Thursday, July 26, 2007

There are Many Gaps to Bridge

“So what is your favorite part of school?”
“Writing the tests that ASAP brings us.”

When fifth grader Hardlife Dirorimwe answered my question in this way, I thought he was just trying to give the scary American woman the answer she wanted. As I was walking home with Bridge the Gap Project Manager Collins Mutsvairo, I joked that I had never met a child whose favorite part of school was taking tests.

“No,” he corrected me, “his favorite part of school isn’t taking tests, it’s writing the diagnostic tests that ASAP brings.”

Apparently, taking ASAP’s tests is something that excites many of the rural students. Why? Because it’s the only time each student gets a piece of paper and a pencil all to him or herself. Even more exciting, the paper has the questions printed right on it!

Usually, three or four students share a writing utensil and a notebook of newsprint. Textbooks are even scarcer. As many as ten students can be forced to share the same book in some subjects. Teaching aids like maps, protractors, rulers, and charts are all but non-existent. Further complicating matters, inflation has raised school fees out of reach of many students and teacher pay has become low enough to make teachers wonder if they should come to work at all.

In light of so many difficulties, ASAP’s education programs provide a ray of hope. Bridge the Gap adds much needed energy and enthusiasm to math education through quiz competitions, after school math clubs, and teacher training workshops. Kufusa Mari Junior attacks a different, but equally important issue by helping students form savings clubs and raise money for their school fees. ASAP field officers are deeply engaged in the schools they serve and work hard to supplement the existing educational system. With programs like these, ASAP is giving the most marginalized students a chance to succeed.

Monday, July 23, 2007

What does a pair of shoes really cost?

Brian Sabeta, a participant in ASAP’s Bridge the Gap Education project, when asked what one thing he would change about his life if he could, said that he would ask for shoes. He walks six kilometers to school everyday, and he said, quite simply, that his feet hurt.

A year ago I would have seen a simple answer to this problem. I should buy Brian a pair of shoes! I have a closet full of shoes I don’t even wear, so certainly I can afford to buy a pair for a boy who really needs one. But during my time with ASAP, I have begun to look at the problem differently. What happens next year when Brian grows out of those shoes or wears them out? Do I buy him another pair? What about the year after that? What about when he grows up and has children- do I buy them shoes as well?

I’m learning that buying shoes for every barefoot child is not feasible, nor is it sustainable. Further, it may not even be desirable. By giving Brian a pair of shoes I would be telling him that he needs me to provide for him and that he, his family, and his community all are incapable of taking care of themselves. I would be perpetuating the dehumanizing cycle of donor dependence.

Of course, this theory doesn’t make Brian’s sore feet feel any better. Then what can we, as cultural outsiders, do? We can support programs that train, equip, and empower local communities and individuals to meet their own needs. In Brian’s case, the answer is Kufusa Mari Junior, a program that teaches kids a simple form of savings and lending methodology. The children of adult Kufusa Mari participants form all-kid clubs and learn to save money to pay for their school fees, school supplies, and uniform. Participants can even use the money to buy, you guessed it, shoes.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Yield to Oncoming Zebras

Every day on my way to work I pass this sign, which reads Zebra Crossing. And every day when I see that sign I smile to myself at how bizarre and exotic living in Africa is. Where I’m from in Atlanta, all we have are duck crossings!

Last week I asked my coworker Michael to stop the car in front of the sign so that I could take a picture of it. He looked a little confused, but pulled over to the side of the road. When I got back in the car he asked me, “Don’t you have crossings in the United States?” I replied, “Yeah, for people, but not for ZEBRAS!”

He looked confused for a moment and then burst out laughing. In between laughing fits he explained to me that a zebra crossing is not for zebras. It’s just a normal crosswalk named “zebra” for the black and white diagonal lines that mark where people should cross. Every since then whenever we pass a zebra crossing, Michael smirks and says, "Stephie, look out for the zebras!"

Sigh. This picture is yet another symbol of how much I still have to learn about life in Zimbabwe.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Snakes on a Plane, Zimbabwe Style

At field day celebrations, ASAP staff members and leaders in the community give short speeches or tell stories to encourage the project participants. Since I don’t speak Shona, I have to rely on whoever is sitting next to me to translate what the speaker is saying. Usually my translator gets tired of repeating everything in English and starts to give me somewhat garbled snippets of the stories. I try to link them together, but often I just end up laughing to myself about what in the world the speaker could be saying. Here are some of the best explanations translators have given me:

-“When the mermaid returned Robert to his home, he had to go back to grade 4 even though he was old enough to be in grade 6.”
-“Stay in the middle of the river so that an animal won’t drink you and keep you from getting back to the ocean.”
-“You wouldn’t let a rabbit join your savings club would you? No, of course not! Rabbits are sneaky and will steal all your money!”

