Life in the fishbowl

22 May 2013

I am on an emotional rollercoaster, inside a giant fishbowl. I have been since May 8, when I first arrived at my new home in Mfuba Village. This is so different from training in Yuda, where my awesome Bamaayo and Bataata kept the crowds at bay and there were enough other PCTs around that people were kind of used to the strange Americans.

Now I am the resident muzungu show! All by myself. Which means that every time I think, “yeah, I’m gonna be ok here!” my Bemba-speaking abilities head south, I don’t eat lunch ’til 3 pm, and I just want to scream at the horde of iwes (small children) who don’t want to leave my yard – or at the next person who asks if I know how to cook everyone’s favorite dish, ubwali.

Then again, every time I feel like crying (or actually do cry – that’s happened four times in the past two weeks, and I am NOT usually considered an emotional person), one of the many amazing people here says or does something to make me feel like the luckiest person on earth.

Case in point: after chasing off the iwes one day, I almost snapped when another – an 8-year-old boy named Allan – showed up not 15 minutes later. I gave him a very terse greeting and was about to say fumeniko (please leave!) when he shyly held out his hand. He was holding a bunch of orange seeds! (Word had already gotten around that I’m saving seeds like crazy, especially after me and the kids harvested a bunch of sun hemp (a good nitrogen fixer) from my yard one afternoon.

Another example: on my most difficult day so far, I just wanted to go home, and I was trying to call a friend but the signal kept cutting out (along the path through town where supposedly the cell network is better), so I was in tears while everyone in the village was going to their fields and stopping to stare at me and my fancy but non-functional phone. Well, that evening I had one of my best moments here. Five women came by and said they’d heard I was missing my family and my home (Yep, word gets around). Then one of them said: “Don’t miss your family or your home. You have a home here, and we’re your family now too!”

Other events that have made my day:

  • Harvesting beans with the village co-op and then helping them cook a MASSIVE pot of ubwali for about 40 people.
  • Dancing in the field with some awesome ladies while harvesting groundnuts (peanuts). Before that, my energy  had been running low after six hours harvesting with nothing to eat but groundnuts! The Zambians were fine, of course … How do they do it?!
  • The day when I was dancing and drumming with the kids, and me and some of the girls were dancing closer and closer, until finally one of them used that proximity as an excuse to give me a hug. And then ALL the girls gave me hugs!
  • And I’m not gonna lie, some of my favorite moments have also been totally personal, like going on my first long bike ride; walking to a (very small) “mountain” on the edge of a protected forest; sitting out on my front porch after dark, looking up at the rest of the universe; cooking some of my favorite “American” dishes on a charcoal brazier; and planting my first seedlings (basil, lemongrass, and rosemary!) in my soon-to-be garden.

Really, how can I complain? Even in this still-foreign land, life is good.

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Things I never thought I’d do

20 May 2013

Today I pulled out my left boob to show to a group of five women. They’d asked if I had breasts, which is a valid question if you think about in context.

Here I see women’s breasts all the time. Most have a baby strapped to their backs, and they’re constantly pulling a boob out of their shirts to breastfeed. Boobs are no big deal here. There’s nothing sexual about them; they’re just what you feed babies with.  Me, I keep mine safely tucked away in a sports bra.

When I said, yes, I have breasts, they seemed dubious. So I said, “Do you want to see one?” A resounding yes. Their only comment: “It’s white!” (I think they meant my nipple specifically.) Not really, but kind of … Wonder what they expected?

That’s maybe the best example of the many things I find myself doing here that I would  never do back home. Here are some others:

