Zimbabwe Part 3

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Reading this week:

  • Sons of Sinbad by Alan Villiers (Villiers is always phenomenal)

The morning after my visit to Great Zimbabwe I was headed back to Harare. I asked the hotel to arrange a taxi for me and the taxi arrived right at 0400. I was going for an early start because I was trying to catch a 0500 bus back to Harare. This was a bit weird for me because there isn’t a “0500” bus. It seems like the big busses in Zimbabwe operate like minibusses in Zambia, and instead of leaving on a schedule just leave when they are full. The taxi driver helped me get a bus. The first one we tried was almost full (and therefore nominally ready to leave) but the taxi driver talked to the bus driver and the bus driver apparently wanted to sleep for a few more hours before heading out. Like what? But eventually I got on a bus farther into town. This one was nearly empty when I arrived, but that meant I got a good seat and we left at about 0630. We made it to Harare in good time and I got a taxi the rest of the way to the hotel which cost me more than the bus ride.

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Downtown Harare from the National Gallery.

At the hotel I checked in and sat down for a minute and then got lunch. After lunch I immediately set out for the National Gallery of Zambia. I was a bit nervous walking there but by the time I got there I was more comfortable. The gallery is a pretty nice place but not all that big. I saw some art I really liked. My favorite was this portrait of a roadside fruit vendor. She was painted with a graduation cap and cool sunglasses, and the artwork was done mostly out of old Zimbabwean notes. It represents the graduate who can’t find a job and so is selling fruit, but stands tall anyways.

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Flying boat formation.

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The famous balancing rocks of Zimbabwe.

After that I walked back to the hotel so I could arrange to go to the balancing rocks. The art gallery trip cost me $5 and the balancing rocks cost me $60. I got one of the taxi driver concierge guys from the hotel and he took me out there. He went on the whole tour with me which was kinda nice I guess? The place isn’t too big and we felt crunched for time because he had to go pick someone up from the airport, but then again we saw everything. The rocks are indeed pretty wild. My favorite was called the “Flying Boat Formation.” I found the rocks on the Zimbabwean dollars and had my picture taken there. So that’s pretty neat. It cost $40 for the taxi, $10 for my admission, $5 for the driver’s admission, and I tipped him $5.

All the previous meals I had in Harare were at the lobby bar at the hotel, but this night I decided I wanted to actually eat dinner at the hotel restaurant. I went down too early it turns out and the restaurant wasn’t open yet, so I had two beers at the bar. Then I went to the restaurant and it turns out it is a buffet that costs $30. I felt dumb going back to the bar so I decided to go for it. I had a lot of food and it was really good. The tough part was figuring some of the food out. The biggest hurdle was that there are different Shona words for things, so like nshima down there is sadza. A lady asked me if I knew what one dish was, and I said no (it looked kinda like cikonda before it is quite cooked all the way), and she told me it was like sadza but different, which really wasn’t illuminating. But in buffet style I piled my plate high with all sorts of stuff and I even got dessert and went back for seconds and after that I cleared out because the room was getting crowded and came back to the room where I passed out from a full belly.

Zimbabwe Part 2: Great Zimbabwe

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Great Enclosure from the Hilltop Complex

Reading this week:

  • The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Having arrived at the Great Zimbabwe Hotel, and having learned my lesson from the previous day, I started of by getting a very delicious hamburger at the hotel. It was only about 1300 at this point so I then decided to walk to the ruins. I took the long way ’round accidentally, but made it. I was a little bummed about paying the $15 entry fee two days in a row, but eh, worth it. I also bought a rather battered guide book to Masvingo and the ruins (last copy! they said) and it was been pretty helpful. After the entry fee I went to the museum on site which is pretty awesome and well done, and features the famous soapstone birds of Zimbabwe. They have all seven there. For about a century they had been in rather far-flung museums, because back when colonialists first showed up they ganked the birds right off the ruins and sent them off to their friends. Zimbabwe, however, has managed to recover them and has them on display.

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Some of the soapstone birds.

