I don't believe that it's ever possible to wrap your head around another person's experience. Not even your neighbors or close friends. And life in another country with its own culture and traditions is even harder to comprehend. Things might look similar, human needs are the same, but everything works just a little bit differently. Frankly, it boggles my mind, but it's worth an attempt, because the more we understand about one another, the more we can support each other.
Beth, Michelle and I spent our morning in Zambia touring the Garden Compound, one of Lusaka's slums. I've never seen poverty at such close range before. Certainly not at this scale. Over 50% of Lusaka's population lives in shantytowns like the Garden District.
Very few homes in this neighborhood have running water, but you can pay to fill your bucket from a tap.
Think about that for a minute. It means no flush toilets, for one thing. It also means that if you're out of money, you're dependent on others to drink or wash yourself. And in general, when money is tight, the water would be used more for drinking or cooking, and not so much for keeping clean and healthy.
Families with a bit more money have a pit latrine outside.
Food is sold in small amounts. Even cooking oil is meeted out into old water bottles for people who cannot afford a whole can.
Most people cook using charcoal (and breathe those fumes), but for those who can afford it, electricity is available on a pre-paid basis, similar to cell phone air time
There are tons of kids. TONS of them. Zambia has some of the largest families in the world, and one of the highest AIDS rates. Often that means both parents have died and an older sibling is trying to care for younger sisters and brothers. There aren't many services (in fact, the Street Kids program that was working in this area closed due to funding issues) so those kids really are on their own.
School is free, and families must provide a uniform, books and any needed classroom materials. The total cost is about $400 per year - that's a lot a country where the per-capita GDP is $1600. And still, there's such a strong desire to give kids an education, that the Garden district's public school is full - meaning that some kids walk long distances or families find even more money to pay for a private education.
But there is happiness here too, we never felt the tension that I've felt visiting other African countries. Everyone has been incredibly welcoming and kind. They've helped us find our way around, and it is safe to walk together at night to a neighborhood restaurant. Despite all the poverty, there seems to be a strong sense of community and a real hope for the future.
And even in the slums, where things seem so desperate, in many ways people have the same cares and worries that we do at home. The women are stunningly beautiful, with their hair perfectly plated and beautiful wraps, while I walk around looking dusty and tired.
The kids make balls out of plastic bags (and find other odds and ends to play with
A stripped car can serve as a playspace
Women find time to sing or talk together
Wired phone service never made it to this neighborhood, but everyone seems to have a cell phone.
Toddlers are as relentlessly adorable here as they are anywhere
There's a big effort underway to add more roads - which would help bring more services into poor areas.
With tourists, comes the opportunity to make products that could be sold
There are local, and internationally funded, efforts to provide safe activities for kids
But most of all, there's spirit, and fun, and great energy in the most unexpected places.
After a day "digging in deep" my head is full. The best I can do, I think, is to share - because the more we know about one another, the better we can support each other. I hope that my pictures and words will inspire you to help too, in whatever way makes sense for you. And I if you contributed to Passports with Purpose I want you to know, that that the library you helped is absolutely fundamental to these kids growing up with a better future.
Our excellent and eye-opening tour was conducted by Lusaka Experience who runs several cultural tours in this area. I paid for the tour at my own expense, and I can't recommend them enough. If you are headed to Zambia, feel free to email me for more info about the tour.
We wouldn't have made it here at all without the very generous support of Expedia who paid for our airfare and hotel accommodation so that we could better understand and tell about the impact of our 2011 Passports with Purpose fundraiser. Planning a trip to Africa for three people on separate schedules is not easy, and there were even more moving parts on this trip than usual. Expedia really stuck with us through it all and I deeply appreciate everything they've done to make this trip a success.