Access to information is a basic human right that has become more essential today than ever. This is a concept that Rusangu University librarian Robson Maamba understood early in life through the stark gap between urban and rural communities in his native Zambia. In this podcast, 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow Jaleela Hassennally explores Robson’s humble beginnings that called him to the service of others and why he gives his time in the service of others.
Robson takes a holistic approach in serving those in rural areas. In addition to working to ensure those in rural areas have access to quality information, he also travels to the countryside to provide farmers with strategies to help them prosper. He also serves as an election trainer, educating citizens on the importance of taking part in elections and critically evaluating candidates.
Listen to this YALI Voices podcast to learn more about the many ways that Robson gives back and serves his community.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
YALI Voices Podcast: ROBSON MAMBA from Zambia
♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪
JALEELA: Hello, young African leaders. Welcome to the YALI Voices podcast, your home for the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. My name is Jaleela Hassenally. I am a 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow from Mauritius attending the Public Management Institute at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Thank you for your joining us. I’m joined today by Robson Maamba from Zambia. Robson is an assistant librarian at Rusangu University in Monze. And when he’s not working to ensure access to information for his library patrons, he’s volunteering in his community with underprivileged children, youth and women. His hope is to bridge the information gap between the urban and rural communities in Zambia.
Before we hear from Robson, don’t forget to subscribe to the YALI Voices podcasts on iTunes and Google Play, and visit yali.state.gov to stay up to date on all things YALI.
ROBSON: Thank you, Jaleela.
JALEELA: So, Robson, tell us a little bit about yourself, and what was it growing up in Lusaka, Zambia?
ROBSON: You see, Lusaka has got a mixed population. You find the poor, the rich, and the middle class. I happened to have born in a very humble family in one of the slums of Lusaka called Chawama. This was an area that was not organized at all. Sanitation, literacy levels, income brackets, they are all low. It was survival of the fittest to grow in this area. And my parents struggled to raise us. By the way, I’m the third born in a family of seven. It wasn’t an easy thing to be where I am today.
JALEELA: So, in the environment in which you were evolving, Robson, who were your influences, and who or what do you think made the biggest impact on you?
ROBSON: To date, my father remains my hero. I always got inspiration from him. Despite him having a humble education, a humble job, he always instilled in us ideals that would have helped us to reach where we are today. He struggled and emphasized that we needed education if we were to get out of the situation in which we were.
JALEELA: And, Robson, you’re an assistant librarian at Rusangu University. What led you to the work that you’re doing now?
ROBSON: You see, as a child, I always wanted to be a lawyer by profession, so as I was growing up, in my primary school, I would tell my peers that I would be a lawyer. Now, when I went into high school, I was privileged to go to a technical high school where they pick the cream of the nation. It’s called Hillcrest Technical High School, it is in Livingstone in Zambia. So, when you go to that school, everyone takes pure sciences, because the idea is to prepare youths to take up engineering, medicine courses, those courses that are highly technical.
So, I happened to fall in this trap. I was doing all pure sciences and technical subjects. So upon completion of my high school, I couldn’t be admitted in the school of humanities and social sciences at the University of Zambia to do law. I was advised to do engineering or medicine, but it has never been my dream, and that’s how I decided to say, let me change to do something that will be closer to law. I searched for that course. I couldn’t find it. Until one day somebody talked to me about library studies. Then I was thrilled to hear that because I was told library studies, you won’t do it as a single major. It would be a double major. That’s how I enrolled, and I majored it with public administration. So, because I have this interest of understanding how the government operates, and I’ve got also interest in disseminating information, it just sat well with my vision, and eventually, I loved what I was doing. Up to now, as a practicing librarian, I’ve got no regrets, though I still want to become a lawyer someday. But for now, I’m good to go as an information scientist.
JALEELA: Robson, besides being an assistant librarian, you also do volunteering in Lusaka. You’re also a volunteer in Monze. Tell us a little bit more about that.
ROBSON: You see, having been brought up in a slum, where social amenities were a problem, I would say I’m a product of the community. A lot of people contributed either materially, monetarily, others even just encouraging me, there are a lot of people who believed me, or believed in me, so I feel I owe the community a lot. I may not manage to give them everything that they wish, but I’ve decided to say, despite me having a better job that gives me all I need and my family has everything, my conscience is not free to see my neighbor is hungry, to see a young girl, a young boy failing to go to school simply because their parents cannot afford.
