Canoeing Down The Zambezi: Day 6

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Volunteering at an Orphanage in Zambia Africa

This is a travelogue, a personal essay from my canoeing expedition down the Zambezi River between Zambia and Zimbabwe. View more diary entries from this trip here.


The open-backed Land Cruiser jerked and juddered awkwardly over the uneven terrain, throwing us around in the back. I winced, holding on tightly to the metal bar at the side of the safari vehicle, the only means of safety in a vehicle void of seat-belts.

I was in the lead vehicle in a convoy of three. The 4x4 kicked up clouds of suffocating, orange dust behind it as it made its way down the narrow dirt track which led from our campsite towards the cultural village of Chiawa.

Savannah opened up around us, a vast expanse of long grass disturbed only by the occasional shrub or tree.

I kept my eyes peeled for any sign of life, noting tall structures of varying shapes and sizes made of sand, pinnacles in an otherwise flat savannah.

“Those are termite mounds,” our guide called to us as we passed an unusually large one. It glowed yellow as the afternoon sun hit it.

It was the afternoon after our morning trek through the bush. After polishing off some lunch whilst watching the gentle river gurgle past our tents, we had bundled into 4x4s, ready to begin our drive to Chiawa village.

Chiawa village was a traditional village of over 600 people. It’s residents earned a living from farming and working at local camps and lodges. One could only visit the village with permission from the village’s chief. The majority population was Goba, a people-group that originated from Zimbabwe.

The village was located in the Chiawa Game Management area, an area where animals were protected. This meant that villagers were prohibited from killing wildlife.

The drive to the heart of the village was estimated to take just under an hour. But I didn’t mind the journey. It gave me ample opportunity to spot wildlife. If only there were any about.

I felt a surge of excitement when I spotted a small pig scuffling about on the open savannah. With a sandy grey pelt and small tusks, I knew immediately that this was a warthog. It was smaller in size than I was expecting and I couldn’t help but feel fond of it.

We eventually arrived at a vast fence which marked the boundary of the village. It was composed entirely of tree branches, thick and sturdy. What caught my attention the most, however, was the great antelope skull which was attached to it, glistening white in the sunshine, with two large horns which curled upwards. Beside it were several smaller antelope skulls.

It would be strange to see people again. Or any sign of civilisation, for that matter. For days we hadn’t seen another soul. It had just been us and nature. The most we’d seen of people had been of extensive lodges nestled on the Zambezi riverfront. But I hadn’t actually spotted any people in them.

Constructions began to appear on the horizon, a sign that we were entering the village. We drove past huts with walls composed of mud and roofs of straw. The windows were merely holes in the walls.

People were out and about, many tending to crops. A woman dressed in a vibrant yellow, floor-length skirt clutching a large, yellow bucket waved a friendly greeting as we passed, her tan-coloured dog gazing at us from beside her.

The sand became a more vibrant orange the deeper we came into the village.

I noticed a group of children beside yellow buckets, topping them up with water from a well. Their eyes lit up at the sight of our convoy and they waved enthusiastically.

Other young children gave chase behind us, holding out their hands and yelling, “Sweets! Sweets!” We didn’t slow for them and they couldn’t keep up.

The houses became more frequent and I noticed that some had writing scrawled across the walls. God Save My Family was painted ominously on one round hut. I couldn’t help but feel a pang of sadness as I read the red-coloured text.

The village sprawled out before us, a combination of groups of houses and small convenience stores with tin roofs, painted red with the Cocoa-Cola logo.

Situated within the far reaches of Chiawa village was the orphanage, our destination.

The convoy of dusty, white 4x4s pulled up outside the orphanage which consisted of two long, brick buildings with tin roofs and an under-construction toilet cubicle which currently stood with no roof or doors. The toilets themselves were holes in the dusty floor.

We were greeted at once by the orphanage’s carers who stepped out wearing warm smiles.

“Welcome!” they chimed. “We are delighted to have you. Come now.” One of the carers beckoned us with his hand. “The children are excited to meet you.”

We followed the young men as they led us into one of the stone buildings. Shadows fell on us as we stepped through the brick doorway.

My heart swelled when I laid eyes on a classroom full of children of a variety of ages. There were young kids, some little more than toddlers and others young teens, milling together as they prepared to welcome us.

Once we had settled ourselves at one end of the classroom, the children began singing. Their delightful song filled the room and was accompanied by the rhythmic clapping of hands and overjoyed swaying of some of the most enthusiastic children.

I allowed a smile to paint itself across my face. It was humbling to think that these children were putting this display on purely for us.

After several songs, the show came to an end and we were given the opportunity to mingle with the children.

