20 February 2013
I feel like I’ve finally seen Zambia! And like I finally have something worthwhile to write about.
I just returned from three days in Eastern Province, in the small village of Chimutanda, about 18K north of the nearest town (that’s boma here), Petauke. Being just 18K from the country’s main eastern road may not seem very remote, but it sure did after we spent a solid hour driving down the narrow, rutted track that serves as the road to Chimutanda.
Looking across the soccer (aka bola) pitch at the homes of Chimutanda.
I and three of my fellow Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) were there to visit current PCV Gordon, who lives in the village, for our First Site Visit (FSV), meant to show us how actual PCVs live. In preparation, we’d learned a few useful phrases in the local language, Nyanja, my favorite of which were “Mwaoka bwanji?” which is their version of “good morning” but literally translates as “how did you wake?” and “Mwachoma bwanji?” which is “good afternoon/evening” but more literally, “How are you surviving the day?” The latter seemed most appropriate to me in this hard-working but sun-drenched province.
Just the drive there was stunning, as we drove along the base of the Muchinga Escarpment, which boasts a number of sheer cliffs. We passed South Luangua National Park, where we saw three baboons crossing the road! Soon afterward, we crossed the mighty Luangua River itself. We couldn’t take photos from the bridge, however, since Zimbabwe bombed it back in the ‘60s, so now it’s heavily guarded from any perceived spies. As we approached Chimutanda, we passed a whole bunch of rock outcroppings. Think Joshua Tree NP, only with lush vegetation and the occasional dambo (wetland). However, this is the wet season, and apparently it looks a lot more like JTree come July-November.
Me, Bailey, Michael, and Zach atop one of the many rock outcroppings in the area. Notice the solar panel on a roof below.
We got our first real taste of village life when we set up our tents in Gordon’s yard. At least 50 people turned out to watch, and I’m pretty sure we looked like aliens to them. Only hours later, while I was playing my guitar on the front porch, a man came up to me, shook my hand, and said a whole bunch of things I didn’t understand. Luckily our host, Gordon, intervened and talked to the guy before sending him on his way. When I asked, “what was that all about?” Gordon said casually, “He was asking if you were a witch.” Yep, juju is alive and well throughout Zambia. I immediately wondered if this would be a problem for me, not to mention why I seemed like a witch, but Gordon, who is quite Zen after a year in the village, said, “It’s best not to think too much about these things. You’ll be fine.” And I was.
Gordon’s house (right) is right in the middle of things, facing a main path and right up on his neighbors. He has to cross this path to use the chimbu (toilet).
Later that evening, several dozen local children gathered in the shadows across the way from us and sank – loudly and beautifully – for at least a hour. Gordon says they do this a few times a week; apparently it’s just part of how they play. Sweet!
Other highlights included a scramble up to the top of one of those big rock piles for views of the village and the hills to the south, and making peanut butter by hand. And I’m not talking about using one of those grinder things they have in health food stores. No, Gordon had bought a bag of raw peanuts (groundnuts – though they were already shelled), and we brought them over to the headman’s wife, who taught us how to roast them over an open fire in a small, hand-held pan; pull off all the skins by hand; separate the skins from the peanuts by winnowing with a woven basket; and finally pound the heck out of the nuts with a giant mortar and pestle until we had some of the most delicious peanut butter ever. The mortar, incidentally, was a three-foot-tall, hollowed-out log that stood up on one end so you could pound its contents with a six-foot-tall wooden pestle.
For the record, I tried every one of these tasks (I was the only one of our group who did), and everything I did elicited howls of laughter from men, women, and children alike. I have a long way to go in acquiring Zambian homemaking skills.
Pounding groundnuts to make peanut butter. I love all the Bamaayos’ different, brightly colored ifitenge in this photo.
One of Gordon’s neighbors sifting out the larger groundnut pieces to pound again.
One of the best parts of our visit – rivaling the amazing singing children – was when, on the last day, we walked to another, much smaller, village (maybe 400 people, vs. maybe 1,500 in Gordon’s village). We were there to meet two local women’s groups and the headwoman. Yes, woman! This is relatively common, though certainly not the rule. Her name was Grace, and she was both cordial and beautiful. Gordon said she’s also one of the best village heads in the area.
