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Soulbound: Zambia

Travelers outfit village for health

by Kelly Huffman

The tour was titled “Africa’s Wildlife,” and it delivered. Zebras, giraffes, rhinos, lions, elephants and antelope all made appearances, much to the delight of the 24 travelers who had crossed an ocean to see them. But by the trip’s end, the thrill of seeing exotic animals had been eclipsed by a more intimate African encounter: a half-day visit to a village on the Lower Zambezi River. “To a person,” says Al Jones, who posed the question to his fellow travelers, “we all named it a highlight of the trip.”

The village, Chiawa, is a local cultural center, and residents rolled out the welcome mat with traditional dancing, a formal greeting from the village chief, and impromptu lessons on grinding corn. The villagers’ warmth and generosity—despite threadbare clothes, bare feet and meager possessions—astonished the visitors. They were also stunned by another fact of village life: pervasive illness and disease. Jones was appalled by the suffering he saw, including disabled children (one boy, his legs bent and splayed, moved about on callused knees) and a ringworm infection that plagued half the village kids.

Thanks to a previous visitor, the village had a supply of ringworm medication, but no one in Chiawa knew how to use it. No one, that is, except Jones, a retired physician and 1963 graduate of the UW School of Medicine. He stepped in to treat a boy with an especially bad case, and organized a brief how-to clinic with local mothers. Word came back a few months later that
his efforts had cured the entire village of ringworm. But it recurred. The next time, though, villagers knew just what to do.

Colorful textiles hanging at a craft village in Zambia feature images of giraffes and zebras, wildlife that tourists to the country are likely to see. The textiles are hand painted by local artists.

Colorful textiles hanging at a craft village in Zambia feature images of giraffes and zebras, wildlife that tourists to the country are likely to see. The textiles are hand painted by local artists.

Moved by their short visit, Jones and the other UW Alumni Tours participants donated money to buy chairs for Chiawa’s school—a bare-bones concrete room, with a lone chalkboard hanging askew on one wall. But the group wanted to do more. “We have so much and they have nothing,” says Jones. With the visit lingering in his mind a couple months after his return home to California, he contacted the group’s tour guide, Robyn Steegstra: What could they do? “I see this in tour after tour,” says Steegstra. “People want to contribute but they don’t know how. They often want easy ways to give back.” She credits Jones’ heroic persistence with making a real difference for area villagers. After extensive consultation with local residents, and a few false starts, the most pressing need came to light: a solar-powered refrigerator for a health clinic in a neighboring village. Workers there were doing the best they could, storing medications in a bucket of ice, because perishable vaccines—tetanus, polio, diphtheria—require refrigeration in order to be effective.

Then there was the matter of the missing nurse. In Zambia, Jones explains, nurses won’t come to work in village clinics unless there’s refrigeration already in place. “It’s such a little thing,” he says of the fridge, “but it means all the world to them.” It was an effort to see the donation through. More than two years elapsed between the UW group’s visit and the arrival of the refrigerator in its new home. All told, the tour participants contributed about $3,500 to purchase and transport the appliance. Along the way, the effort was buoyed by everyone from the manager of a local lodge (who flew the fridge from the capital city to the Lower Zambezi) to an itinerant graduate student with firsthand knowledge of the African bush.

The group’s generosity has inspired other travelers, all of whom have donated “on the spot” to support local efforts, says UW travel director Pauline Ranieri. Tour participant Cheryl House, ’66, sent a duffel bag of soccer balls (specially designed to withstand thorny, rocky playing fields) for local kids. Steegstra, the tour guide, led a fundraising effort that supplied a wheelchair for the Chiawa boy who is unable to walk. When Jones’ daughter recently turned 30, she used her birthday money to buy benches for the village health clinic.

Next up? Jones dreams of constructing a second building dedicated solely to obstetrics. There’s talk of creating a foundation. But donations flow more easily, he’s found, when travelers can see the conditions firsthand. “The need just totally blows your mind,” he says. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to do some good in Africa.”

It Takes a Village to Donate a Refrigerator

After visiting a remote village as part of their “Africa’s Wildlife” adventure with UW Alumni Tours, 24 travelers pooled their money and resources to donate a solarpowered refrigerator to a village clinic. Simple enough, right? Not really. The donation was a complex undertaking that spanned more than two years. Here are a few of the people who helped turn a philanthropic impulse into a changing reality:

Al Jones
UW School of Medicine,class of 1963. Spearheaded the donation effort

Robyn Steegstra
Tour guide. Acted as liaison between Jones and the village

Natalie Clark
Lodge manager, Royal Zambezi Lodge. Facilitated air delivery and local communications

Frances Davies
Graduate student, Capetown University, studying and living in the African bush. Advised Jones on the practicalities of village life

Rich Pettit
UW employee and tour participant. Transferred the funds to buy the refrigerator

Local Residents
Lower Zambezi River. Transported the refrigerator by boat and through the bush

Zambia facts

Capital: AL Lusaka
Population: 14.5 mil
Median age: 17.2 yrs
Life expectancy: 51.8 yrs
GDP: $61.7 bil
Currency: Zambian kwacha
Language: English

Natural resources

Copper, cobalt, zinc, lead, coal, emeralds, gold, silver, uranium, hydropower

  • slightly larger than Texas
  • until 1964, Zambia was known as Northern Rhodesia
  • nshima, made from ground maize and water, is the staple food
  • termite hills in Zambia can grow to be the size of a cottage
  • citizens expect friendly people to call on them, unannounced

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