I’ve taken on the task of interviewing the widows that weave bags at Chikumbuso and writing their stories for promotional and archival purposes. The following is the story of Barbara, who was the first widow I interviewed for this project. I’ve written her story just as she told it to me, including direct quotes from our conversation.

Barbara was born in the Chilulu compound in Lusaka. Thirteen people lived in her family’s three-bedroom house. Barbara was the oldest child, and she was very close to her mom. She stopped going to school after the fourth grade so that she could stay home and help her mother with household chores and responsibilities. Oftentimes, her mother visited relatives in distant villages, leaving Barbara to care for all of her siblings for days or weeks at a time.

 Barbara first met her husband when her family rented his mother’s house. He was twenty, and she was eighteen. He was a self-employed carpenter. Every day, he went to the market to buy wood, and brought it home on his bicycle to build tables, chairs, and other furniture to sell. One day, he came over when her mom was not home to ask for help removing wood from his bicycle. Barbara refused to help him, but he didn’t give up. He came to her house the next day for the same purpose. This time, she agreed to help him. While she was helping him with his bicycle, he professed his love to her. “Oh thank you! I wish [for] you and I to be together,” he said. “How do you mean like that?” Barbara asked. He told her to wait until the next day, and he would show her what he meant. The next day, there was another knock at her door. It was the man again. He had brought eggs, milk, oil, sugar, and lotion for her. She realized that he was trying to impress her so that she would marry him.

 “I want to chat with you,” he said. “Chat with me about what?” she retorted. “You know. You are a big girl,” he replied. He told her that he had watched her care for her siblings and help her mother with the house, and he was impressed by how hardworking and steadfast she was. He said that he was sure that he wanted to marry her. She resisted at first, insisting that she needed time to get to know him before she could agree to marry him. He began to bring her and her family gifts, and after several days she accepted his proposal. They were married five months later.

The first years of Barbara’s marriage were blissfully happy. She describes her husband as wonderfully caring and loving. They had three children together, one girl and two boys. When Barbara was pregnant with the couple’s fourth child, her mother came to visit her. She noticed that Barbara was getting thin, and suggested that she go to see a doctor. “You are a fat girl. Now you are coming slim slim all the time. Why? Are you not eating, or what is happening to you?” Barbara followed her mother’s advice and went to the local clinic. She tested positive for HIV.  

When Barbara told her husband that she was HIV-positive, he did not believe her. “How can it be that you are positive? Those machines are not properly maintained. They are lying. What about all these three kids which we have? They are fine, and when you were going to the clinic they didn’t test you that you are positive.” A fight ensued. Barbara’s husband insisted that he’d been faithful; he couldn’t have infected her with HIV. But Barbara maintains that she has never had an affair. She doesn’t know how they were infected.

As her pregnancy progressed, Barbara paid little attention to her HIV-positive status. She didn’t understand the gravity of her diagnosis. To her, it was just a small inconvenience like “just malaria.” When their baby was born, Barbara’s husband tried to convince her not to breastfeed. Barbara insisted that she had breastfed all of their other three children, and she would breastfeed this son as well. She didn’t know that she was putting her son’s life in jeopardy by exposing him to HIV.

In September 2005, when her son was seven months old, he got sick and passed away. Her husband cried, “You have killed my baby!  I told you do not breastfeed, and you refused. It’s you who have killed my baby.” Four months later, her husband died as well.

Barbara was devastated. While they were married, Barbara lacked nothing. Her husband provided everything that she needed. She stayed home and cared for the children while he worked. “When he died, I was very confused,” she said. “Now I am HIV positive. My baby has passed away. My husband has passed away. I don’t know anything; I didn’t go to school. How am I going to survive to keep all these three children on my own?”

The mysterious disease that she knew so little about had stolen her husband and infant son. She was sure that it would kill her too. “Tomorrow or any day I will follow my husband.” As she waited for death, Barbara gave her two sons to her mother-in-law in a remote village. She kept her daughter with her in Lusaka to care for her until she died. As the days passed, Barbara grew increasingly depressed and hopeless.

One day while she was walking to the market, Barbara ran into her old friend Mary, who works in Chikumbuso’s sewing room. Mary asked her why she was so sad. Barbara told Mary that she had HIV and would die soon. Mary told her that this was nonsense. Mary was also HIV-positive, and she wasn’t planning on dying anytime soon! Barbara was astonished. She did not know that people with HIV could take medicine and continue to live normal lives. She walked away from the conversation encouraged and with new a resolve to live.

However, as the weeks progressed, Barbara began to struggle with depression again. She couldn’t care for her daughter or herself, and she felt useless. They frequently went without eating. As she grew thinner and sicker, she began to doubt Mary’s words. She decided that since she would eventually die like her husband and son, she should end her life sooner. One day, Barbara gathered the last of her money and took it to the store. She told her daughter that she would buy vegetables for their dinner, but she actually had other plans. Barbara purchased rat poison to end her life.

As she was walking home from the store, rat poison in her hand, Barbara ran into Mary again. Again, Mary asked Barbara why she looked so sad. Barbara said that she was fine, there was nothing to worry about. Mary knew that something was wrong, and she insisted that Barbara tell her. She saw that Barbara was holding something in her hand. “Where are you coming from?” Mary asked. “You are looking like you are walking very long and you are tired.” Barbara began to cry. She confessed, “Mary, you will not see me again. I have bought this medicine; today is my last day of living. I will die today.” Mary took the rat poison and threw it away. She told Barbara to come home with her and spend the night. Barbara replied, “How am I going to spend the night with you? I’ve left my daughter alone.” Mary reminded Barbara that she was not thinking of her daughter when she bought the poison to kill herself.

Mary took Barbara by the hand and led her straight to Chikumbuso. She explained the day’s events to Mama Linda (the founder of Chikumbuso). “Mama Linda started hugging me, started telling me sweet stories.” She gave Barbara a little money to replace what she’d spent on the rat poison. Then, she placed a pair of scissors and some plastic in her hand so that she could crochet her first bag. Barbara told Mama Linda that she couldn’t crochet, but Linda insisted that she stay and learn. Mama Linda sat by her side all afternoon, talking and crocheting. That night, Mary walked Barbara home and stayed with her while she prepared dinner. Her daughter had no idea what had transpired during the day.

