Published: June 29th 2010June 29th 2010
14 June onward - settling in
Well, as I write this, I have been in Zambia for almost 4 weeks, which to me is just crazy! I have been a busy camper in that time, and whenever I have hoped to add a new blog, I have had so much to write it is easier to just combine them all into one big one, which I have done here.
Anyway, the word ‘jambo’ is hello in Swahili - write that down - you never know when you might use it. If someone says jambo to you, you say ‘jambo sana’ back. The Congolese refugees I work with here all speak Swahili, which you may have heard of (they call it the East African language, because it is spoken in Kenya, Tanzania, Congo, Somalia etc etc). Most of the Zambians that I work with (and those in the local community) speak Bemba. To greet someone in that language you say ‘muli shani’, to which you respond ‘bwino’. Now there is an east African language lesson worth paying for!
The Swahili word for empty plastic bottle is ‘chikopo’ - the refugee kids love plastic bottles, I think
it is because they are rare at the camp and very useful for collecting water, storing cooking oil etc. Anyway, in terms of vocab, that’s really all I’ve got. Oh yeah, the pretty much universal word for white person is ‘mzungu’. If you can imagine it, every time I am in the refugee camp, kids run up to me, yelling ‘Mzungu mzungu..hello how are you? Chikopo..chikopo?’ It makes me laugh every time. Because in the camp they are taught the Congolese school curriculum (in French and Swahili) most of the refugees don’t speak much English, beyond the hello and thank you’s.
So, I am almost a month down, and gradually settling in to the swing of things here. I have found it to be a mixture of enjoyment, shock, enthusiasm, frustration, despair and utter amazement at the strength of the human spirit. I am getting used to the ups and downs. I have found the attention I get to be a bit shocking - I guess I didn’t expect to be such a novelty! On the flip side though, I did expect more cynicism from the refugees, like - here is another mzungu on a flying visit who is
going to offer the world and achieve nothing for us. But I have had hardly any of that at all, which is a tribute to the warm nature of the Congolese people here. The kids at the camp are definitely enthusiasm personified - they seem to be that excited to see a mzungu - they chase the car around yelling in excitement! It is has been great to meet so many kids, to converse with them and for it to be a part of my job! More on that later.
I have admittedly found the stares from the locals a little difficult to deal with. I keep telling myself that it isn’t personal; it is more the fact that I am the only white person in town and that there aren’t too many red heads cruising around here, but it still is taking me some time to get used to. Everyone I have actually had a conversation with has been friendly, eager to shake my hand, and find out more about me (especially the refugees) - where I am from, and why I am here. I really have enjoyed those conversations, and it has been good to be part
of the wider local community in the town in which I am living, rather than sheltered in some UN compound, keeping mainly to myself and my UN colleagues.
One thing is for sure - working here is so significantly different to anything I have every done in my life before, it is amazing. It has definitely been intense (to say the least), but it is also rewarding. Zambia, and probably Africa more generally, is an amazing place. In terms of living conditions, the refugees are pretty much on par with the Zambian villagers who live nearby, with one monumental difference - they have fled war, probably losing several family members on the way, and they are living in a camp that they are not allowed to leave, in a country that is not theirs. I feel like, to an extent, I am working with some of the most disadvantaged people in our world here. I am reminded every day of amazing refugees who are making the best of the cards they are dealt, the parents trying to make a better life for their kids, and the kids working hard to make sure they take advantage of any opportunity they
get. That alone, and the fact that I might be able to empower or help a few of them, provides inspires me every day.
