"Curse or blessing
It seemed as if the whole class had received an advertisement leaflet of Shoprite, one of the biggest supermarkets operating in Zambia, and started writing their literacy exercises in it. I saw milk at half price, and a load of mangoes going very cheaply. I tried to imagine my five year old niece going to school in September carrying a maths book decorated with chicken thighs at a reduced price.
Through Skype my father told me that this wasn’t such an absurd idea. He vividly remembered the newspapers that covered his own schoolbooks as a child.
A principle in Economics states that what is scarce becomes precious. And what is precious is well looked after, even if this implies that adverts or endless political analyses are wrapped around a maths book.
The Zambian Ministry of Education tries to provide the necessary books for the government schools. However the majority of the Community schools are still not included in the budgeting. For this reason the Empowering Community Schools Through in Service Education (ECSITE) project, foresaw the purchase and distribution of pupil books and teachers guides among other things, for 750 Community Schools in Central and Copperbelt Provinces.
The assignment seemed straight forward: 750 packages for as many schools. We would use the existing structures and deliver them to the District offices of the Ministry of Education. After that, we counted on the ministry structures and the schools themselves to deliver the packages to their final destination, the 750 community schools.
We received a well-structured time schedule and a truck. In practice though, it became a lot more complicated than it looked on paper! The tight planning didn’t fit too well with a heavy truck and a stubborn driver. Add to this a bit of bureaucracy and it becomes clear why we were stranded at the weighbridge for a couple of hours!
'Your truck is too big. It needs flags.'
'Yes, red flags. It is abnormal size.'
'Really? It is not bigger than the other trucks. They don’t have flags…'
'Yours needs flags. It is abnormal size.'
'Where do we get the flags? Do you have flags?'
'No, I don’t…. '
The man on the other side of the window turns his head and pretends that we have dissolved into thin air.
'Excuse me,… Excuuuse me! Where do we get the flags?'
My colleagues aren't easy to get rid of. They insist until the man feels obliged to turn his head again.
'Just use something red'
'What do you mean?'
'Just use a red scarf or t-shirt, anything you can find.'
The man behind the glass nods. Maybe the three pairs of staring eyes became too much for him. We walk back to the truck.
'What colour are the socks you are wearing?', I ask my Zambian colleague.
He chuckles: 'Blue, yours?'
I put my bare feet with slippers in the air.
Half an hour later we are back on the road. On each side of the truck dangles a red t-shirt we bought at the local market. It is an unusual sight and it is not clear to me, if other road users recognise our truck as 'abnormal size'.
After four creative days the truck is empty. 750 packages are somewhere on their way to a Community school. These are survival packages. In schools where classes of 30 pupils or more are no exception, an ECSITE package will contain only one pupil’s book per three or four students. But it is better than nothing.
This is in huge contrast with the piles of books for each student at the beginning of each school year in Flanders, where I am from. Books in Belgium have become self evident and are sometimes cursed by the pupils, while in Zambia they are still a welcome blessing."