 Barbara continued to come to Chikumbuso to crochet bags and talk to Mama Linda. Her first bags, she says, were very ugly, but Mama Linda bought them anyway. With time, she learned how to crochet more beautiful bags, and she made enough money to feed and support her daughter. Every time she cooked dinner and ate with her daughter, she wondered, “Have my two boys in the village eaten?” Barbara decided that she wanted to be with her sons again.

She saved money for seven months. When she finally had enough, Barbara travelled to the village to get her sons. They had been separated for one and a half years. When she saw them again, their stomachs were distended from malnutrition. She brought them back to Lusaka, where she fed them well with the money that she made at Chikumbuso, and she enrolled them in school.

Today, her daughter has graduated from high school and is eager to begin college. Her sons are still enrolled in school and are doing well. Barbara supports her family with the income that she earns at Chikumbuso. She tells people that she works at Chikumbuso, not as a maid or clothes-washer, but as a self-employed handbag designer.

“So Chikumbuso was a good thing for you?” I asked her at the end of our conversation.

“Yes! Very, very… Because of Chikumbuso, I am alive,” Barbara replied. “So, this is my story,” she smiled a wide, infectious smile and enveloped me in a big hug.

“Thank you for telling me your story, Barbara,” I whispered.

“Thank you for listening,” she replied. 



After two weeks of traveling, first to see Victoria Falls and then to visit a friend in Cape Town, it’s good to be back in Lusaka. New things are happening at Chikumbuso, and I’m excited to finally have the time and the wifi strength to share some updates with you.


Teachers playing math game that they learned during a workshop

Teachers playing math game that they learned during a workshop

Ainsley and I have hosted several workshops for the teachers, and they have responded wonderfully. We’ve even had some visitors from other community schools in the compound! The teachers are eager to grow and learn how to be more effective at teaching math to their students. Every week, they provide us with feedback on our workshop’s strengths and weaknesses, and they tell us what they’d like to learn more about in future workshops.

So far, our workshops have covered math lesson cycles—a simple format for math instruction that incorporates review, assessment, leveled instruction, group learning, and individual practice; differentiation—grouping students based on their level of ability and developing lessons that are accessible to slow learners while still providing a challenge to more advanced students; and assessments—conducting regular assessments to gage students’ understanding based on their skill level and the set objectives. We’ve introduced many new math activities using the supplies that Chikumbuso already has. We’ve incorporated the teachers’ feedback and heard their best practices. We’ve laughed together while playing silly games that can be adapted for multiple subjects and grade levels. Most importantly, we’ve learned from each other and created a space for honest reflection, open debate, collaboration, and mutual learning amongst the teachers. 



Student using a "Board Talk" strategy in the classroom

Student using a “Board Talk” strategy in the classroom

Ainsley and I will host three more workshops during our last two weeks in Zambia. We’ll elaborate on differentiation strategies, demonstrate several more math activities, and work with the teachers to develop their lesson plans for the upcoming semester. We’ve finished organizing and taking inventory of the supply rooms, so this week we’ll work with the teachers individually to organize their classroom supplies and get them ready for the start of school next Monday.

The teachers are excited to implement the new strategies they’ve learned. Many of them have already begun to use some of the strategies that we taught them in our first workshops before the kids went on their winter break. Several times, different teachers approached us and asked us to come and observe them as they tried out a new technique with their class. Afterwards, they asked for our feedback and suggestions for how they can improve for next time. I am so inspired by the teachers’ reception of the materials that Ainsley and I have presented to them, and I can’t wait to see what happens when the strategies are used in the classroom.


Sexual assault prevention and response

Until now, Chikumbuso has not had a formal system in place to respond to students’ reports that they have been sexually abused, despite the fact that several of our little girls have been victims of sexual assault. I’m thrilled to report that Chikumbuso will now be working in partnership with Dr. Clemons’ One Stop Child Protection Centre at the University Teaching Hospital to better respond to reports of sexual abuse and advocate for child protection within Chikumbuso and the Ng’ombe compound. Mary, who is currently Chikumbuso’s HIV/AIDS counselor, will become certified as a Child Sexual Assault Prevention Advocate. We’ve already attended the first training hosted at UTH by several experts from the United States and Zambia, where Mary was given the tools and resources necessary to better address these issues on our campus. She will join Ainsley and I in our workshop on Friday to train the teachers about what to say, who to call, and what to do when a student relates that they’ve been abused. I’m so glad that I met Dr. Clemons, and that I was able to introduce him to the staff of Chikumbuso and establish this partnership. Our goal is for Chikumbuso to be the first point of contact for families and children in the Ng’ombe compound to receive information, assistance, and direction when they have suffered sexual abuse.

Mary, the sewing teacher and HIV/AIDS counsellor

Mary, the sewing teacher and HIV/AIDS counsellor


Widows’ stories

In addition to working on teacher training and sexual assault prevention and response at Chikumbuso, I’ve taken on another project. I am interviewing each of the widows and writing down their life stories. The stories will be used in promotional materials on the charity’s website, and short versions will be included as inserts in each bag that is sold. That way, when someone purchases a bag, they can read about the woman who made it and make a more personal connection with the bag, the widow, and the organization. I am so excited about this project.

Some of the Widows weaving bags, photo by Ainsley

Some of the Widows weaving bags, photo by Ainsley

When I sat down to conduct my first interview, my palms were sweating and my voice was shaking from nerves. Beforehand, I’d written down some questions with the help of Lisa, Chikumbuso’s onsite director. In my notes, I’d scribbled, “Avoid asking directly about their husbands’ deaths. Don’t ask about their HIV/AIDS status. Ask them about how Chikumbuso has impacted their lives, both positively and negatively.”

