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Zambia has stolen my Heart

"In Zambia I got to know many people; from school children to cooks to directors." Gordon Merk reports on his time in Zambia.

Having heard, seen and read a lot about our charity’s work and my parents’ endless efforts in Linda Compound, near the capital city of Lusaka, I went with great expectations, on the one hand, and with an open heart and mind, on the other, to just see it for myself and ‘take it all in,’ as my mother said I should. My first trip should have been back in 2018, yet was postponed several times due to travel restrictions. It was a long wait but totally worth it. Looking back at these last weeks, I wouldn’t have missed it for anything!

After a long journey, including an 11-hour lay-over at Dubai Airport on a less-than-comfortable ‘sleeping’ chair, I felt surprisingly good the next morning. I guess the strong cup of tea helped. Martin Meredith’s The State of Africa was my companion on the journey. I had previously started reading Thomas Pakenham’s The Scramble for Africa, but preferred reading about Africa’s independence rather than Europe’s colonialism…

In Dubai I met up with two good friends who joined our mission trip: Samuel (aka Sam ‘the Man’) and Erich (aka Enrico). Both in their mid-sixties, these lovely guys gave their time and resources to serve the wonderful kids and staff of FCTrelief Zambia Foundation.

A testimony to fortitude

From the start, my parents gave me a good introduction into the work. We had a great youth meeting with lovely African songs that really touched my heart. I got to know these young people about whom I had already heard so many exciting things. Getting to know them, sitting in class with them, playing football (or trying to!) and card games, and just talking to them was wonderful.

Learning more about their circumstances was heart-breaking, yet admirable in terms of how they’re handling it. Meredith was spot on when he wrote about how ‘impressed’ he was with the ‘resilience and humour with which ordinary Africans confront their many adversities,’ which is a ‘testimony to their fortitude.’ These kids impressed me a lot and I understood once more what Meredith meant.

The first week, my parents took me on a trip to visit some of our students in higher education: two at Evelyn Hone College and two of our nurses-in-training at Makeni School of Nursing. It was an insight to be on campus and see the circumstances first hand. Education is key to getting people out of poverty, as is well known, yet finding a job after university isn’t easy in Zambia. Much needs still to be done, yet things are in progress.

We also met a young medicine student, called Alex. He showed us the prestigious University of Zambia and we drove him to one of their external campuses where he was already busy dissecting dead bodies – truly, hands-on training! Alex is very determined to make his life a success story and serve many people in the future through medicine.

My parents then also took me to the Chikupi Vocational Training Center not too far from our charity base. For years a Swiss couple had been running and up-grading the school, where young men and women can learn several vital professional skills: welding, electrics, brick-laying, tailoring or agriculture. The standard there was impressive, the staff very good and the set-up professional. The Zambian director shared how important it is to learn a profession, a practical skill, so one can earn money. This as an alternative to going to university for many years and then having no job security. There are thousands of educated Zambians waiting for a decent job. It was an interesting perspective to hear and consider.

FCTrelief appreciates the good practical partnership with that training center as our children are taught in hard work, honesty and punctuality as are their students. Our recommendations for candidates there are greatly valued as they’ve seen the quality students moving on from FCTrelief.

Getting to the heart of the "plot"

The most exciting part of my introductory ‘tour’ was, of course, our own charity base. The ‘plot,’ as they call it, is situated at the beginning of one end of Linda Compound. Driving through the large gate and entering the yard I had seen on photos, felt like ‘coming home.’ It felt like ‘I belong here.’ It was a lovely experience; one I had anticipated for several years. Finally meeting the teachers I had had the privilege of educating online during lock-down, plus the two new teachers was encouraging and gave a sense of familiarity. We certainly have a good team in place!

