Ephraim’s Story

On my recent trip to Western Province, whilst staying with some friends I happened to strike up a conversation with a quiet young man who was calling in from next door. Ephraim is about as gently spoken, cheerful and engaging a 16 year old as you could ever hope to meet and I was quickly enjoying a great discussion and learning about all aspects of life as a teenager in Zambia today.

Ephraim is in his final year of school and preparing to sit his 12th grade exams. A highly intelligent and diligent lad and despite being as obsessed with the English Premier League as every young Zambian, he has aspirations of securing maximum marks so that he can come to Lusaka to study medicine at the University of Zambia.

As we talked more, I asked Ephraim about his family and he explained that although originally from the southern part of the country, he had moved west with his parents, brother and sister. Several years ago his father died leaving his mother to look after the whole family. Despite moving west to be near his father’s family they no longer took an active interest in the family since his death.

Recently Ephraim’s mother began developing very serious headaches and was finally admitted into hospital leaving Ephraim and his younger brother and sister in the care of a distant cousin. In between studies, Ephraim now goes most days to visit his mother in hospital, a painful activity I can relate to personally. In the month that his mother has been in hospital, it has been necessary to stop sending his brother to school as there is no income to pay the fees and clearly Ephraim’s studies are also under strain as he struggles to support his family. All challenges that thankfully I never had to face.

A startlingly 46% of Zambia’s population is under the age of 15. The high levels of adult mortality associated with the AIDS epidemic have left vast numbers of children without one or both parents and reliant on extended family, kin-folk or simply themselves for care and support. Trying to help these orphans and vulnerable children (OVC in the jargon) is a major part of the wider response to the AIDS epidemic.

The government’s strategy where possible is to try and keep these kids out of large scale orphanage institutions and in some sort of family care setting. As worthy as this strategy is, I watch individuals (including some of my colleagues) trying to find the means to support up to 7, 8 and 9 ‘cousins’ and can see the strain it puts on the surviving adults and the kids themselves. It also presents a vast challenge of co-ordination to mobilise resources and distribute support to these extended households.

This week I am traveling to the heart of the industrial north of the country (the Copperbelt) to work on a project we are rolling out to enhance this co-ordination effort. The area is struggling to cope as copper prices fall and jobs for miners and the economy they support dry up. The project is a partnership with the ministry of social welfare to try and co-ordinate the support for children provided by the government and multiple NGO’s in this region.

Amongst the tools we are helping to implement is a database that will try to document not only where these many children reside, but who is looking after them, what support they are receiving and perhaps most importantly of all to try to identify those households and children that have so far been overlooked.

I began writing this post earlier in the week with my heart in my mouth. I had missed a number of calls from Ephraim late on Monday night and to be honest I feared the worst for his mother and his family. Thankfully we talked last night and I am happy to report that his mothers headaches appear to be clearing up and there are hopes that she will be finally be home by the weekend. One can only pray that she makes a full recovery.

In the mean time I am grateful to my new friend Ephraim who with consistent good grace and an always sunny disposition is nonetheless helping me to understand the crushing hardships that are such a common feature of growing up in Africa and what it means to be a vulnerable child.

3 Responses to “Ephraim’s Story”
  1. Hannah Waddilove says:

    Lovely, but heartbreaking post. My conversation with Ephraim was very brief in Mongu but my first impressions of him were exactly as you describe. Statistically, his experiences are like a drop in the ocean, but as we all know, knowledge of personal stories can act as a bridge; helping outsiders, who are otherwise numbed by statistics, comprehend not only these painful realities, but also the overwhelming resilience of those immersed in them.

  2. Sridhar Reddy says:

    This is a humbling post, brother. I often wonder how we could be in an age of such media super saturation, and yet the focus of every camera is rarely on the secondary or tertiary levels of the story, the ones that have the ability to really connect people to the heart of the issue.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] by berkeleysblog in Uncategorized. Tags: Life as a volunteer, Vulnerable Childhoods trackback When I last wrote of Ephraim, my young friend from Mongu, I left on a hopeful note as his mother seemed to be regaining her […]

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