Day Two in Zambia was an emotional roller coaster. We began the day by touring three primary schools in one of the most crowded, economically depressed sections of Lusaka: the Kenyama Compound. Kenyama is probably the worst place I’ve ever been, which is saying a lot.
The conditions of the schools we toured is appalling, with the only saving grace being the almost incomprehensible dedication of the teachers. The afternoon, however, was the polar opposite of the morning, as we attended the first-ever graduation of the Helen DeVos Christian Secondary school. This school, although situated in the middle of Kenyama, is a four-year old, dedicated facility which shines like a beacon on the hill.
Most importantly, the overwhelming success of the school is evidenced by the fact that its very first graduating class sported an unheard-of 100% pass rate on the national exit exam (two students even had perfect scores). All of the graduates hail from Kenyama, and many had progressed upward through the dungeon-like primary schools we had visited just hours earlier. The multitude of speeches during the ceremony, which was attended by two Cabinet Ministers and four Members of Parliament, all congratulated the graduates for their extraordinary perseverance. The Valedictorian encouraged his classmates to remember that, as they face “brutal” days ahead, they had already overcome some of the most extreme conditions imaginable, so they just need to apply the same level of determination to their future endeavors. Well stated.
The best descriptors of Kenyama would be photographs, however, we were only allowed to take pictures during the school tours, none along the way. In the end, I guess I’m glad I don’t have any pictorial reminders of our transit through the Compound (euphemism for slum), as the images that are seared in my brain are haunting enough. I’ve been to some pretty tough places in over 20 years of traveling the world, so don’t take it lightly when I tell you that Kenyama is Hell on Earth.
Primary school is held here in tiny dark rooms of decrepit church buildings without electricity. There are no desks, certainly no computers, one even had no roof. The schools are ridiculously overcrowded and understaffed (the one without a roof crams 250 students and 6 teachers into 2 small rooms), which is depressing enough. However, the sights, sounds and smells you experience while traveling through Kenyama are horrifying. We went as far as we could in our minibus, traversing potholes in the perilous dirt roads that were at times over two feet deep and full of mud and big, sharp rocks. Finally, we ended up on foot, winding through “streets” lined with tiny masonry “houses” covered with tin roofs weighed down by rocks. Garbage is everywhere, open fires smolder, dogs and the children who aren’t in school wander aimlessly.
I guess this is the answer to the students’ why: attending school, even under the terrible conditions previously described, is the only way up & out for these kids. You get a sense that they understand this: the children on the inside are well-behaved despite the adults’ speechmaking, they recite poetry and read aloud with gusto, and they thank the representatives of ACE and CAC-ZED repeatedly for their support of the schools. In contrast, whenever the door to the outside (or wall fence) opens, children from the street peek in and sneak in, recognizing the sanctuary provided by the school.
While the respite from the streets gets students in the door, the key to the real success of these schools has to be the teachers. When these schools began, the goal was simply to bring literacy to the children; therefore, the “teachers” were recruited from the better-performing ninth graders. As time went by, these teachers received additional training and, ultimately, certifications from the University of Zambia. However, I doubt that academic fulfillment and the pay (it is a job, which is saying a lot here) are the exclusive sources of the teachers’ motivation. The conditions are just too bad, and many have to walk for miles just to get to and from work every day. Instead, their eyes gleam when talking about the progress of their students and the schools (incredibly, conditions have improved). These teachers really are contributing to the advancement of society here – however incremental – and they know it.
The proof came this afternoon at the graduation. Those in attendance in the packed courtyard at the DeVos school, an oasis in the Kanyama desert, heard speeches, listened to the choir, and clapped loudly as the graduates received their diplomas. In his remarks, the Hon. Joseph Katema, Minister of Community Development, Mother & Child Health, marveled at the students’ success on the exit exam and he encouraged the graduates to continue their hard work and perseverance. The Hon. Harry Kalaba, Member of Parliament and Board Member of CAC-ZED, reminded the graduates that they had set a new definition of themselves, rather than the one their conditions might have otherwise afforded.
They’re all correct of course, and their words are encouraging. However, the problems of Kanyama, of Africa, of the World, and of each one of us cannot be solved overnight. What we can do is keep at it, working hard every day towards incremental solutions that make a difference. Perseverance is the foundation upon which we ground our hopes for and faith in better days ahead. In the little DeVos school island in the choppy, dangerous ocean of Kanyama, this framework is delivering success.
Thanks as always for reading and for your comments. Sorry for being light on the pictures – bandwidth is very limited here – but we’ll get ’em up there soon. Take care.