The moment we walked into the village though, people began following us like we were the pied piper. We first went to the home of a man who speaks a little English (the only one there who does), since Gordon has worked with him on some projects, and he took us to the headwoman’s yard. By then we’d already shaken hands with and said “Muli bwanji” to at least a dozen women, and about as many children, but many more had followed us. We were told to sit down on a log/bench under a big shade tree, and the women brought out a big reed mat, where the women’s group leaders sat. Grace greeted us, and then so did a few dozen other women.
They then proceeded to ask us, via our translator, every question you can possibly imagine.
For a bit of background, Zambians apparently are VERY direct. They will ask you all kinds of personal questions, or point to you and say, “You are wearing a bra!” (Since, of course, they don’t. This actually happened to me in Gordon’s village), or “Muzungu!” (“white person!”) with no malice whatsoever. They are just genuinely curious, and, let’s face it: we may as well be from outer space compared to the life they’re living.
Anyway, the questions began with names, then “What year were you born?” When I said my birth year, a woman standing way at the back came running (really – running) up to me and gave me a huge hug! Apparently this was her birth year as well.
The topic then turned to, “Do you eat nshima?” When I was first learning about Zambia, I read that nshima, a type of corn porridge, was the national staple dish. I cannot stress what an understatement that is. Nshima is what binds Zambians together. EVERYONE eats it, regardless of tribe or religion or ethnicity or whether you’re rich, poor, rural, or urban. Of course we said, “Here we eat it!” but they still seemed a little shocked when we said that we did not eat it at home.
Other questions included: “What’s your religion?” “How many children do you have?” (Not, mind you, DO you have children?) “Are you married?” “Would you marry a Zambian?” (insert howls of glee when we all said we’d consider it), “Are there Africans in the United States?” “Is there racism in the United States?” And the kicker, “Is it true that in the United States, two men or two women can get married?” They had apparently heard this during their last presidential campaign, when one candidate was accused of supporting homosexuals. (Another aside: any gays among us PCVs have been advised to NEVER tell Zambians that they are gay. Even if they have made really good Zambian friends. Being gay is completely, utterly horrifying to Zambians, and apparently this feeling is so strong that just saying you are gay would probably result in your forced relocation from your village – or maybe even your having to leave the country. I shall no longer complain about being thought strange for not having children.)
Anyway, these are all, of course, questions you just wouldn’t ask a stranger in the States. But all along the way, our translator assured us that they were just curious, and even though there were definitely some looks of consternation at our answers – about which we were totally honest – all these people continued to be so warm and welcoming, it was amazing. After a while, WE got to ask THEM questions. It seemed that we got much less clear answers from them, since there were by now at least 200 people there, all mumbling and exclaiming and interjecting. However, my favorite response was to this question of mine: “What happens here if a man and woman are married, and the man cheats on the woman?” The woman who had run up and hugged me instantly began pounding her left fist into her right hand, and everyone else exploded with laughter. If I lived in that village, I’m pretty sure me and that woman would become great friends.
Of course, all along the way was the issue of poverty, which came up when they asked how much was a plane ticket to the States; when they noted that both men and women here will sometimes have two partners – their husband/wife, plus someone on the side who can give them extra money; and when one of my fellow PCTs, Bailey, a Texan, proclaimed that her family ate lots and lots of meat as their staple food dish. (Here, as in most developing countries, meat is an expensive luxury.) It was hard, for me at least, not to feel that pervading sense of rich American guilt. Shockingly, though, I didn’t sense any animosity at all from them. It was quite unlike being in Central America, for example, where there are actually tourists around (none in these villages, trust me) and electricity with which to watch television.
I have never in all my life been in a country where people are so blatantly overjoyed to see me. Even when we had to make a trip to the massive grocery store at the crazy rich-person mall in Lusaka, the woman bagging our groceries said, “Welcome to Zambia!” as if she were working for the tourism board.
I continue to be shocked, amazed, and humbled by this friendliness, which challenges my American cynicism at every turn.