From July 2021 to January 2022, I lived in Livingstone, Zambia, working with On Call Africa (OCA) to improve rural health systems in the country’s Southern Province.
Throughout these months I watched the dry, cracked landscape flourish into swathes of leafy greenery. I felt weather comparable to a dry British summer day change into sweltering 40 degree heat, into days on end of thundering rain. I watched Victoria Falls, or Mosi oa Tunya – to call it by its proper name – transition from almost completely dry to full and thundering, drenching anyone in its vicinity.
Now, I’ve been back in my hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland, for just over a month and had time to properly reflect on my experiences in Zambia. When it came to writing this blog, I came across a quote by the late chef, Anthony Bourdain that particularly resonated:
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable.
Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart.
But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you.
It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, on your body.
You take something with you.
Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
When I saw this quote for the first time, my mind raced as I thought through a lot of things from my trip.
The first thing that came to mind from this quote was the thought of the physical discomfort I experienced. I thought of the long journeys in the On Call Africa land cruisers to the rural villages where we worked. I thought of 4+ hours on winding, potholed roads, with each new bump sending a fresh jolt up my spine.
I thought of the nights spent camping here; tents, thin sleeping mats and sleeping bags placed on concrete floors. Being woken at 5am by roosters, goats and whatever other animals wandered nearby. Wrapped in countless layers during June’s wintery nights, and pouring sweat during the country’s warmest months.
I remembered the bugs. I think I will always remember the bugs. Sharing my space with monstrous cockroaches, spiders that sped along the floor beside me, and ones that sat ominously still on any and every wall. Religiously bug spraying myself every night in the hope that the mosquitos would think better than descend on me, leaving my skin welted and itchy (again).
And yet, these physical discomforts pale next to the happy memories I have from these trips; sitting, cooking local dishes – nshima, okra and kapenta on a good day – over gas stoves with the On Call Africa staff, our Global Health Corps (GHC) fellows and other volunteers. In the background an eclectic collection of music playing from someone’s phone connected to the Land Cruiser speakers. We would sit under the stars in our camping chairs maybe having heated debates, learning about each other’s cultures or maybe just laughing and singing along to the music.
The physical discomfort was only a small niggle compared to the persistent, tugging uneasiness I felt during a lot of my time in Zambia, something I hope I have come to be able understand more now than I did when I was there.
I remember being out at these health posts in rural communities with OCA’s GHC Fellows, both Zambian, and seeing how facility staff would immediately turn to me to answer their questions, despite my comparative lack of experience in the development sector. As a foreigner, there was an inherent assumption about my wealth, my stature and my intelligence even though I had done nothing to earn this. I spoke at length with Adhi, one of the GHC fellows about it and the pervasiveness of the “white is better” attitude held by many in Zambia.
Even outside of the work itself, in the touristic city of Livingstone, I experienced a bizarre, almost celebrity-esque status. Local people would ask for photos with me – sometimes just of me. It was a rare day if I went to the supermarket and someone didn’t ask for my phone number. I was always acutely aware of being stared at wherever I walked the streets.
For most of my stay, I struggled to process and articulate the guilt and uneasiness I felt from these experiences and why exactly I felt this way. Now I realise it was one of the first times my status and privilege as a western white women had been laid so bare in front of me. The realisation really shook me and I came to question the benefit of my volunteering in the first place. Who was I really? A fresh Masters graduate with precious little professional experience being sent out to work on important projects alongside genuine development professionals. I didn’t speak the local languages, I drew attention and the guilt I felt for this was enormous.
And yet, wallowing in these feelings of guilt, I realised, wouldn’t help anything or anyone. Privilege in and of itself is not inherently bad. I can do nothing about the circumstance that I was born into, but I could try ensure that I was using it right. And so I endeavoured to throw myself into the work with OCA and use the knowledge I did have in implementing and improving their programmes. I could listen and I learn as much as I could from the people around me and hope that maybe, they might even learn something from me.
When all is said and done, and to echo the words of the late Anthony Bourdain, this experience and this journey really have changed me. My perspectives have changed and expanded so much over what is a relatively short period of time. I am a better and wiser person for having taken this opportunity with OCA and for that, I can only thank the incredible country of Zambia and the incredible people I was able to meet there.
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