Rising Fountains Development Prog Weblog

June 26, 2008

Arrival of New Volunteer: John’s Entry

Filed under: Africa, Volunteers, Zambia — rfdp @ 9:15 am

Introduction and First Impressions
Hello from Zambia! My name is John Fuhrman, and I arrived in Zambia on June 6, 2008 to volunteer with Rising Fountains Development Program (RFDP). Mathias Zimba, the director, and a couple of his friends were at the airport to pick me up. The luggage I checked in at Kathmandu was not with me, so we spent the night in Lusaka waiting until we were able to pick it up the next day (the South African Airlines staff were very courteous and helpful). In the meantime, I tagged along with Mathias and saw a bit of Lusaka while he and I ran some errands. I noticed the orderliness of traffic, absence of unnecessary honking and general good appearance of the city: Lusaka appeared to be better off economically than what I had expected. The price of our “cheap” motel was also unexpected: 100,000 kwacha per room per night with no private bathroom (equivalent to US$31.45 at 3180 Zambian kwacha to one US dollar). I don’t need a private bathroom and was satisfied with the room, but this was the first of a few things that have puzzled me with unexpectedly high prices. While in Lusaka, we went to a government office to extend my permitted stay of thirty days to three or four months in order to accommodate my entire planned stay in Zambia. The official, though, refused on a technicality and told me to return after four weeks.

The morning after I arrived, we grabbed my luggage at the airport and set off for Chipata, a waypoint on the journey to our eastern destination and the location of RFDP’s offices, Lundazi. We rode a public bus, and from my window seat, I was able to observe the countryside as we traveled. Very quickly my impression of a relatively economically well-off capital city in an underdeveloped nation was contrasted with rural areas that clearly do without motorized vehicles, running water or electricity. We arrived in Chipata at night, so we stayed in a spartan motel for 80,000 kwacha per room (US$25.16), another high price that baffles me in a country where the average income is around two or three US dollars a day. The following day, we got a ride in a private car to Lundazi with other friends of Mathias who were traveling in the same direction. For us, this made the trip cheaper, more comfortable and more convenient despite getting a flat tire (we had a spare). The road was paved, but the entire stretch of road is so full of potholes that now only a percentage of it has intact asphalt pavement. The rest is closely-spaced, deep potholes, and driving on the dirt shoulder is often better than driving on what remains of the road. It would probably take less than two hours if the road were maintained, but we did it in about four hours. Note that this is the main road connecting the district seat of Lundazi and many towns north of it with the capital. North of Lundazi, though, the pavement ends and becomes maintained dirt road.

Rising Fountains had arranged for a rented house to be ready and waiting for me (I pay the rent), and it is quite nice and much appreciated to be in a home with plumbing and electricity, both of which have been working most of the time during my first two weeks here. To have a night watchman and maid as well, both arranged by Rising Fountains despite my insistence that they are unnecessary, makes my living situation downright luxurious. I was warmly welcomed by both of them as well as the staff at the office on my first day here. We held a staff meeting that morning, and I was impressed when each person told me what is expected of me; I was asked what I expect of them as well, which is that everything done here is done for the people we serve.

A Trip to the Valley (the destitute, rural area that RFDP serves)
Just two days after my introduction to the staff, we set off on a three-day, two-night trip to the Luangwa River Valley area that Rising Fountains serves to hold a water and sanitation program for outreach workers. Outreach workers live in the valley area, and they are the bridge between Rising Fountains and the rest of the residents of this remote area. On this trip I saw that it is impractical for RFDP staff to visit every village, so instead one outreach worker comes to a scheduled meeting with RFDP, is educated and reports to RFDP, and then returns to his or her respective area to disseminate information to the rest of the residents. We traveled in a rented 4×4 loaded with people and cargo and drove first through the Kazembe chiefdom on a path through the woods that had been cleared of trees. I call it a “path through the woods that had been cleared of trees” because most readers will get the wrong impression if I use the word “road” to describe the route. Here in Lundazi we call it a road, of course, and from a utilitarian standpoint, it indeed is a road, because vehicular traffic travels on it. To someone who grew up with and is accustomed to the roads found in developed nations, though, full appreciation of this “road” requires traveling on it personally, but if you imagine roots, ruts, logs, flowing streams, dry streambeds, boulders, deep sand, and steep uphill and downhill pitches, then you will have an idea of what this path is like. A good 4×4 is absolutely necessary, and the shockingly dilapidated one that we rented overheated and broke down more than once. More than once we pushed it and popped the clutch to start it, and this was all done while deep in lion territory. Despite the remote location and risk from wildlife, we saw at least one traveler making the journey by bicycle from Lundazi. He was traveling in our direction, and kept up with us for many tens of kilometers: the nimble bicycle can bob and weave among the rocks and ruts in contrast to the lurching truck that can only tackle them head-on at slow speed. But a cyclist must reach his destination before nightfall or face increased risk of encountering lions.

All along our journey, we stopped and said hello to important community figures such as school headmasters. We also stopped and inspected two pit latrines that had been planned and built by RFDP. We arrived at Chitungulu, another chiefdom and the site of the next day’s water and sanitation workshop, after nightfall and immediately tried to find a place to stay. Apparently, this village with no electricity or running water has a guest house. But the person with the keys was nowhere to be found, so we asked to stay in a teacher’s home, and he and his family graciously welcomed us.

The next morning I helped gather firewood for cooking and also went to fetch water from the hand-driven borehole pump. I noticed that the well had a metal plate riveted to it showing that it was installed by the Luangwa Valley Borehole Project in 2007, a project of Rotary Club Beveren-Waas (Belgium), Rotary Club Chipata (Zambia), and the Luangwa Valley Project. After everybody in our party had woken, bathed and eaten (there was vegetarian food, and I wonder if they spent extra effort to provide it just for me!), we held a preliminary meeting with four outreach workers and went over RFDP’s project areas and the organization’s goals and raison d’être. I listened and solidified my understanding of what Rising Fountains tries to accomplish. One area that RFDP works on that I was particularly glad to see was women’s development. The RFDP programs for women include microcredit loans for women to start their own profitable businesses, support for grandmothers caring for AIDS orphans, encouragement for girls to stay in school and for their families to support them in doing so, and countering the tendency to pressure girls to marry at early ages like 14 or 16 and leave the education system after marriage. I mentioned that one potential obstacle to a woman’s personal development here is the burden she carries when caring for a steady stream of newborns and her ever-growing number of children — a number of children quite possibly larger than the number she might have wanted. She must have sole control over whether she becomes pregnant in order to gain a foothold and find time for a business, education, or whatever else she might have in mind for herself. After saying this, others at the meeting agreed, and I hope that the concept of family planning controlled unilaterally by the woman is planted in the collective consciousness. Maybe Rising Fountains can introduce this idea — another way to live — in conjunction with contraception options that the husband cannot control or detect. Ideally, the husband and wife talk it over and make a joint decision, but because she inevitably is charged with taking care of the kids and because he could rape her and therefore nullify her “no,” she must be able to control her fertility. Otherwise, she has more children than she wants and is locked into spending the prime of her life doing nothing but caring for several kids. Microcredit loans for women already freighted with caring for many children seem like nonstarters to me. I don’t want to impose anything or come across as holier-than-thou, but this is what I see, and the idea can be presented as an alternative lifestyle with pros and cons and placed in the basket of options. I’m going into depth here, because this issue stands out to me: on this trip to the valley and in Lundazi, the town where I live, I have noticed that many of the women who are walking with containers to fetch water or carry goods also carry infants slung to their backs with toddlers in tow. All homes that I’ve seen have a handful of youngsters. I was told at the meeting that many couples in the valley use no family planning method whatsoever and are not aware of family planning. I don’t see how these women can start educational or entrepreneurial endeavors when their minds and hands are busy with several mouths to feed. Made aware of a different way to live, what would these women choose?

After that morning meeting, we delivered hundreds if not thousands of pencils to the local school that had been donated and mailed to us by The Pencil Project. That day we also paid respects — “paid katesko,” as it is called even when speaking English — to the local chief and gave him a requisite gift as custom demands. The gift was two bottles of a juice drink brought from Lundazi. In turn, he listened to our plans and intentions for conducting the water and sanitation meeting in his chiefdom and cordially sanctioned our presence and efforts. I have seen that connecting with local community figures such as chiefs, school headmasters, parish leaders and the like is important for RFDP to operate effectively. These people appreciate knowing what Rising Fountains is doing in the area, and we benefit from their support. A good example is how we were able to go to a teacher’s home unannounced in the late evening and request lodging for two nights.

