There are so many formalities to address and compulsory half-hearted attempts at pretty bow tie closures to that African time of my life that it’s best I start with a recounting of the past 5 months.

I’m not in Africa.  I’m in a backyard with roses and hydrangeas and lilies and a dog so eclectically and precisely bred that I can’t remember what he is, but he is ok with that.  100 meters to my right is a wall of concrete 4 meters high and on the other side of that a horizontal North to South pocket of tumbling atmosphere kept in suspension by the unrelenting motion of internal combustion engines, locally known as Interstate 5.  It used to be that when I sat in the sun of my deck that 100 meters to my right was a family bustling to breathe life and make marks into the red clay dust that surrounded us.  Those witching hour scenes are no more mine and I’ll try to make it brief as to why.

Last Thanksgiving I got malaria.  I know it sounds awful, but taken in stride with medication in hand, on a firm mattress, in a quiet village I called home, it wasn’t so bad.  For Christmas we flew to Ahmerica.  Some time with our families and friends, the Atlantic Ocean, and my favorite big-box amenity, the warehouse liquor store.  The beers of the world and more especially the West Coast snuck in the backdoor of the neat, tidy and flavorless world of South Florida strip malls.  So people ask what THINGS did you miss about Ahmerica, and that was it, the people we care about, the clean water to swim in, and the tasty beers to partake of.  Other than that, no real culture shock.  I remembered all the things I didn’t like because they were still here.  I did have a new-found appreciation for ingenuity and creativity as some of the characteristics we take for granted as Ahmericans, which are often uniquely shared by sworn cultural adversaries.  I got a little mysteriously sick while on vacation but returned to Zambia nonetheless because Africans are still hungry, Ahmerica still likes cable news and traffic jams, and I was curious to see what transpired in the village in the absence of the muzungu (white person).

The airplane landed in Zambia with a bump-thud-thud-thud, an appropriate welcome back.  We did what we always did when Zambia flashed an innocent smile on its lovely knucklehead,we got on with the day the way those around us did.  It was January now, I reported my mysterious symptoms to Peace Corps and was now firmly in the medical system.  Ten days later I was in Pretoria, South Africa for more thorough investigations while Carly was back to work in the village.  February came and I was still in South Africa oscillating between the possibilities of near futures in Zambia and Ahmerica if I was to be medically separated from Peace Corps.  In the meantime I got to explore the Jacaranda clad streets in the proper part of the capitol of South Africa to feel things out that aren’t too often discussed or publically aired.  To be brief I was captivated by the dynamic social scene where history was still happening.  The people were of all shades and were combining to inspire new neutral tones soon to be available on the shelves of Home Depot.  The future in SA seems uncertain, while many are hopeful some big challenges lay ahead.  I’d like to go back someday, and I thought I would visit from Zambia but stuff happened.  So I was returned to Zambia with a wait, watch and see attitude towards my health.

Getting back to the village was my goal.  Everyone was really happy to see me, they were worried and gave a warm welcome.  Once people in the village saw that I went to Ahmerica and came back they believed my words a little bit more.  Rocket was so happy to see me that he didn’t even ask if I brought back a record player for all his old records as he requested.  Things in the village seemed to be happening. Maybe it was all those rainy days that gave people time to think, or maybe meeting up every month or so is just the right amount of time, or maybe they were bluffing me.  It was still rainy season and my garden had succumbed to weeds and everything was ready for harvest while we were gone.  My neighbors managed to eat from it for a few weeks so at least I helped someone with food security.  Days and weeks passed and I was busy biking around to make sure people knew I was back at it.  I think it was the biking that made me realize I still wasn’t well as the rough ride was making my chest really hurt.  It started scaring me and I decided it was best we came home, then I got word from the Peace Corps medical that I was being sent home because my symptoms were unresolved.  I had been back in the village for a month and now we had 4 days to get rid of our things before we would leave for good. 

I didn’t get to say goodbye to everyone that I was friends with which is weird, but I did say goodbye to the ones I was closest with.  They had a hard time believing we were going and there was a lot of sadness.  When my neighbor Rocket found out I was leaving his eyes swelled up but stayed dry and distant like cumulonimbus clouds stuck on the horizon.  He was an amazing friend and I miss him.  He was always so fascinated and happy knowing that people in America knew about him.  So by reading this you might have just given a smile to a humble burdened and genuine soul. 

The hardest day I had in Zambia was the day we sold our things.  We didn’t want to give them away because there were so many people I knew it would be troublesome.  So I decided to sell things, the problem was that I made the prices too low and set the stage for a bitter frenzy.  We learned that some of the government workers do have some money stashed away and some were willing to undercut a friend to get a good deal.  My rule was that the first person to give me the money would actually get to buy the item. I only had 2 days to sell things and I knew people would say I’ll take this and then never come up with the money.  So in my final days I was vilified when one man ran home to get his money before his friend could go to town to get money from somewhere to buy a bed.  I’ll just say I don’t miss being the one of privilege who is expected to be generous and paternal.  I did get to see most of the other peace corps volunteers in my province before I left which was an unexpected bonus and then a few days later we were back on that TransAtlantic plane.

