Perspective: The Art of Seeing

Trip Start Jul 25, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Zambia  ,
Wednesday, August 22, 2007

"What we see depends mainly on what we look for."
- John Lubbock

Perspective is a position from which to view the world. It allows us to stand back and alternatively evaluate, judge, or simply contemplate our position to and in the world around us. Traveling is a good way to change perspective, but even on the road it is easy to fall into patterns, assumptions, and sheer blinkered vision. You begin to see the people on the side of the road trying to sell tomatoes or skewers of cooked meat through bus windows as "local colour" instead of people desperately trying to make a living. The hustlers on the street trying to sell you curios or get you to change money take on a menacing guise, rather than the friendly, ordinary guys most of them really are. You don't really experience a culture; rather you travel through a culture while clinging to your own as tightly as possible. Backpacker hostels, internet cafes, western food outlets, all these things surround you with other travelers and give you a false sense of closeness to home, to the familiar.

Occasionally fate intervenes, and like it or not, you are faced with a world very different from your own, and you are forced to see. What if you choose not to see? To simply try to get back to the banana pancakes, cheap beer, and thatch huts that attracted you to a place in the first place? Well, Helen Keller once said "The most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight, but has no vision." I have been guilty of this, as I suspect, have most travelers at least once in their journeys.

My latest dose of perspective was a gift. To be specific; his name was Gift, and he was a young Zambian social worker here in Livingstone. While I sat at an internet café, waiting for letters from friends or family, Gift walked in and sat at the computer next to me. Within a few minutes we were making small talk where I learned about what he did, and he learned a bit about me. I told him (with a certain slant to make myself look a bit nobler than the average traveler I suspect) that a lot of people in the West said a lot of things about Africa, but most of them had never actually been here. I said I wanted to spend a long time in Africa so I could know more of the "real" Africa and give a more balanced perspective in the classroom should or when I returned.

He thought this was a great idea, and invited me out to a village near Livingstone where he was going to the next day to meet some families and do assessment. Gift works for an organization that tries to advocate for women, especially young women, in the area of access to education and HIV/AIDS awareness. Where girls are not in school, they try to encourage them to attend and pursue an education that might help them improve their lots. Where girls are already in school, they try to help with school fees and ensure they are keeping up with their studies.

The following afternoon we climbed into a taxi and drove out to the village, called Libuyu Site and Service. This was a makeshift settlement just outside of the tourist trappings and services of Livingstone, Zambia's gateway to Victoria Falls. Approximately 3000 people live here with no electricity, no running water, and one hand pump to provide water for every person in the community. Houses are mud, stick, and thatch huts, most in various states of disrepair. The road is a dusty red clay that in the rainy season turns so treacherous that even 4x4's can rarely make it through.

Not that many people other than those who live here ever make the trek out. Our taxi driver, who had lived and drove in Livingstone for years, confessed he had never been in the area before and looked as interested, bewildered, and slightly nervous as I was.

Gift was coming out to meet and make an assessment of 10 young women in the settlement. He took notes on things such as grade obtained, currently enrollment in school or not, children belonging to them, HIV/AIDS status (if known), and other pertinent facts. We were greeted by Clayton and Patrick, the village chairman and secretary. They were soft spoken men who walked us around the village, treating me with respect and presenting their community and its people with dignity, while not shying away from the poverty and hardships they faced. We were later joined by Patricia, a woman who acted as a "matron" or guardian for the young women Gift and his organization hoped to help.

We walked from home to home where we were introduced to families. Benches, boxes, and tarps were produced for us to sit on, while we heard a little from each family and were told a bit about each of the girls. Of the ten girls (ranging in age from 16-21 years of age), six had babies of their own. Three of the ten were HIV positive, while some had yet to be tested.

Gift explained that many of the girls were forced to turn to prostitution, or take multiple "boyfriends" to earn a bit of money to survive and feed their families. Since this is a culture in which women, especially those lacking education and economic security, are second class, it is nearly unheard of for a woman to insist a man use a condom. As a result, babies are born and HIV and disease are spread. After pregnancy, the "boyfriends" nearly always disappear, leaving the girl in even more desperate straits with another mouth to feed.

Many of the girls cannot find the time and energy to walk and wait for water, purchase and cook food, care for children, work on building a house, and still attend school regularly. This is especially true if they are the most able person in a family. One girl, 18 years old and currently in Grade 10, lived with an old infirm woman who was either her grandmother or mother. She had a small infant, and the house she shared with old and young was two and half walls of mud and sticks. The remaining space was covered as best as she could with old plastic bags, and the house had no roof. When the rains came, they would be deluged by mud and water, and the home would be unlivable. I was told that there simply was no time or money to get the materials needed to finish the hut.

As we walked around the village, beautiful, poor faces peered out from behind walls and around corners. Children played in the street, pieces of string and plastic bags fashioned into makeshift kites, dancing in the dusty air. The chairmen and secretary had given me permission to take photos, and as I carried my camera around a young boy ran out from a yard and pointed an old rusted camera, the lens missing, at me. For a moment, I was the subject, not him. At the only well in town, a young girl in her teens jumped up and down on the metal handle, looking for the rhythm that would fill her container with the least effort. All around us, in this place of abject poverty and sickness, life thrived. Laughter spilled out of yards as we walked past. Life finds a way, in the face of seeming insurmountable odds. I thought of my worries about money on this trip, of fears and depressions, mostly self imposed, I had experienced, of the little petty worries and annoyances that occasional crept into everyday life on the road and felt humbled.

Perspective, it's a hell of a thing.

(Gift is working for a private organization. The Zambian government, while offering ARV drugs for free to people with HIV and AIDS does not offer universal education, or any particular social safety net. Less than fifty dollars can send a girl to school for a semester and help buy mealy-meal to feed her family. I told Gift and the village leaders that I was limited with what I could do to help, but that I would try to write and let people know that they are there, and that they are people with dignity, and most of all, great need. If you want to maybe do something, even send an email of support to Gift, contact me and I will put you in touch.)
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danayi on

That's why you're on this trip!
To see and show others what's out there! It makes a difference.

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