4 September 2014
I am crammed into a big, open-bed truck with 16 teenagers from villages across Northern and Muchinga provinces. We’re on our way back from a spectacular hike up one of Zambia’s tallest peaks, 1,800-meter-plus Mount Lavushi. As we wind our way along dirt roads to our final night’s camp in Lavushi Manda National Park, late-afternoon sunlight bathes us and the surrounding peaks in a warm light that mirrors how I’m feeling.
The kids – all participants in Northern Province’s first annual Camp TREE (Teaching Respect for Everyone’s Environment) – are the first Zambian tourists ever to visit Lavushi Manda. (Sadly, most Zambian’s can’t afford to visit their own national parks, and Lavushi Manda has only just begun to be managed for tourists of any nationality.) They are also the first such group to make the steep ascent to the top of Mount Lavushi, and the first to see its unique tropical alpine environment.
You’d think they might be tired after four long days of games, ecology lessons, and nature walks, but no. They are one big mass of exclamations and laughter. These boys and girls, who didn’t even know one another three days ago, are telling stories, cracking jokes, and sending out cheers of encouragement to every single person in the truck, one after another.
This may just be the happiest moment of my entire Peace Corps service.
I have rarely been surrounded by such an amazing group of people. These 12- to 16-year-olds have exceeded even my most optimistic expectations. Bright, eager, enthusiastic, and just plain fun, they have renewed my faith in Zambia and filled me with a joy that threatens to split my grinning face – and my heart – wide open.
For the past six months, I have put my energy – along with more than a few tears and curses – into organizing Northern Province’s first annual environmental camp for local teens. The idea behind TREE is to encourage young Zambians to conserve and protect their natural resources by fostering an appreciation of the environment that goes beyond using it for the daily necessities of farming and carving a living out of the forest. A common Bemba proverb, imiti ikula empanga, means “small growing trees make the future forest.” It’s most often used to refer to the importance of educating children, but the environmental parallels are obvious.
In the planning stages of Camp TREE, it seemed that everything that could go wrong did. I got sick with a mysterious neck lump that delayed my and fellow PCV Adam’s initial preparations. Then I had to re-write our grant – twice.
As a result, we didn’t get the grant money until three weeks before the camp, and when we did, the usual Zambian lack of infrastructure made it impossible for the bank to electronically send our payment to Kasanka Trust, which manages Lavushi Manda. Instead, I walked out onto the streets of our provincial capital, Kasama, with 22,437 kwacha (about $3,700) in cash – an almost inconceivable amount of money for most Zambians. As I stuffed my backpack with large wads of 100-kwacha notes that had been carefully and loudly counted out in front of about a dozen other bank customers, I thanked my lucky African stars that robberies in Kasama are even less frequent than in small-town Montana.
The last-minute approval of our grant set off a frantic flurry of planning, shopping, and organizing that would never have happened without the hard work and dedication of both Adam and the other six PCVs who helped to run Camp TREE. Our little group came together with a dedication and efficiency for which I am eternally grateful.
Of course, in the way of all good Zambian adventures, Camp TREE began with our arriving at Lavushi Manda four hours late, in the dark. This pretty much set the tone, and organized chaos remained the rule for the rest of the week.
In this context, how on earth is it that I’ve ended up here, surrounded by all these happy, shining faces? How is it that these kids have embraced with such enthusiasm our lessons about food webs, ecosystem diversity, constellations, and the inner workings of trees? How the heck did we manage to pull this off?
Perhaps because we were just so freaking lucky. Lucky to have such dedicated PCVs organizing the camp. Lucky to work with with Kasanka community development officer Ba Jonathan, whose boundless enthusiasm and rapport with the kids was a huge factor in the camp’s success.
Lucky to have had the constant behind-the-scenes support of another Kasanka staffer, Bastiaan Boon, who worked with us from the beginning and taught us all about the park’s wildlife habitat.
Lucky to have such an amazing group of kids, who have rolled with every schedule change, treated one another with kindness and respect, piped up to ask insightful questions, and showed a desire to learn that took me by surprise. These students have made every bit of work we’ve put into this camp utterly worth it.
Especially, I must selfishly admit, my own two Mfuba kids, Cynthia and Stephen (aka Bwalya). In fact, you might say that Stephen provided a good deal of the inspiration for holding this camp in the first place. From day one, I’ve known I would bring him. In my eyes, his desire to learn and sponge-like ability to soak up everything around him made him the perfect TREE participant. And sure enough, his name came up every night as a candidate for “Camp TREE student of the day” (I didn’t even nominate him!) On the final day of camp, the PCVs finally chose him for this honor.
But sitting here in the back of this truck, amidst this gleeful group of kids, it’s hard to see a single boy or girl who wouldn’t make a worthy student of the day. Hard to not see bright, shining futures for every one of them – and at least a glimmer of hope for the environment upon which they all depend.