Dreaming of a brighter future

Leaving Zambia this week, it is a challenge to feel brightly optimistic about her future. In truth the country has been struggling to develop in a concerted and sustained manner since the oil shocks of the 1970’s. Her economy remains vastly over dependant upon mining in general and copper in particular. Despite a water table and quantities of arable land that should, in theory, allow her to feed all of her neighbours in Southern Africa, she still finds herself struggling with protracted periods of food shortage and agencies such as the World Food Programme still find a need to continue operations within her borders.

When you meet a seasoned development type, coming from a place like Sudan or Ethiopia, they will often express deep frustration with Zambia. There, they say, you can literally see how unforgiving the conditions are and clearly understand why men and women go hungry on such lean lands. That people should be starving amongst the lush greenness of Zambia leaves them shaking their head with both bewilderment and frustration.

Similarly on issues of public health, current trends do not give much cause for comfort. True, there have been significant gains in terms of malaria control in recent years and the number of HIV related deaths have dropped dramatically as anti-retroviral therapy has been made universally available. Yet far too many infants and their mothers still die each day due to a lack of basic maternal health infrastructure and cases of new HIV infections remain stubbornly high.

Education – that other critical pillar of development equally gives scant room for cheer. Numbers of children enrolled into primary education may have sky rocketed in recent years as the country sails towards meeting that particular Millennium Development Goal. Yet this quantity has been achieved at the expense of quality with no corresponding growth in teacher numbers and classes sizes of 90 not uncommon. As clear an example of the distorting effect of top-down donor driven priorities as you could wish to see.

It is a tragic, yet widely acknowledged, truth that Zambians who got their schooling in the early years of independence are far more deeply educated than their sons and daughters. Interactions with many younger members of Zambian society often leaves an impression of a generation sadly struggling for numeracy and literacy alike.

Yet I don’t want to leave this beautiful country on such a pessimistic note. The friends I have made and the lives they are living are too important to me now to be simply written off as the unwitting victims of poor leadership in yet another ‘development basket case.’ So I took enormous encouragement and not a little optimism from a parting conversation over dinner this week.

My dining companion was Suwi, a friend of mine whose life encapsulates many of the challenges faced by young Zambians today. Intelligent and ambitious, with good results from one of the best schools and a degree from the national university under her belt, she would be starting a graduate development programme with a blue chip employer in many other parts of the world. Yet in Zambia she finds herself holding the position of personal assistant and must count herself lucky to be amongst the 50% of her graduating class who managed to find any sort of meaningful employment.

Through an impressive demonstration of barefaced cheek and sheer bloody mindedness she managed to rustle up sufficient sponsorship to attend a global conference on economic development in Berlin last month. The subject matter of the conference is inconsequential, what was most striking was the light of ambition in her eyes and purpose newly found in her voice upon returning from this her first trip outside the continent.

It truly was as if a whole new world had been revealed to her. A world where time (including her own!) was valued, a world where she could witness first hand how the many small things like the trams running to the minute and the many big things such as the massive infrastructure of Frankfurt airport all added up to what it feels like to walk in a developed and fully functioning world. For the first time in her life, Suwi was being exposed to what life could look like back in Zambia if things were to really develop and progress.

My work has taught me the amazing power of understanding what ‘good looks like’ to empower and enable somebody to attain their full potential. Over dinner, her eyes ablaze with a mix of awe, excitement and enthusiasm as she detailed just how much the trip had motivated her to want to achieve far more for herself and for her country it began to dawn on me the immense power that can be unleashed amongst Zambia’s emerging generation – if only we can expose enough of them to what can be possible.

I am not naïve enough to suggest that the many challenges outlined above can be simply redressed by a series of visits, exchanges and scholarships for talented Zambians to other parts of the world. However in its ability to inspire and harness the potential of talented young Zambians to come back and find their own solutions to their own country’s problems, I can think of few better or simpler activities that might give me fresh cause for optimism.

Finding bright young Zambians should certainly not be an issue, half the country is under 16; half again are unemployed. The real challenge will be to give them the necessary training, inspiration and motivation to return and take on the mammoth challenges of their homeland. As I leave Zambia, one of my first personal goals is to seek out organisations that support such personal development and capacity building to see how I can lend them a hand. If you know of some, please get in touch or leave a comment at the bottom of the page.

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One Response to “Dreaming of a brighter future”
  1. Niall says:

    I finally got around to reading your last entry from Zambia and Its sad to think its all over, a bit like a good series on TV coming to an end. I will miss it. Congratulations to you for all that you did in your year, both in and out side of work and I have to say more than once did I have a look at flight costs to Zambia. Its always nice to get an honest, personal first hand report on how things are in another part of the world. There is of course so much going on and yet Zambia might get a mention 3 times a year in the international press. I know it will have made a big impression on your life, well done Peter Crouch.

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