I’ve struggled to understand what it means to be an American. We are “the land of the free,” the country with the most opportunities. People desire to come to America to live out “the American dream.” At times I get it, but other times, I really don’t. We were informed, days after arriving in Zambezi, that there was a shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in a fourth-grade classroom where 19 children and two adults were shot and killed. Who would want to live in a country where there have been more mass shootings and lives lost than days this year? I’ve struggled with what it means to be an American.
After arriving at the Chilenga Primary School this morning, I was quickly placed in an 8th grade classroom. I had no lesson plan and no books to work from. I had to teach on the fly. I tried to explain the importance of forming opinions, and how “there are no wrong answers”— something that is hard for most students to grapple with since they are taught that there is only one right answer. I soon recognized that the curriculum in the US is built on critical thinking and applying concepts to life scenarios. While my education is something that I am grateful for, I struggled with understanding why teachers didn’t tell me or my parents that I was reading at a grade 2 level when in the fifth grade. I struggled with reading my whole life, and due to our education system, they were required to just move me on to the next grade or put me in the “special class” without guiding me or helping me grow. I’ve struggled with what it means to be an American.
Once the period was over, I found Dr. Catherine Zeisner interviewing teachers at the Chilenga school. She and I share a common interest for young children’s emotional learning. It is her goal to discover how Zambia supports their learners’ wellbeing— something I feel the US is lacking. Dr. Zeisner asked the teachers of Chilenga school questions on the matters I’ve been struggling to find the answers to as an American.
“Are people here depressed?”
“No.” A Chilenga science teacher replied.
“Do people, or students, commit suicide?”
“No.” the teacher says.
“Why?” asks Catherine.
“It’s because we work with our hands. When we take a seed to plant it in the ground, we care for that seed because it is our livelihood” says the teacher. “We are taught at a young age that if we want to get out of here, we must get an education…. We grow together as a community, and we raise each other as a community and our church communities provide our children spiritual health.”
As an American, we struggle with the disconnection between the Earth, education, church, and the power of community. The people of Zambezi embody these things. They take the seeds that they have, care for them, and grow fruits and vegetables to eat or sell for profit. At last Friday’s tree planting to celebrate World Environment Day at Chilenga School, with Mama Love and the Save the Environment and People Agency (SEPA), you could see the determination that these people have to save the environment that surrounds them. As Mama Love stated, “If we don’t act now, we will all die.” This is one example of why I question to be an American. While we have so many resources to save the planet, we lack the willingness to act on it. Additionally, the teacher mentioned how our education system in the US is a “culture of coddling”. Unlike in America, where most children’s hands and held through their experiences, children in Zambezi are told that education is their only opportunity to get out of poverty. They are encouraged by their community and the church to strive and do well in order to make something of themselves. There is a well-known social philosophy in southern Africa called “Ubuntu— I am because we are, and we are because I am. This is what we need to learn and embody as Americans.
As we only have 10 more days here in Zambezi, I encourage the students on this trip and our readers to learn from the leaders and the community that we have created here. How and what can we do better once we return home to be better Americans? To work with our hands to be better people, but also do more for the environment, our education, our religion, our communities, and very importantly, our children.
Benson, one of the Chilenga teachers, reminded us that it will take many of us to act in a way that will create change: “One finger can’t pick the lice; it always takes two”
Ava Prunier Herman, Gonzaga Class of ‘23