My Unplanned Passion
I never had any aspirations in life to work with children, teach or support them. I never wanted children and believe me if you asked me to hold a baby I would run a mile. (a puppy or a kitten is no problem at all!)
Why then did a good percentage of my life ended up devoting it to the most amazing kids I have ever seen? Fate? Coincidence? I don’t know but what I do know is that the combination of my qualifications and life skills plus the apparently maternal nature that I did not know I possessed seemed to click and I ended up living and breathing children and doing my utmost to give them the education they deserved.
It started a few days after I arrived in Zambia in my new role as a volunteer Conservation and Community Manager (supposedly 6-month career break) A knock on my door of my new house nestled in the grounds of the secondary school by a young boy who confidently introduced himself as Robert and he asked ‘who was I and what was I doing there? ‘I was getting used to such direct comments by now and no beating around the bush! I explained and he said that he would be a good person to know and Oh Yes He Was! He was my first of many ‘Sons’ and in my initial months saved me from many faux pas of being a cultural novice. He became my 15-year-old mentor and also installed my ultimate luxury of satellite TV (when I had electricity that is!)
Part of my job was managing the sponsorship of the pupils and creating opportunities for more to be sponsored. To be honest other than seeing programmes on the TV I did not actually know what sponsorship entailed both from the point of view of the children and the sponsor.
How little did I know that within a very short time the education system in Zambia a
and the benefits of sponsoring a child were to become and continue to be my specialist subject!
The benefit I had that I was living amongst the community and could see from first-hand experience how much it meant for a child to receive education.
Education in rural Zambia is was every child aspires to have and it is a privilege. Children get up before light to walk to school, risking elephants, wading through rivers with their arms held high to keep their books from getting wet at the same time taking their life in their hands as a crocodile attack could be imminent (it has happened and I have seen the casualties) No education means not even a chance of progression from the hand to mouth existence that their families have. This generation want to better themselves.
Reason why? Actually it’s not just for them but for their family – older and younger. I have never seen such a family orientated community. It puts us to shame here in the UK. If the child can be educated it is a massive knock on effect. Confidence, empowerment, qualifications equals – the ability to say No to prostitution, alcohol and other challenges and stand up and be proud and learn self-sustainment or further education.
There are pros and cons of sponsorship and if managed well and you can keep fact and feeling separate (not an easy thing believe me) you can give a child the ability to have a life they could not have dreamed of.
It’s not just education they receive by going to school but life skills which are vital. Why are they vital? Many children may have to drop out of school due to having no money to pay their fees but if they have had some years in school they will have learnt social skills, farming, gardening and practical skills that will allow them to be self-sufficient and if a girl remains in school until Grade 9 - about 14 years old they are much less likely to become pregnant as a teenager as they are emotionally stronger.
In the early days I used to wake up with a persistent knocking on my door as the word was out there was a new girl in town who could help – generally about 5.30am with one to ten children eagerly wait outside the house clutching their sponsorship letters to give to me in hope I would be able to work miracles and find them a sponsor. 95% had a genuine reason for needing help. It was so hard to say no and I learnt quickly that I could not save the world or every single one of them and to think about this logically.
Over the years I became a Mother figure for many of the children or a member of their family. The honour I had attending college pupil’s graduation ceremonies or attending the secondary schools Open Day where 80 plus of the sponsored pupils attended. It was important for them that I attended in the role of ‘the proud parent’ and what a privilege it was for me to see them being awarded prizes for the most improved student or best in class and for them to be rushing over to see me to show me their prizes. These are moments that will stay with me always.
Over the 8 years I was in Zambia I supported over 300 children/young adults though school. It was a job, a passion and a way of life. I made sure that the process of sponsorship was professional, reputable and ‘made a difference’ I ensured the children knew the value and the sacrifice some of their sponsors made in order to raise money for their education. As importantly I made sure that regular communication was given to the sponsor about the progress of the child.
It was really hard not get emotionally involved with the children and some of their stories were so heart wrenching. The majority were orphans as life expectancy in this area was below 40 years. Many of these children had to grow up fast and the elder ones had responsibilities on their shoulders looking after their siblings well beyond their years.
(Stories of individual children, their journey and antics to come!!)
Many did ‘Piece Work’ casual work as we know if to pay for their school fees. The combination did not work as they were too tired to study. Anyway after dark they could not study as there was no electricity.
The look on their faces of wonderment and joy when I told them I had found them a sponsor was something to behold and there has been or will not be a moment of job satisfaction for me ever like it again.
When I went to visit the schools where my children were it really was a proud parent moment as they would come running out of their classrooms to meet me ‘look, look, our Mum has come to see us!’ they would shout and proudly give me a guided tour of the school they now attended.
Peeking through the door of a classroom to watch one of my college students doing their teaching practise was when I could see that sponsorship was working and that student now had a future that also positively impacted their family as well
The kids saw me as a Mother Figure and it was so hard to keep my job from becoming my personal life, actually it was impossible. ‘Hi Mum, it’s me’ as I blearily picked up my phone as it rang in the middle of the night. ‘Who is me?’ I would say ‘Don’t you recognise me?’ they would say ‘no, not at 3am in the morning on the phone, and why are you calling me?’ ‘I just wanted too great you Mum as I am missing you’ between the phone calls and the elephants trying to push the door down in the house to get to my mangos it was never a restful sleep I can tell you!
It was always important to be wearing clothes as I walked from my bedroom in the morning as 9 out of 10 times there would be one of my ‘children’ waiting for me to tell me something vital that would not wait until it was actually light outside.
Sometimes they would come en masse as they had found a stray tortoise, terrapin, baby mice or an abandoned cat that they thought I might like to have. ‘Look Madam, this is a present for you’
The big highlight of the school year was in January when all of the 200 or so students (yes it took a long time!) came to see me to get their uniform allocation, shoes, exercise books, pens, pencils and an allowance for groceries. This was where my previous project management skills came into play!
The older ones were allowed to manage their own allowance and bring me the receipts to ensure what they bought was appropriate.
The little ones used to get their supplies bought for them.
It used to be quite a sight as I drove about 20 children into the village to buy shoes, toothpaste, soap, pencils and shoe polish – not to mention queuing for the Barbers for the boys to get their hair cut! Exhausting but wonderful days having a child hanging on to each finger as I only had two hands and trying to convince them that glittery shoes would not be allowed in school!
Waving the older ones off as they boarded the bus to go to their new boarding school was emotional as they had not been out of the village before and now at the age of 13 they were entering a new world of experiences. I knew it would be tough for them but I also knew that when they returned to see me in the holidays the change to their personality, confidence and outlook was immense.
3 young girls called Margret, Agnes and Ruth, joined at the hip, were accepted to a boarding school 200 miles away left the village looking too small to go, they were scared and overwhelmed. Over the next three years they blossomed into strong young women who already are role models for the girls in the community.
Job satisfaction comes in many ways and the day I overheard their conversation as they queued up outside my office to see me was one I always remember.
Conversation went like – ‘I have an idea – I know Madam Lisa is very old but when she is really old we will have good jobs and then we can afford to build her a house and every day we can go and see her and ask what she would like for dinner and we can cook for her’
That is one of the many reasons that this became my Unplanned Passion.