Rising Fountains Development Prog Weblog

July 17, 2008

A Trip to the Copperbelt

Filed under: Copperbelt, Education, Zambia — rfdp @ 10:34 am

First to Lusaka

I have spent ten or twelve days since my last blog entry traveling in Zambia. I went to Lusaka and beyond, but am now back in Lundazi. First was Lusaka: upon entry to Zambia, I was granted a thirty-day stay with option to extend if I filed for an extension with support from RFDP and paid the fee of one million kwacha (US$314 at 3180:1). Of course, I’d like to stay longer than that. So, gathering all the documents that the immigration officer told me I needed, I went to Lusaka, the capital city, to process my application. During the preceding days, I weathered a storm of activity with RFDP supporting me as I tried to get a banker’s cheque for my one million kwacha. It ended well after a flurry of uncertainty and last-minute bank deposits, account transfers and ATM transactions. I went to the immigration office with all the required documents plus one in particular that was not required, but I had a feeling about it, so I brought it just in case. Guess what? The document I brought just in case was suddenly required. Why was it omitted from the list of required papers? Who knows…I say to my Zambian friends and colleagues only half in jest that there is no accurate information in Zambia. Finally, my application was filed on the last possible day in my 30-day window, and I was given a receipt that I will use to try and pick up my finished permit sometime after the three weeks needed to complete it have passed.


New Friends

Following that bit of business in Lusaka, I rushed to the bus station and grabbed a ticket for the city of Kitwe. Kitwe is north of Lusaka in a region known as the Copperbelt. Large-scale copper mining has been this region’s economic mainstay for decades. It is also home to a Zambian friend of friends, Prisca Kambole and her husband, Chewe. Prisca visited my home state of Montana, USA a couple years ago, and although we did not meet then, someone back home recently put me in touch with this energetic, educated, straight-talking, service-minded woman. She and her family graciously invited me into her home where I stayed for several very enjoyable days while RFDP was taking a break on holiday (I didn’t go there on RFDP business). Taking time to show me her community and her work in it, Prisca personally led me around Kitwe and also arranged for others to do so when she was too busy (details below). I am very grateful for all that she, her family, and her friends and colleagues did for me. Thanks, Prisca! Interestingly, I noticed that she, her highly educated husband and their three young children often choose to speak English among each other (not for my benefit), making it a first language for these educated and delightful kids. In general, this region of Zambia is better off economically than the eastern province where RFDP is. I was told by Chewe, a lecturer at Copperbelt University in Kitwe, that most Zambian university students are from the Copperbelt, midlands and Lusaka because they are the most academically competitive.


After spending a few days running around with Prisca, I saw that she is very active in her community and plays a leadership role in an organization called Pro-Life Advancement and Education Project (PLAEP). PLAEP is a community-based Christian organization that endeavors to improve the social, spiritual and economic well-being of localities in Kitwe. Despite the “pro-life” moniker that might suggest active involvement in an anti-abortion campaign, PLAEP instead assists AIDS patients, distributes mosquito nets to prevent malaria, helps women start small-scale income-generating activities like bead-making and garlic cultivation, and has adopted a community school (more below on what I saw…keep reading if interested!).


Religion, Justice and Judgment

Prisca invited me to attend a church service at Riverside Chapel in Kitwe, the church she and her family attend. I accepted and was curious and looking forward to comparing and contrasting what I had seen in Lundazi. I knew ahead of time that the day would be full, because Prisca told me that this particular Sunday was one of four each year with a potluck lunch scheduled between the two regular Sunday services — one morning and one afternoon — that are normally given each week. But before the morning service began, things started first with Chewe heading off to teach Sunday school and Prisca joining her bible study group. I sat with the bible study group and listened to their discussion about potential conflict between local tradition and the teachings of Christianity. An example came up of a traditional funeral service involving crawling on all fours and burying a relative’s hair and nail clippings. The discussion of tradition and culture reminded me of what one of the Lundazi pastors said at the first service I attended. At that service, the African pastor spoke of the importance of knowing one’s roots and respecting them. He did this as he spoke to his African congregation (minus only me) in a non-African language, wore a non-African suit and tie, and preached a non-African religion. In contrast, I’ve heard Zambians refer to themselves as Africans, and I wonder if some Zambians struggle with confused self-identity views. In any case, the bible study group session lasted not long, and soon we were off to the morning service. A visiting pastor originally from the U.K. but with experience preaching in Angola and other countries gave his fifth and final guest sermon at this chapel. The chairs were all occupied, the singing was loud and frequent, and the assembly was sharply dressed. I was warmly welcomed and mingled with them for lunch during which one of the churchgoers gave me a bible. The crowd dwindled to a couple dozen people before the second afternoon service started, the service with communion. It was not Catholic. When I asked, I was told that their beliefs and practices approximate those of the Baptist church. This more intimate afternoon service invited individualized participation, and many people stood in turn and spoke on a number of things ranging from personal news updates to scripture interpretation to corrections on how long to pause between stanzas of a certain hymn. Many speakers called on the group to stand and sing after they had said whatever it was they wanted to say. When Zambians pray, whether it is at church, before meals, before embarking on a road trip, or under other circumstances, their words are unscripted (I’ve never heard the same prayer twice), and it seems that they usually put thought into the words.


But prayer and church services aren’t the only manifestations of religion that I’ve seen here. While in Kitwe, I also listened to a pastor deal with accusations of theft in the leadership of his church. Chewe, Prisca, and their immediate neighbor became suspicious of their gardener when jewelry and other items began to disappear mysteriously and occasionally reappear stashed in very unlikely and suspicious places. Their suspicions were reinforced when the gardener apparently equivocated under informal questioning. The accused, a person I never met, is (was?) a leader in the pastor’s church. Accusations of theft directed at the assembly’s leadership disturbed the pastor, and a meeting was called with him, Chewe, Prisca, and their neighbor. My presence was welcome, and after listening a bit, it appeared that the pastor had previously heard the accused give his version of the story elsewhere. The three of them laid out their accusations and evidence, and the pastor seemed to conclude tentatively that indeed the gardener had stolen and lied. But the pastor reminded the others that there were still “one or two biblical steps” that should be taken before going to the police, much to the dismay of Prisca, who vigorously protested and lobbied for going to the law because she felt he was not a Christian and therefore need not be treated as a Christian. The pastor replied, “God has exposed him so that he can be helped.” She shook her head and smiled in defeat, saying, “Now this is the heart of a pastor!” It immediately reminded me of an interview from another time and another country of a political prisoner who was tortured. He was asked what the greatest danger he faced during incarceration was: “The greatest danger I faced was losing compassion for my torturer.”


The Mines and the Hospitals

I took Kitwe out of my schedule for one day and went on a short trip to Chingola, a small town also in the Copperbelt, accompanied by a man who grew up there. We walked around the town a bit and made our way to a viewing point from which we looked upon the Nchanga mine, a massive open-pit operation that dominates the landscape. I was told that it is the second largest open-pit mine in the world. I also heard many times during my few days in the Copperbelt that Chinese and Indian businesses have large stakes in the mines in the area. Apparently the hospitals and schools used to be supported and well-maintained by mine income, but after a transfer of control some years ago, these public service entities have fallen into neglect. Public pressure has pushed the mines to pick up some of the slack, but apparently most citizens are not satisfied. As you might expect, though, the roads leading to mines and smelters were all beautifully maintained, unlike the  wrecked roads I’ve traveled on in the copper-free eastern part of the country. On the ride to Chingola, my companion for the day told me acidly that there is a Chingola University in India thanks to mine profits but no such institution in Zambia. I tried to find information about this university with Google, but nothing like what he described came up.


On the same day, I visited a mine hospital and then a government hospital in Chingola. My timing was bad, though, and because I came on a holiday, there were only skeleton crews. The few that I spoke to seemed caught off guard by an uninvited guest and told me to come back later and talk to others. One doctor originally from the Congo who happened to come in because she was on call did take some time to chat briefly about her government hospital, but she evaded the meaty questions by deferring to the hospital director. I didn’t learn much other than that the staff didn’t want to be bothered.