We visited with our parents until I got a job offer and then we were off to Western Scotland, aka Portland, Oregon.  I got to work as a seasonal botanist in Eastern Oregon which is drier and less populated.  This allowed me to get back in the groove of working and responsible citizenry.  My Eastern Oregon adventures are winding down while Carly holds down the fort in Portland as the ideal educator and babysitter of 3-6 year olds. Summer should get here any day now.  I still have health issues and I still see doctors for what it’s worth.  The future is uncertain and we’re open, but we’re not worried, we’re getting by. Hard times ain’t going rule this mind.

I would also like to thank all of the people who have been supportive of us and interested in our doings.  Soon I will try to address some of the common questions people ask about the last year.  Zambia still lays heavy on the mind, but when in my sleeping thoughts I’m returning to Zambia it’s been dreams and not nightmares.

It’s very difficult to measure success when aims are loftily vague as “peace” and “development” are.  Days come around where I wonder why I’m here as they always have in every place I’ve ever been.  It’s just here you aren’t the only one wondering, because most people you interact with daily think the same, as well as some of the people you’ve known your whole life.  Village folks have many different ideas of who I am and why I came to Zambia, and sometimes they get around to verifying their notions.  Usually it might take a while for it to sink in, it’s difficult to not only imagine coming from a country where people are so rich, and even harder to imagine why someone would leave it.  Some conjure undeserved heroic notions; notions I both simultaneously maintain and destroy.  It goes something like this as people get to know me and my approval ratings fluctuate but trend upwards.

  • Doesn’t call himself a Christian or go to church -4
  • A white man willing to talk to anyone +2
  • Doesn’t have 8 children let alone one child -2
  • Eats nshima (maize porridge) +1
  • Doesn’t give charity and appears awkwardly stingy -2
  • Speak some Kikaonde (local language) +3

 

 

Generally Carly and I are at the least a novelty in our existence, and more importantly that the country we hail from exists I think gives people hope that there is something better out there.  I’ve found that those the most curious and the most willing to interact even after the reality of who we are becomes clear are the people who we can work with, those we don’t want to let down, and those that keep us in the game.  Also seems that those that care enough to get to know us better and have their illusions of Americans destroyed and remade are the ones that are sincere in wanting to work alongside and not just shimmy their way to front of the charity line.  So let me share with you one of my favoritte persons, one of  those that have yet to let me down in reality.  Even though at every point everyone is accused of wrongdoing at some point by someone and I’ve had a few who as I’ve learned more have crashed from the upper echelon.

Mr. True, it’s not his real name but it’s a good one.  He wrote it on his name tag at our HIV workshop.  All week he didn’t lie, sometimes while blushing I wished he had.  He called himself Mr. True because another active community member referred to himself as Never Give Up during an adult literacy workshop two weeks prior.  Never Give Up drew his inspiration from a caricature of a frog choking a stork while the stork was swallowing the frog whole. (Incontrovertible proof that an animist tradition has deep roots in the modern christian culture of Zambia, either that our a new age wave of “Hallmark” inspirations has arrived)  So in the same vein Mr. True said I’m Mr. True and sometimes we still call him that especially when he weirds us out by keeping appointments and coming on time.  Mr. True is not a Kaonde, he’s a Lunda and one of the few non-Kaonde living in the village that isn’t a government worker or a former refugee.  So he’s different even though he’s been there for eight years, he’s married to a Kaonde and mixes freely but his otherness makes it easier for him to be unconventional.  He went back to school 4 years ago at the village school to complete 9th grade, while his kids were at the same school in the lower grades.  People laughed at him but he made it through, then he went to finish high school in town, leaving his family in the village.  He did that too, which is really saying something considering maybe less than 5% of all kids go on to complete 12th grade.  The whole time keeping his family at least as well as standards dictate in the village.  Now he’s trying to put money aside to go to train as a clinic officer.  It will take some time to save enough money, I expect he would have already received assistance from a faith-based foreigner if he belonged to a more geopolitically minded and funded sect of Christianity.  But his church is kind of an upstart scattered about the country but in dense pockets much like the wildlife.  So he’s resigned himself to working his tail off as a farmer while he waits for an opportunity.  This seems fairly common here where people will spend years in the process of making the next step that seems so automatic in America.  I’m not sure if his time will ever come, but it should, if people like him don’t rise above it doesn’t leave much hope for those that are watching how he’ll fare, for example his kids. 

He actually teaches them and helps with their homework, which is very unique.  He’s quite passionate about education, at least once we’ve tried to cool his berating jets to protect a young child unable to remember 7 times 3.  Parents here aren’t usually involved with their child’s education so we hesitate to admonish his admonishment.  Mr. True is doing something different though and folks myself included are taking notice.  He’s living between two worlds maintaining his bush path cred while poking his nose around in the complex comforts of progress-development-moderntiy-capitalism-inevitability-stuff. 