We conducted the main event, an educational workshop on water and sanitation that lasted about half a day, in a large, thatched-roof hut that the parish owns and granted for our use for the day. About twenty people from the surrounding area attended, and they learned about the benefits and importance of water wells, water boreholes, well maintenance, clean drinking water, proper sanitation and pit latrines. Most of the information was presented orally in the vernacular (for this region it is Tumbuka), but I spoke in English to teach three methods for making water safer to drink (I greeted and thanked them, though, in Tumbuka). From the material I presented, the 20 attendees learned three main points: that boiling water for ten minutes yields potable water that will not make someone sick, that six hours of direct sunlight can kill some but not all germs in water in transparent plastic bottles, and that allowing silt to settle overnight eliminates turbidity but does not kill pathogens. The audience asked me good questions and appeared to have no problem understanding. Before the talk, I was assured by Rising Fountains colleagues that one of them would step in as an interpreter if I used terminology that escaped the audience, but no interpreting took place. English is an official language in Zambia and is taught in school. I have found that most people speak English well enough to communicate effectively on a variety of topics, but I have met some Zambians who speak little more than courtesy phrases. During the workshop, the students were shown how to wash hands properly with a live demonstration, and a song was sung with lyrics that translate roughly to, “If you don’t sweep your house, I won’t be drinking water at your house.” The meeting concluded with a meal provided to the attendants by RFDP. We got back on the truck and headed for home right away but took a different route back to Lundazi. This time we were on a maintained dirt road and had no problems with boulders and ruts. I noticed that several of the small culverts that were along the way bore signs indicating that they had been put in with international assistance, and if memory serves, it was from the Netherlands.

After being dropped off at home, I did not learn until later that the truck actually broke down shortly after arriving back in Lundazi. This trip to Kazembe and beyond showed me that Rising Fountains genuinely needs its own reliable vehicle to conduct operations in the area. Trips to the remote areas that RFDP serves are necessary because staff and supplies must go there to do their work, which includes distribution of materials like pencils, clothing or food; sending staff on trips to conduct educational workshops that last up to five days; and conducting needs assessments at regular intervals as well as when disasters like floods strike. I was told that hiring a 4×4 costs between 1.5 million to 2.5 million kwacha per trip, or US$472 to US$786. This chronic money hemorrhage heavily impacts the budget and is the limiting factor for RFDP operations now. I have traveled the “road” that they must travel, and an RFPD vehicle would be put to good use to help AIDS orphans, the sick and the destitute.

Back at the Office
Since the trip to the valley, I have spent the last week and a half working in the office. Currently I’m focused on helping write a grant proposal that would fund an HIV/AIDS effort in the valley. This prospective project would complete a half-finished introduction of basic HIV/AIDS education to the area served by RFDP. Currently, only some of the residents know what HIV and AIDS are, know how to prevent the spread the virus, and have access to counseling and testing. That some people do know these things is the result of RFDP’s previous efforts, but not all of the area RFDP serves was covered. Specifically, Mwanya remains untouched in contrast to Kazembe and Chitungulu; consequently, widespread ignorance and misconceptions about HIV/AIDS persist in Mwanya. If these funds come through, this remaining area will be educated on HIV/AIDS basic facts, prevention and treatment and will have HIV testing brought to its health centers. In addition to working on the proposal, I’m reviewing the RFDP website with the hope that we can improve it. The website is maintained by an off-site volunteer, so we’ll see how it goes when we deal with internet connections dropping intermittently. I’m also wading through pages of government-speak as I try to figure out if RFDP can be registered as a 501(c)(3) in the U.S. so that charitable contributions are deductible on U.S. federal income tax returns. I tried calling the IRS, but the connection dropped because our prepaid account ran dry just as I was taken off hold and halfway through my first question!

