Friday, May 23, 2008

Kicking it in Zambia

We apologize for the radio silence, but it's nice to be able to sit down and have plenty to write about.

We've been in Lusaka staying with a family: Bruce and Linda Wilkinson, their 6 yr old (brilliant) son Isaac, and their college-grad intern Kelley. The faith-based family has been here for 3 years and have been generous hosts.

In comparison, our story sounds selfish. We've been traveling the world, checking out the sites, racking up the tourist points. No regrets.

Bruce came to Lusaka after being very high on the NGO ladder at World Vision, a global organization that oversees impossibly large amounts of aid. Now he's running RAPIDS, a new Zambian group which empowers a network of 15,000 volunteer caregivers with the materials they need to help those suffering from the effects of HIV/AIDs. With their $30 million, 5 year grant, they pull together dozens of different organizations (ranging from government to faith-based) in order to distribute both stuff and knowhow; it’s a huge operation for Zambia, but small peanuts compared to his previous stuff. What’s more impressive is the private money he’s helped bring in – an additional $37 million, some of it as gift-in-kind, e.g. bandaids and bikes.

Not surprisingly, the bikes story is one of my favorites here. The owner of SRAM heard the volunteers had trouble getting around to all the people who needed help, and they designed a cheap bike that was a bunch stronger than the bikes they have here. Partnered with the Indian car company Tata, they produced $2 million worth of these bikes, and RAPIDS distributed them. They look the same as the local bikes, but they are far better at handling the weight of a second person on the rack, like when they need to go to the local clinic. (When lent to family members, the bikes are also better at transporting 100kgs of coal, also a common use for bikes around here.) They have served the volunteers well, providing both an incentive and a valuable asset.

What’s the rationale behind all this effort? About 20% of Zambians within Lusaka have HIV/AIDS, and 16% in rural areas. An entire generation seems to be missing in some areas, and there are many grandmothers who are simultaneously caring for 5 grandchildren and 5 non-biological orphans. Poverty, drunkenness, prostitution are all problems; healthcare, livelihood, and education are the focus for most of the hundreds of aid groups here. We were able to tour two of RAPIDS’s caregiver centers with the Accenture consultant who was here helping check things out. She was here to provide 3rd party advice/affirmation that the program model is ready to be expanded to other countries and settings.

Linda started working with a group of widows. After hearing their heart-wrenching stories, she worked with them on several microenterprise ideas, finding success with a project where they knit (awesome-looking) purses using recycled plastic bags. Now about 50 women are making a living through this program. They work together, share ideas, and Linda and others sell the bags in the states. This laid the groundwork for several other initiatives that take place on the same property, including a school for 300 orphans, a group of single moms who make and sell salted peanuts and soy milk, and a young women’s club. We’ve spent several days there. More information is at, and more is coming every day as we help them put stuff up.

Kelley just graduated from UC Boulder and is the hardworking intern who has the neverending todo-list. She’s been super kind to lead us around and point us in directions where we can help, and we’ve had a great time hanging out. We just went to a concert last night, which was a blast. It was a woman with attitude from Ivory Coast who blasted lyrics to funky rhythms and danced with some acrobatic, African-influenced moves.

Kate, their eldest daughter, just arrived last week. She’s in a graduate program at Columbia studying foreign development. She hopes to take Chikumbuso and make it huge. I’d agree it’s close to being ready.

There is a lot to say about the last few weeks, but the last two days should provide a good representative snapshot. We woke up, ate some pancakes, and drove to Chikumbuso. They have a pedal-powered soy bean grinder that makes the mush needed to make soy milk; I pedaled for a while. Emma helped two clinic volunteers administer HIV testing to 30 of the kids; two were positive. We helped tag the bracelets the widows had made, so that they could track who had made what. We taught division to the 5th graders who just begun learning it that morning; I tried using some of the dirty soybeans to help with the lesson, and tried to show the relationship between multiplication problems and division problems. Some kids really caught on with using the multiplication table on their shabby binders, some even were somewhat familiar with long division, and some kept grouping tally marks – even when they had to draw 169 of them.

In the afternoon, we taught basketball. Yes, I know: I have touched a basketball only a handful of times since 3rd grade. Emma “jumped” right into it, though, and we got the kids psyched up about passing, shooting, and defense. The fitness part included jumping jacks, squatting, and pushups. The kids couldn’t stop laughing. We’ve done 3 sessions already, and today we bought two brand new basketballs. The other one had exploded from the abuse of bouncing of the rocky schoolyard.

Last weekend we took a 7 hour bus ride down to Livingston to see Victoria Falls. They were huge. There’s a little walking trail directly across from the top of the falls. When the wind was just right, the ‘mist’ from the falls was heavy enough to feel like somebody was standing over you and dumping buckets on your head. The bridge over the Zambezi just below the falls connects Zambia and Zimbabwe, and there’s a bungie jump operation on it. I signed up for the ‘Big Air’ package, which included the bungie jump and the swing. Free falling causes heart attack-like symptoms. Free falling was a good once-in-a-lifetime experience, if only for the reason I now know what a heart attack must feel like.

Being here and talking with Bruce has given me a chance to think about values, aid in Africa, behavior change, and ways that Africa could become better. I’m not sure I’ve changed any, but things are a bit clearer; all that is for a different post or a long conversation. The kids are also dang cute – which I’m sure Emma will cover in her post.

Summary: The Wilkinson family has certainly changed many people’s lives for the better. We have been lucky they agreed to put up with us for these few weeks.


tommy nosal said...

Hi Bruce and Linda :) I hope to see you someday before Heaven.

tommy nosal said...

I'm still trying to reach you