Mr. True lives two huts down from me where he keeps some free range goats.  Thankfully there is someone else between us who keeps goats also so we avoid most of the unpleasantness attached to goats ebbing into my yard/garden and me chucking clay clods at their forgetful skulls which could disturb our friendship.  One day though my neighbor on the other side of me bought three goats that he was going to take and sell elsewhere.  He tied them up on three different cloth ropes to a mango tree by his fish pond.  Then my neighbor left for a few hours, the goats managed to tangle themselves around the mango tree in a chaotic distress they made worse by ramming each other and bleating bloody murder.

Whenever a goat bleats SOS the women and children owners whoop up their own frenzy of animal like noises and head out with the equivalent of pitchforks.  We had been hearing these goats off and on all day and I had even tried to untie them until they tried to ram me so I stood back and shook my head muttering “Zambia” the way I do when things are ridiculous and I can only watch.  So Carly and I were moving on with our hut lives doing some form of reading our manual labor when the embattled goats let out another loud distress signal.  We thought little of it, and we heard the usual women and children “Hup-Hup-Obe-Hup-Hup” and saw them heading out on the war path away from the house in a loose formation grabbing things that lay close at hand and used to be trees.  The goats cried on and the sounds from the pursuants was coming closer, but no big deal we remained at leisure.  Then the first body runs by us silently from behind our hut, and it’s Mr. True wearing a button down tuxedo vest, gray tattered slacks and rain boots with a hand carved axe.  At the same time he sees the goats aren’t his own but rather other, newer, possibly even stupider goats awaiting purchase he sees us and we might as well have been sipping tea with biscuits and reciting boring poetry on a quilted blanket.  In an instant the blood lust in his eyes vanishes and he greets us with a slight bow and hand across his chest using very proper English.  He looks primal and we seem refined, and we all feel awkward with the misunderstanding of the situation (his instinctiveness and our apparent stodgy indifference) casting us in stereotypes.  We mumble a few things at each other both of us trailing off “I thought my goats were being killed…” and “They’ve been doing it all day…”  He went back to his home along with the rest of the war party.

The good thing is that we still talk , we didn’t let a little awkward moment ruin our relationship.  We’re still getting to know each other but his drive and curiosity has made him a reappearing guest in our schemes as he continues to show potential as an early adopter.

_Anyways we’re going to be visiting America Land soon for Christmas, going to Florida and Kentucky so maybe we’ll see you around Dec14th-Jan5th

I wanted to write something about HIV/AIDS, I’m far from an expert and more of a hack but circumstances dictate that I take a few swings at it. It’s intense and it’s emotional.  It didn’t really come into my day-to-day life very much in the states, but I tried to bone up on some literature and brace myself for the despair I might witness here in Zambia.  The thing is it still doesn’t really come up in day-to-day life, but it’s there always under cutting all aspects of society.  I don’t really know anyone who is HIV positive other than some folks that we crossed paths with through trainings because they are open and working in advocacy for people living with HIV/AIDS. One person in a nearby village approached me privately and asked me what she should be feeding someone she is caring for who is HIV positive.  It was genuine and sincere and it made me almost happy to finally have a target for all of the info I’ve been filled with.  It’s now months later and nothing has happened with these people, but I imagine it will at some point when the time is right. 

 HIV/AIDS is a part of mainstream Zambian culture always accompanied by statistics and slogans but rarely openly encountered on a personal level.  The infection rate is around 14%, it’s higher in urban areas and among women, also high along major transportation routes.  Where I am the rate is about 7% supposedly, but this might be rising due to the close proximity to the mines which are growing, bringing people away from their homes and a market for prostitution.  The large majority of infections come from sexual transmission but a smaller amount comes from mother to child.  To my surprise though there are people capable of having a child without HIV even if both parents are positive, in large part thanks to antiretroviral drugs and careful breast-feeding.  Some people knowingly conceive even if one or both is positive for HIV.

Let me give another statistic, this one is less precise but originates from a group of Zambian men I was in a workshop with and a session where the genders split to talk more freely about myths and misconceptions.  These men said that about 35% of Zambian men are faithful to their wife(s) or girlfriend.  This is a reflection of the widespread promiscuity that coexists with a “Christian Nation” mentality.  To me this is one of the most depressing aspects because it highlights how the HIV/AIDS epidemic is largely a product of behavior, just like so many things that get counted as afflictions here and all over the world.  There is a lot of talk here about doing this or that but it rarely translates into any action.  Words mean very little here and their abundance in the absence of action can make me nauseous.  I wish people just wouldn’t say things they didn’t mean, it’s really hard to do anything when there is no trust among people.

