Africa Co-Op Narratives

Education in Zambia: The Struggle for School

Story by Shelbe Van Winkle |

Photo by Marisa Kallenberger |

Out of all the countries I’ve traveled to, studied in, or even lived in, I never thought Zambia would be the one I returned to… that was until I got here. It wasn’t the beautiful orange African sunsets, nor the marvelous wonder that is Victoria Falls, and while the food was spectacular – that didn’t bring my taste buds crawling back. No, over everything else, what brought me back were the people; the motherly women who genuinely wanted to know how my days were, the helpful taxi and bus drivers that showed me shortcuts to my favorite places, and most importantly: the kids.

“I always knew I’d come back to Zambia.”

–Sidney Tolo, Zambia Dialogue 2013 & 2015

On a Northeastern Dialogue of Civilization field-study program, my service-learning site was a preschool called Kondwa Centre. This school was for children living in an extremely impoverished compound, or slum, within the capital city of Lusaka. There, children came for breakfast, school, playtime, and lunch. The two meals they received were often times the only food they ate during the day. The classes they were put in were not based on age, but rather on knowledge, and it was common to have a child repeat a grade multiple times. The four teachers that worked at the school were kind women, who genuinely wanted to help the kids, but were limited by lack of supplies and curriculum.

As more time in Zambia passed, I realized that this situation was not only uncommon, but it was a reoccurring theme. I began to understand that the flaws were not in the intelligence of the students, but rather the systems that are in place. Public schools provide what they can, but are limited by lack of funding and properly trained staff. While primary school tuition is free, school costs such as books, uniforms, and school supplies can quickly become a family’s biggest expense. Once a student gets to secondary school, (Grade 8), school tuition is no longer free, and it is commonly the point at which many children stop going to school. I have concluded that the education system in Zambia is not set up to help students succeed, but rather weed out those who cannot fit the government mandated mold.

Unfortunately in Zambia, graduating high school is a rarity. While on Dialogue, I quickly realized that the country needs more structures to help those struggling to access their human right of education. It was clear there was a need for a systemic change, but the likelihood of that happening in the near future was slim. So rather, many solutions that have sprouted came from outside the walls of the government, through non-profits and NGOs. These organizations work with vulnerable youth, advocating for their right to an education.

“Everyone got on the bus to leave for the airport… and I stayed.”

–Anna Butler, Founder & President of modzi

After leaving the Zambia Dialogue, I stayed in close contact with Anna Butler, Founder and President of modzi, a non-profit that works with vulnerable youth to help them gain access to quality education. Anna was a recent Northeastern grad, and started the non-profit after participating in the same Zambia Dialogue, just two years before mine. The more I talked to her about the kids in Zambia and the barriers that they had to face, the more I wanted to come back. It became more and more apparent to me why kids were repeating grades and failing out of school, and the need for organizations like modzi seemed obvious. These kids wanted to absorb as much information as they could; their determination to learn and succeed was contagious, and the roadblocks they faced were heartbreaking.

Since beginning my co-op in Zambia, I’ve continued to see the problems that plague the education system, noting that it isn’t lack of ability, but an absence of opportunity. modzi works directly with the youths affected by these problems, facilitating their access to not only school, but a quality education.

I’ve seen more in this past month than I could have ever learned about in a classroom. While to some non-profit work may sound straightforward and simplistic, on the ground it is a totally different story. Yes, one of the greater needs in Zambia is education, but sending money to a kid with the note, “go to school” isn’t the solution, because the problem isn’t solely a deficiency in funds. The problems are rooted deeper than just money: for one, infrastructure (daily power outages can cancel classes) and a general lack of schools, along with children’s need for advocacy.

I’ve observed that understaffed schools are unable to go looking for kids that aren’t in class. Public schools’ student bodies are not always mandated by the pupils’ lodging location, and a school can, and will chase a child away from class for having hair that is too long, shoes that aren’t polished, or a backpack that is tattered. Some children easily walk five kilometers to school everyday, because that is the only school that would accept them. I watched an extremely bright boy living at a center for vulnerable youth (similar to an orphanage), who had marks far higher than many of the other kids in his situation, almost get turned away from a public school because he did not play sports. Although his marks were well above the minimum standard, the principal wanted to enroll pupils that could boost the school’s athletic status. I witnessed another child get flat out denied acceptance to a school because he lived at a center. Social stigma is sadly another barrier that many have to face.

As these kids struggle to break the obstacles in front of them, sometimes missing a year or more of school or being held back a grade, they can fall behind academically. When they finally are able to get back into regular schooling, many are so far behind they struggle to keep up with the rest of their peers. A lot of my job as a co-op with modzi has been helping their students catch up, particularly in English and math. Most understand algebra as a concept, but the basics, such as simple addition and subtraction, hold some back.

“Zambia changed my life.”

–Claire Kalsbeek, Zambia Dialogue 2015

My co-op thus far has not only taught me about the importance of education, but the systemic challenges that are hidden to the unknowing eye. Worldwide, children are in need of quality education, as well as someone to advocate for them. I have first hand seen the difficulties that children are faced with, and been inspired by their determination. Education is not only a human right, but also a powerful tool that can change lives. Being in Zambia has helped me understand the challenges found in the country’s education system, and also see the positive impact organizations like modzi can have on a child. There are overwhelming obstacles facing the youth here, but fortunately, there are people like Anna, working to change the system, and help however they can.

%d bloggers like this: