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This is an occasional series of brief articles that hope to answer the questions: What are you doing out there? and Is it working?

To the average stranger, met in a crushed minibus-taxi or in a queue in the bank, who asks, ‘And what are you doing here?’ an answer such as: "Oh, we’re reducing vulnerabilities and improving livelihoods" may produce, at the best, a glassy stare, even allowing for confusions of language and accent.

It’s the sort of question that ignites a wide range of self-questions: Are we missionaries? No. Are we a foreign NGO? No. Are we church workers? Yes and no.

Thankfully, we have had a year’s preparation for such questions, and can answer: "We’re a community of Christian Brothers, living in Limulunga, hoping to engage the local community on issues such as poverty, human rights, and environmental damage." That may not capture all the nuances of the original Proposition (of 26 principles) that launched this venture for the Brothers, nor the Vision and Mission statements each community reviews and revises each year, but it’s a basis for further conversation.

Within this context of community engagement, we are not the only people to answer the question posed by our average stranger. We Brothers are in an ongoing process of dialogue with many groups within our respective regions (Limulunga, Luampa, Mongu, and Senanga) and it is they, the local people, who ultimately decide what we do and whether it is working.

The stories that follow come from the Brothers, and our colleagues, on what we call our local project teams. But the stories belong to a much wider group, as they are stories of change. Whether it is of climate change, or structural change, or cultural change, or personal change, many others are involved. In the jargon of community engagement, they are all called ‘stakeholders’.

Others are free to make judgements of success or failure. Our job is to offer the stories.

Note on Privacy
Real names of participants in the stories are only used when permission has been given by the individual concerned. Otherwise, typical local names are used, but we try to avoid using a name from another participant in a project. We apologise if this leads to confusion with someone else having the name we have used.

Some of the stories have conflated details from two or more incidents, or two or more participants, partly to describe more of the local reality, and partly to avoid too ready identification of the participants concerned.

Where Chickens Can Help

In the great sweep of history, a family moving from a small rural village out on the broad flood plain of the Zambezi River to the town of Senanga on a main road, linked to the rest of Zambia, is a small event. But historians see the pattern – the move replaces the poverty of distance with the poverty of no income. Sam’s family made this move when Sam was ten. For Sam, the greatest learning was that his family was suddenly poor, in the midst of the wealth on exhibition in Senanga.

The Christian Brothers arrived in Senanga about the same time as Sam did. Trained in social analysis and community engagement, thanks to the generous funding of donors in Ireland, through Misean Cara, and Australia, through Edmund Rice Foundation Australia, the Brothers saw the pattern before Sam did. Senanga had thousands of families who were making the same move, from self-sufficient small farms that were too isolated from services, to living in shacks, close to services, but unable to pay for them. One form of poverty had been traded for another.

Sam left school too early, as his family was unable to pay the fees. But there was nothing to do, that didn’t involve trouble, and no work. Sam took a while to adjust to this, but he was watching his older brother, Godson. Godson had joined a programme the Brothers were running, and seemed a lot happier about life than Sam was feeling.
Based on funding from the donors, the Brothers were offering 65 young people they saw as ‘vulnerable’ in Senanga a chance to generate some income through growing vegetables and producing chickens. It takes place in two stages. As they learn the basic farming techniques and the necessary nutrition information to help their households, the young farmers grow food. But the surplus generated by their hard work can be sold, and the proceeds used to buy inputs for their own individual projects – either vegetables or broiler chickens. This is the second stage Godson is now involved in, and Sam is learning firsthand the work involved – and its rewards.

For Sam, it means his family are eating better food – and enjoying more frequent meals. He can still remember the early days in Senanga when they only ate once a day. He is slowly seeing how the chickens Godson has him attending are changing things. With each batch sold, his parents are feeling a bit more secure, and Godson is planning bigger things.

One of them concerns Sam. Godson thinks there will be enough money for school fees next year. Life has now changed complexion for Sam. As he cleans the feeders and drinkers for the chickens each day, he’s beginning to feel grateful for the role the chickens are playing in his future.

