Our Stories

Hello, My Beautiful Ones

English Professors Linda and Gerry Bowers have thrown in their lot with 65 girls in a remote Zambian village. Electrical wires stop long before they reach the 500 huts of Lumwana West, and cell phones display "No Service" messages. Missionary-bred religions, witchcraft and tribal beliefs ease the burden of carrying water for miles.

The Bowers' daughter Beth lived there, sweeping ants out of her hut, hoeing fields and helping subsistence farmers build fish ponds as part of a Peace Corps aquaculture project. The fish supplemented the protein supplied by scrawny chickens pecking through yards.

Beth's letters to her parents told of women walking barefoot to the fields with babies on their backs, laughter as families ate around the fire, and the thud of ripe mangos dropping from branches in the night. She was most homesick when she received letters from the States or had ice cream dreams.

Beth didn't make it home. She was pedaling to a neighboring village when a bike accident took her life, at age 22.

Wanting to sustain Beth's vision, the Bowers established the Elizabeth Bowers Zambia Education Fund (EBZEF), which sponsors the education of girls in grades 8-12 -- and, hopefully, beyond.

The Bowers' world outreach was already an important part of their teaching. Gerry shares poetry from around the world with his students, beginning in America and Britain and extending to India and China. The Buddhist and Taoist texts he uses speak to the life of simplicity his daughter chose. Linda not only covers American and traditional English literature, but introduces students to Japanese writings. She believes the study of poetry places students on the path of fully exploring what it means to be human. It introduces them to the world of ideas.

The world of ideas is not as accessible to students in rural Zambia, where schools can't afford basic textbooks. Most people live on less than a dollar a day and can't afford the uniforms required by the British-style school system. Not surprisingly, few 9th graders pass into 10th grade, and graduation from high school is almost unheard of.

That's changed in the last five years. Scholarships, administered by World Vision Zambia and funded by EBZEF, are giving "Beth's girls" -- a term coined by people in the village -- a route out of poverty. "The project empowers girls and young women," Linda says. "Their children are more likely to survive infancy, and they can support themselves and their families."

They're also less likely to develop AIDS, which has ravaged Zambia. The disease has left so many orphaned children in Lumwana West that the headmaster uses a graph on his wall to track students whose parents have died. "If someone is orphaned, they are taken in," Linda says. "Mr. Mwadimwanza, a village headman, has extended family in many huts."

The Bowers' foundation is also working with the Peace Corps to build a solar-powered, mud-brick community library. It will be stocked with textbooks and, hopefully, fiction and nonfiction by Zambian writers, allowing families to get in touch with their heritage and with the world beyond their village.

When the Bowers visited last summer to meet the scholarship recipients, they slept in Beth's former mud hut and the retired headmaster introduced them to his granddaughter, "Little Beth," a small girl with a headful of ponytails.

"The trip was an important milestone in our grieving the loss of our daughter," Gerry says. "The people there welcomed us as members of the village family, and we learned how much they loved Beth.

"They are living in an odd, transitional time," Gerry says. "Men are still hunters and gatherers, but there's no game to hunt. The parents, who carry the old culture, need to learn from children how to adjust to the modern technological age. Children need to take the lead.

"There's a clear cultural and geographical identity, and now that I've been there I love that place," he says. "I respect the people of the village. My feelings aren't diffused by abstract principles."

Beth would have understood what her father was saying. She also came to a deeper understanding of the gifts her parents had bestowed. In a letter home -- they often began with "Hello, my beautiful ones" -- she wrote, "I kept looking for things to rebel against you guys about, but I couldn't find any. Both you and dad are helping people to heal. You do this by teaching in your own ways. You help young people reconnect."

Beth's last letters described a life that had slowed and taken on awareness. She realized, she wrote, how little time her own culture left her to think.

"Or more important, not think. We forget to notice the present -- to feel, to smell, to love."

In carrying on their daughter's legacy, the Willamette English professors have taken a page from the book of author Wallace Stegner. Their daughter quoted him in a letter. "As Mr. Stegner says, 'Walk openly ... Love even the threat and the pain. Feel yourself fully alive, cast a bold shadow, accept, accept.'"