After returning to Kitwe and on another day, Prisca escorted me to Kitwe Central Hospital, reportedly the third largest hospital in Zambia after Ndola Central and Lusaka Teaching Hospital. We sat down in the office of the person in charge of public relations, a visit I would rather have avoided but one that seemed to be a necessary stepping stone to gaining access to patient wards in this government hospital. He printed out two sheets of information that needed a lot of proofreading while giving pat answers to my questions. “How many doctors does this hospital need?” “According to W.H.O. standards, this hospital requires 150 doctors and 1500 nurses.” How about according to actual need? We asked to see patient wards after a few basic questions and answers. He gave us visitor passes, and Prisca and I set off while he smiled and stayed behind without protest. She and I went through some patient areas but walked quickly to avoid being late for our next appointment, and the limited time gave me only a brief glimpse of this very large hospital. While moving from one patient area to another, I saw no doctor attending to any patients. I saw about three or four nurses all working without gloves. Although I didn’t count, I estimate that there were more than one hundred patients tightly clustered together in a few large rooms with no partition whatsoever to separate one patient from the next. It gave the impression of a warehouse of sick people. Most patients were lying on closely-spaced beds — not proper hospital beds with hangers for IV drips, but simply four legs and a flat surface. The patients outnumbered beds, so some were lying on the floor. I remember seeing only three pieces of medical equipment: one IV bag and drip line attached to a patient, one needle and one syringe. Not one bed that I saw had a mosquito net (Zambia has malaria, a potentially fatal disease transmitted by mosquito bite). I asked a nurse how she does her work. She replied, “We improvise a lot.” Prisca and I finished our self-guided tour and returned the visitor passes before walking out. As she started the car and we began pulling away from the hospital, a grief-stricken wail emanated from an open or broken window in one of the adjacent patient wards. “Someone died,” Prisca said. I fear that the health care professionals there double as mortuary attendants. Improvisation indeed.


In contrast with the blank looks and misdirection I got at Kitwe’s government hospital and Chingola’s hospitals, the orthopedic surgeon at Wusalike Mine Hospital in Kitwe, Dr. Mugala, gave me a wonderful guided tour of the facility and generously took time to chat in his office. I thank Prisca for the introduction and for coming with me. Wusalike Hospital, funded by a mine in Kitwe, is primarily for those employed at the mine but accepts paying patients not affiliated with the mine as well. My layman’s impression is that the facility is maintained and clean. According to Dr. Mugala, Wusalike is a good option for those who can afford it but still not adequately staffed and equipped in all areas. On the upside, the three ICU beds (with mosquito nets, renal dialysis and a standby electric generator!) are rarely all occupied. His surgery load is light with about five non-elective surgeries and one elective surgery per week. There are about 12 to 15 doctors for the 250 patient beds. He said the two operating rooms are not enough, and the operating crews are understaffed. Surgeons jockey for time to schedule themselves and patients in the operating rooms. There is an emergency room, a modern ultrasound machine and an x-ray machine. However, the hospital lacks an MRI machine, CAT scan machine and arthroscopy equipment. Nurses were gloved and had equipment with which to work, patients had proper hospital beds and blankets and an adequate number of beds were empty and ready for the next patients. The overall environment was one of calm, organization and care. My impression is that this is the best hospital of the four I walked into in Chingola and Kitwe.


Discretionary Income is Spent on…

Prisca attended a session of a regular widows’ group meeting in her community to meet them and determine if they are genuinely needy and therefore worthy recipients of free mosquito nets that she might deliver to them. I tagged along and listened when they weren’t speaking Bemba, the local language in which most of the meeting was conducted. There were perhaps two dozen widows, and some had brought along their orphaned grandchildren that are now under their care. I learned that the widows weave doormats as an income generating activity and sell them for 10,000 kwacha (US$3.14). They have sold over forty, said the leader of the group. In addition to this, she said that each woman contributes 1000 kwacha per week to the group in dues (US$0.31). Prisca wonders if this figure is accurate — it seems too high to her. She asked what they spend their money on, and they replied, “Funerals.”


An Orphanage Visit

While in Kitwe, Prisca also took me on a visit to the Renewed Hope Children’s Home (REHOCH), a Christian faith-based orphanage. She and I sat down briefly and chatted with the director, Annie Sheba, a woman who impressed me with her caring attitude for the kids. REHOCH is relatively new and now houses about six kids or so, at least one of them HIV positive and one of them physically disabled. The orphanage also gives education support to 85 kids with a target of 250 orphans and vulnerable children. It has plans for the future, but like more than one aid institution I’ve seen here, the motivated and caring director with a forward-looking administrative eye cannot guide the orphanage to meet community needs much less move forward without funding.


