Reconciling Realities

Time is short and the people are beautiful. I pick up 10 lollipops on the way home from work – enough for me and each member of my family. After everyone has finished eating that night, we are sitting around the fire chatting, singing and staring into the flames. I slide into my room to grab the surprise, and watch everyone’s eyes light up as the bag of goodies is passed around. After settling into the newfound glory of a sugar sphere mounted on a plastic sphere, I catch some snippets of Tonga in whispers between the younger girls, Pristina and Brenda. They’re calculating the cost of the treat. After a couple stumbles, Memory corrects them and announces that it cost me 5,000 Kwacha (roughly $1.25 Canadian) I can read from their exchanging of glances that this is some luxury.


After watching him count out the bills a second time, I sign off on the form. Yep, that’s 527,500 Kwacha in my pocket. For showing up. 2 days in the capital city of Zambia attending meetings, making a couple presentations and the daily spending allowance (for transport and food) blows the candy money out of the water by a factor of 100. After hours of meetings and plenty of discussions – there have been many issues tabled, and tensions between field staff and head office staff are high. Transport challenges, reporting requirements, record keeping, funding requests, personal finances – there is a mountain of administrative challenges associated with running an NGO. I can relate from experience to many of them, and I hardly have any bullet-proof solutions. Humans will be humans in their interactions. And accountability and transparency takes a lot of hard work and co-ordination – which isn’t always easily when you’re spread across a huge country and lacking reliable communication technology.

Amidst it all, my mind still gets the wind knocked out of it when I compare the money spent on simply having these discussions with the day-to-day incomes of the rural poor in Zambia. How do you rationalize it if you’re talking to the man biking 3 massive bags of charcoal (50kg each) 20 km to town with hopes of selling one so he can buy some maize to feed his family?


“Education is free in Canada, isn’t that right Muchindu?” I nod in agreement. “Ah ah ehhh” Memory shakes her head and peers at me curiously. I reassure her that it’s true; the government pays our school fees right up until Grade 12, but that we pay our own university or college tuition. “I have to pay $9,500 Canadian for my last year of university coming up. That’s… ummm…. 40 Million Kwacha or so”. Shrieks and gawks and jumping around ensue. ‘I could buy a truck for that much’…’I could buy all the land I need for that much’. Memory looks at the sky and points – ‘I could buy  … a… a.. Aeroplane!’ We all laugh pretty hard at that one, but that doesn’t mean that we’re laughing it off. The reality clings like static, and in the ensuing silence I could see it reverberating in the heads of my friends.


Snap back to Lusaka, stuck in a traffic jam. And this is one with cars, not people and animals like I’m used to. All of a sudden a flash of sirens appears in the empty lanes heading in the other direction. They’re followed by at least 15 sleek shiny cars: land rovers, BMW’s and the like. Once the government convoy passes the traffic is allowed to continue. Alfred is shaking his head as his gaze follows the parade to the horizon. He speaks my mind: “How is this possible? In the same country where the rural people can be struggling so much. How can the gap be so big?” We continue to the hotel, heading into the rich part of Lusaka – Arcades, shopping malls, cars everywhere. I’m reminded a bit of my brief experiences in California, and it’s all a little overwhelming. I roll over to click off the light in my hotel room, and I fall asleep to the alternating whirr of the minifridge and the drops of water coming from the attached bathroom with hot water on demand.

It’s hard to remember that I had woken early that morning to the sound of roosters and sweeping. Woken on the floor of my hut, and stepped outside to smell the woodsmoke of the fire that water to bathe in is being heated on. Water carried by hand and head from the nearby canal. I get confused and apprehensive at returning to Canada in the midst of reflections like these. There is an unbelievable contrast within Zambia – and I experience two ends of the spectrum in a single day because I have the money and privilege to do so.  What churns my stomach and heart like nshima that has almost finished cooking is that my life in Toronto will see one end of the spectrum become the norm. And in full honesty, I should say return to the norm for me. It’s been a short jaunt into a different world for me. And just as my fingers are locating the edge of the transparent sticker of life, I’m tearing myself away. It’s like my first camp-out alone in the backyard, and I’m running back into the comfort of a heavy duvet and a nightlight after seeing only one or two constellations.


Will I remain or become grounded from this experience? I may not be learning all the details and fullness of what it means to be Zambian, but I am spending a lot of time living and working beside my Zambian friends. The question I’m contemplating is what will it all mean in a few years? The excitement and energy of CLTS bounding forward; the deeper connections with Alfred, Florence, Choloka; the numerous friendships with villagers, councillors, health workers and more.

