Where kids’ books meet the real story: From malaria to microloans

I had the privilege last month of traveling with World Vision to the district of Sinazongwe, Zambia, where rolling hills covered in acacia, cacti, and fruit trees look remarkably like parts of Southern California. But tucked among them are mud brick huts with thatched roofs, small vegetable gardens by muddy pools, and high racks where cobs of maize dry beyond the reach of animals. We pass a small roadside market, where women sell tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, and stalks of sugar cane beside a banana grove.

The statistics of this region belie the bucolic scene. Malaria plagues a quarter of children under 5, often fatally, and affects 9 percent of the overall population, according to Rose Zambezi, World Vision's technical adviser for health. HIV and AIDS persist, too, affecting 14 percent of Zambians. As a children’s book author, I’m especially interested in these statistics as I’m working on a story about an African family that strives to create a “healthy village.”

The heartening news: Families in Sinazongwe, on the swampy, malaria-prone shores of Lake Kariba, are improving their health statistics and practices. After World Vision distributed more than 7,000 insecticide-treated bed nets here in 2009, just before the rainy season when mosquitoes breed, malaria incidence fell by up to 70 percent year-on-year.

Lodiaís smiles because she is healthier now that she no longer suffers from malaria because she sleeps under a mosquito net from World Vision. ©2009 Collins Kaumba/World Vision

What’s more, volunteer community hygiene promoters are helping households to understand the best ways to stay healthy, through explaining the causes of diseases like malaria and diarrhea. They promote drinking only clean water, building and using latrines, washing hands, and drying dishes on racks. “Now, people use bednets for protecting against malaria,” said Rose, “instead of catching fish with them, which they did at first!”

She also notes that World Vision has drilled and outfitted 99 boreholes (training local water, sanitation, and hygiene committees to maintain them) to bring fresh water to the district.

Our first stop is the home of Emily Syabubila, who has made the most of many of these interventions. A ball of vitality measuring well under five feet, she tells us that her family suffered a serious health blow in 1997, when she was just 29:  Her husband died of cerebral malaria. After his death, his family dealt Emily and her three children a crippling economic blow: “My husband’s family wanted me to marry a relative to keep our property, but I refused, and they took all our livestock, furniture, and crockery. I had nothing for me and the children but a roof over our head.”

She applied for and won a year-long contract with World Vision to teach weaving to other women. When that finished, she worked as a seamstress to make ends meet. But in 2006, she seized an opportunity that would be life-changing: World Vision microfinance partner Harmos came to her village, offering small loans and business training to would-be entrepreneurs. Emily applied.

Katie Smith Milway talks to World Vision staff in Zambia. ©2011/World Vision

Similar to the trajectory of Kojo, the main character of my book "One Hen: How One Small Loan Made a Big Difference," Emily’s livelihood and ability to care for her family has been transformed by microloans. With her first, about $75, she bought her own sewing machine and grew a business making school uniforms. A year later, after repaying that loan, Harmos lent her a second loan of $120, which she used to start a fish-trading business.  “I would buy fish from the fisherman of Lake Kariba,” said Emily, “then freeze them and twice a month take them on the night bus to Lusaka [the capital, a seven-hour drive] to sell.”

With her profits, Emily managed to put all three of her children -- Monga, 25, Stephen, 22, and Faith, 19, through high school, a huge feat in a zone where thousands of primary school graduates compete for 360 spots to board at the government secondary school. With a third loan, of $180, she went into agriculture, buying seed and fertilizer and growing vegetables to trade -- reminiscent of the Duarte family in my 2010 book on food security for kids, "The Good Garden: How One Family Went from Hunger to Having Enough." (It includes a profile of World Vision's agricultural training.)

Emily repaid her farm loan and garnered a fourth loan to expand both of her trading businesses. With a recent fifth loan of $400, she has expanded again and bought furniture for her home. “Now, I can grow food that lasts until the next season,” says Emily. “I never thought I would be a businesswoman, but when my husband died, God gave me that.”

After hearing this first part of Emily's story, I learned how she is giving back.

Stay tuned next week on the World Vision Blog for the second part of Katie's post about Emily and her trip in Zambia.

Katie Smith Milway is the children's book author of "One Hen", "The Good Garden", and forthcoming, "The Healthy Village". She also serves on the board of World Vision U.S.


    This inspiring rags to a real livelihood report shows that with a little help, a vision, and hard work, health and lifestyles can be improved. Thank you world vision and Katie Milway.

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