Even for the ordinary Zambians - in African terms this is a relatively advanced country, yet there is still over 20% unemployment, and most people get by on less $2 a day. Out here in the 'bush' there are hardly any cars, many people don’t have power, they grow their own food - yet people are not standing around complaining about the poverty they are enduring - they are getting on with it. It is so easy to just forget about those types of things back home in Australia, which I guess is why I am here, seeing what it is really like, seeing what difference I can hope to make, and getting amazing work experience in the process. Being here, in Africa, doing work that is so close to my heart has also made me extremely reflective, which is both good and bad. Bad because it makes me worry about perceptions and over-think things a bit, and good because it constantly reminds me just how good I have had it in my life so
far and that motivates me. The people I am working with here will probably never get the opportunities I take for granted, and that makes me mad. But there is no sense sitting around and getting mad about it - so I am trying to channel that into doing my best to empower and provide the best outcomes possible to the refugees here.
So what am I actually doing for work? Well, as most of you know, I am doing an internship with the UNHCR, the UN agency for refugees. Refugees are defined under the Refugee Convention (to which Australia and Zambia are a party) as: "A person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country."
It sounds simple, but it isn’t. That definition has been litigated to the cows come home in just about every country on our planet. It is extremely difficult to achieve the status of a refugee, and many governments, like Australia,
have extremely difficult evidentiary tests that someone must meet in order to obtain that status. So, a refugee is not just anyone who crosses a border, or hops on a boat, hoping for a life in a better country. The reality is that anyone who knowingly enters into such a refugee system that is extremely difficult and lengthy is almost always someone without any other option, someone who is not safe in their own country, someone who is a genuine refugee.
By way of illustration - consider that UNHCR achieves resettlement in another country, like Australia or the US, for around 100,000 refugees per year. There are about 20 million refugees worldwide, so that is less than 1%. Therefore, the chance of a refugee actually being resettled by UNHCR is extremely low. The reality is that most will be made to reside in a camp in the country they originally fled to (assuming that country allows them to stay, which Zambia thankfully does) until the situation in their home country improves. For the refugees from Congo that I am working with, that wait has been 8 years. The fact that people wait that long, and are still in fact
remaining, is a testament to the legitimacy of their fear of persecution in their home country. And the fact that other refugees are willing to do what they can to travel - whether by bus, train, plane or boat - to a country like Australia so that their family can be safe - is similarly testament to the legitimacy of their fear of persecution in their home country.
Anyway, that is enough of the lesson on refugee law! For the past three weeks I have been doing a variety of different work. 20 June was World Refugee Day, so a lot of the week before that was spent preparing. The day was held at the refugee camp, with various local dignitaries, UNHCR officials, representatives from our ‘implementing partners’ at the camp (Africa Action Health, World Vision, and the World Food Programme) and about 1000 refugees from the camp.
The word ‘camp’ is probably a bit misleading - because the refugees have been here for over 8 years, things are fairly well established and organised there. The refugees live in houses - made from mud bricks and lined up in streets, some of the houses have solar power, the
refugees grow fruit and vegetables both to eat and sell at the camp market, the kids go to school (there are 3 schools), there is a football field, a hospital/clinic, a HIV counselling centre (staffed by young refugees aged from 18-28 who are called ‘peer educators’), clean running water, and a social work centre (with 8 social workers, all of whom are refugees). It is basically like a little town of 5000 people, which the refugees are not allowed to leave, unless they have a permit from the Zambian government.
Anyway, World Refugee Day was great. As you can see, I took plenty of photos. The theme was ‘Home’ - as in, ‘they can take my home, but they cannot take my future’. There was dancing (both Congolese rumba and more traditional dance), singing, drama, football, a bike race, speeches - and a fabulous lunch of beef stew and Nshima - which is basically the national staple dish. It is just a corn flour mixed with water, and when served is akin to a cross between mash potato and corn bread. You break pieces of and eat it with whatever is on the side - in this case the
beef. It is eaten with everything here, and I have quickly gotten used to it. There is a photo of a lady making it somewhere here. Back to World Refugee Day - each age group did a performance, and they were all excellent, from the kids, to the peer educators to the older women in their amazingly colourful traditional dress. Check the photos out. A lot of the day was centred on the refugees returning to their home country - in other words, ‘repatriating’, and the refugees really took to the theme, even doing some skits about how UNHCR conducts the repatriation process (eg the wheelbarrow pictures).
