With the child mortality rate of about 19 percent, many Zambian children were not expected to survive past the age of 5. 2 out of every 5 children had no chance of ever setting foot in a classroom. Life was a dead end. I was like a little plant in the desert going against all odds. I could have been one of the many children who did not make it had it not been for the rainmakers–people who caused it to rain, providing physical and spiritual nutrients for me to grow. So, how did I make it?
My parents were born and raised in the village. They believed in personal liberty, strong work ethic, self reliance and living in a strong village community. As a British colony, Zambia had gone through some drastic social and economical changes. The British way of governance had changed much of the village life resulting in an influx of Zambians migrating to the cities to work. After Zambia’s independence, my parents were among the new immigrants to the city to find work in the commercial farms, construction, mining, and other new industries. Many had no formal education or technical skills, and worked menial labor, working for less than a dollar a day. Adapting to city life was challenging for my parents. They move around a lot before finally settling in a shanty compound built on a farm which was previously owned by an Indian farmer called Kalingalinga. The compound was eventually named after him.
Kalingalinga grew and so did the challenges. Houses were built out of mud and covered with tin roofs with no running water or electricity. By the time I was born, this makeshift town had grown to about 10,000 residents. Mounds of garbage piled up on every street corner. A quarter of a mile from my house was a huge hole where waste from nearby industries was dumped. Every year during the rainy season, there were outbreaks of waterborne illnesses such as cholera and dysentery, and many children lost their lives from these preventable diseases. There were funerals everyday in the community, of which most were children. There was so much hopelessness and devastation.
One day I was at church with my mother when I met a boy named Daniel. Daniel and I became best friends instantly. We had dreams to become doctors and travel the world; even though it wasn’t really the world, but countries that surrounded Zambia, nonetheless this was the extent of our world. Later on, we started a musical group that sang in funerals and some local churches. We had hoped to someday travel around Zambia and eventually to all of Southern Africa. Naïve to the challenges we were about to face, we were determined and nothing was going to stop us. We dealt with the challenges of living life and people’s stereotypes about Kalingalinga, hearing constant little voices that said we will never amount to anything; nothing good can come out of Kalingalinga. We believed education was the key to our dreams.
In the early 90’s, an American educator and his wife came to Zambia to help with a school at our church. He had heard our group and was impressed with our vocal talents, and the fact that we had no formal music training. He promised to help sponsor the group to travel to the United States to sing at a student convention and schools. He encouraged us to practice every day, so we did. For several years we had practiced six days a week for at least three hours and had opportunities to compete in music festivals around Lusaka, the capital city. We had gotten better. We were even invited to sing for the head of state at the State House. Things started to look very good. We were finally getting somewhere.
And then it ended.
One evening my mom became mysteriously ill. We did not have the money to take her to the hospital, and the next day her situation was getting worse by the minute. By evening, our neighbor managed to raise money to take mom to the hospital. With Zambia’s extremely poor healthcare system, doctors did not fully know the cause of her illness until it was too late. The doctors said her cause of death was a stroke, but we later found out it was bacterial meningitis. With the death of mom, dad’s alcohol problem became worse. About a year after mom’s death, he had severely hurt his back and was unable to work anymore. I had to be innovative. So, I quit school and looked for ways to provide food for the family. My dreams of becoming a doctor died.
My mom had an old hand-powered sewing machine she received from her older brother. She used it to make quilts and patched holes in our clothes from time to time. Never in my life would I ever think that the little machine in the corner of the living area gathering dirt would become my lifeline. All I had was 3 shirts and 2 pants for clothes. I had to sacrifice my clothes to learn how to sew. I took the seams out, laid them on the floor, studied the patterns, and practiced sewing them back together. I did this daily. My younger sister thought I was losing my mind after she saw the pieces of my clothes lying all over the floor in our little mud house. I was determined to learn. In about three months, I was able to create my first outfit. I later started a small sewing business from my mom’s old leftover fabric. The business grew, and I later opened a shop at a local market.
A year and half later, the education missionary came through with his promise. He had managed to sponsor the group on its first international tour to the United States. The group traveled to over forty States, singing in over three thousand schools.
I have heard this phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” being thrown around a lot. You might say I was innovative to use my mom’s sewing machine to create a business from the ground up, but I look back and see an army of people who helped me along the way. You can only pull yourself up by the bootstraps if you have boots; in my case I had nothing. Had it not been for my uncle giving mom the sewing machine, my pastor who became like a father to me, and the many other people who helped us with food during the time I was learning to sew, there was no way I could have made it. The army of rainmakers in my life continued during our tours in the United States. From my American mom and dad who had three of their own biological children and us ten adopted Zambian children all living in one house, to a family doctor and his wife that kept and sponsored three of my friends and I for our first year of college. We had families that loved us and supported us with their time and resources.
If it wasn’t for others raining blessings in my life, I would not have been here. Let us think twice before we tell someone to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps”. We all have been helped by someone to become what we are today. I can’t do enough to pay back all the people who helped me; the little I can do is to help someone else. We all can be rainmakers, making a difference in someone’s life, one person at a time. Do you have someone that has had an impact in your life?