“even men have to be able to prepare food.”
Edith Carroll was co-leader of the Zambia Volunteer Group 2023, where she met Busiku. Edith writes this blog about Busiku’s thoughts and reflects on the inequitable access to education in Zambia.
Busiku is one person I met in Zambia who I will never forget. Part of our journey as volunteers and global citizens working with SERVE requires us to engage critically with the issues and challenges our partners and those they work with in the global south are facing. For me, speaking to Busiku helped me to better understand some of these issues from the perspective of a young person, more specifically a young girl, growing up in Mazabuka.
Busiku lives with her aunt in Mazabuka. Her Dad is a veterinary doctor in Choma and her Mum works as a chef in Livingstone. She and her twin sister are in Grade 8 in St. Patrick’s Secondary School in Mazabuka. She loves reading and, as she puts it herself, “being curious”. Some of her friends call her a nerd but she says she doesn’t care and won’t stop reading, even if her friends are right and reading too many books will make her crazy!!
When I first met Busiku I was having a conversation with three other young people, all in Grade 12. We chatted while some of the other volunteers were planting banana plants in an area the school uses to grow crops to raise funds for educational resources. I began the conversation by asking the group a question I have put to a number of people since arriving in Mazabuka – why they think Zambia is a poor country.
I listened as the young people gave their various opinions, many of which I had heard before; lack of education, corruption, lack of employment. I hardly noticed Busiku’s presence at the edge of the group as the others spoke at length about the issues faced by Zambians in general. When she finally spoke, she quietly asked if she could share her views, and I realised she hadn’t just been listening, she was gathering her own thoughts.
Busiku reminded me of that because now, even when the wonderful students I met in St. Patrick’s sit their grade 12 English paper in November and move on and forget about the muzungus who helped them prepare for their mocks, or when the balls we left behind us after community day burst, or when the students in Luyobolola struggle to remember the tune of ‘Óró ‘Sé Do Bheatha’, even then we will still have a responsibility to tell the stories of the people we have met and tell them deeply.
Little by little as she spoke, she gained confidence, despite interruptions and contradictions from the others. Busiku explained how she wanted to study law and become a police officer. However, her worry was that even if she went to university and got the relevant qualifications, if jobs became available, she might not be chosen even as the most qualified candidate. When I asked her about this, she explained that in Zambia, not only is there a culture of “pulling strings” to get people what they want, but there is also a very insular mentality among many people.
She gave the example of a parent wanting their child to attend a particular school but the child not having the grades to get into the school. According to her, many head teachers will accept young people if parents are willing to pay over the odds for their child to attend. Her frustration about this was evident but she confessed that often it is difficult to see the bigger picture when your choices are limited. If you feel education is the thing that will give your child opportunities, you are going to do whatever it takes to provide that education for your child, even if ultimately you know it’s wrong. As she put it, you will put your needs ahead of others.
It struck me that many of the issues relating to education, employment, corruption, and gender inequality can be traced back to this very fact. Few Zambians have the luxury of looking at the bigger picture because to do so could result in a decreased standard of living, loss of their job, or isolation within their home or community. The control and autonomy that is lacking among ordinary Zambians is something we take for granted as free citizens of Ireland.
I hardly noticed Busiku’s presence at the edge of the group as the others spoke at length about the issues faced by Zambians in general. When she finally spoke, she quietly asked if she could share her views, and I realised she hadn’t just been listening, she was gathering her own thoughts.
I told Busiku that during our time in Zambia we had been told, in no uncertain terms, that Zambia is a Christian nation and I wondered how this could be the case when corruption is clearly so rampant. She conceded that it was a good question and went on to explain a familiar narrative to our own situation in Ireland regarding religion – a familiar hypocrisy, although that wasn’t the word she used. She explained that while most young people can quote the bible and they frequently attend Church, often what they do outside of the Church is not what they are taught. We discussed the idea of forgiveness in the Christian churches in Zambia and between the two of us and Joseph, another Grade 12 student involved in the initial conversation, we decided that we all make mistakes.
I asked the two of them whether they felt like the Church supported people who had made mistakes in their lives and their answer was one of uncertainty, although Busiku strongly supported the idea that mistakes are normal, and that they happen so that we can learn. She gave an example of breaking a plate while washing up at home and confessing the transgression to her mother, while Joseph explained that he ran away to his aunt’s house for two nights but decided to go home and apologise for causing so much worry. Those examples struck me as so normal, so human but yet the restricted and severe preachings of some of the Christian churches in Zambia seem to serve to alienate and instill intense guilt amongst young people rather than celebrating their uniqueness and empowering them to find and nurture their talents. But that’s simply an impression, based on some brief conversations and some limited experiences. Perhaps that’s not the whole story.
Unfortunately, Busiku was able to offer other instances of corruption occuring in Zambia. She outlined how when wrong of any kind is done to a person and if they report this to the police, the victim is required to provide evidence. Often, according to her, if the person accused of committing the offence has more money than the victim, they can bribe the police to turn a blind eye to such cases. This is something that as a 13-year-old, she has aspirations of addressing in her own career, through her work as a police officer or as a lawyer if she is unable to join the police.
Maths teacher from Luyobolola Primary School added to Cledwyn’s comments by saying “We have to do our best for our students because we might be the only ones in their lives who are showing them care or love”.
Some of the others challenged her of course when she made comments regarding police and political corruption, but she stood firm. The others seemed naive to the possibility that the citizens of their country could be ignored or dealt with unfairly. This was also a trend we saw, steadfast support for and faith in governments among youth. The most mentioned person during our stay was probably the current president, Hakainde Hchilema, or HH as he’s incessantly referred to, and the majority of what was said was positive.
