A Boy called Desire: living without a financial safety net

As soon as I met Desire, seventeen, I took an instant liking to him.

Sitting across from me in his roadside hut, located in the village of Chongwe, his account spoke of experience beyond his years.  Orphaned at the age of seven, he was forced to grow up quickly, and bears a fierce charisma that demonstrates an essential strength of character.

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Desire lived with his uncle for several years following his parents’ deaths. However, when his uncle started struggling financially to support him, he decided it would be best to move in with his elderly grandfather, who is approaching full blindness and now relies heavily on Desire for help.

In Zambia, where the youth population is booming, the OECD predicts that less than half of them are in stable, full-time employment. In fact, many of the youths that we interviewed spoke to us about doing ‘piecework’ – irregular and often challenging physical tasks, for a small stipend at the end of the day.

In order to pay for his schooling and food, Desire will frequently ask for piecework around his village. His jobs have included cutting roses, chopping trees and clearing yards. When possible, he supplements this income by selling chickens for 1 kwacha (roughly 12p) as well as bananas and mangoes by the side of the road.

I couldn’t help but draw a parallel to my own small struggle to find work in the UK. I realised how fortunate we are to have a welfare state and the provision of a job seekers allowance, when Zambia has no such safety net. I remember, aged 19, the feelings of hopelessness and frustration that arose from waiting in line at job centre. But this pales in comparison to Desire, who often wakes up very uncertain about whether he will have the opportunity to earn any money that day.

He says: “When I start a job, I’ll wake up early in the morning … and I’ll know what I’m doing every day … With piecework, I don’t know the type of job I’m going to do … [but] no matter how hard that work is, you do it, because you need that money.”

Desire’s most arduous task was weeding during the rainy season. The fields are very long, and he is awarded 1 kwacha for each line he completes. Even after a full day of tireless work, Desire might only be able to afford some cooking oil and rape – a bitter, leafy vegetable.

Despite the obvious challenges, Desire is an extremely resourceful and business savvy young man, and a neat row of colourful ties strung across the wall behind him clearly display his organised nature. His training with Building Young Futures has only enhanced this characteristic. He makes a huge effort to ensure that he saves whatever little money he has – so that he and his grandfather are never without food.  

He is now making plans to expand his supply of chickens and build a solid coop for them. He reassures me, “In one year I can do something which is great.”

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Desire’s Home

* This blog was written especially for the Guardian’s International Development Journalism Competition.

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