I met Claire Albrecht last December, in Hawai’i (below), when she was home visiting her family before she and her partner Justin Hostetter traveled back to Zambia. (Imagine you’re in South Africa. Go north to Botswana, and then jump north again over either Zimbabwe or Namibia. Zambia! You’re there.) Hawai’i was a serene and somewhat momentous intercession for Claire and Justin, because this time, heading back to Zambia was for good. They had plans to build a small house in a village, reinvigorate their nonprofit Kasama Micro Grants, and eventually start a family.
I’m adventurous and adaptable, but Claire and Justin struck me as jump-in in a way that I have a hard time wrapping my mind around. My roots in the Northwest are broader than my tree’s canopy and deeper than its height, for however much I might fancy myself a wide-eyed explorer. I admire their thoughtful relocation, and since I love to feature adventurous, bold women on the blog, Claire let me pepper her with a few more questions than I had time to ask on our beautiful hike in Hawai’i.
First, pictures and a map.
Now, an interview with Claire, writing from Zambia.
Me: Where are you living?
Claire: At the moment in Kapata, a small village about six miles north of Kasama, the provincial capital of the Northern Province. (The non-profit operates in Kasama.) We are currently searching for a small piece of land in a rural area, hopefully on a river, where we can have a small farm to teach organic farming methods, and to learn from local, knowledgeable Zambians about the traditional methods of subsistence, construction, and culture.
Me: Where are you right now and how did you get there from the U.S.?
Claire: Our story begins in 2008, when I joined the U.S. Peace Corps. Justin and I met here (he was my nearest Peace Corps neighbor—about 22 miles away). We fell in love with Zambia and one another, and have wanted to return ever since we left in 2010.
In 2009 my Dad and I started Kasama Micro Grants to help girls from Nkole Mfumu (the village in which I lived as a Peace Corps volunteer) go to school in Kasama. We noticed that the few families who could afford to send a child to secondary school chose boys, both because of patriarchal trends, and because women share a larger load of household work, and thus are relied upon more and harder to part with.
The program successfully helped some women graduate, but from abroad, we found that we were not able to provide appropriate support to these girls. What have we offered if they graduate with no option but to return to their village? (Not that living in a village is a bad option—it’s what Justin and I want to do—but options are key). So Justin and I moved here–mostly because we love Zambia and want to live here and share our lives with the wonderful people here, and also to help deepen the program.
We offer tutoring sessions, workshops, and one-on-one attention to help our grantees develop skills with technology, networking, career planning, and other attributes that will help give them options after graduation. We are also offering continued help to graduates—moral, emotional, and financial—so that they may continue their educations or find a career path leading to financial independence.
Me: I know you and Justin think reflectively and dynamically about being non-natives who are hoping to help change lives for the better. Tell me about how your perspective has evolved.
Claire: Our main evolution occurred during our time as Peace Corps volunteers. There is something presumptuous and arrogant in assuming that college graduates can come to the Zambian bush and offer trainings and teachings to people in these areas about how to live. When I arrived, I had never been a teacher, but I was supposed to train teachers how to teach. Instead of being the teacher, I became the learner. I found that the traditional knowledge and gentle ways of the Bemba people with whom I lived offered more to me than I could reciprocate.
As we return to Zambia this time, we talk of our non-profit, but generally we just speak of wanting to live in Zambia. We speak to Zambians of how wonderful we think their country is, and how happy and fortunate we are to spend time and share our lives with the beautiful people of this country. This is very well received, and very unusual, as most foreigners in this culture speak of the work they are doing (which, almost inevitably, is focused on developing–changing may be a better word–this culture).
The whole idea of development rests on the assumption that our culture is better than theirs. We are trying to shake the mold of what foreigners do here, and shift the perspective from which Zambians see us and them. In doing so, we are working within the educational system to help young women become empowered, while also trying to create ties to traditional leaders and elders, who hold time-honored wisdom that is quickly being lost in the rapid rush towards “modernity.”
Me: Share with us the future of Kasama Micro Grants, and a story about someone who’s been touched.
Claire: There is an incredible demand for secondary schools in Zambia. The majority of students who pass their grade eight exam and are qualified to pursue a high school education (even if they were able to find the means to do so) would not find a space.
We dream of someday having a school where traditional knowledge is valued and taught alongside basics like reading, writing, and arithmetic, as they say. But the Western system of education is often not applicable to the majority of youth in Zambia, who find themselves living a subsistence lifestyle in a rural area. We dream of working with Zambian friends and partners to develop a program which values ancestral knowledge, local wisdom, and time-held tradition as highly as it values innovation and modernity.