Access to antiretroviral things is changing the dynamics because contracting HIV doesn’t mean you can’t go on living for many years as a productive member of society.  Still it’s a horrifying disease because it does change your life and it is so closely related to sensitive issues like sexual behavior, trust, and impurities.  The main avenues we approach it is through education aimed at prevention, encouraging people to go for counseling and testing, and promoting life skills in people especially youths.  Gender and behavior in relationships maybe one of the easiest ways we can help just by being who we are it gives a different perspective to Zambians.

Here is a story I’ll paraphrase from a Zambian living with HIV/AIDS because it might shed some light on the issue in the context of Zambian culture.

There is this man who is a pastor, and I don’t really remember what church and I don’t really think it matters.  He was taken to Hong Kong to read through some bible translations so that the message could be spread in one of the 70+ Zambian languages.  While he was away his two children were very sick and his wife took them to see a witchdoctor.  The witchdoctor said the children were sick because the pastor was incurring bad juju for preaching for the Christian god.  When he returned from Hong Kong the wife’s family chased him away and forced them to separate.  He continued preaching for a few years, while living alone.  During this time he twice tested negative for HIV.  After a few years of living alone, the church mostly in cahoots with the Council of Elders (an all male group of elders that decides issues concerning the church along with the pastors) decided he should remarry.  After praying on it for some time a woman manifested from the congregation and they had a big happy Zambian wedding. A year or two later the pastor decided to test himself and his wife for HIV.  He was working at a clinic and brought a test home, they both tested positive.  This brought a number of problems into their marriage mostly concerning trust, as it’s impossible to know exactly who infected who even though he claims it was her.  They also haven’t come out to their families as being HIV positive even though they have both begun taking ARV drugs.  Their families live far away as is usual with educated Zambians to be sent away from your own tribe to work in a differetn area to create a greater sense of national unity.  This policy was instituted under the first president the socialist Kenneth Kaunda, and I’d say it’s been effective at diminishing tribal conflicts which are very rare in Zambia.  Still people in their localcommunity have found out and while he continues to be a pastor there have been many who stopped coming to church or are unwilling to receive sacraments from the pastor.  The marriage continues out of Christian duty but there isn’t much to it.  The pastor is kind of new to the being openly HIV thing so I don’t think he’s very comfortable with it because it’s not only giving him some health problems but the stigma is isolating him.  I think over time though he will get more used to his new life and be a source of inspiration for others living with HIV and find new friends among them.  I’ve met others who have done so and are heroic and courageous responding admirably to misfortune.

_That is it but I wanted to say that if you want to see more of our photos you should friend Carly on facebook_

It’s November, rainy season but just barely.  We’re in town for an HIV/AIDS workshop having  just finished a busy October of house renovations, painting a world map on the school and getting ready for planting season.  October was dominated by the idea of rain, and the renewal of life which is the only fixed thing that is real and unavoidable.  Time is negligible but rain is for real and so much more.  So I’ll start my half-thoughts on rain.

Desire for Rain

I’ve never felt such a deep excitement and anticipation for rain before.  Months without it spent living off the bounty from last years rains.  You get lulled into a trance where you wake up every day more or less knowing what the skies hold.  The industrious among us make haste far before the forest sends out what seem like impatient floppy lime green leaves.  Then it rains kind of, teasing in small spurts and quantities, sometimes accompanied by anvil shaped clouds warning the slow to get busy.  Last years maize just got sold, then it was time to get in line and shimmy to the front to receive govt subsidized N-P-K.  I almost got caught in town the first day it looked like rain which would have been unfortunate but it just boomed around us spitting a little to separate sand from clay.  It’s come though and I can’t wait to get back to my porch and watch the clouds roll through and know that nobody is going to approach me and nobody is looking over my shoulder to see that I stay on task. Not having to work in the rain is a life goal of mine, not because I hate it but because I want to sit back and enjoy it.  Especially warm rain, unlike the Pacific Northwest where rains mean all crevices grow fungus and you’re stiff and soggy for 7 months.  Anyways right now its fun and different,  it changes everything, making the days even more unpredictable and plans less certain.  The rains have cleansed us.

Taking Life Seriously

When I came here I was determined to do something, to make a difference and I’m managing to.  It’s just really hard and really slow.  Things were getting to me, one week three straight days brought setbacks.  The first came from the 3rd time I tried to have an initial meeting about beekeeping, and only one person came and we had a serious discussion where he was earnestly concerned with how I was going to be able to make a difference in the community given the latest proof of apathy. The concern wasn’t what he could do to help me, but challenging me to come up with a way to help people.  After months of moving around, meeting, greeting, making plans, doing my homework I was tired and found it bizarre to have someone realize I was busting my butt and aware that the community wasn’t responding but concerned that I wouldn’t be able to leave a legacy or something. He gave the burden back to me doubled, and on this I stewed, I probably also had some gin and juice too.

