“You’re moving where? To do what?!”
In the months before schoolteacher Vincent Heselwood moved to Zambia, he heard that sentence a lot. For many people, he points out, the word “Zambia” seemed to be one which was big on connotations but short on detail; a place that they’d “heard of” but when pressed, actually knew very little about.
The landlocked patch of 14 million people right smack in the middle of Sub-Saharan Africa isn’t a place people necessarily think about. Most of its immediate border-mates – Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola – you’d have read about the lowest quintile of various corruption, failed state and poverty indices.
Relative to its neighbours, Zambia is actually doing pretty well. There isn’t any flamboyant dictator, no child soldiers, people don’t disappear in the night, no celebrity adoptions – just the usual run-of-the-mill elections. But Zambia is very, very poor. Sixty-four per cent of the population lives on less than US$1 (RM 4.14) per day, 14 per cent have HIV, 40 per cent don’t have access to clean drinking water. Almost 90 per cent of women in rural areas cannot read or write.
From Glossop, England, the schoolteacher embarked on a journey of a lifetime to Africa with his then-girlfriend (now wife) Sasha, to work with rural communities in the southern province of Zambia. “It’s been quite an adventure,” he says simply. And that ‘adventure’ has been encapsulated in an expressive graphic novel, Meanwhile In Zambia, detailing a vibrant and endlessly fascinating country with honesty and plenty of humour thrown in.
MOVING TO AFRICA
I’m late in meeting Heselwood. Rushing into the café breathless, I find him sitting serenely across the room sketching on a piece of paper. He looks up with a smile, and reaches out to shake my hand. “Malaysian time,” I murmur half-apologetically. He laughs, replying: “It’s somewhat like Zambian time!”
He doesn’t take long to relate a little anecdote: “When an appointment is set at 9am in Zambia, it can mean any time before sundown.” So you’re used to waiting, I say sheepishly. “Well yes… I’d sit down and sketch like what I’m doing now. I’d draw pictures of the villages, places and people I worked with, and they’ve all ended up in the book,” answers the 36-year-old, grinning.
The question of how a schoolteacher from Glossop ended up in Africa is a question he has been asked many times. “To anyone who asked me, I’ve told them bluntly that I’ve never harboured any desire of flying off to Africa and becoming a charity worker.” In his book, Heselwood writes tongue-in-cheek: “In early 2010, the sum total of my plans to live in, work in or even visit Zambia stood at exactly nil.”
What changed? “My girlfriend Sasha!” he replies, deadpan.
Sasha had been volunteering for a tiny HIV/AIDS charity that helped support peer education projects with the help of an equally tiny partner organisation based in Zambia. One day, Heselwood came across a competition advertised by a telecommunications company offering the winner to work for a charity of their choice with the project fully funded for year. “I knew Sasha would be interested in that. As much as I felt uncomfortable about the fact that it would entail her moving to Africa and working on the ground in Zambia, I knew I had to tell her!”
He soon decided that if she was to go to Africa, he’d follow her. “That’s love!” I exclaim and he laughs heartily. They worked together to come up with a proposal linking volunteers from the UK to meet the skill gaps of the rural communities in Africa.
“I also wanted to set up a linking programme with schools in the UK, to help raise funds to buy resources and materials needed for their partners in Zambia,” he shares. After weeks of feverish research and “… a mountain of post-it notes!” they finally submitted their proposal, combining Sasha’s outreach work and his love for teaching.
He quit his teaching job even before the winners were announced. “We decided that win or lose, we’d go to Zambia for at least a year anyway,” he recalls, adding: “We put together smaller scale projects that we could do if she didn’t win.”
But she won. And off to Zambia they went.
TEACHING IN ZAMBIA
What was his first impression of Zambia? “It was searing hot!” he replies, continuing: “The Zambians talk about having three seasons – hot season, rainy season and windy season. But in reality? It’s really hot throughout!” They’re so acclimatised to the weather, says Heselwood, that they walk around in duffel coats and hats while he’s literally melting in the heat. “But somehow you get used to it,” he adds.
Yet for all the research the couple put in, nothing quite prepared them for the experience ahead. “One of my biggest learnings was not to go into a place with preconceptions,” he says. “A lot of times you’re presented with an idea of what Africa is - as if the whole continent is the same. But there’s so much diversity and it differs a lot from what’s being presented in the media.”
There’s this perennial image of Africans being portrayed as needy and constantly wanting charity, and there’s the other extreme where they’re shown as being happy and contented living in poverty. “They’re both patronising views because neither one of them covers the spectrum and diversity that’s clearly evident when you’re actually there.”
The poverty is very real, he admits. But the communities he encountered were not sitting around and waiting for charity to pour in. “They were organised, forward-thinking communities with plans and aspirations,” he attests. “What they wanted were the specific skills, training and resources they needed to take their collective plans forward.”
Still, it was a lot to get used to and plans had to change. In 2010, nearly a third of all schools in Zambia were “community schools” set up and run by the communities themselves. These schools were often housed in makeshift structures; the students lived in abject poverty while the teachers were often untrained. “It’s ironic because back in the UK, I’d often have to check if the students had enough laptops. Here, I had to check to see if they had shoes,” he says drily.
