Tuesday, January 10, 2012

An 'Uncondusive Life'

There are pitfalls and benefits to being a fourth-generation Peace Corps Volunteer in an African village. Benefits include the unconditional love of a town that is accustomed to welcoming American strangers.  Dan and I can barely walk down the street without hearing,

“Hello, Teacher!” and “Welcome, Teacher!  Thank you!”

Drawbacks include the things that are inherited from previous volunteers:  houses, junk, projects, expectations, and people.  We inherited a nosy waterboy named Romao, a lively orphan named Seni, and a struggling young intellectual named Zachariah.  Of these three individuals, Zachariah is probably our favorite.

Janet and Lucas, our predecessors, had mentioned Zachariah before we had arrived at site.  “You're definitely going to meet Zachariah,” they said.  “And he'll probably want to take you home to his parents.  He's sort of a Peace Corps success story. You'll see.”

They paused, then continued.  “He was very attached to the last volunteer, Angie.  I think he's a little lost without her guidance.”

True to their prediction, we met Zachariah within our first week.  He appeared in our yard in the early afternoon, backpack in hand.  He was slight and well-dressed, with a giant smile that lit up his face like a beam of light.


“Zachariah is here,” announced Romao, from his perch on our front stoop.  Seeing as how we were all three  together on the stoop, this commentary was really not necessary.  But, as Dan says, Romao's propensity to state the obvious is astonishing. 

“Boa tarde,” I said to the stranger, with my arms elbow-deep in laundry water.

“Hello,” he said.  “My name is Zachariah.  I speak English.”

“Oh, hello!” I said.  “It's nice to meet you!”  I wiped my palms on my dress and extended a hand.
“Won't you come inside?”

Romao stayed behind.  He remained inclined on the stoop and fumbled with the radio.  “You're going inside now,” he mumbled, to no one in particular.

Zachariah sat on the couch and put his backpack on his lap.  He smiled up at me.  I wasn’t exactly sure what to do or where to start.  “Can I get you a drink of water?”  I asked.

He paused.  “Yes,” he said slowly, thinking hard upon the question.  “I am very thirsty.  The sun, it is scorching.”

I fished around in the kitchen for a plastic cup.  “Did you have to walk far to get here?”

“Yes, very far,” he said.  “It is about five kilometers to my village.”

“Wow.  That is far.”

“Yes,” he said, simply, in his drawn-out way.  “Yes, it is far.”

We sat and talked for the next three hours.  Zachariah, it turns out, had met the first two volunteers, Chelsea and Katie, in 2005.  He was about 15 at the time.

“I asked them for individual lessons in English, because I was enjoying my English classes very much.”  He said.  “They used to teach me here, on the veranda, in the afternoons.”

He continued “The volunteer after Chelsea was named Angie.  Do you know Angie?”

“I have been in contact with her,” I said.  “Through email.”

“Oh,” Zachariah said, smiling broadly.  “Angie is my best friend.”

He continued.  “When I met Angie, I was faltering in school because of lack of responsibility.  I had to walk very far to school.  Angie arranged for me to live, instead, with a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi and to continue my education there.  It is compulsory that students in Malawi speak English in school.  This helped my English very much.  I was very happy living with Mr. Jordan in Malawi.”

“Since then, I have completed my education and am working at a job in Tete.  It is not a good job, though, and I am unhappy.  My English, I'm afraid, is suffering.  It is going...down.  I never can speak English at my job.”

We continued to talk.  Over the next few weeks, Zachariah and I began to develop a real friendship.  We started reading Harry Potter out loud together, which was both an adventure and a chore, and we began to discuss his family, his education, and his future.

“My family did not go to school.” He said.  “My parents, they are very old.  Maybe my father is 70, it's hard to say.  Maybe 70-something, or maybe more than that.  The papers were lost during the war.  My sisters, they are old, too.  I don't know of their age, because of the war.  Even me, I do not know my date of birth.  My parents, they are uneducated. It was hard to stick in their minds of the day.  I am a child of war.  I have no passport and no papers.  I am the first in my family to finish my education, so my family, they depend on me.  I am important to them”

“I did not do well in school,” he said.  “I did well, but not so well.  Janet and Lucas, they said, 'He is a god and honest boy.  Not the most intelligent boy, but a boy to be trusted.' “

“I think you are smart.” I said.  “Your English is wonderful.”

“My English is very good,” he said.  “But in some other things, like computers, I am lacking in prowess.”

“I would now like to talk about something,” he continued.  “I want to go farther in my education.  I work now at a company in Moatize, a company that builds houses. I enter the information into the computer, but I do not feel happy.  I am not being utilized.  It is a lowly position.  I walk five kilometers from my house to arrive at work, but Moatize, you know, it is not like here.  It is a torrid place.  My house is small and has a dirt floor.  I cannot save money because I do not earn very much money.  I earn $100 every month but the government takes away $20 and my house takes away $20.  The rest of my money is for food.  It costs $3 to visit my family, you know, and $3 to go back.  It is very expensive.”

He leaned back and sighed, his hands on his knees.

“It is an uncondusive life.”

I didn't know what to say.  I needed time to think, so we went back to Harry Potter for a little while.

“What is this 'Quaffle'?” Asked Zachariah.

“It is an imaginary word,” I said.  “It is a ball in the game called Quidditch.”

“Oh,” said Zachariah.  “And what is a 'Scabbers'?”

That night, I went online.  “How hard can it be?” I thought to myself, “To find a college for this boy?”

