Privilege, Humility and Freedom of Thought: Honest and Unexpected Lessons From DfID’s International Citizen Service Programme.

During the last three months of 2017, I undertook the government’s International Citizen Service (ICS) programme with Restless Development where I lived and worked in Mukalashi – a rural Zambian community built predominantly of mud hut houses. Here I delivered classes alongside local Zambian volunteers on issues surrounding sexual and reproductive health as well as financial literacy. For many volunteers, including myself, the potential contribution to the lives of those less fortunate was just one aspect that drew me to apply to ICS. Like many others, my anticipated achievements from undertaking ICS were not principally altruistic. During the application process, I was somewhat lost. Four years of my degree left me drained, I’d given up on my consulting grad scheme at PwC and I was back home living with my parents. I sought direction and clarity. I never expected the profound impact the experience would have on my life. Here are three of the most important lessons I learnt whilst Living in Zambia.

Our conceptual image of the third world is the ideological product of the post-colonial age. The transcription of European elite’s power and perspective into a literal and lasting dialogue. Sadly, this has led to a naturalised imperial identity founded on western superiority; positioning the third world as inferior and irrational. Pre-placement, my life was defined and gratified by tangible achievements. The fact I’d got a first-class degree scored a top-level internship or ran a marathon did not matter to my Zambian counterpart volunteers. It quickly became clear that I was not going to be judged on my experience or documented track record but instead for my visible actions as an agent for change and for the colour of my skin. Free car journeys, front row seats at events and exclusive audiences with community leaders meant many challenges I’d expected to face, did not transpire and for the first time in my life I could not avoid the undeniable privilege of being a white male and as a front-line volunteer living alongside people in a recurrent state of precarity.

Despite my liberal views and comprehensive education on the issues attached to international development, through arrogance, naivety and a subconscious racial entitlement, I saw myself as the silver bullet heading straight into the heart of Mukalshi’s problems. Of course, I was wrong and quickly learnt to develop my understanding of humility and ability to recognise the importance of the relationship with our Zambian counterpart volunteers. My initial brash attitude to openly challenge authorities’ viewpoints and speak up against cultural norms, although had good intentions, was at times counterproductive.  I’d forgotten that our work in Mukalshi could not be understood by clear-cut moral objectification. It was nuanced, complex and tentative.

Still, the most hard-hitting, and unexpected lesson I learnt whilst in Zambia was that my freedom of thought is the most valuable possession I will ever own. I live in a country where I can live freely, have agency over my decisions, choose whether to embrace a religion, love openly and think critically of my peers without fear of punishment. Unfortunately, in Zambia, this is not the case.

“Zambia is a Christian nation”

These words echoed throughout the entirety of my placement; by community leaders, students and my Zambian counterpart volunteers, I could not escape them. Within the country, expression of core humanist ideologies relating to equality and religious freedom is severely restricted. Christian teaching is mandatory in schools and criticism of Christianity is punishable by law. Unfortunately, education standards exacerbate this problem. Schools are chronically under-resourced, lessons are void of critical thinking, and are taught in English despite a large proportion of students not speaking the language.

Additionally, Zambian culture is one fixated on patriarchy, with a deep belief in respect for elders – for example, the youngest person in the family will wash the hands of all those older than them. My counterpart volunteers struggled to comprehend why I respect everyone equally and would not respect an individual more just because they were older than me; when I repeatedly questioned teachers reasoning behind certain actions I was met with hostility. This belief system has undoubtedly led to widespread acceptance of dogma and a restriction of individual agency. Unfortunately, I believe this deeply pious patriarchy currently underpinning Zambia’s society to be the most significant factor stunting development in the country.

However, it was when I asked the career ambitions of my host siblings that this issue started to really affect me. My brother, Bartholomew wanted to be a doctor and my sister, Memory a nurse. I immediately began to question why my brother should have the ambition to be a doctor yet my sister not. Memory was hard working, compassionate, and academically, she was at the top of her class. Irrespective of ability, Memory is a girl. In Zambia, girls become nurses, they stay at home and raise their family, they wash clothes and sweep the yard.  

Not only did I feel an immense sadness that Memory is subject to such institutional failures, but I also felt guilt and anger. Guilt that my biological sister’s professional aspirations were not restricted by gender. I made it a goal of mine to empower Memory and open her mind to the opportunities of ambition. We often spoke candidly about gender roles and how people choose their careers in the UK. We discussed the importance of women in STEM subjects and how there are not enough female doctors in the world. Over the course of my time in Mukalashi our conversations on the subject became less frequent and I became increasingly worried that once I left her dreams would be stunted by the daily battering of patriarchal oppression. In a final attempt to empower my sister, I wrote her a letter which I delivered on my last morning on placement. Without reading it, she hugged me and said:

“What we talked about. I will become.”

I will become. These three words triggered an emotional reaction to eclipse any I have previously felt. From them, I learned that success is unquantifiable. it cannot be measured by an academic grade, a fancy house or salary. Success is subjective, and should, in its place be understood as an internal consciousness of one’s goals and recognition of achievement. Five months on from placement I have no regrets and would strongly encourage anyone thinking of undertaking ICS to go ahead and apply.