  • Practicing with the Mfuba women’s basketball team! Yes, i’ve become a semi-regular feature of a team in a sport I previously loathed. It helps that there’s no dribbling (I never acquired that skill), since the game is played with a volleyball on a grass court with handmade baskets. I play mainly because it’s fantastic to see these women, many of whom take babies off their backs to play, being so physical and aggressive in a society that doesn’t typically value either trait in females. Then again, the women in mfuba seem pretty darn strong and outspoken to me.
  • Sweeping my house every day. I’m lucky to sweep every few weeks at home, but here the constant dust from dirt yard, thatched roof, and mud-brick walls makes this an essential daily task.
  • Killing things indisciminately. Respect for life kind of went out the window for me when that life was nesting in the bag of charcoal next to my kitchen table, pooping on the table and floor, and threatening to eat any food or clothing item that wasn’t properly secured. I murdered an entire litter of mice, eyes not yet open. I’m not at all proud, but I did it in cold blood. I also kill ants, termites, and some suspicious-looking beetles on an almost daily basis. I’m beginning to understand why people kill things with such disregard here (especially snakes, even ones I don’t personally think are poisonous). There are so many things threatening your life, food, or sanity that sometimes it’s us or them.
  • Cleaning with bleach. See above.
  • Making bricks by hand. Mainly for the shed I’m having built to store my bike, charcoal, tools, and extra water, which are cluttering up my small house and attracting unwanted dust and critters. (aren’t I the rich American?) We’re also doing the same for the weekly community work-on-the-school day, which includes building pit toilets. For the curious: Step 1) dig a giant hole; 2) fetch a whole bunch of water and mix it in with the soil/clay; 3) rinse off the brick mold in water, in the small square hole dug separately for this purpose; 4) coat the mold in sand; 5) plop mud into brick mold and tamp down; 6) carry to the spot where your bricks will sit to dry; 7) very carefully plop the two bricks onto the ground; 8) dry in a kiln process I don’t understand, or in my case, wait a week for bricks to dry (or longer if, like me, you’re unlucky enough to get a major rain in the dry season; 9) try to remember that there are bricks surrounding your house, and don’t step on them going to the bathroom after dark like I did. Luckily the guys I’d hired made more bricks than they thought I’d need …

I could go on, but you get the idea. Life’s a little different here.

Also, I’m writing this on a cell phone, and my thumbs are tired! Thanks to helene for posting this e-mailed blog!

What is LIFE?

3 May 2013

Yesterday, I and 39 other Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) were officially sworn in as Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) at the home of the U.S. Ambassador in Lusaka.

Post swear-in photo with all the new PCVs and the Lusaka PC big-wigs.

Post swear-in photo with all the new PCVs and the Lusaka PC big-wigs.

It hardly seemed real. Partly because for most of the ceremony I was thinking of guitar chords and how NOT to mess up the Zambian welcoming song that we’d kind of train-wrecked two days earlier at Cultural Day in Chipembi.

Mostly, though, it felt unreal because Peace Corps service is THE thing I’ve wanted to do for well over 10 years now. The previous week, after 11 weeks of Pre-Service Training in language, cross-culture, technical skills, and how not to get horrendously sick in Zambia, I’d been “invited” to be an actual PCV in Zambia by Ba Don, our amazing but slightly intimidating PC program director. I’d passed all the tests: in Bemba, technical skills (gardening, agroforestry, soil and water conservation, etc.), safety and security, bike maintenance, and general PC bureaucracy. I was ready, or so I was told.

But when I signed the paper Ba Don gave me, agreeing to carry out the PC goals for the next two years, I honestly got tears in my eyes. I said, “Ba Don, you have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do this. I can hardly believe it’s actually happening.” He smiled and said, “Just wait for swearing-in. We’ll all be crying.”

Our intake of LIFErs and RAPpers, taking the oath.

Our intake of LIFErs and RAPpers, taking the oath.

Well, I managed to hold it together at the swearing-in. So did my fellow volunteers, for the most part. Even our song held together – though just barely … Apparently, we also made the news.

Playing a Lunda welcoming song in front of a live audience. Yikes.

Playing a Lunda welcoming song in front of a live audience. Yikes.

All in all, there are now 18 new RAP (Rural Aquaculture Program) volunteers and 22 of us new LIFEers (Linking Income, Food, and Environment volunteers). Wow.

A friend of mine who’d read this blog recently e-mailed to say: “You should write about the stuff you’ll be doing. Now it just seems like all you do is hang out and dance all the time.”

Well put. If you went off just this blog, you WOULD think that. But hey, that’s all part of the PC second and third goals: cultural exchange! (Or, as the English-speaking Zambians love to say, and we love to repeat: “Why? Because that’s our cowcha!” Have I mentioned how much I love the Zambian English accent?)

Seriously, though, life in the LIFE program ain’t all puppy dogs and rainbows. There has been and will be work involved, and I can pretty safely predict that I will end up crying in my hut again at some point. Swearing in yesterday brought that home for me. This is a big commitment.

