Crossing five thousand miles and overcoming huge communication barriers, two Freemasons set up an inspirational school in Zambia. Ellie Fazan reports on their astonishing story
When teachers Tony Foster and Adam Williams took children from their North Wales school on a trip to Zambia eleven years ago, they visited a rural settlement called Mkushi. What they found was shocking. Out of around three thousand homesteads, there were one thousand orphans. ‘It was the height of the AIDS epidemic, although people there had no idea what it was,’ recalls Tony. ‘They called it “slim”, because you got thin, then died.’
Zambia has suffered a devastating AIDS epidemic. According to www.aidsonline.org, one in six adults is living with HIV, six hundred and thirty thousand children are AIDS orphans, and in 2003 alone (around the time that Tony and Adam visited), eighty-nine thousand people died from the disease. Although the situation has improved in the past decade, it has had an impact across society, resulting in Zambia being one of the poorest countries in the world, with low levels of education and employment.
UNICEF estimates that more than a quarter of a million children are out of school, and forty-seven per cent of those who are in school do not complete their primary education. Since 2002 the state has provided free basic schooling, but in reality the government has had little money to put towards education, and the cost of uniforms, books and meals is prohibitively expensive for poor families.
There are further barriers to education in rural parts of the country: children may have to travel very long distances to school and, as the family is considered an economic unit, parents and guardians need their children to work. ‘I found it very hard seeing this because I know the value of education,’ says Tony. ‘It gives the opportunity for a better life and not having that sets you back. This is especially true in countries where they don’t have a lot.’
More than five thousand miles from home, Tony and Adam found hope on the outskirts of Mkushi. A local man called Albert Mwansa was teaching a handful of children in a building without a roof. ‘He explained that otherwise they just wouldn’t get an education. It was humbling to see him trying to help,’ Tony explains. ‘Straight away we wanted to get involved, although at first it seemed quite daunting.’
When Tony and Adam returned home they began exchanging letters with Mwansa. ‘It seems so old fashioned, but it was before the internet was prevalent. It was obvious that this was a man we could trust. Mwansa already had the desire to do something, so we’d be building on that. He would have ownership, while we could provide the means.’
The teachers laid out a few founding principles: education would be free, the school would be open to boys and girls of all ages, the education would be at least as good as the state programme, and money would be set aside to train teachers. The school was to be called The Itala Foundation, with a board of trustees working together in Wales and Zambia.
Along with Adam, Tony is a member of St Cyngar Lodge, No. 5323, which meets in Porthmadog, North Wales. He explains how their work in Zambia highlights the ethos of the Craft: ‘Masonry means that there is a universal brotherhood committed to helping our fellow human beings around the world. Our work with disadvantaged children and families at Itala is just an extension of that masonic care for those who are less fortunate than ourselves.’
So the two Freemasons raised ‘a few hundred quid and asked local schools to donate chalk that they didn’t use any more’. They built a mud hut school using local labour and bought pencils and paper so that lessons could begin. In the first year, seventy-five AIDS orphans were offered places at the school, but since then it has grown into three large purpose-built buildings (including a science block) with ten qualified teachers – six of whom are currently receiving funding to undergo further training – and the means to teach one thousand children. The school provides at least one free meal a week to attract pupils, does not charge for books or materials, and there is no requirement to wear a uniform, because ‘we don’t want anything to deter them’.
Top of the class
With a one hundred per cent pass rate at grade seven, The Itala Foundation has been such a success that children from other schools in the area are trying to enrol. ‘It’s hard to know what to do,’ says Tony. ‘We always said that we didn’t want to exclude anyone but our aim is to give a basic education to poor children.’
Delighted by how hard the children work, Tony is keen to mention two girls who attained the highest grades in the whole district in their maths exams. ‘No one grumbles about going to school – many refer themselves. Their prize possessions are a carrier bag, a pencil and a book. Most get up very early to do their homework and then their chores before school, and then go to work afterwards.’
Tony is proud of the children’s achievements, but he is most happy when he hears that they have a job. ‘We have a boy working as a carpenter, and another at a craft college in the city. Our aim isn’t to get children into university, it’s to provide them with the basics that will set them up for life.’