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Volunteers' Stories




Teaching Underprivileged Children at a Community School in Livingstone in Zambia


After a vacation in South Africa with a friend I had just 2 weeks additional vacation from work to devote to a voluntary project so I was very happy to discover the Travellers website and the possibility of being able to teach in a community school in Livingstone, Zambia. 

Travellers provided the infrastructure, safe accommodation and very friendly UK and local staff that made the difference, especially to someone like myself travelling on their own.

I particularly wanted to visit Zambia, where I had lived as a child and teenager but had not returned for 30 years, but it was too personal a journey just to go there as an ordinary tourist so carrying out voluntary work in the community seemed the ideal solution.

Despite my long absence from Zambia, after 30 years it all still seemed very familiar when I stepped off the plane at Livingstone airport. I think this familiarity with the country, the culture and the customs made my short project time much more productive and meaningful as I did not have to spend a long time adapting..

Livingstone is a small town with a colonial feel due to its main street of single storey buildings dating from the early 1900s and the Victoria Falls and surrounding area with all the activities on offer, makes it an ideal place for discovering Zambia and its people. The backpackers accommodation hostel offered a great central situation - safe, comfortable, good food and welcoming and an ideal place for meeting other tourists and volunteers, as well as having its own center on-site for organising trips and activities.

During my 2 week stay, I took the opportunity to visit the capital city Lusaka (where I had lived with my family) for the weekend for a trip down memory lane and also managed to do a few activities and tours in my free time in the Livingstone area. 

Lameck (the local friendly face of Travellers in Livingstone) provided an excellent walk-about induction tour of Livingstone on my first day, pointing out places of local interest, providing essential information and advice and, as a retired headmaster of a school in Livingstone, seemed to be known by everyone as we walked about. Having such a wise and knowledgeable person on hand to help made integration into the local community so much easier.

I carried out my project at the Community School which, just before my arrival, had been undergoing some renovation and building works as it had previously been a community center and now was being used as a school. This work had been made possible by a combination of local funding and donations from a Norwegian aid organisation and an Irish school. I did not see any photos of the hall and rooms before renovation but I understand they had been in a pretty poor and basic state and that the roof had needed replacing. 

I learned that the community schools in Zambia play a vital role in providing education to those children that are excluded from attending government schools because their parents or guardians cannot afford to pay the fees or buy them school books or uniforms, or because they are orphans, many of their parents having died of Aids-related illnesses. Some of the children had missed years of schooling, for example to look after younger brothers or sisters, and so this meant that many teenagers had not had the opportunity to complete primary education. 

At this School, according to the head teacher Cathy, the only compulsory requirement (apart from there being enough places) was that the children had to wear clothes to school! The Zambian government does provide some funding to the school but they are never sure how much they will have for each school year, and when I was there for the beginning of the school year the only staff member that was currently being paid was the head teacher. The other teachers are all local Zambian volunteers who are very keen and dedicated but also suffering personal hardships due to not receiving a salary. 

I believe that the time I spent discussing issues, supporting and encouraging the teachers at the school was as useful, rewarding and appreciated as the time I spent with the pupils. 

After a few days’ delay due to the finishing of the renovation works and the official handing over ceremony of the school to the community by the Deputy Mayor of Livingstone, the new term and school year started. The school covers the primary classes of grades 1 to 7 and also has a nursery class, but due to some children having missed out on some of their schooling, the actual ages of the pupils ranged from 5 to 17. 

 When it is possible for the children and voluntary teachers to return in the afternoon, sports are organised. Most of the children are keen to do sport - football and netball being the most popular - and there are tournaments organised between the different schools in the area. This was my first experience of teaching in a school and although I was a bit apprehensive, in fact everything went fine and I enjoyed the challenge of being creative and innovative in a classroom and school with limited resources. 

The children have generally a good level of English but do not have the opportunity to practice speaking with native speakers. I found patience and lots of encouragement worked, especially if some fun elements were added to the lesson. I told them about my British culture, my home and work in France, Europe and the other continents I’d visited, and invited them to share their country and culture with me. They were very interested in the fact that I had lived in Zambia as a child and gone to primary school in Lusaka.

