We built a school . . . in Africa

It’s a story of struggle and hardship – of a dream that split a community and almost, but not quite, wrecked a marriage. Luckily, there’s a happy ending. Steven Russell reports

IT’S one of those pivotal moments that changes life forever. Moira and Bob Cooke are deep in rural Africa, presenting a village school with dozens of bags each containing a ruler, eraser, two pencils and pens, a sharpener and an exercise book – gifts from a charitable church-based fund thousands of miles away in England. It’s clear they will be put to good use. Kaputula School’s two short rows of classrooms are made of offcuts from local sawmills or of anthill-clay bricks. The roofs are thatch harvested from the bush – apart from the nursery unit, which is open to the sky. The roofs leak during the rainy season. The school bell hanging from a tree is the metal inner rim of a wheel. The children are undernourished, mainly in rags or cast-offs, and barefoot. Some have walked seven or eight kilometres, in chilly conditions, to be here.

There are tears of joy, songs and dancing as pupils and officials thank the couple for the gifts from the Tanworth Starfish Fund. Later, a village elder says “We are so thankful you are going to build us a new school . . .” Husband and wife exchange looks. Which one of us said that? How much would that cost? Someone suggests �1,000 a classroom. The Starfish account has �600 . . .

Yet the Cookes seem to have already taken a leap of faith from which there looks to be no going back. The matter will have to go before the committee, but they’ll see what they can do.

“I can’t believe it,” Bob hisses under his breath as they leave. “I think we’ve just . . .”

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“Agreed to build a school? I know; isn’t it fantastic!”

And the Starfish fund did indeed build a new school. It officially opened in August, 2006 . . . after a rollercoaster ride that tested patience and faith.

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“What we had not bargained for was a community so divided against itself that it threatened to bring the project to a complete halt,” explains Moira, who lives with her husband near Halesworth. “Nor had we realised that the project would become a political football kicked around until it reached the echelons of the Zambian government!

“The headteacher was forced to leave, the workforce dwindled to a mere 17, the budget was blown time and again, accounts refused to balance and finally, yes, the money ran out. That a school does indeed stand there today is evidence of grit and determination somewhere along the line.”

If they’d had any inkling of the problems to come, they might well have caught the first plane back to the UK!

What makes it all worthwhile, of course, is that 200 or so children are receiving an education that would otherwise be beyond their means.

There were government schools in Zambia, says Moira, but to go there you had to have a uniform, a pair of shoes, and buy your own exercise books, pencils and so on.

“Children classed as orphans or vulnerable – OVCs – fell out of that network because they couldn’t buy those basic things: either because they were single or double orphans, or because of poverty, disease or some other misfortune. So volunteers set up these community schools, which got no government funding whatsoever. Some of them didn’t have a single qualified teacher on the staff. They gave whatever rudimentary education they could.”

The value of supporting educational initiatives is clear from another school project that received desks, chairs, tables and equipment. It’s seen its first group of 22 children pass the grade seven exam, which qualified them to go on to a government school. Only half could afford to do so – there are fees of 350,000 kwacha (about �45) plus uniform, shoes and materials to buy – so the charity offered to sponsor the other 11.

It’s hoped the group, now in its final year of secondary education, will get jobs as nurses, teachers and so on, and then pay for other youngsters in their extended family to go through school.

There are no regrets from the Cookes, then, about the struggle they faced to improve the chances of youngsters at Kaputula.

“I think both of us are so much richer for the process,” says Moira, a grandmother of four. “The important thing was always to keep the children at the centre of it, but also the community and the community‘s needs, because they are impoverished people and simply did not have the resources to do something like building a school of their own accord.”

The couple weren’t new to Africa, though they’d last set foot in the continent more than 25 years earlier.

Moira hails from Northumberland. She trained as a teacher in Birmingham, where she met her husband to be. They worked in the UK for a year or two before taking the opportunity to teach abroad under a Government scheme assisting developing countries.

Zambia was their first port of call, in 1969. In 1971 they moved to Rhodesia – Zimbabwe today – where they bought a house. Sadly, the battle for independence made life risky. “It wasn’t the place to bring up two young children” – the Cookes’ son and daughter both born in Africa.

“You had to travel in convoy if you wanted to go anywhere. If you ate out in town you had the worry of grenades being lobbed through the window. It was getting to the stage where you needed a gun in the house – and I was never going to have that,” says Moira.

In 1976, the children aged four and six, the family returned to England, though not without regret.

“The leaving of it was so painful. It was as if we left part of us there. After we came back, if there was a programme on the television about Africa, we’d sit there in tears.”

They continued teaching. Bob became a head in Birmingham and then a school inspector. Moira spent about two decades as a private tutor. She also began writing in about 1997 and saw her work published in women’s magazines and newspapers.

Then in 2002 daughter Alison, an IT specialist and trainer who had always dreamed of returning to Africa, went to Zambian capital Lusaka through development organisation VSO, to set up a resource centre. She later became its director.

Afya Mzuri – which means good health in Swahili – started as the Zambia HIV/Aids Business Sector Project before changing its name. It seeks to combat HIV and Aids through workplace-related activities. The World Health Organization last year put the prevalence of HIV infection in Zambia at 14.3% of the population. Other estimates suggest it’s higher.

Moira and Bob went out to see Alison late in 2002 – the first time they’d stepped on African soil in 26 years. In many ways it felt like coming home.

Moira was her church rep for Christian Aid and asked if she and her husband could visit charitable projects while in Zambia. They were put in touch with Christian Aid partner Chep – Copperbelt Health Education Project – and one Sunday were given an overview of the Aids-related suffering, “with families headed by children because the parents had died, and children living on the streets, which we had no idea about whatsoever”.

