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A country half a world away has inspired a change in the life of one woman who wants to make a change in her own community.
Ashley Dennehy, 23, from Hobbema, spent from February to April in Zambia working with the Women for Change organization.
Dennehy, who was attending the University of Victoria for her bachelor of education degree, received an email for aboriginal applicants for international development experience.
“It came at such a perfect time. I was beginning to feel burnt out from school,” Dennehy said.
Dennehy found out about the internship through the Victoria International Development Association (VIDEA) and worked overseas with Women for Change (WFC), a nongovernmental organization without religious affiliations.
After the application was sent Dennehy had an interview. Not long after that VIDEA invited her to be a part of the program. “Best day ever,” Dennehy said.
Although more excited than nervous, Dennehy wasn’t sure what she was walking into.
“My expectations were honestly what I’d seen on TV. World Vision, Ethiopia, starving children. I was expecting extreme poverty. I was expecting sadness. I was expecting darkness. In fact it was the complete opposite.”
Dennehy worked as an information and research co-ordinator. She wrote documents to give to the general public, donors and stakeholders and government officials to sensitize them on the cyclic issues of gender-based violence and poverty.
According to Dennehy, until recently the Zambian government was withholding information about HIV/AIDS from the public. Until recently it was thought by the people that HIV/AIDS could be cured from sex with a virgin.
At the same time she was creating these documents Dennehy was training another person so the work she was doing could continue after her internship ended. There wasn’t already someone trained because Dennehy’s position was part of a pilot project.
Dennehy and the other interns also helped with capacity building; teaching the people the skills they need to become self-reliant and sustainable.
This is something Dennehy called the River Code. “It’s not like giving a handout, it’s a hand up.” Capacity building also provides people with employment skills.
Before they went to Zambia the interns stayed at the T’Sou-ke Nation in British Columbia for training and to see a successful example of sustainability.
The T’Sou-ke Nation is well known for being a community entirely powered by solar panels, with enough surplus to sell to B.C. Hydro. “They were just a really good model to learn from,” Dennehy said.
While most of her time was spent educating the people of Zambia about sustainability and how to end damaging cyclic issues there were times Dennehy had to bite her tongue.
After being colonized, Zambia became a mostly Christian nation. “In the Bible it says men and women should not be equal and that’s what most of Zambia still goes by,”
When Dennehy went for a malaria screening, the lab technician, who’d had a formal education, couldn’t understand why Dennehy would come to Zambia to help its women because he didn’t believe women needed rights.
There were other men Dennehy encountered with common views. She viewed these situations with a heavy heart because she wanted to respect their culture, too.
“Religion is such a touchy subject all over the world. I don’t really have the right to write about his views on the Bible,” Dennehy wrote in her blog about the experience.
The worst thing Dennehy remembers from Zambia is the handicapped man she saw, dragging himself down the street because there are almost no resources for wheelchairs or crutches.
“It was tough to watch. I just felt like the world was just so unjust,” Dennehy said. “I went through a lot of guilt when I came home.”
But Dennehy also remembers the good times. With VIDEA she travelled to the Senanga district to visit basket makers. The region is so isolated and the people who live there live in poverty, the basket weavers have no way to make a living.
The baskets are fumigated and brought to Canada, where people buy them. The proceeds go to VIDEA then back to African communities through their programs.
Dennehy also visited an orphanage and a two-room school in Senanga. The school is funded by an elementary school in Kelowna, B.C.
At the school Dennehy discovered that for the 100 children who attended there was one water pump that spit brown water filled with parasites that made the children sick. “It broke my heart.”
Dennehy promised once she returned to Canada she would fundraise enough money for a better pump. Her goal is $500; so far she’s raised $125.
Despite travelling half a world away where something like clean water is a luxury, the culture shock Dennehy experienced was minimal.
“Going to Africa was a mirror for me,” Dennehy said. She saw a lot of similar problems between First Nations and developing countries.
“There is gender-based violence on the reserve, high levels of poverty, low levels of employment, low education.”
Dennehy did face reverse culture shock.
Since coming home and having her “whole entire world cracked open” Dennehy’s had a hard transition time. ‘I find myself being slightly preachy about my sister using so much water, or throwing out so much leftover,” she blogged.
“But now I know I know I will never, ever turn my back on creating awareness about effort in Africa and in First Nations communities,” Dennehy said. Dennehy is looking into volunteering at the Ermineskin Woman’s Shelter. She was recently invited to tell high school students about her experiences at a youth symposium Aug. 15 in Hobbema.
Since being back Dennehy has had opportunities to work with a charity and a non-governmental organization. She been asked to go to central Africa and be part of a program that takes underprivileged aboriginal children overseas for two-week cultural exchanges.
“But I’m just going to wait a little while, until I feel comfortable being home again, before I start going back.”
To read more about Dennehy’s adventure in Zambia visit her blog at http://ashleyinzambiawomenforchange.blogspot.ca/.