Understanding a lost childhood

Understanding a lost childhood

Lisa Lapina
Mwauka bwanji. (Good morning how are you?) I’m learning to speak Cinyanja, the local language found across much of Zambia. The experience of working with children in Kalikiliki has been nothing short of amazing. During this first week I tried to memorize the eighty names of all the children and just get a feel for how the community school is run. I’ve been teaching since the very first day I visited the school, and it has been really exciting. I’ve been teaching English, Math, and Environmental Science. I’ve mainly been working with the grade 1 and grade 7 classes. I’ve just completely fell in love with the children here, and I already know it’s going to be very hard to say goodbye in three weeks.

I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can about Zambia’s culture and history during my stay. After speaking with the teachers at the community school, I’ve learned there are 9 provinces in Zambia with about 73 tribes spread amongst the provinces. Where I’m located right now, just outside of the capital city of Lusaka, there is a high population of Soli people. Cinyanja is the main language in this area, but Bemba is a close second. Bemba and Cinyanja are very similar; sometimes the words are only a mere letter difference from each other. There are Bemba people in the Northern Province, but there are no “Cinyanja people.”It’s only a language.

The staple food in Zambia is called mealie meal, but once it’s cooked it’s referred to as nshima. Mealie meal is ground maize and can be found everywhere in Zambia. I had the chance to try some and the people here eat it with nearly every meal. People in the rural areas that have land to grow the maize grind it down themselves to make mealie meal. The seasons here are very different from the states being that Zambia is found in the southern hemisphere. It’s currently winter here, and the temperatures are generally around 75°F during the day and about 50°F at night. The sun shines all day and very rarely can you find overcast skies. The rainy season begins in late October/early November with the harvest occurring in May.

Daily life on the compound is so much different here than the United States. Being that Zambia is a third world country, there is generally no running water or electricity found in the homes on the compounds. Those who live on the compounds live in abject poverty and many times you find 10 or more people living in a room considerably smaller than an average sized dorm room. Due to no running water, the people get water from wells and generally have to pay for it while filling their containers.

Once I saw the well for the first time, it really is kind of horrifying to think what is actually in the water they’re drinking, because just about anything could fall into that well and they would never know what has been put in their drinking water. You often see young girls carrying water on their heads through the compound and depending on how far away the well is from their homes, the journey could take all day. The seventh grade boys showed me where the closest well is to the school, and I can’t imagine having to carry water so far every single day. Cooking without electricity is done with charcoal on braziers.

I’ve found that often little kids are running around while the cooking is being done and trip over the brazier, and in turn, end up with severe burns on their feet. A while ago a little girl actually died because she fell on top of a brazier that had hot coals on it, and after hearing so many horror stories I started looking for signs of burns on the children at WellSpring. Sure enough, once I started paying attention, I saw so many burn scars on their little hands and feet.

The culture here is very nice to learn about and experience, but it’s very hard to wrap my head around it some days. I’ve found that in the Cinyanja language there is no word for youth, teenager, or “adolescent.” I was teaching a lesson on growth of the human body to my fourth grade class and many of them have very limited English proficiency. I asked one of the teachers to translate for me as I was teaching, but it was still incredibly difficult to get through to the kids. I used pictures and diagrams, and I try to use as many hand movements as I can to explain what I am saying. I was trying to explain when you’re first born you’re called a baby, and then you grow into a child, then adolescent and finally an adult. The children looked more confused than ever trying to grasp the concept of an adolescent and for a while I could not understand why. I asked the teacher to translate the words for baby, child, adolescent/teenager, and adult for me so I could use the Cinyanja and English terms together to try and make it easier for them to understand. However, these translations lead to a big discussion with the class, because there is not an existing Cinyanja word for adolescent/youth/teenager. Their language has baby (mwana), child (mufana), and adult (mukulu).

The children here grow up so quickly it seems they really miss out on just being a child. Kids start carrying water and taking care of cooking for the family as soon as they can walk. I saw a five year old using a large knife to cut up cabbage and cooking dinner on the compound the other day. The little girls start carrying babies on their backs at such a young age and learn how to take care of a household sometimes as early as four or five years old. They start working at the markets with their parents early on and end up not going to school just because they need to help the family raise money. I think the hardest thing to see is that these kids really just miss out on childhood and have to grow up so fast. I can’t imagine living the life these kids live every single day. It really makes you realize just how lucky you are, and some of the things we think are so important in life really are just materialistic and mean absolutely nothing when all is said and done.

I’m realizing the main problem is the kids don’t know how to read, and if they can’t read, they honestly can’t excel in any subject. Most of the children and teenagers I’ve met either struggle a lot while reading or just simply cannot read at all. And just think about this, these are kids who are in school every day, there are millions out there who aren’t in school at all. Many times you just see the kids begging on the side of the street, but what is going to happen to them once they aren’t little kids anymore? People are more likely to give money to a poor little child than an adult on the streets any day. They can’t read, haven’t had an ounce of an education, and the only thing they really know is how to fetch water and cook nshima.

It’s a horrible cycle and education isn’t enforced in Zambia the way it is in the US. Time is going by so fast. I hope to continue learning a lot from the children and feel so lucky to be able to have this opportunity of a lifetime.

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