In 1985, when I wrote the song Dignity, society was quite reasonably obsessed with unemployment. To me, at the time, the search for full employment held an assumption: who will do the jobs no one else wants to do? I have been thinking about these things for a long time and it's often the first impression I get when visiting a new country. What is everyone working at? What kind of jobs and expectations do they have? Is there a high level of employment?
It was the first question I asked my travelling companion, Stephen Martin - SCIAF's own Zambian expert, as we drove in from the airport to downtown Lusaka. Wisely he pointed me in the direction of our taxi driver who explained that it is often difficult to quantify who is in and out of work. He was self-employed, but like many other people this was not the only job he had. That, he explained, was borne out of necessity to supplement his income and he cited many other people who would be in the same position.
Coming into town the pavements and crossroads contained a cross section of people selling fruit and vegetables, nuts and any other produce they had available that day. Informal, make-shift stalls and sometimes simply a blanket on the ground was evidence enough that many people are in the retail trade. So the question was asked; are these folk employed or unemployed? The answer becomes a little meaningless too because there is no meaningful unemployment benefit or social security which will scoop someone up if they hit hard times.
On the first night in Lusaka I sat down with Stephen to get the low-down on the Zambian economy. A land-locked country with around 13 million people living in (approximately) the size of France. It is a largely agriculturally based with around 80% of people working in farming on modest plots of land. The land is everything. Stephen explained how 100 years of colonial farming had changed old habits. Originally African tribes were more accustomed to rotating their fields and crops due to their more nomadic lifestyle. Over the last 100 years or so that pattern had been changed and farmers had been encouraged to settle in one place. This practice has now exhausted the soil. Where before people moved on to clear new scrubland when the returns from their current plot had dried out, now farmers are returning year on year and witnessing ever diminishing yields. Add in the occasional season of drought and floods and suddenly you have a crisis. However, farming is still the core economy.
This is the context in which I visited - to see at first-hand how Scottish charity SCIAF and its local Caritas partners are educating groups of locals to consider new ways of working the land. This includes rotating the use of their fields, using the natural manure of their own livestock, minimum tillage using crop waste as mulch to cover their land to preserve moisture and enrich their soilds with valuable nutrients. It's working too. Farmers are seeing a real change in what they can reasonably expect to grow. Many are able to produce twice as much food from the same plot of land.
And yet... And yet I find myself reflecting on the heavy burden on poor people in a country like Zambia. Work is not simply to provide a wage, it's done in order to survive. People are producing the food which they and their families will eat. Animals are herded because they can supplement their diet and generate an income to allow children to go to school. For many, the next generation will, inevitably follow this path, - working from morning until night, six days a week all year round Work with no dream of promotion but simply honest survival. Those not on the land are on the roads cycling past the pot holes on bicycles piled high with goods to sell in the town. On a rainy Thursday passing flooded fields our driver stops to haggle with men fishing in the unexpected make-shift river. A deal is done, the fish are put in the truck, we drive on and the men keep fishing.
Walking round these villages, seeing the slow, steady rhythm of life it's hard not to reflect on what might have been or could still be for many Zambians. How many, given an extended education, would be successful in business, or law or education. How many could write or draw or make music which would cause us to sit up and take notice. We will never know. For most people life from day to day is focused on survival; feeding their family and protecting themselves against all that nature throws at them. It is all their work, but we can share in it too. Small sums will make a huge difference to the lives of the poor in Zambia. We can all work to help others in need. Please give generously to this year's SCIAF WEE BOX Lenten Appeal.
SCIAF helps families in some of the poorest countries in the world to free themselves from hunger, poverty and injustice, get an education, and fully recover when disasters strike. The charity's WEE BOX BIG CHANGE appeal runs through Lent (1st March to 16th April). To make a donation or find out more, visit www.theweebox.org.