School Poverty

Reading this week:

  • Time Enough for Love by Robert A. Heinlein
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

One of the things that has driven in the impact of poverty for me here in Zambia are the schools. It is a challenge to get an education here in Zambia, especially for rural kids or the urban poor, and it isn’t really anybody’s fault, it seems to me, it’s just the way things are.

Schools are split into primary and secondary school. Primary school goes from grades 1-7, and first grade starts at about age 5 or 6. Secondary school goes from grades 8-12, and after that is University. Kids are not required to go to school by law like in the US.

In my village, the closest primary school is in the next village over, about 4 km away. There’s no bus or other transport, so if kids want to go to school they have to hike over there. The nearest secondary school is in the boma (the term for town, as a step up from village), 12 km away. This is pretty impossible for a commuter, so if you want to go past grade 7, you usually wind up going to boarding school. Some primary schools actually go up to grade 9, and this is an effort to make school more accessible.

So now let’s talk about cost. I’ll talk about secondary school first, and also mention that currently the exchange rate is about 10 kwatcha (the Zambia currency, abbreviated ZMW or just K, as in K10) to $1 USD. To go to secondary school you have to pay school fees. School fees vary by location and school, but I’ll talk about my area. For the non-boarding schools, fees range from about K350-K500 per term, with three terms in the year. For the boarding schools, this price jumps up to K900 or more per term. For grades 8 and 9 at some of the primary schools, these fees drop to about K150-250, but that is for a rural area.

Now, primary school. Primary school is supposed to be free. It is in fact illegal to charge school fees for grades 1-7. But this, in most cases, is impossible. The school system in Zambia is pretty severly underfunded. As I said in the beginning of the post, I don’t really blame anyone for that, and this isn’t a criticism of any government policy, just an unfortunate reporting of the facts of life in Zambia for these rural farmers. Schools wind up charging school fees for these grades (they’re usually labelled “Parent Teacher Committee Funds,” or somesuch) to pay for basic school necessities like chalk and paper. These fees will also go towards paying volunteer teachers. They’re called volunteer, but they do get paid a small amount. The one data point I have is K400/month.

Volunteer teachers are required because most schools are understaffed due to a lack of teachers in the country. The older schools I see tend to have about half as many teachers as they are “supposed” to, based on the student population, and I know at least one school with only one government-paid teacher. His school has 150 students, grades 1-6, though there are 600 children in the area served by his school. There are three major reasons that keep those other 450 kids away. The first is school fees. When schools charge school fees for these grades, they are generally on the order of K10-20 per term. This is what drove the meaning of poverty home for me, because the thing between these kids and school is something less than $6 a year. That’s heaping a little too much blame on school fees alone, because the kids also usually have to show up in a uniform (usually home-made), wear shoes (most people wear sandals, known as “tropicals”), and have the materials to learn, all of which also add up. Then, when you multiply this by the number of children in a family, it adds up further. However, with that caveat, I think a Happy Meal at McDonalds runs on the order of $5.

Let’s cover the other two reasons real quick. One is that parents will require these kids to stay home to help work. Most of these villagers are subsistence farmers, growing maize and a small selection of other vegetables just to eat. Keeping the kids home to help work can be vital to keeping that up and running. The third reason that keeps girls home is that girl’s education is usually less valued than a boy’s. Women are not expected to be breadwinners, and the education required to be a good wife does not require school. In one of the nearby schools, of the 14 students in the 9th grade class (as a sign of the attrition rate, there are closer to 100 kids in 1st grade), there are only 2 girls.

Since the costs of going to secondary school are at least an order of magnitude higher, most kids only make it through grade 7 if they make it that far. That obviousely puts them at a major disadvangate for getting a job, or even really at having the math and reading skills needed to really make a farm profitable and successful. That continues the cycle of keeping kids out of school.

But enjoy this picture of my friend and a Zombie hoard of kids:


Reading this week (it’s been a busy week):

  • Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck

Yesterday and Friday I went to the Umutomolo Traditional Ceremony. This is the traditional ceremony of the Mambwe and Lungu people. The Mambwes and Lungus are two closely related tribes that live in the northern part of Zambia (and southern part of Tanzania) (as you’ll recall, I learned Mambwe, and currently I’m actually living in Lunguland, but Lungu is pretty much identical to Mambwe).

The ceremony happens every year, and serves to celebrate a successful harvest (it’s harvest season here in the southern hemisphere) and to pray for rains to come after the cold season, when they’ll be needed for next year’s crops. Since it is a fairly large event on the Mambwe/Lungu calendar, it attracts people from all over Northern Province, and Chiefs from all over Zambia. This year, of course, all of the Mambwe and Lungu chiefs were in attendance (and performed the essential acts of blessing the crop and praying to the ancestors), but we also had Chiefs from as far away as Northwestern Province (confusingly named, but about as far as you can get from Northern Province).

