« 100 YEARS – 100 LIVES » | ZAMBIA - “I escaped child labour and can now help others”

How a young boy from Zambia with a hearing disability escaped child labour and discrimination, with ILO help, and built a successful career as a teacher in the US.

Feature | Zambia |
LUSAKA - Francis Phiri was born in a very poor area of Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. Together with his two brothers and two sisters, his family’s expectations in life focused on making ends meet.

Aged 12, the boy contracted malaria. Treatment complications led to the gradual loss of his hearing, until he became totally deaf.

Then, when he was 15, both his parents died. The loss put him on a path that led him into child labour.

“I went to stay with my aunt who lived on a farm in Nyimba, in the Eastern Province of Zambia. Already at that time, I loved studying. However, my aunt also died when I was in grade 10 at school. Her husband sent me to work in a farm. Sometimes I was working all day, leaving home at 5am and back at around 4pm. I would not get any food while I was working all day long outside, despite the hot weather,” he recalled.

To add to his difficulties, he faced discrimination because of his disability.

“No one believed that I was capable of learning and succeeding in life with hearing loss. I was treated differently than the other kids. I was given an unfair amount of labour at home while my cousins had the opportunity to attend school,” he said.

Having already lost his parents and his aunt, he then had to cope with the deaths of his older brother and sister.

Going back to school

However, Phiri was determined to get an education and get ahead. In June 2006, he went to a “Stop Child Labour” campaign event with the Association of Sign Language Interpreters of Zambia (ASLIZ). There he met Maria Theresa Milila, from the ILO. He told her his story and asked if the ILO could sponsor him for the last two years of high school.

“I was unable to pay the fees necessary for attending school. Soon after, the ILO provided me with a full two-year scholarship and assisted me to go back to school at the Deaf School in Munali.”

A year later Phiri’s life took another positive turn when he met Frank Lester, a deaf American teacher working as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Lester decided to take him back to the United States and sponsor his education.

Phiri now teaches American Sign Language at high school in California. He is now a US permanent resident and lives in San Francisco with his wife Kaci.

However, the 30-year-old has not forgotten his roots. He recently visited Zambia and spent time at the ILO country office in Lusaka. He recalls that the ILO helped him at a time when no-one else would.

“The ILO saved me from spending the rest of my life working on a farm. If I had not escaped from my situation, I would probably not be where I am in life today.”

“I really would like to help communities in Zambia stop child labour, especially children who are deaf, hard of hearing, or have any other disability and who are exposed every day to high vulnerability,” he concluded.

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