After the museum I went up to the hill site. First off, Great Zimbabwe is way more complex than I thought. I was familiar with the Great Enclosure, which is that thing you see when you Google “Great Zimbabwe,” but it is a much more extensive site. This first day I only managed to poke around the hilltop complex. Building the hilltop complex must have been crazy. It’s perched right on top of a tall, steep hill, and hauling all those quarried rocks to the top would have been a massive labor. All those walls perched on top of the cliff face. The complexity! The views! And between the guidebook and the museum I thought I had a pretty good grasp on the site and was excited to spend the whole next day at the site. According to the guidebook, the hilltop complex was not a fort, but it is an easy misinterpretation to think that because of the narrow passageways leading to the top (easily defensible) and the commanding views of the surrounding areas. You could not sneak up on Great Zimbabwe, that is for sure. In the distance is a pretty dramatic looking valley and you have a pretty awesome view of Lake Mutirikwe. The whole place is stunning and amazing and stuff and like wow. After the hilltop complex I decided to call it a day and took the short way back to the lodge.

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Me and the wall of the Great Enclosure.

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This structure is thought to represent a grain silo and has been restored after years of treasure-hunters tried to find a non-existent hollow void in the middle.

The next day at Great Zimbabwe was fantastic. I managed to spend most of the day at Great Zimbabwe, justifying staying there for two whole nights instead of just one. I woke up kinda early and had a delicious breakfast at the hotel and got ready to head down to Great Zimbabwe. Luckily the guys at the gate remembered me and let me into the monument without paying again which was really nice of them. The first thing I went to go check out was the Great Enclosure. That thing is pretty huge. I barely know what to say about it. It is really hard to capture the size of the thing in pictures but I tried. It is a lot more massive than it even seemed from afar yesterday. I used the timer on my camera a lot today to put myself in pictures and to try to capture the scale of the place but lemme tell ya it is big. After the Great Enclosure I wandered over to the Eastern Ruins and checked out the Shona village briefly. You can stay the night there for the authentic African experience. Gee I wonder what it is like to sleep in a mud hut?

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My next stop was back to the Hilltop Complex. I wanted to take another look at it since the previous evening I actually had a chance to read the guide book and had a better sense of what things were. The unfortunate part of the hilltop complex today is that I was there at the same time as a big tour group of what sounded like Australians, so I was dodging those people. Though that got me thinking. It was nice to have the whole monument to myself, or to feel like I had it to myself, but then on the other hand it is hard to get the sense of what the place would be like as a city. I mean somewhere between 2500 and 10,000 people lived there (depending on what sign you read) and that is hard to grasp with just a few stone walls. The whole place would have been littered with mud huts. I have some sense of what it would be like because I have been in densely populated mud hut towns but still to see it in situ would really be something else. I was thinking what would it take to get like, 10,000 people on the site all at the same time just to calibrate the right sense of scale. That would be amazing.

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The “stage” in the hilltop enclosure. The kinda bird-looking rock in the upper left of the picture is thought to have maybe inspired the soapstone birds, which kinda don’t actually look like birds but do look like that rock.

My other thought about the Hilltop Complex is that the Eastern Enclosure would be a sweet place to put on a play. It’s already got seating and this several tiered stage (they conjecture it was used for religious ceremonies), and also importantly it has this “backstage” area; the point was apparently that you could pop out on stage from these secluded rock areas. I bet if you wrote a grant for the project and had local thespians put on a play about traditional Shona something something people would eat that up, yo. The other cool part though about looking back in the “backstage” area is that there is a path back there that leads to the “Summit” (there was a sign) that gives absolutely magnificent views of the whole Lake Mutirikwe valley area and like wow man. Like totally wow. These Great Zimbabweans really picked the spot to stay at. After looking at all this (and going down a side path to see the “Water Gate” to view the only example of herringbone wall decoration at Great Zimbabwe, which at this late date has been reduced to four rocks placed diagonally on each other) it was time for lunch. I was gonna eat lunch on-site, but the cafe is lacking, so I went to the hotel for lunch and then ventured back down to the monument. I took another look at the Great Enclosure and the Valley Enclosures, and then a little past 1400 called it a day. The rest of the day was spent in the lodge room relaxing which has been very relaxing, as you would expect relaxing to be.

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View of Lake Mutirikwe from the summit.

