Sunday, 6 October 2013

Getting Schooled in Zambia

My first taste of southern Africa was a delight; Zambia.   The 1000km cycle along the Great North Road was a tour through the wilds that came to an explosive halt.  Lusaka provided the backdrop for my recovery, a long awaited rendezvous and the chance to get involved with a fantastic local project; Appleseed School.

Africa, how it should be

Having disembarked the MV Liemba in the exotically named Mpulungu I had over 1000km to cycle along Zambia’s Great North Road to Lusaka for my rendezvous with Manu.

Straight away there were subtle yet noticeable differences to East Africa.  Zambia seemed gentler, quainter; the little mud-built homes now often adorned with glass windows and painted decoration; people seemed less crazed by my appearance; less ‘Mzungu!’ more ‘How are you?’.  My impression was: ‘Africa, how it should be’. A terribly archaic and romanticised image conjured from two-generation old books and films, yet a nevertheless pleasing one: a simple yet satisfied rural life; long grasses blowing in the breeze, cows and goats milling about and wide-eyed innocent children cavorting with imaginary lions.  Zambia felt homely and I took an almost instant liking to it.

Curious Kids
Grassy Road
Happy Zambian Kids

The landscape like the people seemed more genteel.  Gone were the brutal ascents of Rwanda and Burundi, the plane of the gods had smoothed a land for more leisurely living, where knoll and vale swung softly together.

Sunset Road

The first days rolled by with hearty hand-waving and smiles, hundreds of kilometres drifting by.  There were endless open spaces. Camping was very comfortable, my tent open to the starts, with the cool night air making my sleeping bag an even greater haven of cosiness.  That was until one night I woke with a fitful start.

Starlight Camping

Exodus

Finding water in the small towns hadn’t been easy so I often stopped in small villages to refill.  ‘If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me’ is normally a reasonable assumption when drinking local water, however on this occasion I doubt the water shared with me by a kindly shopkeeper did either of us any good.

At midnight that evening violent eruptions ejected from every orifice of my edifice; the velocity and volume of which were stupefying.  The outburst continued unrelenting all night.  I’m sure armies on the march have left less mess. I pitied the poor soul on whose land I’d camped, so much so that I tucked a small peace offering beneath a nearby brick mould hoping the discovery of a few precious Kwacha might offset the disillusionment of the newly created sewerage facility.

The first light of dawn brought considerable relief. With an effort usually only spared only for monumental tasks, I packed up my tent, loaded the bike and wheeled out of the bush.  I was severely dehydrated the only water I had, I knew to be contaminated.  In half light, in the middle of nowhere, with a bedraggled zombie-like being waving at you, you’d forgive anyone for not stopping, yet the first car that passed pulled-over and offered me water, and stayed with me until the second vehicle passed – a pick-up – with space enough to carry me the 100km to the nearest town.  Can you imagine that at home?

I spent the next days curled up, shivering; trying and failing to stop the exodus. The town had little comforts or medication to offer.  After four days I decided to hitch a lift into Lusaka to get some proper medication and nutrition.

Midday Shelter
Footprints on the Road

Reunion & Recovery

Arriving in Lusaka was a huge relief.  Manu greeted me from the bus station. While I’d been cycling Rwanda, Burundi and northern Zambia, she’d been volunteering for a children’s home in Namibia, while her knees were recovering.  The time apart had been a healthy break for us both from some of the ardours of living side-by-side 24/7.

On my cycle south I’d been dreaming of our reunion and we fell into each other’s arms.  Amid all that changes on our journey, Manu’s arms feel like home.

We’d arranged to volunteer at Appleseed, a community school in a deprived neighbourhood of Lusaka.  Joy & Ken Hoffman - the founders of the school - were teachers at the nearby American International School Lusaka (AISL), they hosted in their home on campus.

It took a further week until I’d fully recovered.  As Kenny said to me ‘you’ve been dealt some bad cards with your health on this trip’ – it has felt like it.  Ill-health dampens anyone’s enthusiasm for adventure and at times more recently my maladies left me with a feeling that I just want to get the trip done, before the next ailment nails me.  However it’s not a sentiment that lasts for long.

