Ephraim’s Story – Part II

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 health and was soon to leave hospital.

Shortly after this, Ephraim’s mother was indeed discharged from hospital. Encouragingly, she was provided with the drugs she needed free of charge, thus reflecting the greatly improved access to essential medicines seen in Zambia in the last few years. Equally typically however, she was provided these medicines without any food or the means for supporting her family through her convalescence. It is said that food is the first medicine – doubly true as it not only nourishes the body back to health but also because without sufficient nutritional intake, many of those now freely provided medicines simply will not work.

Temporarily freed from the responsibilities of attending to his mother in hospital every day, Ephraim tried to return to school. However, he was informed that due to fees outstanding he was no longer welcome to attend class. No allowances for his situation or that of his mother were to be taken into the school’s consideration. You may remember, Ephraim is in his penultimate year of study with a strong ambition to study medicine at the national university. Clearly any break in his schooling at this critical time will have lasting effects on both his own development and his ability to break his family free from the poverty trap they find themselves in today.

Although happy to help support Ephraim and his family through this difficult period, I was keen for him to find sustainable sources of support locally. His home town of Mongu is the largest in Western Province and there are multiple NGO and aid offices in the area working to support orphans and vulnerable children. However, when Ephraim contacted several of them, he was informed that they had closed enrollment for the year and that he should re-apply in the new year.

The fact that a 16 year old struggling to support a sick mother and two younger siblings could not manage to find support in a timely manner highlights to me the folly of relying on a patchwork of civil society organisations and aid programs to provide a comprehensive social security net for a nation. They simply cannot substitute for government institutions that have the resources and capabilities to reach and support the neediest in a timely and comprehensive way. Yet this is reality faced by the 1.3 million children (10% of the country’s total population) estimated to be vulnerable in Zambia to day.

As Ephraim bravely struggled to navigate these many challenges, his mother’s condition continued to deteriorate. Eventually she had to be re-admitted to hospital and last Friday I received a painfully short call from him to let me know that she had passed away. No sooner had he begun to face the pain and shock of losing his sole parent, this 16 year old now had to face the challenge of raising over £100 (the equivalent of several month’s salary) to pay for the funeral and associated costs.

I try to chat to Ephraim most days and it is hard to express just how useless (and unqualified) you feel trying to support a young man who is grieving the loss of a mother, being told he cannot attend school and suddenly having to face the harsh financial pressures of adult life. Idiotically, I had somehow imagined that because parental loss is so common (30% of Zambians between 15-17 have lost at least one parent) it might make it any less devastating at a personal level. I count my self suitably disabused of this notion now.

As I write this there are some detailed discussions ongoing amongst Ephraim’s extended family as to where the children will go next. There is an offer to move to one of the last remaining relatives in the south of the country which would involve much upheaval. Compounding the problem, this uncle is currently unemployed and may put at risk Ephraim and his sibling’s ability to access further schooling.

Many of you may be familiar with the Oscar winning film Totsi which charts the life of a South African hoodlum who kidnaps a child before having a change of heart and returning it to its parents. What you may not be aware of is that the film has two endings: the Hollywood version where he lives to tell the tale and the African version where he is downed in a hail of police bullets. I am beginning to understand that African lives are often far harsher with less frequent happy endings than any of us would care to imagine.

2 Responses to “Ephraim’s Story – Part II”
  1. Angela says:

    So…I am not sure if this is the right or wrong thing to do. If I am being very naive…but I just can’t do nothing.

    How can I help Ephraim? Recognizing there are too many for me to help all, I can at least help one.

    Let me know.

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  1. […] stark are the painful lessons I have taken learning through Ephraim how difficult life can be without any social safety net, even when the fall is not of your own making. Accepting the wrenching truth that an orphaned child […]

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