Once upon a saga - Zambia

Published: 10 June 2016 10:07 CET

Torbjørn C. Pedersen, a goodwill ambassador with the Danish Red Cross, is currently travelling the world, aiming to visit all 190 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Travelling on a budget of just $20 USD per day, Tor is undertaking his journey without the convenience of air travel, something no one has ever achieved. While in Zambia, in southern Africa, Tor witnessed first hand, the rebuilding that is taking place at the Zambia Red Cross Society. To learn more about Tor’s journey, visit: http://www.onceuponasaga.dk/.

Bacteria were observed for the first time by a coincidence. That was back in the 1660s but they weren't connected with illness until around 1840. However, back then it was deemed as utter madness and completely disregarded! In England, a theory arose in the 1850s that an "invisible force" in the water could spread disease. But the actual connection between bacteria and illness did not become accepted until the late 19th century.

Would it then surprise anyone that we are still educating people on proper hygiene today? 

Inside the great white wall

There is a great white wall around the entry to Zambia Red Cross Society. Inside you find the National Society hard at work. The day before I passed the gate to walk inside, I met a receptionist at my hotel who pointed at the emblem on my chest and said: "Is the Red Cross coming back to life? It used to be really strong when I was younger." 

The phoenix slowly but confidently rises with Abraham Geevarghese, the Secretary General of the Zambia Red Cross Society, behind the desk. He sneezes due to his hay fever and tells me how the National Society used to be strong but took a dip. Now it's coming back under his management. There is no financial support from the government, but 8,000 Zambian volunteers form a strong backbone along with partnering National Societies from Kenya, the Netherlands, and the United States, as well as support from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). A few income generating activities like the guesthouse in Livingstone contribute as well.

I sat down with communication manager Bruce Mulenga and discovered that there is much to do. Besides first aid and promoting the 7 Fundamental Principles, the current drought is hurting Zambia as well. It's the worst drought in 35 years for southern Africa. You wouldn't necessarily notice as a tourist because the Zambezi river flows across the Victoria falls and the trees are green in many places. Paradise to some is less so for others.

Bruce introduced me to Marianne Deelder, the delegate for the Netherlands Red Cross. And then things moved fast! Marianne is a very competent woman who makes sure that the Zambia Red Cross Society gets the best her National Society can offer. It's a strong collaboration between the two organizations and I quickly found myself in a vehicle racing towards Mongu in the western province through Kafue National Park. I was accompanying deputy Secretary General Patricia Nambuka, Netherlands Red Cross delegate Zaitun Ibrahim, Moses from logistics, and our driver Joanna. We spotted an elephant near the road and a snake which tried to cross. Hours later, we arrived.

The next day before we could head into the field we had to show our respect as well as introduce Zaitun as she was the new delegate in the region. We were joined by health and care coordinator Petronela Lumbala, and Bosso, who is a field officer. The western province is a sandy province. It's green enough, but between the bushes and trees you will find sand. We rolled up to the District Commissioners office and went inside. He was very polite and thanked the Red Cross several times for its commitment to the region. He pointed out that his personal vehicle was at the disposal of the Red Cross and mentioned with respect that the Red Cross always delivers. Wow! 

Next stop was another government office of the District water and sanitation coordinator. Patronela politely told him that the Red Cross really appreciates the good cooperation. The coordinator sincerely replied, "I can assure you that we appreciate it more!"

Our last government visit was at the district health office. The district medical officer greeted us warmly and thanked the Red Cross several times. He finally proceeded to say, "Now the problems have been solved for half our population," and with a humble smile, added, "now we are halfway there."

Flooding - an important part of the life cycle

Barotse land is the part of Zambia which rises up from the Zambezi River. It's a large plain which consists of a lot of open space. Several kilometres from the river, so far that you can't possibly see the river, the open plain meets with a sudden elevation of land. For a few months every year, the plain floods as the river rises. Villagers who live in Barotse traditionally move up to the higher grounds during the natural flooding and back down as the river subsides. They have an "upper village" and a "lower village". But this year it did not flood at all. The plains remained bone dry. Flooding is an important part of the life cycle for both animals and people. Usually during the end of May there is so much water that locals must cross it in speedboats. But not this year. The El Niño effect has dried up large areas of all of southern Africa and is threatening millions of people's life.

Next time, we follow Tor as he visits with communities in western Zambia and meets volunteers who are achieving great success in preventing maternal deaths.