The next day one of our neighbors who is like 15 but in 7th grade (the first time kids get tested before getting passed along) was wrongly accused of being late to class.  Often he’s not at school for days for no reason but if you go and are late then it’s a problem.  Anyways the teacher on duty who is also the only one that volunteered to help with my environmental education club told my neighbor he would be punished for being late. The neighbor argued or merely explained he wasn’t late and then the teacher headbutted him knocking him to the ground.  His face was swollen and he was in bed for a day.  The situation resolved with an apology after our neighbor’s dad went to school and gave some threats.  We wondered what would have happened with the teacher and school had people not been worrying about our opinions.  The club didn’t meet that week and we’re now at less than 50% of our meetings actually happening due to this incident, a campaign visit, independence day preparations, and the most frequent disturbance- alcohol.  I need the teacher to translate and also hopefully to take over the club completely before I leave. So I have maintained relations, if you broke off working with everyone who let you down you’d have a lot of free time, but maybe that is what needs to happen.

The following day I went to visit my pet project, the one that we’d been planning for months at the local training institute for farmers.  Demonstration fields for agroforestry to show alternatives to slash and burn.  This project is with govt workers who have gone to school for agriculture and actually know a lot I can learn from.  There wasn’t supposed to be the need to be paternalistic with this one, these were young educated peers with a common goal.  To be brief, it’s not that nothing was happening because something was just not with any urgency and way behind schedule.  The schedule I made up based on rain, hours of research, and a lot of thought that I moved beyond the meaningless realm of spoken words to written words was forgotten.  The worst thing was they were doing something so I had to help strategize some half ass way of doing things because none of the preparations had been done.  I have managed to move on with the project eventhough there has been no acknowledgement that they lied, were lazy, etc.  I wouldn’t deal with this in real life, if people treated me badly I would walk away or have a conversation were words correspond with meaning, but it’s like now I’m sticking projects out because I envision a greater good coming later.  So that is that, the normal stuff that piles up; it’s just this was 3 days straight that brought me way down.  Good things have and are happening.  If I said no to half of the junk directed towards me I’d have a lot more time on my hands, maybe I should but anyways the rains are coming and life will be slower.

One thing I notice about the volunteers who are happiest here is that they are generally more ok with things being the way they are here.  Carly and I have trouble accepting things and it brings frustrations.  I’m going to visit some other volunteers to see their villages/ lives just to get some perspective and  watch the landscape of suffering mixed with joy go by my bus window without a sense of responsibility.  Sometimes the realization that we’re all in this thing together bringss too heavy a burden and makes it hard to just enjoy the scenery.

We’re back to the village after spending most of August in Lusaka-the capital for trainings and a vacation to South Luangwa National Park.  When you get out of the village you kind of go through culture shock all over again when you return.  Then you pick yourself up after a day of wondering what you are doing here and do whatever comes next.  Right now that means taking control over the improvements to our hut instead of relying on others, because I’m an American and my hut shall be a beacon of shining light upon a hill. 

I’ve biked in from the forest to the town to buy wood to take the wood back to the forest to make shelves so we can get are floppy books and dirty clothes of our dusty floor.  This will cause some serious degradation to the rodent habitat in our hut.  We’ve had terrible luck with the carpenters in our village one just ripped us off, he did good work he just didn’t finish it.  We went to the subchief, he sent his “police” to talk to the carpenter and the carpenter found me days later and asked for more money, I biked off before I lost my cool.  The other carpenter I made a contract with and even offered more money if the shelves were finished by July 1st, today is September 8th I think and all I’ve seen is some shelves half the size we agreed on.  This will be awkward when he finishes, I really want the shelves but they are nowhere near what I drew up.  Not all carpenters are bad here, but the trained ones in my village are dishonest and slow.  Granted it’s a lot of work, they buy these rough hardwood planks from locals who go to the bush and they hand plane them.  People expect their slowness and deceit, but it’s baffling these people have a skill and could make some money but they don’t manage well.  So I bought some pine planks from a retailer selling from a plantation in the more industrialized Copperbelt region and hopefully they last a few years before the termites finish eating them.  Termites really are ecosystem drivers here, wood just don’t last.  There would be no excuse not to build better structures or to fence in animals if they weren’t so destructive.  They contribute to a sense of impermanence.

Anyways vacation; we saw some animals and slept and dined in the lap of luxury while rocking around the bush in landrovers.  Seeing these African megafauna is a transcendent experience and those privileged enough to see what remains I think are convinced of the worthiness in  all the altruistic acrobatics performed to save them from ourselves.  I hope some photos show up on left side of the blog. 

We’re getting down to the doing of things in the village and we should be busy until the rains come towards the end of November (planting season).  Carly is in the school teaching today, and should start painting a world map on the side of the school and working with the equivalent of girl scouts.  Me, well I’m busy but nothing is concrete I’ve spent the better part of the dry season splitting sutres on legumes to save seeds while planning for a huge introduction of nitrogen fixing vegetation this rainy season, don’t be scared if you hear of atmospheric Nitrogen levels worldwide dropping around December it’s just me down here in Zambia.  We bought tickets to fly back to US for Xmas for 3 weeks, and that is that.

I’m out of our village and into modern times. Maybe this whole Peace Corps thing is changing, last night I ate mint chocolate cake and a sandwich with sauces , veggies and beans all healthy and hard to pronounce. I’m writing you from a computer over the internet and it’s changing the world. Outside the internet cafe I can get lattes and see movies and just about everything I never thought I’d see.  Still this is the capital city and its far far away from life in the village where traditions and poverty are resilient.  Things seem to be changing in response to globalization and technology but ever so slowly in the village.  I’m thankful to be around people of a different mindset and a slower pace, but curious when or how anything will ever improve in the quality of their life. Some folks definitely seem to be getting left behind as the world flattens and homogenizes.  It’s not like there aren’t people trying to do something about it though.

The consumer park I am writing you from is proof, as it is well supported by the many foreigners living and working in Lusaka to help out the worse off. If there weren’t so many of them (us) than I don’t think their would be cafes spewing foamed milk and theaters surrounding patrons with sounds. I recently read a time magazine from a few months ago and it talked about malaria, HIV, and had pie charts of African despair with photos of beautiful struggles.  It reminded me of how I felt about Africa before I came to Zambia, concerned and eager to understand for myself.  Well now I’m here living closely with one little place towards the middle of the continent and I’m confused, but hardly breathing the urgency I expected. Things are complicated.  When people don’t realize that and they treat issues or problems simply they only make things more complicated.

I’ve been walking and biking myself ragged all over my village and the surrounding area chasing people to do projects to see who is interested and can do the job. Just before I came to Lusaka I became aware of how ridiculous it was to be so busy in a dusty village where so many people are so loose with time or whatever they call it.  Part of the reason is that while some people are wanting to do better for themselves, they are really busy with living.  Eight children, subsistence farming, drawing water, cooking on a fire, listening to others, following social protocol, worshipping, grieving.  Then you add on to that the aid programs that disseminate from the provincial capital.  Some come from NGO’s others are from the government but funded through donors.  The neighboring mine is also mandated to fund projects in the community.  Basically people are busy being developed.  Some developers give things for free, others don’t but they all require people’s time, planning, and coordination.  A white landcruiser comes out from the provincial capital and heads turn as it motors down to the area where the school and clinic are.  If a group is coming in a cruiser and they are new to the area people are really interested.  The villagers sit through the meetings nodding answers but they don’t really believe anything will come until they see it on the ground.

I think the villagers like me, but still it’s hard for me to compete with groups coming in vehicles that are often bringing gifts.  Still I’m white and I live there and I have a pretty cool Mountain bike, but they’re getting used to me and my schtick.  I can teach, I can plan, but I can’t give you money or things.  I don’t blame them for only giving me so much of their time.  Honestly some do want to learn about things I know about and I just have to figure out how best to teach them. Yet others are aware that I move around and network as part of my role and if we get a project going and the white guy is down then it should be easy to get some money from somewhere for it.  Maybe he can even write the proposal and bring the money himself. This is uncomfortable for me and adds to my confusion. It’s not really what I thought I was signing up for, and it doesn’t have to be. Really I can make this experience into whatever you want it to be.

Still people are poor, I want to help, and I do have a fair amount of influence and power that I can flex if I choose.  I’m not used to the situation and all the different options available but they all end up looking demeaning or paternalistic.  I could spend my time being the reliable middleman for the sacks of money bobbing around, but I don’t want to.  Even though this may be the most efficient use of my time. It don’t feel good, so I ain’t gonna do it.  I’ll keep biking around, looking for people who want to do things the way I believe in until I change my mind or something else happens.  So the world is changing and I wonder how this will affect volunteers in the future now that there are fewer places untouched or unreachable by those looking to give. Soon I’ll return to my village to start learning through my skin and hopefully I can find my niche in what seems like a saturated aid market around my village.

Don’t worry or rejoice it’s not as interesting or real as it sounds. There isn’t even a photo of a cute and sympathetic face to accompany these words. The Zambian I want to adopt hints every day for me to take him back to America, …home of Obama, …superpower country, … the place where the people they stays well.  He’s my neighbor and we share nshima lumps for dinner and do other foolish things that make life good like untwist gnarly stumps from my garden, hunt mice with scrap metal, and oh yeah make African banjos (place your orders now) with the help of our goat killing dog.  Somedays when he’s feeling fearful of airplanes he wants me to move to Botswana or South Africa and become a white commercial farmer so I can hire him.  He does keep fish well. It’s tempting too cause at least here in Zambia land is cheap, opportunity is everywhere and nobody tries to tell you what to do. It’s how I imagine Alaska but warmer and more corrupt.