As I live and work in France, the head teacher Cathy asked me if I would be prepared to teach some basic French to the older children and also to some of the teachers that were interested so I gave a few lessons and was very impressed how quickly some of them picked up the basic greetings, numbers etc.  I was happy to be greeted in the morning by some of my students with a cheerful “Bonjour, comment ça va ?”!  I said I would try to find a beginners French language textbook and CD/cassette to send to them so that they could continue learning after I’d left. 

Singing was very popular with the children (I had quite a few occasions to listen to them performing), so when I noticed the French lesson was getting a bit too difficult for some of them to follow, I taught them the English and French versions of Frère Jacques which seemed to go down well and they could all join in.

The children were very enthusiastic about learning and obtaining an education which was refreshing to see, coming from Europe where we take our right to education for granted. They also had a long and sometimes difficult walk just to get to school every day – I had walked with the head teacher one day to the village where most of them lived just to see the conditions they were living in and to give me an idea of their situation and how it might affect their performance in the classroom.

It took us about 45 minutes to walk to the village along dirt roads, and after a heavy rainstorm on the way back it took us an extra half an hour squelching through mud!  Sometimes, in the rainy season if the water is too high in the river, the children cannot get to school because the one small bridge they have to use is covered over.

Most of the families are living in small one room mud huts, with parents if they’re lucky, maybe with a grandmother looking after several grandchildren whose parents have died. The school sometimes has boy orphans staying in the hall if there is no one to look after them in their village. The living conditions for many in the village are very basic - one poor woman we visited was surviving with her children under a plastic sheet shelter that had been hastily put up because her mud hut had just collapsed. Even under all these very difficult conditions, we received such a warm and hospitable welcome and thanks for the work we were doing to educate the children. 

The Community School does in fact do more than educate the children, there is a wide social work aspect that the head teacher and teachers have taken upon themselves to carry out, to make sure that the vulnerable children have basic food, security and shelter, and it is very humbling to see this, coming as a foreign volunteer who has access to so many opportunities in my own country. The steady reliable funding is not there however from the government, and one extremely vital project they hope will happen soon is to have chemical latrines built as at present they only have 2 toilets for all the pupils and staff and they have to carry water in buckets to flush the toilets and for hand washing as they do not have the funds for connecting to the mains supply and paying the water bills. 

Given the campaigns the government were running about prevention of cholera when I was there, there was no monetary support given to the community schools to allow them to implement the procedures so the teachers were doing their best with disinfectant, buckets, soap and water.

During the two weeks I was in Livingstone, two funerals were held in the community, one for a pupil of the school who I understand had died of an aids-related illness, and one for two local boys from another school who had been tragically killed after being out on a bicycle in a thunderstorm and struck by lightning near the railway line. These tragedies brought home to me the reality of the life of many people in Africa and the fact that at present the average life expectancy in many African countries is less than 40 years old. It did make me reflect on my own attitude to my 50th birthday coming up at the beginning of next year and I think I will adopt the African positive attitude of appreciating and enjoying each day and on my 50th birthday celebrating that I have had the good fortune to reach such a “wise” old age and had such a fantastic journey on the way!

I would like to return to Zambia and the Community School in the not too distant future when I am able to take some unpaid leave from my work in France and possibly go there for a whole school term. To start to prepare for this I have decided to enroll on the TEFL weekend course in London through TEFL time, followed by the distance learning course with the aim of finishing the qualification by the end of this year. I will then look forward to putting those teaching skills into practice

Can you describe a typical day?

6.00am – Get up, shower and have breakfast.
7.15 am – Robert, the driver, picks up myself and the other volunteer Hamish (coaching sports at another Livingstone school) to drop us off at our respective schools.
8.00 am – The pupils who’ve arrived early have cleaned and tidied the classrooms and the hall and Assembly is then held.  The children line up by class in the hall, the national anthem and usually a hymn or gospel song is sung, followed by a motivational talk from the head teacher or one of the other teachers.
8.15 am – The children split into their different classes, 3 classes have to be held in the hall, as there are only 4 classrooms, so it is quite a challenge concentrating with 3 different lessons going on at the same time.
10.00 am – 10.15 am Break.  When they have sufficient funding the school also provides porridge for the children who may not have had anything to eat before coming to school and may have very little to eat the rest of the day.
1.00 pm approximately - Classes finish for the day.

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