I was drawn to the February article by Helen, who asked the question “What is Mission”? In the article Helen suggested that as cultures vary, so do their needs. In not understanding the culture and need we may in some cases be creating bigger problems for a community.
In 2013 Joan and I and our two girls travelled back to Zambia to the birth place of Tanya and Fiona. It was in Kitwe a large town of 150,00 people, the site of a very large copper mine. I was working at Kalulushi Farm College, a World Council of Churches agricultural project. The farm college was 12 miles from Kitwe and had good medical facilities.
Arriving in Zambia we flew to the provincial town of Ndola and were then driven to Kitwe about 45 minutes by road to a small guesthouse where we stayed for a few days.
While there I was keen to go back to the farm college to show Tanya and Fiona where I worked, where we had lived and where our friends from that time had lived. The farm college no longer exists, but after 40 years all the buildings, irrigation system, workshop, classrooms and the student quarters were still there. There had been a village with a primary school close to the college grounds, where children of the farm workers and mature age students’ children attended.
I wanted to go to the school, partly to see if in some small way we as a family could provide some support to the school.
Arriving at the primary school the next day, we were shown over the two buildings, one a mud brick two-room building and nearby another cement brick building with 2 classrooms either side of two offices. There were no fences, no real schoolyard; just grassless bare earth compacted by many feet over time. This was not a government-funded primary school. There was one located some distance away, but this village wanted its own village school. We were told parents did not want to send their children to the government school because it was too far away and unsafe for their children to walk to school.
Through the village chief, the government agreed to create a community school in the village. The government paid the salary of a head teacher appointed to the school. When we were there the school had 610 students with 6 teachers plus the head teacher. Teachers were recruited from the village; their qualification was attendance at a secondary school, their salary the equivalent of AUD$1.00 per child per term. This was a figure agreed to by the village and presided over by the village chief. The recruited teachers had not attended any formal teacher-training program.
The head teacher was at pains to point out that around 15% of each grade consisted of children who had either lost one or both parents. They were often cared for by their grandparents or extended family. The carers of these children paid whatever they could afford.
When asked about teacher training, the response was that the teachers were keen to undertake training, but they would have to forgo their income while training and that was very difficult. One had a sense that job security at the school was a very protected possession. I had thought supporting a teacher to undertake a teacher-training program a worthwhile project, but more time was needed to better understand, through the village chief what they saw as their need, rather than imposing my own view on what I thought they needed after a two-hour visit.
Nearby was a rundown chicken house. When asked what this was used for, the head teacher said the students used to raise chickens to sell to support the school. He had stopped this practice as it was in competition with families who raised chickens to help pay their children’s school fees. The chicken house was empty, and the project abandoned.
As I walked around to the side of the school, I noticed a young man using a small bucket to draw water from a disused bore casing, a long ago remanent of drilling operations in search for copper to support the nearby copper mines. People from the village come by to have a container filled with water by the young man. He chatted away to those collecting water, sharing a laugh in response to an unknown comment.
Nearby there was another bore casing with a simple hand operated mechanical pump attached to the top of the bore casing. The pump had been out of action for some time given the amount of rust and dirt on the pump. I thought some basic repairs would fix the pump and make life easier for everyone. But then maybe the young man may find himself without a job, perhaps unable to contribute to the life of the village.
Sitting at the back of my mind during the visit to the school was the realization that 40 years earlier, I had been part of an expat. team of educators employed by the church to run and develop an agricultural college that trained farmers to develop best farming practice as understood by myself and other educated teachers.
It was with the best intentions of all involved that we set out to create a quality training institute. That training college no longer exists. It does not exist because the source of funds from the World Council of Churches dried up. When the government was asked to take over and fund the Farm College it simply did not have the resources.
Zambia is a country, a place that to this day, has left an indelible mark on my life. In other parts of the world where I have worked, I have come to understand the need to sit with and to learn from the wisdom of the people with whom I have been asked to work. This takes time. A two-hour visit to a primary school can never allow one to understand the community dynamics at play in that village.
To be at mission I believe is to walk softly, to listen intently, to seek understanding, to act out of kindness and to give generously. As a wealthy church community, we need to explore ways to support communities in our own country and in other parts of the world that add to their wellbeing within the social structure of those communities. This is easy to say on paper, but much more difficult to achieve.