In summary for Great Zimbabwe, the site is stunning and should get more tourist attention. I was only really aware of the Great Enclosure before I actually visited the site, and while that is impressive (largest native stone structure in Africa south of the Sahara) I wasn’t aware of the whole city and civilization surrounding the site. The place would have been absolutely magnificent to see at its peak and I only wish there was a way I could really get a glimpse of that.

Zimbabwe Part 1

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Rainbow Towers Hotel

Once you finish your Peace Corps service, the thing to do is to go on an epic COS (Close of Service) trip. A lot of my fellow cohort decided to go on trips to places like Thailand or Europe, but I figured while I was in Africa I should see Africa. The #1 thing I had wanted to see during my time in the Peace Corps was Great Zimbabwe, which is a stone city constructed in the heart of southern Africa, and is the namesake of the country of Zimbabwe. When I got to Zambia I was distressed to discover that the Peace Corps forbade me from visiting Zimbabwe, which goes to show how much research I did on southern Africa before signing up for the Peace Corps. But being just a regular Joe (a rare state for me over the past decade or so), I was finally able to go.

Frankly I wasn’t sure what to expect of Zimbabwe. I had been following them relatively closely in the news over the past two years and frankly the news coming out of the place isn’t great. Plus I mean it’s apparently bad enough that they’ll ban Peace Corps volunteers from going there, and other people I knew hesitated to go there because they were “dragging pink noses out of cars” (according to these people). So I landed in the Harare airport and it was… great! I remember the airport being super nice. Zambia is working on a new airport, and has been for years, and it looks like it’s going to be nice, but the current one isn’t great. So Zimbabwe was an upgrade. I got my visa and then went super smooth and I went outside and there was a whole fleet of very nice airport taxis with great customer service who I didn’t have to haggle with to get a fair price. The taxi took me to the hotel I had booked online, Rainbow Towers, and that was super nice! I mean, it was $80/night, and if I had paid 800 kwatcha in Zambia for a hotel I would expect it to be nice, but I never stayed in 800 kwatcha hotel rooms in Zambia and it was jarringly fancy for me. They have concierges and everything. The biggest thing that tripped me up was all the prices being in dollars. A guy took my bag up and I tipped him $2, which I thought of as nothing, and it kinda is, but 20 kwatcha in Zambia is real money you know?

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Almost as soon as I got settled I head out of the hotel to go to the National Museum of Zimbabwe. It’s literally right next to the Rainbow Towers Hotel (I could see it from my hotel room window) and since it was like all of two in the afternoon I went over to check it out, even splurging the extra $5 to be able to take pictures to bring you the beautiful photos here. It’s a pretty nice little museum with some well-done displays (at least one had “Zimbabwe” somewhat crudely taped over what I assume was “Rhodesia”). Lots of stuff on the local animals but I was more interested in the cultural displays on the Shona people, Great Zimbambwe, and these cool “pit” villages I hadn’t heard of before (the pit is for keeping goats and sheep, apparently). I wound up spending about an hour in there just marveling at being in Zimbabwe.

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This guy remembered to get lunch.

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Some sweet Shona artifacts.

After that I set off for some food because I had skipped lunch. I wound up in a Foodmart or something that was like, way way way more crowded and intense than ShopRite ever was on its worse day. But I didn’t mind because the cashiers seemed like they were really working hard to keep everything moving. I think I caught like, all of Harare on their lunch hour based on the rush there and in the takeout shops. I eventually got a meat pie and some chips and was very satisfied. I spent the rest of the afternoon at the hotel trying to figure out how to best get to Masvingo the next day. Every taxi driver I met along with the concierge in the lobby was trying to convince me to take a taxi all the way there. This would have been $300, and the offer was kind of attractive, but according to the internet the bus was $8 and a delta of $292 was not to be shaken off lightly. I eventually went to bed without the problem fully resolved but being pretty amazed at Zimbabwe. The exact line I put in my journal was: Harare has been really cool so far and a lot different than I expected (I guess I expected Lusaka, but less democratic?) so I am excited to see what it is like getting to Great Zimbabwe tomorrow. Hopefully it is smooth, ya know?

