Eyes opened to a different world
DESPITE an entire academic year of planning, our trip to Zambia with Missio Scotland—as part of the Get Involved Globally initiative—seemed so far-fetched that it was difficult to imagine actually going. Of course we’d discussed what to expect when we arrived and what our 12 days might look like, but no one was really prepared. Our idea of the extent of poverty was derived purely from news articles we’d read and stories we’d heard. Our limited—somewhat ignorant— impression of what Zambian life was actually like is what made going on this trip so intriguing.
Then the day finally came. We’d stopped in Dubai on the way and witnessed the uncomfortably, obscene amount of wealth in the form of pure gold decorations and grandeur architecture before taking the connecting flight to a vastly different environment. Landing in Lusaka was the first time I witnessed the poverty which plagued the country. From above, Lusaka—Zambia's main economic hub—looked fairly desolate. As we got closer to the ground, my stomach sank a little, not through anxiety or in a bad way, but I was reacting to the sudden realisation to where I actually was. This wasn’t a news article—I was actually in Zambia.
The bus drive through Lusaka to arrive at our destination was—for me—the most intense part of the entire journey. My ignorant pre-conceptions of what I was to experience was about to get very, painfully real. Thousands of box-sized huts lay in rows for countless miles. Driving at 50 miles per hour, we passed an innumerable number of families. It was heart-breaking. It was a scale of poverty I simply couldn’t comprehend. The road was filled with people, young and old, desperately trying to sell all they can to go back to their box and hope their family survive that month. It was as we were driving that I witnessed the scale of the poverty, but it wasn’t until we stopped in traffic that I saw the depth of poverty which faced Zambians. I saw a woman, holding a tiny baby at her small stall selling some sort of food, which she had likely bought from another seller. She sat, expressionless, watching the stampede of cars race by. When the traffic built up, she desperately came over to the halted cars, baby wrapped to her body and a basket on her head. As she reached the cars, the traffic cleared up and the stampede continued. She then returned to her stall. I suddenly realised that this was this woman’s life, repeated all day, every day, until she simply couldn’t anymore.
Arriving at the City of Hope complex was—initially—somewhat of a relief. We were met with dozens of happy, smiling children who helped us settle in that first night. Our time at the school over the next few days was equally as joyous. Despite classes of 60 or more, the students were committed and driven. Through dozens of conversations, they told me about their plans to become orthopaedic surgeons, lawyers, politicians and teachers. I was surrounded by children who were saved by the system. Collected from previously vulnerable circumstances and brought under the wing of the Salesian Sisters who ran the City of Hope School and accommodation. It wasn’t until further conversations with some of the girls who lived there permanently that it became clear they are incredibly lucky. They told me about family members and friends who live a life of extreme, dangerous poverty and that while they didn’t have much at all, they had enough to be happy. This really struck me. I was talking to people who—back in Scotland—would be described as living well below the poverty line. Yet, they were happy and far more driven to the fulfilment of their lives compared to many of my peers back home. The girls also unanimously agreed that they want to leave Zambia when they’re older, to use their education, make a good life for themselves elsewhere and free themselves from the impoverished society they were born into.
It was about half-way through the trip that I started to make connections between poverty I have witnessed back home and poverty I witnessed in Zambia. It became clear that it was all about context. Back home—statistically—it is impoverished young people who often struggle to make it in life, while more well-off and supported children often achieve their educational and life goals. This was the exact same principle in Zambia. The girls I was talking to were the ones who were most likely to make it in their society and it was all down to support. Back home, poverty would be far higher if there wasn’t as much support from the public sector in terms of social work, care, health service and education at all levels. The burning issue was that this support was largely absent in Zambia. The government—which is already crumbling under debt issues that have arisen from economic mismanagement—can’t and doesn’t offer the sufficient support in these areas.
These girls are only able to be as ambitious and happy as they are thanks to the support of the Catholic Church. It is the charitable nature of Christians across the country which is the driving force behind them choosing to run these establishments. While I’d often heard about the conflict caused by religious difference in Africa, this side of the Church was never fully revealed to me. I’d never quite realised the extent to which the Church provides basic stability to some children’s lives in a ferociously unforgiving society. Without the underpinning ideology of the Church, those girls would never have been able to dream of becoming orthopaedic surgeons, lawyers, politicians and teachers. And while many of them might not reach that goal and will slip through the cracks in the system, the Church, at the very least, gives them a chance.
Something that I have found difficult since coming home is the feeling of guilt since landing back in Glasgow. The busy regime of life quickly set back in and my brain soon adapted, once again, to the materialistic, commercial society in which we live. I arrived back home in comfort and relative luxury compared to where I’d been. My brain—conditioned to live in the society I just mentioned—viewed leaving Zambia almost as an escape. This became uncomfortably clear to me when a few weeks later I was lying on a bench in the Swiss Alps, well-fed, clothed and happy. When I checked the time and realised it was 5pm I knew that a few thousand miles south, all the girls I met in Zambia would be praying the Rosary, praying their school tests had went well and praying to escape the society in which they lived. In that moment, I felt a wave of guilt. I was able to wave goodbye to the poverty I only had to witness—to look at for a mere 12 days. Right now, those same girls continue the struggle to free themselves and here I am, living a comparatively privileged life, purely because I was fortunate enough to be born somewhere else.