Emily & friendChildFund New Zealand’s Emily Burgess recently visited Zambia to learn firsthand about the needs of children and mothers for two appeals we’re running later this year. Emily went there with programmes manager Michael Vujnovich who was there to monitor and evaluate existing projects. Arriving in Lusaka, Emily met up with cameraman and photographer Steve Levitt and together they set off for rural villages in Luangwa.

This was Emily’s first visit to the African continent and it was an emotional journey for her. Here is her week-long diary describing her experiences, including meeting families with disabled children who desperately need a special needs school facility.


What an eventful and long day.  Only made it Jo’berg and been up for 24 hours already.  The flight to Jo’berg was long and full of emotions.  I just can’t sit still, I’m finally off to Africa!  I definitely have the ‘I’m going to a new country’ feeling in the pit of my stomach.  It’s a mix of excitement, nervous energy!  Overall excited to be travelling to Africa for the first time, but unsure of how I will feel and handle seeing families living in poverty first hand.  We’ll see.

Poor Mike, he’s lying next to me now on a bench in the airport.  He started getting really sick about half way through the flight.  He doesn’t look good and I feel bad that there is nothing I can do to help ease his discomfort.  Let’s hope it eases up for the next leg of our flight.

Awaiting the mysterious Steve Levitt now!  Steve is our photographer and film camera guy. I’ve got a photo but not sure how we’ll identify each other… pretty excited to meet him.  Right, Lusaka here I come!


It’s my first day in Africa!  Staying at a little lodge on the outskirts of Lusaka, very Africa… no toilet paper!  

The Zambia I’ve seen so far is much more organised, clean and western than I thought.  The airport was large and well organised.  In this part of the city there doesn’t appear to be much rubbish and at the moment the country seems very green.  All a bit confusing in a country where life expectancy is less than 40 years old! I guess the real problems will become apparent to me as the days go by. 

We ended up meeting Steve on the plane for Lusaka, we left it until the last minute to board because Michael was feeling so unwell.  We were literally the last ones on the plane.  I spotted Steve straight away and him me… he’s lovely and you can see straight off that he’s very experienced.  It’s a bit of a relief to have someone with his experience by my side actually. 

We landed in Lusaka after flying through a thunderstorm (scary) and both Michael and I were relieved to see our bags emerge from the hold.  Unfortunately I can’t say so much for Steve’s baggage and equipment.  No panicking yet, staff inform us that it’s common for bags to be held in Johannesburg.  Plus we have a day before we leave for Luangwa on Monday – so we’ll be back tomorrow to see if the bags arrive.  Fingers crossed – that’s most of the film equipment! 

Monday morning at the Zambia office

Michael’s doing some programme stuff so it gives me an opportunity to write a quick entry – we are at the ChildFund Zambia National Office.  Everyone is lovely and friendly and it’s so nice to put names to faces for Doras, Godfrey and Tobias.  It feels like I know them so well already!  They are clearly excited by our visit and have already put in a lot of effort to make sure it’s a success.  Steve and I get handed an itinerary for the next week, it’s jammed packed full of interviews back to back.  Steve’s bemused, I’m slightly panicked… and I gingerly mention to the staff that we might have to spend longer with a family than specified in the itinerary if we want to film their daily lives.  The staff brush this off laughing, saying ‘of course’ ‘no worries, we can work it out as we go along’.  Very laid back!

Now I’ve come out of my jet lag haze it feels strangely familiar and normal to be here in Africa… everyone is very friendly here and I have not felt intimidated or worried in any way.  I’m so excited to get out and meet some families.

Still awaiting Steve’s baggage – still not trying to panic – Steve is at the airport now as we speak.  We had planned to drive down to Luangwa this afternoon, ready to start work tomorrow.  However, if bags don’t arrive we are going to delay travelling until the morning.  It takes about 3-4 hours to get to Luangwa Town, so if we leave early tomorrow we can still get nearly a full day’s work in.  Plus we have made time in the schedule for exactly this sort of thing!  Fingers crossed the bags arrive!

