“I don’t feel comfortable with all the luxury of the UK any more,” Nikki Vasco tells me, two years after her move to Zambia. In 2012, Nikki quit her job as a school librarian and left for the capital city of Lusaka, where she would devote her new life to caring for children on the streets; talking to them, playing games, dancing, listening to their stories, sharing food and medicine. From her initial move abroad, to setting up a charity called the Footprints Foundation with husband Sevelino Vasco, religious faith has influenced many a life-changing decision for Nikki. Such life-changes include her recent marriage, and the start of a new family.
“Sometimes people tell me I’ve given up a lot”
“I first went to Zambia because I felt that God wanted me to go,” Nikki says. “I had known for 10 years that I wanted to be a VSO [Volunteering Services Oversees] volunteer. I knew I would probably want to stay there after my placement finished, but I didn’t quite bargain on meeting my husband so soon after my arrival and then getting married!
“Now, I realise that it may not have been in my plan, but it was in God’s plan. From the start, my husband and I both knew we wanted to run Footprints as a Christian organisation, as our faith is very important to us both, and we both feel that we have been brought together to do this work.”
Nikki and her fellow volunteers aren’t in Lusaka to convert, however, but to aid. The Foundation website takes care to emphasise that, “although we aim to act in a Christian way and share our beliefs, we do not believe in pressurising children to become Christians.”
Most of the children Nikki works with are “street children” aged 11 to 18. She describes how the vulnerable youngsters of Lusaka usually come from one of two different backgrounds. There are children “on the street”, who go out to beg or work during the day, but come back to a family or child-headed home at night; and there are children “of the street”, who stay on the street all the time, day and night. Many have been driven onto the streets by poverty, and try to earn money begging or carrying bags for people in the crowded markets. Some of the street children have left home due to domestic abuse; others are orphans.
“Life on the street is very hard,” Nikki says. “The children have to develop a tough exterior, but they are very vulnerable inside. They often turn to drugs to block out their mental pain.” The most common form of drug abuse in Lusaka is of “sticka”, a cheap and highly addictive form of glue sniffing. The solvent is derived from benzene and so can’t be banned. There is no hygiene on the street, disease is rife, and a child’s untreated wound can rapidly develop into an infected sore. Girls on the street soon become pregnant. HIV levels are high.
“We refer to the street children as ‘invisible children’ because so many people walk past them without noticing them. Despite all this hardship, the children have a lot of love to give. They are really welcoming of the people who take the time to be with them and help them, and they form very strong friendships and relationships with the other children.”
Nikki balances her work on the Foundation with the role of mother. “I have step-children who I love very much,” she tells me. “In Zambia, it’s a little bit unusual for a stepmother or stepfather to agree to take on children from their spouse’s previous marriage, and people are often surprised that I have such a close relationship with my children. It’s something that we have all worked on together as a family.
“I’ve worked with children on the street who are there because their mother died, their dad remarried, and their stepmother refused to have them in her house, so they had nowhere else to go. I know that if their stepmother had accepted them, she could have gained a lot of joy from them, just like I have from my kids. I know how blessed I am to have my children.”
For the Vasco family, the suffering they witness bears another, personal resonance. Sevelino Vasco was a street child himself, having lived there for seven years as a teenager. “It took a long time for him to come off the street but I’m very glad nobody gave up on him – including himself – because otherwise, I wouldn’t have my husband and children now. We have a policy that we will never give up on a child.”
“My priorities have changed”
A lack of essential resources to provide children with long-term help is the greatest problem Nikki faces in Zambia. Without enough food or medicine, she has had to watch on as child drug addicts relapse, and sick children die. “It can be demoralizing,” Nikki tells me, “but when we look at the bigger picture, we know that we have made a definite positive difference to the lives of the children we’ve worked with since Footprints started. We know there is no short term fix to the problem. We’re in it for the long haul.”
Since she graduated from the University of York in 2001, Nikki’s career path has contrasted somewhat with those annually advertised in fairs around campus. Some might consider her move to Zambia a sacrifice. She’s given up a UK salary and the comforts of UK living, but this is a view that Nikki rejects.
“It is a completely different lifestyle and I have learnt a lot about myself and about what matters to me. My priorities have changed. Sometimes people tell me I’ve given up a lot, and I suppose in some ways that is true, but I’ve also gained a huge amount in Zambia. I love working with the children on the street.”