My time in Zambezi so far has been filled with teaching classes, canoe rides, 3+ hour masses, dancing, singing, and meeting amazing people. I knew my time here would be short, but I didn’t realize how quickly it would go by. As our remaining time in Zambezi is rapidly diminishing, I’m realizing there is no way to fit in every experience I want to have. I want to revisit my homestay family and eat nshima and caterpillars again; okay, maybe not the caterpillars. I want to dance again with Rebecca, the employee of my homestay mom who taught us some very interesting dance moves. I want to teach my 12-year-old admirer, Patrick, about biology and go to his grandfather’s store in the market. I want to buy more beautiful chitenge and chat with the tailors as they make custom skirts and dresses. Even though I may not be able to do all of these things, I’ve had countless amazing experiences in Zambezi, so I have no room to complain.
An incredible experience that I get to have three times a week is teaching a health class. We teach the class in a little room off the side of the priest’s house. We somehow manage to stuff enough chairs and couches into our little room to fit the thirty or so students that come each time. Class starts at 09:00, but in Zambian time that really means 09:15. The students don’t seem to mind our tardiness and many of them show up at different times, weaving their way through the tightly spaced chairs to find a seat. We begin our class by reviewing material and then dive into new subjects that the students want to learn about.
Each time we teach, I’m overcome by the feeling that I’m not qualified to be teaching a health class to people who are much older and wiser than me. I’m also convinced that there are a few students in the class who could teach it better than us, and it makes me wonder about the benefit of our class. Are we giving them any new information or just telling them what they already know? Does it seem condescending when we explain something like malaria to them? They see it everyday, while all of my knowledge comes from research. I fight with these thoughts as we cover material that I don’t have a deep understanding of or experience with.
I know that I could give the students new information, but that doesn’t mean it would help them. I could tell them that CD4+ T-cells are the specific cell type that the HIV virus attaches to. I could go on to say that these T-cells are responsible for activating plasma B-cells and memory B-cells that produce antibodies to fight pathogens in our bodies, which is why people infected with HIV cannot fight infections as well. This would most likely be new information for all of the students, but it would be too complex and not useful to them. I find myself trying to walk a fine line between giving them new information and giving them information that they will be able to understand. I’m also struggling to take the knowledge I have and translate it to them in an understandable way. In college, I’m expected to have an extremely detailed understanding of material and it’s sometimes difficult to simplify it in a useful way.
I feel like in our classes we’re just scratching the surface of subjects, which is in part due to time constraints, but mostly due to our lack of knowledge on subjects. Students often ask questions that I don’t have an answer to, and I’m instantly aware that I’m just an undergraduate biology major and not a healthcare provider. Yet even so, I’m somehow “qualified” to teach a health class to Zambians who have significantly more experience in some of these topics than me. It’s hard to not feel like a phony, as Bridget would say.
Even though I feel under prepared to teach, there are moments when I can see the benefit of our class. On the first day of class, we had the students tell us what they wanted to learn. We were able to tailor the topics we taught based on their health concerns. We got lucky in that we had prepared for most of the topics they wanted to learn about, but there were some that we hadn’t even heard of, like the parasitic infection bilharzia. Allowing our students to dictate what we taught ensured that the information we shared was of interest to them and not just what we thought they should learn.
We also try to have a discussion-based class where we teach material, but allow our students to talk with each other and us about the topics. These discussions have led me to have a deeper understanding of the challenges the community faces. One of these discussions was focused around malaria and the use of mosquito nets. Jessie, who is a tailor in the market, told us that one of the reasons the nets aren’t used is because of poverty. Some people use the nets for fishing or to protect their gardens from insects and animals instead of using them to protect themselves from malaria. Additionally, she said that attitudes are a big reason nets aren’t used. People may use them for a time, but eventually stop using them because they get tired of it or don’t believe they will get malaria. We also dove into a discussion about the stigma surrounding HIV in their community. John, who is a very intelligent man in our class, told us about the struggle to provide HIV education to members of the community who were unable to attend school. This lack of understanding about the disease can perpetuate the stigma that surrounds the illness and spread fear due to misunderstanding. These conversations and more have given me insight into the Zambezi community.
Often as I leave class students approach me. Jessie tells me that the class is very interesting and that she’s learning new things. Later, when I come to her tailoring shop, she thanks me for a great lesson and conversation in class. I’m thankful she likes the class, but I really can’t take credit because the best parts came from the discussion among the students. John stopped me today after class and told me how much he was enjoying the class. I told him that I hoped some of the information we’re giving them is new or helpful because I’ve been concerned that we’re not providing new information. He assured me that he’s learning new things and we’re doing a good job. These kind comments from the students make me think that maybe I’m not a total fake after all.
I don’t know if our health class will benefit all of our students, but I know that I’ve benefitted immensely from hearing the discussions in class about public health concerns. I’ve learned so much hearing the students talk about their community and the problems they see. I may not be as knowledgeable as I’d like on some of the subjects, but I’m realizing that’s not the point of our classes. We are trying to start a conversation within the community and allow them to initiate the change. We are learning right alongside our students and that’s why we came. I hope that we were able to start a conversation that the students will continue after we’re gone.
To my family and friends—I love and miss you all so much! I can’t wait to share my countless experiences with you when I get home. Mom and Dad, I hope you’re enjoying dinners by the fire pit and giving Choco extra kisses from me. Shelby and Sarah I hope school and work are going well! Also, happy late birthday Shelby…very late, but still. Zach I hope you have an amazing time in Europe! Take lots of pictures, including some of yourself even though I know you hate them. I miss you, but I’ll see you soon!