Home » News » Waupaca News » Journey to Zambia

Journey to Zambia

Dora Moono Nyambe invited Joseph Schmitt to her school in a remote corner of Zambia. He was in-country doing research on a Fulbright grant but was so impressed by Nyambe’s school he wrote a book about the experience. Submitted Photo

African teacher portrayed in book

By James Card

While installing a new garage roof at a Waupaca lake house, Joseph Schmitt figured out his next move in life.

He was a recent college graduate that was in limbo and what he came up with while hauling shingles up a ladder would lead him to Zambia and to a woman so remarkable he was compelled to write a book about her and her life’s work.

Schmitt grew up in Kohler and spent much time in the Waupaca area.

“My grandfather owned land in Waupaca and I went deer hunting in Waupaca. I grew up fishing on Mirror Lake. My grandmother’s from New London so my dad grew up in New London. So I spent a lot of time in New London and Waupaca growing up,” said Schmitt.

He studied finance and economics at Northeastern University in Boston. He spent his first semester in London in a study abroad program. That opened up the world to him as an 18-year old and he later studied in Scotland and Ghana.

He graduated in December 2019 and had a job lined up in New York but the start date was postponed.

“So I started traveling. I went from Guatemala through Columbia via these networks of chicken buses. That was in 2020 and Covid hit Columbia so I found myself returning home quite earlier than I had hoped,” said Schmitt.

He got a call from his future employer who told him he still had a job but the start date was postponed for another six months. Meanwhile, he worked at a factory in Sheboygan and worked in Waupaca every weekend putting shingles on the lake house garage roof.

African arrival

Schmitt applied for and was awarded a Fulbright Research Grant to explore Zambia. His proposal was to study the impact of ecotourism on rural economies.

“How can we leverage natural landscapes to economically benefit the people that live in those areas? So often we see that the most beautiful parts of countries and the most unique natural resources are utilized and protected most effectively by local people,” said Schmitt.

His goal was to conduct a comprehensive survey on the topic in a remote area of Zambia near the Angola border.

Before heading off, Schmitt’s sisters encouraged him to open a TikTok account. They said it would be a good way to document his trip and stay in touch.
“My Grandma Schmitt watched it every morning so I knew I had one viewer. She was a real supporter,” he said.

Upon arrival in Zambia, Schmitt posted a few videos about his research plans and that garnered some followers and later some interviews with local media and the country’s second-largest podcast.

“This all happened very suddenly. It was all because I was this Wisconsin kid that came and talked about how excited I was to learn about Zambia from Zambians. I was here to try the food. I was here to learn about culture and to connect with other people as much as possible. I think that attitude really resonated with Zambians,” said Schmitt.

In a comment section on one of his videos, a woman named Dora Moono Nyambe asked him to teach a lesson at her school. He had no idea who she was.

He clicked on her profile. He learned that she lived in a remote area, founded a school and raised funds to improve it. Through online messaging she invited Schmitt to come visit the school.

He was based in Livingstone near Victoria Falls in the southwestern corner of the country. His work was a 10-hour drive away in a national park near the Angola border.

The park was so huge that he could not live there as a visitor because of a law that he must be accompanied by an armed ranger within the park’s borders.
The area Schmitt surveyed was composed 99% subsistence farmers.

He loaded up on supplies in Livingstone and fueled his truck with three jerry cans reloaded at a relay network of black market gas stations.

The area was so rugged that his 2002 Toyota Hilux truck broke down the first three trips to the region.

“There are no actual roads, just paths and they are all sand and silt. I broke a CV joint the first time. I blew the radiator the second time,” said Schmitt.

Meeting the teacher

He still wanted to meet the schoolteacher who extended the invitation. She lived 17 hours away from Livingstone in the mountainous area outside of the city of Mkushi.

He rolled in at 4 p.m. and met her and the students and had dinner.

The next morning Nyambe met with an 11-year-old girl who was repeatedly raped by her stepfather. Her mother knew about it but did nothing to stop it.

Nyambe rescued the child and they drove an hour to health outpost made of cinder blocks. They had the girl tested for sexually transmitted diseases.

In his travels, Schmitt saw many bare-bones hospitals but this was different. He was sent across the street to buy hypodermic needles and gloves. The clinic didn’t have any. There was a line of 30 pregnant women waiting to use the bathroom in an oven-like cinderblock outhouse with a metal roof.

“I was now just standing there with this woman and a young girl that really needs help and needs someone to advocate for her. Before Dora – this woman who I barely knew – stepped into her life, no one, and I mean no one, was going to do that. All of a sudden I was rooting for someone, in their corner and trying to help someone,” said Schmitt.

Dora Moono Nyambe built a boarding school in the middle of nowhere. She started out teaching classes under a tree and sleeping in a mud hut. When Schmitt visited, it had eight classrooms with tiled flooring and metal roofs. They had a playground and two dormitories that housed the most vulnerable children that had no place to go.

They offered a food program and student received meals and snacks. Half of the students walk in from neighboring villages or were picked up by the school’s only bus.

“I was impressed. Operationally that is a lot of things going on. You’ve got bus but the bus has to get gas. You’ve got 200 kids that all need to be fed three times a day. You have a cook but you’ve got to have enough eggs and nshima [cornmeal porridge] and enough chicken. On top of that, all of your funding is coming from random internet people,” said Schmitt.

Tell the story

The school had no institutional funding or taxpayers footing the bill.

Nyambe’s dream was to start a school since she was a child. She was a missionary for a while and learned organizational skills.

When she was 27, she walked away from a comfortable life and moved to this remote area to build a school. She taught under a tree and shared the experience on TikTok. It went viral quickly and donations rolled in through a GoFundMe account.

Her goal was to raise $500. She raised $58,000. Since then, more funds were raised, more classrooms added, and another dormitory built. Schmitt describes it as a “campus.”

Schmitt thought he would stay at the school for a day. He stayed for a week. He wanted to do something for the students. He became the school photographer and took all of their photos. He later had a friend print them out and each student received one.

“For a lot of those kids, it was the first time they had a printed photo of themselves,” said Schmitt.

With Nyambe, he recorded an interview. The short attention-span clips of TikTok could not tell the full story of the school. Schmitt would edit the interview and she could post it online. Later in Livingstone, he went through the material.

“All of that magic and excitement was complete lost. It didn’t capture what I had seen or who this person was,” said Schmitt.

After more traveling and research, he returned to the school a month later. He just finished reading “Mountains Beyond Mountains” by Tracy Kidder, a book about Dr. Paul Farmer who fought tuberculosis in Haiti, Peru and Russia.

The interview idea, he told, Nymabe, wasn’t working out. He suggested writing a book. They talked at length about it. She agreed and wrote the forward.
Schmitt wrote “Under a Zambian Tree: Dora Moono Nyambe’s Quest to Educate Her Nation.” The book can be ordered at www.underazambiantree.com.

Scroll to Top