Will they be stepping stones on a relentless path to “success:? Will they be charms on a necklace of romantic “Africa” that I dream of from a gloomy Toronto office cubicle? How can I reconcile their continuing reality when I leave for Canada? As I explained the next steps in my journey to Florence (buses, flights, trains) – she exclaimed at the idea of flying. It’s now striking me that she will never fly, and maybe never even leave her home country. Not these are necessarily bad things, but it puts my own privilege in perspective. So much of what has been challenging, interesting, different, fund, rewarding about being for me is because I’m able to jet in and jet out so briefly. I want to feel strong solidarity with so many of my Zambian friends but I question whether this is truly possible. I haven’t even experienced a single rainy season – when everything is washed out, Malaria and Cholera hit, and farmers work from before sunrise until after sunset in their fields. I semi-dress up and work in the biggest office (3 stories mind you) in Mazabuka District, and I can make trips to Livingstone, Lusaka, Malawi and spend a month’s worth of food on a meal, or a term’s worth of school fees on buses and lodging.

So how will I communicate it all to Canada? I’ve always thought of returned EWB Junior Fellows as playing the role of grounding Canadian ideas in rural African realities. Giving voice to Dorothy, to the poorest of the poor. Gulp. Where is the intersection of humility, inspiration, reality and empowerment? We were up late in Livingstone discussing these thoughts, and with no great conclusions. I don’t have the answers or the knowledge. I’ve barely scratched the surface, and I’ve only seen a small sliver of on-the-ground development work.

Excuses aside, it’s 3 months more experience than a lot of people, so it’s time to buckle up and figure out how best to contribute.

I hope I can challenge some stereotypes of “Africa”. I hope I can bring some of my friends and acquaintances in Zambia to life through stories, pictures, and videos. I hope I get questioned and challenged, and that I’m given no free credibility just because I’ve been overseas.

I plan to push people in their thinking, to ask difficult questions and listen deeply to the responses. I plan to be open and honest when sharing, and to create the time to talk to whoever is interested. And finally, even though I don’t know when, how or where exactly, I plan to return.


~ by mikeklassen on August 12, 2009.

7 Responses to “Reconciling Realities”

  1. What a great post Mike. I’ll admit I didn’t get through it with a dry eye. You articulate beautifully the struggle (the at times soul wrenching struggle) of leaving one world for another, and bring me back to my final days in Zambia. I won’t promise that it’s easy, but eventually you do find a measure of peace with it all. At least on the good days. Let’s chat when you get back, it you want. I’ll be in Toronto, probably involved in your reintegration sessions. Enjoy your last days Mike. Soak it all in and savour it. See you soon.

  2. Mike, this is a great post. Your connected observations from different events mirrors the same I had in Ghana, especially when I was thinking about returning. You’ve articulated it beautifully here in a way that takes me back to my last days in Ghana.

    Looking forward to catching up. See you soon,


  3. I loved how you compared your experience to a camp-out in your backyard. Absolutely beautiful. Awesome pictures as usual. When are you back in Toronto?

  4. Friendship is about sharing, caring and giving, not necessarily being.

    I loved this post; best entry and I think it sums things up very nicely.

    Your post reminded me of some things I’ve forgotten. Thank you.


  5. “Will they be stepping stones on a relentless path to “success:? Will they be charms on a necklace of romantic “Africa” that I dream of from a gloomy Toronto office cubicle?” You paint an extremely familiar picture. My thoughts are that in all the romance of a summer in Zambia, the way to feel solidarity with those you’ve built lasting relationships with is to maintain the love you have for them. It’s easy, back in Canada, to lose touch, to forget what it feels like to wake up to the roaster growing, the sounds of women chatting as they cook nshima, or the hilarity of being called a mukuwa but I believe the key is to hold yourself accountable for not returning back to the life you left.

    Acknowledging your personal change from this experience is the first step towards cementing the actual change. It’s been 12 months since I left my village, and every morning I wake up and wish I was still there. Your solidarity is in your heart, and you’ve got a pretty big heart Mike. Looking forward to having you back in Toronto. Take care.

  6. Mike, you have had a memorable experience and the shock coming back will be strong. But I’m sure you will make sense out of all this unbalance and it will ignite your fire to keep making a difference. No matter where you are, who you are or how privileged you are, as long as you keep caring and trying. I can’t wait to see you and hear your stories. Remember to take care of your self, your soul and your emotions. Congratulations for this journey!

  7. So much worthwhile reflection in this post, as in the blog throughout. I’m sure it will be hard for you to reconcile your two realities, to reconnect with the world back here and hold onto your Zambian one. But you’ve grown so much! And this summer will always be a part of you. The experience will inform the rest of your life in countless, as-yet-unknown ways. You may not see immediate or obvious changes. You may be frustrated by not being able to make changes, to see results. But YOU have changed, and YOU will make a difference. You already have. Can’t wait to welcome home our Mike, and meet Muchindu 🙂

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