. Each of the parents' siblings took a child, spreading the brothers and sisters out across Zambia from Lusaka to Kitwe and beyond. Imagine the grief of a girl like Lana, about aged 6, coming from a family of 10 to becoming the only child of an elderly uncle she'd likely never met before. She arrived in Mulenga and her uncle has to leave her alone because he walks for miles into the bush to make and carry charcoal back to Mulenga for sale. He is in his 70's, raising a young girl and working that hard to make an income. The care workers provide him with some much needed peace of mind that when a nearby aunty can't care for Lana, that they provide her with a daily meal and visits to ensure she is less vulnerable. Decreasing vulnerability for a girl who sleeps along behind a padlocked door every night, unable to go outside to use the bathroom because it's far too dangerous - it looks like care workers visiting and sitting with Lana almost daily so that those that would prey on her know that she is being care for and watched by adults who take responsibility for her.  I can't imagine the loneliness that Lana has experienced in her few years. Grief. Separation. Long, dark nights alone in a strange house in a foreign community. 

The beauty of this girl's life is that she has care workers and teachers at the community school who stand up in the community and say, "This girl is ours. She is with us." which makes her vulnerability decrease substantially among her peers in similar living situations. 

When we asked her what she liked to do, she said, "Reading." She reads and reads and reads, whatever she can get her hands on, repeatedly.  Her aunt spoke up excitedly when Lana said this, and explained that wherever they are, if there are words, Lana reads them and explains them. "She reads signs and billboards and plastics (shopping bags)...she's always reading," she said proudly. We asked Lana what she would like to be when she gets older and her answered surprised us. "A princess", she said.  Oh, this girl can read. And dream. And imagine. And that's exactly what the love and support that she is getting from her care workers and teachers is enabling her to do. 

Lana and her proud aunty, who lives nearby and checks on her when she is alone. 

*name changed

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