The slight Zambian woman in a brick red A-line dress takes me down an alleyway in one of Lusaka’s more dismal slums and makes a turn, stopping at the empty shell of a makeshift shack. The crude framework of uneven wooden posts, two-by-fours and tin sheeting blends in with hundreds of others.
A collapsed plastic tarp, providing no shelter at all, lies crumpled beneath it.
‘I was here,’ says Shalom. ‘This is where I would sleep.’
The 20-year-old points to a pile of dried grass in front of the coarse shack – makeshift bedding that an errant charcoal cooking fire has mostly reduced to black powder. She smiles for a photo.
Shalom came to Family Legacy’s attention as a 10-year-old orphan. The Texas-based charity’s social service workers spotted her in the Buseko Market slum and took her in. Some children there, she says, still ‘sleep in drainages.’
Her mother had sent her and her two sisters to Lusaka and stayed behind in a village about 260 miles to the west, roughly the distance between Washington and Pittsburgh. She hasn’t gone back in years.
‘I don’t remember my biological father’s face,’ Shalom says. ‘Not at all. He died when I was about three or four years old. I was too young, and no one even has a picture of him.’
Shalom, 20, shows the place in the Buseko Market compound of Lusaka, Zambia where she slept until she was 10 years old; native social-service staff of the Family Legacy charity took her in and gave her a safe place to grow up; she never knew her father and her mother lives in a distant village; she yearns to be a pediatrician
More than 1 million children in Zambia are growing up without parents, largely due to an AIDS pandemic that claimed countless fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles and other extended family members; today’s generation of Zambian young people can often be seen on the streets of Lusaka’s slums, children being raised by children
The area where Shalom grew up is called Buseko Market; people live between a stone wall and a sewage ditch, sleeping on fanned-out bales of dried grass and hauling water from a communal well; there is no electricity or public sanitation
Family Legacy shares before-and-after photos of Catherine at age three (left) and age eight today (right); Catherine was born to a teenage prostitute in Buseko Market; she and her sister Beatrice, then seven years old, were sleeping in roadside trash piles on the side of a road where trucks passed regularly, according to the organization’s chief relationship officer Holly Scurry
Scurry walked with Shalom through the streets and alleys of Buseko Market like an expert tour guide; she has been there hundreds of times, keeping tabs on boys and girls who attend one of her organization’s 26 tuition-free schools nearby
When a Zambian orphan says her father passed away more than a dozen years ago, no one asks how he died.
Like most of sub-Saharan Africa, the land-locked nation lost a generation of men and women to AIDS. Shalom and a million others soldiered on without one or both parents.
Her sisters have seven children between them, and she lives with them all in a Lusaka neighborhood which, while poor, is an upgrade from where she started.
Children of her own are not in Shalom’s plans. This luminous, rebuilt orphan is trying to get into medical school.
‘I want to be a pedia–, a pediatrical–, you know, a doctor for children,’ she laughs, unable to spit the word out in English.
Shalom hopes to enroll at Cavendish University in Lusaka, which offers medical training.
She and Holly Scurry, Family Legacy’s chief relationship officer, walk the market slum’s dusty alleys with me just before sunset and buy yellow bags of rice and corn mealy-meal, the makings of a stick-to-your-ribs breakfast porridge. A bit of cash buys a bucketful out of a larger bucket.
They divide it into smaller bags and give them to families they know. For some it’s the only meal of the day.
Zambia, a mother of six named Fatima told me in another shantytown days earlier, ‘sometimes runs out of food, but we never run out of children.’ She also cared for her late sister’s three children.
Zambia needs to turn that boundless crop of orphans into farmers, doctors, lawyers, financial gurus and tradesmen and women, Scurry says. Adopting them out across an ocean ‘doesn’t get the big picture.’
EMMA, BUPE AND ESTHER
Emma, 21, sees herself in the same light.
