We were delighted to send another group of staff to visit all our friends at Choongo School in Zambia, to continue building the partnership between the two schools. This time, for our third visit, we were represented by Rachel, Moira, Teresa and Wendy who were greeted with a glorious welcome, bursting with exuberant song and dance, including a traditional enactment of girls washing away the river demons and drums played by one of the pupils who attends Choongo’s disability unit.
After visits to meet the local education officials and time spent in class seeing something of teaching approaches, the weekend was spent with the children in the unit.
The children had a wonderful time involved in art and craft activities, making crowns (worn with enormous pride) and murals showing aspects of their lives.
After all of that sitting down, it was time to work off some energy; staff and children together shouted and cheered their way through relay races, football, parachute and balloon games and several sessions of Musical Statues (accompanied by more drumming) where the Oakleigh staff did their very best to make the Choongo children laugh and wobble!
During the week, the Oakleigh team spent more time in class and were particularly impressed by how the children used local resources to produce sweeping brushes, table mats, ornaments, baskets, hula hoops and skipping ropes. They used corn cobs, grasses, torn plastic bags, shredded flour sacks, bottle tops and sweet papers - in fact anything that came their way. They certainly have a lot to teach us about effective recycling!!
The Oakleigh staff were not quite as skilful as the Choongo children, struggling to make the simplest rope in the time that the children could produce an entire basket - we were the subject of much merriment!
Mrs Himukamba, the headteacher, was particularly proud to show us the fields that have been planted with a variety of crops, maize in particular, which are being used both to provide food within the unit and for sale to local people, raising some much needed funds. We were thrilled when she told us that the idea sprang out of a visit that she had paid to the Oakleigh allotment when she had visited us last year.
One particularly fascinating morning was spent in “Grandmother’s storytelling”, when we were treated to hearing traditional stories delivered with great gusto, singing and emotion, all of which shone through the language, Tongan; (luckily we also had Mrs Himukamba there to translate for us!) These stories were used not just for entertainment, but also for instructing children in how to behave decently. We responded with a couple of our own (‘The Boy who cried Wolf’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’), with equally strong moral messages behind them!
Choongo arranged some home visits for us, so that we could gain some understanding of the Zambian way of life and some of the challenges encountered by the children simply in attending school. With no effective local transport, the children in the main school often have a walk of an hour or two before and after lessons; this is clearly impossible for the children with disabilities and the residential unit at Choongo is the only way in which those pupils can have access to any education.
Time was also spent at The Holy Family, a local short-term residential physiotherapy centre funded by the Catholic Church, and our staff were impressed by how much time and effort was spent in working with mothers and their children, so that they could use the techniques taught by the physios on their return home.
The Oakleigh team left Choongo with some fantastic memories of a school genuinely committed to working with its children to give them the best possible opportunities, and deeply impressed by how the unit functions as a real family, with the children helping each other in so many ways.
We look forward enormously to the visit in the spring of Mrs Himukamba with two of her teachers, Mr Hanalete and Mr Hambaye, and know that Oakleigh pupils will benefit hugely from all of the new experiences that they will be bringing with them.