Alice, at 77

Alice, at 77, lives on her own, in a village that’s part of the sprawling town of Senanga, on the banks of the Zambezi River. Despite the beauty of the town, where the open woodlands of the sandy ridges meet the sweeping Barotse Plain, and the great Zambezi curves close to its eastern bank, Alice rarely sees it. She has been bed-ridden for the last twenty years.

Alice, is elderly, in poor health, and in pain. Under normal circumstances, a family would be around her, caring for her. Failing that, you would hope good neighbours would help her, or, failing that, a local religious group. As a last resort, there are government departments, including the offer of free health care, able to provide for people such as Alice. But some people slip through these support structures. If Alice can’t move, can’t leave her hut, can’t make contact with people, she may well be neglected.

There is a grandchild, Memory, who is still at school. Memory sleeps in a small hut near Alice and cares for her as best she can, when she is free to do so. But a child can only do so much. Other members of Alice’s family, who have mostly moved away from Senanga, are quarrelling over who should do the rest, with no clear programme of support emerging, and no money being spent on Alice.

Enter Josephine, a community-based home carer. Josephine, who comes from another village, 30 minutes walk away through the soft sand, volunteered for such work at the invitation of the Christian Brothers and their project team. The Brothers are funded to address local poverty in Senanga by generous donors in Ireland, through Misean Cara, and in Australia, through the Edmund Rice Foundation, Australia.

When Josephine entered Alice’s darkened hut, with its dry reed walls, badly needing repairs, and thatched roof, also beginning to disintegrate, she was shocked. The bed sores alone were vivid proof of Alice’s suffering. Josephine had been trained by the Brothers’ programme, along with 149 other home carers, and she knew what to look for and how to find out from Alice, gently, what the basic needs were. The next day, she had delivered her report to the project team, and they were making decisions about care for Alice.

Transport to the local health clinic and physical support for Alice, to help her through this visit, came first, after some initial cleaning and washing. There were medicines prescribed and a routine of further visits arranged. Memory, the grand-daughter, became part of this, of course. Josephine worked through how to get fresh water and basic foodstuffs into the house, some basic shopping and ongoing cleaning done.

Josephine and Alice both know that talking is important, and the comfort of a caring presence. Home carers have been given basic counselling skills by the programme to help them be better listeners and supportive facilitators, rather than moving too quickly to solving problems. Alice needs time to appreciate what changes Josephine and Memory are bringing into her life, and time for many wounds to heal. The move from solitude to regular contacts with caring people awakes many other issues for her.
The Community-based Home Care Programme, to give it its proper title, trains and supports Josephine in this critical work. The funding is essential to collect such a large group of volunteers and run three sets of training courses for them, in three needy areas in Senanga, and equip them to move out into homes such as Alice’s. They focus on widows and orphans, the sick and the elderly, and those living with disabilities. There is plenty of work for them all!

Even better, the Brothers have liaised successfully with the local health services and the home carers are now integrated into the government network of health care. This means they have professional supervision, ongoing training, and easier access for their clients to the health services they need. The government services, of course, also benefit. They have gained 150 willing volunteers who can extend health care into homes they simply don’t know about, can’t find, or have no time to visit.
Alice, at 77, probably will stay in her bed for the rest of her life. The difference is that her life is now immeasurably richer. Through Josephine’s first visit, as a home carer, Alice is receiving medical help, and the human contact that spells care and concern.

Lubasi Breaks the Downward Spiral

Lubasi turned up at the house of the Christian Brothers in Luampa, a small dusty village 18 kilometres of the main road linking Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, to Mongu, the capital of its poorest province. It was October, the peak of the dry season in the Western Province, and Lubasi had stayed sober all day, forcing himself to apply for a training programme the Brothers were said to be running for local youth.

Lubasi had left school before the Grade Nine exams, and had not found any permanent work since. He lived with his grandmother, as both his parents had died when he was in Grade Eight. She was impatient with him, for any money he made from piece work (clearing land, weeding, carrying goods) he wasted on drink, and he contributed very little to the household.