‘We want to change our nation. If most Zambian children were adopted Zambia wouldn’t develop at all,’ she explains. Family Legacy found her at age 11 in the Kamanga ‘compound,’ a gentler word for slum. Her younger sisters Bupe and Esther would follow.
Emma’s life nearly ended at the hands of her mother, an alcoholic, single-parenting AIDS widow who flew into a rage one night after a fire consumed everything in their shanty. She blamed the girl, then nine years old, for knocking over a charcoal brazier that was their only night-time source of light and heat.
Emma ran into the flames to rescue her infant sister, knowing without looking that her mother was too drunk. Baby Esther survived but was so badly burned that only now, 12 years later, is her hair growing back in more than patches.
‘My biological mother would drink a lot. She would beat me,’ Emma says. ‘If anything at home went missing, I would be the one to blame. She beat me so hard.’
Emma, now 21, tells a story of how her alcoholic and abusive mother once threw a knife at her and hit her in the head for a minor offense; her step-uncle later tried to rape her; she is a success story and credits Family Legacy with saving her and her two sisters
Emma once raced into a fire to save her then-infant sister Esther (pictured at age 4), who emerged burned but alive; her mother blamed Emma for the fire and beat her
Today Esther, 12 (right), and middle sister Bupe, 15 (left), live in the children’s village from which Emma has moved on to university; Bupe alternates between softly crying and a run of joyful teen-speak about how much she wants a pair of ‘skinny jeans’
Fifty-seven Zambians die of AIDS-related illnesses every day. Twenty-three are children; asked where his mother and father are, this boy (left) in Lusaka’s Chainda compound said, ‘I do not see them now’
She remembers a day in her tween years when she misheard what her mother sent her to buy at an open-air market, coming back with eggs instead of oranges. The eggs broke.
‘My mom was so upset she threw a knife at me. It hit me somewhere in the head,’ she recalls. ‘She would hit me with a metal stick. She would hit me with whatever she had.’
And then, as matter-of-fact as shopping, she drops a bomb: ‘My step-uncle tried to rape me.’
Her mother didn’t believe her. She sided with the man in order to keep the peace with her then-latest husband, his brother. Today she sells vegetables and has another son, Emmanuel, who is three. Emma thinks her mother may be pregnant again.
Bupe, the 15-year-old middle sister, is living at Family Legacy’s ‘Tree of Life’ children’s village with Esther. Emma says Bupe ‘will literally cry the whole day’ over small slights.
The girl who inhales Nancy Drew mysteries keeps details of her traumatic past to herself, but weeps quietly about how ‘life would be bad’ if she still lived in the compounds because ‘I would not be going to school.’
Bupe has dazzling science grades. Doctors in Zambia can make a lot of money, she muses softly. A moment later she and her sunny eyes are simply 15 again. Bupe likes to eat rice and sausage. She pines for a pair of skinny jeans. Her chuckle is infectious.
Two girls at the ‘Tree of Life’ children’s village, a group of 64 purpose-built homes where Lusaka’s most desperate orphans can live in safety, are pictured washing their clothes outside the house they share with ten other girls and a pair of house-mothers who alternate shifts
Dalitso was growth-stunted and AIDS-ravaged (left) by the time he first received antiretroviral drugs; although they held his HIV in check, the virus had damaged his spinal cord to the point where he later lost the use of his legs; he stopped taking the medicine at one point in the hope that he would die, but today he’s a healthy 20-year-old (right)
THE SHY, THE SUICIDAL AND THE FUTURE
Other children in the orphans’ village, Zambia’s rescued future, hide their suffering behind photogenic masks.
Joyce, flyweight at 18, strikes runway-model poses and giggles a universal teen-speak that hides a subject she will only describe as ‘a very difficult situation’ – words whose overtones carry gravity. Eyes downcast, neck drooped, lips pursed, she suddenly runs silent.
‘You can’t know what I’m feeling if you’re not close to me,’ she says. ‘See, I’m a talk, talk, talk person. And I like to sing. Church songs. But I’m shy.’
