Travelogue

A Volunteer’s Journal: Six Months in Zambia

Joe Weber is a CRS volunteer working in Zambia. The Kansas City native is teaching theology to rural catechists and assisting the diocesan development office in the establishment of a community radio station. His blog is part of a series of personal reflections our volunteers are sharing from their journey and experience overseas.

I’ve been in Solwezi, Zambia for six and one half weeks. I’ve found that, if I walk off the main road and go through a gate, wind my way through the gravel lot in front of an old office building, pass a warehouse, and enter a small room buzzing of bees, I can buy the world’s best honey and homemade peanut butter. Things in Zambia are not found in well-advertised storefront windows along busy streets. They are tucked away, seemingly hidden to the outsider. It takes time and patience to discover them.

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CRS Volunteer Joe Weber outside his radio station office in Solwezi, Zambia. Photo by CRS staff

My first six months as a CRS volunteer were spent at the CRS national office, usually assisting with writing and editing for the wide variety of initiatives that CRS and its partners are undertaking here: food security initiatives for people in areas prone to floods and droughts; hospices and clinics for tens of thousands of people living with HIV and AIDS; advocacy on behalf of communities affected by Zambia’s booming copper industry. The breadth of programming here is impressive; the far-reaching effects of these programs in the communities is even more striking.

After six months in Lusaka, I carried my new knowledge Northwest to Solwezi, setting-up shop in the offices of the most vast and rural of the Catholic dioceses in the country. Again I find myself involved in a wide variety of programs and projects, including assisting the diocesan development office with setting up a radio station.

I never know what secrets await me, hidden just off of or even along the one main road. I never know what to expect from the day-to-day life in Solwezi. But I do know that for most everyone here, the day-to-day is very much a struggle for survival. Walking down the main road, something of this struggle is apparent. But in other ways the suffering, resilience, and hope of people, like the location of great peanut butter, is only discovered with patience.

A Crowded Cemetery

Just a few months ago, on one of my morning walks in Lusaka I found myself on the muddy shoulder of Leopard’s Hill road in front of the old cemetery. In the crowded “Old Leopard’s Hill Cemetery,” where I first began to recognize the devastation wrought here by HIV, I didn’t see a single grave predating 1997.

I had first come to this cemetery for the funeral for a co-worker. So I returned to the cemetery on this rainy Monday morning to take pictures. On gravestones I noticed traces where letters, the writing of names and dates and final prayers, have fallen or been washed away. Too many graves are only a few feet long, for children. And they are crowded together.

Here in Zambia, death surrounds us just as much as the everyday exhaust of passing traffic. The life expectancy is 37 years and falling. One in five people is HIV positive. When the women wail and mourn the dead, I wonder if they don’t also wail for their own inevitable end. Of the few guys I spoke to at St. Dominic’s Seminary, my home in Lusaka, most are orphans.

I have read about the stigma associated with HIV, the ways that a nation’s poverty increases its population’s vulnerability to the disease, and the impact that ART can have for those who receive it. But when, on a cool Easter Tuesday morning I sat on a hard wooden chair in a small concrete room, face to face with a man my own age who is battling the disease and receiving support, my perspective was deepened. “I am very grateful for the support I am receiving,” he politely explained through a translator. “I have already begun to regain weight and strength and I hope to be able to work again soon.”

Here in Zambia, CRS is supporting tens of thousands of people living with HIV and AIDS in a variety of ways, including providing rehabilitative care, counseling and testing services. Perhaps most notable, though, is the provision of anti-retroviral therapy (ART), a complex combination of powerful medications that suppress the virus and allows people to regain weight, regain strength, return to health, return to work, and support families.

The successes and the far-reaching positive impacts of ART are nothing short of a miracle. Some call it the “Lazarus Effect.” But it was a joy for me to be able to close my eyes and picture my friends back at the CRS offices in Lusaka, gathered at tables or in hallways, discussing creative ways of improving care, including responses to the need to provide nutritional support.

In a place where people are facing death each day, the work of CRS and its partners are helping people to return to life.

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8 Responses to “A Volunteer’s Journal: Six Months in Zambia”

  1. El Jefe Says:

    I thank our Lord for people like Joe Weber. He is doing something most of do not have the will, or faith to do. I pray for Joe every day. God Bless him. Go Smokey….

  2. susan rieke Says:

    Joe,

    So good to hear about you again. You sound wonderful and are certainly doing wonderful things.

    God bless you and your work.

    Susan Rieke

  3. Sister Kathleen Says:

    Dear Joe, How wonderful to see you and hear of your fine work and adventures with CSR. Blessings, SK

  4. Bob Says:

    Sometimes I wonder at the depth of understanding my little brother has. Keep it up, Joe.

  5. Nick Mosi Says:

    The right person in the right place. Joe’s an inspiring volunteer – an example to us all.

  6. Bufalito Says:

    Joe, when I grow up I want to be just like you.

  7. Tom Vincent Says:

    Joe:
    Sounds like you are doing a lot of good over there! Hope all is well! Paula and I are thinking of you! Many motorcycles over there? The female Dixon and assoc. clans are all taking a cruise and leaving us behind! :-( (in September) Dedicated a 1939 monument to Jefferson Davis along I-5 today! Take care and email us when you get time!
    Tom and Paula

  8. The Power of Your Change: Global Solidarity in Ohio | CRS Fair Trade News Says:

    […] Attending to the global/national issues were Ms. De Carlo; Dr. Barbara John, Professor of Economics at UD; Sister Ruth Kuhn, a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati and Coordinator for the Region VI Coalition for Responsible Investment, and Joe Weber, who worked in Zambia for a year as a Catholic Relief Services Volunteer. […]

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