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A Visit to Mongu, Zambia

November 29th, 2011

Early November, JPIC Office colleague Kate Walsh, who works with the TRI-State Coalition for Responsible Investment (CRI) in New Jersey, visited Oblates working in Zambia. She writes about her reflection on the trip and experience in Zambia:

Two weeks ago, I traveled to Zambia to speak at conference co-sponsored by Catholic Relief Services and CAFOD on Extractives in Southern African. My task was to speak about ICCR’s work and run a session on Shareholder Advocacy. However, I had a few days to explore the region, visit, before the conference began.

That first weekend, I went to Mongu in the Western Region. This is the poorest region of the country. After a 7-hour bus ride from the capital, I arrived and went to visit the Diocese of Mongu Development Centre (DMDC). When this opened in the early 70′s, its focus was providing nutritional assistance to the local residents, specifically children. Today, it focuses on local food sustainability.

To meet that goal, DMDC provides everything from farmer training; to running a distribution center for seeds and equipment; and operating a rice-polishing machine, free for the community to use. DMDC is even exploring technologies with bio-diesel. One of the greatest benefits of all their work is how earnestly they commit to sustainability. They teach people how to grow rice for sustenance as well as for sale at the market. All the rice seeds sold to the local farmers are organic. Rice husks and residual powder are given purposes such as fertilizer for local crops and road cover. Trees are grown at the center and then planted to restore deforested areas.

Also at the Center, the plant jatropha is being grown for biodiesel. This is a non-edible, native plant, that when pressed creates oil for use as biodiesel. But just like the rice, DMDC works to ensure that byproducts are also used. The briquettes left by the plants used for bio-diesel are made into pellets to be used in fires instead of charcoal and the additional byproduct is used for making soap.

Not only did I learn practical lessons and witness great project, like what DMDC has to offer, I learned some life lessons. In the capital of Lusaka, there is a large Chinese embassy being created. The one university in the entire country is in the capital, and many local students do not get in due to the high competition. However, Chinese students are given free education. As Chinese companies continue to seek a presence in Africa, by buying land or other ventures, I think we must be mindful. In the worst-case scenario, this can be the re-colonizing of Africa, but instead of it being foreign nation states, it is private companies, with less accountability.

By this time, I had toured much of Mongu, but was struggling about why I was seeing these things. As I was thinking about “Could I donate money, or could others? Could I help fix some of these issues? I felt compelled to act”. Fr. Michael gave me the greatest gift: the reminder of my purpose in this trip. He told me to share the story of Mongu. He did not ask me to take action; he did not ask me to find funders for their wonderful programs. He asked me to tell others of the poverty, but also the wonderful hope and programs that do exist. His message was wrapped up in his quick statement “Be a mouthpiece, Kate”. And I think that is what we are collectively called to do with this work- be a mouthpiece and lift up the stories.

The rest of the week I spent In Lusaka at the CRS/CAFOD Conference, which was incredibly well run. There was such excitement over this work, and it brought over 100 people from 13 countries together to strategize on such a complex, yet crucial issue of extractives. As we know, the issue of conflict minerals is still a serious issue. Nevertheless, there have been positive developments such as the Dodd Frank legislation requiring the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to write new rules for public companies requiring them to certify that they are not sourcing conflict minerals from Africa.


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