The Cookes said that the next time they came out – August, 2003 – they’d visit some of the community schools that aim to give children a good start in life.

One was a former tavern. “It had four rooms – well, even that’s stretching the imagination to call them rooms – with blackened walls and uneven floors. There were no proper desks. The kids didn‘t even have proper chairs to sit on or books to write in.” At another, some children sat on bricks on the floor, crowded together. “There was no glass in the windows and the wind was howling through, because it was their winter.”

Then there was Kaputula.

As far as the building project is concerned, Moira admits they were “sort of talked into it. We could see the way the head teacher was struggling with the school. It often happens that way: you see a need, and between us we know we can’t walk away”.

So they returned to the UK and worked out how they were going to raise the money. They put it to their church house-group, which was dead keen to go ahead and formed a decision-making committee. The enterprise later became the Tanworth Starfish Fund, named after their then home village of Tanworth-in-Arden, Warwickshire.

Work on the school started in the May of 2004. Had it been daunting coming back to England the previous summer and realising the enormity of the task?

“Yes! We had no idea. We just prayed it would work. Neither of us had any experience of building whatsoever. And apart from being collectors for Christian Aid, we had no experience of raising money. Shoving an envelope through a door for Christian Aid is somewhat different to building a school!

“Fortunately we had a lot of contacts through the church and the parish, so we just sent out feelers and letters, and somehow the money started coming in.” Amazingly, the first phase of work was covered by �11,500 from one elderly lady from the church.

Much of the physical work on the school was carried out by a voluntary hardcore of Zambian villagers, doing the labouring for a qualified bricklayer, carpenter and plasterer.

A man running a project for street children, who happened to be an architect and engineer, acted as a “consultant”, along with a friend who was a building supervisor. They were paid about �200 or �300 for several months’ work.

The Cookes went out twice a year to check on progress. At other times, was it easy trying to run it remotely from England?

“No, it was an absolute nightmare!” admits Moira. She tells the story in a self-published warts-and-all book called Bwanakula Thandi. The title means “grandmother of Thandi” – the honorary name the Kaputula community gave her following the birth of her first grandchild.

It was internal village politics, detailed in full in the book, that made it tough. “I described it in the blurb on the back as a tale of blood, sweat and tears. Everybody fell out with everybody else. The chieftainness was dragged into it; the education office was dragged into it . . .”

There were arguments and endless meetings. “And the tears, eventually, were ours. We reached a point where we had to give them an ultimatum.” It was, in essence, to meet certain conditions before more Starfish money was injected to continue with the project. “I had to deliver this at a meeting. I was crying as I did it, because it was really hard.”

The pressures took their toll. There’s a candid page or so in the book where the couple have a row one night, after things have gone pear-shaped, and “the sun sets on our combined anger and frustrations”. It must have been hard, battling under the African sun.

“Let’s just say the strain of running the project had its effects on our own relationship . . . Suffice it to say, and as you have correctly picked up, all is well now!”

The project was completed in stages: three classrooms and an office, followed by four classrooms and another office. Very early guesstimates suggested it would all cost �10,000, but that was quickly revised upwards. The sum “blew continually” and the eventual figure turned out at something like �30,000 – about a third over budget.

“One old-timer told us that if we’d managed to do a building project in Zambia and it had come out only one third over budget, we’d done very well. Normally things turned out double or three times over budget!”

Much was down to rises in the cost of materials. Iron and steel prices increased, and Moira says cement rocketed from 37,000 kwacha a bag to more than 60,000.

Luckily, the cause was a good one. Do the Cookes have to pinch themselves at what’s happened over the past seven or so years? – not just the school but other projects under the Starfish banner.

“Yes! It’s turned our lives about, because we’d never ever done anything like this before. We’re not getting any younger,” smiles Moira, “and we realise there will have to be a cut-off point. We’ve always said that if we start something, we will finish it. So we want to ensure that if we do undertake something new, it will be completed. At the moment, what we’ve got running is manageable.”

There was a church building project in Africa in partnership with a UK Baptist church, and work at a centre for street children to provide extra classrooms and improve the accommodation. There’s a support system for the carers of orphans – often extended families that have taken in children. They’re assisted with essentials such as grain and fertilisers, blankets and shoes. Other projects include the completion of a clinic in the south-west of Zambia, where a nurse’s house is also being built.

Luckily, the money keeps coming. Moira reckons the charity must have raised �150,000-�200,000 or so over the years.

The couple moved to Suffolk about two-and-a-half years ago. Moira grew up in Northumberland and Bob hails from Weston-super-Mare, and both longed to live near the sea again. With their son in Essex, this part of the world fitted the bill nicely. “We’d never properly been to Suffolk, but we came over and looked, and that was it. On the east coast, there’s a bit of a Northumberland feel about it, and you’ve got your quaint country cottages and a feel of Somerset, too.”

With the bulk of the Starfish committee still in the Tanworth area, it means a bit of travelling – about seven trips back to the midlands last year to conduct charity business – though there’s usually the opportunity to combine it with social calls.

Moira has nearly finished a second book, covering her experiences of charity work in Zambia. There will be a third, too, taking a personal look at the Cookes’ life in Africa. The second volume includes the tale of a man jailed for manslaughter and later given a presidential pardon. He was injured in a jail accident and the charity got him a pair of crutches. “The story of how we got into Lusaka prison is a chapter in itself!”

• Bwanakula Thandi is �7.99, plus �2 p&p, from: Moira Cooke, Belmoor, Blackheath Road, Wenhaston, IP19 9DH; email: moiracooke@belmoor.plus.com. It is also available online from Amazon, Waterstone’s, Tesco and Indepenpress.

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