Balancing Two Realities
Posted 05/03/2017 03:05PM

Eight students and three chaperones—High School Italian and History teacher and CAS Coordinator Mara Bernasconi (trip leader), Elementary School teacher Martino Stickley, and IB Coordinator and UK University Counselor Howard Stickley—traveled to Zambia from April 7–22 for the Serving Southern Africa trip, which for the 11th consecutive year sought to introduce TASIS students to a segment of Africa not typically seen by tourists.

Prior to the trip, students learned about the challenges of development and economic growth in rural Africa while confronting stereotypes about life in Africa and its people. While in Zambia, the group provided assistance to both rural and urban communities—building homes for homeless women and children, helping the elderly, volunteering at the local preschool, planting trees, and holding art workshops for street children.

Esma Karuv ’19 wrote a thoughtful reflection about this year’s trip.

By Esma Karuv

I ask just one thing before I pour out these feelings: please remain open-minded and understand that there is so much more to Zambia and the two weeks we spent there than these words.

One thing we all learned as a group is that we need to do more, that there needs to be more of a change. The gratitude I have towards this trip and to the wonderful children and people I met will never be lost. I have never found myself so at home and feeling as though I belonged as I did there. This trip left me as a new person, a person who is aware that she is missing something. Every day should offer something new to learn—there is so much more in the world than the silly problems we face in our very fortunate lives. Most of us reading this should not take one thing for granted. Be it good or bad.

After every trip away from home, there is always a feeling of regret that lingers in my mind. I realized on the journey back to Switzerland that there was something missing, that for once on a plane, I felt different. I realized that this was the loss of the familiar feeling of bitterness. There was nothing I wanted to change about this trip, nothing I wish I could have said or done. I did it all, lived like I never had before. This service trip is meant for learning and for the awakening of what kind of a world we live in. We went to Zambia to help, but we came back knowing that our help was nothing close to how much we received. Our group was composed of students who we never thought would end up together. After our first dinner together, the awkwardness subsided and friendships were created. Our personalities matched like a puzzle—all of us got along with each other as if we had been friends for years.

After the day we spent with the Life Begins project, we had a sit down with the owner of Zig-Zag, Lynn. She shared the stories of the children we had met that day, excluding their names out of respect. The stories of their lives were something most of us have never heard before. We were shocked to hear that the fearless children we met were surviving in an abusive environment at such a young age. This first day was an introduction to Zambia, and it immediately granted us a new outlook on how we think and prepared us for the following days. After the stories, we all shared a moment of frustration on how used to the unknown we are and became aware of what could be. These stories have stayed present in my mind since that night.

When meeting with the Cowboy Preschool children, we were greeted by the teachers and students who had prepared a presentation for us. Instantly, I saw the aura of freedom. Screaming at us from the stage, “Education, education, Mommy and Daddy, take us to school,” their bodies were overwhelmed with sole happiness. I saw how thankful they were for the education they were given. These kids are superior to us—they are the lucky ones. You could feel the children's happiness. You did not have to see it, you just had to be there in that moment. These kids taught us more meaning and strength than we could have ever found for ourselves. Their spirits were limitless to the many possibilities of freedom.

In only 48 hours my sense of all I knew was abandoned with the new world I was seeing. Our time in Livingstone was spent with the Life Begins project, the Cowboy Preschool, Greenpop, and bike riding around the villages, along with other simple pleasures Zambia had to offer us (Victoria Falls, banana/mango smoothies, and the overpriced market).

These kids taught us more meaning and strength
than we could have ever found for ourselves.


We headed to Mwandi on a bumpy bus, sad to be leaving Livingstone and all the children we all had formed close relationships with. Mwandi was a whole other place—poorer, and something there was different. The new environment felt empty. There was so much damage, yet everything there was beautiful and lively. Every face we saw on this trip had something special, something beautiful that allowed you to find a strong comfort in. It's impossible to write how they made us feel and how complete we were as individual people.

Martin and Gabby were our guides and helped us through the whole process of building the house. Martin, the sweetest man, has a smile that pushed us to continue working no matter how straining it was on our backs, hands, and shoulders. His work ethic made such an overwhelming impression on us. It pushed us to work no matter the pain and the discomfort. We owed it to the people who do not eat one full meal each day and to those who don't have clean water, a stable education, a safe home, and even a house. Gabby pushed us with a personality of no one we had met. His laugh was contagious. He helped us understand that the way we live is not selfish. He shared stories of his life, teaching us about the culture of Zambia, the importance of staying balanced once we returned back home, and the need to stay aware of how people live.

