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Down to work in Kasama, Zambia

In an extract from his blog, Tom Collins, who is currently volunteering with VSO Ireland as a Financial Management Advisor in Zambia, discusses his first three years on placement. Tom previously volunteered in Cameroon from 2008 until 2011, where he worked as Institutional Development Advisor to the Maga local council in the Far North region of the country.

Comparisons with Cameroon

I have now been working in Northern Province for three weeks. Up to now the team has been trying to support five local councils but it has been decided that we should narrow down our efforts to three – Kasama, Mbala and Mpulungu. We are based in Kasama – Mbala is 170 kilometers away and Mpulungu is 30 kilometers further on. We stay in Kasama every second week, where there are provincial offices as well as the council, and in the alternate weeks we stay in the Mbala/Mpulungu area. Mpulungu, which is on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, is the least developed area and is the most similar to the towns and villages that I have seen in the Far North of Cameroon. 

Tom with colleagues in Kasama, Zambia

I tend to compare everything with the Far North of Cameroon since it was my only other experience of working in Africa. In fairness to Cameroon, the Far North is probably the most deprived in the country and other provinces are also not as advanced as Zambia. The council employees here are more committed to their work and turn up more promptly to meetings. Having said that, sometimes they do not turn up at all even though they have not cancelled. They all have laptops but technology has been introduced in a haphazard way and is not used effectively. The councils have impressive strategic plans but the reality diverges substantially from them. Council employees can take a half-day on Thursdays to play sport. Despite its shortcomings I find it encouraging that Zambia is so well advanced.

However the benefits of this advancement have not percolated to remote areas. I visited a remote village to meet a school development committee and in many respects it seemed as poor as typical villages in the Far North of Cameroon though the school was vastly better than the ones there. The village was a long way from the main road and the access road was very difficult to negotiate. This was not helped by boulders and fallen trees which partially blocked the way. Two months ago a new chief was appointed to replace the previous one who had died. The villagers did not approve of the new chief and tried to block the road. However he managed to clear the impediments sufficiently to reach the village, whereupon he was set upon and killed.

Women's rights in Zambia

I participated in a two-day workshop in Kasama to prepare a gender action plan for the province and this was useful for meeting people and learning about circumstances here. One thing that I learned was that Zambia is one of the worst countries in the world for violence against women. The forthcoming referendum covers a Bill of Rights which will seek to strengthen women’s rights but there is clearly a very long way to go on this. I enquired about polygamy in Zambia and was told that it is legal here and will continue to be so but that it is not prevalent in Northern Province except in some remote villages. There was mention on the radio of a prosecution of a father for marrying off his fourteen-year old daughter (a dowry is paid to the bride's father). It is not just women's rights that need to be protected.  A local man was sentenced to 25 years' hard labour for offering his 11-year old son for sale in a market. His asking price was 11,000 Kwatcha (equivalent to €1,000).

The workshop that I attended was held in a primary school which was built by Irish Aid. It was very well equipped. Next door to it was a school for teaching trades to young people with special needs. It was set up by a Catholic Brother, Dominic, who came here from Drumcondra a long time ago. He plays the flute, reputedly very well. I have met him but have yet to hear him play.

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