We returned to Livingstone after almost a week away in Zimbabwe at Antelope Park and Victoria Falls. It was a rough week in many ways, although not without several highlights. In addition to seeing our beloved Ps, Ls, and the Ngamo Pride, we bottle-fed eight-week old lion cubs, saw my favorite grumpy lion Big Boy now happy and relaxed with a couple of female pals, heard the stereophonic sound of lions roaring in the dark, and visited one of the seven natural wonders of the world. But in the end, with our time predominantly spent not doing the things we wanted to do, and not feeling as relaxed and refreshed as hoped for, I was anxious and excited to return to Livingstone; ready to work and make the most of our last week in Africa.
Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.
-George Washington Carver.
Back at the White House, I immediately went to the board to check on the next day’s activities and saw that Craig and I were scheduled to go to Maunga School in the morning. I had mixed feelings about this and was tempted to ask Mulenga, our volunteer coordinator, if I could stay behind and scoop lion poop or whatever else needed doing around the Lion Encounter grounds. I reasoned with myself that my reluctance to go was because we just barely got back and I wanted to spend time with the lions and not make another off-site journey. But the truth is that I was really anxious about going to the school. It might sound odd, but I’m just not that comfortable around children; probably because I’ve never spent much time around them. I always feel like I never really know what to do or say. That being said, I think education is one of the most important gifts we can give the world’s children and I came prepared with a fair portion of my suitcase packed with school supplies. That still didn’t mean I was ready to be engaged with them. I kept thinking back to our time spent at two orphanages in Gweru last year where it seemed that everyone but me formed bonds with the children, however brief, and were seen holding hands, playing games, giving hugs. I had stayed behind with my camera, convincing myself that taking photos was a useful service but all the while feeling awkward and out of place.
I was still pondering trying to talk my way out of going when we were suddenly called to a group meeting that evening about the next day’s school visit. I came to find out each and everyone one of us was not only scheduled to go, but expected to go. This was going to be a special day at Maunga School. It was the re-launch of Kids Club, a Saturday program designed to keep children busy and engaged by providing more learning opportunities and more fun. Lion Encounter was going to be actively involved on a weekly basis with lesson plans, crafts, and games. At the next day’s launch there was a special ceremony planned for the kids, with their parents in attendance and speeches by community leaders. It was clear I had to go and I told myself I could always hide behind my camera again.
We headed out bright and early the next morning, our arms loaded up with school supplies for the kids and lunches we had made the previous night for the parents. The school was much further away than I realized, and I was very thankful we were in the research vehicle with padded seats instead of the back of a pick-up truck as we drove over bumpy dirt roads, and went through a small water crossing where we proceeded to get temporarily stuck. It seemed we were in the middle of nowhere, and we wondered not only where the school was but where the kids were that go to the school. There was no sign of human life, no matter how rustic.
We finally arrived and spent some time talking with the headmaster, Bright Muleta. We learned that there are about 170 students at Maunga School through Seventh Grade, and many of the students walk up to ten kilometers each way through the bush to get there and back. Participation in the Kids Club requires a signed commitment from the students and in return, besides enhancing their education, they’ll be rewarded with school supplies and occasional treats that are hard to come by in their daily lives. These are poor, rural kids that live in the bush. It is essential they get an education so they in turn can educate their children and become future leaders of their local communities as well as learn that there are opportunities beyond what they see in their everyday lives.
With an adult literacy rate in Zambia of almost seventy-one percent, and a youth literacy rate of seventy-five percent, Zambia is showing signs of improvement, although it’s still trailing many of its neighbors. In 2006 unemployment was near fourteen percent, down from fifty percent only six years earlier. Life expectancy is fifty-three years old. This may be low by first world standards, but with an increase of over a decade just in the last five years the quality of life in Zambia seems to be heading in a positive direction, making it all the more important to make sure all children have access to education.
During our morning at Maunga School the older students got a lesson on continents that a group of volunteers had prepared while the younger kids worked on crafts projects outside. I was outside with the younger kids, and while other volunteers began helping with the projects I pulled out my camera, not knowing what else to do. There was a difference this time, however. Whether that was because of me or the kids, I don’t know; but I found many of them were really excited to have their pictures taken. The boys especially would ham it up in front of the camera and pose over and over with their friends. After awhile a few kids gathered around me and my small camera screen and we sat in the dirt, arms around each other looking at the photos. The group grew as everyone wanted to know what we were all laughing so hard about. These kids didn’t speak English well but we were communicating just fine, and I finally felt like the camera wasn’t a shield but a tool. After we returned home to the U.S., I noticed something interesting as I started looking through the photos. When we visited the orphanages last year we observed that the younger kids appeared excited to spend time with visitors, but the older kids were not so taken with what they probably knew would be only a short-lived reprieve from their difficult daily lives. I saw much of the same thing in the photos I took this time, something I wasn’t completely aware of while taking them; in particular, the girls didn’t smile as much as the boys. I suspect their futures will be more difficult, especially if they remain in a rural setting, which gives more freedoms and leeway to the male members of its population. But as I look at their beautiful faces I try to remain hopeful, because all of these kids are in school. All of these kids were at school on a Saturday. This is the key to their future. Whether they stay in their community or move to other places near or far, an education will guide them to what is possible.