I was immediately put at ease by Barbara’s willingness to talk, her smile, and her inviting demeanor. She rested her hand on my knee and spoke in slow, calculated words as she responded to my questions about her childhood and adolescence. When I asked her about her husband, her marriage, and her children, she grasped both of my hands in hers, and her story began to spill out. I jotted notes as quickly as I could and listened intently until she’d finished. By the end, several more widows were lined up waiting to tell me their stories. 

Interviewing the widows has quickly become one of my favorite things to do at Chikumbuso. I kick off my sandals and plop down on the carpeted platform where they sit weaving together, equipped with my chitenge-covered notebook, a voice recorder, and a pen. When the widow I’m interviewing doesn’t speak English, one of the other ladies sits next to us to translate. As I knot plastic strips together to make “yarn” for the ladies to crochet, I’m always surprised by the stories the ladies share with me. Sometimes, I have to choke back tears. Oftentimes, we erupt into laughter. I’ve developed several new friendships, and I’ve been adopted by many new mamas and grandmas. 

A few hours after I interviewed Elizabeth, she found me at my computer typing my notes. She pressed a handmade bracelet into my palm. “Don’t forget about me,” she whispered. “I won’t,” I promised. I’ll never forget Chikumbuso, I thought.


Next week, I’ll post Barbara’s story. The week after that, I’ll fly back to California. And while my suitcase will be full of postcards and souvenirs, my heart will be full of the love I’ve received from my Chikumbuso family, and I’ll carry that little piece of Africa in my heart forever.


The Blessing of Discomfort


These past two weeks have been an utter whirlwind. It seemed like every time I sat down to write, I was pulled away by something else. Meanwhile, my list of things to include in my blog has grown longer by the day. I’ve decided to spare you all of the details and only write about a few seminal events that have taken place since my last post.

Last Wednesday, Ainsley and I took the day off from Chikumbuso to visit a local hospital with Chuck, who is one of the other tenants staying at our house. Dr. Charles (Chuck) Clemons is a remarkably accomplished doctor who has worked to improve access to healthcare all over the world. From fighting tuberculosis in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to building a cardiovascular surgical center in Nicaragua, to rushing to aid victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, Dr. Clemons has dedicated his whole life serving others. For the past nine years, he has been working with the Center for Disease Control in Zambia to establish a one-stop child protection center where children who have been sexually abused can receive medical attention and psychological care. I asked if he would allow me to visit the facility, and he happily agreed. This is what I love most about the expat community that I’ve met in Lusaka: their passion for making a difference through their work.

Instead of just showing us the child protection center, Dr. Clemons gave Ainsley and me a tour of the entire pediatrics ward of the University Teaching Hospital (UTH). UTH is the largest hospital in Lusaka, and it serves some of the poorest people in Zambia. Dr. Clemons first took us to the main inpatient pediatrics ward, where rows of metal beds filled a large room. There are no curtains to separate the patients, and when the hospital is crowded (usually during the rainy season), the children sleep two or three to a bed. As we stood in the doorway, I watched doctors speak in hushed voices to the anxious mothers and fathers that were gathered around their kids’ beds. Dr. Clemons explained to us that the patients’ families provide all of the food, bedding, and clothes for their children for the duration of their stay at the hospital. For parents who work or families who live in severe poverty, this can be a daunting task. I asked Dr. Clemons what happens when the children’s relatives cannot feed them adequately (knowing that proper nutrition is critical to recovery from illness and surgery). “The other families pitch in,” he responded. I think that this is what I love most about Zambian people: their wholehearted commitment to community. 

Next we saw the acute malnutrition ward, where children who are on the verge of starvation come to be treated. Only 50 to 60 percent of the children admitted to the ward survive. As Dr. Clemons introduced us to some of the doctors and residents who work with malnourished kids, my eyes wandered to one of the young patients in a nearby bed. The little girl was the size of an infant, although the features of her face and hair suggested that she was closer to two or three years old. I watched her little chest rise and fall quickly with her rapid breathing; her mouth and nose were filled with tubes pumping nutrients and oxygen into her fragile body. Her mother sat by her side, her hands gripping the side of the crib, and her chin resting on her knuckles. She took her tear-filled eyes away from her baby for just a moment and caught my gaze. My throat tightened as I watched her tears begin to spill over, and she quickly looked back at the tiny body in the crib in front of her.

We walked onward to our final stop: the child protection center. Dr. Clemons introduced us to the female police officer who works to investigate cases of child sexual abuse and prosecute the perpetrators. Her small office was tucked behind another office, where a nurse sat at a desk covered in bottles of ARVs, which will prevent the transmission of HIV if administered within 72 hours of a sexual assault. The nurse smiled and introduced herself to us before returning her attention to a man sitting on the other side of her desk. She later told us that the man was the father of one of their most recent rape victims. She was counseling him about his daughter’s legal rights, their next steps, and how to best support her emotional needs.

Dr. Clemons took us to the examination room next. He proudly showed us a machine that he brought from the United States, which sat at the end of a gynecological examination table with stirrups. He explained that the machine takes magnified photos of lacerations and internal bruising suffered during the attack, which can later be used as evidence. A locked refrigerator hummed nearby. “That’s where the rape kits and forensic evidence are stored,” he told us. Dr. Clemons went on to explain to us that although the child protection center now has the technology to collect evidence, there is currently no forensics laboratory in the whole country of Zambia. So even when the doctors and authorities are sure that they have an open-and-shut case with the hard evidence to prove it, the paperwork and money required to send the evidence to South Africa to be processed are often insurmountable barriers. “We see about 100 children every month here, and we suspect it’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Dr. Chuck lamented. Ainsley began to feel queasy and faint, so we left the examination room to sit down and rest.

As questions danced frantically through my mind, I spilled them to Dr. Clemons, who answered each one with care. How often do the police make convictions without forensic evidence? Not often enough. Cases are usually thrown out unless there is an eyewitness or a confession. Are the adolescent female victims given emergency contraceptives? Yes, the one-stop center provides this medicine. What is being done about the forensics lab? The building has been built. Now it’s just a matter of negotiating with the appropriate government officials for funding to staff and operate the lab. We don’t know how long this will take, and purchasing lab equipment will be another battle. What are the ages of the children that you most often see? We see a lot of toddlers and lots of young teenagers. How do you handle so many cases with such limited staff? The current staff is passionately dedicated to these children, but they are also overwhelmed. We are currently recruiting more people to serve as advocates on behalf of the victims.

