Muwowo is a 45-minute walk away from the nearest paved road, electrical socket or tap. The school is staffed by demotivated teachers, who often turn up late for school. The Deputy Headteacher proudly displays a whip on his desk. In one of the classes we took, the youngest student was 11, the oldest 18. Pupils walk for as long as five kilometres to get there every morning. But on a cloudy day, they are late, as they can’t see where the sun is in the sky to tell the time.
When walking around the community, it is not uncommon to see young girls, barely teenagers, with babies slung over their backs. You always hope that they are older sisters looking after their siblings, but at the back of your mind, you know that the babies are theirs. For many young girls, the distinction between childhood and motherhood is non-existent. Among Zambian women aged between 20 and 24, 31% were married by the age of 18. The equivalent figure for men is 2%.
Any time I brought up the age of consent (as in the UK, it’s 16 in Zambia), it was clear this was a concept the Zambian young people had never been introduced to before. And in many ways, it was a purely academic concept, in a remote community with little interaction with the state or law-enforcement. Cases of sexual abuse are commonly dealt with internally by the community. If they are dealt with at all, that is.
The ten weeks I spent volunteering in Zambia are going to stay with me for the rest of my life. The friendships forged and memories made are second only to the deeper understanding of international development issues I have gained. Understanding, perhaps, is the wrong word, as my initial reaction is one of hopelessness at the sheer magnitude and complexity of the issues aid agencies have to tackle.
I certainly hope that my own small contribution, primarily disseminating information about sexual health and rights in the tiny rural Muwowo community, shall have made an impact on the individual young people I had the privilege to spend time with. But the wider structural obstacles to change, on a national, continental and international level, seem so vast and daunting, as to inspire a gut feeling of despondency.
But there is reason for hope. The dirt track which links Muwowo to the road network of Kabwe city is due to be improved. The long process of electrifying the area is also scheduled to begin soon. Women’s savings groups meet weekly, providing a financial safety-net for families and providing a chance for female empowerment. Traditionally- and religiously-inspired patriarchal attitudes towards women are beginning to change.
However, it was the moments of personal connection, the impact on individuals which imbue the greatest sense of optimism. The smile on the face of an 11-year-old who had never been to school as he looked forward to starting in the next term, after we spoke to the school authorities about his circumstances. The students’ genuine expressions thanks at the end of a lesson. The knowledge that at least some of the information we shared in our few weeks in Muwowo will influence the decisions and lives of the young people there for years to come.
Progress will undoubtedly be frustratingly slow. But having got the chance to meet and get to know the wonderful people of Zambia and seeing first-hand some of the many examples of positive change, one’s initial hopelessness soon dissipates. In the words of the great Sam Cooke, “a change is gonna come”.
Whilst I was walking through Muwowo’s maize fields, Zambia’s embattled President was in London, attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. It seemed at first ironic that this celebration of the Commonwealth was happening as the Windrush scandal reached its climax, but on second thought it perhaps is not. The attitudes which backed the Commonwealth’s predecessor, the British Empire, are not dissimilar from those which created the “hostile environment”.
The sense of right, nearing on obligation, to intervene in other nations’ affairs, whilst at the same time, refusing to take responsibility for the costs of such action. During the time of empire, this moral vacuity was epitomised in slavery. Today, we see it in a government keener to drop bombs on Syria than to take in the refugees the civil war there has created.
The gross injustices and inequalities which are often associated with developing countries are by no means confined to them. Take Kensington this weekend, for instance. At one end of the borough, the residents of Kensington Palace are receiving millions of pounds of public money for their wedding. And at the other end, almost one year after the fire, the former residents of Grenfell Tower are still waiting to be allocated permanent housing.
Many of the cultural problems we associate with developing nations are all too often fully present in our own ‘developed’ society, albeit in a less severe manifestation. It was not lost on me that whilst I was talking to young people in Zambia about the definition of rape, protests about the same issue were taking place outside the courts in Belfast.
In my first instalment of this series, I wrote about the neo-imperialist trappings of Brexit. Increasingly, Brexit appears to be a sole example of a growing trend of millennial neo-colonialism. From the British government’s treatment of the Windrush generation, the American President’s blatantly racist comment about “shithole countries”, to the French President’s tendency to make racially-charged statements; the attitudes which justified empire are making a comeback.
This is of particular importance to international development. Not just because of the role colonialism has had as the genesis of much global inequality, but also because of how racism and xenophobia is oftentimes deployed to justify international inequality, and the global economic system which underpins it.
As politics in the West polarises, and the far-right consolidates its ascendancy, there is a tendency for us to become even more inward-looking. But we must never forget our obligations towards those in the developing world. We have a duty – and the means – to transform the lives of people like those in Muwowo.
We may have to fight for it. But change will come.
Jack O’Dwyer-Henry is a co-founder of Challenges NI. You can follow him on Twitter @JackODwyerHenry.
N.B. Since returning home last week, some friends have teased that I had only ‘Dispatched from Zambia’ thrice, not living up to my rather ambitious initial commitment to a weekly blog. The lack of accessible electricity and reliable internet connection throughout my ten weeks in Zambia made my target unachievable, but I can only hope that I’ve made up for the lack of quantity with something resembling quality!
Thank you to all of those who made this experience possible, especially to all of those who so generously donated to my fundraising campaign.
And – as always – none of the views expressed here are endorsed by Challenges NI.