The main ceremony occurred on Saturday, but some other PCVs and I showed up on Friday. During the ceremony, many different villages will perform traditional dances, and to pick the best they all “try out” on Friday. This was a far better day to watch the dancing and hear the music, because the crowd was much smaller and there were fewer speeches. We were mostly there to support the dancers from my friend’s village, and it was pretty great to see all the performances.

We returned on Saturday to a far larger crowd. The exciting thing this year was that the President of Zambia came and gave a speech. This was the first time that a sitting President of the Republic attended the Umutomolo ceremony. We were in a restaurant when we watched the large Presidential motorcade roar through town and we figured it was time to get to the ceremony.

On Saturday, most of the ceremony was comprised of speeches, interspersed with music and dancing. In addition to the traditional dances, there was more modern music and entertainment, and a parody act that people seemed to enjoy but I didn’t quite understand. After an introduction by one of the Chiefs in attendance, the President gave his speech, where he addressed many of the issues of concern for the people of the district, such as infrastructure improvement projects and agricultural prices. After the speech, it was time for the actual ceremony. The wives of the Chiefs came up with samples of the foods grown in their Chiefdoms. Then the Chiefs (there are female Chiefs, but I don’t think any of the Mambwe or Lungu chiefs were female, though I might have missed some) came up and blessed the foods and gave thanks to the ancestors for a successful harvest. After this part, the crowd broke up for lunch, with dancing to resume in the afternoon.

While everyone was off getting lunch, we wandered around. In addition to the ceremony, there was an area full of merchants selling a lot of different things. I was disappointed to find there wasn’t much art or crafts to buy, but it was fun to walk around and look at all the wares and eat some street food. One especially interesting thing was a guy had made a model truck out of pieces of cardboard and plastic he had salvaged. The really interesting part is he had put in a motor in the thing and hooked it up to a motorcycle battery. If he hooked it up one way, the truck rolled forward on bottlecap tires, and then when he hooked it up the other way it rolled back. He managed to attract a pretty good little crowd with this thing.

After wandering around, we head out. It was fun to watch the ceremony, and I recommend getting there early to get a good seat. It was an event that attracted a lot of people from through Mambwe and Lungu-land, and gave people an opportunity to see each other when they normally wouldn’t have been able to visit. Plus, might as well make sure that sufficient thanks are given to the harvest and that rain is prayed for; can’t leave these things up to chance.

Pond Staking

Reading this week:

  • Education of a Wandering Man by Louis L’Amour
  • For Your Eyes Only by Ian Fleming
  • The Man with the Golden Gun by Ian Fleming
  • Thunderball by Ian Fleming
  • On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by Ian Fleming

    This week I finally got to stake a pond. As I said before, I am a rural aquaculture promotion specialist, and that means I teach fish farming. To farm fish, you need a fish farm, and step one of that is pond staking.

    Technically, I am still in community entry, and therefore not yet responsible to get down to any serious business of teaching fish farming. The main goal of this period is to adapt to living in the village and learn about the community so I can most effectively help them with their needs. However, I am a mission-oriented dude, and I am here to teach people how to farm fish, so I wanted to get down to business. This post is about to get technical, but I thrive on the technical.

    The Rural Aquaculture Promotion program focuses on bringing aquaculture to rural farmers, and so that means a focus on using locally available and preferably free materials. Therefore, the fish farming we do is largely performed in earthen ponds, dug out of the ground. Pond staking is the process of measuring out where to dig the pond and build the walls. The tools required for this are wooden stakes, string, a line level, and a mesuring tape.

    To stake a pond, you start with a field. Ideally, you want a slope between 1-6%. Since this is rural Zambia, you take what you can get. You start at the highest corner and put in a stake. From here, perpendicular to the slope, you measure out the top wall. The top wall will be, again ideally, 24 meters. The “standard” sized pond in the program and the Department of Fisheries is 20mx15m, and a 24 meter outside dimension, once wall thickness and freeboard is taken into account, provides a 20m waterline.

    Once you’ve established the top wall, you measure out a right triangle with 3m and 4m legs and a 5m hypoteneuse. This will ensure the pond is square. Once you’ve put these stakes into the ground, you use them as a reference to measure the side wall. The outside dimension of the side wall is 19m (ideally, etc etc). Now that you’ve got two walls measured out, you complete the square. The outside walls have been measured.

    The top of the dike wall should be 1m wide. So you measure one meter inside from all of your outside walls, and stake the four corners. Finally, you measure the pond bottom box. The inside walls of the pond are sloped in order to provide fish an ideal nesting location and to allow for easy access into and out of the pond, and the pond bottom box takes these slopes into account and shows where the flat, bottom part of the pond will be. From the top of the inside wall, you measure 3.3 meters from each wall and place a take. From the bottom of the wall, you measure 3.9 meters and place the remaining two stakes. This should form a trapezoid.

    Next, you run a string around all the stakes you just staked, and make sure the string is level. This shows where the top of the dike wall will be, and provides a guide for digging the rest of the pond. From there, there are a few small details like staking out lines showing the slopes, and the cut/fill line, but that is a quick overview of the pond staking process. Since it is the vital first step of digging a quality pond, we went over it a lot in training and I was excited to put my knowledge to use. Next week’s post will be more interesting. Promise.

    Living in the Village

    Reading this week:

    • Into the Wild by John Krakauer
    • room full of mirrors: a biography of jimi hendrix by Charles R. Cross
    • Timeline by Michael Crichton
    • Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt

    I am posted, like most volunteers in Zambia (especially agriculture volunteers) in a rural village. I have no running water or electricity from a utility. I have my own small hut (which I think is not actually that much smaller than my last apartment) and I take care of all my daily tasks myself. I have a host family here in the village, and they are willing to do things for me like fetch my water and cook my meals, but I think it is important to do a lot of that stuff on my own. First, it helps display gender equality – although there is some overlap, tasks like cooking, cleaning, and fetching water are largely considered women’s work, and by doing these things myself (as a man) it helps to break down gender roles. Second, I’m a adult and I don’t need to be babied, so there’s that too.

    Water comes from the river that goes through the middle of the valley. It is about half a kilometer away, which isn’t too bad. Sometimes the river gets muddy, especially when they are irrigating the fields upstream, but it is usually quiet and clear. The local women carry the water on their head, but I usually wind up hefting it on my shoulder. Those women are strong, as you would expect – they have been hauling water on their heads since they were young enough to hoist a tiny bucket up there. To make the water safe to drink, the Peace Corps has issued me a filter. I also add a small amount of chlorine to kill any bugs the filters don’t get.

    My bathroom (“chimbusu,” or “chim” as all the PCVs call it) is a small outhouse-like building. I am lucky enough to have a door on mine so I don’t have to chase out goats or chickens when I go to use it. Inside is just a hole in the ground, and you squat. Not the greatest feeling on old knees like mine, but you get used to it. Aiming is important.

    I don’t have a stove and instead cook on a brazier. I use charcoal, and every day around 1600 (Zambia uses a 24-hour clock) I light my brazier to heat some bath water. I heat my bath water to boiling in a kettle, and then add some more cold water to bring it down to the right temperature. I carry the water and my soap over to my outdoor shower (olusasa) and bathe by pouring water over myself with a cup. It is pretty effective, and when it is dark out it is nice to look at the stars.

    After my shower I get around to cooking dinner. I do most of the food prep inside my hut in my little kitchen nook, and then cook outside on my porch. I have a camp chair I like to lounge in. Once the brazier is going cooking doesn’t take too long. For dinner, I usually have fried rice, because I am lazy and a bachelor. For lunch, I usually eat with my host family (I tried to get them to stop feeding me, but that is apparently a bridge too far, and it is rude to turn down a meal in Zambia anyways). The local Zambians eat nshima, which is sort of like really thick grits. They eat it with “relish,” which is just anything that isn’t nshima. What the relish is depends on the time of year, but right about now we are eating a lot of beans and fish, which is good. The Zambians don’t use silverware – you take a lump of nshima, and then ball it up and then form a small scoop with it using your hands. Then you use the nshima to scoop up the relish. Keeps the amount of dishes down, for sure.

    Besides my brazier, I also made myself a small pop can stove that I run off of methylated spirits. It is pretty good at what it does, but for heating anything big I wind up using a lot of spirits. It is perfect though for making some coffee in the morning in a small espresso maker I brought with me.

    It was such a feeling of profound relief when I managed to make coffee in the village. It wasn’t the coffee itself, but being able to make it represented the first moment I was like “I think I can make it here.”

    Laundry is done by hand here. The Zambians will do it entirely by hand, without even using a washboard, but I made myself a washing machine using two buckets and a plunger. I got the idea online. That works pretty well, and is a lot easier on my hands (like I said, the women around here are TOUGH). After you wash it in the bucket, you rinse the laundry in another bucket of water and then put it on the line to dry. Washing clothes takes a great deal of water and I wind up doing laundry about once a week. Clothes get dirty quick.

    To power things like the phone I am typing this on, I have a few different solar devices. I have a large solar panel attached to a battery I use to power things like my laptop. To charge my phone I have a smaller portable solar panel, and then I also have a solar-powered light that provides illumination at night. I’m not able to operate hot plates or power tools, but the setup is plenty to keep my phone and kindle charged.

    Transportation around the village is either by bike or by walking. My village is in a valley, so generally for shorter trips I am just walking. To get to my nearest town, which is about 12 kilometers away, I generally bike. The Peace Corps issues volunteers mountain bikes, which is just as well because we aren’t allowed to drive cars and we aren’t allowed to ride motorcycles at all. This is for safety purposes. The village grows some vegetables and a great deal of corn, but I do most of my shopping for food and items in the nearest town, known as a Boma. It isn’t a huge town, but there is a good selection of stuff and at least one pizza joint, so life isn’t too bad at all.