Some things you have to experience to fully understand.
Many of us have seen photographs of impoverished African villages or heard statistics about the scourge of AIDS in various countries. But it’s another thing entirely to see it first-hand and to meet the people for whom such conditions are a fact of life.
So the 11 students and five teachers from CBS Kilkenny who travelled to Zambia for two weeks recently couldn’t really know what to expect, despite having spent a year fund-raising €25,000 towards their project.
Departing on March 25, they landed in the city of Lusaka, which in some places is as modern as Dublin’s Grafton Street, explained transition-year teacher Pat Downey, one of the teachers who accompanied the students on the trip. But as travelling outside of the city towards where they would be staying in a Christian Brothers compound at Mufilera, “the conditions deteriorate rapidly.”
“The first day, we had to go on a bus journey for eight hours to where the Brothers were, and our eyes were opened on that bus journey. It wasn’t like I’d expected; I couldn’t have imagined it,” said Ronan Doheny, one of the students who took part in the trip. “It was shocking seeing that type of poverty. Nothing could prepare us for what we could expect, and we didn’t know what to expect.”
The purpose of the trip was to see some of the work being carried out on water, sanitation and hygiene facilities as part of their WaSH programme. They visited some of the 10 schools that are benefitting from the money the Kilkenny students raised, in conjunction with a grant of €101,000 from the Irish charity Misean Cara. They also visited an orphanage for children who have AIDS, and a village for elderly people.
Now that they have returned home, they are displaying some of the 3,000 photographs from their trip in their classroom and are making a CD with some of the videos taken from the trip.
A school with 1,380 pupils – twice that of the CBS – had just one toilet, for example. So the students were shown around a new toilet block complete with wash basins and two showers. And because of these improvements, the numbers attending the school are expected to increase quickly up to 1,500 or 1,600.
Playing a key role in their visit was Brother Mick O’Donoghue, a former Kilkenny CBS principal, and the group stayed in a Christian Brothers compound in Mufilera.
What they experienced during the two weeks wasn’t just about bricks and mortar and sanitation improvements.
At the Chibola Home for the Aged, they witnessed the living conditions of a group of elderly people. And at an orphanage for children with AIDS, they met children as young as 4 who probably won’t make it to their 15th birthday.
“It’s all old men and women and children. The middle generation doesn’t exist – AIDS has taken them out,” Mr Downey said of a place where 61% of the population has AIDS and the life expectancy is 39. “It’s only the grandparents and young people.”
And so while they witnessed a programme that distributes corn, soap, salt, sugar, beans and vegetable oil to people in need, and played soccer with some of the young people there – with a soccer ball made from plastic bags – what they remember most vividly is the reality behind those smiling faces.
“It was wonderful meeting them,” Ronan said. “Some people were grateful and some had just accepted poverty and the poverty trap, but they were very friendly to us.”
Fellow student Cahill Boland said that what he will take away from the experience is “how lucky we are to live in a country that is developed like Ireland. We complain about it a lot but when you look at the wider picture we are so fortunate.”
The students left their mark not just in a cement block reading “Kilkenny CBS Zambia 2012” at one school, but as a lasting contribution. And yet they wished they could have done even more.
“It puts things into perspective,” Ronan said. “What we sent over there is a small amount compared to what the Brothers to every day. They are giving their lives to help others.”
“We were there for two weeks; they’re there 24/7,” Cahill said, with Ronan adding: “We could leave and go home afterwards.”
It also took a period of adjustment for two students, Darragh Houlihan and Paul Delahunty, and principal Tom Clarke, who arrived a week later after having taken part in the senior college A hurling final in Semple Stadium – a match that the group listened to from Zambia on KCLR’s online broadcast.
“It was hard on them coming out because we had a full week of work done. It took them a day or two to adjust but by the Wednesday they were very much in full flight,” Mr Downey said.
Several other CBS schools have made similar trips to Zambia, and it’s something the Kilkenny school is now planning to continue in the years to come.
“It will certainly become part of the fabric of this school. We will definitely go out in two years’ time and possibly even sooner. Everyone who went in that would gladly go back in the morning,” Mr Downey said.
“I think it is vital for the 600-plus students here that some of them at least be exposed to that level of poverty. ... Every one of those children is smiling in the photos; they belie the actual poverty that is there.”
It’s also a change in perspective from the constant focus on the Irish recession – which nonetheless didn’t stop people from contributing generously to the school’s fundraising for the project.
“We have been constantly surprised by people’s generosity,” Mr Downey said. “On a weekly basis there would be some very surprising element of people coming forward in support of the school as an institution, and their generosity that followed was incredible. It’s an eye-opener in itself, and not always from people who could afford it.”
And as one student wrote about his experience: “We felt guilty. Guilty about why we were there. It was difficult to justify why we were chosen and what we could achieve. It was difficult when you feel that you can’t make a difference. But in the end you must light a candle rather than curse the darkness.”