From December to February, 19-year-old Ocean Acres resident Brandon McGee volunteered in Zambia as part of an international aid program. It was a life-changing experience.
“It was a balance between the absolute best times in my life and the absolute saddest times in my life,” McGee said in an interview April 2 after recounting his experiences with the Long Beach Island Rotary Club at Kubel’s Too in Beach Haven Crest. But one of the first questions in anyone’s mind is what was his motivation to go there.
“I can’t really tell you a definite reason I went to Zambia,” McGee told the club.
The only reasoning he could muster at the time was to recollect his feelings on his 18th birthday when he received a full ride to the University of Washington. He thought he wanted to be a radiologist. Yet “nothing felt right about it.” Deep down, he knew he did not want to go to college yet.
“I always loved growing up on Long Beach Island, but I felt empty,” McGee said. “There had to be something more.” He reiterated this point when chatting one-on-one with The SandPaper. “I wouldn’t say I wasn’t happy as a kid, but I felt empty.”
A few months ago, he was reading the BBC’s website when he came across a piece discussing the positives of a study abroad gap year. He learned about the global exposure he could gain. He always had had an interest in agriculture. McGee said his interest in agriculture came from learning about the hierarchy of needs. The fundamental need, physiological, includes food.
“If you can improve agriculture, you can improve lives,” McGee said.
This made him excited about a potential trip to Ghana that would have had farming as a focal point. “But then Ebola happened and my mother wouldn’t let me anywhere near it,” McGee joked.
So the group sending him abroad, International Volunteer Headquarters, changed his destination to Zambia. He would not be involved with agriculture, though. Community development was now going to be the purpose of his volunteerism.
“I had no idea what I was going to be doing until the day I got there and I got a piece of paper saying I would be going to the Linda Disabled Farm,” McGee said.
The farm, just beyond Livingston (think Victoria Falls), was set up in the 1970s to help folks with a range of disabilities maintain a self-sustaining lifestyle. By McGee’s estimates, the farm serves nearly 200 people including about 150 children.
Prior to the trip, McGee had never left the East Coast.
“On the way (to the farm) from the airport, it was weird because there were just potholes everywhere,” McGee said. “As soon as we turned onto the street to get to the guest house, it was like driving through the woods.”
He began questioning whether he could handle the culture shock. He began to cry. He saw a house, though he could only call it that because that’s what the structure was considered by everyone else. The “house” was four cinderblocks tall on three sides with no roof. The fourth side had a curtain for a door.
Upon arriving at the farm, he saw completely disabled people lying on the ground. He saw a man with one arm, the other having been taken off because he failed to pay rent.
While the first night’s sleep was easy because of jet lag, the stress of culture shock crept up. Add to culture shock: 92 degrees was the lowest temperature McGee experienced during his time in Zambia. On the other end, temperatures soared as high as 110 degrees.
“You felt like you were going to die right before it rained because of how humid you got,” McGee said. “But you got used to it. My first week there, I was sweating all the time. I would wake up just because I was sweating uncontrollably.”
He adjusted to these stress factors, though, and quickly fell in love with the area. He especially found solace working at the farm, helping the less fortunate in a tough environment.
“The whole concept of the farm was to give the blind and disabled a small haven,” McGee said. “There was a lot of discrimination against the disabled.
“Just the fact that the disabled farm was created was a beautiful concept,” he said in the later interview, tearing up. The farm would not have worked in any location closer to town because its seclusion kept vandals and burglars away he added.
McGee noticed discrimination in even the minutest situations.
“When I tried to get materials delivered and they asked where, I said ‘the Linda Blind Farm’ and they said ‘no,’” McGee said. “They tried to almost set it aside.”
Communication was difficult on even a more basic level. Despite Zambia being labeled as an English-speaking country, McGee said there are 74 languages spoken in the country – four alone in his town.
“I never thought I would have so much trouble speaking English in an English-speaking country,” he admitted. “Their grammar is not the best.”
Yet knowing the language proved to be crucial. “If you met anyone there with any type of status, it was because they spoke English,” McGee said.
As for his volunteerism, McGee renovated houses on the farm, among other tasks. He soon ran out of money but wanted to contribute something more sustainable than a new roof. He knew the farm had a lot of land, goats were native to Africa, goats were a low-maintenance livestock and goats could provide sustainable food for the farm.
So McGee reached out to the Rotary Club for funds to buy goats. McGee had a scholarship from the club. Around Christmas, he offered to give up a portion of his scholarship to pay for the goats and supplies associated with the goats. The club not only paid for the goats but also kept his scholarship intact.
With one other person, he then spent three weeks constructing a fence for the goats spanning about six football fields. McGee and other volunteers trekked for five hours to deliver the goats from the market to the farm. All have been named and vaccinated and two are now pregnant.
McGee returned from Zambia on Feb. 12 after being there for three months. At the Rotary presentation, he was asked about what that first day back in the states was like.
“It was a terrible, and it still is,” McGee said. “It’s a hard concept. Everything changed for me, but I couldn’t find one thing that changed here.”
Life has also been tough because he knows just how far removed he is from Zambia. It’s just another place on a map. “It’s almost like Africa doesn’t exist again,” McGee said.
So now, he is just left with the lessons and memories he garnered in Zambia.
“Just take some time in life to look around and realize how beautiful everything is,” McGee said. “I grew up in a relatively poor family and we had some really hard times. It’s almost like disgusting that I used to complain about money.”
McGee knows he will return to Zambia. School seems to be in his immediate future, though. He has applied to Columbia University and the University of Queensland in Australia. His major will either be sustainable development or international inequality and development, slightly different than radiology. One can imagine why the change has happened.
“I never felt more complete than I did in Zambia,” McGee said. “I want to do that for the rest of my life.”
By LIAM McKENNA | Apr 08, 2015
Extra Photos credit – volunteeroverseas.com