So my neighbor is part of a fish farming co-operative, he’s actually the chair which means he gets to attend to the leaky fish ponds alone while the other members stay home or go to other towns to dig fish ponds for money.  It’s hard to watch everyday he goes and works these sandy bottom fish ponds, usually alone and I don’t think they’ll ever harvest any fish eventhough a donor gave them plastic liners. Cooperatives are pushed heavily here in Zambia, I’m not really sure why it may be another charming socialist relic. They are kind of fun albeit baffling at times.  In the village if someone works hard in a self reliant way they invite jealousy; sometimes if they really do well it comes  in the form of juju. Your option is to join a co-operative and either carry three people’s weight or be carried along by those doing the pulling. I think co-operatives are preferred because they make it easier for the govt and donors to give money away. Anyways I think my village is kind of tired of doing everything together when it comes to getting the job done.  If they’re supposed to inspire community that’s great but they seem to provide the platform for deception and laziness just as easily. 

So back to my adorable neighbor seeking asylum; just last night we found out most of his maize field was robbed in large part due to his faithful attendance to the fish ponds. It was a tough night, but nothing new to him. It does make me fearful of hunger season which coincides with the NFL season. When hunger is known by a season you know you have poverty. The inability to avoid the inevitable before the rains come and the wild plants grow.  I was really hoping our neighbors would be ok, even if many in the village would be in hunger at least I could maintain some objective distance.  It makes it difficult to not give handouts when the person you share dinners with, allow in your house, and let your guard down around will be hungry along with his 8 children and 3 dependents.  As much as I want to bring my neighbor to America just to see his reaction at everything, meet our fathers, and take a roadtrip with an El Camino and a styrofoam cooler, it doesn’t seem responsible. 

He keeps asking to come though, my only reply is that I’m worried his wife will put juju on me is good enough for now but in two years we’ll be leaving and my neighbor and I will be hot wet messes and the villagers drinking from the stream will taste our salty tears.  All in all things are good, I’ve been finding some good folks to work with, and I’m still trying to size up slash and burn agriculture on acidic soils before I embark on a full frontal assault. I appreciate the people who responded last time I put a call out for help on “Bio-char”. I’ll keep you in mind as developments happen, but mostly it’s just good to hear from folks, and that’s as desperate as I’ll ever sound so take me up on it.  We’re also planning a vacation to go see some aminals safari style so that is exciting. Don’t worry I brought plenty of sunscreen and synthetic khaki clothes and hat so I’ll be ready for whatever happens.

So Carly and I have been going around to all the churches in our village and it’s been a lot of fun.  They want us to choose one when our tour is through but maybe, well we can see.  The following, adapted from my journal was an attempt to document the powerful impression from one particular Sunday at the ______ church that left me reeling in my own thoughts late into the night. Names are omitted along with basic information about religion in Zambia that you could glean from Brittanica. Just know that  Zambia is a Christian nation for the take home message.

We are not the people of Destiny, but the makers of our own destiny or at least we pretend to be; daily, and it’s one of the major reasons why we are not among the have nots, but church today was EPIC and I thank you all.  It’s the church just near our house and usually rocks our world with a little bit of god fearing rhythym on the Sundays we dodge our tour de church to do our chores.  Today we made our way there at 10am local time, 11:15 actual time for the 10am service accompanied by our friend who works at the local school.   Walk in and take our seats towards the front where we’re directed on the varnished wood benches next to another teacher. Preacher welcomes us in English then to my delight leaves us behind to proceed in Kikaonde, it adds to the mysticism and allows me to drift off in my head without fear of later reprimand for not grasping the main ideas.

Anyways soon the singing begins, two young girls one maybe 11, the other maybe 13 but well separated by size from stochastic nutrition and the universal disease of puberty. They start a clapping two different rhythyms and feet scuffling to the beat. The religous ringleader starts clapping a third beat as the whole church winds their way through one of the local gospel standards. All these rhthyms leave me behind just like the Kaonde language, Carly holds one of those beats in a clap while I tap my left  foot awkwardly. I’m thinking if you don’t know if you got the beat then you probably don’t, right? That’s a question for those of you out there cooler than I.  So in spurts with leads alternating we work up a frenzy. A 3rd girl joins the 2 up front, and she alternates between singing and shooing the unkept toddlers with stalactite boogers towards the creaky side door using a dry bamboo shoot. I think the toddlers were just roaming the area free range and were attracted by the singing and 2 muzungus in the front pew. The kept kids sitting on other benches in their clean clothes turn to stare at us throughout the gospel jam.  People seem occupied so I make funny faces at them.

The religous ringleader is feeling it, strutting around the podium draped with an embroidery. In front of the podium is a small table with a dry milk tin with a few fake flowers in it next to the basket for offerings. The ringeader is taking up space in an admirable way, makes me daydream of dropping some hellfire and brimstone into my sessions on sustainable resource use to sway the masses.