That sunk in yet again this morning, when I left behind most of my fellow trainees – including some of my favorite people in the intake – as we all parted ways for our various provinces. The “American bubble” of training is now over. (I’m writing this while on the PC land cruiser up to our provincial capital, Kasama, where me and the other six new Northern volunteers will do some last bits of paperwork, immigration, and shopping before going to our sites.)

On Wednesday, May 8, I will be dropped off at my new home in Mfuba Village, where I will spend the next three months in what’s called “community entry.” Basically, getting to know my new community, including which people I might best work with so that whatever I do isn’t led by me, but by people in the village.

For the next three months, I and the other new PCVs aren’t allowed to leave our districts, or to spend a night outside of our villages. Which I think is a fantastic idea. But I also know it’s going to be pretty lonely after 11 weeks surrounded by fellow Americans and a host family with whom I’ve grown pretty close.

The LIFE program is really, really broad, so I can’t say for sure what I’ll be doing in the village. Even our Zambian trainers have told me that’s the cool thing about the LIFE program, that it’s so flexible and adaptable to the lives of villagers and what they need most: namely, food security and income-generating activities.

I definitely plan to start a tree nursery and plant trees. With all the charcoal-making and slash-and-burn agriculture in my area, it’s the least I can do. I also hope to get people interested in fruit trees – and maybe solar drying – as a means of having more nutritious, year-round food sources. I have a small field where I hope to plant some crops, interspersed with leguminous trees that add nutrients to the soil.

I plan to start a small, dry-season kitchen garden, to demonstrate that you can grow food year-round with just your grey water from washing clothes and dishes. I hope to encourage crop diversity and crop rotation in general, as well as general conservation farming practices, to make the soils more productive and villagers less reliant on maize and the (often unreliable) distribution of government-subsidized fertilizer.

I know people in my village are interested in keeping bees and egg-laying chickens as a source of extra income, though they’ve had little success so far. They’re also trying to get a community-based health-worker program started so they don’t always have to walk 12 K to the clinic. I might pop my head in at the school and see if they’re interested in me teaching an occasional class on natural resources (Many village schools are chronically understaffed and, I’ve been told, happy to take on anyone who volunteers to teach.) I’d like to work with the clinic on better nutrition for people living with HIV/AIDS. I’m definitely going to set up an after-school girls’ club on the GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) model that Peace Corps uses. But it really all depends on what my new neighbors want, and what opportunities arise.

See what I mean about how broad the LIFE program can be?

Of course, this is all speculation. Right now I just have to focus on my first three months. I will be doing a lot of exploring – on foot and on bike, within my village and around it – and a lot of reading of the dozens of technical manuals I’ve been given. In the mornings, I will practice yoga; in the evenings, I will write letters to the people I love and play a lot of guitar. I will try to be content in a very small, very rural Zambian village.

And that, my friends, is LIFE. No matter where you are, you never really know what’s in store around the next bend.

Saying good-bye/A party in the vil!

1 May 2013

Ba Samwell and I just wanted a little potluck gathering with our families and a few others we’d befriended during our two-month homestay in Yuda Village. All the PCTs were hosting a Cultural Day/Graduation celebration on April 30 at the farm college in Chipembi where we’d been studying, but only two people from each family were allowed to attend. In Zambia, this leaves out a LOT of people.

To remedy this, we came up with the American-Zambian potluck idea and agreed to have it the day before, on a Sunday. We would cook pumpkin bread (since our families love pumpkin AND bread, but had never heard of mixing the two) and daal (not actually American food, but a favorite of both mine and Samwell’s, not to mention something for which we could actually find the ingredients in Lusaka). Our Bamaayos and a couple neighbors would cook the usual Zambian fare: ubwali, beans, soya, bread, and various veggies. We invited his three siblings; four of my parents’ grandchildren; our neighbor Ba Susan and her six kids; and another neighbor, Ba Margaret, an older woman who’s one of my favorite people in the village.

Ba Grace, Ba Margaret, me, and Samwell enjoying the potluck.

Ba Grace, Ba Margaret, me, and Samwell enjoying the potluck.

Then word started to get out. My Bamaayo invited her son and daughter-in-law, of course, since their kids were supposed to come. Then her brother was around one day, and we were told we should definitely invite him and his entire family. Then when the headwoman stopped by, Samwell’s Bataata chastised us: “you haven’t invited the headwoman!” So, we did.

