A Passion to Pioneer Educational Expansion in Africa•
At the ripe age of 17 I took on the role, along with two of my high school classmates, of co-president of the African Education Program (AEP), a non-profit 501c(3) organization. I grew up with the desire to engage in community service and was always looking for different ways to serve, so when the opportunity to create AEP presented itself, I did not hesitate. Although AEP is based out of my hometown of Radnor, Pennsylvania, our mission is to provide educational opportunities for students half way across the world in Kafue, Zambia. Initially, our objective was to collect donations and educational tools to send to schools abroad. By the time the two other members and I graduated high school we had collected 7,000 textbooks and 10 computers and had raised over $10,000 to ship it all to Zambia.
Zambia and the continent of Africa as a whole is a place plagued with extreme blight. The opportunity to acquire an education comes infrequently. In Zambia, public education is free until the 8th grade; however, students are still required to pay for uniforms and school supplies. With 68% of the population living below the international poverty line of $1.25 (U.S.) per day, this trivial requirement can be daunting. This is only one contributing factor to the frightening reality that only 85% of the children of Zambia attend elementary school. In addition, high school fees are around $150.00 to $200.00 (U.S.) dollars a year. Sounds like a steal, right? But only 21% of girls and 27% of the boys continue on to high school and a measly 5% will go on to attend college. Despite the day to day tribulations, the people of Zambia are some of the most friendly and vibrant I have come across. The Zambian culture celebrates the happiest of moments as well as morns the saddest with song and dance. It is a place where the word family does not always insinuate a blood relation, and tradition and culture are unique. After graduation in 2005 I found myself on a plane traveling to Zambia to witness our efforts first hand. I have traveled back twice since and with each journey I find myself uncovering further, the real Africa.
AEP had been put in contact with the Kafue community through my club soccer coach, Dave Chalikulima (aka Chali), whose family continues to reside in Zambia. One of Chali’s brothers, Amos, lived within the Kafue community for several years, until his wife passed away due to her battle with HIV/AIDS infection. Amos Chalikulima was a bright man with two sons, Kapota and Paul (PoPo). The Chalikulima’s were our guides, friends and after three weeks, they became family. We spent every waking moment with them. Late nights were spent around the fire sharing life stories, Castle beers, and Reds cider. Our days were spent in the town of Kafue, Amos as our gracious ambassador. He was our bridge to Kafue and he allowed us to gain the trust of the people.
Stepping into the Kafue community for the first time reminded me that I was thousands of miles from my quaint town of Radnor, PA. Kafue sits along the only major paved road and as we turned onto the dirt path children began to follow our vehicle. Kafue is not a tourist community and most people have had little to no interaction with Westerners. “Muzungo, Muzungo” they would cry, referring to our bright white skin. So much for thinking I had a nice, sun kissed tan. The air was wafting with the smell of burnt grass and wood. It was dry and, surprisingly, a little chilly, albeit it was their winter. As we stepped out of the jeep in front of the Malundu school students approached us with curious faces and a bit of hesitation. We had a brief photo op with a group of girls headed to school until the head mistress interrupted the moment. The Malundu school was just one of many we had planned to distribute textbooks too. Unfortunately the container of books arrived a week after we had departed. Despite this unfortunate circumstance, the trip was not futile. We spent the three weeks sitting in on classes and engaging with the students. The first few days we felt excited and eager to make a connection with the students. It was a difficult task because, although the students were interested in us, wondering if we knew 50Cent as an example, they kept information about their lives concealed. It was Kapota and PoPo who helped break the ice. We quickly discovered that school days consisted of half-day sessions. Due to the limited amount of space in the classrooms, there was a group of students who went to school in the morning and a group who attended in the afternoon. When asked what students did in their spare time, they merely shrugged and said, “Nothing.” We continued to try to break down the walls that they had put up, but they remained resistant. We had told them that we were bringing books and computers, but they saw nothing but empty promises. They were reluctant to believe us, but as we began to fulfill our promises and returned to Kafue several more times throughout the years, they began to slowly let down their shield.
Five months after I had said good-bye to my good friend Amos, I received a sullen phone call from Mario (the mother of one of my co-founders and the backbone of AEP). She asked me to sit down and proceeded to inform me that Amos had passed away. She told me that Amos was infected with HIV/AIDS, which he had kept private from us while we were visiting. Before his death Amos wrote a letter to the four of us (Julie-Anne, Hillary, Mario, and I) at AEP. One part of the letter read: “My greatest aspiration is that some boys and girls will reward “our efforts” by embracing the culture of reading and seek knowledge for them to become better successful citizens in the society.” Everyday AEP takes steps with the hope of making Amos’s dream a reality.
After our first visit to Zambia it became clear that our mission was bigger than just providing books and computers. In 2006 the Amos Youth Center opened its doors to the students of Kafue. To date the Amos Youth Center (AYC) houses a full library and computer lab. It holds its own drama club run by students, who perform skits that illustrate the false stigma that is attached to HIV/AIDS. AYC has also established a scholarship program for HIV/AIDS orphans, whereby members of the Radnor, PA community can sponsor a student by sending them to school. Furthermore, in 2008, AEP established the breakfast club, feeding over 70 students one meal a day. Oh, and my personal favorite, the AYC soccer team, which competes against other teams in the nearby area. AEP is about to take on the task of building a new youth center, which will also house dormitories for some of our scholarship students. Our efforts are never-ending because I cannot get enough of the smiles that AEP/AYC brings to the faces of the Kafue children, my friends that I have come to care so much about.