SATURDAY 8 APRIL 2017
With the transfer from the status of a VSO volunteer to that of a proper paid consultant came a few drawbacks, the biggest of which was the loss of our tatty but very convenient house just a few minutes’ walk away from the Private Enterprise Programme office in central Lusaka. So Eric and I had to go house-hunting! Actually, moving house in the Lusaka rental sector proved to be pretty quick and easy. Within 30 minutes of being told that we could not rent our old place from VSO I was on the case and we saw our first potential house only a matter of a couple of hours later.
But while I was on the phone to agents and putting out feelers with friends and colleagues I remembered a little house that had been advertised a few months earlier. I had suggested it to Shalin, a fellow PEPZ person, when he was thinking of moving to a smaller place. He had turned it down for himself but had said at the time that it would have suited Eric and me perfectly. I didn’t dare hope that it might still be available but as luck would have it, it was.
A viewing was booked and before you knew it, we had agreed terms to move in at the end of January.
A perfectly sized bungalow in a peaceful setting in the bush on the edge of town, at a very reasonable rent; what more could we want? The only drawback was that it is 24km from the office, the last chunk of which is down a dirt road…and it was the peak of the rainy season. For mornings when we were booked at the gym it would mean a 04:30 alarm call followed by a gloopy, bone-shaking ride into town. Even on non-gym days we would be up by 05:30 but despite this, I could not resist!
On the very first weekday, sure enough, the alarm got well and truly sworn at by me when it dragged me abruptly from my dreams. I stumbled out of bed, threw on my swimming stuff and got myself ready for a 05:00 departure. It had been raining hard overnight and the dirt road was a mess having been churned up by the heavy lorries that cart gravel from the nearby quarries. As we pulled out of the gate I couldn’t believe my eyes. 2 young boys and an older lad were walking towards us in the pitch black. They were clearly on their way to school but I knew for certain that there were no schools in the vicinity. Of course, we stopped and gave them a lift.
Obviously shy and not so confident in speaking English, it took us a while to work out where they were heading. It was to a school on what is called State Lodge Road. The turning for this road is some 8 km from our house and we subsequently found that the school is about 2 km further on from the turning. That makes it 10 km from our house. But worse than that, Moses, Kennedy and Boniface had already walked 3 km to get to our gate. With no buses on this road and virtually no one else stopping to give them lifts, they do this walk twice a day, every day. And look at the conditions these kids were walking in!
So since that very first morning, we have become an unofficial bus service for the local kids, squeezing in as many as we can into our trusty RAV4. We have taken out the back shelf of the RAV and lined the boot with heavy card to stop the mud getting everywhere. We have invested in rubber mats for the rear seats and we keep the front seats shifted as far forward as possible ready for squeezing in as many young bodies as we can. The most we have managed to carry was 12, 6 in the boot and 6 on the back seat, with bags and satchels piled up on my lap in the front. Thank goodness the rules that apply in the UK regarding carrying passengers in cars don’t seem to apply here…or if they do, no one takes a blind bit of notice!
Regardless of how many children we pick up, there are always dozens that we can’t carry. What makes me cross is that virtually no one else stops. Also, a lot of these kids come from families working on the big farms and ranches in this desirable part of Lusaka – yes, we are still within the city limits despite being in a rural setting. Most of the workers are on a pittance yet the owners are hugely wealthy in comparison. A very few responsible landowners do arrange school transport for the kids living on the farm but the vast majority don’t. Shame on them.
In the developing world, education is a vital ingredient if people are going to have choices and the ability to improve their lot in life. Although education is compulsory, free up to grade 7 and available in Zambia, the playing field is far from level. On our journey to work in the morning we pass St Mary’s, a fee-paying Catholic school surrounded by embassies, diplomatic buildings and NGOs. The traffic jam of cars driven by parents, drivers and maids with a kid in the back heading towards small classes and excellent facilities causes the typical school run snarl up we all know – and if we are late for any reason we get stuck in the mayhem.
Those kids don’t have to get up at silly o’clock and trudge their way through the mud for hours to get to school. They don’t arrive home in the pitch black at 7pm after a day in doing lessons. I am delighted that the St Mary’s students have electricity at home and therefore light to study by, but this is a luxury that Moses, Kennedy and Boniface could only dream of. And that is even before we think about the financial drain on families of paying for senior school, uniform and books when you earn £100 a month and may easily have 5 kids to support.
Hat’s off to Moses, Kennedy, Boniface, Tawonga, Oswald, Gabriel, Jennifer, Queen and all the other children who show such tenacity and perseverance in getting an education. I admire them more than they will ever know. I just hope they get the breaks they so justifiably deserve.