Two Struggling Schools: One in the Now and One in the Future

Aside from the orphanage, I also got a quick tour of Musonda Community School, started in 1999 in a shantytown. As a community school, it receives no government support, charges no school fees, and relies on whatever the community can muster to stay afloat. The landlord demands months of rent paid ahead of time in this growing region of high and rapidly increasing real estate prices. The three classrooms were very overcrowded with students. There are about four or five untrained volunteer teachers who, I was told, struggle even to teach the hundreds of pupils how to read. I learned that generally speaking, community school teachers jump ship for better pay at government schools once they receive training. When I think about what I saw and get angry, I feel like saying that this grossly and categorically inadequate “school” is a babysitting operation that at least for now keeps the future of Zambia out of the taverns next door. But whether I’m angry or not, I find nobody out of those who I met in Kitwe to condemn for the poor condition of the school. To the contrary, I see that like the director at the orphanage, there are bright, motivated and caring people working with very limited resources to accomplish the Herculean effort of building Musonda into a genuine learning institution for the benefit of the kids. For example, a young man I met has organized some of the kids into a theater group. They practiced their play, competed and won a place to advance and perform at the upcoming national competition. Great news, but there is a problem: the national competition requires performances in English. These kids haven’t learned English well enough to perform in it, so they do it in Bemba. They now don’t really know what to do with their Bemba play and hard-won invitation requiring English (English is an official language here).


I saw the site of another school, but this one has more work to go. Next to Riverside Chapel, the church I attended in Kitwe, is a plot of land with two unfinished buildings on it. One of them has three rooms which are slated to become classrooms. The other structure will be administration for this prospective private, self-sustaining school. The funding and planning comes largely from Riverside Chapel, and Prisca hopes that construction will restart when more funding comes in. Currently the classroom building has walls and awaits a roof; the administration building stands at a slightly more advanced stage of construction because it has a roof. Incidentally, I noticed that Prisca commented at least twice that she is impressed with the high quality of Catholic schools in Zambia.


So Why is Zambia Poor, Hungry and Sick?

I don’t know yet. But I tend to agree with William Easterly in his book The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. Here is my summary: He argues that the Big Solution to the world’s extreme poverty is that there is no Big Solution. Individuals know their own personal poverty best and know how best to get out of it rather than big, clumsy agents such as governments, the U.N., or the W.H.O. Big top-down plans implemented from the outside can’t understand the specific and utterly foreign and complex social, political, cultural, geographic, and economic environments in which individuals operate. This is why trillions of dollars of aid to poor people over the decades have not had an impact on their grinding poverty…they’re still poor! It’s not working. So, let individuals figure out how to solve their problems on individual and village levels with many incremental improvements as opposed to utopian, sweeping reforms that the rich have tried. There must be feedback from the individuals (there isn’t when the U.N. does its work, for example), and there must be accountability for the implementation; that is, someone listening and acting on the feedback (this is also missing). He says the best vehicles for this feedback and accountability are markets (the familiar economic one as well as a political “market” like democracy). He concedes that just turning over responsibility for poverty eradication to the individuals in poverty doesn’t mean it’s going to change with a snap of the fingers: it’s still hard. But the top-down model has failed many times and continues to fail. That’s my summary, and his book makes sense to me.


So what do people here make of Easterly’s ideas? Well, on my trip to Kitwe, I heard comments from Prisca and my companion to Chingola that echo this but add complexity to the situation. My companion to Chingola believes that Zambians have what he called an “inferiority complex,” something which he explained as an inability to imagine possibilities and work to achieve them with confidence. Apparently, some Zambians cannot even imagine something better for themselves. Ponder this: Prisca, an observant person who holds a university degree and has spent significant time on several continents, told me about a meeting she had with a group of Zambian women. She asked them, “If a donor came to you and said, ‘I want to help, here is some money,’ what would you do with the money?” The response was a deafening silence. The scenario flummoxed them. This could be a case of one not achieving what one cannot imagine. Prisca told me about another incident that also puzzles her. She played an instrumental role in organizing an income-generating activity for a group of Zambian women. They made ornamental tablecloths with beads on the fringes — light handiwork that can be done at home. These were sold for a significant profit which Prisca delivered to the women’s hands in the form of cash and told them very clearly that the money was the result of selling their work for profit. The women, however, were not interested in continuing and remain uninterested. Prisca can’t explain it. She thinks it’s possible that previous handouts may have conditioned them to sit and wait for another handout, but she’s not sure. Despite these mystifying occurrences, she believes that ultimately only Zambians can develop Zambia.


