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The McDermott Scholars Award covers all expenses of a superb four-year academic education at The University of Texas at Dallas, in concert with a diverse array of intensive extracurricular experiences, including internships, travel, and cultural enrichment.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Zambia: interning with a non-governmental organization called Pact, describes Lusaka

I'm staying in a standard-hotel-type room in a small guesthouse, which, though expensive, gets me a clean room everyday and a kitchen in which I can make all my own food. It's in one of the nicest areas of Lusaka, where lots of government workers, diplomats, and business people live, and in fact the Zambian State House, the equivalent of the American White House, is the halfway point in my twenty-five minute morning walk to work. The State House is right across the street from Lusaka's main army base, and everytime I walk past I can't help but ponder that ironic metaphor for the power dynamics in so many African countries past and, though much lessened, present.

I work in a colonial-style compound house that looks more like it should be hosting embassy parties than the staff of an NGO. It's the middle of the dry season now, and if you drive out away from these suburban streets into the bush that surrounds Lusaka you'll find fields of dry brown grass dotted with still-lush green trees. By the cusp of the wet season in October or November, as the people hold their breath for the new planting season, even those trees will have lost their leaves. But for now I get a taste of the magnificence of the wet season in the colorful flower bushes that hang over the compound walls or sprout up along the sides of the streets. The neighborhood reminds me a bit of Plano, in fact, though they've substituted thick, high concrete or brick walls for chainlink or slat fences and each compound has the blazon of its particular security guard company posted on the metal gate. I suppose it's ironic that I feel so safe here when I'm surrounded by such an ominous vigilance, but I walk everywhere - to the supermarket, to the Internet cafe, to the pharmacy, feeling a bit as if I'd been transported to a tropical Dallas.

The rest of Lusaka is less prosperous. Neighborhoods range from the middle class, which have their own, smaller houses and walls but usually lack a security guard, to the compounds - Zambia's word for the slums. Stone and building materials are cheap here due to the leftovers from all the mines nearby, so at least there aren't the makeshift wood shacks so notorious in other large-city ghettos. But a neatly-built stone house with a tin roof might be bare inside. A family's possession's in the compounds are the real measure of their wealth, which is why Robert Mugabe's resettlement efforts just to the south, discussed here by the New York Times, are so devastating.

There's also another terrible secret - AIDS. The disease officially infects about 15% of the population, which is much less than some other nearby countries, but it's still having a devastating effect on the populace, particularly, and illogically, on the educated classes, whose power and comparative wealth is a strong temptation. Things have gotten bad enough among the teaching corps, for example, that public school students here often go to school in shifts; three sets of students receive instruction for only about three to four hours each day. And though I often see televised public service announcements targeting stigmatization, it'll take a bit of time before there's really a sea change in how people think here about abstinence, fidelity, the stigma of HIV, and the status of women here.

And just a bit about the nation itself: Zambia is about the size of Texas, with half the population - only about ten or eleven million - of which a million alone live in the capital, Lusaka. It's mostly flat and covered by bushlands, though there are several major rivers, including the Zambezi, which provide some of the continents' most exceptional game reserves. The major tourist attraction, though, is Victoria Falls, the magnificent Zambezi waterfall that Zambia shares with Zimbabwe. I'll try to get some pictures up here of that when I visit later on in the summer, because it's truly a sight not to be missed.