So that has pushed me to be a community person. So, I go around to look for, like, in an area where I stay, it’s a newly developed area where people are building houses, then you find that there are a lot of parents who come to stay in uncompleted houses as caretakers, so they would move in with their children. They stayed in houses without windows, some even without roofs. So, like this time back home, it is winter. It’s not something that is easy to see, and babies brave the cold simply because their parents cannot manage to take care of them. So, that has, this is what has moved me to come in the community and give a helping hand. If I touch people’s lives, I uplift them with a view of having a better Zambia tomorrow.
JALEELA: And what are the specific tasks that you carry on in your community to help your community?
ROBSON: Okay, the first thing that I do in the community — you see, Monze is partly peri-urban and rural. So, the rural community, most of them engage in farming. They’re engaged in farming, and you find that they lack information on farming, and they’ll have children. Children, mostly they are used as labor.
So, you’d find a man who’d marry up to five wives, not because they love them, but because they want to have a lot of children to help them farm. So, what I do, I go around in these communities trying to provide civic leadership. I tell people on human rights. Like, there are a lot of young girls who are forced into marriage, so I go there to encourage people to say because there are very few people who understand. Like, in my country, it’s only somebody who’s 17 years and above who can be allowed to get into marriage, but you’d find young girls as young as 14 going into marriage. And people don’t realize that according to our constitution, or our penal code, that’s a crime. So, I go around to educate people on that and encourage them to go to school.
In a group of five friends, we’ve formed an organization. We call ourselves Royalty. We’ve opened an account with one of the commercial banks. What we do, we put in our own resources. Like, when I get paid at the month end, I put a certain percentage of my money into that account. Then we identify those young girls, young boys that are eager to go to school but they cannot manage. Then we pay for them. We buy them uniforms. Right now, we’ve got 10. Out of this 10, six are girls and four are boys. One of the ladies just qualified to go to grade 8, and we got her uniforms and paid for her school fees.
So, we, our vision is to have this organization get established. Then maybe we want to be looking at those ladies that have gotten pregnant and they cannot afford to take care of their babies. Then we want to be keeping them in one place in order to help them get careers, like we can be imparting vocational skills in them like tailoring, tailoring, catering so that at some point, they can become independent and be able to sponsor their own children.
JALEELA: On this journey, Robson, what was one of the hardest things you’ve had to overcome, and how did you do that?
ROBSON: The biggest challenge that I had to overcome was cultural barriers. You see, in my community, parents, even when they cannot afford, it’s difficult for them to come out in the open to say, we cannot afford to pay for our children or to get food for our children. So, you’d find approaching them to say, no, we want to sponsor your child or we want to do this for your child, they would take it negatively, and they would think that you are looking down upon them, that they’re useless and so sad, they cannot do anything. So, that up to now remains a challenge which we’re trying to work out to say we are community people. We were raised by the community where you and I are, so we can also try to raise somebody to make them become self-reliant, and if — we try to encourage them to say, if in your family, maybe two of your children attend education and become, like, employable in society, it’s not only going to be your children who will benefit, your entire family, meaning there will be no vacuum of leaders for tomorrow because we’ll have the reservoir of people coming up to take up the challenge when elders are gone.
JALEELA: And do you have any success stories that you can share about your volunteer work?
ROBSON: At my workplace, there’s a program that we call work program. This work program, we added five needy students in society. Then they’d come in as students. Then they have four hours of working in a day. They work, then later on, they go to class. We only give them 20 percent of their earnings to help them get like things like food and water. Then the rest goes towards their, their fees.
So, before I joined Rusangu, I was, I was a leader of the youths in a church setup. I was looking after about 17 mission districts. We call them mission districts. There were 17; I was a chairman for the youths. So part of my job was to go around to teach youths on vocational skills, career development.
So, there was a friend I was working with. He’s a good friend of mine. He never used to do anything. His role was only to go around, preach, teach people about Jesus, but he had no career. So, when I joined Rusangu University, I felt guilty that there was a friend out there who did not have anything to do. I thought of him. Then one day I gave him a call, say I’m coming to Lusaka. Lusaka is about 180 kilometers away from the city, Monze, where I stay. I drove 180 kilometers. I went to meet him. Then I told him, do you have your high school results? He said, no, I didn’t get because I owe the school money. And this was like after 11 years after completing his high school. He still had no results with him. Then I had to make plans to see how I could help him out of that situation, so I contacted his school without him knowing, organized to pay the balance that he owed the school. I did pay that money.