I searched and I searched.  First, I looked for scholarships for students in the developing world.  The results were disheartening.  I found only scholarships directed at the best and brightest learners, and none for run-of-the-mill, average student with a great propensity for English.  I found lists and lists of available scholarships, but each was more industrious than the last:

Steven Hawking's Endowment for Ingenious Persons

Giant-Brain Academy

Number One Top African Boy EVER Award

I then tried to research universities.  I checked the University of Malawi, but they did not offer an undergraduate degree in English.  I did some research on Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, but struggled with the website, which was entirely in Portuguese.  Finally, I stumbled upon the Catholic University of Malawi, which offered an undergraduate degree in English for only 25,000 Meticais per semester. 

“Okay,” I thought.  “We can do this.  MZ 25,000 is only about US $1,000.”

Then it occurred to me.  Per semester.  Eight semesters, at least.  Eight thousand dollars, plus room and board.

Comparison:  Zachariah's monthly earnings versus the cost of education (one semester)

Four hours later, I was lying on my back in bed, staring at the ceiling.  Hours of searching, for what?  How could I face Zachariah tomorrow?  What would I say?

I imagined the scene. 

Me:      “I'm sorry, Zachariah, but you cannot go to college.”

Z:         “But why not?  I am only 21 years old and I want so badly to learn.”

Me:      “You are not smart enough to go to school.  You did not earn perfect marks.”

Z:         “But... did YOU earn perfect marks when you attended school?”

Me:      “No, but I am from America.  In America, anybody can go to school.  In fact, almost everybody does.  Then, afterwards, you can choose to get a job or you can travel, like I did, and go all over the world.”

Z:         “What can I do to succeed?  I can work very hard.”

Me:      “No.  There are no opportunities for you.”

I shook my head.  I wasn't going to let that conversation happen.  Zachariah was too earnest and too sweet.  There had to be a way to send him to school. 

The next day, he arrived at exactly 3 o'clock.

“What do you think?”  He said, gripping his copy of Harry Potter and grinning broadly.   He looked up at me from the front yard.  “Can I go to America to study?”

Though I had been prepared for this conversation, his earnest question made my heart fall. 

“Listen,” I said.  “Let’s go inside.” 

We settled onto the couch and I thought hard before speaking. 

“I don't think America will happen just yet.  Most of the scholarships I could find were for very, very advanced students.  Instead, I think we should find a school here in Africa and, if you earn very, very good marks, you might earn a scholarship to study in America in the future.”

“Okay,” he said.  “I will go to school in Africa.”

I paused.  “It's very expensive,” I said.  “We will have to find help.”

“I work hard,” said Zachariah.  “I can try to save my money.”

Comparison:   Zachariah's earnings versus the cost of college

Note:  Small Circle r=50 pixels, Large Circle r= 450 pixels.  Circles are 
drawn proportionally to indicate Zachariah's monthly disposable
 income versus the cost of one semester at the Catholic University of Malawi.

“It will be more difficult than that,” I said.  “It is a lot of money.”

“How much money?” He asked. 

“25,000 Meticais,” I said.  “Per semester.  So MZ 25,000 times eight.”

Zachariah made a face of pain.  He was dejected. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t have that money.” In the silence that followed, I was reminded of something I heard last week from an African woman in Maputo:

“There are no African-Americans, only Americans.  I understand that people of African descent wish to give themselves a distinct identity, to differentiate between themselves and white Americans.  But to us in Africa, there are only Americans.  Because the poorest poor in America still cannot comprehend what it is to be truly poor in the continent of Africa.”

Regardless of whether or not I share this particular opinion, there is an underlying truth in her statement.  There is a lot of true poverty in the Africa.  Zachariah, a child of war without papers, born to subsistence farmers on the border between Malawi and Mozambique, had been among the truly poor of Africa.  And through hard work and a lot of help, he had been the first in his family to graduate from high school, only to hit a brick wall at the age of 21. 

“How much is the application?”  He finally asked. 

“One thousand Meticais,” I said.  Thirty dollars.

“I do not have that money,” he said, realistically.  “I am afraid that this life is impossible for me.”

The next day, Dan and I left for Maputo for the official memorial service.  Zach would be leaving shortly thereafter to return to his job in Moatize.  We received one final correspondence from him before we parted ways- a handwritten note in which he bid us an earnest farewell:

I, Zach, am yearning you to soar
so high
till you reach Maputo
without any turbulence. 

Thine deadly buddy,

If I am being honest with myself, I will admit this much:  I don’t know if I can help Zachariah get to college.  But the very least, the very least, I can do is try.  So this is his story.  Zachariah Lupia is twenty-one years old and wants to go to university.  His top choice is to study in the United States, but he would also be grateful for the opportunity to study here, in southern Africa.  Both of these options would require significant donations, grants, or scholarships.  If you, my readers, have any ideas or suggestions, please let me know.  It would mean the world to this boy, and it would absolutely alter his life and the lives of those family members that depend on him. 

“Give me a place to stand," said Archimedes, "and I will move the world." … Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers are making a difference in isolated villages and city slums in dozens of countries… It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others… he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and building together… those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Robert F. Kennedy, “A Ripple of Hope.”
Capetown, South Africa
June 6, 1966


  1. How about a technical school rather then a University. Also wondering about a career in the tourism industry with such a command of English and that wonderful smile! Your heart is sure in the right place, but I am sure you will encounter thousands of such individuals in the country. There just doesn't appear to be an infrastructure there yet to provide a path for these deserving individuals. However, every day you are making a difference.

    Leslie Nowakowski (MOZ 17 mom of Sara)

  2. Hey you two! Glad you made it back safe from Maputo. Have you by chance talked with the American Center here to see what programs are in country, what he might qualify for? The tourism industry sounds like a great option as well- many times there is training along with the job. Will look and ask around here in the city and see what information is out there. It is so hard to be in countries where people are willing but opportunities are sorely lacking. Will get back with you.