On our second day in Chiawa, we arrived mid-morning to the Volunteer House. With forty preschool children on their way, we had new games, books and posters to prepare! Soon enough, we heard the unmistakable giggles of four year olds as they approached the house.
The students took their shoes off on the back porch before entering and then looked up at us with saucer-sized, eager eyes, as if to say, “What’s next!?” We had laid out big straw mats and a mattress and divided the class into four small groups, which we figured would allow for more individual participation and give the teacher a break from the large class size. Throughout the morning, each of the groups, led by an adult, played games to identify shapes and colors, practiced counting, pointed out body parts on large posters and sang “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” in the loudest, cutest voices I could possibly imagine.
I somehow found myself in the group with the head teacher. She amazed me as she devised games from the tools provided and alternated seamlessly between English and the local language, so that her students would learn both simultaneously. She told me that in the younger classrooms, instruction is typically in the local language. Then, as the students reach the higher levels, instruction changes to be in English. Therefore, she mixes English and the local language in her lessons as much as possible, giving her students a head start.
The plan moving forward is to have the preschool visit the Volunteer House once a week as a field trip.
Following lunch, Cherri, Richard, Steven and I packed up and drove to Chiawa Primary, where we re-met with the teachers we had lunch with the day before. I was excited to see them again, this time in action with their students!
As we pulled in, we saw groups of students running around and playing games. We didn’t quite know where to start, so we followed a group of boys past the school blocks to the building at the end of the drive. Once we realized the boys were carrying paddles, nets and little white balls, we knew were heading to the ping pong recreational hall! The three tables inside were instantly occupied, but the students quickly handed Steven a paddle and asked him to play. Eventually, I also joined in and we had a blast keeping the rallies going --and not keeping score.
After what felt like only a moment, we were ushered outside for a surprise! The Power Kittens, a group of promising girls from the school, were ready for their performance -and we were the guests of honor. In the shade of a big tree outside the classroom blocks, the girls danced to and sang traditional songs, accompanied by three of the boys on drums. I successfully fought the urge to pull out my camera and video the performance, as I wanted to be completely present; I knew I wouldn’t be able to capture the energy and poignancy of the moment anyways.
Afterwards, we were ready for sports. I started playing volleyball in seventh grade, and even now I play in an adult league. Through volleyball – and love of sports and teamwork in general – I have kept myself healthy, made friends and even met my husband. I knew I needed to bring a volleyball with me to the school, to leave a bit of my heart behind! Gladys and the other teachers joined the games and we even played “Girls against boys!” One girl on my team played with an intensity and competitiveness that I certainly understood, and she had the skills play as well. --She called out one of the boys for jumping in on a ball that was clearly hers. –Fantastic!
I felt completely at ease and welcomed into the experience of being at the school, and especially in all the games we played, from volleyball to frisbee and ping pong to netball. Time after time, Cherri mentioned, “Five more minutes,” until we actually DID need to say our goodbyes. The afternoon was gone in what seemed like an instant. Before we knew it, we jumped back into the truck and departed. --I hadn’t even set foot inside one of the classrooms!
As we drove back to the lodge, I wondered… How could the last two days, and this section of my trip, be over already? And… the big, existential question for me was… What do I do now? There I was, possibly the farthest away from home that I had ever been, in an African village that was everything I imagined it would be, playing volleyball, laughing and connecting with people. But, on such a short visit, what impact had I made… and how can I continue to make an impact? Had I made a difference, and could I continue to do so…? Would they remember me?
I’m still searching for my answers to those more abstract questions, I suppose. In the meantime, I know that I am continuing to support Chiawa Primary from my desk in Boston through my work at EXPLORE. I look forward to hearing updates on the upcoming projects at the school, from the Recreation Center to agriculture classes to running water in the teachers’ houses. And, I hope to return again.
Upon our arrival to the Volunteer House, after a bumpy, 40-minute drive on a dusty, dirt road, Cherri gave me and Steven the official tour of the newly opened facility. The house has bedrooms where people can stay overnight if they are attending longer workshops, a kitchen, bathroom and two large common spaces with tables, couches and chairs. Esnart, the head of the Volunteer House, lives on site as well. I noticed the nine treadle-powered Singer sewing machines sitting snuggly against the walls, ready and waiting for their upcoming projects; hand-written posters from a recent financial planning seminar wallpapering the two main rooms; and a white board listing discussion points for an upcoming Power Cats meeting on assertiveness.
This is clearly a place where open dialogue is encouraged and change happens!
Sitting together on the couch were three – eventually six –school teachers from Chiawa Primary, the local school, who Cherri had invited over to meet with us. We planned to have lunch and discuss education and teaching in the village. Steven, my husband, is a high school English teacher in Massachusetts, and we knew we would find common ground. Our conversations started slowly and tentatively as we talked about where the teachers grew up (various regions throughout Zambia) and what their classes were like (fifty-to-sixty kids in one classroom, for example).
Lunch, cooked on site, consisted of traditional Zambian dishes: nshima (pounded maize flour cooked into a thick porridge, similar to polenta in consistency), roasted chicken, a savory tomato/onion sauce and cooked greens with aromatic spices. As I took my seat, Steven and I looked at each other and realized that we, and Cherri, were the only diners who had brought cutlery to the table. Still a newbie to Zambia, I did not know that traditionally, a small portion of nshima is taken in your palm, rolled into a ball, indented with your thumb and then used somewhat as a spoon for the tomato sauce, chicken or greens… all of which are then popped into your mouth in one bite!
Though Cherri and I stuck with our forks and knives, Steven asked the teachers to show him how to roll the nshima balls. They smiled and laughed together as he figured it out. In no time at all, our conversations opened up. The teachers discussed parental involvement, pupil engagement, age-appropriate curriculum, local support, class size and their personal passions for teaching. And, the energy in the room only escalated as the afternoon wore on! Though the particulars of the schools and each teachers’ classrooms differ, it was obvious that everyone who was sitting at the table cares intensely about their students and strives to give their best every day.
Our goal for the afternoon was to listen to – and appreciate – the teachers in Chiawa, knowing how hard they work and the obstacles they face. We gave out small gifts that we brought from the US and took a sunset boat cruise together on the Zambezi River. As we parted ways in the evening, I felt that the day had gone by in a flash. I looked forward to our upcoming visit to the school and to seeing them all again the next day.
Check out the photos from the official opening of the Volunteer House!