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Invaluable lessons in joy
Sean Finlay recounts a once in a lifetime trip to experience Zambian culture
The Zambian Immersion Project 2017 team included: Deirdre Carroll, Seamus McWey, Mary Murphy, Sarah Williams, Geoff Brennan, Eoin Carey, Shae Walsh, Sean Finlay, Cian Crossan, Bill O’Brien, Andrew Swayne, PJ Daly, Conor Donoghue, Jim Tyrell, Oisin Scarry, Neil Keane, Rian O’Connell, Matthew Cotter, Gareth O’Brien, Shane Dalton and Sean Sheridan.

Sean Finlay 

The Zambian Immersion Project at St Mary’s CBS, Portlaoise, offers 16 students a coveted once in a lifetime opportunity to experience Zambian culture first-hand through deeply enriching work in schools, orphanages and health clinics over an unforgettable two weeks.

Our journey began way back in January, 2016 when the project was launched for over 70 interested students and we received an insightful and honest introduction to the project and were told the tasks ahead for the team that was selected. The part of the talk that struck us most was how impassioned each speaker who had experienced it before was and the clear impact it has had on their lives. 

We knew then it was something we had to be involved in. The following weeks were tense as we went through the nerve-wracking application and subsequent interview stages. In February, the wait was over and the 16 privileged individuals were selected. 

Fundraising is a critical aspect of the project and thanks to the generous donations of local businesses, we successfully managed to hold our major fundraiser, ‘Who Wants to be a Thousandaire’ in the Heritage Hotel in April which raised a significant amount for the trip. Each student travelling to Zambia additionally fundraised €1,000 individually which saw a busy summer of bagpacking, grass-cutting and bog work for many but everyone achieved it.

As the months turned to weeks and the weeks to days, the excitement grew within the team. As everything was booked, it was now time to prepare ourselves. We completed our teacher training across four Wednesdays in St Paul’s NS and went on a bonding trip to the Edmund Rice Centre in Waterford to strengthen our team’s spirit through learning about the work of Blessed Edmund Rice.

Then in February this year it was time to say our goodbyes to our parents and disconnect from our normal day-to-day lives. The excitement was palpable as the day had finally arrived. The start of our trek was an eight-hour flight to Addis Ababa airport before we got our connecting Ethiopian Airlines to Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, which took a further six hours. There was overwhelming relief at the flying being over, but that was only brief until the relentless sun hit us.

The next fortnight was a whirlwind for all 16 students and the five teachers who travelled with us. We spent our first night in Lusaka before the following day we made the eight-hour bus journey to Livingstone where we were based.

We began in pairs working in one of three local primary schools, Linda, Lubuyu and Ngwenya where we taught our classes, some up to 65 in size, a variety of subjects including a cupla focail of course. Each afternoon was spent at Lubasi Orphanage where 39 children, ranging in age from three to 18, reside. These children were among the happiest people we’ve ever met and although they have so little, they have more than any of us if they’re happy. The delight on their faces upon our daily arrival to play soccer matches, push them on the swings or simply talk to them is something one can never comprehend. The chance to get to know and connect with the people there allowed us to truly learn what the meaning of life is and give our own a real sense of purpose.

During the rest of our time, we visited the breathtaking Victoria Falls, went on a mesmeric safari in Botswana, called in to St Raphael’s Secondary School, which is under Edmund Rice patronage – where we lost in a soccer match to their staff – and on a rotating basis, students would visit Sr Mary Courtney’s Health Clinic where we could engage face to face with Zambian people and truly see how their lives were lived, which was really eye-opening and a gratifying experience for all.

When we returned home we agreed the immersion project was the best experience of our lives. The effect of it was clear to see. We all learned invaluable lessons from the joyful Lubasi children, selfless Sr Mary Courtney and Bro. Mick Doyle and the unbelievably welcoming and genuine Zambian people. It’s difficult to describe our experience with words, it’s something we felt in ourselves, we knew every moment was special.

Our sincere thanks go to local businesses, sport clubs, families, friends, neighbours and members of the community whose donations and support of fundraisers made this trip possible. It is something each member will be forever grateful for.