Amgueddfa Cymru


By some miracle we have half-decent internet connection at the office. Actually it’s not a miracle, as I happen to know that the server providers were working on the problem over the weekend. I guess I just didn’t believe it would make any difference, any more than I believed that the designers I was supposed to be seeing on Friday would turn up, or that my ‘office’ would really only take a day to ‘decorate’ (the day in question being last Monday) or that my mail will ever turn up.

Ooh, all sounds a bit harsh I know. But I’ve just had my third frustrating visit to immigration, thinking I finally had everything I need to renew my permit, only to be told I have to return on Thursday, after ‘the boss’ has had time to check my file (so what have they been doing?!). Was also sheepishly informed by my colleague that he won’t be here most of this week as he’s on and M&E training course; this is my last week of working with the organization, and I should be crossing every t and dotting every single I with him.

But what really set a bad tone for me this week – while also putting my whinging right into perspective – was finding out on Sunday evening that my host had been in a car crash. She, some colleagues – and her baby – were travelling to Livingstone. Seeing as she was being made to make the 8-hour journey, on a Sunday, she’d decided to treat the time there as a couple of much-needed stress-free days out of the office. Instead, they drove through a downpour for about half the journey until the car slipped off the side of the road and flipped over. I don’t know who I felt more sorry for, her in Livingstone with the baby, suffering from shock and fright, or her poor husband at home waiting and worrying until the next morning when he could travel down to join them. They’ve all been discharged from hospital with, apart from the shock, nothing more serious than cuts and bruises. The fatality rate for road accidents in Zambia is notorious, partly due to the driving in the cities and partly due to the terrible condition of the roads outside the cities, especially now that the rains are here. The fact that they escaped with nothing broken – or worse – really is a miracle.

We've convened a crisis meeting of the Forum's members in order to draw up a planned response to the Government's National Development Plan - the Plan with no chapter on housing. Members also looked at the Position Statement I'd drafted the week before, which we're placing in the Times of Zambia - a government paper, so we altered the tone a little bit!

I spent the rest of the week visiting members to carry out the baseline survey. The week was sort of topped and tailed by highlights. At the beginning we visited two women's co-operatives in rural areas, teaching women skills like brick-making and land rights issues. The week ended, however, with a visit I'll never forget. If I said I enjoyed it that would be inappropriate - nobody could enjoy seeing the appalling circumstances some people live in. We visited two compounds, one in Lusaka and one 200 miles north in Kitwe, to conduct focus groups with the residents' committees. In Lusaka, about 2,000 people live in the compound in homes that range from breezeblock constructions to shacks that are collapsing around them. They draw water from shared taps located around the compound. Everywhere is dirt and dust. Some people, usually women, set up their own business, ranging from a single table with a few vegetables to brick-built grocery shops - and loads of hairdressers. I was taken to see the school, which was spotless and being repainted as I was there. A gang of schoolchildren, in their navy blue uniforms, were chatting and giggling on their way from school, just like a crowd of Cardiff schoolkids. Everywhere I went I was followed by a growing crowd of small children. At first they mutter 'muzungu' (white person) but when I wave at them I get dazzling smiles and waves back. And then when I attempt to greet them - 'muli shani' - they burst into laughter.

The residents' committees in both Lusaka and Kitwe are simply inspirational. They're politicised, aware, committed; they spoke in dialect but I continuously heard the words 'advocacy', 'sensitised' and 'empower'. They have the will, the intelligence and the inner resources to achieve what's needed to lift these communities out of abject poverty, if only the infrastructure we take for granted was put in place for them.

Some good news, after our crisis meeting my colleague secured a meeting at the Ministry of Finance the next morning, and a committment to revisit the Housing Chapter to try, with the NGO's help, to make fit for reinstatement in the National Plan. It's a start.

Finally, finally feel like I've started work. I've spent hours in the back of a very hot car driving around a gridlocked Lusaka, a crash course (nearly literally) in NGO culture. But met some amazing people along the way though.

I wrote a press release and was very excited when the comms person from the organization we share offices with told me he'd take it to the journalist he was meeting that evening. Unfortunately, i hadn't counted for the dire network connection in our offices and lack of networked printer, so I couldn't get the press release to him, by hard copy or email. Not so exciting.

Then wrote a letter to the Minister for Finance and National Planning, an open letter we're placing in The Post and a letter to housing stakeholders inlcuding the World Bank. All part of our preparation for a crisis meeting. The Zambian government has published their Sixth National Development Plan, but left out the chapter on housing - madness if they want to deliver on their other priorities like health and education.

The Post is the paper with highest circulation figures, and very much holds the government to account. Unlike UK high-circulatin 'newspapers', The Post is crammed with political items, including a substantial international section. Not a celebrity in sight. How refreshing.

I think I'll be doing a lot of responsive stuff like this, as well as working on the longer-term strategy, but it's all useful as we talk a lot about voice, audience and tools.