“Before the Children Are in Bed”

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It was tough going out there Saturday morning, on the fringes of Racecourse. We were in the Shanty Town neighbourhood which sprawls around our campus with some 400,000 souls. It was the long-awaited day to lay out the footprint and pour the footings for our new Barnabas Youth Centre — a gift from Canadian donors to a very disadvantaged community. Our college had organized the Soccer League which was drawing over seven-hundred ShantyTown Youth to monthly competitions and events. And now it was time to build a Youth Centre for these young people. Even at 6 o’clock in the morning, it felt pretty good to bounce along the back roads and roll up to the site. The project was finally underway! Shovels were in the ground today! In ShantyTowns as hopeless as Racecourse, projects like this one were like beacons of hope fallen out of the sky!

But things went downhill from there. Staking out the corners of the building, tying the string line, getting ready to dig the square holes for the pylons — nothing was easy. The whole stretch was overgrown with thick stubble and bushes. Our hired men were trampling their way through the underbrush, hacking away with slashers, trying to clear the areas where the holes would be dug for the pylons. And they were not happy. They hadn’t signed up for this kind of hard labor. Worse still was what awaited them: layers of compacted red laterite running beneath the soil like lines of concrete, calling for heavy work with the pick. By 10 o’clock, five holes were half-way dug with hoe, pick and shovel. Shirts had been tossed. The day-labourers glistened with sweat.

Then came the worst news. It turned out that we were off line. The project manager had squared up the string lines again, re-checking the distance from the perimeter wall, measuring corner to corner — and sure enough. He informed the hired hands that they would have to commence digging again! The pylons needed to be poured some four feet to the right!

The Zambian sun was now blazing down at about 40 degrees Centigrade. There was no water out there on the fringes of the Racecourse compound. Rumblings of Bemba discontent started like distant thunder and then began to escalate to a crescendo. We had hit a wall, not just layers of laterite!  Chris and Ben, our coordinators, called the agitated workers together into the shade and handed out water bottles. They tried to settle them down, while a couple of the weary youth were acting like union leaders, loud and mad. We would have to renegotiate terms! There would have to be food! And more money! And water!

Meanwhile, the project was at a standstill, the work site abandoned for the negotiations. And I was pretty steamed myself, listening to all the complaining and the grumbling. I went back to the truck, rolled down the windows and tuned into BBC, there in the shade. I looked over the site and tried to envision the Youth Centre, “Barnabas Place,” a haven for the disadvantaged youth of the Shanties who lived in the mud-brick structures I could see above the tall grass. Little home-made hovels…  not only an unpromising home environment, but a downright dangerous one. If any youth anywhere needed a safe place, a place of their own, a place to make friends, a wholesome community, it was the youth of Racecourse. And now to be set back by a few malcontents?

Above our site on a little hill, a band of children made their way out of the tall grass. They stopped in front of a field of maize and looked us over, like a cluster of small birds. Who are these people, they must have wondered, making a clearing in our territory? They had such an air of complete composure as they looked us over, it was as though they were in fact in charge here. I caught them with my telephoto lens there on the hill, corn stalks behind making them seem even tinier.

As I brought the picture up close and looked at our little friends, I thought I saw a rebuke there in their placid gaze. How could we allow minor setbacks to bring us to a standstill? Barnabas Place belonged to them!  This was the generation of Zambians that was growing up all around us like maize, seventy-five per-cent of the nation’s fourteen million people. Where were they to go when their carefree world of childhood gave way to cruel initiations into the world of young adulthood, when their serenity would be threatened every day by violence and abuse, pain and loss, intimidation and crime?  Barnabas Place would have to be there for them! A safe place. A place where childhood peace could be restored. Where childhood dreams could be rekindled.

I jumped out of the truck and joined the circle of negotiation. “Let’s get on with this!,” I said.  And I began to shell out a few more kwacha.  Of course there would be more money for the job!  And yes, we can find food and water!  In fact, we will even cook nshima on site!

People were suddenly on their feet and back in the trenches!  And there was only one condition.  It came from the top of a small hill.

The job must be finished before the children are in bed!

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