A new year in Zambia!
Posted: 31 January 2012
May I start off by wishing you a happy and successful 2012. I’m looking forward to all the exciting activities we have lined up for our Zambia programme this year; more Vision Centres, supporting the Chainama optometry students and enabling more people to learn to refract and consequently Zambia heading in the right direction towards sustainable eye care.
A very happy 2012 to you all
I’m personally looking forward to the opening of our fourth Vision Centre in Livingstone next month and I’m currently deep in preparations for it, hoping that everything comes together at the right time. I’m sure it will as Dr Monze the ophthalmologist and hospital medical superintendent there is as excited as I am about the project and is keen to be able to support his patients better. He told me how desperate he is to do school screening programmes but just how frustrating it’s been to see children who need glasses but can’t get them due to poor access to optical services. The new Vision Centre will make all the difference.
I recently was invited to join the INGO (International Non Governmental Organisation) forum and I attended my first meeting in December. I enjoyed hearing about what other NGOs are doing in Zambia although obviously not all of them are related, even tenuously, to what we are doing. The focus of that particular meeting of the forum was on malnutrition and I learned that malnutrition rates amongst Zambian children are higher than those in Darfur. That really shocked me as the country is currently very green and lush to look at and the land appears fertile and able to provide nourishment.
The INGO meeting was held in one of the plushest offices I’ve ever been in – and I mean ever! It didn’t belong to another NGO, thank goodness, but to a new business/conferencing organisation who offered the use of its facilities to us for free. I live a comfortable existence here and when you visit such places it’s sometimes easy to forget just how desperately poor many people in this city are. To illustrate this I’d like to tell you the story of Max……
About 20 months ago I met Max, a young man who knocked on my door one day looking for ‘peace work’ or what we’d call casual work. Max was very honest with me and told me he was HIV positive and he wanted to earn money to be able to buy decent food in order to remain healthy. He didn’t look very well but I employed him to do some gardening and he worked his socks off and did an excellent job. From time to time over the next few months Max continued to come to me for work and did a good job despite the fact he looked unwell. Then he didn’t come again; I feared the worst. However around mid November Max suddenly appeared at my door looking for work again. He looked well and had put on a fair bit of weight. He told me he’d been living in the Copperbelt province but had recently returned to Lusaka with his wife and new baby daughter. He seemed happy and his life had taken a turn for the better. A friend’s sister had recently given me some children’s clothes and amongst them some baby-grows so I was delighted to give Max a small gift for his baby; Gertrude. He told me that since both he and his wife were HIV positive they’d been advised not to breast feed the baby and that he needed work to buy powered milk for her. I employed him again and as usual he made my garden look beautiful.
10 days later Max returned looking worried. He explained to me that the heavy rain over the preceding few days had caused a crack in the wall, of the two-roomed shack he rents, to enlarge and finally the wall had collapsed. He was staying with one neighbour whilst his wife and baby were staying with another. He needed money to buy cement so he could reconstruct the wall; his landlord had said it was his responsibility. So I lent him some money to buy the cement etc and off he went with a spring in his step and 2 days later I woke up to find Max already busy cutting my grass to pay off his debt. I went out to talk to him and he told me a sad story; whilst the family had been staying with neighbours, thieves had entered his place through the collapsed wall and stolen all the clothes belonging to his wife and baby. I managed to hunt out a few old T shirts for his wife but sadly had nothing for the baby, but Max was stoical and soldiered on.
He came back again to do my garden and then last week, just a couple of days since he’d last been I returned from a visit to UTH to find Max sitting on my doorstep in a dreadful state, sobbing uncontrollably. It took me about 40 minutes to find out what had happened; his baby had taken ill the previous day and although he and his wife had taken her to the local health clinic she’d died a few hours later. He needed help to buy a coffin.
It’s hard not to judge Max from my Western perspective in many ways; why have a baby if you don’t have a job or a decent place to live, or you don’t know how long your health will hold out. However the other side of the coin is there’s no state pension in Zambia, who’s going to look after you in old age if you’re childless? Culturally it’s odd not to have a family etc. You’ve probably heard the recent reports about how the population of Zambia is likely to triple by 2050. What will happen to all the people like Max then? I’m glad to be a tiny speck of paint on the wide picture of organisations helping Zambia to progress and support itself. VAO plays an important role and every single one of our volunteers plays a part in trying to ensure that stories like Max’s become less and less common as Zambia develops.
The time around Christmas and new year is a little slow at our Vision Centres; people us their money for celebrations and have little left over for the purchase of spectacles, even those which are low cost. I’m proud that Brighton and Tom the two technicians at UTH very sensibly used the quiet period to do a stock take of frames and lenses. They worked hard and managed to get everything done before the centre becomes busy again.
Tom counting lenses
Brighton at work in the Vision centre
At UTH Chali the optometrist has been on leave which has been a great opportunity for the ophthalmic nurses and clinical offers to do more refraction and utilise their skills. Tyness one of the nurses told me how much she was enjoying refracting more although many patients were sad to learn that the Vision Centre no longer has the same frame as she wears. She’s a good advert for the service!
Well that’s all from me this month but as we start a new year let’s all count our blessings and look forward to a successful 2012 knowing we can make a real difference to people’s lives.