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CYC-Online Issue 6 JULY 1999 / BACK
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An African panel discussion – Child and youth care work: A profession or a calling?

Four panelists in Zambia gather to debate at a local level an issue recently debated internationally on CYC-Net

"The word care itself is not professional." observed Rogers Mwewa, Executive Director of Fountain of Hope. “The word more properly reflects a calling – an inner urge to care for the child."

This statement was just one of many opinions that were passionately expressed as CHIN (Children in Need) members gathered for a discussion in February at the Alliance Francaise in Northmead, Lusaka.

Four panelists, including Ireen Tembo, Youth Programme Co-ordinator from MAPODE, Dr. Geoffrey Nsemukila, a demographer from the University of Zambia, Petronella Mayeya, a psychologist from Chainama Hospital; and Rogers Mwewa, met to debate the above question.

Except for Rogers Mwewa, none of the panelists was willing to take a side. Everyone agreed that a calling – an “inner urge" – is necessary for working with children. But most also stressed the importance of professional skills. Ms. Mayeya expressed this well when she said that “care work has to be a calling, but maybe not in the sense that you become so emotionally involved that you forget how best to do it." She went on to emphasize the importance of networking, sharing experiences, learning from colleagues, and finding out what children really need. Professionalism, she said, means effective work.

Dr. Nsemukila made a similar point, saying that it is necessary to have both a profession and a calling, both the ability and the motivation for effective child and youth care work. While Ms. Mayeya and Dr. Nsemukila warned about the dangers of a calling without skills, they were also wary of people who consider themselves professionals without being called. Ms. Mayeya pointed out that the word “professional" means many things. Some people think that being a “professional" simply means getting a good salary. NGOs and other groups that work with children can be disastrous if their employees are working for selfish reasons. Dr. Nsemukila mentioned the “optical illusions" that sometimes afflict professionals who have spent too much time in the classroom and not enough in the field.

This was the first time CHIN members had gathered to reflect on themselves and the motivations behind their work. As Ms. Tembo put it in her opening remarks, “I don't call myself a professional. I just ask: who am I?" Ms. Tembo said that when looking after orphans, she always asks herself, “If I died today, who would keep my child?"

At one point CHIN Co-ordinator Louis Mwewa (no relation to Rogers Mwewa) asked the panel, “Where do you draw the line?" There are situations in which one feels “called" to help a child in an easy way (for example, by giving money), even though this won't much help the child in the long term. Ms. Mayeya replied, “It has to be a calling first. In fact, it has to be a calling 100% ... but you have to be sure that as a person who is called, you acquire the right skills to look after the children." Rogers Mwewa agreed. “Am I going to let that kid die of hunger?" he asked. But he also stressed the importance of following up one's work with children, not just feeding them.

The discussion went off on many tangents, especially after the moderator opened the floor for questions. But this was perhaps a sign of how much CHIN's members have to share, how many concerns they have in common. Both the audience and the panel were interested in the issue of institutional care for orphans. There was a broad consensus that orphanages should only be used as an emergency measure, and that in the long term, orphans should stay with their families and communities. Community-based orphan care was described both as a professional technique “an effective way of working “and as a sign of a calling, a more caring approach.

Discussion group
The original idea for the discussion came from Louis Mwewa, who heard the same question debated on CYC-Net, an international electronic forum for child and youth care workers. People working with children and youth around the world (many in the United States and Canada) had been pondering the same issues over e-mail. But there were a number of differences between the electronic discussion and CHIN's discussion. In North America, the word “profession" raised the question of standards and licensing – whether people working with children should have to have certain training and skills. A “profession" should be able to regulate its members, banning people who lack the proper abilities. A profession would also have a professional association, like a medical or legal association, that could lobby on behalf of its field and its members. Some electronic debaters thought that the word “calling" might be demeaning to their work. They worried that a “calling" might make it sound like they were looking after their own inner needs (or those of a higher power) before those of the children.

The discussion was opened by CHIN Publicity Secretary and ZACEF Chairperson Annie Sampa-Kamwendo, and moderated by Dr. J.K. Sikalumba, professor of French Language and Literature at the University of Zambia. CHIN would like to thank the Alliance Francaise for the use of their colourful conference room.


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