AISL: Special Guests

Manu and I had agreed to give a talk to the kids as AISL, so one early Friday morning we stood in front of a mass of several hundred school children to invite them, for a few minutes, along for the ride.  The presentation went down very well, particularly my recollection of eating bulls’ testicles in Slovenia (which prompted an unscheduled anatomy lesson for one teacher). The theme of the talk had been to challenge convention, to make conscious choices and make the most of the opportunities for a life less ordinary.

The talk seemed to spark some interest in students and teachers alike.  Subsequently Manu and I visited several classes with kids of all ages, covering language to theory of knowledge.  We both enjoyed the enthusiasm and curiosity of the kids.  One class’ homework was to summarise what they’d learnt.  The next day this inspiring insight was forwarded on to me:

Today at AISL, we were fortunate to have a guest speaker present to us his incredible story. This man, named Dan Harrison, spoke to us of his travels bicycling from the UK, through the Middle East and downwards through Africa.

He began by telling us about his job in London. A typical 9-to-5 focused heavily on the money earned at the end of the day. Despite success in his career and a university degree, he felt dissatisfied, unfulfilled. Taking into account his displeasure related to his life situation, he came to the idea of getting away. Of cycling through Africa. After planning and considering the idea, he left his London home in 2009 and has been traveling ever since.

Despite the obviously incredibly inspirational side of his story, there was something about it that made you question your own life. Living in a foreign and international community, the students of aisl are already unbelievably lucky to learn about and experience other cultures. However, regardless of the unbelievable life we are living, we still are expected to follow standard protocol: go to school, get good grades, go to university, get a good job, etc. Yet today, we were presented with the story of a person who decided that this wasn't enough. Who believed that there is more to life. It forces you to asked profound questions: what is the purpose of our lives? Why were we put on this earth? What are we supposed to achieve? What makes a good life? There has got to be something more to it, yet that is up to each one of us to discover. Our individual purpose, our sense of meaning, what makes us happy. And whatever that is, whether it be working in an office or cycling through Africa to give back to the less fortunate, we should strive to achieve it. And don't ever give up.

Johanna Ledgerwood - Vincze

… far more profound than I’d been myself.

Appleseed

Joy and Ken arrived in Zambia in July 2011 to teach at the American International School.  Shortly after arriving they joined their housekeeper, Mary to visit her local neighbourhood, the Bauleni Compound and they began visiting regularly to play, sing and offer classes the local kids.  Most of the children were not attending school yet they had a tremendous appetite for learning. Inspired by the enthusiasm of the children – Joy, Ken and Mary rented a building and opened RHO Appleseed School.

Like many good causes Appleseed started as personal social project, founded on compassion and now, in order to achieve its goals, is faced with the challenging transition to a professional not-for-profit/NGO.

I set about helping Joy and Ken to structure their ideas into a plan on how to grow the organisation, building into a five year strategic plan with step-by-step actions to see a purpose built school erected for 250 children.  Our discussions tried to weigh compassion with pragmatism, emotion versus objectivity.  It was tricky to find the right balance but in the end we produced a very useful plan which should hopefully provide the catalyst for Appleseed to get more professional support it needs to grow.

Manu and I visited the school a number of times and while I was planning and writing, she conjured up another fantastic video to help promote Appleseed from the footage we shot while we were there.  It gives a great introduction to the project and combined with the plan should provide great support to the Appleseed fundraising efforts.

The kids at the school loved watching the video too...

As our stay neared an end we were invited to the British High Commissioner’s Residence for a press call to highlight our work and a few drinks.  His Excellency – or Simon as he’d rather be called - was a very pleasant host and we shared a few tales of the Better Life Cycle with him, his family and some reporters.

We’d really enjoyed our stay with the Joy, Ken and their daughters – Ally and Emma - who were great hosts, as well as the warm welcome from several of the AISL staff.  We were given a parting gift from the school which we have donated to Appleseed.  Find out more and support the project at www.RHOappleseed.org

With a good amount achieved, Manu’s bike reassembled, her knees strong and my gut recovered, we were set to hit the road again.  Next stop, Victoria Falls.