Usually I don’t bother the translator to explain the stories that don’t make sense to me. I just laugh and clap when everyone else does and it all works out fine. But at my last field day, I had to get the story behind Project Manager Joseph Miti’s speech. The field officer who was translating for me leaned over and whispered, “Okay, so there are these snakes… on a plane.”

I thought surely Miti hadn’t seen the cheesy Samuel L. Jackson movie, Snakes on a Plane! Of course, he hadn’t and was happy to retell the story to me later.

Two American scientists were visiting Zimbabwe to conduct research on a rare type of deadly snake. Once they collected fifty of the biggest and meanest snakes they could find, they packed them up in breathable boxes and got on a plane back to the United States.

Unfortunately, the take-off was a rough one and the turbulence caused the boxes to break open just as the plane reached its cruising altitude, releasing the snakes into the cabin of the plane.

People began running around the cabin screaming, jumping on top of their seats, and clinging to one another for safety. Even the scientists were afraid to be enclosed with so many snakes on the loose!

Immediately, the pilot radioed the control tower and asked for permission to land. The control tower replied that another plane was already on the runway and there was no where for the plane to land. The pilot again asked for permission to land, indicating that there were severe problems on board, but again the air traffic controller told him that there was nowhere for him to land. A third time, the pilot begged to land. “This is an emergency!” he yelled into his radio. But the air traffic controller yelled back, “You’re not coming down here! The only direction you can go is UP!”

Faced with no other options, the pilot did as he was told and steered the plane up toward the clouds. The plane flew higher and higher until the cabin temperature began to fall. With each minute the cabin got colder and the snakes began moving more slowly. As you know, snakes are cold-blooded animals and they cannot move if they are not warm. As the snakes began to fall asleep, the American scientists quickly gathered them up and secured them back in their boxes. All the passengers began to cheer and thanked the pilot for flying UP!

The morale of the story is this:

When you begin your Kufusa Mari savings club it is like boarding a plane. Without a doubt you will encounter difficulties on your journey, just like the snakes, but you must not give up because there is no place for you to land once you have begun. Instead, fly so high that the problems lose their energy. If you continue to fly too high for conflict, then you will make it to your destination!

Not even Samuel L. Jackson can beat that.


Thursday, July 12, 2007

What Life is Like in Rural Africa

Over the past few weeks, I have had the opportunity to travel through some of the more rural areas of Zimbabwe as I have visited project beneficiaries. The beauty of the mountains and grassy fields is tempered with the desperation of those who inhabit this scenic place. As I walked along the side of the road there were many waiting for scarce transportation, searching for scarce work, or haggling over scarce food. Maybe that is the theme for rural Zimbabwe right now: scarcity. Everything seems to be in short supply from grocery items to electricity.

People cannot afford their own cars or even bikes, so public transportation is important. In the city, many people wait to pay high prices to squeeze into small buses. Those in the rural areas are less lucky and routinely have to walk to their destinations many kilometers away. Walking presents a unique challenge to women who must carry large bundles on their heads, strap babies to their back, and lead their other children along by the hand.

Many in the rural areas do not have running water. Some have always lacked the necessary plumbing, but others just recently have been deprived of water due to power cuts at reservoirs and water pumping stations. In order to cope, families must walk to the nearest river, sometimes very far from their homes, and bring back water in buckets. The water must then be boiled before it is sanitary to drink.

Since money is scarce, families grow their own vegetables to supplement what they are able to buy. The gardens must be carefully tended and protected from roaming animals. If the crops do not grow or are destroyed, the family will suffer.

There are, however, some things that are not at all scarce. There is no shortage of children who have lost parents to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, nor is there a shortage of price increases as the country faces 4000% inflation, and certainly there is no shortage of the unemployed, who currently compose 80% of the country’s population.

Nothing about daily life in rural Africa is easy, but Zimbabweans continue to persevere and work hard to improve their lives. The situation here is often bleak, but it is not hopeless. Many of the challenges rural Africans face today are similar to what farmers in America struggled against less than a hundred years ago. The United States has taken giant leaps forward in national health and prosperity and I believe that Zimbabwe can do the same.

In spite of all the difficulties in providing even the most basic standard of living, there is something beautifully complex about seeing life in rural Africa as an outsider. To me, it is like being at a party where everyone is dancing to a song that I can’t hear. All I can do is copy their moves and hope to be only a beat behind. There is so much I don’t understand that I could embarrass myself with examples. That’s why any foreign imposition of how Africa “should” be will inevitably fail. As cultural outsiders, all we can do is assist Africans in changing their own lives. They are ready. Are we?