After a holiday in South Africa
with a friend I had just 2 weeks additional holiday from work to devote to a voluntary
project so I was very happy to discover the Travellers website and the possibility
of being able to teach in a community school in Livingstone, Zambia.
Travellers provided the infrastructure, safe accommodation and very friendly UK
local staff that made the difference, especially to someone like myself travelling
on their own.
I particularly wanted to visit Zambia, where I had lived as a child and teenager
but had not returned for 30 years, but it was too personal a journey just to go
there as an ordinary tourist so carrying out voluntary work in the community seemed
the ideal solution.
Despite my long absence from Zambia, after 30 years it all still seemed very familiar
when I stepped off the plane at Livingstone airport. I think this familiarity with
the country, the culture and the customs made my short project time much more productive
and meaningful as I did not have to spend a long time adapting.
Livingstone is a small town with a colonial feel due to its main street of single
storey buildings dating from the early 1900s and the Victoria Falls and surrounding
area with all the activities on offer, makes it an ideal place for discovering Zambia
and its people. The backpackers accommodation hostel offered a great central situation
- safe, comfortable, good food and welcoming and an ideal place for meeting other
tourists and volunteers, as well as having its own centre on-site for organising
trips and activities.
During my 2 week stay, I took the opportunity to visit the capital city Lusaka (where
I had lived with my family) for the weekend for a trip down memory lane and also
managed to do a few activities and tours in my free time in the Livingstone area.
Lameck (the local friendly face of Travellers in Livingstone) provided an excellent
walk-about induction tour of Livingstone on my first day, pointing out places of
local interest, providing essential information and advice and, as a retired headmaster
of a school in Livingstone, seemed to be known by everyone as we walked about. Having
such a wise and knowledgeable person on hand to help made integration into the local
community so much easier.
I carried out my project at the Community School which, just before my arrival,
been undergoing some renovation and building works as it had previously been a community
centre and now was being used as a school. This work had been made possible by a
combination of local funding and donations from a Norwegian aid organisation and
an Irish school. I did not see any photos of the hall and rooms before renovation
but I understand they had been in a pretty poor and basic state and that the roof
had needed replacing.
I learned that the community schools in Zambia play a vital role in providing education
to those children that are excluded from attending government schools because their
parents or guardians cannot afford to pay the fees or buy them school books or uniforms,
or because they are orphans, many of their parents having died of Aids-related illnesses.
Some of the children had missed years of schooling, for example to look after younger
brothers or sisters, and so this meant that many teenagers had not had the opportunity
to complete primary education.
At this School, according to the head teacher Cathy, the only compulsory requirement
(apart from there being enough places) was that the children had to wear clothes
to school! The Zambian government does provide some funding to the school but they
are never sure how much they will have for each school year, and when I was there
for the beginning of the school year the only staff member that was currently being
paid was the head teacher. The other teachers are all local Zambian volunteers who
are very keen and dedicated but also suffering personal hardships due to not receiving
I believe that the time I spent discussing issues, supporting and encouraging the
teachers at the school was as useful, rewarding and appreciated as the time I spent
with the pupils.
After a few days’ delay due to the finishing of the renovation works and the official
handing over ceremony of the school to the community by the Deputy Mayor of Livingstone,
the new term and school year started. The school covers the primary classes of grades
1 to 7 and also has a nursery class, but due to some children having missed out
on some of their schooling, the actual ages of the pupils ranged from 5 to 17.
When it is possible for the children and voluntary teachers to return in the afternoon,
sports are organised. Most of the children are keen to do sport - football and netball
being the most popular - and there are tournaments organised between the different
schools in the area. This was my first experience of teaching in a school and although
I was a bit apprehensive, in fact everything went fine and I enjoyed the challenge
of being creative and innovative in a classroom and school with limited resources.
The children have generally a good level of English but do not have the opportunity
to practice speaking with native speakers. I found patience and lots of encouragement
worked, especially if some fun elements were added to the lesson. I told them about
my British culture, my home and work in France, Europe and the other continents
I’d visited, and invited them to share their country and culture with me. They were
very interested in the fact that I had lived in Zambia as a child and gone to primary
school in Lusaka.
