The ritual of walking into town and perusing through the two markets became somewhat of a game. Each day ended the same, we would be picked up from the work site and driven back to camp. A group of us would descend into town, with dirt under our nails, dust in our pony tails and mud on our shoes. We stopped next door to the barber shop to pick up fresh, fried doughnuts from the same lovely women with her two girls always wanting to help collect the change. Then, it was off to see if there was anything new that was delivered to the market. We’d take our collection of foreign fruit juices and sodas, walking back along the dusty road, waiving to the usual locals we’d see each day in town. It was simple afternoons like this that made volunteering in Zambia feel like a different version of home.
“Make sure while you’re in Livingstone you pick up fruit, vegetables, wine or if you want any specialty foods at the super market. They won’t be available in Mwandi.”
“No fruit or vegetables?!” I wondered if this was some kind of place like in the movie Footloose, where instead of banning dancing they ban fresh foods? In fact, there are fruits and vegetables in Mwandi, but most people have small gardens and fish from the Zambezi River, so they source a lot of their food themselves. The markets in town consisted of some dry goods, a cooler with juices and sodas and several cases of a local whiskey, Bols. Our evening entertainment became a nightly mixology event. We grabbed our stainless steel mugs from the wall, filling them with whiskey concoctions and sitting around the picnic table sharing stories, learning, laughing and bonding as a group. Volunteers have a curfew for camp, more to adhere to a schedule rather than for safety reasons, and so what at first felt like a restriction became a blessing in disguise. The group of women came together here from one common thread, the Wanderful travel community. A collaborative group of women travelers all with the common goal of helping each other to see the world, it was our love for exploring that brought us all together and then the comradery quickly followed. Metal cups clanging, loud belly laughs, engaging storytellers and good listeners each night solidified why I had come to Zambia.
It was our little community within a community and only in a situation where you can give of yourself would you be able to forge such a strong fellowship.
Mwandi is a small fishing community with about 8,000 people living within town and another 20,000 or so in the surrounding area. It’s an impoverished region of the western province with only one bumpy, poorly paved road leading you to the larger town of Livingstone, a two hour drive west. They have a large portion of their local population who’ve been impacted by AIDS. There are many children who have lost one or both of their parents, and so elders in the community have opened their doors and hearts by taking in new members of their families. Most people in Mwandi live in more traditional housing, which is a simple mud hut. Since most people live on about $1 a day, they have little in the way of extra income for home renovations. This is where the volunteers come in to help cover the cost of extra labor and higher quality supplies. Our time there consisted of mainly working with mud to construct the hut, termite poop basically. This became the topic of conversation during the days on site. Smoothing insect poop in the heat can get to you after awhile, so it’s amazing how when someone mentions, “I’m so pooped…” it can really keep the group in good spirits.
By day we worked with our local foreman, Gabby who had the patience of a saint. He showed us the tasks we needed to accomplished, helped when we weren’t quite getting it right and encouraged us when we needed it. If my job as a writer doesn’t pan out, ‘Gabby & Abbie’ construction will be making a debut in Southern Africa, I realized I had a special talent for smoothing mud. The day was full of music and laughs, and much like our growing sisterhood, a small crowd of children multiplied each afternoon, by the end of the week word had gotten out about us working so there were even more smiling, bright faces to greet us at the site. The local children were a perfect distraction when some of us needed a little break from mud slinging. They sang songs, swapped language lessons, danced and just simply brought some much needed joy. With nearly 200 homes built it was clear there was a need in the community for help and we spent a lot of time in the evenings discussing volunteering while traveling, our role in Mwandi and the highs and lows that came with a philanthropic trip.
I loved the idea of a group of women erecting a house that will be a forever home to someone who is helping someone else in need. Eight of us women all working together, coming from different places, different backgrounds, but with a common task and goal. I noticed each day we all learned something about Africa, each other, and ourselves. I took pride in how strong my girls were, their compassion, their dedication and their similar interest in adventure. On our last day we had the chance to meet with the new home owner Joseph, and with this soft spoken voice he blessed us for the work we had done, as well as speaking about how God has a place for those who give back. We stood around in a circle at the front of his new home, exchanged hugs and piled into the car waving our last goodbye to the kids who had stuck around to send us off.
Now that a few months have gone by I sometimes imagine what the family is doing at their home. I remember looking back from the truck, the dust billowing around our tires kicking up from the dirt path revealing kids playing in the front yard. I’d like to think that there’s still lots of laughter in the air, singing or dancing and that strength, positivity and promise were virtues we left along with our handprints on the walls of the home.
Thank you to Unearth the World and Wanderful for creating an uplifting experience, where not only did we get to spend time in a community to give back, but we created lifelong friendships that have a foundation as strong as the house we built. Want to learn more about how you can volunteer abroad and make a positive impact with a reputable company? See this trip and what others are offered through Unearth the World. This was my second trip with their organization and although volunteerism abroad can be a complicated topic, I’m still impressed with the work they do on a global level.