 Monday evening

Okay, so good news. One of Steve’s bags arrived.  The one with the camera and sound equipment!  The shoot is on!  Bad news, the bag with the tripod didn’t arrive.  This could change the style of the filming but it’s not the end of the world.  We didn’t travel to Luangwa as planned this afternoon, but we’re going to leave at 6am tomorrow morning, stopping at the airport for the morning flight.  One last ditch try to get the tripod – if not, we’ll shoot without it.  Feel secretly happy we didn’t travel this afternoon, still feeling quite jet lagged and so I was able to get a few more hours sleep.  Now I feel ready for the shoot.


Did I mention it’s hot in Zambia?  In Lusaka it can range between 30–34 degrees.  As we are driving out to Luangwa, Samson, the ChildFund driver cheerfully tells us that Luangwa is one of the hottest places in Zambia!  Often the temperatures can get up to 38 degrees.  I’m already sweating just thinking about it!

Village - so green after rain WHAT A DRIVE! Flat green farming land and then the more east we went the more hilly it got! Luangwa is right where the Zambezi river meets the border of Mozambique and Zimbabwe… we are really out in rural Africa now and it’s exactly what you’d expect of Africa. Unkempt children on the street, dusty red roads, street stalls and shanty shacks… people live in the traditional mud and straw hats here. All the kids are loving me, fair skin and blue eyes!

I’m told that during and after the rainy season the unsealed part of the road that takes you into Luangwa is very difficult and slow going.  Not for us, we are lucky, the road seemed to be in pretty good shape as we pass through. 

The countryside is startlingly green, giving the illusion that all is well.  Unfortunately not, Samson tells me that this particular district is usually very dry and only receives rainfall up to seven days a year.  A week before we arrived was one of those times, and afterwards everything blooms and turns green for a while.  It truly is beautiful but very deceiving of the real situation here.

We reach Luangwa Town (or Luangwa Boma) and first stop is at the ChildFund federation office where we meet the staff who implement the projects in the district.  Again lots of smiling faces, and here I learn the ‘Zambian handshake’ – a shake, twist hold, shake action!  Already I’m desperately trying to remember everyone’s names but failing badly.  I get my first opportunity to take some photos of children.  The federation office is right next door to an area of sponsored children.  Many of the sponsored children play outside the office and I get a chance to interact and take some photos (bad ones – need more practice).  Cute kids!

Next stop is the district commissioner, followed by the education district commissioner and the health district commissioner.  All formal sit down visits – everyone knows who we are and what we are doing here.  The ChildFund federation office has strong relationships with local authorities which is important to the long term success of ChildFund’s work here.  Everyone is very excited and welcoming of us.

With no time left to actually visit any families we retire to the only lodge down the road.  I’m totally taken back – my internet connection works here – I can keep in contact with everyone at home and tweet to my heart’s content.  This feels comforting knowing that what stories I might see and hear over the coming days.

Bilbao tree with terrible secretsThere is also a massive bilboa tree just next to the lodge.  This is a magnificent tree, truly huge in size.  My photos don’t do it justice.  The local ChildFund staff have told me that the slave trade used to be conducted underneath the shade of this tree.  Quite spine chilling when you think about what this tree must of witnessed.  It’s a bit lame, but I take some time to sit under the tree for a think – it feels truly weird to be sitting in a place where so many lives were traded, it feels way bigger than me and more than I can comprehend.  I feel a bit upset and go back to the lodge.  Getting online catching up with people at home helps change my mood, but I’m secretly wondering how I’m going to cope with the next week if I can get upset just sitting under a tree!

Tomorrow we start filming, and to be honest I can’t wait. It’s still feeling a bit daunting, but I do actually feel ready for this and think it’s all going to work out okay. Got some tough questions to ask, but going to take things slow and make sure I’m happy with the situation and comfortable with things. It’s going to be funny speaking through a translator. Steve is being supportive as well, and he’s got heaps of experience.

Wednesday morning

Its 6am in the morning, today is the first day of the shoot and I really feel like an intrepid reporter! Apprehensive of course because this has to go well… but hey… I can only do my best. Going to try and relax into things and take my time. I have eight days on the ground to get film and stories and photos for two appeals…and that is quite a long time. Just need to start, the anticipation of this trip is starting to get to me!
Interviewing families
Wednesday evening

Just got back and having to write straight away – I’m exhausted and I think I’ve just had one of the hardest heart-wrenching days of my life.  It seems a little dramatic I know, but I’m literally sitting here typing and fighting back some tears.  It’s been an emotional day and I’m wondering how to get my jumbled thoughts out onto paper.

