For the past decade, volunteers with Professionals Without Borders (PWOB) have been lending their skills to service projects in Belize, Nicaragua and Zambia. The following was contributed by Ashley Abel (’19, Cellular and Molecular Biology), who was part of the team that most recently traveled to Zambia.
This past August through September 2017, Seattle University's Professionals Without Borders, an on-campus nonprofit dedicated to creating sustainable infrastructure and spreading medical knowledge in international communities, traveled to Chikuni Mission in Zambia.
Chikuni Mission is a small rural community containing a hospital, boys’ and girls’ school, cultural center, church and radio station which are run by Jesuits and nuns in the area. Father Bert Otten, a former Seattle University Jesuit and faculty member, lives in Chikuni Mission and is actively involved in the community.
Unfortunately, with little technical knowledge and manpower available in the area for structural repairs, many of the community infrastructure requests brought to Father Otten cannot be completed. For example, Fr. Bert mentioned that once a light fixture went out in one of the cultural center buildings and he called into a local town for someone to come in to repair it. It was three months before anyone came to the center to repair the light, and at that point there were already more structural issues that needed more attention that had to be put on hold.
Financial restraint is another issue, as land is cheap but infrastructure work is incredibly expensive in Zambia. Not only do structural problems hinder general productivity for the community, but they can be a significant safety hazard, especially for the small children and older folks living there. On top of this, the local hospital has been overwhelmed with patients from thousands of kilometers in every direction, and has a severe lack of medical supplies available to treat this patients. Hospital staff also lacks some educational resources needed for training medical staff in safe practices or lifesaving CPR/AED protocols.
In accordance with Ignatian spirituality, the highly trained Facilities staff of Seattle University utilized their own life experiences and advanced technical knowledge to offer a hand up to a marginalized community. Cal Ihler, a jack of many trades and the head of the Facilities department at Seattle U, led a strong team of highly trained Facilities staff in the fields of carpentry, plumbing and electrical work to team up and address a need in the Chikuni community. A team of nursing faculty from Seattle U partnered with cardiovascular surgical head charge nurse Sonja Ihler to enhance the staff’s medical knowledge and address equipment needs.
As a student on the trip, it was humbling to see the fire that led all of these exceptionally talented professionals into each of the projects we addressed. The primary projects we completed at the request of the community included a renovation of the Mukanzubo Cultural Center, which houses many visitors and contains the only records of the traditional Chitongan culture; a renovation of two classrooms at the local girls’ school, numerous technical projects in plumbing and electrical work which were individually completed by Cal Ihler, Michael Mullen and Byron Lynch; teaching several classes at the Monze School of Nursing on CPR/AED practices and safe needle practices; as well as the donation and organization of lifesaving medical supplies worth thousands of dollars, which allowed the local hospital to open up a new emergency department.
Outside of the projects, we immersed ourselves in the rich culture and tradition of the Chitongan community whom we were staying with. We learned many of the local phrases, such as “Mwaboogahbutee,” meaning “Good Morning, how are you?,” and spent our evenings learning the traditional dances with the children and women of the community. We had the incredible privilege near the end of our trip to perform some of these traditional dance pieces at a large traditional Chitongan dance festival. The prime minister of Zambia attended, as well as hundreds of Zambians from many different communities. It was a moving experience to be included in such a special celebration.
The friendship and love that we hold with the Chikuni Mission community shows in the years of trips we have completed, this past trip being our ninth trip there. We look forward to returning again soon.