On the day of the event, our families started up the charcoal braziers at 8 a.m. BOTH of our Bataatas helped cook. I’d never seen my Bataata near the cooking pots, but clearly we needed all hands on deck. Bamaayo fetched a LOT of water. We gathered every available chair, bench, and stool and set up our lounging area.

Potluck under the mango tree.

Potluck under the mango tree.

People began arriving around noon, right after church. There were people there I’d never even seen before! Were they just passing through? Had they heard about free food? I don’t know, but in the end we had at least 60 people, including two more PCTs.

Someone’s giant boom box was brought out, and the dancing began. I was stoked. Though I can’t say I love Zambian pop music, when I brought out my iPod and tinny little speakers to play some American music, it didn’t go over so well. So back to the ZamPop we went. Then, out of the blue, my Bataata informed me that we would have to give speeches. So on the fly, Ba Samwell and I pulled out our best Bemba and thanked everyone for being so friendly and welcoming to us, for opening their homes and hearts to us, and for being so patient with speaking the local language with us. We explained that we would be leaving the next morning and were happy they could join us to celebrate our time in the village. This seemed to go over quite well. Our Bataatas also gave speeches, clearly proud of their soon-to-be Peace Corps Volunteer children.

Half the vil, gettin' down.

Half the vil, gettin’ down.

Then we went in to serve the food. Having no idea how many people there were, really, we tried to be sparing, but in the end the first to be served got a LOT of food, and the last (us, our immediate families, and the headwoman) got a whole lot of white rice and nshima, about a cup of daal, and a cup-and-a-half of beans. (We DID all get tiny pieces of both the pumpkin bread and my Bamaayo’s delicious tomato-onion-egg bread, so all was not lost.) Luckily, though, they served the kids first! (This is not usually the case.) So every kid there got a whole lot of protein and veggies, which made me very happy.

The dancing started up again soon after we ate, and this time Ba Margaret – a serious dancer – brought out a reed skirt with bottle caps on the ends, and some leg rattles.

Ba Margaret demonstrating her amazing dance skills.

Ba Margaret demonstrating her amazing dance skills.

The boom box was turned off, and a couple women grabbed some empty water jugs and started drumming. Then Ba Margaret danced like a Zambian queen (actually, that’s just my interpretation. No idea what the song was really about.) She dragged first me, then Ba Samwell into the circle to dance with her. When she was done, Ba Samwell put on the skirt and rattles and did his own little dance, which was met with such glee among our friends that it was pretty much a given I would do the same afterward.

Me doing my best to copy Ba Margaret's moves (and losing the citenge around my waist in the process).

Me doing my best to copy Ba Margaret’s moves (and losing the citenge around my waist in the process).

I freaking love that in this country, it really doesn’t matter if I do the “right” dance or not. They just love to see the muzungus shaking their booties. And they love it even more when the they do some crazy, hop-around dance like we were doing. (That’s clearly more entertaining.) But I did TRY to follow Ba Margaret’s moves, and out of that came one of my proudest moments in this country so far. Two of the women who danced with me said, “Ah, muleshiba” (“You know”), which felt like being accepted into some secret women’s club here.

The night before the event, I’d slept maybe three hours. I’d been having some serious issues with the mefloquine (that’s the malaria prophylaxis that often causes insomnia and crazy, vivid dreams. Luckily I’ve now been switched to something else!), and I was exhausted before the preparations even began. So by the time 3 p.m. rolled around, I was DONE. At four, my Bataata told me we should tell people they needed to go home, which I did. It was our party, after all. But not everyone took the advice, and at 4:45 I couldn’t take it any more and excused myself to go sit in my hut and chill by myself. By 5:30, everyone had pretty much left.

I was utterly exhausted. What a crazy-entertaining-overwhelming-joyful day. By the time I sat down to dinner with just my parents; their littlest grandson, Musonda; and Ba Margaret, who often stops by at dinner time just to visit, I had never felt more grateful for peace and quiet. Musonda apparently felt the same, because he promptly fell asleep in the most awkward position you can imagine: face-planted into Bataata’s hard chair with his legs dangling off onto the concrete floor. He never even ate dinner. Bataata left him be and sat on a stool instead.

The next morning, at 6:30 a.m., Ba Samwell and I left our homes in the village to a much more sedate set of good-byes.