I’d come prepared with two packets of Haribo sweets to give them. They’ll love it! I thought happily. I remembered when I was younger, one of my babysitters always brought Haribo round and it never failed to put a smile on my face. It also made her the preferred babysitter.

I tore open the first pack, watching as several children gazed in excitement. I then held out the pack, naïve to the chaos that was about to take place.

Hands lunged from all directions, swooping on the sweets and grasping as many as they could. I was certain only a handful of individuals actually got any and, in a flash, I was left with nothing but a very torn piece of plastic wrapper.

Wow, I did not expect that. I sat back, trying to come to terms with what had taken place and feeling painfully aware that most of the kids had been left with nothing. I was hoping everyone could have one and they’d been open to sharing. Oh, how wrong I had been.

In hindsight, I probably should have expected this. These kids had very different lives and backgrounds to what I was used to. I was brought up in a society where we were told to share and where everything was bountiful – a privileged life. I supposed here, things like sweets were so rare and so it was more, everyone for themselves. Some of the kids were also very, very young. Perhaps they had yet to be taught the value of sharing with friends.

I tentatively reached for the second pack of sweets, half of me wondering if I should keep them and take them back home. No, you just have to try harder, I decided. So I delicately opened the pack before placing my hand inside and trying to fairly distribute the sweets.

One for you, I thought as I put a pink gummy heart in someone’s palm. They devoured it in an instant and reached their hand out again. My heart twisted.

And one for you. I placed a yellow and orange gummy ring in someone else’s hand only to feel despondent when someone else tried to snatch it.

Suddenly, the bag was grabbed by numerous hands and once again the contents seemed to disappear.

The distribution of the Haribo sweets was only the first dilemma I was faced with.

I sat on the concrete floor chatting to some girls. They were perhaps 13 or 14 years old and eager to learn more about me, as I was with them.

One of them put her hand on my arm, glancing in admiration at the dozens of bracelets that laced it.

“I love them,” she commented.

“Thanks.” I gazed down at them too, feeling proud of my collection which I had carefully acquired from different countries. I had all my bracelets I had collected from the Caribbean cruise on my arm: Tortola, St Barthélemy, Grenada, St Lucia, St Vincent and Barbados. It had been one of my goals from that trip; to collect a bracelet from each island. I also had a couple of others: a few from Mallorca and some gifts from Dad from his trips – Liberia and Sierra Leone. Each item was special and brimming with memories.

“Can I have one?” she suddenly asked.

I gazed back, alarmed. My mouth opened but nothing came out. She stared back at me with cool, unreadable eyes.

Naturally, I didn’t want to give one up. They were so special. But then. I felt guilt in my stomach, heavy as a stone. I was privileged. Why did I deserve to have so many bracelets when these girls likely had nothing? Was I selfish to not want to give them up?

I felt torn. My chest fluttered with anxiety. What was I to do?

I gazed at my arm again. Did I really need all of them? I looked at the bracelets from Mallorca. I was going back there later this summer. I could replace one. My eyes fell on a black Jesus Bead bracelet. I had this in white and brown as well. I didn’t need three of these.

I grabbed it and pulled it to my wrist before slipping it over my hand.

“Here you go.” I smiled and handed it over to her.

She grasped it, a delicate smile on her face as she placed it on her arm. She seemed satisfied.

I exhaled a slow breath of relief. I probably did the right thing. Now she has something really special.

If only things were that simple.

The girl began to show off her new bracelet to her friends who turned their curious gazes on me.

“Can I have one too?”

“Can I?”

My eyes widened with panic. I couldn’t give everyone a bracelet. Suddenly, I regretted giving the first girl anything at all. I’d tried to do the right thing but perhaps I had singled her out and now everyone else would feel sad.

I tried to get round the issue. I gave a girl my bobble which was hiding amongst the bracelets on my arm. She grabbed it, stared at it for a moment and then threw it to the ground. I felt a wave of despair as it disappeared amongst the sea of people who were sat on the floor, losing it forever. That was my only bobble!

After adjusting to my initial culture shock, I found myself growing fond of many of the children. One of the youngest members took a particular liking to my sunglasses which they donned coolly. Staring at their reflection in my phone, they let out a bemused smile.

Some other children began writing their names down on paper for me. Lenah Tembo, Charles and one that was illegible – probably written by one of the youngest children who was still learning to write.

Suddenly, the atmosphere was filled with the buzz of excited children, squealing and giggling as some members of our group began to blow up balloons. Even the older children couldn’t resist joyfully batting the vibrant red balloons and watching how they floated gracefully for a few moments before gradually tumbling down again.

