Joan Schultz, Ph.D.
Registered Clinical Counsellor
A year ago I was asked if I would consider donating work for an orphanage in Zambia. My tasks would be to teach caregivers of orphans skills in family life and conflict resolution as well as providing trauma recognition and recovery skills for children recovering from tragedy. The task seemed daunting: What could be said to help these women understand children who have endured situations of which I had still so much to learn about myself? However, I took up the challenge and found myself in Africa last fall.
Upon arriving in Lusaka, Zambia at 6:30 a.m. on a fall day in 2005, my first impressions were not at all what I predicted they would be. The sky was softly lit pink and orange with the dawn, and the first thing that caught my attention was the sight of the outstretched branches of the violet-flowered jacaranda trees. Their beauty caught me off guard.
Further impressions followed. Someone has said the experience of Africa is an “assault on the senses”. Enroute to the Village of Hope, Kitwe via the four hour “truck tour”, I had opportunity to experience this firsthand. Charcoal dust mixed with body odor in close circumstances, smells of drying fish in the marketplaces, sights of tiny roadside stands created out of twigs and straw for almost any business imaginable, people walking everywhere, carrying jugs, pails and even washtubs filled with produce or water on their heads were smells and sights unexpected.
Then there was the poverty. The Village of Hope is situated by “Racecourse”, whose name is derived from what this jumbled mass of one-room mud huts was built upon. The population of this community within the city of Kitwe is not known entirely, since the number of adults and children living there fluctuate greatly from month to month. Estimates suggest that this area houses over ten thousand people, with more children than adults. Conditions are barely tolerable in warm dry weather, but in the rainy season, water floods onto the dirt paths, creating ditches of flowing sewer water two and three feet deep, with huge potholes that cause havoc for any motorized vehicle. Children drown in these ditches during the rainy season.
I visited villagers living in nearby “bush” communities who exist in even more poverty, barely able to eke out a living and hardly subsisting on “enshima”, ground corn meal, which does not provide nutrition necessary for maintaining growth and health.
In contrast, the Village of Hope is a place of safety and order. It is a place that has been constructed for the purpose of helping the orphans of parents who have died of AIDS. The Village provides residences where twelve children of various ages live in a family-like setting, cared for by surrogate mothers and “aunties” who have been hired to provide similar functions that parents do here, only under far different circumstances.
The children from nearby communities are welcomed here. Their stories of tragedy are overwhelming. Children who have been used and abused by relatives when parents have died. Children who have been abandoned without care, left to raise and provide for even younger siblings. Or even the surrogate mothers themselves, who have survived beatings and neglect themselves as children.
My tasks in coming to Kitwe seemed overwhelming. What could be said to help the caregivers understand the children who have lost so much, endured so much and have so little?
What I brought back from Africa was much more than I could ever give. My research theory on resilience became reality with my observations there. I observed that any child could be immensely happy when they are shown love each day and that joy can not only exist alongside poverty, but actually seems a more likely companion for it than wealth. I came to understand that having positive expectations for the future moves people out of hopelessness and depression into expansive mindsets of creative problem solving. I saw how supportive relationships, a sense of purpose in life and perseverance contribute to resilience, despite even the harshest adversities.
Next Psychealth: Part II, Fostering Resilience: Lessons from the African Perspective