The next morning the goal was to make it to Masvingo, where I hoped I had a hotel reservation. I got ready and went down to the lobby at about 0630, and the concierge recognized me from the afternoon before when I was asking about getting to Masvingo. He got the hotel chauffeur to drive me to the Masvingo bus, and that lady was super awesome! She first took me into town to exchange some US dollars in Bond dollars. Zimbabwe, in an effort to curb inflation, switched their official currency to the US dollar. This precludes them from printing money, so to get around that they introduced the bond dollar, which I guess is supposed to be worth the same as the US dollar. So $1 USD should equal $1 bond. The actual exchange rate is more like $4 bond to $1 USD. After getting some cash the chauffeur drove me to the roundabout with the bus, talked to the conductor for me, and put me on the bus.

Everything went perfect! The bus was standing room only, and I was standing, but I didn’t care because I was on an adventure! But yeesh they pack those things to the gills in Zimbabwe. This was a big passenger bus, but it seems in Zimbabwe they treat these busses like they treat minibusses in Zambia; they pack them absolutely full, only leave when they are full, and although I didn’t see the top of our bus other busses on the highway also had huge stacks of luggage on top. The trip to Masvingo was only $20 bond though, and frankly that is helluva good price. Along the way the bus played music videos featuring girls in bikinis, a major change from Zambia’s gospel music featuring people gently swaying back and forth wearing too-short ties. They also played a really old nature documentary which I guess was educational, but I spent most of the time staring out the window at the changing landscape.

When we finally got to Masvingo I got off the bus and got a taxi driver. Before we could pile into the cab the bus driver called us over and gave my taxi driver a stern talking-to to treat me right. Talk about service! The taxi driver, for the record, did a great job and the ride was great and the hotel, the Great Zimbabwe Hotel, was fantastic! I can barely relay how excited I was that everything was going smoothly, everyone was friendly, and I had made it to Great Zimbabwe with absolutely no hiccups. As I was checking into the Great Zimbabwe Hotel, I looked at the photos in their lobby of pictures of visits to the hotel by Princess Diana, Queen Elizabeth, and Nelson Mandela, which is a pretty favorable array of clients. The lady that showed me to my room warned me to be careful, though, of opening the windows because monkeys will break in and eat everything.

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The absolutely great Great Zimbabwe Hotel

Things I Learned in the Peace Corps, Part II

I’m not religious, but the Quran describes heaven as a place of gardens and flowing water.

I have gained a whole lot of perspective on how to evaluate the effectiveness of aid. It’s really easy to poo-poo the whole aid business, and point to all the failures, but the biggest thing I probably learned is that most aid projects are going to fail no matter what. I think the aid business (or at least people with Big Ideas and Deep Thoughts about the Business of Aid) are looking for the magic bullet aid project, one that will work every single time, but that is impossible. As an agriculture extension agent, the best lens to view our projects is as new business ventures. Even if the goal of a particular project isn’t a cash crop, I think of them as having business implications. If I ask a maize farmer to grow some orange sweet potatoes so his kids can get vitamin A, I’m asking him to divert time away from maize (where he makes his money) and invest time in these potatoes, and hopefully the payoff (in the form of his kids health or food security) from the potatoes is worth his time and effort, or at least more than the money he lost from growing less maize (and, hopefully it wasn’t cheaper to just buy those same potatoes from some other farmer with the money he would have made from the maize) (I’m sorry for all the parenthesis). If I ask a farmer to dig a fish pond, I’m asking him to spend money buying fingerlings, and hopefully some predator or disaster doesn’t kill all the fish (and lose the farmer his time and money) before he can eat or sell them. So once you realize a lot of these aid projects are businesses, you then have to remember that most businesses fail. This is true even in the best of circumstances, and subsistence farmers are not in the best of circumstances. So if you have a project where you try to convince ten farmers to plant fruit trees and two of them stick with it, it’s easy to mock your 80% failure rate, but it is probably more accurate to applaud your 20% success rate.