The funny follow-up to all this is that two days later, when we had the official Cultural Day at the center (after spending a day shopping in Lusaka and preparing everything), Ba Margaret was there, too. (I’d forgotten that she was still a “host parent,” since she hosted one of the Tonga teachers. Our language teachers also stayed in the village with us.) And they’d smuggled in Ba Susan! Minus her kids, but still, I was stoked to see her again!

Cultural Day was equally stressful-crazy-amazing, but with one key difference: there were more than 30 people preparing all the food, so overall there was a lot less work involved.

Cultural Day was also the debut of the Zambian songs we’d been learning, and – unexpectedly – an American song that a handful of us had practiced only one time before! Right before the event, we were informed that we could only do ONE song – not two or three as we’d planned – and I was so bummed out that I protested a little. Bashimpundu, our fantastic homestay coordinator/resident musician, said he’d do what he could.

I had my public guitar-playing debut with “Shekenu Anghezhi Jetu,” a Lunda song that we kind of train-wrecked when, at the point where we were supposed to speed up for the final verse, the singers and the pickers (me; Jacob & Adam on banjo; and Ryeon on ukulele) sped up at different rates. We pulled it back together, though, and everyone loved it anyway. They’re our parents, of course.

Then later, when there was a lull in the program (we were all waiting in a semi-circle to exchange gifts with our parents), one of our awesome language trainers, Ba Harriet, whispered in my ear, “do the other song now!” Since this one didn’t technically require instruments – just singing and dancing – I passed the info down the line, bwangu bwangu. Then I caught the eye of Bailey, one of my fellow PCTs who had been starting the call-and-response with me, and we both shouted out, “Sansamukeni!” It was ON! Not all the PCTs had practiced this song, but since we were all there in the circle, people just jumped in anyway, whether they wanted to or not. And it turned into a huge dance party that no-one could hold back – time constraints or not. I pulled Bamaayo into the circle, other people pulled their parents in, and we sang and danced and hugged for all we were worth. Even our PC country director jumped in! All the Zambian drummers and dancers who’d come in for the occasion – whom we’d thrown a bit of money to as is customary – started throwing money at us!

I thought that was it for the music, but then right at the end of the ceremony, Bashimpundu said, “and now the trainees will perform an American song for you.” WHAT? We’d all thought that was completely off the table. Our instruments had been put aside, and as I said, we hadn’t really practiced that one much … but after a few moments of chaos, we decided, what the hell, let’s do this! And we did. Played and sang “What Does the Deep Sea Say?” Luckily Jacob carried it, because he was the only one who really knew it. And again, they loved it. So did I.

The whole thing ended with another round of dancing, led by the Zambians, which gave us the opportunity to give the money back again. :+) It was a sad but glorious two-day good-bye.

Pumpkin bread: the epic journey

27 April 2013

On the day that my fellow PCV, Ba Samwell, and I decided to make pumpkin bread for our families (as part of the American cooking for our leaving-Yuda Village potluck), there was no flour or sugar to be found. Of course. They ALWAYS have flour and sugar. (Fritters and tea with two or three heaping tablespoons of sugar are staples for both of our families.)

But today, nothing. Takuli.

The flour and sugar were "kulya" - somewhere over there.

The flour and sugar were “kulya” – somewhere over there.

My Bamaayo, very concerned that we wouldn’t be able to make this American dish we’d been talking about for weeks, informed us that we might be able to find the ingredients kulya (over there.) Which could mean anywhere from one to 50 kilometers away. Then, in one of those moments that made me think, “We’re not so different after all,” Bamaayo shouted at the top of her lungs across two yards for Ba Junior, Samwell’s 13-year-old brother. Junior would take us, she said.

When I walked over to Ba Samwell’s, I was informed by his Bamaayo, Ba Eunice, that we would definitely need our bikes, because it was REALLY far away. I tried not to roll my eyes. To them, a 20-minute walk is really far away, but our daily 20-minute bike ride from Yuda to Chipembi is 1 kilometer. Distance is relative, and I rarely take much stock in the the distance estimates I’m given.

Junior on the back of Samwell's bike.

Junior on the back of Samwell’s bike.

