When Comic Relief asked me to visit Zambia last year, my initial feelings were a complete mix. I was excited to experience a culture and environment that I had never seen first-hand before, and I jumped at the opportunity to witness in person the life-changing work of Comic Relief.
Day one in Zambia gave me an immediate introduction to Zambian society, and local customs and culture, through the work of the MamaZ project. The project works to increase awareness and education around maternal and newborn health, and aims to tackle gender-based violence. Having just become an aunt to a gorgeous baby boy, born just a few days before my trip, I felt so strongly that the work of the MamaZ project was essential to protecting these precious, fragile lives. At home we have so much, we almost take it for granted- it is so different for the women in Zambia, but MamaZ's work is changing things for the better, and it is having a big impact. Hearing the stories of these women, and meeting in particular one young girl of 15 years old and her baby, whose lives were both saved by the courageous work and systems implemented by this project, had a profound effect on me. I don't have children yet but if I am fortunate enough to have a baby I will always remember the strength of this young mother.
On my second day, I visited another project and saw two hospitals- the first in an urban slum, the second a rural medical health centre. The moment I stepped foot in the first of these hospitals, I was struck by the overwhelming quietness despite the huge number of patients in view. Hundreds of young women sat with their children waiting for hours, sometimes days, to be seen. The lack of noise seemed so disconcerting in a hospital full of children; illness and exhaustion were everywhere. I observed the consultation of a small child, eyes glazed and groaning in pain; he was clearly in desperate need of medical help. I was told that dehydration and diarrhoea were the most prominent issues, truly hitting home that clean water, and protection against water borne illnesses would save so many lives. I went into rooms which were serving as clinics to immunise and inoculate new-born babies against Polio. Again quiet was all around with babies resting patiently in their mothers' arms, many of whom would be sat there all day waiting for their turn. These babies were swaddled in thick, fleece layers in the sweltering heat as these young mothers had walked for many kilometres in the very early hours to reach the hospitals, in order to protect their children and give them a fighting chance at a healthy life. The visit was overwhelming and filled me with a sense of sadness and desperation, and time and time again, I realised how lucky we are. Since I have been home, I have not forgotten any of these moments and it has made me determined to help in any way I can. To be born in the UK means we are born into a society with resources, education, health-care systems and facilities to give our babies the best chance at a healthy future. Thanks to Comic Relief, Zambian society is finally being given the opportunity to provide the same for mothers and their babies. This experience made me realise how important it is that we fight for these basic but essential needs on behalf of these women.
Despite the enormous challenges these hospitals faced, there was also a palatable feeling of hope for the future here. The impact of the Comic Relief funded programmes was completely inspiring, saving sick babies, transforming the lives of pregnant women and tackling stigma towards people living with HIV. It was a life-changing day, and one that I will never forget, and it has made me so grateful and appreciative of just how lucky I am and how important it is we support these projects. Again, I couldn't help but be struck by the parallels of the situation for my sister-in-law and my new nephew.
My final day in Zambia involved visiting schools, guided by the organisation ZOCS, which aims to support community schools that are established and run by communities where no government schools are available or where children cannot afford the uniforms and other costs government schools incur. Without doubt, this was the most heart-warming and hopeful day of the trip, visiting classrooms filled with more than 60 children listening attentively and willingly to the volunteer, unpaid teachers. I was incredibly humbled and touched to see the love and attention given to each and every child, and seeing how those who have left other schools due to the stigma of HIV, were now being supported and educated on their disease. The highlight came when I joined in with a whole school of children dancing in the playground. It was truly the happiest moment of the trip, and a joy to see the children so happy, despite their circumstances. Another moment that will never leave me was experiencing the classroom for the deaf and disabled children. The love and respect for their teacher and the kindness and care she had for her students was clear. This was the moment I couldn't hold my tears in at the immense difficulties these children face, and the incredible hope for the future these communities embrace.
I took so many things away from my trip to Zambia. Not only did it make me reassess my own life and how fortunate I am, but it made me committed to help and participate in the work Comic Relief does, which makes a huge difference. The opportunity, hope and drive these projects instil throughout the various communities in Zambia means that these wonderful people can have the basic rights of clean water, food, medicine and education, something I for one, want to fight for.
The Sainsbury's Sport Relief Games take place between the 18th and 20th March - visit www.sportrelief.com for further information and to get involved