We met with several other people throughout the afternoon, including the Chief of the Pediatric Center of Excellence, a pioneering Zambian anti-rape advocate, and the staff of another private hospice in a nearby compound. By the time we got home, Ainsley and I were emotionally and physically exhausted. We spent the rest of the evening journaling, sleeping, and quietly trying to process what we’d seen. Neither of us talked much.


My emotions were all over the place for the next couple of days. I was burdened with an immense sadness; I felt extremely guilty. I was angry, and I felt hopeless. At times, I sensed the slightest pang of indifference begin to creep into my heart. It’s too much to fix. Anything that I do here is just a drop in the bucket of what needs to be done. It’s useless to even try. I did my best to stifle these thoughts as I soon as I felt them, but still they nagged at me.

I tried to quiet my mind and rest during the long holiday weekend that followed. Some of Carly’s expat friends had arranged a camping trip on a little island in the middle of the large Kariba Lake, and I tagged along. Between the seven-hour drive to the lake, long conversations around the campfire, sunbathing, hiking, animal watching, and stargazing, I had plenty of time to search my heart and reflect on my work at Chikumbuso, my experience at the University Training Hospital, and my time in Zambia so far overall.

Perhaps, I thought, being a drop in the bucket isn’t such a bad thing. After all, with enough drops, a bucket will eventually be filled. I might not be able to fix all of the suffering, I reasoned, but I’m still foolish enough to believe that I can make a difference. “The whole point of life,” Dr. Clemons had said, “is to discover your gifts so that you can give them back,” and that is exactly why I came here. By the time we began our long drive home, I was feeling refreshed and ready to begin a new week at Chikumbuso.

When I finally got home and turned on my phone, I had a text from my mom. My dad was in a motorcycle accident, and he was in the hospital. He had shattered his ribs on his right side in fourteen places, broken his leg, and punctured a lung. At the time, the doctors thought that my dad had broken his neck and back as well, but this turned out to be a false x-ray reading. My heart sank as reality set in, and I realized that I couldn’t rush to the hospital to be by his side. I began to panic, and my mind was flooded with worst case scenarios as I desperately tried to reach my mom on Skype.

“He’s okay. Everything is going to be okay,” she reassured me when my call finally went through. I asked to speak to my dad, and I wept as I apologized to him for not being there. Once again, I was overcome with guilt. I felt guilty because I wasn’t able to alleviate my father’s suffering, just as I’d felt guilty that I couldn’t stop the suffering that I’d witnessed in the hospital a few days before. “You’re in Zambia for a reason, Michelle,” my dad said to me on the phone. “I understand that you can’t be here, and it’s okay. I’m proud of what you’re doing there.”

The next day at Chikumbuso, the widows gathered around me to pray for my dad. They sang songs in their native languages, and prayed with a fervent expectation of healing. They haven’t stopped asking me about him since. I’ve been humbled by the realization that in the midst of all of their own suffering and despite all of their burdens and worries, the widows care deeply about me and my dad. Their love is evidenced by their frequent and spontaneous embraces, their warm words of encouragement, and their ongoing prayers. Though he has never been to Zambia, my dad and I are a part of the widows’ community, and these women take care of their community. 

My time at the hospital and my dad’s accident this week have strengthened my commitment to humanitarian aid and social justice. I know that I will never be able to fix everything. People will suffer; children will die; I will fail. Nevertheless, I won’t give up. I will continue to use my voice to advocate on behalf of the voiceless. I will extend my hand to help those that can’t help themselves. I will use my skills and abilities to make a positive contribution. Most of all, I will remain foolish enough to believe that I can make a difference, whether it be within my own family or my global community.

A dear friend of mine sent me this Franciscan prayer before I left for Zambia. It resonated with me then, and it rings even more true now. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I do.

The Blessing of Discomfort

May God bless you with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships,
So that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression and exploitation of people,
So that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears
To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger, and war,
So that you may reach out your hand to comfort them
And turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness
To believe that you can make a difference in the world,
So that you can do what others claim cannot be done
To bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor.


Sunset on Kariba Lake

“Even if we haven’t been infected, we’ve been affected.” 


We lost one of our widows this week. About two weeks ago, Mekatyi fell ill with a cold. She didn’t know that her CD4 count was low until it was too late. Nausea and vomiting prevented her from being able to take antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), so her health quickly deteriorated. Two weeks after she started feeling sick, Mekatyi succumbed to the disease that has ravaged the continent of Africa.

Mekatyi was not the first Chikumbuso widow to die of complications from HIV/AIDS, and she will probably not be the last. It is a story that’s all too familiar here. Although the women are not required to get tested for HIV to be a part of the widow’s group, they are encouraged to do so. As the women sit together and weave bags every day, their health and status are frequent topics of conversation. Most of them are HIV positive and have lost family members to the disease. They are passionate about teaching younger generations about prevention and ending the epidemic.



Like the widows, the children are not required to be tested to enroll in school at Chikumbuso, but HIV/AIDS testing and prevention education is a regular part of their classroom curriculum from a young age. The kids, too, are no strangers to the disease. In Zambia alone, an estimated 670,000 children are orphans because of HIV and AIDS.

During this week’s Monday staff meeting, Gertrude reminded the teachers that they must make sure that their students are fulfilling their obligation to clean the children’s bathroom on a regular basis. “The children must learn responsibility,” she emphasized. “It doesn’t matter if they have just returned from receiving their ARVs at the clinic; the students must complete their duties to keep Chikumbuso functioning properly.”

I was overwhelmed by the thought of some of the sick children washing and hosing down the students’ pit latrines. Gertrude’s voice softened as she continued, “They have to learn it here first. It’s not easy, I know. Even if we haven’t been infected, we’ve been affected.” The teachers nodded and quietly agreed. “Life must go on,” said Gertrude.

