Marco Trovò told us about his experience as a civilian service volunteer in Zambia. His words reveal the difficulties he experienced when he was faced with a world that is so different from the one he has always lived in, but also the richness of his experience in Africa.

The night before boarding the plane that would take me from Milan to Lusaka I did not sleep. The question that kept popping up in my head was: ‘Am I really about to go to Africa to do volunteering work for a whole year?’

The following morning was hectic, and that thought just disappeared. A first train, then a connecting train, the Freccia Rossa full of businessmen, headed to Milan. Carmen boarded the train in Verona and we travelled part of the journey together. Then Milano Centrale station and the shuttle to Malpensa airport. The tears, the goodbyes, the hugs, the last photos. The meeting with Gabriele, the security checks, Green Pass yes, Green Pass no. The yellow fever vaccination certificate. Suitcases ok.

And then… It’s not easy to explain. I remember seeing Sicily from the plane’s window. That’s when it actually dawned on me. I am going to do my ACS (Alternative civilian service) in Zambia for a year.

Then came the equally hectic arrival. Getting off the plane, Green Pass yes, Green Pass no. Passport control. Applying for that hard-earned Working Permit at the Immigration Office. The first sentences in African-English. Who can understand African-English? The poor immigration officer had to repeat what I had to do seven times, and I still wasn’t sure I had understood. Then the meeting with Mariangela, my Olp for the next ten months. An evening spent doing a quick grocery shop. How strange supermarkets in Zambia are, they sell milk in pouches! That night, after a 22-hour flight, I was totally exhausted. All I remember is that my last thought before falling asleep was, ‘Am I really in Zambia?’

The following morning, my ACS abroad finally began. Training with Zambian colleagues, then lunch with nshima, grilled chicken and caterpillars, the first in a long series.

I remember that in the beginning my ACS was not easy, there was a lot of work. The deadlines were the same as in Italy, super tight. And if you messed up, there was going to be trouble! At the same time we had to work with Zambian colleagues and institutions. Ah, Zambian Time. Everyone was joking about it. I also thought that it was just a figure of speech. Like what they say about the Milanese who eat at 7 in the evening or about the Venetians with Fog and Polenta. But when the bathtub in our house broke and the plumbers took ‘only’ nine days to repair it, I began to understand that Zambian Time was not just a saying. And how it made me angry at first! As a real perfectionist, I thought that when in Italy I had an appointment for 15 and by 15.05 no one showed up, I started asking if there was a problem.

Once I overcame the cultural shock of being catapulted 7000 km away in two days, I started seeing the best part of civilian service. The visits to the Mthunzi Centre, the conversations with the kids who had been rescued from the streets, from a life of hardship and violence, and had been reintegrated into society, into the Zambian education system, into the good values and manners that every citizen should have. ‘The first time they took me to Mthunzi, I cried all night. But then I started to understand that I had been given a great opportunity’, one of the Mthunzi boys told me one day.

And then there were the visits to the compounds, to assess the living conditions of the street children’s families. That got me really choked up the first few times. Families of 10, even 15 people, all living under the same roof. A salary, if you can call it that, of 30-40 euros a month to feed all those mouths. I remember Daniel, the father of Nelia, one of the young beneficiaries of the project at the Londjezani Center. Daniel makes axes and then sells them for a handful of kwacha by the side of the road. With that income, he has to feed Nelia and her other siblings. I remember Daniel’s proud look, the look of someone who knows he is doing his best, turning to embarrassment as soon as I asked him to sign the form with the information I had just collected from our interview. Like many other parents who live in the compounds, Daniel is illiterate. Never before had I realised the difference in opportunities available to single people. The smartphone I kept in my pocket gave me access to all the knowledge in the world if I wanted to. Not only could Daniel not even afford a smartphone, he wouldn’t know what to do with it.

It was precisely on that occasion that I realised what a great opportunity I, as an ACS volunteer, had been given through my participation in the Caring for the Youth Project in Zambia, 7000km away from what I used to call home. But an even greater opportunity was the one given to former street children – the beneficiaries of the project – and their families. Not only did it guarantee quality education to children who would otherwise continue to live in the streets, far from the appeal of art and literature but, thanks to CELIM’s efforts, it also extended this opportunity to their families, who could therefore ensure education and a dignified future for their children. And my own contribution, albeit small, was part of these efforts.