“Good but challenging”. This was the sound-bite I was giving to family and friends on my return from Zambia as a pithy but shallow way to summarise my ICS experience. However, as I’ve trundled on with life I’m continually recognising new and different rippling impacts, prompting me to document a more concerted exploration into my ICS journey…
On arrival at Pilgrims Lodge, Kabwe, the location of our pre-placement training, the air was mixed: heavy fatigue from the 24-hour journey battling with the heady excitement of meeting our Zambian counterparts for the first time. A key aspect of the ICS programme is the cross-cultural partnership whereby UK and national volunteers live and work together in mixed teams, and we relate to each other using the ‘counterpart’ terminology. At dinner we went through the formal pleasantries – names, ages, vocations – as it began to set in that these were the people we were going to be spending the next three months with.
The next day training sessions began and we were given a more detailed introduction to the programme. There are four focusses to Restless’ work: (1) A Voice, (2) A Living, (3) Sexual Rights, (4) Leadership. Restless works in challenging districts where there is a strong sense of culture: “this is where we are supposed to be”. The identified target group is aged 13-28 (the youth), placing young people at the heart of development, logical when young people currently make up 70% of Zambia’s population.
The Issue: Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights
Socio-cultural barriers can prevent young Zambians from accessing guidance and making positive decisions about their sexual health. If it happens, teaching of sexuality education is often selective, with some topics excluded as people respond to cultural norms. Restless seeks to combat this by providing a Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) which is defined as “an age-appropriate, culturally relevant approach to teaching about sex and relationships by providing scientifically accurate, realistic, and non-judgemental information” to help young people know themselves and contribute to a productive and empowered generation. This is particularly important when the context is that 12% of girls and 16% of boys will experience sex before age 15, and 28% of adolescent girls become pregnant before the age of 18. There is a live policy issue in that the Ministry of Education does not want preventative messages to be conveyed, worrying that this will encourage sexual debuts, but the Ministry of Health recognises the need for sources of information to be available. This contention means that you have to think creatively about access points for education and often informal methods such as youth-friendly sites and awareness days were needed. In my opinion, there needs to be a dialogue because otherwise harmful myths and misconceptions will perpetuate.
Learning Lesson 1
Over two weeks of training we covered a variety of topics ranging from the objective health and safety to the subjective realm of cultural differences. For me, one of the biggest educations was the notion of ‘participation’ which was strongly emphasised throughout training. For nationals this was recognised in vocalisation, energy and activity. Contrastingly reserve, meditation, or a lack of zeal for movement (traits of mine) were understood as contrary to enthusiasm or commitment. I was repeatedly questioned on my quietness and national volunteers voiced their concerns that I wasn’t enjoying the experience. This came as a surprise to me because commitment and motivation for the programme were not qualities I felt I lacked. However, this was an important learning point -understanding the culture of a place gives you an essential window into the people. Entrenched in Zambian culture are spirit, exuberance and conviction; bursting with rhythmic songs and mesmeric dance, and an emphasis on speaking and being heard. Against that standard, my formality was understandably distant, detached, and different. From this, I really perceived the relative value that qualities will have in different settings, and thus the importance of taking the time to understand the culture and resultantly people.
Prior to departure, when mentioning that I would be travelling and residing in Zambia the consistent concern of friends and family was that of safety yet whilst on placement this hardly crossed my mind. There was a solid sense of community with everyone knowing and looking out for each other. Zambia is a very peaceful country. Unexpectedly, I also became accustomed to the environment quickly. Soon enough, having to walk to a pump to fetch water, bucket showers as a matter of course, or spending a minimum of two hours to cook a meal were done without a second thought. This easy adaptation really proved the flexibility of humankind. Strong relationships were formed with my host family, particularly the bright and brilliant children with whom I spent most of my time. Their resource and resilience was incredibly inspiring, and evenings spent playing and laughing with them taught me a lot. I saw that from a young age children often take on the burden of housework and care-work. Having to rely on my five-year-old host-sister for daily tasks such as showing me how to wash my clothes (properly) and make a fire (quickly) was a humbling experience. In particular, I was taken aback by the amount of responsibility children in the family had for younger siblings, being only children themselves.
Learning Lesson 2
One of the biggest learning points for me was working through relationships which are simultaneously professional and personal. In the former, I am results-orientated, vocal, and driven towards tangible outcomes whereas in personal relationships compromise, a slower pace and mutual decision-making come much more easily. When working professionally I began to see the importance and value of the process as well as – but often above – the end result. In an environment when so many factors affecting the success of a project are out of your control – the weather, people’s punctuality, reliability of stakeholders etc., I realised that what you can’t have control over is the end result, but what you can have control over is the process. Further, I learnt that taking the time to ensure uniform understanding of everyone, and giving them the time and space to voice an opinion – even if it means a much slower process – is critical to professional relationships. For effective work to take place people have to feel respected, valued and understood. Sometimes, in the pursuit of making a difference I realised I overlook these things when often it’s these feelings that can make the most difference.