The Brothers, aided by a generous grant from Misean Cara, Ireland, and Edmund Rice Foundation Australia, were tackling poverty in Luampa by training local youth in income-generating skills, especially farming, and then helping to set them up as young farmers. For Lubasi, despite the damage of the intervening years, there was a faint hope he could join this scheme. He could remember helping his father to farm vegetables, before his father became too sick.

Thanks to his grandmother’s poverty, more than his own merits, Lubasi was accepted into the scheme. He joined another 34 youths who assembled three times a week at a block of land covered with rough scrub, on the banks of the Luampa River. Slowly, they cleared it and began the hard, hot work of building five fish ponds, four chicken sheds, and flat stretches for vegetable gardens. The funders provided the equipment, the Brothers the encouragement, and Lubasi the dedication, despite the taunts of some of his former drinking companions.

There were workshops too, on nutrition and farming skills, but in Bunda, his home language, not the dreaded English that had made his school lessons so hard to follow. Lubasi began to regain some confidence in his own abilities, and to see a different future – a way of making regular money. When the time came for decisions, he opted for growing vegetables – his father’s example now clearer in his mind.

Finally, months later, came the day the Brothers called ‘the distribution’. The funders ensured that Lubasi received the start of new life – fertiliser, gardening implements, pesticide, sprayer and watering can, and the all-important seeds. His grandmother gladly let him use some of the land she lived on.

Lubasi felt far stronger than on that day he had to force himself to stay sober to apply for the project. The drinking now seemed to him the waste of time it was. He sensed he had pulled out of some dangerous downward spiral, and that now he could contribute to the household, and plan for his own life as well.

Why Walk for Two Hours ?

Liswaniso often asked herself this question, as she trudged from her home in the village of Katondo to the secondary school in Luampa. Whatever answers she came up with, she kept trudging, through the long seven months of hot dry season, the brief two months of cold dry season, and the three months of hot rainy season.

Her friends who started with her, as young teenagers, dropped out, or got married, or became farmers. Liswaniso kept walking to school. But, as Year Twelve approached, her final year at school, she began to have serious doubts. Her family were still paying the school fees, but she knew her primary schooling in the village had left her with gaps in her learning – her written English came back scribbled over with corrections, and Maths still held troubling mysteries for her. The final exams confirmed her fears – her marks were poor, and all that walking seemed to have been an expensive waste of her life.

Could she repeat or ‘re-write’ as they say in Zambia? Her father said there was no money left for school fees. She knew even bright students were getting extra coaching, in Luampa, but she had no chance of paying for that. So, the day she saw a small poster, offering free tuition for senior students, changed everything for her.
The Christian Brothers had set up a community in Luampa, in 2016. Supported by Edmund Rice Foundation Australia and Misean Cara, based in Ireland, the Brothers were running projects to improve the livelihoods and opportunities for youth in Luampa and its surrounding villages. It was the Brothers who put up the poster that galvanised Liswaniso into action.

She enrolled in the tuition classes, and found a Brother who could assess what she’d missed out in her primary schooling and slowly begin to ‘fill the gaps’ in her learning. He took up the Science and Biology syllabus, using the topics there to develop her English expression, and every chance he could find to get her Mathematics right as well. For this, Liswaniso gladly walked the two hours in and two hours out, back to Katondo, for many more months.

A year later, she was in Luampa, walking through the school gates, in an emotional tangle. Around the notice board, where the Year Twelve exam results were displayed, she struggled through the noisy excited crowd to find out how she’d done. There it was: ‘Credit 5’ – in all three subjects, Biology, Science and Mathematics. With that pass, she could apply to Teacher’s College. And she did.

This year, Liswaniso is in Teacher’s College, in Mongu, some three hours drive away from Luampa. She’s studying to be a primary school teacher. And if some future student ever complains and asks her why they have to walk all the way to school, she’s more than happy to tell them why.

