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Zambian trip was a real education

“AN INSIGHT into love, education and faith, that’s how I’d sum up the trip.” Those were the poignant words of Siobhan O’Brian, geography teacher at Taylor High School in Motherwell, upon her return from Missio Scotland’s Get Involved Globally Mission Experience to Zambia and it’s a sentiment I would echo.

The trip saw students from Taylor High, along with those from St Mungo’s Academy in Glasgow, join with myself, Sister Stacey Cameron and Fr Bernard Zulu from Missio Scotland and St Mungo’s teachers Martin Mann and Chris Gallagher on a two-week visit to the African nation to learn more about the work of the Pontifical Mission Societies there and have the opportunity to visit Church-run projects and school communities.

The mission experience—initiated by Sr Stacey in 2016—allows the participants to experience life, faith and justice from a new perspective and return home inspired to live a personal sense of ‘mission’ in Scotland, something which I’ve no doubt will take place after what was a phenomenal trip, which touched the heart, engaged the mind and nourished the spirit as the group spent time with the local community, shared stories and met with the Zambian people.

Although it wasn’t my first time in the continent or visiting some of the projects that we support, it was my first time in Zambia and it provided an opportunity for myself and the rest of the group to visit a project that Missio Scotland helped get off the ground.

City of Hope

Our visit began at the City of Hope complex in Makeni, a mere 10km outside the capital city of Lusaka. The impressive complex, run by Salesian Sisters of Don Bosco boasts a nursery school, a primary and secondary school, a home for girls at risk, a skills training centre, farmland and a workshop. It was to provide a base for the group and it gave us a fascinating early insight into just how crucial the work of religious orders is worldwide. As with everywhere we would visit during the course of our stay, we were warmly welcomed by the sisters, staff and students, none more so after having prayed the Rosary with some of the girls who not only treated us to some traditional music and hymns, but also presented us with Zambian scarves, which might prove more useful in a Scottish winter than a Zambian one!

The Scottish staff and pupils were given the opportunity to visit the primary and secondary school building at the start of the trip and spend time in some of the classrooms, which proved to be an eye-opening experience for all concerned. The building itself is relatively new, but the large class sizes and the lack of resources and staff were apparent, leading some of our students to teach those classes who didn’t have a teacher present some Scottish songs, while our teachers actively took it upon themselves to teach some of the classes. Despite the difficulties we witnessed within the school, it was an experience that showed our students just how their Zambian counterparts value their education and our teachers just how dedicated the teachers in the school—many of whom only earn the equivalent of £60 per month—are to helping provide a better education for their students.

“We were in a classroom where there was one textbook shared between pupils. Only the teacher had their own textbook,” Lewis O’Neill, a fifth year pupil from St Mungo’s recalled. “So it puts pressure on the teacher to try and keep the whole class engaged if they don’t have materials of their own. I noticed too though that they’re much more appreciative of their education, because when I was talking to them about school they were saying how good it is to be educated and have that opportunity. So they’re all very aware that they’re lucky to have that opportunity and it transcends into their work ethic in class.”

“I can understand why we have missionaries,” Martin Mann added. “I can understand why people come out here and spend the rest of their lives teaching and working here, because life is much simpler, but it’s full of joy and it’s full of love. It’s really made me think about my own vocation as a teacher because I got into teaching because I wanted to change young people’s lives, but coming out here and seeing colleagues—because that’s what they are—with the same vocation working in a different part of the world, doing the same job, but doing it in a much more simple fashion with less resources and fully dedicating themselves to it, has been so impressive.”

The group was also afforded the opportunity to spend some time with the nursery school age children, something I think, which brought the child out in all of us as we read to them in their classrooms, pushed them on the swings, spun them on the roundabout, played football with them and even led a conga around the playground!

“City of Hope School was a personal highlight for me,” Martin said. “Especially the nursery, because as a relatively young man with a wee girl myself, there was the realisation that no matter where you are in the world, kids are the same. They laugh at the same stupid things that you do, they play the same silly games, they cry when they fall, they need a wee cuddle, a wee bit of mischief and that’s the thing, it doesn’t matter where you’re from or the colour of your skin or anything like that, we’re just all the same really and we need the same things.”

Providence Home

One of the next stops on our travels though showed one project where the need was great and again was being met by a dedicated order of religious sisters. After an outbreak of chickenpox put paid to a visit to the nearby Kasisi Children’s Home, we travelled to the aptly named Providence Home, a place of refuge for physically and mentally handicapped, paralytic and epileptic young people run by Indian nuns from the Little Servants of the Divine Providence congregation. It was a difficult visit for the group, but one that ultimately provided to be enriching and the highlight of many people’s mission experience.

“We walked into the room and were greeted with rows and rows of beds and little kids that couldn’t move and my heart just broke,” Erin Toolan, a sixth year pupil at Taylor High said. “You could see from their faces that they thought they were lucky to be there and they were happy, but they have so little compared to what we have for children with the same conditions in Scotland.”

However, after helping the sisters carry out the everyday tasks around the home itself, such as beating carpets, mopping floors and sweeping the courtyard, the group had the opportunity to interact with the young people and we came to realise that the most precious gift we could offer them was our time and attention.

“The sisters here asked us if there were any songs and dances we knew that we could teach them and as soon as we started Heads, Shoulders Knees and Toes and Incy, Wincy Spider, everyone got up, wanted to join in and began clapping and stamping their feet” Niamh Provan from Taylor High recalled. “Everyone got so excited by getting to dance and sing. It was really positive and enjoyable.

“There was one wee kid who couldn’t walk, but she picked her feet up so she could stamp them like everybody else,” Erin added. “It was amazing.”