I got my bike anyway. When I brought it back, Ba Eunice said that Ba Junior’s bike was broken. Now this I took seriously. Even normally, the bike has no brakes (other than Junior’s foot), questionable-to-nonexistent gears, and a bent rear wheel. If Ba Eunice said it was broken, it was broken. No problem, though, she said. Junior could ride on the back of Samwell’s bike, on the bike rack. So that’s what he did.

As it turned out, the distance estimate had been right. It took us nearly an hour to get there, all on bush paths. Of course, we were going fairly slowly; the downhills were treacherous, the uphills pretty grueling for Ba Samwell. We walked some of those. The views were beautiful. Unfortunately, much of the area we rode through had been virtually clear-cut, so we were able to see the rolling topography in the distance.

Samwell hoisting his bike up over a steeply eroded stream bank.

Samwell hoisting his bike up over a steeply eroded stream bank.

But my favorite parts of the journey were: crossing a stream on a log and then passing our bikes up a steep ravine on the other side; chanting “I think I can, I think I can,” in Bemba on our way up the hills; and launching into an impromptu rap/beatbox session that started with Samwell making grunting noises and me mimicking him.

We finally made it to the shop – where they had their own semi truck. No wonder they still had sugar and flour. The family was quite happy to see us and to chat with us in Bemba. We’d left the PC host-family perimeter by a long shot, and we were now in the land where muzungus are a novelty. I bought a cheap citenge just to continue the conversation a little and have a practical souvenir.

The way back took us only 45 minutes, as we discovered a slightly more direct route on a two-track. In all, the trip took a solid two hours. We’d had other plans in mind for the afternoon, but oh well. Bamaayo had already cooked the pumpkin in our absence and was pretty excited for us to start our baking. (Which was the subject of much curiosity as neighbors and family gathered to watch. Of course we shared spoonfuls of the batter at the end.)

 Ah Zambia, always making the most routine event memorable – as long as I’ve got the patience to experience it.

Top 10 reasons why my Bamaayo’s a badass

Me & Bamaayo

(Actually, most Zambian women are total badasses; I just think my Bamaayo’s more badass than most.)

10) She can carry 20 liters of water on her head for the better part of a mile.

9) She hand-washes both laundry and her three-year-old grandson with a vigor that stuns me. Sometimes I almost feel bad for the grandson, but he’s a tough little kid, and she indulges him in just about every other way you can imagine, so I think he’ll survive.

8) She walks about a mile uphill just to get to the family fields before she even begins the weeding and harvesting.

7) She does all this at age 60.

6) She can sew without looking and teach me Bemba at the same time.

5) Village drunks know not to mess with her. She kicks them right out of the yard if they pass through. (For the record, Bataata’s pretty good with this, too.)

4) She handles blazing hot metal cooking pots with her bare hands.

3) She scrubs out pots with coarse sand and her bare hands. (No wonder hot metal doesn’t phase her.)

2) She’s about the sexiest dancer I know.

1) No matter what life throws at her, she retains one of the biggest, most infectious belly laughs I’ve ever heard.

Upstaged

Image23 April 2013

I am no longer the most entertaining feature of my host parents’ home. For the past 10 days or so, that position has become the exclusive domain of Musonda, their three-year-old grandson who’s visiting for the next month, while on holiday from nursery school. (Schools here operate on a three-months-on, one-month-off schedule. There are now a lot more kids around – especially teenagers who’ve been away at schools further afield.)

Musonda is unlike any of the young children I’ve met here so far. As in, he isn’t remotely intimidated by me, and he’s talkative as all get-out. (He’s also freaking adorable, as you can see.) This is probably because he lives in a good-sized town, Kabwe, where he’s probably seen white people before. My parents dote on him like crazy, and so do I. Heck, his Bemba’s about on par with mine, so we’re teaching each other.

Among my favorite things about him: He loves to repeat back everything that the adults say, including me. So he now says, capwa (finished) and naikuta (I’m full) – two of my favorite meal-time phrases – a lot. Last night he also said, “When Ba Telli leaves, I will miss her. I will cry.” THAT he got from his grandparents. ‘Bout melted my heart …

A village girl’s story

15 April 2013

There was a 17-year-old girl in my village who was one of my favorite people around, hands down. Funny, smart. Strong-willed and assertive in a culture where that’s not always valued in women. But she’s no longer in the village. She’s been “sent away” because, frankly, life for a village girl just isn’t fair sometimes.