A funeral for Mekatyi will take place this weekend. All of the widows will attend. On Monday, they will return to Chikumbuso to weave bags, exchange tidbits of gossip, sing songs, tell stories, and pray together, but they won’t forget the friend they lost. The word chikumbuso, after all, means remembrance: remembering those who have died, remembering where we have come from, and remembering to do for others. And that’s exactly what the widows will do.

Photo by Ainsley

Photo by Ainsley


Start with what they know. Build with what they have.


I first found out about the UCLA Global Citizens Fellowship through an email sent to my school email account in November 2013. Earlier in the day, I’d been scouring online job postings for opportunities to work or volunteer in southern Africa for the summer. I had no idea how I’d afford to buy a plane ticket and pay for living expenses; I hadn’t gotten that far. I just knew that something was pulling me towards Africa, and I had to follow it. So when I saw that there was a fellowship that offered UCLA students $5000 to design and implement a humanitarian project anywhere in the world, I leapt at the opportunity.

With only three weeks to write a proposal, I met with one of my favorite professors to brainstorm projects that were within my budget and skill-set. Professor Commins has worked in international and regional development for decades and is very well connected. He put me in contact with the head of the World Health Organization’s operations in Mozambique, a gender equity center in Maputo run by Johns Hopkins University, and a little community-based organization called Chikumbuso that he had once visited in Lusaka. I pursued all of my leads, but as soon as I Skyped with Lisa from Chikumbuso, I knew that I had found the perfect match.

Lisa told me that what Chikumbuso needed more than anything else was to improve its math program. She explained that while most of the students could memorize basic facts, such as 4 x 3 = 12, they couldn’t tell you what that meant. The school was short on resources, understaffed, and overcrowded. Although Carly had been working with the teachers on skills such as lesson planning and Bloom’s taxonomy of learning, she was overwhelmed. They needed someone with fresh ideas who could help to lessen Carly’s load and improve the students’ math outcomes.

Brainstorming with experienced educators before departure

Brainstorming with experienced educators before departure

Although the task was daunting, I was inspired. With years of experience tutoring math and developing the curriculum for math summer camps at my mom’s math tutoring company, I was confident that I could show the teachers some new activities, games, and teaching strategies to boost their students’ understanding of mathematical concepts. I set to work writing my project proposal and further developing my plans.

A little more than one week later, I bumped into my friend, Ainsley, and told her about the project. Ainsley was halfway through her third year as a middle school math teacher in Los Angeles, so I knew she would be someone that I could go to for advice as I planned my workshops. I never dreamed that she would decide to quit her full-time teaching job and join me in Zambia, but fast forward eight months, and here we are!



Ainsley and I knew that as much as we could prepare while we were in California, we wouldn’t really know exactly how to help the teachers until we were sitting in their classrooms at Chikumbuso, so we built two weeks of observation and conversations with the teachers and directors into our schedule. This proved to be even more valuable than we had anticipated, and we were able to identify several areas of focus for our upcoming workshops.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset

During our first week at Chikumbuso, Ainsley and I observed the math instruction in every class. We assisted Ann and Tony with their math games and activities, and we watched the teachers give their regular lessons. We noticed several patterns in teaching styles, classroom management techniques, and student participation. Below are a few of our observations.


The Teachers

One of the best things about Chikumbuso is that it is a community-based organization. The widows, who are the heartbeat of the project, finance approximately 30 percent of the operational costs of the school and other programs through their bag sales. Carly, who works full time overseeing all aspects of the school, has raised support in the United States to cover her living expenses; she does not earn any income from her work. True to its spirit of community, Chikumbuso’s six teachers were hired from within the compound. The teachers before them lived in the compound, and the teachers after them will as well. This means that the compound will benefit directly from the income generated by the teachers as they bring it home to their families, and the children have role models with similar experiences and backgrounds.

While hiring teachers from within the compound is a wonderful model that is beneficial to the students, teachers, and compound alike, the system presents some challenges. Most significantly, the teachers have not obtained any more formal education than a high school diploma from one the compound’s secondary schools and a one-year teacher training course offered at the local community college. None of the teachers have university degrees.

High School's Computer Lab

High School’s Computer Lab

High School's Library

High School’s Library

However, although the teachers at Chikumbuso have not completed 6+ years of university-level training like the teachers in the United States, Ainsley and I were blown away by their classroom management techniques. Each of the teachers are well-loved and respected by the staff and students alike, and their passion for their students is evident in their eagerness to learn new teaching methods and strategies.


Classroom Management

When Ainsley and I walked into the bright turquoise third grade classroom on our first day of observations, the children all rose to their feet.

“GOOD MORNING, VISITORS! HOW ARE YOU TODAY?” they asked in unison.

“Good morning!” I replied. “We’re doing well. How are you?”

“WE ARE FINE. THANK YOU!” they responded cheerfully together before the teacher gave them the signal to return to their seats.

This kind of “call and response” continued throughout the lesson. When a student answered a problem correctly on the board, the teacher clapped three times and the students cheered:


clap, clap, clap!


clap, clap, clap!


clap, clap, clap!

When it was time to change subjects or refocus on the board after a group activity, similar claps were used.

As we visited other classes, we observed call and response being used over and over. We were amazed. It is effective, the students love it, and it fits well within Zambian culture. Ainsley and I crossed “classroom management” off of our agenda list of things to cover during our teacher workshops.


Student Comprehension

As we played math games and observed math activities in each class, we informally surveyed the students’ math levels. We noticed that many of the students struggle with weak basic skills: number recognition and number sense in the lower grades, multiplication in the upper grades, and addition and subtraction across the board. We witnessed most students counting on their fingers to solve simple equations, and basic concepts such as odd and even numbers, and estimating and rounding were often not remembered or understood.

Ainsley and I saw the need for more individual practice of concepts, additional instruction and review of basic math, increased use of manipulatives such as blocks and beads, and interactive activities such as menu math and timed competitions. We scanned the classroom bookshelves for supplies that the teachers could use to accomplish these objectives, and we were surprised by what we saw.


