My alter ego, the other Edem Djokotoe who inhabits the make-believe residential area called The 'Hood with its array of oddball characters, never passes up an opportunity for free food. In fact, the only invitations he accepts are those which come with the inscription—RSVP. Where he comes from, that means: Rice and Stew Very Plenty.
So when the real Edem Djokotoe got a real invitation to eat a real five-star breakfast over a real meeting with a real VIP, he decided not to pass up the opportunity. The breakfast meeting, on a more serious note, was with James R. Cook, the President and CEO of Children International, an American child sponsorship organisation called funded through donations from philanthropists in the US. He was in town from his base in Kansas City, Missouri to inaugurate his organisation's new centre in the heart of George Compound in Lusaka on June 3. The centre, which has a clinic, a pharmacy, a library, a feeding centre and a playground, will cater for some 8,000 poor and underprivileged children in the community and cost no less than US$450,000 to build.
That will bring the number of centres run by Children International in Zambia to three. The other two are in Kanyama and Chibloya, a crime-infested township where not even the police dare to go, and cater for a total of 13,000 children.
The organisation spends more than US$1.5 million per annum to keep the two centres in Kanyama and Chibolya running—money that comes mainly from individual contributions.
To be honest, it seemed very surreal to be discussing deprivation and poverty alleviation in the shanty towns of Lusaka from the eight floor of the Taj Pamodzi with the CEO of an American NGO who seems to know more about what is happening in Chibolya and Kanyama than most residents of the city do, with some of the people who donate money to sponsor Zambian children actually coming to rent houses in the compounds to see at first hand the people they help!
Over oatmeal, fresh fruit, chicken sausages, bacon and eggs, Mr Cook talked about some of the challenges Children International face. "When I was last here in 2006, many of the mothers I met in the townships were desperate for their children to have an education but then even as we try to help by providing sponsorship, there just aren't enough school places," he said.
"So how about building some schools to alleviate the shortage of school places?" I asked.
"We're not school builders. What we do is provide support to existing schools and partner with community schools," he said.
The more I thought of his answer, the more I felt that perhaps I shouldn't have asked him the question in the first place. Truth be told, building public schools across the country to educate Zambian children is the responsibility of the Zambian government, not foreign well-wishers.
But if recent disclosures are anything to go by, it is a responsibility the Ministry of Education has taken very lightly, allowing interlopers within the system to make a career out of stealing money meant for improving the quality of education for those children who have no choice but to attend a public school.
The worst case of grand larceny to be perpetrated in the Ministry of Education is extensively documented in the Auditor-General's report of 2001 for the financial year which ended on 31 December 2000. The report reveals the disappearance of K73 billion meant for the Basic Education Sub-Sector Investment Programme (BESSIP). It all started back in 1999 when government and a consortium of partners set aside the amount in question to boost the basic education sector by building new classroom blocks and upgrading old ones and to improve the supply of teaching and learning materials.
Part of the money came from the World Bank, the Africa Development Bank, Irish Aid, UNICEF, UNESCO, the British, Dutch and Finnish governments. Sadly, most of the schools that were scheduled to have been built were not constructed at all.
Those that were built were so poor in their workmanship that was clear the structures were not commensurate with the money that had been spent of them. Siasikabole Basic School in Choma was a case in point. Only K15 million out of the K79.7 million allocated for building materials was actually accounted for.
In 2001, a local company that was paid US$484, 249.60 by government to supply classroom furniture to 87 primary schools around the country reneged on the contract. How so? It failed to deliver more than half the consignment. But in a 100-paged report tabled before the Public Accounts Committee, the Education Permanent Secretary, Barbara Chilangwa, absolved her ministry and her staff of any wrongdoing in the disappearance of the money.
So much for the responsibility of building schools.