In terms of the football, we (the UNHCR and World Vision blokes) were scheduled to play the refugee guys in a game of football on the day. In preparing for the big game, we held a few ‘training’ sessions during the week after work. They mostly just involved us walking down to Kawambwa’s only football pitch, and asking the kids playing there if we could join in. The field is basically just a dust bowl (as it is dry season), with some sticks for posts, and most of the kids playing without
shoes. The dust is everywhere, and as the sun sets, streaks of red and pink are splurged across the evening sky in amazing sunsets. I have played a few times and still the kids cannot stop laughing. I am not sure if it my red hair, my lack of any football skill or whether they are just like it all the time. I am guessing it is a combination of the first two. Not that it matters - it is great to have a kick around and watch these kids display some amazing skills. It must look funny - this big 6-foot white guy trying to get the ball off a little African whippet dribbling it straight through my legs and smashing a goal. All you can do is laugh.
Unfortunately the game did not eventuate on world refugee day, which was a massive disappointment (but also saved me some impending embarrasment). I did end up having a kick around with the kids, which was still fun, and the refugee team just ended up played each other (which I missed bugger it!)
Other work I have been doing is essentially in child protection. I have started up
a story writing and drawing competition for the school kids, with prizes - so we can do an interesting newsletter featuring their contributions. I have gone from school to school, telling the teachers about the competition, which has been fun. I have done a budget for the prizes (things like math sets, colouring pencils etc), and had it approved from the offices pool of funding. I have been doing this work with Isaac, who is the Community Services worker at UNHCR. He is a Zambian but can speak fluent Swahili, as well as French and English. He is a lovely bloke, who is greatly respected by the refugees, and it has been awesome to have him show me the ropes at the camp, and introduce me to everyone. Only problem is he is now going on leave for 2 weeks, so I am basically on my own during that time!
In our travels around the schools last Thursday, we realised that the schools had been recently donated games from the US, but unfortunately none had the instructions.
So we basically had an afternoon of teaching the teachers (and kids) how to play twister, chess, pick
up sticks and even that ‘hit the tennis ball which is attached to a string which is attached to a pole game’ (see pictures). It made for a hilarious afternoon.
I got smoked in twister (my knees felt like Reg Gasniers) but I dominated Isaac in the tennis game. It was a glorious victory!
For the past few weeks Isaac and I have also been doing ‘best interest assessments’. This basically involves us going around to kids who have lost their parents, looking at their living conditions, and holding interviews with the kids, and also with their current caregivers. I have to admit, it had been a really difficult thing to do. These kids have gone through unmistakable tragedy - having fled war, leaving their homes, and then losing probably the only source of stability they had left - their parents. So the kids are understandably shy, and I have to admit during every interview my heart had melted, and I have thought to myself that these kids deserve so much more than they are getting. But then I also tell myself - this is not about me or my experience, it is about the kids
and what they want.
So that is basically what the interviews are about - seeing if the kids are happy staying where they are (be it with their uncle, a foster parent or whatever else), what can improve etc. It also involves us making judgements on whether we think the kids are telling the truth, or whether maybe they are acting under pressure from their foster parent, who might only be keeping them because they think it might enhance their chances of being considered for resettlement in a 3rd country like Australia or the US. After all that, we then refer the case to a panel, which takes our recommendations and the wishes of the child into account, and comes to a decision based on the ‘best interests’ of the child.
It is not an easy task, but it is obviously incredibly important, and I feel lucky to be able to get this kind of experience so soon in my time here. This work is linked to the work I have been doing simultaneously in updating our lists of vulnerable people living in the camp, which I mentioned in the last blog entry. Because most of the refugees
are returning home (repatriating) in the next 6 months, it is important that vulnerable people do not get lost in that process, particularly the children. So it is an important job.
I have also done some work with the health clinic, updating their records of camp pregnancies and births, to make sure we have good records of teenage pregnancies and young mothers. The nurses at the clinic, from AAH, are lovely, and have made me feel extremely welcome there.