Utilization of Existing Resources

Using Playing Cards

Using Playing Cards

Ainsley and I began to take a mental inventory of the supplies that we found in the dusty corners of the classroom bookshelves. “Did you know that the fourth grade classroom has playing cards?!” we excitedly informed Carly of our discoveries. Carly smiled and led us to the teachers’ supply room, a narrow closet that housed all of the school’s supplies. With the door open wide to let in the sunlight (the closet doesn’t have a working light), Carly showed us shelves of building blocks, dice, playing cards, textbooks, tangrams, and other classroom manipulatives that had been donated over the years.

Math Game

Math Game

We were baffled. If Chikumbuso had these resources, why weren’t they being used in the classroom? Although the supply closet by no means compared to the amount of resources that teachers in the United States have for their classrooms, there were enough teaching supplies for entire classes to play with and use. Carly explained that at one time, the supplies were distributed between each of the classrooms, but then they were spread too thinly to constitute complete class sets. Moving them to the storage space meant that the teachers could take turns borrowing the supplies as needed. However, since the supplies had been consolidated and relocated, the teachers rarely accessed them.

Carly identified four main reasons that the supplies were going unused:

  • The teachers don’t know what supplies are available to them.

  • The teachers don’t know where to find the supplies on the supply closet shelves.

  • The teachers don’t know how to use the supplies that are available to them.

  • The teachers are uncomfortable asking for the key to the supply closet.


Math Activities


Ainsley and I had found our focus.

Throughout the week, when we weren’t conducting observations, we organized and took inventory of the supply closet. We began to brainstorm a better location for the teacher resource room with Carly and Gertrude. Then, we started to write instructions for activities that correspond to Zambia’s math standards using the resources that the teachers already have. During our workshops, these activities will be modeled, and we will show the teachers where they can find the supplies to carry them out in their own classrooms. Our goal is to empower the teachers to use all of the resources that are available to them to make their lessons more dynamic and effective.

Our first workshop is on Friday, and we’ve just been informed that teachers from other community schools in the compound will also be in attendance. I am looking forward to learning from all of the teachers as we collaborate and brainstorm ways to increase the students’ understanding of math, within the classroom and out of it. Chikumbuso’s teachers are talented professionals who are passionate about their students’ learning. I feel blessed to have the opportunity to deepen my knowledge through their vast experience as I share my skills and information with them.


THIS IS WHITE. He is four years old and is visiting his Auntie Gertrude (the live-in principal of Chikumbuso) for a few months, along with his mother and baby sister. He has grown up in a remote rural village far from Lusaka, and he’s enjoying many strange new experiences in the city.


White told Auntie Gertrude that he doesn’t understand why he’s here eating nshima and greens every day while the pumpkins on his community farm are probably spoiling since he’s not there to eat them. And why does everyone buy produce at the store, anyway, when the earth can grow all sorts of vegetables for free? White is also very concerned that his mother is becoming so comfortable with city life that she is neglecting her motherly duties. One day, he carried his crying little sister to the Chikumbuso kitchen hut, where his mother was having tea, and threatened, “When we get back to the village, I’m telling father that you have abandoned your children so that you can sit and drink tea with these city women.”

White is an old soul and is not afraid to voice his concerns and opinions to the appropriate authority when he deems it necessary. In fact, there seems to be only one thing that actually scares White: white people.

White is absolutely, positively terrified of white people. Every time Carly, Lisa, Ainsley or I drive into the school, White drops everything and runs full speed into Gertrude’s house. Sometimes, we catch glimpses of him spying on us from behind a door or pile of rocks, but he disappears as soon as he notices that we’ve seen him.

One day, he solemnly and thoughtfully approached his Aunt Gertrude. “You’d better not spend so much time with those mazungos,” he warned, using the Nyanje slang word for white people, “someday they might eat you!”

Gertrude laughed and assured him that we were harmless. “Mazungos are people just like us, Whitey. They sleep in houses, eat nshima, and drink water just like you and me.” White was quick to inform her that mazungos do not actually sleep in houses. He is sure that white people fly around in the sky at night, looking down at little children like White, waiting to gobble them up. Mazungos simply cannot be trusted.

Carly has made it her mission to make Whitey her friend. She has discovered that although White is terrified of her, he cannot resist the temptation of cake. The first time that Carly brought White a piece of cake, her mother was visiting her from the United States. Carly and her mom lured White out of Gertrude’s house with a tasty chocolate slice. He waited for his mom to try it first, of course, just in case it was poisoned.

Finally, he ventured near to where Carly’s mom was holding her hand out, offering him a piece. As he very slowly and skeptically began to nibble on the piece in her hand, Carly’s mom picked him up and plopped him onto her lap. White sat frozen in terror for the minute or two that she kept him there. When he was released, he ran as fast as he could to his mother. Wide-eyed, he exclaimed, “Mommy! Mommy! I just sat on the mazungo’s lap, and she didn’t even bite me!”

Since then, Carly has continued to bring White cake periodically, and he is slowly warming up to her. He still hides from us most of the time, but every once in a while, when his mother is nearby and he feels safe enough, he waves to us. Recently, with a bit of cajoling (and a piece of cake given to him earlier in the day), he allowed me to take his picture (I asked first with gestures and hand motions because he doesn’t speak any English). Carly is confident that Whitey will be her friend by the time he leaves Chikumbuso.


I can’t help but compare White’s experience to my own first week in Zambia. Just like White, I came here with all sorts of misguided preconceptions. But even after just one week, I have been repeatedly humbled by the realization of how little I actually know. With each passing day, I learn more about Zambian culture, humanitarian aid worker culture (because it really is its own culture), and southern African culture. But the greatest lesson that Africa has taught me so far is that we are more similar than we are different.
During his visit to Lusaka, White has experienced many new things, some of them challenging, some of them strange, and some of them pleasant. Soon, he and his family will return to his village. He will tell the other bush children stories about his adventures in the big city and his interaction with the fabled mazungos, who may actually just be people, after all.