The Grade 12 students suggested that the Anti-Corruption Agency would deal with issues of police or political corruption and their faith in the system seemed unwaivering. Unfortunately, this was a pattern we observed in many of the opinions shared with us by the young people we met in Mazabuka. Much of the time when we sought opinions, they seemed scripted, repetitive, and uncritical. This is perhaps due to the difficult circumstances under which education is provided in Zambia.
There are two main types of schools in Zambia; public schools and those under patronage of religious orders. Schools that are under patronage require students to pay fees and are generally thought to provide education of a higher standard. Students pay termly fees which can vary depending on the school. We frequently observed absences in schools because of students being “chased” because they could not afford to pay their school fees. For some students it’s a constant battle to keep up with fees and they’ll do anything to try and sneak into lessons to try to consistently attend as many classes as possible in order to pass their grade 7, 9, and 12 exams as if they fail these exams, they must repeat the grade.
From our experience, the message was clear: In Zambia education is a privilege, and unlike here in Ireland, you’ll rarely meet a young person who will tell you that they don’t like school, even though their school experience is much more challenging than that of an Irish youth. In public schools the only cost that students incur, thanks to the ‘New Dawn’ government, is for their uniforms, which are compulsory. With the introduction of free public education in 2022 many problems have arisen, not least the unmanageable class sizes. While Busiku who attends St. Patrick’s, a Catholic school originally founded by Irish missionary, Sr. Angela Daly, has only around 40 students in her class, we spoke to other young people in public schools whose class sizes are closer to 60.
This brings with it a range of issues for teachers and learners alike. Together with another volunteer we were privileged to be able to help organise a teachers’ conference on one Saturday of the volunteer programme. Teachers from the local primary, secondary and special school all attended. Cledwyn, the headteacher in the special school, Flambuoyant began the mornings agenda, and I was blown away by his knowledge and his compassion as he spoke. I was also taken aback by the response of the other teachers to him who asked questions and aired their reservations about the concept of inclusion and special education.
Busiku was clear that women can now do jobs that were traditionally reserved for men, such as engineering and medicine, but she stressed that the narrow-minded view still exists that educating your male child will be more beneficial to your family’s financial status and security than educating your female child.
When asked about particular instances where learners retreat into themselves, find themselves unable to communicate or struggle to make any friends, he patiently explained that many of these young people have experienced trauma and the behaviours we see on the outside are the child’s way of coping with the abuse, neglect, or addiction they have experienced in their homes. One of the most heartening things that happened during that conference was Euphrasia, a Maths teacher from Luyobolola Primary School added to Cledwyn’s comments by saying “We have to do our best for our students because we might be the only ones in their lives who are showing them care or love”.
In spite of the terrible lack of empowerment among those working in the teaching profession, the fear they experience yearly that their jobs will somehow disappear, and the endless paperwork they are obliged to complete, people like Euphrasia and Cledwyn give me hope for education in Zambia. But they can only work within the bounds of the resources provided to them and that’s why if governments don’t make education a priority in a meaningful and effective way (unlike the ill-thought-out free education bill), partnerships like that which these three schools have with SERVE are critical.
Busiku also mentioned how while gender equality might exist in name, the practicalities of it sometimes aren’t evident to her, especially in the villages. She explained that in some local single-sex secondary schools, subject choices are limited. She angrily explained that St. Edmund’s, a reputable Catholic boys’ secondary school, don’t offer Home Economics. She felt that this was ridiculous because, as she phrased it, “even men have to be able to prepare food”. She explained that in her own school many boys take Home Economics which was a good thing but showed her frustration that Health Education, a subject which teaches students how to care for themselves properly and care for children, is not compulsory.
In more rural areas in Zambia, Busiku suggested that priority for education is still given to males. She was clear that women can now do jobs that were traditionally reserved for men, such as engineering and medicine, but she stressed that the narrow-minded view still exists that educating your male child will be more beneficial to your family’s financial status and security than educating your female child. She went on to speak of her anger about early marriages and how some families make their young daughters marry much older men. She felt that this was unfair and limited the potential of young women in Zambia.
Busiku explained that in some local single-sex secondary schools, subject choices are limited. She angrily explained that St. Edmund’s, a reputable Catholic boys’ secondary school, don’t offer Home Economics. She felt that this was ridiculous because, as she phrased it, “even men have to be able to prepare food”.
I think I learned more about Zambia in that hour-long conversation that I shared with Busiku than in any of the classes or activities I did for the previous three weeks. Before we set out to travel to Zambia, we had a training day with former Comhlámh C.E.O., Mark Cummings in which he explained that volunteering isn’t about the task, it’s about the process. Busiku reminded me of that because now, even when the wonderful students I met in St. Patrick’s sit their grade 12 English paper in November and move on and forget about the muzungus who helped them prepare for their mocks, or when the balls we left behind us after community day burst, or when the students in Luyobolola struggle to remember the tune of ‘Óró ‘Sé Do Bheatha’, even then we will still have a responsibility to tell the stories of the people we have met and tell them deeply.
Of course, we’ll recount the hilarious moments we shared with the young people like Marco, Stanley, Amelia, and Blessing but mainly we’ll tell you how the issues that these young people face are multifaceted and complex. But more importantly, we’ll say that if you want to know how to help, we will be more than happy to have a conversation with you to help you to understand the problems, not fully, but better than we could have before we set foot in Zambia.
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