Edmund Rice England - Presence . Compassion . Liberation

Zambia 2011

International Spirituality Centre (ISC) in Zambia, run by the Christian Brothers in partnership with the Presentation Sisters, offers an Immersion Retreat that has become well-known around the global Edmund Rice community. One of the participants in this year’s Easter Immersion (16-29 April 2011) looks back at her experience and its unfolding value.

“Life is a lottery. Our fates depend on where we are born. Other people’s situation could just as easily have been ours. I learnt this when I was lucky enough to visit Zambia for a two-week immersion as part of a global group of people who work in Christian Brothers’ schools. I was so excited to be part of this, and I really had a feeling deep down that I would experience something life-changing. I welcome you to share my journey with me, as I draw upon words from the journal I kept and the memories stored in my heart.

Arriving in Lusaka, we had a wonderful and warm welcome from all at the ISC and got to know a bit about what lay in store for us. It soon felt like a home-from-home and I couldn’t wait to get out and about. During the first day we had a whistle-stop tour of the city. At first glimpse it looked surprisingly westernized as we passed the shopping-malls, the more affluent areas, and the President’s house. The locals were happy to see visitors, waving and wanting to chat. They are so proud of their country and the independence they gained in 1964. Even now, 47 years on, there is a celebratory vibe amongst the people. Proud is a word that leaps to mind when I think of Zambian people now. To be so proud of your country, home, and faith, when you have so little, is something we could all learn from.

On travelling further through Lusaka, the contrast in life and lifestyles became crystal-clear. We drove along a busy road, jam-packed with stalls and sellers. In the middle of that road sat an elderly man, yellow with dust. He was vacant, hopeless. Everyone has a story and I wondered what his was, what had brought him here to this spot. What was he thinking when everyone drove past and did nothing? …when we drove past and did nothing? That evening I wondered about him, how his day ended. Did anyone help, or did someone take advantage? The thought of living out each day like that fills most of us with dread and horror. Yet sadly, for millions it is the way of life.

Zambian children and young people have a passion for learning. They crave it. Some can only dream of going to school. In western society our teenagers don’t realise how lucky they are to have so much given to them. In Lusaka’s “Home of Joy” orphanage, this love of learning was apparent. The girls here are aged between 4 and 18 and are what is known as ‘double orphans’; this means they have lost both parents. The girls are looked after and housed in groups with House Mothers. These women are heroes to me. They give up their lives to look after these girls. Some have found themselves here through their own tragic stories, yet they continue to love and care for others. The girls themselves are rays of sunshine – polite, happy, and very keen to show us what they are learning. When they get back from school each day, they are tutored in house-skills, arts, clothes-making, use of a library, etc. I truly believe that in this place, out of tragedy comes hope and the real possibility of a future.

Where there is hope, there is also despair. This feeling came strongly to the group when we visited a school within a compound. Once again the children were wonderful. However there was a dark side to this school: corruption. What frustrated me most is that someone can take from the vulnerable. The teachers at this school had not been paid for a year – they live in squalor within the compound. They beg their employer to get money for food. If this happened in any other society, there would be outrage; so why is it allowed here? Because no one feels they can speak up, because they know it won’t make a difference when the law may well be on the side of the culprit? Money certainly talks. They cannot leave their jobs as there are no others, and if they leave they feel they will never get what is owed to them, and there are others who would gladly take their place. The children’s families are paying their school fees. The owner feeds himself. You could mistake him for a politician by the way that he avoided directly answering any questions when we were invited for a chat. Words cannot express the feelings of anger and injustice experienced that day. I felt truly helpless. We did what little we could by giving the children some sweets and pencils, but that is half-a-drop in a huge ocean. Still, for a short time they were able to smile and laugh with us, and leave us with that happy memory. The children took us round the compound to their homes, holding our hands and treating us with care and wonder. At one point we were mobbed by children wanting to see their own faces in our cameras! Again, people are so happy with so little.

Probably the most dominant thing about Zambia is AIDS. There are an estimated 1 million Zambians infected with the disease. There are programmes in place to help but infection is on the rise. Approximately 45 000 people die of the infection each year and again that’s rising. The Government of the Republic of Zambia have prioritised making ART (anti-retroviral treatment) available to those who need it, and there are around 200 000 people who are currently using the drugs. However that’s far from enough and there are many obstructions to getting the drugs, mainly cost, logistics, and stigma. An awful lot of people will not admit to having HIV/AIDS as they lose jobs, homes, and even their families. This is a huge problem and it enables the disease to spread.

Some 690 000 children are orphaned by AIDS, we were told. Children are abandoned regularly, and the parents continue to have children and spread this deadly virus. We experienced this first-hand when we visited the Mother Teresa hospice/hospital. So many people here had HIV/AIDS. That was heart-breaking. We visited the adult wards and were welcomed, the women singing loudly and shaking our hands. We visited the children who, craving cuddles and love, clung on to us for as long as we could hold them. Some of the children were here due to neglect, and sadly the scars were obvious. Then came the babies – tiny, abandoned, and very sick.

That’s when I met the little girl in pink. She was unnamed and the staff were not going to name her because she wasn’t long for this life. I felt that was wrong – she deserved a name. I picked her up for a cuddle. As young as she was, she had given up, her body limp. Still she tried to snuggle her face into me. She must have passed away by now, but I hope that with that cuddle she felt some love in her short life, over before it even had a chance to start. Again I felt upset and frustration. These children don’t deserve this. It’s the fault of those who let the stigma grow and the virus spread. Times are changing, but so much damage has been done and the seed is well and truly sown.

My time in Zambia was truly the most amazing experience of my life to date. I have never known such highs and lows. It truly is a beautiful land, and I was overwhelmed by the friendliness and pride of the people. Some of the experiences were so harrowing, there was many a tear. But I needed to go through it, to feel it. At the end of our Immersion visit, we got the chance to visit Livingstone and the Victoria Falls, where the fierce beauty – and the bungee-jumping! – captured the intensity of the experience.

What have I gained? I have changed my attitude towards so much. I have always thought “you only live once so make the best of it”, but nowadays I don’t just think it; I live it. I have learnt that hope means so much and it really does get people through tough times. More than ever, I have learnt to live, love, and laugh, tackle whatever comes my way, and make sure I become the best I can be. I will take risks if I need to. I hope to regret nothing. I am stronger for my time in Africa, and I hope that anyone who gets the chance to visit will really embrace it.

I boarded the plane for home with a tear in my eye and a promise to return. I feel that part of me will remain there in the heart of Africa.

Gillian Ashton
College Librarian, St Anselm’s, UK


Prayer of Thanks for Blessed Edmund Rice

O God, we thank you for the life of Edmund Rice.
He opened his heart to Christ present in those oppressed by poverty and injustice.
May we follow his example of faith and generosity.
Grant us the courage and compassion of Edmund as we seek to live lives of love and service.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.