In terms of the practicalities of life outside work - I am thankful that we have constant power (the power here is a bit off and on, so we have a back-up generator, which makes us one of the lucky ones) and a TV at home, and even though we only have one channel - ZNBC, which is the government owned and run channel, they have shown every world cup game. As a result, I am now a fountain of soccer and world cup knowledge. My hot tip is Argentina to beat Spain in the final. Get on (I would if I could, but betfair is blocked by the UN internet!).
to other countries in the region, Zambia is a safe, stable country. It has a multi-party, functional democratic system of government, and in Africa that is a significant achievement. If you interested in finding out more about Zambia - just shoot me a message. The roads here are ok, although the one to the refugee camp is only about 25k’s but it takes 40 minutes each way. But that is something I have gotten used to pretty quickly. It reminds me of the Benah to Warren road after rain (bit of an in-joke for the Kennedy’s there)!
So, what about the social life? Well, last weekend there was a huge opening night party for a bar in town. They got a ‘band’ brought all the way from Lusaka, so I was pretty pumped about doing something social other than watching the world cup at the bar. They had a brai - which is basically a wood fired bbq - and it was good to have some charcoaled meat. It was a fun night overall, but the band was very disappointing. It was basically just a few blokes who would come on stage, yell at the crowd to get pumped
up, and then, when the backing music (fron the CD) starts, just miming the songs. I was shocked, but the other Zambians seemed to love it. The music is good to dance to - it is basically a mix between reggae and R&B. In terms of the miming - maybe it is normal. Hopefully I get a chance to see a 'real' band down the track.
I have had a few other nights out - there are a few bars in town, and we tend to the ‘spread the love’. There is the one which is actually at work (called ‘the canteen’, which has happy hour on Friday, and is also where I have my lunch), there is the one that just opened, and there is ‘Joys’. All are pretty standard - chairs, waitresses and beer = bar. My hope of having 6 months off the gorgeous amber fluid (and dropping 20kg's) have faded at a speed akin to the blues origin hopes in game 2.
In terms of the food, mostly I have toast or cereal for breakfast, and vegies, beans, Nshima and some chicken, beef or fish for dinner. If I go to the camp, I
usually don’t have lunch, or get something light from the markets at the camp. That is the opposite of most people here, who tend to have big lunches and light dinners. I struggle with that, especially if it is hot. I have tried some different things, including goat, oxtail and cow’s intestines. The latter were served at a restaurant we went to the other night, and I had a mouthful before I even knew what I was eating. The texture was just wrong, but I did force down a few mouthfuls so as to not appear to be rude. Good vegies beyond potatoes, and good meat/fish are either not available or very expensive, so most locals don’t eat them. Things like cheese, ham, bacon, apples etc are just not available here, and need to be bought from Mansa, which is about two and a half hours away. I already have a stockpile of sliced cheese in the fridge! Overall, I would say that the food situation is fine.
In terms of whether, it is meant to be the coldest part of the year here, yet it is fairly warm. I wouldn’t think it has been below 10 degrees, and
is about 25 in the day. I am seriously scared of the impending ‘hot season’, and am anticipating regular 40 plus days, which is going to kill me (especially when you have keep the window closed to keep out the mosquito's, and sleep under a mosquito net!) I am not sure what I will get up to once the world cup is over. We have had a game on TV every night since I have been here, which has been excellent. I have already read 2 of the 3 books I brought with me (rookie error), but have managed to lay off the movies and TV series I brought on my laptop. I think 5 seasons of the wire (ready to be watched a second time), 3 seasons of mad men, and 3 seasons of deadwood should keep my evenings full for at least a while!
So that is update three. Thank you to you all for your comments, messages and general support thus far - please keep them coming! I will be home in Sydney for Sally’s wedding from 7 August for around a week - so make sure you are available for a beer during that week.
There are more photos below