One day, I drove back to Lusaka again. I told him, I’m buying a piece of land in Lusaka West. I want you to go, help me, and you should be my witness. That’s how we drove to that school. So, he was scared to come out of school because he knew that he was owing the school. I told him, remain seated. He remained seated in my car. I went outside. I went to the careers office. I got his results. I came and gave him his results, and I told him, right now I’ve got an application form for the university. You apply. He said, but how am I going to do it? I don’t have money. I said apply, and give me. That’s how he applied. Then I went back to my workplace. I paid for his first semester. I paid for him. Then he came into session because he’s doing it on a distance. Then we agreed to say, we need to find a way of how you finish your studies, despite you not having any monies.
So, we looked at the youth that we lead in church. Most every time, they need to buy uniforms, uniform for church, so I produce some money I gave him as capital. I told him, you start making uniforms for the youths, so your job will be to look for customers to buy uniforms so that you can raise what? Your school fees.
So, that’s how we started making those uniforms. As I’m speaking today, he’s remaining with one year to graduate. He’s pursuing a bachelor’s of arts in theology. So by the end of 2019, he will be a pastor, and I feel accomplished when I see him reach that far.
JALEELA: Beautiful. But coming back to your work, Robson, I know from reading about you that it’s important to you that Zambians in rural areas have the same access to information as those in the cities. Why is that? And why do you think that is that important?
ROBSON: Firstly, information is power. When people lack information, they perish. Before you and I can arrive at any decision, we need to have correct, relevant and timely information. That information, too, has to be authentic.
When you look at the rural areas, they are engaged in farming. I come from an area where there are a lot of pastoral farmers. You know, animals are prone to diseases. Farmers need information on how to treat animals when they’re attacked by diseases. Farmers need information on the best seeds to plant when it is rainy season. Further, there are times when you’d have a drought.
People in the city, they will learn about a drought from the meteorology department. But you find that in the villages and the rural areas, people don’t have that information. And there’s no one taking that information to them. You find that they’ll plant — for instance, our staple food is maize. They’ll plant maize that is late maturing without them knowing that there’ll be drought. But if they’re empowered with information, they will know that the next farming season, there will be a drought, and they’ll plant early maturing crops, thereby helping the community to have income through the maize and to have food that will provide nutritional value among the communities.
So, to me, information is important. The biggest problem that we have now is on politics. Every five years, Zambia goes to the polls. Politicians will come, use people’s ignorance to win votes from them. I’m privileged to be a qualified election trainer. I was trained by the electoral commission of Zambia. I use this to educate people on the importance of taking part in elections, further to choose leaders that will be able to solve their problem and to serve them, and not only to choose those leaders that come to them when it is time for elections.
A lot of young youths are being used as political tools to fuel violence during the elections because they don’t know what it means to participate in an election. But me, when I look at these young youths, I look at them as potential leaders for tomorrow. I look at them as the future politicians and not political tools to fuel violence.
So, when I look at these two things, it pushes me to want to improve the access of information among the rural community, so that they can be at par with the urban communities.
JALEELA: So, what advice can you give to others who want to be a force for positive change in their communities?
ROBSON: The first thing as a young person or as a youth in a community, you need to believe in yourself and never, at any point, should you feel for you to achieve something is an impossibility. So, the message that I have for the young, young leaders out there, let’s take the challenge and get involved in all the sectors of our country. Don’t wait for the leaders of today to be controlling us. We are also capable of contributing positively to the development. Change begins with me, and change begins with you.
JALEELA: One last question, Robson, for the day. What can YALI Network members learn from your experiences and what would you advise YALI Network members who are interested in this type of work to do to be successful?
ROBSON: Leadership is not a crown, but a cross. As you want your community to develop, or as you want to touch somebody’s life, it’s not everyone who will take you with a kid’s gloves. A lot of people will misunderstand you.
There’s a lot of sacrifice needed for you to work for a positive change in the community. You need to sacrifice your family time. You need to sacrifice your resources. And remember, if you love your community, you need to give. There’s no love without giving.
So, if you want to be the change in your community, be ready to sacrifice and be ready to suffer rebuke from your community, because not everyone will understand you, but you need to grow a thick skin. Only then will you succeed. Thank you.
JALEELA: Thank you, Robson.
ROBSON: You’re welcome.
JALEELA: Be sure to come back for more inspiring stories from young African leaders on the YALI Voices podcast. Join the YALI Network at yali.state.gov and be a part of something bigger.
Our theme music is “E Go Happen” by Grace Jerry and produced by the Presidential Precinct.
The YALI Voices podcast is brought to you by the U.S. Department of State and is part of the Young African Leaders Initiative, which is funded by the U.S. government.