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Marlon Phiri in community ROCS

Leading positive change in Zambia

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On a 13-hour drive across the middle of Zambia, Tearfund's Melody Murton listened to Marlon Phiri share about the changes he’s seen in his country, his organisation, and in his own life – and how learning has been at the centre of it all.

Marlon Phiri ROCS

Marlon has been a pioneer for education since he was a child, when he became the first child in his family to continue his education beyond primary school. Today, Marlon is the Executive Director for Tearfund’s partner Reformed Open Community Schools (ROCS), part of the Reformed Church in Zambia, who help to improve health and education outcomes for thousands of Zambian children and their families.

In 2000, Tearfund began a partnership with ROCS, becoming one of the first funders of their project work. Since then, a fruitful and enriching partnership has grown, as ROCS has expanded its reach into more communities – and more members of those communities – throughout the country. ROCS has long been a key supporter and advocate of the community school sector in Zambia – a sector that provides about 30 per cent of the primary school education in Zambia. Community schools are, as their name suggests, established by the community to fill a gap in the government school system – perhaps there wasn’t a government school close enough (many students we met walked upwards of six kilometres to get to the nearest school, before a community school was established), or it was overcrowded, or it was dangerous to get to (seasonal rains can wash away roads and flood, cutting off students’ access for months of the year).

While ROCS’ projects are based in and around community schools, they address a wide range of issues in the community beyond education, harnessing the special position that the school has in the life of the community to bring about broader change and development in the communities where the students (and future students) come from. Communities are intensely proud of and invested in their school, and they create a genuine hub for village life. “Participation is great, especially in practical ways,” says Marlon. “You see people providing land. You see classrooms being built. You see communities contributing to the water supply, construction. The work ROCS does wouldn’t happen without community participation.”

What we are doing is a service to people. And we’re also serving God in the work that we do.

Through ROCS, Marlon has given the past two decades of his life to be an agent of change for better education outcomes in Zambia. It was a change he had to fight for himself as a young student. “My schooling experience was very, very tough. My feet first knew how to wear shoes when I was in eighth grade – my first pair of shoes. And I bought them myself – I worked for it. It was not easy.”

“My schooling experience was very, very tough. My feet first knew how to wear shoes when I was in eighth grade – my first pair of shoes. And I bought them myself – I worked for it. It was not easy.”

Without those shoes, a compulsory uniform item, Marlon couldn’t attend high school – but a lack of footwear wasn’t the only obstacle to overcome to get there. There were more students in grade 7 than the secondary school could take, so they all competed for a spot. Marlon was one of many who didn’t score high enough on the academic test. He then had to find – independent of the support of his parents – enrolment in a school to repeat grade 7. He was determined: “I said, I want to go to school. I don’t want to go and sit at home.” A school accepted him, but only had a space for him in the grade below. “I had to swallow my pride and go back and start all over again. I was ridiculed – ‘repeater, repeater!’.” But the next time the entry exam came around, he passed.

Marlon is in the middle of eight children, and was the first in his family to continue his education past primary school – a path that his younger siblings then followed. “Amazingly, I taught my mum how to read and write. She was so happy.”

Handwashing Zambia ROCS
Communities ROCS works with in Zambia are enjoying better access to water and sanitation. At this school, a new handwashing facility has been installed.

His own experience continues to fuel his dedication to making education accessible to the most vulnerable children in Zambia.

“When I discuss with people in communities, I try to encourage them that it can be done. Look at me. Never accept that it’s impossible – you can find a way and get around certain things.”

Marlon has over 20 years of growth and impact to look back on as evidence that change is possible. But he’s humble enough to reflect that change is not easy: sometimes the change we want doesn’t happen, and sometimes the change that’s needed most is that which needs to occur in ourselves.

“In my work with ROCS, there have been several times when I discovered that maybe our approaches were not resonating with what we’re supposed to achieve. Sometimes we are in a hurry to achieve certain things without necessarily grounding communities to understand the concepts, or us sitting down to understand their situation and perspectives. Sometimes we transfer an approach from one area to another, thinking that it is going to work; sometimes it does not work. So in the end, you find that there is resistance from the community.”

Marlon reflected that many people are in a hurry to see change happen, eager to work quickly to get results. But change takes time and patience. It takes a willingness to see and celebrate the small things, when we “want to see massive things”. When I asked him what stood out to him from the project work we observed that week he said this: “Something seemingly that did not look like it is something worth paying attention to – small little things, small little achievements. For example, just one crop of pumpkin leaves that are coming up, looking so nice, but it’s just one crop: appreciating that. And saying that if one person is able to grow this, it’s possible that many more will be able to grow that health.”

Marlon Phiri in community ROCS
Marlon Phiri celebrates with community members during a visit to ROCS’ project work.

And celebrating change – whether it happens on a national level or in the small garden plot of a rural household – helps to sustain Marlon in this work of transformation.

“What really motivates me to keep going, is seeing communities have renewed hope for their situation. And that hope in itself gives me a lot of energy to keep going. The other motivating factor would be seeing them move from a place where they’ve been struggling to a position where they are now able to live a more dignified life that adds value in their family or community. That makes me happy, keeps me going, wanting to even do a little more with them. And that in the end, together, we will be able to celebrate life.”

In each of the communities we visited, I watched Marlon greet people as if they were his own neighbours or family. He joined in with celebratory dances, led school children in songs and pushed them on the playground swings, even initiated impromptu role play dramas midway through village meetings. Here is a leader who delights to know, share with and learn from the people his organisation serves. Maybe it’s his warm and engaging personality, but I’m confident that the posture Marlon has to his work is rooted in a love that goes beyond his own capacity.

“What we are doing is a service to people. And we’re also serving God in the work that we do. As the Bible says, we can not say that we love God if we don’t love our neighbour, because our expression of love for God is in the way we treat others. We want people also to experience the love of God in their lives. And experiencing the love of God might mean many things. For example, it is very difficult for us to go to people to preach ‘God loves you’, [while] we are seeing them in abject poverty. We’re supposed to bring much more solutions, so that in the end, ‘God loves you’ will be more meaningful to them.”

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Melody Murton is Tearfund's Head of Communication and Education

Related projects have received support from the Australian Government through the Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP).