Witnessing the shy but eager children waiting to be handed their tiny chairs to carry on their heads to the farm’s schoolhouse a five-minute walkaway is an affecting reminder of how fortunate I’ve been in my life. One assumes in a working democracy that it is an inalienable right to be educated, but here in this impoverished land, where economic activity lags — where girls of 14 are shocked out of puberty into motherhood — any sort of education has always been a privilege.
And it’s a special privilege for girls, which is why I decided, in celebration of International Women’s Day, to post a blog about the farm’s new preschool.
Three hard-working, dynamic sisters, all of whom are single mothers with preschoolers, took the initiative. The eldest of the three, Angelina Banda, who has worked as Chris’s personal assistant for years, headed up the project, while her youngest sister, Jenny Banda, agreed to fill the position of teacher at the new school once it was built. The third sister is my assistant chef and house manager, Adelina Banda. All of them are in their twenties; between them they have four young children.
At the moment the mud-walled schoolroom doubles as a church on Sunday, and was built and paid for by the farm workers themselves. In the days ahead, however, the farm will be creating a secure permanent structure to replace it.
The children, it seems, don’t mind where they learn. They can’t wait to attend class, be it inside or outside under the trees. And they are learning fast. When I first visited the school a few weeks ago, not one of the children would speak to me. They were nervous and unsure of themselves for they had not seen many white women before. When I went back last week to witness the handover of a generous donation of books and toys from a neighboring safari lodge, children ran up and hugged me, some chatted away in English, others teased me and frolicked around. With the help of Teacher Jenny, they joined together in song to express their gratitude, later turning to their natural-born rhythm, evident in so many happy children, to stomp and clap in perfect time.
Chris’s beginnings in Zambia were far from easy. In 2002 he’d lost his farm in the political turmoil of Zimbabwe, forcing him to leave the country in which he was born to start over from scratch, with nothing but a few household belongings. During the immense struggle of trying to turn around a new farm that had lain fallow for years, he also lost his beloved partner Jenny to ALS, or motor neurone disease, in 2009.
With fortitude and integrity, Chris and his management team have transformed the farm into a thriving operation. The opening of this preschool, therefore, is regarded by everyone as another positive milestone in the farm’s development. It is something Chris has hoped to do for years, and he’s committed to help it grow into an establishment of which the resident families can be proud.
On my part, I feel a deep commitment to helping the women in Zambia, particularly here on the farm. By assisting where we are able, Chris and I can give back to a country that not only took us in during difficult times in our lives, but gave both of us a second chance. For that we are forever grateful.