The Compound and Chikumbuso

Background photo by Ainsley

You can’t see the compound until you’re in the compound. Hidden from city street view by tall, cement and brick walls, the “compounds” – or ghettos, shantytowns, slums – exist throughout Lusaka. I was completely oblivious that we were close to the Ng’ombe compound, which is home to Chikumbuso, until we were turning into it.

Carly picked Ainsley and I up on Monday morning and helped us to load our suitcase full of school supplies into her truck. To say that it was heavy is an understatement. Among the supplies that were donated to us or that we purchased for the trip were 20 boxes of pencils, 10 watercolor palettes, reams of construction paper, clear page protectors, pens, colored pencils, post-its, math flashcards, rulers, curriculum workbooks, a protractor, and about 100 bottles of vitamins (which were donated by EcoSet). How we managed to fit all of it into one Mary Poppins-esque suitcase is beyond me.

I had overcome my jetlag by Monday morning and was excited to start my first day at Chikumbuso. As we drove through Lusaka’s busy streets, I watched the morning commuters drive and bicycle to work and wondered what kinds of jobs they held, how many children they had, and what their daily lives were like. My thoughts were interrupted by a violent jolt as Carly turned the truck onto a narrow dirt road between two walls. Suddenly, I found myself in a different city, a different world.

Photo by Ainsley

Photo by Ainsley

Chickens and children dashed out of our way as we bumped and bounced through the tin-roofed shacks, makeshift markets, and front-step beauty parlors where mothers braided their daughters’ hair. Women carried their babies on their backs in the colorful chitenges that I’d seen for sale in the artisan market the day before. Dust billowed out from beneath our tires as we navigated the narrow passage. We hardly had room to drive straight, but somehow Carly managed to narrowly avoid gaping potholes and sizable ditches with experienced ease. (click on any photo to see it larger)

The market

Dried fish, Kwacha is the local currency

Children in front of a market stand

Some boys with their “car”

Typical architecture in the compound

Soccer field in the compound

“Daughters Centre”



After a short drive into the compound, we arrived at Chikumbuso’s large front gate. The security guard smiled widely when he peeked through the middle of the doors and saw Carly. We drove into the center of the small cluster of classrooms and parked next to a precariously tall, wooden playground.

Carly led Ainsley and me into Chikumbuso’s main room, a community center that was once home to one of the compound’s many bars and brothels. Now, its brightly painted walls are adorned with pictures of smiling children, paintings of the school’s sun logo, and beautiful handmade bags and jewelry that are sold to support the project. A few women from the widows group sat on a carpeted platform nearby, weaving discarded plastic grocery bags into colorful patterned purses.  You can purchase these bags to directly support these women – see the details at the end of the post.

Sun Logo

Main Room of Chikumbuso with Sun logo

Women weaving bags, photo by Ainsley

Women weaving bags, photo by Ainsley

Woman weaving a handmade purse from plastic shopping bag remnants.

Close-up of a woman creating a handmade purse from plastic shopping bag remnants.

Handmade Jewelery, photo by Ainsley

Handmade Jewelery, photo by Ainsley

We were first greeted by Maureen, who laughed when I introduced myself, because she also goes by Michelle – due to her uncanny resemblance to Michelle Obama. After meeting some of the other ladies in the group, Carly led us outside to meet an American family that had just arrived to spend two weeks at the school. We soon discovered that Ann and Tony are also graduates of UCLA (GO BRUINS!) and will be leading math activities and games in the classrooms for the first two weeks of our trip. What a small, small world! The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, and their project and personalities couldn’t have meshed better with ours.

Carly lead Ainsley, Ann, Tony, their two sons, and me on a tour of the small school. We saw a multipurpose sewing room, where adolescents from the community can learn to make a living as tailors and seamstresses, and also where HIV/AIDS counseling takes place; a safe haven, where children who are homeless or are facing extra difficult situations at home can stay and sleep; a small nursery for single mothers who work at the school; a thatched roof “kitchen” hut, where three women prepare meals for 400 children and teachers every day; a small library; several classrooms; and the home of the school’s principal, who lives on-site for 24-hour supervision and caretaking of the children in both the safe haven and school. It was absolutely, hands-down, the most beautiful school I had ever seen.

The sewing room

Mary, the sewing teacher and HIV/AIDS counsellor who lost her children and husband to the disease

Mary, the sewing teacher and HIV/AIDS counselor who lost her children and husband to the disease

The Kitchen Hut

Near the “kitchen”

Photo by Ainsley

Classroom, Photo by Ainsley

After our tour, Carly and I sat down to unpack the suitcase full of supplies. We decided to start distributing the vitamins immediately, so I followed behind her as she walked to the first grade classroom to pass them out. When we entered the room, the kids were all lying next to each other on the ground like sardines on a little dirty rug; it was their nap time. The teacher told us that it was time for them to wake up anyway, so she gave the signal and they all jumped onto their feet and swarmed around Carly with their little arms extended and their hands waiting excitedly for their treat. Carly reminded the kids that these were vitamins, and they had to take the whole dose in order for them to be effective. Still, I watched several of the children place one of the two gummies in their pocket to give to their siblings when they got home. I’ve never seen children so happy and excited to receive vitamins before. I was humbled and heartbroken.

Michelle with the Vitamins, photo by Ainsley

Michelle with the Vitamins, photo by Ainsley

Carly handing out the vitamins

Eager for their gummy vitamins

Eager for their gummy vitamins

We continued from class to class, and Carly left bottles with the teachers to be given to the more malnourished kids on a daily basis. When we returned to the community center, Lisa (the on-site director of Chikumbuso) was holding a drawing to raffle off the adult multivitamins and prenatal vitamins to the widows. When the last bottle was given away, I was showered in hugs, kisses, and thanks. Again, I was humbled and heartbroken.