Namasiku’s Journey

Namasiku is used to walking through thick, soft sand. For the six years of her secondary schooling, she walked, with a few friends and her brother, two and half hours to the secondary school in Limulunga. Every afternoon, she walked home again, for two and half hours.

She was lucky she was on the morning shift, at school, which finishes at 1.30 pm. Otherwise, she’d be walking home in the dark, most nights. Her home has no electricity. She lives in Moombo, in rural western Zambia. Only 3.8% of rural Zambian households have electricity. No-one in Moombo is connected to the rare wobbling lines of poles carrying electricity that venture out from the town of Limulunga into the vast flood plains of the Zambezi River, lying to the west of the town.

Despite this, and the annual floods in March and April that drown the shortest routes to Limulunga, Namasiku graduated from Year Twelve last year. Her parents have grudgingly let her stay with a friend’s family in Limulunga this year, as she tries to find enough piece work to earn the precious money she needs for the fees at the teacher’s college, where she hopes to start training as a pre-school teacher next year.

She has joined a drama group, called Kozo (‘peace’ in the local Lozi language), through contacts with school friends. They sometimes get work, earning 80 Kwacha (about 7 Euros) a performance. This year, they were invited by the Limulunga Christian Brothers Project Team to stage some ‘street theatre’ in the local Health Clinic, which most people in Limulunga simply call ‘the hospital’. The Kozo group staged a dramatic performance outside the clinic, on a gently sloping patch of sand, for the benefit of the women and their babies who were in the usual queue on Fridays for the ‘Under Five Clinic’.

After drumming and dancing to summon a crowd and attract attention, the group of eight young women swiftly spin a tale of tragedy and violence. A twelve-year old girl, rejoicing that she has just passed her exams, is told by her father she is to leave school and get married, as they can’t afford any more school fees. Her mother protests and is attacked. Relatives and neighbours rush in and a noisy debate breaks out. The local primary school teacher is summoned … the play abruptly stops. Namasiku confidently walks out onto the sand and asks the watching crowd, by now some forty or fifty strong, how this play should end.

There are plenty of suggestions, as onlookers call out comments and throw in remarks. Namasiku fields them all, cleverly turning comments into further questions, to stimulate and spark responses. Not only the young mothers and their babies are involved, but people from other queues (the outpatients, the AIDS clinic, the Family Planning office) and staff members have wandered over and joined in. The issues are real – everyone has younger sisters or nieces or grand-daughters.

After ten or fifteen minutes of animated discussion, Namasiku steps aside and two local women, also working with the Christian Brothers Limulunga Project Team and sponsored by Misean Cara, an Irish faith-based funding body, take over. They have been trained in facilitating such discussions. They urge the crowd to consider the impact of Child Marriage, why it is so common in Limulunga, where nearly 50% of first-born babies are born to women under eighteen, and what can be done to reduce it.
Part of Namasiku’s journey to date has been overshadowed by plans and pressure to have her marry. There is no money at home for school fees or further education. She was lucky enough to have been selected for a bursary, by the local Department of Social Welfare, though both her parents needed convincing this wasn’t a waste of time and money. Many of her school friends, especially those who barely finished their primary schooling, are already married and looking after babies. They put a lot of pressure on her to do the same. What else is there to do in Moombo? No money, no training, no jobs. A few have already been abandoned by their partners, and are back with their parents, adding to the strain of households grappling with hardship on a daily basis.

After the event, over refreshments, Namasiku is invited by the project team to join a few other young women, confident and articulate, to take a further step on her journey. Would she like to take the suggestions that came forward this morning to the District Commissioner? Namasiku has only a vague idea of who the District Commissioner is and what he or she does. She gathers he is an important person who might make decisions that could make things easier for her younger sister, now ten, to avoid the pressures to marry too early. Namasiku says yes, she’ll join the group. Now, the project team, says, what do you want to say to the District Commissioner?

Three School Friends

Precious, Mwansa and Christine have been friends from their earliest school days. They grew up close to each other, in a cluster of mud huts with thatched roofs, on the vast sand bank across which the village of Limulunga sprawls. They trudged to primary school together through the thick soft sand that forms the paths and roads in Limulunga. In time, they were all at secondary school together, moving towards their Grade Nine exams.