I spent a lot of time attending the tuition we offer to these vulnerable children whom we help to improve their school performance. The results speak for the quality of education we offer. Over half of the Zambian population is under the age of 15, yet only about a third finish grade 9, and even fewer grade 12. Without grade 12 one cannot even get a job at the till in the supermarket! It’s vital that we continue to help our kids pass that hurdle. After that, some go on to higher education at universities or colleges, or there are vocational skill training opportunities, a skill that can carve out a modest living and one to build a future on.

A vital part of the values we communicate is encouraging that future perspective in them so they’re motivated to put in the hard work and strive towards a better tomorrow despite the tremendous obstacles they’re facing – considering they’re only young and mostly without a proper family support network. These kids are truly heroic! Every effort we are making for them is worth it and brings good results. More and more of our kids are having outstanding school performance results and get rewarded for it.

A Swiss couple, Irene and Reto, stopped by on their Africa holiday to see the work first-hand – they too enjoyed it and left with a heart filled with happiness.

Zambia's history - an African con

During the second week of my visit, we had friends from South Africa coming over to give advice regarding our farm. Having been to South Africa seven times since 1997, Zambia is different in several ways. The South Africans themselves witness to how different the Zambians are, how peaceful and polite, for example. Both the transition to colonisation (1896–1924) and the one to independence (1962–64) were peaceful in Zambia. This is exceptional indeed. Before the global oil crisis of the 1970s, Zambia’s 4 million citizens were considered middle-income. Colonial Britain had left the nation’s economy in a good condition. Yet the fall of the price of copper (Zambia’s main export) during the oil crisis hit the nation hard and eventually degraded it to the 25th poorest country in the world by the mid-90s, with around 80% of Zambians suffering severe poverty. Given the strong population growth, just under 20 million today, things have been slow in improving. The rise of the copper price since 2004 and increase in mining has not yet benefitted the communities much. A large national debt and vast unemployment are still serious challenges to this aspiring nation. Yet people are generally hopeful that the new government is working for their wellbeing. Zambia has tremendous natural resources that need to be utilised properly for the benefit of the country.

Zambia is special. The people are mostly happy despite their daily hardships. Our kids are especially grateful for everything they receive – love, care, encouragement, security, education, food, and occasionally treats. Their modesty touched my heart. Their joy over something small that we often take for granted, was impressive. There is so much we can learn from these precious children and youth. It has been such a privilege and blessing to me that I had the opportunity to be there, get to know them and encourage and inspire them in some ways. I wanted them to know that they are special and that they can really have a better future if they use the given opportunities well. As I explained by way of illustration, life is like a card game: you can’t choose the cards dealt to you, but you can choose how you play them! Even if one has a bad hand, one can still win the game if the cards are played smartly.

Hard Work Rewarded

As mentioned above, our team of teachers we have in place is great. They do their work with love and dedication, with a genuine heart for these precious children. The personal touch they add to their work was inspiring. They too believe in our mission and that we can make a difference in the lives of vulnerable children who are up against tremendous odds. Their hard work is being rewarded by the students’ progress and success.

Speaking of hard work, I must say I was once again very impressed with my parents’ tireless efforts! Nothing seems too much for them, ever. At the age of 78 and 70 – we celebrated Dad’s birthday with the kids and staff – they have energy, drive and passion like young people. It was inspiring to see this and (trying!) to keep up with their pace! May they have many more healthy years ahead to continue to make an impact in the lives of so many people, especially children. It was such a privilege to be with them and serve alongside them.

We had a great time and all three of us parted on the way back with rich impressions and fond memories. Sam wrote after arrival in Switzerland, ‘My body has arrived home, but my mind is still in Zambia.’ I know the feeling. My wish is to have the opportunity to participate in many more such enriching and life-transforming trips.

Speaking of participation, you too can join our efforts in making a difference in the lives of precious children and impact their future! This truly is a noble cause and worthy effort. Donate if you will and support our upcoming fundraising events, such as Black Friday, Giving Tuesday and Christmas Fundraiser! Thank you for helping us serve the vulnerable, improving their lives and preparing the way for a better future. Thank you very much!


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