The gospel still humming along and the women bring their knees to the ground and it’s time for a shift in tempo like Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s not demons in the night coming for me or maybe not even spoken tongues. I can’t be sure though as I don’t speak the language well enough they could just be rumbling in repent in Kikaonde. I’m wondering if later on I’ll ask my friends we came with what the hell was happening in a polite and culturally sensitive matter. Maybe I can reconcile my world of learnedness with the lip smacking dogmatic fatalism. But I never asked I just led it add to the pile of exciting, incomprehensible, and uncommunicable experiences that occur more frequently than I carefully plan for.  7 minutes of this tongue lashing and I’m getting shifty on my bench, eyes cast down on the clean but battered cement floor, at least it’s comforting solid matter to focus on.  Then I missed the signal but the winddown begins slowly, maybe the major sinners or the truely devout are the last to withdraw.

But oh when they all do it’s cherubic harmony and bliss; jolly little munchkins in OZ and brick roads of gold splashed in technicolor.  They bring it home with skill, peace, promise and joy. Everyone’s been wound up and now back down only thing left is for the ringleader to turn cheerleader.

“Give me a J”

“J”

“Give me a J”

“J”

This continues call and response till we’ve spelled Jesus twice, kind of a tacky ending to the best darn gospel performance this side of the copper mine. Church went on from there with the usual Bible reading, offering, welcoming of visitors (us) plus a young momma with sullen eyes from down in the village proper.  We stumble through our Kikaonde introducion we’ve rehearsed many times by now, and the kind people listen patiently but far from thrilled, maybe it’s because they are second to last on our village tour de church. Maybe they can see we’re a little jaded and road weary like they paid full price for Aerosmith tickets but their town is just the state capital en route to the big city and we’re winding down our 50 city world tour. Everyone shakes hands and we all proceed outside, job well done, souls saved  and courtesies gestured. The women go to one side and the men the other in a half circle the children mostly strewn amongst the women. The sun is hot now, the village clock is based on the sun’s position but there is some kind of coefficient with radiant air temperature I haven’t yet figured out.  That’s CHURCH in Zambia more or less. There is the usual not so slick or direct rebutttal of their invitation to come back in the future. 

I hope its clear that people here are really nice and I can really be a schmuck, but don’t worry it’s only in the privacy of my hut. During the day I make a big effort to tell people exactly how wonderful all you Americans are, and to serve dutifully and humbly in the steps of your tall shadow. 

If any of this was offending please let me know asap. My goal is to speak words that bring peace, but the truth I see is that we’re all just people. I’m hoping that honesty, humor and good intent can do this better than platitudes.

Mike

Things are moving along here. In town for meetings with other Peace Corps folks and then back to the village for 2 more months before our community entry planning stage is done. Been keeping busy, just because it takes so long to do basic tasks. We’re happy, healthy, and well fed, and there is plenty of water.  We still don’t see animals apparently they need trees and to avoid humans. Life in the village is good, and other interesting things that I don’t feel obliged or able to tell of. I’ll be tackling the “chitmene” beast which is the word for their own special brew of slash and burn agriculture practiced in Zambia. Red clay acidic soils without money for lime or enough fertilizer so chop burn and grow the maize on the ashes of forests. Can’t really find any silver bullets to take this one down just little tricks like nitrogen fixing trees and maintaining organic matter in the soil. It’s not very sexy and maybe less then they expected from the red, white, and blue, but it’s right up my alley slow, laborious, and sustainable. I say its what people back in America are going to, so maybe by the time I make it home you all won’t make me a liar. Anyways any help on this dilemma is appreciated I’ve heard say of “Bio-char” where charcoal is kept in the soil and its miraculous, maybe I’ll try this if I can get one person out there to say it makes sense. But maybe I’ll just avoid new and crazy cures and stick to good ole toil and self reliant independent yadda yadda to suit my self. Still I know some of you like plants or at least dilemmas so if you want you can help a brother out.

We’re starting to plan vacations and such so it’d be helpful to know if anybody wants to come to Zambia “the real africa”.  I prefer my own slogan something like,  come to zambia where your intestines will hate you, your brains will fail you, and your dreams will thank you for ending their banishment to nighttime.  It’s interesting to be a celebrity everywhere and to have people seek out your advice on all matters. If we chose we could probably be delivering babies and rewriting the constitution in our spare time if we did everything they thought us capable of. Carly is in schools somedays which is more than can be said for many teachers and students. Crowded classes of squirmy unruly and underfed cuties are led by teachers filling empty vessels to pass as education. This is a far cry from the Montessori world she was accustomed to, so she will be busy with her own goliaths.

Me I work with everyone because I work with farmers and I help people make money. I think they should name a book in the next testament after me.  We’ll see what comes of my time here, it’s similar to being in America in that people are much more likely to do the right thing if it pays. My job is to help make the right thing pay, which is possible but it would be just as possible to make the wrong thing pay, the land being ripe for entrepeneurship and initiative of any sort. I hope this isn’t offensive and gives a better picture of the experience. Next time I’ll bring photos. Definitely my best job I’ve ever had and maybe the job I’m best suited for.  Everyone be well and somebody put a friggin finger in that oil spill so I can quit listening to the BBC condescendingly pinky sip about American follies.

Mike

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We were in the NW part just North of Solwezi

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