Then things became more complicated. Between the ages of fifteen and seventeen, all three became pregnant and left school, to care for their babies. They still lived close to each other, in their family homes, and shared the changes that had come on them, as they took up the roles of mothers and adult family members. Money was always scarce, and they had to juggle whatever cash-producing work they found with childcare and family work.

They joined the Health and Wellbeing Project, jointly funded by Edmund Rice Foundation Australia (ERFA) and Misean Cara (Ireland) in 2017. By October they had finished the training on health, hygiene, nutrition, and vegetable-growing for better nutrition – as had their babies, who went with them everywhere, carried on their backs. Then, along with the other 107 participants in the project (mostly young women, like them), they were all issued with seeds, watering cans, a sprayer, and two types of fertiliser.

Christine, whose family had experience with farming vegetables, asked for seven packets of seeds – cabbage, Chinese cabbage, rape (kale), impwa (a type of eggplant), eggplant, tomato and carrot. Precious and Mwansa, with less experience, were less self-confident. Precious opted for Chinese cabbage, rape, impwa, eggplant and carrot, and Mwansa for cabbage, Chinese cabbage (just called ‘Chinese’ by locals), rape, spinach and tomato. All of them chose rape as it one of the most popular local crops, but not always for sale at the market –and sometimes too expensive, depending on the season. ‘Chinese’ on the other hand, though very popular, is not so readily available.

The good news was that all these vegetables were guaranteed to be ‘nutrient–dense’ (high in minerals and vitamins), in the language of the trainers, so the young women were hoping their families would enjoy a healthier diet – if the crops came up. The bad news was that October is the peak of the dry season in the Western Province of Zambia, with no real rain since the previous April, and maybe two more months before the rains would fall again (late November or December).

The other bad news was that their homes were on the sands of Limulunga, not down on the plains (the floodplain of the Zambezi River) just to west of Limulunga. Many of the local families had land down on the plains, where the soil is a rich loam and there is plentiful water, even in the dry season. The sands are dry, acidic, and very low in soil nutrients. So, Precious, Mwansa and Christine faced a few challenges even before they began building the nurseries for their seedlings.

But build they did, as they had been trained. Rickety structures, sourced from local materials (mostly household junk), with old mosquito netting or plastic sheets strung on wooden posts, with some form of roofing. Into these went the precious seeds (or some of them. All three had the foresight to save some!) and the routine of watering and weeding began, on top of the other household chores, and any work away from home they could find. Their babies, on their backs, were part of everything.

What happened? When the project team had finished their monitoring visits, two of the young women (Mwansa and Christine) had successfully raised the vegetables of their choice. Precious had had to start all over again, when the local village chickens broke through her defences and ravaged her first beds of seedlings. Then she lost the second set of seedlings to ‘the water problem’ – which was really a poverty problem. The local man who sold the water (from the tap on his block) wanted to charge her more for the extra water (another 20-litre jerry can) for her vegetables. And she had no more cash, for that extra expense.

But Precious still has four kinds of seeds left over. She is determined, once the rainy season is over, to start again and, this time, try improving the soil with the composting methods she had been shown on the course. Mwansa’s family had their own borehole, so they got to eat an improved diet, thanks to that water source. She also has kept some seeds for future planting, so that promises the vegetable farm may become sustainable.

Christine went one better. The family ate healthier foods, and she was able to sell surplus vegetables (mainly tomatoes) at the market, to bring home some much needed cash (which, amongst other things, means she can buy more seeds). Right across the Western Province, tomatoes are the basis of the sauce (busonso) that is served with the staple maize flour (cooked as buhobe). Christine was also able to enrich her sandy soil with compost, as she had learnt at the training, and that helped produce such a fine crop of tomatoes.

A final note: Mwansa is now back at school, studying in Year Eleven. That may not be directly due to a nutrient-dense diet, but it does reveal the resilience and drive in a young person to achieve her goals.

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