For the purposes of this post, I’ll call this girl Ba Rachel. Ba Rachel speaks four languages (that I know of). For me, she was one of the best Bemba teachers I’ve had: always friendly and willing to listen to my slow, grammatically tortured stories.

Before she left, Ba Rachel was co-managing the small store that her family owns. Her father died two years ago, and since she’s the oldest of six kids, I got the impression that she was a huge part of helping her mom keep the family afloat. Ba Rachel was also studying hard to continue her studies in the 10th grade. She wanted to get all the way through twelfth grade (a huge achievement for a village girl in Zambia), but here schooling is only free through ninth grade; after that, you have to pay, and Ba Rachel’s 15-year-old sister is already attending 10th grade. I’m guessing that paying for both of them to be in school was going to be a big stretch for their mom.

About two weeks ago, Ba Rachel told me and another volunteer that she’d passed the test to get into 10th grade and would be attending the highly competitive Chipembi Girls’ School next term! We were so excited for her, and happy that her hiatus from school to help run the shop wouldn’t be permanent.

Then, just a week later, Ba Rachel disappeared. I soon began to wonder where she’d gone. Then I heard the rumor. Then I my host parents confirmed it for me. And I almost cried right there in front of them.

Ba Rachel is pregnant. In some places, she would have options. She might be able to choose how she would want to deal with the situation and still continue on with her studies. Here, though, there are fewer choices. She’s been sent to live with the family of her boyfriend, who’s a student himself. They actually don’t live very far away, but Ba Rachel’s leaving has had a ripple effect that seems out of proportion to that short distance.

It’s now extremely unlikely that Ba Rachel will continue her schooling. Maybe she and the guy will get married, maybe not. I’m not sure what the reaction will be if and when she returns to the village for a visit with her baby in a few months, but I’ve already heard, in the voice of one village resident, a certain level of contempt for Ba Rachel. Now, I haven’t heard that same contempt from anyone else, but I have been told that she’s brought shame to the village, and that some people are likely angry with her: such a smart girl who was contributing so much to her family, such a bad mistake. I asked our language instructor – the only one I felt comfortable asking – if people were also angry with the boy for his part in it. This seemed to be a foreign concept to him.

I’ve already seen the impact that Ba Rachel’s leaving has had on her family. Her mom, a strong woman in her own right, has a heavier burden; so does her 15-year-old sister, who’s now having to run the tuck shop after school when she should be studying.

I, myself, was lucky to run into Ba Rachel, by complete coincidence, on a long walk yesterday. I was so happy to see her I just about knocked her over with a huge hug. She seemed happy and friendly as ever. I didn’t feel comfortable asking her about the situation, but we chatted about our families and my Bemba studies a little. I wished her well and promised to visit again before I leave (and I will).

But I just can’t stop thinking about her. And thinking about how her story might turn out differently if she were a girl in suburban America. Would it change if she lived in a poor inner-city neighborhood in America? Or if she just happened to live in a culture that was a little less patriarchal, where girls had more choices in general?

As things stand, maybe some good will come from this. As one of my fellow volunteers, Ba Samwell, pointed out, had Rita continued her studies, she might’ve gone off to Lusaka and taken her education with her. Now maybe she’ll take the knowledge she already has and share it with other girls. Maybe she’ll make a positive impact on her own community; maybe she’ll set a good, strong example for the girls who follow her.

I wish I could take her out of this situation. Pay for her education. Stick around and make sure she makes it. But there are so many girls out there like Ba Rachel. And I’m not here to give out money or adopt anyone. I’m here to share knowledge – or so I keep trying to remind myself. All I can do is try as best I can to educate and support girls in my own Zambian community when I get there in a couple weeks. And if I help any of them in some small way, it’ll be because Ba Rachel inspired me to do it.

**Addendum: Ba Samwell and I DID visit Ba Rachel again at her new home. This time, we sat down with her new family and talked for a while. They seem very, very nice. Also very well off, with LOTS of livestock and a tin roof. Later that week we ran into the Bataata of the family, who was on his way home after his shift as night watchman at the school. He told us Ba Rachel and his family had all been happy to see us at their home.  Maybe Ba Rachel WILL be just fine, and maybe my initial perceptions of the situation failed to take in the good of this part of Zambian culture. If nothing else, she will be taken care of.