As I live and work in France, the head teacher Cathy asked me if I would be prepared
to teach some basic French to the older children and also to some of the teachers
that were interested so I gave a few lessons and was very impressed how quickly
some of them picked up the basic greetings, numbers etc. I was happy to be greeted
in the morning by some of my students with a cheerful “Bonjour, comment ça va ?”!
I said I would try to find a beginners French language textbook and CD/cassette
to send to them so that they could continue learning after I’d left.
Singing was very popular with the children (I had quite a few occasions to listen
to them performing), so when I noticed the French lesson was getting a bit too difficult
for some of them to follow, I taught them the English and French versions of Frère
Jacques which seemed to go down well and they could all join in.
The children were very enthusiastic about learning and obtaining an education which
was refreshing to see, coming from Europe where we take our right to education for
granted. They also had a long and sometimes difficult walk just to get to school
every day – I had walked with the head teacher one day to the village where most
of them lived just to see the conditions they were living in and to give me an idea
of their situation and how it might affect their performance in the classroom.
It took us about 45 minutes to walk to the village along dirt roads, and after a
heavy rainstorm on the way back it took us an extra half an hour squelching through
mud! Sometimes, in the rainy season if the water is too high in the river, the
children cannot get to school because the one small bridge they have to use is covered
Most of the families are living in small one room mud huts, with parents if they’re
lucky, maybe with a grandmother looking after several grandchildren whose parents
have died. The school sometimes has boy orphans staying in the hall if there is
no one to look after them in their village. The living conditions for many in the
village are very basic - one poor woman we visited was surviving with her children
under a plastic sheet shelter that had been hastily put up because her mud hut had
just collapsed. Even under all these very difficult conditions, we received such
a warm and hospitable welcome and thanks for the work we were doing to educate the
The Community School does in fact do more than educate the children, there is a
social work aspect that the head teacher and teachers have taken upon themselves
to carry out, to make sure that the vulnerable children have basic food, security
and shelter, and it is very humbling to see this, coming as a foreign volunteer
who has access to so many opportunities in my own country. The steady reliable funding
is not there however from the government, and one extremely vital project they hope
will happen soon is to have chemical latrines built as at present they only have
2 toilets for all the pupils and staff and they have to carry water in buckets to
flush the toilets and for hand washing as they do not have the funds for connecting
to the mains supply and paying the water bills.
Given the campaigns the government were running about prevention of cholera when
I was there, there was no monetary support given to the community schools to allow
them to implement the procedures so the teachers were doing their best with disinfectant,
buckets, soap and water.
During the two weeks I was in Livingstone, two funerals were held in the community,
one for a pupil of the school who I understand had died of an aids-related illness,
and one for two local boys from another school who had been tragically killed after
being out on a bicycle in a thunderstorm and struck by lightning near the railway
line. These tragedies brought home to me the reality of the life of many people
in Africa and the fact that at present the average life expectancy in many African
countries is less than 40 years old. It did make me reflect on my own attitude to
my 50th birthday coming up at the beginning of next year and I think I will adopt
the African positive attitude of appreciating and enjoying each day and on my 50th
birthday celebrating that I have had the good fortune to reach such a “wise” old
age and had such a fantastic journey on the way!
I would like to return to Zambia and the Community School in the not too distant
future when I am able to take some unpaid leave from my work in France and possibly
go there for a whole school term. To start to prepare for this I have decided to
enroll on the TEFL weekend course in London through TEFL time, followed by the distance
learning course with the aim of finishing the qualification by the end of this year.
I will then look forward to putting those teaching skills into practice.
Can you describe a typical day?
► 6.00am – Get up, shower and have breakfast.
► 7.15 am – Robert, the driver, picks up myself and the other volunteer Hamish (coaching
sports at another Livingstone school) to drop us off at our respective schools.
► 8.00 am – The pupils who’ve arrived early have cleaned and tidied the classrooms
and the hall and Assembly is then held. The children line up by class in the hall,
the national anthem and usually a hymn or gospel song is sung, followed by a motivational
talk from the head teacher or one of the other teachers.
► 8.15 am – The children split into their different classes, 3 classes have to be
held in the hall, as there are only 4 classrooms, so it is quite a challenge concentrating
with 3 different lessons going on at the same time.
► 10.00 am – 10.15 am Break. When they have sufficient funding the school also
provides porridge for the children who may not have had anything to eat before coming
to school and may have very little to eat the rest of the day.
► 1.00 pm approximately - Classes finish for the day.