June 2004: Still, patient, wide-eyed, they look at us: shiny clean muzungus (foreigners) piling out of a bright white van, interrupting what turns out to be a game of Red Rover. Some of the older children practise their best school-taught English on us, "hellohowareyoui'mfine," and reach out to touch–the first of hundreds of hands we will shake over the next two weeks.
We are in Zambia, ground zero of a dual AIDS and poverty epidemic, and this is our first encounter with some of its youngest victims: the orphaned children of a disappearing generation.
We are here for an intensive 14-day course in development work, with film crew in tow. The students, 16- to 17-year-olds, are hungry to make a difference, to bring back a documentary that will open people's eyes, hearts, wallets—maybe even stir some political will. One girl, Kasia, explains: "My nice Canadian life isn't enough. I'm going to be crazy and be idealist. Too many people compromise."
In the weeks leading up to the trip, our hosts, CARE Canada and CARE Zambia, had prepared us for the grim reality we were soon to encounter. A peaceful nation, Zambia doesn't generate a lot of noise in the western media, but its situation is bleak. Zambia is the world's poorest post-conflict country. The average life expectancy is 37 years, HIV-AIDS infection rates are estimated at between 20 and 45 per cent, and graveyards are so full that a desperate government is trying to persuade its people to embrace cremation as a burial option. We had been bracing ourselves for the worst.
And at Kondwa House, a haven for AIDS orphans aged three to nine, I did feel ready to burst, and offered silent thanks for the cover of sunglasses.
But this was not a scene of misery. These were gorgeous kids: barefoot, dusty and scuffed-kneed; parentless, poor and facing uncertain futures no child deserves, but also laughing, safe, and loved–at least during their time at Kondwa House. As Angela, the director, and herself an orphan, told us: "This is a happy place."
Somehow, that made it harder to bear.
There were guilty confessions when we returned to our hostel that first night. Inured to scenes of misery on TV and in newspapers, meeting these children–mischievous, curious, shy, bold, full of play–shocked us into getting it. These were real children, flesh, blood and spirit, who deserved better than a world that seemed indifferent to their plight.
During our two-week stay, from our base in the capital, Lusaka, we visited food distribution warehouses, hospitals, feeding centres, community schools, youth centres. Every community we encountered was confronting hunger, sickness and the loss of its young people.
So how do 10 Canadian teenagers, seeing for the first time how much of the world lives, respond? We educators love to speak of "transformative learning," and I confess that I had hoped this trip might be just such an experience. But the temptations of retreating to a cocooned existence in North America can be overwhelming, and I did wonder whether, as the months passed, the urgent desire to do something, anything, to help, that the students struggled with during our trip, might not soon recede in the face of more immediate pressures: university applications, Advanced Placement exams, co-curriculars, after-school jobs, relationships. In my most cynical moments, I wondered whether, for some, the trip might not become just excellent CV-padding.
So I was fascinated to hear from them, a year later, as they set off for university and the first stages of adulthood, how the trip had affected them, what had changed for them, and what had stayed with them.
Phil, who is taking a gap year before heading off to the University of Chicago, writes: "To be completely honest, I was frightened and slightly apprehensive about our trip to Zambia. I have not really had much experience with human tragedy in my life, and by all accounts–World Vision infomercials and occasional, desperate news stories–the situation in Zambia was sure to be pretty grim.
"I shouldn't have worried. The main emotion that emerged for me from this trip was hope, not despair. Putting a human face on suffering does make it more real and more disturbing, but being able to see, first-hand, the determination and resourcefulness of the Zambian people in the face of this suffering was, for me, the true benefit of going to Africa.
"This trip was one of the defining experiences in my life to date. I am still not completely sure what it is I want to do with the rest of my life, but this experience has definitely steered me in the direction of humanitarian work and international development. The experience has affected me in more subtle ways, as well. Since returning from Zambia, I've become a vegan, and refuse to purchase new clothes or nonessential consumer goods. Change starts on a personal level, and it is ridiculous to speak out against the excesses of western living while neglecting to change your own lifestyle."
Kasia, "the crazy idealist," writes: "I'm not as smart as I was before I went to Zambia. Before I went to Zambia, I thought I knew a lot about international development. I knew what was wrong with it and how to fix it. In a way, that is why I went to Zambia. I wanted to be able to come home and tell people that fixing the problem of chronic poverty in developing nations was easy, if we just did something differently. But every day was filled with complex problems that challenged what I thought was right."
Kasia is also taking a gap year, before going on to Trinity College in Dublin, and is busy organizing screenings of the documentary (Crash Course: Canadian Teens in Zambia) and speaking about our experience at schools throughout the Greater Toronto Area.
She continues: "Zambia is a world away from Canada, but its people are very much like our family and our neighbours. This perspective is what drives me to promote our documentary and send the message that we have a common bond of humanity with the whole world. We need to reflect this in every decision we make, individually and as a highly privileged nation. I am so lucky to have had this opportunity and I won't let it be wasted–I plan to share it whenever possible."
For some students, who have now started university, the experience was a determining factor in choosing courses and majors. Ayaaz writes: "Personally, what worried me most was the feeling of helplessness that I was sure would confront me once we landed in Zambia. But the young people we met in Zambia were inspirational and motivating. The crash course experience has set in stone my decision to pursue medicine as a career, and I hope to return to Africa to work as a physician."
In a strikingly similar vein, Jane writes: "I was expecting to be depressed and upset. Looking back, I don't know how I could have thought that. I came out of this experience amazed by the Zambians we met. The entire experience really convinced me that I have to go into international development, that I have to do this for the rest of my life."
For others, who may not yet have a clear career trajectory, the experience nevertheless left its mark. Katie writes: "I'm still not entirely sure what I want to do with my life but I hope that I'll have the opportunity to continue to work with initiatives like this for the rest of my life. It changed my values, and I think that I'll live a less capitalistic life now, or at least I hope I will. I am giving more to organizations like CARE, trying not to buy clothing from companies that pay starvation wages–though as a teen into fashion, I must admit I still have room to improve my shopping habits..."
But for Katie, as with many of the students, a lasting impact seems to be a sense of hope, of possibility: "I think that too many people think that they are just one person and that they can't make any difference. I used to be one of them."
Part of this hope stemmed from the overwhelming response the documentary received.
Katie explains: "I was really worried that people wouldn't be influenced by our documentary, and I don't know what I would have done if that had happened. It wasn't until after the first screening that I realized what an impact we were making. So many people came up to us to tell us how moved they were and I knew that in those few hundred people we had made a difference."
The documentary dimension of this trip is a whole other article, but I will say briefly that it assuaged two ethical concerns I have about these types of experiences: First, how do we avoid exploitation when, in some fashion, we tread dangerously close to using the suffering of developing countries as "classroom resources" for privileged students? And second: How much energy and how many resources should we invest in an opportunity that is of benefit to such a small group of students?
The 10 students involved organized 12 screenings of the film, with audiences of several hundred peers, raising several thousand dollars in the process. It's not the only answer, and it's not a perfect answer, but it is a way to share the experience, and to give back to those communities who welcomed us so warmly.
So can one conclude, from the experiences of 10 students and one trip, that this kind of immersion is the Holy Grail of transformative learning? Not with an ounce of scientific credibility. But will I be doing this again? Yes.