Rich-poor Divide

If you read my first blog entry, you might remember a bit about my surprise at how expensive some things are here. I’ll let you decide if cellular service costs are high: For example, I bought a Celtel SIM card here to put in the cell phone that I brought with me to Zambia. I paid 10,000 kwacha (US$3.14) for the card, and it came with 10,000 kwacha worth of pre-paid credits. Last week, Celtel advertised one billing scheme that charges at 18 kwacha/second (US$0.34 per minute). A different company, MTN, advertised cell phone plans with rates of 13 kwacha per second or late-night calls at 5 kwacha/sec (US$0.25 and $0.09 per minute). I don’t know what lurks in the fine print of these service plans.


While in Kitwe, I spent time with Zambians 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 bus rides, filling the motel rooms, driving the cars in Lusaka and shopping for luxury goods? I think there is a rich-poor divide here. Some can afford eyeglasses, attentive health care, broadband and a computer at home, and even an automobile and custom-built brick home with indoor plumbing and appliances. Contrast this with people who can’t afford eyeglasses, shoes, a school uniform or a glass of milk that a doctor prescribes (many people walking around Lundazi are barefoot, sometimes with both feet, sometimes with one bare and one wearing the remnants of a tattered shoe). As Zambia tries to develop its infrastructure but runs into problems, what will happen to the magnitude of this divide?


Follow-up to Reader Comment: Prices

A reader commented to me after reading my first blog entry that I shouldn’t be surprised when I get overcharged for things in Zambia. I’m obviously a foreigner, and some merchants see an opportunity to get extra cash out of a naive tourist. This is true, but the prices I report are prices paid by Zambians with their own money. I saw them pay it with my own eyes or I checked and asked what they pay.


Chickens, a Mattress and Vomit

I started the long journey back to Lundazi when I left Kitwe on a ride to Lusaka with a new friend of mine and old friend of Chewe and Prisca. I enjoyed the luxury of legroom in the front seat of his company car, something that the buses here don’t have for people who are tall like me. There were other differences, too. The car ride didn’t have: live chickens among the passengers, innumerable delays preceded by innumerable promises of no delays, unfortunate passengers miserably suffering from motion sickness and vomiting (the bus doesn’t stop for that), and passengers’ goods piled high on the seats and in the aisle — people in the back walk on luggage and boxes instead of the bus floor to get to the front, and I once rode with a mattress big enough for two people that somehow got stuffed in the passenger compartment rather than down in the cargo hold. You might not believe that I’m not complaining, but I’m not — just painting a picture for you. The only thing that really tests my patience so far is sitting with no legroom whatsoever for ten hours, and I’m getting better at enduring that. Anyway, on the bus ride from Lusaka to Chipata, a town on the way to the town where RFDP is, the bus sailed past a man filling potholes with dirt. He saw us coming and stepped to the side of the road. The bus driver honked and tossed a water bottle out to him while we drove by. The man on the road had his eyes fixed expectantly on the bus and spotted the bottle immediately. He broke into a fast run and chased after the bottle. As the man closed in on his prey, the driver did something that really quickened him: he crumpled some money into a ball and sent that out the window, too, honking again to make sure that the man saw it. The man had not taken his eyes off the bus, and he dashed for the cash, pouncing for the kill as the breeze competed to claim the loose bills. There is a market for road repair and someone is taking advantage of it! I arrived in Chipata at night, and a kind gentleman accompanied me while I searched for a place to spend the night. He asked for nothing in return for his help. The next day at the bus station, I waited through a series of delays but finally set off and made it back to Lundazi. The next Monday I was back in the office after being gone for well over a week. I and others at RFDP are still working on a pretty big grant proposal for HIV/AIDS work. As far as life outside the office goes, things change slowly here, so even my biggest local news is pretty mundane: Oatmeal is sold out, so I’m eating baby food and brown rice for breakfast these days. Lately we have had unpredictable power cuts more often than usual, and I haven’t heard anybody guess as to the reason yet. And that’s about all the news I have for now!



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