Women with Vitamins, photo by Ainsley

Women with Vitamins

Ainsley and I spent the rest of our first day sitting in each of the classrooms and observing math lessons. I read a story in one of the classes, and we helped to tutor some of the children in others. At lunchtime, we ate the meal that had been prepared for us in the kitchen – a traditional dish of nshima (made of mealie meal cornmeal) and kapenta (small dried and salted freshwater fish). I’ll save details about our classroom observations for a subsequent post.


Kids playing and laughing


Focusing on the lesson


nshima and kapenta

nshima and kapenta

Our first day was overwhelming. Ainsley and I were blessed beyond words by the kindness of the teachers, the joy of the children, and the work of the amazing organization that we’re here to serve. We were taken aback by the level of poverty that we witnessed and the depth of suffering that some of these children have experienced in their short lifetimes. I am so grateful for the opportunity to be here in Zambia, and I pray that I can give back to Chikumbuso even a fraction of what they’ve already given me.



If you’d like to purchase a handwoven bag from the women of Chikumbuso, please see this page.  You can also stay up-to-date through their Facebook page.

First Impressions

Ainsley and I arrived in Lusaka yesterday at 1:30 PM. None of our bags were lost, and purchasing visitors’ visas was an absolute breeze. What a wonderful way to start our trip! However, since then I’ve experienced a series of technical challenges that have prevented me from being able to use my computer,  so I apologize for the delay in posting this blog.

First Impressions Carly, the director of education at Chikumbuso and my primary contact during the planning stages of this project, picked us up from the airport in a big, muddy pickup truck that’s owned by the school. She is a sweet American girl (I’m guessing she’s in her mid- to late-twenties) with blonde, curly hair, a big smile, and an even bigger personality. I liked her immediately.

As she drove us to the Zebra Guest House (our hotel for the first week of our trip), I peered out of the backseat window to catch a glimpse of the African landscape I’d seen so often in pictures. Lusaka is a beautiful city. Yellow grass and dusty roads with broad, branchy trees line the long stretches between buildings and wall-enclosed houses. The trash-filled streets, hungry children, and stray animals that I had expected were nowhere to be seen.

The first thing I learned about “Africa” is that I know nothing about Africa.

Zebra Guesthouse

The Zebra Guest House


Some of my first impressions:

1. It smells like smoke.

Zambians burn most or all of their trash and waste, so the city perpetually smells like a bonfire. It is especially smoky in the winter, when the cold, dusty air hangs low over the city. Dusty Road

2. It’s cold!

During the day, the weather has been quite lovely, but Ainsley and I weren’t quite prepared for how cold it gets at night. We both slept in our jackets and asked for extra blankets for our mosquito net-covered beds. It should warm up by mid-August, but the increase in temperature will bring more mosquitoes, so I’m not quite sure if I’m looking forward to it. My bed

3. There are a ton of expats living in this city.

After we dropped our luggage off at the lodge, Carly drove Ainsley and me to the supermarket to buy drinking water and groceries. I was surprised to find that not only were we not the only non-Zambians at the market, but we were the majority! As we walked down the aisles, I heard Australian, British, and American accents, and saw several Chinese and Indian people. It felt more like a UN meeting than a grocery store.

Western-Style Cafe

Western-Style Cafe

Eating at Cafe

Carly, Blaire, and Ainsley eating at the café

As I mentally processed the decidedly “non-African” scene I had just stumbled into, I learned from Carly that this was the norm in Lusaka.  Her roommate is a former Peace Corps volunteer who decided to move here permanently after her term ended, and all of their friends are non-Zambian.  Others I met explained that it’s simpler to keep their work and social lives separate; Zambians and Americans come from different worlds, and it’s just easier to relate to other foreign volunteers and aid workers who are living in the city.

Carly told me not to worry, I’d make plenty of expat friends during my time here as well. I couldn’t help but think: Why would I worry? Shouldn’t I look forward to meeting and connecting with native Zambians? I’d always imagined foreign aid workers and missionaries living closely with the people they serve, not going to (practically) all-white churches, grocery stores, and social gatherings. I found the reality here to be both interesting and troubling.

4. Zambians have their own ideas and preconceptions about foreigners, too.

Ainsley and I took a little walk in our neighborhood today to explore and take pictures. At some point, we came across two little girls walking arm-in-arm. When they saw us, they began to follow us. Every time we stopped to take a picture, they stopped walking and waited for us to continue. We carried on as if they weren’t there, except for the occasional exchange of smiles and one awkward attempt at an introduction (by us). They giggled at everything we said to each other and seemed completely fascinated by us.

As we walked, trailed by our two ducklings, we saw a group of young boys playing soccer in the road. They were laughing and cheering and smiling so big, that I decided to stop and take a picture. Just to be clear, before I came here, I promised myself that I’d never use local children as “props” for my photos and become the girl who went to Africa and her Facebook profile picture changed forever. I still intend to maintain that promise. I’ll only take pictures of people that I know and have established a relationship with, or people who expect to have their photos taken (such as the women in elaborate dresses selling souvenirs at the craft market), and only after I’ve asked for their permission.

But in this particular instance, I reasoned, the scene was just too perfect not to capture. The sun was setting, bathing everything in a warm, orange light, and the barefoot five and six year-olds were grinning from ear to ear as they practiced their most impressive World Cup moves. However, even though I was at a bit of a distance, the boys scattered as soon as they saw me pull out my camera. One of the younger ones ran up to me and yelled, “BOO!” and made “booga booga” sounds as if he was mocking what he thought that I assumed all Africans sound like. Some of the others yelled, “Praaaaise Jesus!” and “Jesus Christ!” assuming that I was another white missionary while laughing and mocking me. The whole encounter was extremely uncomfortable. I was overcome by emotions. How sad and strange it must be for them to feel like a tourist attraction. How rude and insensitive of me to treat them like a decoration to be photographed and shared! I learned a valuable and unforgettable lesson.


Two friends


Overall, my experience in Zambia has been much different from what I expected, but I love it. I’m looking forward to going to Chikumbuso on Monday and experiencing a less-sterilized, Americanized, and tourist-centered section of the city. I can’t wait to meet the teachers that I’ll be working with, and I am more than excited to meet all of the children at the school.