Being Taught the Value of Education in Zambia

Story by Olivia Arnold | arnold.o@husky.neu.edu 

Photo by Yasmeen Al-Haj | alhaj.y@husky.neu.edu

A good education is something many American children take for granted. I myself am no exception. I went through the moaning and groaning of having to wake up at the crack of dawn to drag myself to school, sit in a classroom all day and plow through calculus and physics.

I have always been aware of my privilege, especially in regards to educational opportunities. Still, I never understood the magnitude of that privilege until I began teaching English to Zambian girls through the nonprofit Vision of Hope.

On my first day at the facility, the girls, who were about 10 to 13 years old, begged me and two fellow Northeastern students, to teach them how to read and write in English. They also expressed interest in learning about mathematics and science. Immediately after we finished our day there, we took a bus to the local supermarket and purchased a couple of whiteboards and books.

The next morning, with three young girls huddled around me and jittering with eagerness, I began teaching them the first three letters of the alphabet. I had no prior experience teaching English at all, but I was willing to give it my best shot. I taught them what sounds the letters make and simple words that started with those letters.

After two straight hours of nonstop spelling and writing drills, I had to be the one to tell the girls that it was time for a break. The two other Northeastern students with me were also teaching a couple of girls, and we all went outside to play some jump rope and hand games. After a quick five minutes of fun, two of my girls ran up to me and excitedly demanded, “School! School! We want to go back to school!”

I was exhausted beyond belief. I had never realized the complexities that go into explaining the spellings of English words. But I wasn’t going to give up on them. I mustered all my energy and went back into the schoolroom. We spent another hour learning letters and words. By the end of it, the girls had shown significant progress and amazed me with their intelligence and positive attitudes.

Before leaving, I ripped out a couple pages from an alphabet workbook that I bought at the supermarket. Each page had a different letter on it that you could trace to practice writing. I handed one page to each girl and they beamed with pride.

When I walked in the next day, each girl tackled me with hugs and bursts of excitement as they showed me their completed homework. As I praised them all, they continued to exude more excitement and confidence. Immediately, one of the girls told me, “We want to go to school.”

I began teaching the three girls the next three letters of the alphabet. I tried to ensure that they were genuinely learning the material, not just memorizing words in the short-term only to be unable to recognize them later. Again, we spent hours on the material and the girls persisted through it, in spite of their mistakes and trip-ups over words. In the middle of teaching, one girl begged me, “Olivia, homework! I want you to give me homework!” I couldn’t help but wonder if an American student would say those words to his teacher.

By the third day, my girls were able to read some simple sentences. One girl read the sentence, “The boy has a banana.” I was so proud that I had to hold back tears. Still, we had a long way to go.

By the time I left four weeks later, the girls were able to recognize most letters of the alphabet, read some simple sentences and spell their own names. Their progress in just a matter of weeks was remarkable. These were valuable skills that they would need to know in order to be eligible to enroll in traditional primary schools.

Sometimes, volunteer work can be difficult, especially if you are working against huge global issues and outside forces that are not within your control. I know that I will not be able to solve poverty in Zambia. It’s foolish and pretentious to believe otherwise. However, by teaching the three girls some reading and writing in English, I felt like I was making a concrete, long-lasting impact. Knowing that maybe, just maybe, my work would improve future opportunities for the girls, made my time in Zambia extremely rewarding.