“It’s because we work with our hands”

Brendan McKeegan and I teaching a 7th grade geography class at
Zambezi Day School.

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”

Much love,

Ava Prunier Herman, Gonzaga Class of ‘23

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10 Responses to “It’s because we work with our hands”

  1. Nathalie Bergeron says:

    What a wonderful reflection on the differences of our educational systems and approaches to teaching and learning. I could not agree with you more about the necessity to do more with our hands, apply what we are learning to real life situations and genuinely understand the value of community in this process. I am left reflecting on the “ I am because we are, and we are because I am”. Thank you for sharing.

    • Jonathan Barsky says:

      Ava thank you for your wonderful thoughts. It must feel so remote to be so far from home. I admire your ability to see how we contrast with the Zambian people and to value their humanity towards others. We have much to learn from their belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. Go Zags! And hugs and kisses to our daughter Sarah!

  2. Katie Buller says:

    Good morning, wonderful Gonzambians!
    I continue to be humbled each day by your collective growth and questions. I find myself checking for the blog post earlier and earlier in the day because I can’t wait to read it and have new thoughts and questions to ponder and explore and swim around in my brain, slowly replacing day-t0-day minutia that too often occupies it by default. Your collective intentionality is inspiring-truly!
    I am so thankful, Audrey, that you are blessed with this group for your journey. I miss you so much and look forward to hugging you and laughing with you and hearing more in person from this incredible time. For now, like Dad always says, you are exactly where you should be.

  3. Jennifer Akins says:

    Hi Ava, what a great question! I can think of no better place to ask what it means to be an American than where you are right now. Keep asking and come and share your questions with GU international students in the fall, please! (I don’t expect you will have many answers by then, but probably some new questions!) I’m thinking of you all each day.

  4. Molly Watts says:

    Thank you all for your reflections and sharing…it is amazing to think of all that you are questioning when you see so much joy and connection despite relatively impoverished surroundings. There is so much to see in the world outside of life here in the US and it’s enlightening even from afar. We are grateful for all of you. Be safe.

  5. Newson Family says:

    What a great reflection on what it means to be American Ava! I think its great that all of you can see how other people live a minimalist life and be content. Whereas in the States, sometimes our priorities are off and its more about accomplishing this illusion of an unobtainable American dream that we lose sight to just live and enjoy life! Our world is in desperate need of change and we can only pray that it’s individuals like you that can inspire us to be more mindful of our daily decisions to make this a better place for everyone. I encourage you all to continue to reflect and to never stop asking questions. It’s no mistake God assembled this wonderful group of Zags to challenge the status quo. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

    God bless you all!

  6. Heather Atkins says:

    I see the word “Gonzambians” coined in the comment section. I like it! So, a similar greeting from me: Hello, wonderful Gonzambians!

    Thank you for another fantastic update. These next 10 days will fly by–soak in every second!

    Blaine: We are really enjoying our time with the Relyea-Strawns, but definitely noticing your absence and missing you. So thrilled for you, though, that you are where you are. Can’t wait to hear all about it in person.

  7. Ethan Kane says:


    You so eloquently captured the strife of the US educational system. As a Zambezi alum who taught at Chilena and now teaches in the US, I continue to ask myself many of the questions you’re currently grappling with. Those are the best kinds of questions: ones you can only answer as you ask and revisit and revise year after year after year.

    I love what you bring up about disconnection. As my students recover from years of patchwork education due to Covid, they not only feel disconnected to their school, lessons, and teachers, but each other and even themselves! I could talk for days, but education in the US is wild right now, and I greatly appreciate your refreshing reflection. If you ever want to chat more about it post-Zambezi hit me up! In my last week of school, I’m going to take your advice and try to bring principles of Ubuntu to life in my class. So thank you for influencing me all the way in Portland!

    Keep up the amazing and difficult work! You have my support and thoughts from afar.

    Ethan (Mwane) Kane

  8. Heidi Wilson says:

    Ava, you and your fellow Gonzambians make me hopeful for our American future. You are paying attention, asking wonderful, important, curious questions, and landing on real answers and clarity. I’m so excited to see your generation of leaders take the helm. You are all inspiring. Thank you!

  9. Theresa McKeegan says:

    Ava your reflections certainly illustrate your ability to grasp the beauty of the “everyday lives”’of the people you have met. More importantly, you grasped the reality that because a nation is prosperous (US) it doesn’t mean we are “privileged.” In fact, quite the opposite. We are living with a deep disrespect for life as exemplified by mass murders, abortion, euthanizing, suicides, depression. The beauty of their lives is grasping what is truly important. They have unlocked that magnificent answer to the beauty of a life well-lived. Love, faith, hard work, and care for one another. Now the task will be to impact the people you can upon your return- to anchor them in that same beauty. So grateful you had the experience and will be part of the fabric of our future leaders here at home.

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