I had never seen so much excitement about balloons. But then, I realised, perhaps they hadn’t come across them before.

I smiled, watching their eyes dance with utter bliss.

We returned to the orphanage the following morning.

The previous evening, as we drove back from the village, wildlife had put on a magnificent display for us.

With the rays of the setting sun illuminating the landscape, two male impala had faced each other only a few metres from the trail on which we were travelling.

In a flash they had charged towards each other, heads tucked into their chins and met with a clash of horns. If it wasn’t for the loud juddering of our diesel engine, we would have been able to hear the clank as the horns crashed together.

They tussled for a moment, their horns locked together as their heads swayed back and forth, before there was a winner.

One impala turned and fled, heading in the direction of the road. The other watched as the losing impala leapt over the road in a single, magnificent bound and disappeared into the thickets.

What a sight!

As the sun dipped below the neighbouring mountains, turning the land a deep orange, we turned in to our campsite. Our 4x4 slowly came to a halt, its brakes squealing.

“Look!” our guide whispered, pointing to a beautiful elephant standing only a few metres away from us.

My jaw fell open. It was magnificent! Its trunk rolled slowly as it took a leaf towards its mouth and crunched on it nonchalantly.

It would have been the perfect way to end our day.

But our day was not yet over.

We’d spent the first hours of the night on a game drive through the forests which our campsite backed onto. With just our headlights to illuminate the path, searching for game had proven challenging. We’d spotted some impala and elephants and heard the chanting of insects but otherwise the forest was refusing to let us view its secrets.

Perhaps the most interesting sighting was a fairly large bird which was stood in the middle of the road. It was unphased by our vehicle, twisting its head slightly as it was caught in our headlights. One of the most notable things about this bird was the fact that it was refusing to move out of our way.

We drove closer, hoping the presence of a rumbling engine, crunching tyres and brilliant beams would send it scuttling into the bushes.

Nope.

In the end we had to drive around it, veering off the road and bumping through undergrowth.

Our car had jerked violently over large boulders which lay upon the floor of a dried-up riverbed. I cringed as I heard a sharp scrape against the car’s undercarriage.

The rockslide, in the end, proved too much for us and we ended up trying to find an alternative route through the bush. That was easier said than done and we ended up getting lost.

It took several hours before we were back on the right track.

Despite the lack of animals and the setback with getting lost, it had still been fun.

When we arrived back at the orphanage we were split into small groups.

Today we would be helping the children with some of their usual activities. My activities including gardening and cooking.

I followed the children as they led us through some vibrant green undergrowth. The land beneath my feet sloped gradually downwards and between the trees I was able to spy the vegetable patch.

It was an extensive vegetable patch growing a number of items. Tall trees with thick canopies of leaves surrounded the patch and just through the bushes, at the end of the garden, was the Zambezi river. I heard it before I saw its raging torrent. It was the perfect place to fetch water to keep the plants alive.

Under the heat of the late-morning sun we took to weeding and watering of the plants. I was panting after what felt like a few moments but the girls we were working with didn’t break a sweat. I admired their stamina.

Finally, we began to harvest some of the vegetables which were ready, filling up our baskets with the lush, green produce.

After our harvest, it was time to prepare some food. I sat down with my new friends beside one of the huts as they began to quickly and precisely cut up the green leaves. I felt like I wasn’t adding much value. The girls were so fast and knew exactly what they were doing. But it was certainly fun to be able to chat to them.

One of the girls introduced herself as Chinez. “Ella con con con boy,” she said in delight.

“Chinez con con con boy,” I replied.

She had taught me the greeting. ‘Con con con’ meant ‘knock knock knock’. She grinned happily as she used the greeting.

When the work was complete, we had time to play some games. The boys found themselves engrossed in a game of football whilst I played catch with some of the girls. We leapt about in the sand, throwing and trying our best to catch the ball. I heard laughter and I smiled.

The sun was starting to lower itself in the sky, marking the end of our time at the orphanage. It would be time for lunch soon which we were due to have back at camp.

My heart swelled as I gazed at the faces of my new friends. Chinez, Lenah, Charles and so many more. I may have only known them for two days but I was really warming to them. They were funny and sweet, strong and smart. I was going to miss them.

I hugged my new friends, closing my eyes for a moment. “Goodbye,” I said softly.

“Goodbye!” they chimed, eyes brimming with emotion.

My group made their way back to the convoy of 4x4s and we settled ourselves down on the soft seats.

All the children were outside now, waving their farewells.

The engine juddered and the orange gravel crunched beneath our thick tyres. We began to make our way down the road, waving and calling our departures. Their goodbyes gradually faded into the background.

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