At first thready and then reedy, and finally in full brass, Joyce sings a worship song made popular by the Nigerian gospel singer Mercy Chinwo.
Joyce, rescued from one of Lusaka’s more fearsome shantytowns, wears a smile that hides a secret trauma, something she won’t speak of but which drives her to silence when she thinks of it
‘Jesus you love me too much,’ she sings. ‘All your promises are « Yeah » and « Amen ».’
‘You’re not a man. You never lie.’
For some in Lusaka the will to live is the success story.
Dalitso, 20, once stopped taking his HIV medication, praying he would die like his mother. She passed when he was five years old, and his father died seven years later.
The virus, his only birthright, left his immune system powerless to fend off an infection that attacked his spinal cord. He walked on his knees, moving one leg and then the other with his hands like a marionette.
‘When I was eating I used to vomit. My legs were paralyzed,’ he remembers. ‘I developed the sores in my mouth, and no one knew how to treat those.’
That was six years ago. When Dalitso goes back to the compounds to visit a distant uncle, he doesn’t talk about it.
‘In Zambia when you have got HIV, it’s hard to share with people,’ he explains. ‘It will go around. They don’t keep secrets and then you find some who commit suicide. But it’s like, it’s just fine. When you understand it, it’s fine.’
Dalitso walks now, but low to the ground like many his age. Forty per cent of Zambian children are height-stunted by age five.
Relentless disease and malnutrition kept his bones short. A long-awaited teenage growth spurt never came, leaving him just under 5 feet tall.
Dalitso is a born tinkerer and can fix almost anything. He has long wanted to captain a ship, but has never seen an ocean.
Becoming a psychologist instead, he says, might help him short-circuit the next round of national hopelessness.
‘I changed my career,’ he announces. ‘Right now I want to do counseling. I can be the captain of a ship. I can achieve what I want, but my heart is for this.’
‘I like sharing and talking to young people, those who are lame, those who can’t do anything.’
Richard, an avid chess player who never owned a chessboard, now has his first set (the pieces are inside); he wants to become Zambia’s finance minister, and then his country’s president; The country’s only pediatric infectious disease specialist, an American from Alabama, saved the orphaned boy from likely death when a painful and stubborn bacterial infection ate through the tibia bone in his right leg
Poor children in Zambia typically play chess and checkers with two colors of water-bottle caps and hand-drawn grids
‘I’M COMPLETELY HEALED’
The trajectory of a child’s life in the United States can seem bleak to those at the bottom of the scale. Walk-in emergency rooms, welfare payments and underfunded public schools grant a too-slow ascent to the middle class, but the lifelines are free, even for those without papers.
Zambia is a land-locked African country whose Third-World-ness hides its status as an oasis for Congolese fleeing war and Zimbabweans escaping economic collapse; but because AIDS condemned a generation of adults, Zambia’s median age is under 18
Thousands of miles to the east, health is a luxury. Dinner is often what you can steal. Books are precious and teachers are few.
Richard, the boy whose oozing wound once shed a piece of his leg bone into a surgeon’s hand, is a success story. He’s headed to college.
‘I think I’m completely healed,’ he says. ‘I suffered a lot.’
Scars and silence aside, Richard could be any middle-class American teen. He’s not sure he wants to date but knows a few girls who would like him to decide.
Children in Lusaka play chess the way they play checkers, with two different colors of caps from water bottles and lines inked on cardboard or scratched in the dirt. Letters in black magic marker identify the pieces.
‘I’m one of the best,’ Richard says, a rare boast, although he has never faced a seasoned opponent.
I bought him a chess set from a craftsman. It cost 200 Kwacha, about $16.
Richard passed the national exams given after 7th and 9th grades. He plans to enroll in a university with financial help from the American sponsors who have tracked his progress from agony to victory. He dreams of becoming an economist.
Not so he can rake in the Kwacha, he insists. For Zambia.
‘I want to work as finance minister,’ Richard says, ‘so that I can become president.’
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