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.