Today I have seen some very severe cases of disabilities in children and true inspiration from parents and teachers who are doing the best they can for themselves and that of their children.

Luangwa is a huge district.  Nearly 27,000 children and their families live between the Luangwa river and main road covering approx 100 sq kms.  Distance is a HUGE issue; children and their families literally walk everywhere.  There are very few cars (none really), and only the lucky ones have bicycles.  Parents struggling to feed their children walk up to 5kms a day to work in the fields.  Most schools have a catchment area of up to 7 or 8 kms.  That means children walk up to 16 kms a day, on empty stomachs to get to school.

This situation is unacceptable for any child, but for children with disabilities who want to learn and attend school this is a real challenge and problem for them.  It is impossible for children with disabilities to get the proper education and support that they deserve.  You can see this straight away, and it doesn’t take a development person to tell me that working with families and children with disabilities is a major problem.  One that has been forgotten and pushed under the table for too long.

Walking into homes and meeting children and their families has been quite traumatic. I’ve met families that are looking after the most disabled children, with no help; they are poor and struggling to work because they have to look after their disabled child. No money for treatment, some children are going to school, but with no special education needs facilities for them they are simply not getting the education they need. Most of the children have to walk up to 7kms to school a day.  Imagine that if you are disabled, how much harder it is for you to get to school. It’s just heart breaking stuff.

Today I nearly lost it a few times because these are real people, just doing the best they can and really struggling. It’s a terrible situation…

The one thing in common I found is that each parent I met was extremely proud of their child and wanted them to have the best that they could get in life… for many this means getting their children going to school where they can learn and become the best they can be.

Today I met Naasir and three other children each with their own harrowing story.

Naasir loves school, can’t walk but only has a plastic chair strapped to an old wheelchair frame to get around.  His little sister (who is tiny) pushes him to school 3km everyday.  We visited Naasir during the hottest parts of the day…this makes it really difficult to film.  So we decided that we’ll come back early in the morning around 6am to shoot Mema getting the children up, feeding and going to work.

What an intense day, the subject of disabilities is a confronting one, more so when you realise that living in poverty makes things even harder for children and families.  I’m going to try and sleep now, but I am feeling a little wired.  If only I could go for a run, I’m sure that would make me feel better.


This morning we went back to see Naasir and his family. Filming early in the morning means we get good light and we wanted to see how Naasir’s mother Mema coped with getting Nasai and all her other children up and ready for school.  This family are just incredible, the mother has already fed and clothed the children and started working on clearing her compound by the time we get there at 6.30am.

Tabansi pushing Naasir
Then there is the ‘little’ mother, Tabansi age 7.  This little girl is the second mum and she busies herself carrying her little brother around, clearing plates away and then she helps Naasir in the only way she can.  She pushes him to school in his wheelchair, 2kms away.  The wheelchair dwarfs this tiny girl as she battles with the ruts and large stones on the road.  It’s slow as painful progress… it must take her at least an hour to walk to school.  I can’t quite believe my eyes and she very seriously pushes Naasir down the dusty red road, sweat pooling and pouring off her little face.  And this just seems normal, part of her daily life. 

After the early start (I’m getting used to this no eating life style) we move on further down the main road, back the other side of the game reserve to meet more families.  First stop is visiting a young girl called Nailah.  The area in which Nailah and her family live in is in a small village of houses that seems really far away from the main road.  When we turn into her humble home and living area we are confronted by what seems to be about 10 children! 

Meeting Nailah was harrowing; she has quite severe burns all over her face and upper body.  I find out from her grandparents that she has epilepsy and the severe seizures have left her intellectually and physically disabled.  Her grandmother tells me that she doesn’t understand why she can’t do things that her siblings do. One day she was cooking (she’s not allowed normally) and suffered a seizure and fell in the fire burning her face and body.
Nailah and her grandparents
Both Nailah and her grandparents are very inspirational.  The grandparents are the guardians of Nailah and a number of other children after Nailah’s parents passed away.  They are old, but yet they are still working in the fields and doing what they can to support a number of small children.

