Having been in the unusual but fortunate position to spend my first few weeks in Zambia completely alone, it gave me the advantage to appreciate where I’ve been staying on a more close-up level.
The village of Mwandi, I can’t emphasise enough, is absolutely wonderful. Though struck with poverty, HIV, Malaria complications and lacking in opportunity, I have never known anywhere to be so friendly, at peace and equal minded. Whether you were male or female, black or white, you were always addressed as an equal, which is still something we don’t see in many parts of the West. No one is condescended to- if elderly can work, they will work. If children can cook, they will cook. It’s a different world because of a degree of desperation there- the elderly need to work, the children have to cook. But, it’s one that has given way to so much positivity, that it’s impossible not to be in admiration.
The Homes for AIDs Orphans charity, for whom I’ve been working the last few weeks, is a fascinating project. It’s a totally grass-roots-started-out-with-nothing charity, and has grown and become more successful through small donations and gaining the trust of the locals- particularly the Village Chief who has granted them land from which to work, and publically commended their work. It does not end at building houses, but also now expands into childcare, support in the hospitals, and helping at the Elderly Care Home. They reach so many lives here in spite of being such a small team with so few resources. Even at camp, the living is basic but still very enjoyable. If you would be interested in working with them, and I very much recommend you do if only for a short while, then please visit their website on www.homes4aidsorphans.com
Homosexuality is a crime in Zambia, and after careful thought I made the decision long before I’d even arrived to stay in the closet for this experience. In spite of being an advocate for gay rights and equality, I needed to accept that this is a culture far from my own and my mission here is to help and learn about them, so that’s exactly what I did. However, I must say, there are times when it was difficult. I first came out when I was 17 and since then have treated my sexuality exactly as though it were any other- with comfort and acceptance. By this I mean, in simple chit-chat when someone might talk about their ex-girlfriend or ideal husband or what have you, I will join the conversation with the same contribution. This obviously was not something I could do in Mwandi, and I quickly started to feel antisocial. Conversations with me would effectively consist of me asking question after question after question about them, without contributing anything of my own. Eventually, the conversation would fall flat and I would strive to change the subject to something else. It felt somewhat frustrating! My agenda is not to push my political views, but simply to have conversations without feeling a need to be secretive and even something as simple as this was out of my grasp! Returning to a world of secrecy I haven’t known since I was a teenager reminded me of how lucky I am to live in a country that supports my right not only to marry, have children, work, but also the basic right to live a free and simple life where talking alone doesn’t feel like a risk! I loved Zambia, and I would go back but… This is the only thing that I would change about it, and it’s a very big thing.
This amount of time alone and this jarring appreciation of my rights back in the UK also gave me some time to consider important changes I would still like to see happen. On paper, our equality is golden, but socially there are still some changes I’d like to see, namely this tiring use of the word “gay” to describe something you consider in some way to be inferior. This isn’t, as people so frequently mistake, a ‘Straight People Vs. Gay People’ thing, as plenty of either seem to say it through either innocence or ignorance, or maybe an attempt to fit in or not rock the boat… Whatever the reason, it’s sending the message that it’s ok. Some come forward with the idea that language is ever evolving “you know, the word ‘gay’ actually used to mean ‘happy’”, but everyone recognises that this isn’t an evolution, this is using a word knowing it’s meaning in an effort to be comical or lighten the mood when you’re showing dislike. It’s not ok, and it is damaging. Someday, I hope to have children and when I do I don’t want their friends or themselves to have confused the meaning of this word. I remember, many years ago, I was helping at an after school club and a six-year-old girl pointed at a picture in a book and said “that’s gay!”
“What does gay mean?” another child asked her. “It means bad”, she explained. It’s not her fault for thinking that, she’s at an age where she’s learning the meaning of a word from the context in which she hears it being used. I’m proud and excited by the steps in equality this country and many others have taken in the last decade, but I’m concerned by the idea that children might learn the meaning of the word ‘gay’ to be ‘bad’. It might just send us backwards if my child’s friends confuse his or her Mum’s to be ‘bad’. I hope other adults, parents and future parents start to be more considerate to this soon, but just in case here’s a little chart that can help:
That’s a bit gay = That’s a bit lame
Ah, gay! = Ah, gross!
I don’t mean to sound gay, but… = I don’t mean to sound soft, but…
And so on…
It was also addressed to me by another UK volunteer at one point (and, again, let’s remember I was not out at this time) that it’s cruel for Gays to have children. Not because they believe there should be a male or a female, they explained, they believe children grow up healthily in a conventional or unconventional family so long as there is love. But because of bullies. “My kids would for sure bully the kids of gays, because that’s exactly what I would do”, he explained matter-of-factly. So, socially, it’s not just the “that’s so gay” lark that still needs to be fixed, but a general feeling and teaching of superiority that still comes from some communities here. Once you recognise another as your equal, then neither of you need to fear judgement. And isn’t that a nice idea?
As for the nearby town of Livingstone, this is an interesting place. Another you recognise as a place of poverty, but so much more developed than Mwandi it’s hard to believe they’re only two hours drive apart! Plenty of restaurants, shops, bakeries, and even a few ATMs! It’s worth a visit, though I must admit I think I’d be bored of it after a weekend. But the Victoria Falls are a must see! They took my breath away! They’re just… EXTRAORDINARY! And for everyone, locals and otherwise, to tell me the awe is more so from the Zimbabwe side… Well, needless to say, Zimbabwe has shot straight to the top of my list.
But, to conclude with the point I opened with, I truly loved Mwandi. I made some very special friends there, and felt so safe and welcomed into that community. I hope to have the pleasure of visiting and working alongside Paula, Dan and Matt again one day. And you should too!