The visit was particularly moving for Chris Gallagher, whose apprehension and nervousness gave way to joy when the child he was feeding, a six-year-old blind girl named Wasu, reacted to his playfulness.

“When she laughed, I’ve never heard a laugh like it,” Chris said. “They do say the best medicine is a baby’s laughter. This wee six-year-old was laughing her head off just enjoying herself and feeling her surroundings and that was the moment I thought that we’ve done some good just by being here.”

Mother of Mercy Hospice

Another moving experience came at the Mother of Mercy Hospice in Chilanga, which we visited after spending time with the children of the adjoining Guardian Angels Community School. The hospice and health centre provides palliative care services to the terminally and chronically ill. By offering love, care and treatment it celebrates the beauty of life and affirm dignity to the dying. The clinic offers Anti-Retro Viral drugs to HIV/AIDS sufferers, as well as education and awareness about the issue to help best ensure prevention. The school, meanwhile was established to provide education for children whose parents were receiving palliative treatment or had died of HIV/AIDS. It offers free education to orphans who have lost their parents to HIV/AIDS, and also other vulnerable children in the communities and district of Chilanga. From a roll of just 70 when it opened in 2002, it now helps to educate some 555 children.

“Visiting the HIV/AIDS clinic was one of the two times I cried during the trip,” Siobhan said. “As someone who has worked in the care sector, it really got to me. The work that the sisters do there is so selfless and loving. It was upsetting and difficult to see but at the same time it was amazing to experience it.”

Livingstone bound

After this visit, we packed our bags and embarked upon the long bus journey to Livingstone, which would see us visit another project as well as undertaking a safari in the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park and taking in the spectacular Victoria Falls.

Just off the main thoroughfare in Livingstone was Lubasi Home, where the Missionary Sisters Servants of the Holy Spirit provide residential care for orphans and vulnerable children who have no family to look after them. While many have been orphaned as a result of the HIV/AIDs pandemic, some have arrived at the home as a result of being rescued victims of sex trafficking. It was moving then to watch one of the victims play guitar and sing songs praising God, when it would have been understandable if someone who had suffered such abuse didn’t take that tact. It just highlighted how vital the work of the Church is in countries such as Zambia, the love and dedication of our missionaries and the strength of faith that exists among the Zambian people. After being entertained by some of the volunteers and young people within Lubasi Home, Jude Curran, a fifth year student from St Mungo’s, played the guitar for those assembled, while Erin gave a fantastic acapella performance of a musical hit. The group then gave a rousing rendition of Flower of Scotland before we said our goodbyes.

A bit of rest and relaxation back at the hotel was followed the next day by the safari outing, where we were able to take in some of Zambia’s beautiful wildlife in their natural habitat and have lunch by the Zambezi River, before enjoying a taste of home by the Victoria Falls where we traipsed back onto the bus completely drenched but awestruck at having witnessed one of the wonders of the world.

Scottish connection

Speaking of wonders of the world, on our return to Lusaka, we visited St Columba’s Secondary School in Lusaka West, whose first buildings were directly supported by Missio Scotland in partnership with the Argyll and the Isles based charity ZamScotEd. We were able to see just how much the school has grown and hears of its plans for the future from Sr Veronica, one of the Teresian Sisters involved with the day-to-day running of the school.

As someone who references the school in assemblies and presentations as an indication of just how important it is to support Missio Scotland, it was fantastic not only to be able to visit it in person, but also to spend time with the staff and pupils during what was a culturally enriching and spiritually uplifting day. Providing secondary education for students when it didn’t exist before, maintaining the buildings and standards and expanding upon it both materially and in terms of numbers is a minor miracle and something that should instil a sense of pride among our benefactors.

That visit rounded off an excellent two-week stay in Zambia, where not only my depth of knowledge of Church-run projects and those supported by Missio Scotland and the Pontifical Mission Societies grew, but my admiration for the Church, the PMS and the work of our missionaries worldwide did too. Given that we are a charity that is an intrinsic part of the Catholic Church it was fantastic to visit some of the projects that both we and our partners in the PMS have supported, which encapsulate the universality that is at the heart of our faith. But don’t just take my word for it, as it’s something that the entire group chimed in agreement with, not least Martin, who also urged Scottish Catholics to increase their support for Missio Scotland.

“We really do belong to a Universal Church,” he said. “We came out here with people we had never met before and the one thing we had in common, different colours and nationalities, but the one thing we had in common was our Faith. It’s one of the strong things about the Catholic Church, no matter where you go in the world we all believe the same thing and we hold the same values close to our hearts.

“And that’s also what makes Missio Scotland important too, because it not only makes a tangible difference immediately providing education and resources and buildings and things like that, but because it actually is fully committed to Catholic values and Catholic social teaching. It also creates leaders of the future so that these projects and initiatives aren’t just a flash in the pan. Missio Scotland makes a tangible difference and it’s there for the long haul and that’s why, for me personally, it’s the most impressive Catholic charity. It’s probably the best that I’ve had the privilege to work with. Every aspect of what we’ve experienced through Missio Scotland has encapsulated Gospel values, it’s been fully committed to Catholic social teaching and the Catholic Faith and it’s unapologetic about that and it really does create leaders for the future and we need those leaders for the future if we’re serious about our own Catholic Faith.

“We will need what Missio Scotland is doing out here in Scotland as well because if we don’t have priests or Catholic leaders we are going to need them from elsewhere and Missio Scotland will provide that for us. So it’s not just a charity that is going to create great benefits for people in foreign lands like Africa and Zambia especially, but it’s actually going to really benefit the Catholic community in Scotland I feel and that’s why I’m proud and privileged to have worked with Missio Scotland out here in Zambia.”

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