Nailah is inspirational because despite her disabilities (she has a lame leg) she is determined to go to school.  She walks 8km there and back barefoot.  This is hard for her, she gets sores on her the bottom of her feet which prevents her from going to school a couple of times a month.  She has to wait to let them heal.  Once at school, it appears she is not receiving the education she needs… she has to repeat grade 3 again.  She loves it though and tells me that before school she didn’t understand why she couldn’t go… now she is at school she feels human again.  Her words shock me… she is human, and bright and deserves to be the best she can be. 

Steve decides to do some filming here, and very stoically Nailah takes part.  Through the translator she follows all of Steve’s instructions.  He asks her to walk down the road towards him so he can film her… in a dignified manner she walks proudly by him… it dawns on me that those feelings of helplessness and horror that keep sweeping over me should not be held on to so strongly.  This is a girl, almost young woman, that wants to be someone and can be… I realise that a school with proper facilities would go a long way towards helping a child like Nailah.  I secretly hope that she is one of the children that gets to benefit most from this school.

In a house just across the road live Saba and her son Gabra.  Saba has strong features, an almost battle-worn face.  She is dressed smartly and has laid out a rug and chairs for us in the shade of a tree.  She’s waiting for us and as I approach I see that Gabra is severely disabled.  Probably more so than I’ve seen so far.  Inside I tell myself to hold it together because I’d just found Nailah a very confronting situation and I’m not feeling that strong.  Saba’s smiles calm me down as I notice that Gabra is dressed in the very best of his clothes.

Gabra with his mum SabaBy this point, Steve and I have got into a bit of a routine.  I do the introductions, explain what we are doing and make sure that Saba is happy with an interview, photos and perhaps filming.  Steve sits back and waits to hear how the story unfolds before deciding if he will film.   I can tell straight away that Saba is a woman who has something to say and that she is also an incredibly strong woman. 

I sit slightly aghast as Saba calmly tells me that during pregnancy with Gabra, her then husband beat her so severely it caused Gabra to be born with disabilities.  This is said in a matter of fact way, come from years of accepting her fate.  Gabra can’t really communicate or understand much; he can’t walk, stand or sit up on his own.  Saba has to do everything for Gabra and looks after him full time.  Shortly after giving birth and upon realising Gabra’s disabilities the husband left so Saba has had to cope on her own.

Saba copes with life the best she can and in fact has tried to turn her situation around.  Because of the severity of his disability Gabra goes to Lusaka once a month for treatments.  Saba has to fund these trips into the city and has no relatives to stay with in Lusaka.  So she slowly started a little business.  She buys clothes from Lusaka and brings them back to Luangwa and sells them to make an income to get by.  It’s a good idea, and one that has helped them both.

Gabra playing
Gabra was only identified a month before our visit for school.  Saba didn’t send Gabra to school before because she thought that he wouldn’t be able to learn.  She’s eager for him to go but realises that he’s probably not receiving what he needs at this school because they don’t have special needs facilities.  In fact Saba is so eager for him to go she carries him – 6km – to school everyday.   She then returns home to do her chores and walks back at the end of the school day. That’s 24 kms a day so Gabra can go to school.

I feel a little dumbfounded at this women’s overwhelming love for her child.  I feel insignificant as a person and I start questioning how serious the problems I have in my life are.  Saba is happy to take Gabra to school, if this is going to be what it takes for him to have a better life.  The sacrifices that Saba has made selflessly again overwhelm me.  I secretly wish that many people I know at home could meet this feisty, incredible and resilient woman who laughs out loud when Gabra does something funny.

On to photo time and we ask her to pose with Gabra, without us noticing I can see her stroking Gabra’s little hand while she waits patiently for us to get everything ready.

Saba does see hope for Gabra… and I think that is incredible.  Looking from the outside in it’s easy to feel helpless for them, but really there is hope.  I vow to myself that this school will be built and children like Gabra will get the help that they deserve.


