I think anyone who knows me would say that I am a pretty loud person. A question I regularly get asked by my friends is: “How are you so small and yet so noisy?” But on my #ZambiaHealth trip I finally found a place I wasn’t loud enough.
I had gone on a visit to a school in Chawama, one of Zambia’s biggest compounds (slums), to talk to a group of students about a Safe Love club they were part of. The clubs were set up as places for young people to talk openly about issues ranging from HIV to transgenerational relationships (which have large age gaps).
Up until my visit to the compound I had always thought of Lusaka as being quite open and spread out. Even another compound we had been to had not seemed as hemmed in as other slums I have seen in South America and Asia.
But as my driver navigated his way through the dirt tracks, passing market stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables, bicycle repair shops and the many, many, hairdressing shacks, the claustrophobic atmosphere of the place came to light. Tin shacks built to house people were squashed into the tiniest places, chickens scratched around on small patches of land and small children played together in the dirt.
When the gate to the school was opened the first things which hit me was the noise. It was not the shouting of rebellion but just the sounds of hundreds and hundreds of children, trying to learn. Desk lids banging, children chanting out loud as they learnt by rote and the pounding of small feet as they ran from one classroom to the other. As I stood in the tiny courtyard, waiting to be told where to go, heads appeared around doorways and arms pointed through windows as news of the visitor spread like wildfire.
Unlike most schools in Zambia, which are separated into primary schools up to grade 7 and then secondary schools up to grade 12, this was an all-through school from grade 1 to 12. It was so big that one of the teachers was unable to answer my question about how many children were taught there. The headteacher quickly stopped by to shake my hand before hurrying away, no doubt to work on his never-ending to do list.
I was then invited into a classroom of grade 12 students to talk about the club. The room was large and dark, with rows and rows of wooden desks and benches. What immediately struck me was the fact that it was divided into two with a low wall, on the other side of which another lesson was being taught. What with the shouting of the other teacher, the general chatting of the class next door and the noise from outside, it was hard enough to hear myself think, let alone speak.
The group began with a talk about alcohol and the problems it can lead to both in the home and within someone’s personal life. The young people were all very engaged and well-spoken and, as I looked around the class, I realised that many of them actually looked older than your typical school-aged children. (I later discovered that some were as old as 23, having started school late or as a result of being held back over the years.)
Then it was my turn to stand at the front and ask them questions about the benefit of the club. And if you ever want to feel embarrassed, try shouting questions about sex education to a group of young people. Most of my questions were met with a good few minutes of laughter. I don’t know who was more mortified, me or them. It wasn’t helped by the fact that despite shouting at the top of my voice, the students sat at the back of the class couldn’t hear me and my questions had to be repeated by the teacher. It really made me appreciate the difficulties of trying to learn in such a classroom. You have to really want to learn otherwise you’ll slip by the wayside.
Luckily these young people seemed to take school seriously. They were bright and thanks to the Safe Love club, were switched on about issues like HIV. They dressed smartly for school and talked positively about the future. One of them told me that when she becomes the First Lady of Zambia she’ll give me an interview. And that alone would be worth coming back for.