Initially, his plan was to raise funds to buy school materials. While providing resources was important, it soon became apparent that just sending in pencils and exercise books weren’t going to address the evident need – training teachers to be effective educators. “Despite the Herculean efforts of the community to provide education for their children, the fact remained that the poorest people still receive the poorest education,” shares Heselwood.
Over the next few months, he wrote a syllabus of basic teaching training aimed at improving the pedagogy and practice of volunteer teachers and covered areas such as lesson planning, assessment, classroom management and a variety of other topics. “This also allowed me to practice what I preached. I wanted to prove that it’s possible to lead engaging lessons no matter what the environment was,” he recounts.
Within two years, his method proved effective. Community teachers soon blossomed into competent and creative educators. “A few years after I first saw the mud hut school, the students from that school, sitting on the dirt within a thatched roof classroom that ‘barely counted as a building’, achieved better results than the local government school,” wrote Heselwood in his book.
He never dreamt of being a teacher, Heselwood readily admits. But after teaching a friend’s sibling with her A-levels, he soon found that there was a creative process to teaching that he enjoyed. “It was a nice experience trying to explain something complicated in a simple way!” he enthuses.
That feeling soon blossomed into a full-blown passion for teaching, when he returned to his alma mater as a trainee-teacher. “Classroom observations and seeing how students were transformed through education made me fall in love with the profession,” he says.
Teaching creatively was something he found he enjoyed. He sat with one of the students with attention deficit disorder who couldn’t understand how the subject of poetry was relevant to him. “He had a notebook full of rap lyrics. And rappers often use a lot of the same techniques as poets,” he explains. Once Heselwood pointed that out, the young boy could soon see the connection between what he was studying and what he was interested in. “You could literally see the lightbulb switching on in his head!” he recounts, smiling.
Of course, returning to the school he was once a student at, had its own quirks. “A lot of the teaching staff were actually teachers who taught me as a student so it wasn’t weird at all,” he jokes. Were you a good student? I ask, curious. “Well I was okay. I had a few detentions of course back in the day – for talking too much!” he replies, grinning.
He loved teaching in Glossop and had no plans of moving anywhere else “…until Sasha came along!” Heselwood met Sasha during university where they were both pursuing English and Literature. “She changed me in many ways,” he says softly, adding: “She’s the more adventurous one but that has rubbed off on me for sure!”
ADVENTURE IN ZAMBIA
They were never short of adventures and harrowing experiences in Zambia. Water cuts and power outage were the norm where they lived. “We simply learnt to expect and work around it!” confides Heselwood, shrugging his shoulders.
Sometimes during the rainy season, they’d grab a bar of soap, and in wellingtons, they’d have an old-fashioned wash in the rain. “Otherwise, we’d filled scores of water bottles and keep them handy for bathing and cleaning purposes,” he recalls, chuckling.
In his book, Heselwood recounted good humouredly: ‘We accepted the fact that when it comes to hand washing clothes, the word “clean” and the word “acceptable” can pretty much be classed as synonyms.”
And of course, what’s Africa without her abundant wildlife? From monitor lizards hiding beneath the bath to seeing an 8-year-old child nonchalantly kill a poisonous Black Mamba that crawled into the classroom, animals feature frequently in his stories. “Just when I think life is about to get predictable, zebras and deers peer into my window as I’m washing dishes!” he recounts, laughing heartily.
Heselwood’s book is peppered with stories and vignettes of life in Zambia. “I chose to write it in the form of a graphic novel because people couldn’t picture the stories I told about my experience there. It was far easier to draw them a ‘story’ than to use merely words,” he explains.
In his preface, Heselwood wrote: “What this book is, therefore, is a collection of anecdotes, stories and experiences amassed over years of working with rural communities in the Southern Province of Zambia. Experiences that ranged from fascinating to frustrating, sobering to spectacular. It isn’t a comprehensive guide to Zambia nor does it pretend to be. What it is, is a snapshot of a vibrant, beautiful and sometimes infuriating country.”
From being squeezed into a Zambian minibus where chickens and goats sometimes shared seat space, having sour curdled milk (which Zambians seem to love) to encountering squalid living conditions where cholera, malnutrition and HIV hung like a Grim Reaper’s scythe over the populace, Heselwood has many stories to tell.
And tells them, he does – in a brilliant part memoir, part travelogue and part comedy. Fast forward a few years later, Heselwood is now teaching in an international school in Malaysia. Another chapter has unfolded – this time on this side of the world.
“Once upon a time, a guy from Manchester decided to write a book about his time in Zambia,” he begins in his book. It’s not the end of his adventures, I’m sure. For the intrepid Brit and his wife, there’s always the next bend in the road for a new story and a different adventure waiting to emerge.
MEANWHILE IN ZAMBIA – A Graphic Novel
Author & Illustrator: Vincent Heselwood
Publisher: Akasaa Publishing
This book has been released in Malaysia as part of a wider campaign to raise funds for Cyclone Idai disaster relief, with 20 per cent of all sales going towards this cause.