September 13, 2011
“Why go all the way to Africa when there are people in the U.S. that need help?” We were asked this a few times before departing for Zambia in February, 2011. We tried to explain the hardships of those who live under $2 a day but none of this fully sunk in even for ourselves until we began our life here in Zambia.
In Zambia, approximately 81.5% of the population lives off of less than $2 a day while 64.3% survives off of less than $1.25 a day. What does that mean? How can they buy their food and their houses? Well, the simple answer to that is that they don’t. Rural Zambians live off of what the land can provide them. There is no such thing as buying a house if you live in rural Zambia. You go to the village headman, who is the Chief’s local representative, and simply ask for a piece of land. Under the traditional land tenure system, there are no fees or taxes to pay. Once you get your plot, you then dig up some clay, preferably from the nearest anthill, and then form and fire some bricks. Then, dry and cut some long grass for the roof, cut some poles for support beams, and then harvest some “lozi” bark as twine to tie it all together and you have yourself a house! Not a single nail or dollar is needed to build the basic village hut (unless you want a strong door or a lock). Everything can be made from what the forest can provide and mortgages not required. This is exactly the sort of house that we will live in for the next two years.
Rather than going to supermarkets to buy ingredients, villagers set out for the fields each day to grow their food. About 9 months out of every year, the rural Zambian family is working on some part of the production of their staple food; corn, or maize. Maize is life. It is ground to a flour and then added to boiling water to make nshima and then served with some sort of vegetable grown in their garden. Maize is even the main ingredient to the main beverage, cibwantu (for Tongas, munkoyo for Bembas) which is essentially a more watered down version of nshima but has some extra roots added for extra flavour.
If a family member is unwell and can’t work in the fields, the entire family’s well-being is at risk. If there is a drought or plague of locusts, it can be devastating. It isn’t just that they can lose money from not having crops to sell, the family’s entire food supply for the year is lost as well as seed for future planting. The average family would not have the money to go and purchase food. That $2 a day that people speak of goes to school fees for the kids, cooking oil, salt and soap.
Zambians often ask what the staple food is in America and what we grow. They almost seem sorry for us when I explain that the average American doesn’t grow their own food but buys it in a store. I don’t even try to explain people eating package dinners. My host family burst into laughter when I explained after twenty minutes of chasing our dinner chicken in vain that I have never had to catch or kill a chicken before.
For the most part, I am in awe of rural Zambians. They are a strong, resourceful and resilient people and most of the time, it is them helping us survive. The greatest contribution we can make to these communities is our critical thinking and our abilities to research. Last month, we were setting up a table to give a cheese making demonstration at an Under 5 clinic. One of our counterparts came over to inform us the clinic was cancelled due to a funeral. A toddler had died due to diarrhoea in the next village. This village is fortunate enough to have a dam ensuring their water supply but the large number of cattle unfortunately contaminated the water during the dry season when levels are low. People were drawing water from the dam without treating the water before consuming it. So tragically, people die from something as treatable as diarrhoea, which in the U.S. would be nothing more than a mild inconvenience. I have heard before that in developing countries, there is a preference for big families to keep the number of working hands numerous in case some die. That is insinuating that people are planning for a family member to die. That idea was blown out of the water when I was at the funeral. Hearing the screams and wailing of the mother who lost her baby was absolutely heart wrenching. While sitting in the women’s circle, I began to ask mothers about their water treatment; there is none. I also learned that the clinic is about 10 kilometers away and children are sometimes brought after it is too late, as was the case with this child.
So this past week at the next Under 5 clinic, we have a session on water boiling and a recipe to mix their own oral rehydration salts to administer when the child first gets diarrhoea and then get their child to the clinic. Here, diarrhoea is usually a symptom for something more severe like malaria (the biggest killer in Africa) or parasites. This session we gave at the clinic was something small. It required no funding and no resources other than Google (Google saving lives!) but that is just one instance out of many which reminds us of why we should be here helping people. A little bit goes a long way. We may never have another chance to work with a group of people that are so appreciative for our help ever again.