Mwandi brought us closer as a group and led us to acknowledge the blessings in our lives. In Mwandi, we lived without the pleasure of clean water, Wi-Fi, and smoothies. After each day spent building the house, we began to engage with the kids in the neighborhood, chasing them around and slowly forming new friendships. We let them help build the house, every so often throwing mud at them. The kids loved it, especially whenever the lady would come and start dancing and shrieking “Hallelujah,” embracing us with hugs and wet kisses.

After two days in Mwandi, we went to Botswana for three days in the safari. This was wild, literally. Sleeping in tents in the middle of the home of lions, wild dogs, buffaloes and black mambas was a new excitement. Each morning we would explore the Chobe National Park, seeing lions chasing buffaloes and the beautiful sunrise along the Chobe river. The safari presented us with a new form of freedom of the African culture.

Returning to Mwandi for the remaining four days also brought back the frustration and laziness due to the rain that washed away a day's work of mud building, and the thought of Chi Chi’s persistent and obvious excitement overwhelmed us with fatigue. (Chi Chi is a young boy who spent the holiday in Mwandi with his dad.) After the first day of completely finishing the house with the mud balls, we regained confidence. We came upon a newfound love for Mwandi that pushed our limits from low to high. We worked tirelessly, with our two guides laughing at us and making fun of the walls that would collapse right after we completed them.

I know I will fail to describe the impact this trip had on all of us, and I won't speak for the group, but for myself I'm unable to tell you how many moments affected me in unfamiliar ways. I am addressing you, the reader, and reassuring you that this blog post does not embody this trip. Yes, I know you understand that it was “life-changing,” but you don't understand how it feels to have your life changed and how much sorrow and distress it brings to your mind. The last night for me was the greatest night I have witnessed in the 16 years I can draw on for comparison.

This last night was an important night because this was when we truly lived like the people in Zambia—without electricity, a bathroom, a shower, a bed and clean water.

This trip left such a strong impact on my soul, that all I am needing is to be back under the stars with the warmth of the fire and the sound of the Zambian people singing their songs of love and freedom.


We left our compound in Mwandi on foot to travel to a neighboring village called Sooka. We hiked in the hot sun along the Zambezi river for two hours. The hike was difficult but was not thought of as difficult. We did not keep track of the time or how hot it was. We just walked. Without complaining. This hike was important to do because it tested each person individually. Once we arrived in the village we had to pitch up our tents, which excited us all (I'm kidding). After a frustrating hour and a half, we settled down as a group to rest.

Towards the end of the night we all gathered around the fire awaiting the arrival of the village, Sooka. The kids and adults were sitting together around the fire laughing. The night was filled with music and dancing that the church had prepared. All of us were confident enough to dance around the fire and engage with the village—allowing us, the outsiders, to blend into the Zambian culture, and we were welcomed as a group equal to them. The screams of the women and the emotion of the African music and dance brought a new mentality to us all. There we felt the warmth of the fire, and the new declaration of the milky way above the stars. We lost the borders of “normality” that deprive us of common freedom. I think back now: How lucky the Zambian people are, to be at one with each other as a village, to have no judgment among each other, and to live nights like those every day? This special night can only be experienced by you—don’t make up your mind solely by the justification of a 10th-grade student.

Each person from this trip took home a new unexplainable emotion. On the plane ride we had no recollection of anything. It did not feel like we were leaving. The reality struck once we got off the bus in TASIS. I already was longing for the old feeling of freedom and land that felt so close to me. Once I had time to heal, I realized the importance of this trip. For each of us it is different, and we share different parts of the trip that had a deep effect on our lives. However, I know this for sure, that no matter how old or how educated, there is always a need for more. This trip left such a strong impact on my soul, that all I am needing is to be back under the stars with the warmth of the fire and the sound of the Zambian people singing their songs of love and freedom. To someone who is deciding on which service trip to take, do not decide on the location but whether you will be educated. For me, this trip embodied freedom and awakening, and it left me with a new mindset and a gift that each member of the group will keep in their hearts forever.

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