I also learned it is really important to frame your definition of success properly. Let’s say you give a farmer a couple of goats and teach him some stuff about animal husbandry. You leave and the farmer does great. He breeds his goats and increases his flock and starts making money. He feeds his family and sends his children to school. He buys a TV but it is kinda cheap and it breaks a year later, but whatever, he’s pretty successful. Then in year four his kid gets cancer, and the only way he can pay for his kid’s medical bills is to sell off his whole herd of goats. To make it a happy story, the kid survives. But then you come back in year five to evaluate the long-term effects of your goat project. He invites you into his hut and you ask him where his goats are, and he says he sold them all. You notice his busted television and you conclude he wasted your kindness by selling the couple of goats you gave him for some quick cash to buy a cheap television. So is that guy a failure because obviously giving a guy some goats isn’t a sustainable project five years down the road, or is it a roaring success story because he fed his family for four years, sent his children to school for four years, and saved his kid from cancer, all for the price to you of three or four measly goats?

I learned that aid takes time. One notable thing about the Peace Corps is that we’re here for two years. When you come in you’re supposed to make sure your life is in order so you can dedicate a whole two years of your life to living and working with the same relatively small group of people. Two whole years! But two years is all of two rainy seasons which is all of two growing seasons. Take my orange sweet potatoes project. I’m a huge orange sweet potato fan. I showed up in the village in May. A few months later I went to an orange sweet potato workshop and learned all about ’em. I came back to my village and my host dad and I spent a growing season figuring out this whole potato thing and increasing our seed stock. Then this growing season we started giving out some seed to some more farmers. So when I leave at the end of my service, after two years of potato efforts, I’ll be able to point to five or six farmers who have planted a small field or two of potatoes. I know, from being here, that’s a pretty decent accomplishment, but if I had come here to start the Orange Sweet Potato Revolution, spreading the Gospel of Orange Sweet Potatoes throughout the land, that’d be a pretty dismal failure. I’m not even sure those farmers will stick with it next year. But maybe next fall, now that people have seen those farmers grow potatoes, there is plenty of seed stock, and people have developed a taste for orange sweet potatoes, there will be a hundred farmers growing them, and maybe a few years after that they’ll have replaced white sweet potatoes entirely and no one will ever suffer a vitamin A deficiency again. But I will never know because I won’t be here, and if I had to re-apply for grant funding or something after two years, maybe those grant people would put their cash elsewhere. It takes a few years to change the world.

I learned that to see the benefits of aid you sometimes have to look in unexpected places. This I think about mostly in the context of Peace Corps volunteers not thinking they have an impact. Your impact can be in a lot of subtle ways. At my own site, my host dad kept coming up with and asking me about ideas he had to improve the integration in his garden. I was pretty stoked he was implementing all these things. Finally one day at lunch I discovered that he had a copy of the Integration Manual that the previous volunteer had left behind. If it weren’t for the previous volunteer, my host dad never would have had access to this whole wealth of ideas to improve his garden, but the previous volunteer had no idea she was still having an effect. I hate unsourced aid stories, but I heard of one village that had really good dental hygeine. This stunned the clinic workers, because the surrounding villages just weren’t at the same level. It turns out that years previously, they had a Peace Corps Volunteer that brushed his teeth twice a day, which the villagers could see because the volunteer was brushing his teeth outside. He never talked to the villagers about it, they never asked him about it, but the whole village started brushing their teeth twice a day because they saw the volunteer doing it. So that volunteer had a years-long health impact on the village and he had no idea. When I went to Camp GLOW (empowerment lessons for girls), we partnered with a local Zambian organization that has programs for girls. One of their trainers got her start when she herself went to a GLOW camp when she was a teenager. So years later she was there working to pass those same lessons she learned onto more and more girls every year, which might not have ever happened if some volunteer hadn’t taken her to a GLOW camp. There are a lot more stories like that if you look, and they all demonstrate long-term, positive effects of aid and of individual volunteers that no one is going to think to measure for until you start looking for stories. I learned that aid can matter a lot, even if the number of fish ponds you manage to get dug is pretty small.

There is probably nothing I learned in the Peace Corps I couldn’t technically have learned out of a book or from some aid worker’s blog posts. But after 27 months of living and working on the ground in a developing country, right next to the people who need help the most, I have gained the perspectives I think are vital to really understand the problems people face and to ask the right questions for the world’s challenges.

Things I Learned in the Peace Corps, Part I

By the time this is published my Peace Corps service will have come to a close. I quit a $130,000/year (plus benefits! and equity!) job to come out here and work for free and it has been worth it. Of the Peace Corps’ three goals, only one of them is actually about providing technical help to countries in need, and the other two are about learning about people and culture. So here are my thoughts about what I learned (stretched out over two posts to cover the weeks I’m on COS trip; whoo COS trip!)