Last year, I got the chance to see the extent of interventionism in the face of dehumanising urban poverty. My research took me from the paediatric wards at the University Teaching Hospital (UTH) where severe malnutrition kills more children than any other disease to a community school feeding programme in Kanyama where almost 500 children are fed on high-energy protein supplement porridge five days a week. Coordinator at Chifundo Community School, Mr Kangwa Nkonde said 80 per cent of the children at the institution were orphans, left parentless by AIDS. This may be a small fraction of the 1.6 million children who, according to current government estimates, are orphans, 965,000 of these a direct consequence of AIDS-related deaths in a country where 47 per cent of the population are children below the age of 15.
A Children International survey carried out in Kanyama and Chibolya in 2003 revealed that 91.6 per cent of the people in the area were unemployed and earned their living vending and through illicit means. I am not much of a statistician, but I want to believe this figure is a microcosm of the 70 per cent of the population who live in abject poverty and can barely survive, let alone take care of the orphans in their families. As things stand, 30 per cent of all households in the country are headed by elderly people above the age of 65.
This is the reality I came face to face with last July when I found myself at the Chibolya Centre run by Children International. It was lunchtime and the 78 children fortunate enough to be on the feeding programme were tucking into plates of nshima, kapenta and rape. I couldn't help noticing a group of women and children at a distance, theirs eyes transfixed on those who were eating their lunch with relish and wild abandon. It was very evident they were hungry, but all they could do was sit and watch.
I found the whole scene quite depressing and I asked the project nurse, Mrs Pamela Sandu Kangwa how the Centre coped with the situation of having more mouths to feed than it could afford. "It is difficult. Many of these women come with extra children every time they bring those who are on the feeding programme to the Centre to eat. When there is some food left over, we give it to them but if there is nothing, they go home without eating. It is very sad but there is nothing I can do to help," she said.
In times like this, you begin to think about miracles—about ways to multiply five loaves and two fishes to feed the hungry throngs on a national scale. But pulling off miracles to feed the hungry isn't exactly the forte of the Ministry of Sports, Youth and Child Development under whose jurisdiction the care and support of orphans and vulnerable children fall.
As things stand, there is a stand of between it and the Ministry of Community Development and Social Services over which of the two will house the Child Council once government puts the structure in place. The Council is expected to regulate all NGOs working in child's affairs like World Vision, Save the Children and Children International. The tug of war between the two ministries is essentially a struggle over turf, over power, influence and resources.
Evidently, the situation is not doing the cause of interventionism any good and at this rate, looks unlikely to.
But for some reason, issues like these seldom make headlines. Predictably, what gets to make the headlines are the high-profile events that tend to look good on the evening news, giving politicians an opportunity to be seen doing good work! Like the Deputy Minister for Community Development and Social Services, Friday Malwa turning up to officiate at the launch of the Children International Centre in George Compound yesterday.
And talking about things not making headlines. Those of us who live in Lusaka have seen the major construction works going on at Manda Hill. The new-look mall, which should be ready by November this year, is being eagerly awaited by the capital city's shoppers. The ongoing work has brought its own share of inconvenience to shoppers and those who do business there, which is to be expected in a project of this magnitude.
What has not been expected is the high level of crime that is emerging, according to the police officers who operate from the Manda Hill police post.
In spite of the large numbers of security guards who patrol the mall and the car park, there has been a sharp increase in car break-ins, even in the theft of motor vehicles. Police will confirm the exact number of saloon cars and light trucks that have been stolen from Manda Hill. Officers say that the fact that the centre has been changing security firm often hasn't helped matters at all.
Early this week, a colleague of mine had her car window smashed and her laptop stolen from it. Where were the guards when all this was happening? The mall's management would do well to take this breach in security very seriously and do something about it. It will not help them to merely put up a notice which reads: cars parked here at owners' own risk.
Note: Dear readers, I will be out of coverage area for the next two weeks trying to make the impossible possible. Sadly, your favourite column, Soul to Soul will be off air during this period. Have a pleasant weekend.
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