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Zambia school trip a real 'eye-opener' for Cottage Grove woman

Cottage Grove resident Ann Mattson is shown with her class at the barefoot school. Submitted photo

Cottage Grove resident and sixth-grade teacher Ann Mattson taught at her first barefoot school this summer during a trip to Zambia.

"The kids in the barefoot schools aren't accepted into Zambia's public school system because they can't afford to buy the school uniform, so they attend the barefoot school established by Dominican sisters," Mattson said in a recent interview. "They share desks, have hardly enough paper or pencils. The few books they have are old, ragged and torn...but they are totally engaged and avid to learn."

Mattson, who teaches at Convent of the Visitation School, in Mendota Heights, was part of a two-week service trip to the landlocked country in southern Africa. She traveled with a doctor, two nurses and two parents as chaperones for 10 junior and senior girls from Visitation school.

The trip was coordinated with the Dominican sisters who operate five orphanages, two schools and medical and dental clinics in Zambia, near the town of Ndola.

"We volunteered at all the sites and took part in the traveling clinics," Mattson said. "The girls jumped right in to help; they went above and beyond their comfort level. It was a real eye opener for them. At some clinics, they were helping mothers who were younger than they were. They saw widespread malnutrition, many people with AIDS and village wells that were frightening."

In addition to operating traveling clinics, the volunteers painted school buildings, worked with younger children and taught school.

Mattson taught a geography class, telling stories of winter in Minnesota. "I described walking on frozen water and building snowmen," she said. "They didn't believe me at first but since I was a teacher they knew I wouldn't lie."

The children also couldn't believe Mattson's group had come to help, she said. They treated the visitors like rock stars, hung on their words and were very respectful even though they had some trouble with the Midwestern accent. English is the official language of Zambia but there are 73 dialects spoken in the country, of which Bemba and Nyanja are the principal dialects.

Mattson described the trip as strictly a learning experience -- no shopping or touring -- "we wanted to take part in the day-to-day life of the students."

Life at the Dominican-run schools is regimented. Students are expected to be up at 4:30 every morning to work in the gardens -- which supplied all the food for students -- and be in school by 7:30 a.m. Sunday is a day devoted to attending Mass. The church in town was "packed to the rafters," Mattson said. "There was lots of singing, dancing, food and socializing most of the day.

"They do so much with so little and they do it joyfully," Mattson added. "I learned that I could do without most of what I have. But I also learned to be grateful for living in the United States. We have our flaws but we live in the best country in the world. I do like to know there will be hot water when I want to take a shower."

The Dominican sisters have asked the Visitation group to return to Zambia next year. Mattson's goal is to take a larger group, organize girl-to-girl communications prior to the trip and to promote more traveling clinics.

This year the Visitation students raised money and accepted donations for Zambia. They all took extra luggage full of medical and dental supplies, toys, books, school supplies and even a DVD player and will be collecting similar items for the 2013 trip.

For details or to donate items for the next trip, email Mattson at