I of course learned a great deal about Zambia and by extension Sub-Saharan Africa. Maybe I shouldn’t say “of course” because so much of the history of this area is poorly documented, or the connections are poorly explained, or both, and learning about the history and culture of this place takes a special effort. It’s really easy to live here for two years and never ask why things are the way they are. I am especially glad I wound up living in the Mbala region, because there are so many different things here to lead you down rabbit holes of history and culture. It was a quick mention of the SS Good News that lead me to learn all about the London Missionary Society, the Stevenson Road, and how and why colonialism came to Northern Zambia. Poking around more leads you to the slave trade, and the revelation about how much the slave trade affected so many different aspects of culture and the distribution of people, even this far from the coasts. These days I tend to think that instead of turtles all the way down, it’s the slave trade, linking everything from the Bantu migration to the modern-day borders of Zambia and Tanzania. That’s a history that is hard to find until you look. I also love the pre-history of this place, reaching all the way back to man’s earliest uses of fire, and I love to think about the unbroken chain of people all living in this very spot.

In the modern-day, it is fascinating to catch glimpses into a national psyche that both prides itself on being a Peaceful Nation (how different is that from the American ethos?) while also being proud of their history of supporting the freedom struggles of other Southern African countries. Every time I go down to Lusaka, I pass the bombed-out Chambeshi Bridge which attests to the pain Zambia has felt for helping others throw off the chains of colonialism. Like all cultures, Zambia can be a mix of contradictions, both declaring itself to be a Christian Nation while having people sue each other over witchcraft in the courts, or watching the country reconcile pride in tribes and traditions while also being One Zambia, One Nation. Seeing what goes on in Zambia also gives insights into American culture, because a lot of the things an American might find distasteful about Zambia, from a lack of infrastructure to child marriage, weren’t all that weird in America not so long ago. Living in a foreign culture can do a whole lot to put your own in perspective.

The most significant parts of what I learned in the Peace Corps is really just an actual understanding of things that maybe I knew beforehand only intellectually. Before I came to Zambia I was aware that people lived on $1/day (I guess the more modern definition of “extreme poverty” is actually $1.90/day, adjusted for purchasing power parity) but I didn’t really know what that meant. Now I know what it is actually like to cook on a brazier. I know what it is like to get all your water from a stream that may or may not be muddy any given day, and is the same stream where people wash their clothes and small children. I know how much effort and time it takes to hoe ridges, plant the seeds, and spend a rainy season weeding to get the same amount of beans that sells for a few dollars at the market. I know how much it sucks to walk three hours to town only to be told to come back tomorrow and hike three hours back in the equatorial sun. Early on in service I found plans for a “low-cost” solar dryer that was supposed to only need $10 worth of parts. Now I know asking a guy to build that could be the same thing as asking him to not send his kid to school for the next year.

One thing I learned that is especially hard to glean from just numbers is the impact of infrastructure and its secondary effects. I think about the schools in Zambia a lot. Around me there are three schools, and none of them have water or electricity. They are all located 10-20 kilometers away from the nearest “big” town (Mbala) down dirt roads that can be downright treacherous in the rainy season. Besides the obvious difficulties of teaching subjects like “computers” in a school without electricity, the most insidious effect I think is how hard it is to retain teachers. Qualified teachers are, by definition, people who have gone to college and are used to Big City Living. Even if they grew up in a village, most don’t want to go back to living in a place where they fetch water from a stream. So the schools can’t retain teachers; as soon as they can, the teachers leave for jobs in town. This diminishes the quality of education these kids could possibly receive, all else being equal, and means it is impossible to maintain clubs or other empowerment projects long-term. Even things like administrative tasks are made harder. At a nearby school I have worked at, there is one government teacher (the rest are volunteer teachers from the community). Whenever he needs to do basic admin tasks, like print out tests, he has to go to the school board office in town, which means he has to spend the whole day there and the students are deprived of the one person at the school actually qualified to teach. Living here I have seen how the lack of infrastructure contributes to a cycle of illiteracy and poverty that would have been hard to understand if I had never witnessed it for myself, first-hand.