Many of the grantees that we work with are orphans. Interestingly enough, the concept of an orphan did not exist in the Bemba language or broader Zambian and African contexts before colonization. With the comforts of a more “modern” lifestyle come challenges, and orphans are usually taken in by a family member, be it their grandparents or an aunt or uncle. As many family sizes exceed the U.S. norm, sometimes a family may take on the responsibility of as many as nine children, often suddenly. This puts incredible strain on families, and with Kasama Micro Grants, we help to assist so that a young woman’s education is not sacrificed in the name of financial necessity.
One young woman is Christine Chileshe. I met Christine while I was working at Nkole Mfumu Basic School. A strong, but quiet presence, Christine stood out in classes for always putting the most into her assignments.
After getting to know her, I learned that Christine was living with her uncle in a village some eight miles away from the school. It took her over an hour each way to get to school. Christine was the first in the house to wake at 5 a.m. in order to sweep the yard, wash the previous days dishes, and prepare meals for the family. Then she made the journey to school and back, prepared supper, and was the last to go to sleep.
Christine was one of the inspirations for starting Kasama Micro Grants, as the little money (given the context of our relative wealth and the strength of U.S. dollars) that it would cost for her to room and board at Kasama Girls School would make all the difference for the rest of her life.
Christine passes her exams with the highest score of any girl in her class, and was accepted into Kasama Girls’ High School. Being in town at a boarding school meant that for the first time in her life Christine was relieved of the burden of housework and food preparation that many young women carry for their entire lives. Suddenly, someone was preparing her meals for her: Her job was now to study, which meant focusing on herself and the betterment of her life. For the first time in her adolescent life Christine was not responsible for her younger siblings and cousins. This transition in itself results in great physical changes in a person.
My contract with Peace Corps expired, and I left Zambia. With the help of our local partners, we managed the program remotely, but I returned in 2012 to conduct my master’s degree research and facilitate the first workshop with KMG. To see the physical transformation that Christine had undergone brought tears to my eyes. She had gone from a hard-working, young, shy girl, to a confident, well-rested young woman.
She was vocal in the workshop, and has remained vocal and confident in the time since. In 2012 Christine passed her grade 12 exams and received her certificate. She is currently living outside of the capital city of Lusaka and caring for her two young sisters while she teaches at the local community school. Financial restraints and family obligations have kept Christine from pursuing further education, but she is so proud to have completed high school. She is the first woman in her immediate family to do so. She now serves as a role model for the young women in her family under her care, as well as the pupils at the local community school where she teaches.
Me: I know that Africa’s countries, terrain, and cultures are incredibly diverse, but only the worst headlines win the battle for news coverage. Help stretch our canvas, and paint on it with different colors.
Claire: Zambia is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. The Bemba people I have had the pleasure of knowing here are the friendliest, most genuine, and joyful people I have ever met. While some stereotypes about material shortages do ring true here, the bottom line is that at the end of the day you’ll find people laughing, smiling, and sharing time with family and friends.
In the United States, there is a growing movement towards reviving ancestral and indigenous knowledge. We are starting to realize that all of the “intelligence” in the world is not necessarily going to result in any wisdom. As we start to look back at the cultures which have lived sustainably and symbiotically with one another and with nature through spiritual and natural wisdom, we begin to question some of the long-held assumptions about material acquisition prevalent in our society.
In Zambia, we have the opportunity to visit rural areas where much of this wisdom is still intact, and people understand how to live within the means provided to them by Mother Nature. Thus, despite what the news will tell us about starving Zambians (well, Africans) and uneducated populations, I have found that people in Zambia have considerably more to teach me than vice versa, and I firmly believe this trend holds true for our cultures at large. Zambia offers a wonderful opportunity for people to switch their line of thinking, from How can we develop these backwards people? to How can these people shift our understanding of what development really means?
There’s no quota for how many awesome organizations to like, so find Kasama Micro Grants on Facebook here. Claire will love it. She checks in from Zambia.
Learn more about Kasama on their website, where there is a link to donate if you are awe-inspired.
Let’s finish off with their newly minted mission. Bravo, Claire and team!
Kasama Micro Grants strives to empower young women to become progressive, self-confident, and socially involved leaders of a changing, more-equitable Zambia by cultivating education and livelihood while fostering balance between modernity and tradition. By embracing a strength-based, culturally relevant approach that combines the cultivation of healthy relationships, access to contemporary resources, and pride in ancestral wisdom, KMG gives support to young women from rural Zambia by providing educational opportunities, school support and resources, and interpersonal mentoring.