It has been an interesting couple of weeks in Zambia. We have faced the election of a new president. This has proved to have some noteworthy times, as there is conflict between the two parties and accusations of rigging etc. I followed the strong advice I was given from reliable sources to stay indoors in the days surrounding the election. This made me realise how confined you feel when you can’t just freely choose to walk out the door. It has been one of the greater challenges given my personality…..me indoors for 4 days!
On the day they announced the winner of the election and the new president, it happened earlier than had been expected. So as it happened I was across town in a meeting with the Ministry for Education. I was urged by team with a sense of haste to quickly return to home. On the drive back I could see why, 100’s and 1000’s of people were streaming onto the streets, dressed in the political party colours, celebrating. And it was people of all ages, kids down to the age of 6 and 7 joining in the celebrations and also donning the party’s colours.
I have a question I have asked local Zambian’s on meeting them, that is what is your favourite thing about your country, and I must say I was surprised and the consistency in everyone’s answer. Without missing a beat, every person I question, smiles proudly and says “it’s peaceful”. This crossed my mind as I watched the mass of people gathering and the pure energy and passion being displayed. It wasn’t in any way aggressive, however it would appear the danger steams from the over exuberant celebrators as was explained to me by my colleague. As he said this, as if to prove the point, a bus drove past with about 5 20 year olds dancing on the top, drinking and celebrating. The bus was doing about 45km/hr…People got hurt, some lost their lives, but it’s a by-product of too many people, passion and silliness combined. Not intended violence.
It was more than fascinating for me to watch a nation filled with such pride and passion regarding their political outcome. A far cry from what I experience at home. The other thing I felt through all of this was blessed for the level of safety and freedom I take for granted. 4 days of being cautious and confined had an impact on my general well being that took me by surprise.
As you may have read in the last blog, I was (and still very much am) fuelled with passion for the cause we are fighting for. Having met the children with disabilities and heard the stories, seen where they live and what they needed I was revved up and ready to get cracking on how to help.
And here in lies the paradox of Zambia, and indeed probably most developing countries. One of the most beautiful things about the Zambian way of life is the simplicity and the pace. And as I learnt when you want so badly to get something done, the most frustrating things about the Zambian way of life are the simplicity and the pace.
After conducting a very successful project review meeting, it was evident to the team that we had some great opportunities to work on. Never has the GSK skill of utilising ADP and asking the 5 whys felt as effective and impactful as when it uncovered a barrier to getting close to 100 children access to medical equipment. This could be remedied by simply fixing a communication and fund acquisition request process! I will admit when the issue was first raised my original question was not why…but WHAT? In disbelief that so many children had not received a medical aid because of a simple processing issue.
Most excitingly we left the project review meeting with something I could really sink my teeth into. On our field visits in previous weeks we had identified the need for materials, both education and medical, in the Kafue district, and on reviewing the project plan we prioritised funding and resources to get this sorted out. It was feeling like we were moving from treading water in the problem zone to powering through into solutions.
In the weeks since my last blog, I have been trying to think of the right word to capture the sentiment of what has transpired on the work front; this is where I feel a mixed bag of lollies represents what has been going on here the last couple of weeks……the high of the project plan review and problem solving was like having retrieved the perfect choc caramel or red frog from the bag of mixed lollies. And the low…of the crumbled and stale liquorice all-sort that sort of tastes like dust. Of course it is subjective in terms of your taste buds preference, and clearly I am displaying a preference for the chocolate caramel delights and those Moorish little frogs over an all-sort, but I think you get the point.
I walked into the office of a department whose sole job was to provide education materials to the special needs filled with hope about what this meeting could procure. And at first I could believe my eyes. Mountains of materials for the visually impaired, including Braille boards to learn the alphabet, Skeletons and apparently more in another room. What became apparent very quickly was there was little to no interest in expediting the distribution of these materials to the kids at the schools we were working with. I sat with the gentleman for over an hour and listened to what his needs and barriers were. None of which were a quick fix. What I could see was this eventually happening, but this particular solution was going to be a slow burn. And when you see the need for it NOW, it didn’t leave a particularly good taste in my mouth. The internal voice of “you are failing the kids” pulsed loudly through my brain.
