In one week today, I will be arriving in Zambia. Since I also just finished my PhD, I thought it would be nice to share some reflections I had a few years back when I was going there for the research.
I board a plane. The plane is big, and I feel very small. I am one of the last passengers to board because I managed to get into a heated debate in a bar with an American guy about the troop surge in Afghanistan. I never really know when to keep my mouth shut. The reward for lateness seems to be that I am bumped up a class, from ‘World Traveller’ to ‘World Traveller Plus’. More leg room, more hot towels. Panic sets in. I’m going to Zambia alone, for 5 months. I’m 25, I have been preparing for a year. I should feel braver, but, I still feel the need to take my Toy Dog with me. Three Deep Breaths and a glass of wine. I can do this.
Travelling to Zambia has always been a daunting experience for me, even though this is my fifth time in the country. The first two times I came to Zambia, I was a volunteer with Project Zambia, a small community based development organisation, the second two, I was a member of leadership with that same organisation. Each time brings new concerns.
The first time was complete terror. What am I doing? Will I handle what I see? Will I be of any use? I spent three years working with Project Zambia when it was a school based project, run by my dad. My parents always brought me up to know about poverty and injustice. I remember being very young and my dad asking me to get oranges in the supermarket, and when I brought them back to him, he made me look at the label to see where they were produced. South Africa in the 80s. That means apartheid. That means ‘put the oranges back’. I remember him telling me about apartheid and what that word meant. I remember in Primary 4 or 5 having to give a speech on ‘anything’. I talked about apartheid. Some of my classmates talked about ‘My Little Pony’. I guess I was always destined to be a political person. I was so sure I was prepared for Zambia. People asked me if I was worried, I told them ‘I know all about developing world issues’. But, when I got on the plane, I realised I knew nothing. Panic sets in.
The second time I was an ‘experienced volunteer’. I had spent 50 weeks thinking about how I wanted to go back. Leaving the previous year had been heart-wrenching, devastating. But, that plane. Getting on that plane is like getting on a rollercoaster- the bit were the car is slowly going up the tracks. You know what is coming. It’s terrifying, but wonderful. But, in the pit of your stomach, you are looking for the guy who will let you out.
The third and fourth year, I was in the Project Zambia Leadership Team. People came to me with questions. Questions I felt ill-equipped to answer, because I still was (still am) asking myself. People were looking to me for guidance, but I still felt like that kid putting back oranges. Trying to do the small things I can to make some sort of difference. In the volunteer run Home Based Care Unit in Misisi (the only health care in a slum of 90,000 people) there is a sign- ‘Do what you can, with what you have, where you are’. That’s all I’m trying to do. But now people expect something from me. I can do that on the plane. ‘Have you eaten? Are you drinking water? Did you get up and walk around? You shouldn’t be sitting for ten hours’. But, when the plane doors open in Zambia, it’s a whole different ball game.
This year is different. This year I am alone. This year its twenty weeks, not two or four. I’m not just a Project Zambia volunteer- I’m a researcher. A PhD student, looking at the lives of older people in rural areas. Alone on the plane. Here for different reasons. And the same ones. An adult with pigtails. A kid putting oranges back.