On the morning of Friday, June 20, I was unexpectedly pulled out of the office and made photographer for the commemoration of the Day of the African Child, a holiday that passed by earlier this month. The kids put on performances, including drama, dancing, singing, speeches and poetry. The district commissioner of education and his guests (four staff from RFDP and about a dozen others) sat and viewed the performances. Strangely enough, each performing group faced the commissioner so that he and his guests could hear and see the performance better than the congregation of hundreds of kids that stood exactly opposite to us. The kids saw their fellow students’ backs and certainly had difficulty hearing the singing while we got all the attention, giving me the strong impression that the performances were for the commissioner and his entourage rather than the children. I wondered if it was a commemoration for Day of the African District Commissioner. I mentioned this and was assured that the performances were for the kids, but I remain disappointed at the apparent charade…what message does this send the children, folks? In any case, I learned what netball is when I watched a team sponsored by RFDP play a game against a rival team after the singing and dancing performances. The sponsorship came in the form of a donated ball, another item that we deliver to remote schools. RFDP’s team lost, but the girls were up against a team of older, taller and stronger girls, so it was hardly a fair match!

Life in the Town of Lundazi
For me, things outside the office are good. Shortly after arrival, the friendly nature of people I had met became amplified by the people I had not met: wherever I walk, I hear strangers calling out, “Hello, Mr. John!” It’s a small town, and life moves slowly here, so my arrival must have become a bit of a news item. Being introduced to a congregation of a couple hundred churchgoers also got word out: I accepted an invitation to attend a Sunday evangelical church service and was curious to attend after seeing that Christianity is widespread here. As is done each Sunday, interpreters stood with the Zambian pastors and rendered their English into one of the vernacular languages. There were two pastors who both spoke at length, there was energetic singing and dancing, and the whole shebang lasted for about three and a half hours. At home my mosquito net works well, and I am unbothered by mosquitoes or fears of contracting malaria. Nature visits me on a daily basis inside my house when tarantulas, geckos, cockroaches, wasps, crickets and praying mantises find their way inside. I stumbled on a trader based here that sells soybeans, among other things, which was a happy find for me. From conversations with locals and what I observed at his warehouse, I surmise that he is the most prosperous businessman in this sleepy town. He is second-generation born-and-raised here, but his family tree has roots in India and branches in the U.K., so maybe his overseas ties give him an advantage over competitors. With soybeans from him and fresh vegetables from the market, a lot of good dirt roads suitable for jogging, and my mosquito net, I’m staying healthy.

My electricity got cut off on June 24, so I went to the appropriate office to clear things up with RFDP’s accountant as my backup man. I learned that I pay a flat rate of over 187,000 kwacha (US$59) per month for unmetered electricity, but two of my colleagues who have big families and watch TV, therefore undoubtedly using more electricity than I do, paid 40,000 kwacha and 57,000 kwacha last month on their metered bills (US$12.59 and US$17.92). So, naturally I asked to get a meter, but learned that RFDP and the landlord have been asking for a while already. Apparently, a meter will arrive when a customer is disconnected from the grid and that former customer’s meter is taken down and installed at the house I rent. Sounds like a good deal for someone! I wonder if RFDP will hit any corruption roadblocks that I notice while I’m here and how they will deal with them. In any case, my connection was restored in less than 24 hours after settling my bill. Incidentally, I’m told that Malawi supplies electricity to Lundazi, and the Zambian city of Chipata that is south of us supplies electricity to Malawi. People tell me that this arrangement exists because Malawian power plants are closer to Lundazi than anything Zambia has, and the Zambian plants in Chipata serve outback regions in Malawi. I noticed that gasoline is sold here by individuals with hand-carried cans (they compete with the lone filling station in town), because they can get it cheaper across the border. My guess is that Malawi subsidizes fuel and Zambia does not.

More later as things develop!


  1. Hello John,

    Thank you for sharing your story-It seems you enjoy working with people of different backgrounds and I can only wish you all the best!

    Comment by Paul — June 27, 2008 @ 7:49 pm

  2. […] who clearly have higher incomes than both residents of Lundazi as well as the subsistence farmers I saw in the Luangwa Valley when RFDP went to conduct a water and sanitation class. Who is filling the seats of the expensive […]

    Pingback by A Trip to the Copperbelt « Rising Fountains Development Prog Weblog — July 17, 2008 @ 10:34 am

  3. Thanks !

    Comment by Figkneet — August 3, 2008 @ 1:19 am

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