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Eyes wide open in Zambia
As I walked down the hallway, the aroma of boiling nshima and kapenta hit my nostrils. In front of me was a line of unfamiliar faces, peering up at me with curiosity. The corridor buzzed with voices foreign to me as the 40 teens strung along either side of the hallway bantered with each other in their native tongues- Nyanja, Bemba, Lozi, and some, even in broken English. I was in Kafue, a village about one hour south of Lusaka, Zambia's capital, and I was mesmerized. I piled my plate with food, scooped up the small fish called kapenta with a handful of doughy nshima and dove into lunch. A man who I had met the day before turned to me, and through a mouthful of food declared, "pretty good, huh?" I nodded back, eyes wide with excitement. I knew that he was referring to lunch, but I was thinking of everything. When I left for the trip, I had no idea what to expect, but so far, everything had surpassed any expectations that I had.
I was in Zambia with the African Education Program, or AEP. AEP's goal is to give children in Zambia a chance to be educated by helping them acquire the sponsorships that would help fund them as they move onto high school. I travelled with my aunt and four other volunteers who I had never met before. Every day I was expected to be responsible for myself, and to take care of myself. This was one of the biggest changes for me as back at home someone was always looking over my shoulder, while in Zambia, I was looking out for myself.
Every day I walked to the Amos Youth Center and worked with young kids in the morning, reading to them, playing soccer with their makeshift balls, and drawing. The fact that all of these kids were so happy just to see me, and to play, even when they have next to nothing, was incredible to me. In the afternoons I would work with the older kids, tutoring them in English and math. I held mock interviews with kids to help them apply for sponsorships. It was a task I relished because I got a chance to learn their backstories.
One particular story that grabbed my attention was that of a 14-year-old girl named Madeline. Madeline had grown up very poor, like the majority of Zambian children, but when she was 12, her mother died of malaria, and a few months later, her father died of the same disease. Madeline and her younger sister had no one. For two years Madeline took care of her little sister and herself, sleeping in abandoned buildings, fields, and even the streets. And every week, three times a week, she would come to the youth center, working hard to do well in school. This was beyond impressive to me -- the fact that she was taking care of her sister, living without any parents, and still wanted to learn was incredible.
Her story does have a happy ending, however. Agnes, the head of the center, took Madeline and her sister into her home, and they now live with her, and a number of other children that Agnes has taken in.
The kids eagerness to learn was inspiring, and it opened my eyes to the true importance of education. I am extremely glad to have had the chance to go on the trip, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat. Helping people this way has opened my eyes to the world around me, and provided me the opportunity to develop a stronger sense of connection with others.
Ben Pawlosky is a senior at Mercer Island High School. After graduation, he plans to attend a four-year university, but also is thinking about returning to Zambia and the African Education Program before college.