With two of the most intense days of my life over I was happy for a little break today.  Steve and I decided that the shoot wasn’t going to plan so we needed time to review. 

We’ve seen so many severe cases that we’ve not been able to get everything I need for the film yet. We were supposed to be moving on to another collection of materials for a Mother and Baby appeal today, but instead I’ve had to cancel that programme scheduled for the next couple of days so we can find some more children for the film.

I feel like cancelling our existing schedule was a good idea, it meant we had a day off (needed) and also meant we could go back with clear heads to get what we need for the film. 

I’ve been able to come back to the lodge and write up all my stories and go through photos. Cameraman Steve is busy viewing footage and putting a storyline together, and then tomorrow we’ll try and go out again and capture what else we need.

So the changed plan is that we’ll keep filming for the Special Needs School this Saturday and then on Sunday we’ll head back to Lusaka and then I have two days (Monday and Tuesday) to interview mothers and babies.

FULL ON. This interview thing is so hard… acutely aware that I’m a complete stranger and a foreigner walking in and asking all these personal questions about their lives. I’ve never had to do something so difficult in my life!

Tomorrow is the last day of filming – fingers crossed.


I’m feeling funny… unsure of what’s going on.  I think people call this being ‘Africanised’.

Can you tell things are starting to get to me?

So up at 4 am this morning to drive 50kms to shoot.  It’s raining, and it only rains seven days a year in Luangwa… and the rain gods choose today.  The last day of the shoot.  We start off anyway and as it gets light Steve realises that he’s not going to be able to shoot in this rain and light.  We get to the boy’s house and inform the father that we’ll be back later on that day at 4pm – but it’s still raining.  I’m now forced with thinking should we stay an extra day to try and keep the consistency of the shoot?  Or do we just get what we can and move on.

So I’m guessing the plan is to nail as much in the rain today – scoot back to Lusaka and then I have two days to capture photos and stories of mothers and babies.

I wasn’t expecting to feel so confused on this trip.  In Africa life is hard, people work hard, they don’t have much… they put up with salty unclean water, the heat, not being able to grow crops, having seven children, looking after everyone else’s children, walking long distances in the heat, not having anything to eat.  It’s hard, it’s overwhelming to meet people where this is their reality, these are real people and real lives.  Lives that I’ll leave behind when I swan off back to my life in Auckland.  How did I end up where I am and them where they are?  It’s all so hard to comprehend.

I have to keep remembering that I am not seeing the benefits of all our work but searching for the worse cases to show the need.  This is the really hard part of fundraising and over the last couple of days I have seriously felt moved to tears.  Look at these hard working, amazing and resilient people… they are dealing with the hand they were dealt the best that they can.  I live in a society that is always seeking more, or the next thing, or the next challenge.  The difference in lives is making me feel quite confounded.


I can hardly believe it’s been over a week since I’ve been in Zambia.  It’s been pretty crazy and full on.  I’m back in Lusaka and trying to recover from the roller coaster of emotions I’ve been feeling.  Being the emotional soul I am I’ve found this quite a confronting subject. One thing is for certain, it’s made me realise how much this community needs a special education needs school.  And that’s just the start really, one school is not going to be enough, and also a lot of work needs to be done in the community on education. These children really are the forgotten children of Luangwa. 
Tabansi and Naasir
Over the course of the five days in Luangwa, we visited 13 familles and children, so I have lots and lots of stories and photos. We’ve changed itineraries and taken a day to review but doing this actually saved the shoot. On Saturday and then Sunday we meet a further four families, got music from a choir and all the contextual shots we needed.  I’m confident, and so is Steve that we’ve got something excellent to help fundraise for this project.  Eager now to get home and put it all into practice!

Spread the world

Share this story with your friends

More stories

13 March 2018

Visiting your sponsored child: Mark meeting Thuy in Vietnam

12 March 2018

ChildFund hotline helping people affected by PNG earthquakes

27 February 2018

Enter our Easter Social Media Giveaway for your chance win!

21 February 2018

Nutrition in Early Childhood Centres in Sri Lanka

02 February 2018

5 Treats to Get Your Valentine This Year

01 February 2018

Learn how to claim your charity tax refund now

View story archived for more