"I feel at home in Zambia more than in Czech," said Zuzana FilipováPublished: Jan 19, 2018 Reading time: 8 minutes
Zuzana Filipova, originally from Zlin, studied at the Faculty of Social Studies in Brno. Since her twenties, she has been living overseas. Currently she calls Zambia her home. Zuzana visits her homeland, Czechia, once a year and she always can´t wait to get back to the “heart” of Africa. She now lives in Mongu, in the Western Province of Zambia, where she leads a program by People in Need focused on tackling hunger and malnutrition. Zuzana leads a small team of local employees who are assisting the families in the Kalabo area to provide better nutrition for their children, improve their farming practices and their livelihood in general. We asked Zuzka about her every-day life 10 000 km away from home.
When did you visit Africa for the first time?
The first time… that was back in 2010. I went to Uganda with my then-partner who studied African studies. He had been interested in project management since forever, and he wanted to focus on humanitarian and development aid. I would had preferred to go to Asia, Africa didn´t really attract me so much back then. I first visited it for 3 weeks, just for the holidays. But after that, when I finished my Bachelor´s degree in Czechia, I moved to Uganda for a whole year!
What were your beginnings in Uganda? What did you do there?
At the beginning, I had an internship in Kampala at Caritas Prague. Then I started to work as a project manager for an Italian NGO that works close to the South Sudan Border. It was a big challenge at the time. I hadn´t studied project management, so it was really like being thrown in at the deep end. On top of that, I used to be scared of so many things back then. Everyone at home was warning me how dangerous Uganda is and they were convinced I´ll catch some hideous diseases. I have soon realized though that all that was an exaggeration and I even feel safer in Africa now than back in the Czech Republic.
Do you recall your first impressions of Africa?
When I got off the plane at 3 AM in Kampala, already the air was very different. I remember the smell, the humidity, the sound of cicadas in the distance; it was like a slap over my face. I will never forget this first impression.
Where have you been since?
After two years in Uganda, I moved to Zambia, where I spent a year and a half. I worked there with Caritas CZ. After that, I went to Tanzania for a while, but from there I was always coming back to Zambia, I couldn´t stay away for more than two months. When I was job-hunting there, I applied for a position with People in Need in Mongolia.
Why Mongolia? That is quite a change from Zambia.
I knew People in Need were preparing to open a new mission in Zambia a few months later, and so I have decided to join the organisation on their mission in Mongolia to get experience with the organisation and therefore a better chance to get the job in Zambia later on. And it worked! On top of that, as I said, I always wanted to visit Asia, and visiting Mongolia had been one of my dreams. It was rather tough to move from +35°C to -35°C, but it was manageable. And Mongolia really is a beautiful country. I wanted to return to Zambia nonetheless, though.
Can you describe what exactly is your current role at PiN and how does your regular day look like?
I am a program coordinator. I am responsible for a project focused on reducing malnutrition in the Western Province. I manage a team of 4 people, I make sure we meet the deadlines and the standards. I would say that around 80% of my time is spend in the office. It may seem that this kind of work is rather exciting, but in the end, you are sat at a computer most of the time anyway. But of course, I do visit the local villages with my colleagues to oversee the situation there and to find out how they are managing. In order to do my work here in the office well, it is essential to know what happens in the field.
Who is in your local team?
Currently we are two Czechs here, me and the Head of Mission, Martina. We also have an Indian colleague Balkishore, who is in charge of finances, logistics and hiring new staff. That is our international team. We also have local colleagues from Zambia. I work with a team of 4 – a lady and three gentlemen, who are implementing our activities in the field. Balkishore is in charge of a support team for logistics, operations and finance, without which we wouldn´t be able to do anything. Considering we have only started in August 2017, we are a pretty big team!
How do you fight malnutrition in western Zambia?
Our goal is to improve nutrition and resilience of the local communities in the Kalabo district. We focus on all causes of malnutrition, and so we implement a complex approach that consists of many closely interlinked parts. Firstly, we provide support in agriculture: selected families were trained in farming methods and they were given seeds and tools to increase their production. We focus on foods rich in nutrients such as legumes, vegetables and poultry. Secondly, we want to improve the local people’s access to markets. Most villages are too far from the closest market, some of them up to a 7-hour walk! It is not worth the trip for many people, especially if their harvest is as little as for example 2 kg of tomatoes. Therefore, we support local entrepreneurship: selected delegates from the community buy out the produce from local farmers and then sell the whole lot at the market.
However, we won´t improve nutrition only by increasing the production of vegetables and other crops. In our project we also focus on health support. For example, in cooperation with local health centres, we want to encourage future mothers to give birth in hospitals with medical assistance rather than at home. The last dimension of this project is to secure access to clean water; this part is still in preparation.
What are the reactions of the local people? Aren´t they a bit sceptical when you advise them on how to change their ways of live?
On the contrary, we have very positive reactions. But that might be because we don´t just go somewhere and start lecturing people. We take pride in promoting active participation of the local communities in the project. We try to work with motivated people who really want to make a change. And we try to work with what local people already know, and try to assist with means that they are lacking. For example, everyone knows that they should wash their hands with soap, but not everyone can afford one. We always work with the experience of the locals and offer them help that is actually needed.
What is the language situation in Zambia? Do you sometimes face a language barrier?
Most people here, apart from the ones in the villages, speak English, so it is not a problem at all. When I compare the situation after my arrival to Mongolia, where I was handed some papers in Cyrillic and I didn´t understand a word of it, it is much easier here. Also, all our colleagues speak very good English. Only when we go to the villages where we work, people speak the local language, which here in the Western Province is Lozi. I can only say “hi” and “thank you” in Lozi, with the rest I have to rely on our colleagues who translate for me. At the moment I am trying to learn Bemba, which is the most common language in Zambia, but I had no luck in finding a teacher so far, as Bemba is not really spoken in this province.
How do you spend your leisure time?
Here in Mongu, there is not so much to do, really. I like to read or go for hikes in the bush. We have a little international community here; I have a Czech friend from Caritas, and some Italian friends from another NGO. Once in a while we hang out – sometimes the Italians invite us over for pizza, sometimes Balkishore cooks some Indian food at our place. From time to time, there are concerts of Zambian singers, which we really like to visit. Since there is not really that much to do, we welcome anything. Oh and also, I am learning to drive! Our driver colleague is teaching me. Thanks to the fact that I never drove in Czechia, it doesn´t feel weird for me to drive on the left side of the road. Compared to Lusaca, here in Mongu the traffic is pretty light, which is great. Driving is my favourite activity at the moment!
What is the best part of your work?
I like the fact that it is not that kind of work where, after spending 8 hours working, you go home and not think about it anymore, because it in fact doesn´t impact anyone. Here I feel that we can change - or at least partially improve - the lives of people we are working with. Even if it would be just a few individuals we have an impact on, it has a meaning. I also appreciate that my work is not monotonous. Every day is different: I regularly face cultural specifics and opinions that I could never possibly encounter back in Czechia. I love that.
Is there something from the Czech Republic that you miss here?
Probably my mum´s cooking; the dill sauce with dumplings, for example. But to be honest, I usually experience a culture shock when I go back to the Czech Republic, rather than the opposite. I have basically spent most of my adult life in Africa. And even though there are many things that bother me here, Zambia has won my heart.