So I left the meeting and mapped out a good plan to engage this particular gentleman, not one to give up. But the slowness of it was screaming at me.
When there is so much time to reflect here, I will not lie to you, and say my mind wondered to the negative. I wasn’t doing a good enough job, I wasn’t making enough of a difference…I was failing these beautiful kids who needs so little to have such a difference made.
Then it happened, that glorious moment. I have been trying to think of a good way to describe it, and I know this is the wrong film to rely on to do so, but I think I chose it because of how I responded to the moment in this film.
So spoiler alert….if you have not seen the Usual Suspects DO NOT READ ON!!!
So readers who are still with me, you will know the scene, where the cop is sitting there in the final moments of the film and the coffee cup gets dropped…the realisation of what has happened, who Keyser Söze actually is.
And there is Verbal walking down the street with a limp…that he slowly stretched out….and starts into a healthy non affected stride. And you realise Kevin Spacey just nailed it and completely hoodwinked you.
I think I audibly gasped, and smiled and the genius of it all. This was a film that just pulled it all out of the bag. I absolutely loved the moment, and this film is easily in my top 5. The reason why I loved it so much…It was such a good surprise!! Why do I reference this, because I had a moment that made me feel the same way, even better was because it was in real life and actually made a difference.
After coping a few hits, and things feeling like a slug would beat us to the finish line, my colleague and I walk into a meeting to procure some quotes for hearing aids for 22 children we had identified. The hurt and pain in my brain needing things to happen dissolves away…..when we met Alfred. Alfred happens to be the executive director of a Non for Profit organisation Starkey, his goal is to train other audiologists in Zambia, and to do this he tries to focus on hearing assessments and fitting aids to those in need. This becomes his teaching environment. In his own words “everyone benefits”.
Those magical words he spoke; Let me tell you what I can do for you…
15 minutes later my colleague David and I are planning for Alfred’s medical team to do a site visit at our largest school in Kafue and doing hearing assessments on the whole school, providing the health care on the spot, and fitting any aids required with a follow up visit for a check up planned in December for the students Alfred is teaching as their graduation day. I like Alfred. I like Alfred a lot.
The next weeks are now filled with clarity and purpose, and a sense of optimism that feels damn good. The demons of failure are far behind me now. A spring in my step and everything in my head says this is how it should be. Finding the connections and unlocking the potential to make a difference. This is where I know I can make a difference. Now it is just logistics and planning and engaging the right people to pull this off. The best part of it all, knowing the difference made is going straight to the kids I met weeks ago. If my heart broke a little when I first surveyed the area when I first arrived, it is soaring with possibilities this week.
It took the right question to the right person; tell us what you do? Then it was a matter of applying that all important skill of listening. That is when it all happened it happened.
The jackpot moment.
Pulse Lesson #3: Which approach is better: faster or slower? Doing the right thing requires a calculated balance between speed and restraint. The answer, I think, should be both.
The light bulb moment I have had in the days since writing this blog and getting ready to post, is that it is not the pace that is what gets you down, but when you encounter apathy. Apathy towards wanting to get an outcome, wanting to fix the obvious problem with the obvious and what should be an easy solution. I am truly looking forward to the next updates, as we fight not only apathy but towards changing the lives of the kids at the school.
The photos I have attached are from Twatacha, a community school where we have a high number of children needing hearing aids, and also a great deal of work needing to be done on the infrastructure. You can see the learning materials and the desperate need for them to be upgraded. Best of all you can see the amazing teachers, some of which are volunteers. I cant help but love and admire how happy the kids are despite their surroundings.