Wow, photos!

I’ve figured out how to properly add photos to my blog! It’s been a long, long time coming, but I must say I’m proud of myself. After recently “fixing” an Mfuba neighbor’s cell phone by taking it off airplane mode (they had no idea why it wasn’t working and were in awe of my technological prowess, even though it took me almost 30 minutes to figure it out), I feel like a regular Bill Gates. ;+) I promise to try to add more in the future.


Post-harvest camp-out

8 August 2013

Maybe you’ve noticed I’ve been writing a lot the past week or so. Yes, I suddenly have time on my hands. Why? Because half the village – including five of the people I’ve been working with most – are 10K away in Lubushi, sitting around waiting for the Zambian Food Reserve Agency (FRA) to weigh their maize. Not just sitting around, but camping out for days on end, sleeping in the open air next to hundreds of thousands of kilograms of corn.


Bags of maize stacked up outside the shed. It doesn’t all fit inside. The man looking at the camera, on the left, came over after I took the photo to tell me I was not allowed to take photos. Oops. Usually everyone LOVES when I take photos!

Oops, those American words still slip out occasionally. No one here calls it corn, and it’s nothing like what we eat back home anyway. I’ve been told that the maize here is what we give feedlot cattle in the States. It’s easy to believe. The stuff tastes a bit like cardboard, even when roasted fresh on the cob. Understandably, then, Zambians prefer to grind it up into ubwali, or at least pound the kernels into a cooked dish called sampo.

But I digress.

This happens every year, apparently, both in Lubushi, where my neighbors are waiting, and at similar sheds across the nation. See, the government here has long purchased all the maize Zambian farmers can produce, at above-market rates. These subsidies, along with the government’s sale of fertilizer and hybrid maize seed to farmers at below-market rates, are the main reason that maize (amataba in Bemba) is by far the most common crop grown in the country, accounting for 60% of the total field area of all small-scale farmers. The FRA program guarantees subsistence farmers some income, and, as the name implies, some food reserves in times of need. But the program is also a drain on the federal budget – not to mention national soil fertility, since maize takes a lot out of the soil, especially if that’s nearly all you’re growing.

Oh, yes, and even WITH the subsidies, it’s still much less profitable for the farmers to grow maize than to grow soybeans, groundnuts, or almost anything else. Still, the maize marches on. Chalk it up to culture.

Oops, digressing again.

The FRA began weighing maize in Lubushi and elsewhere on 29 July. Since then, traffic on the Mfuba-Lubushi has skyrocketed, from two or three vehicles a month to two or three a day, as people rent space on big flatbed trucks to haul their maize from surrounding villages.

There are thousands of area farmers converging on the shed in Lubushi, many with a few thousand pounds of maize. But there is just one scale. Oh, and this week they’ve run out of the official FRA sacks into which all maize must be transferred.

So while the average wait time for the early birds last week seemed to be 3-4 days, that’s gotten longer. Ba Bernardi has been waiting since Saturday the 2nd. He is still there as I write this, after dark on the 8th. (Update: Bernardi finally got home late on the 9th.)

You can’t leave your main source of income sitting out all night, just asking to be stolen, now can you?


Ba Annette with her and some other people’s kids. Notice they’re eating ubwali! Can’t believe this is the first photo I’ve taken of people eating the national dish!


Ba Maxwell and Ba Ronaldi (center left and right), goofing off for the camera with two guys whose names I don’t know (on the ends).

I’ve gone to visit several times now, sometimes because I had to go to Lubushi to buy eggs or to meet with someone there, sometimes just to check in and chat with a counterpart. I’ve twice now carried steaming bowls of ubwali and beans and veggies from Mfuba to the shed. (In typical community fashion, people in Mfuba have been cooking and biking food out to their family members at the shed, so I thought, why not lend my free time to the cause?)

Today, I was even honored with what I consider to be the coolest errand in the village: the transport of a bush note! (“Bush notes” are just hand-written notes, taken from one community to another by whomever happens to be going that way. Brilliant in a place where cell phones are still few and the network unreliable.) I’ve sent and received many a bush note, but this was the first time I’d been the carrier! The news was pretty important, too. Ba Agatha sent it to her sister, Ba Mary, at the shed, saying she was pretty sure Ba Mary’s oldest daughter was about to go into labor with her first child. (an update: it was a false alarm.)

My petty thrills, however, are not the point.

To me, this whole spectacle, which will last through 30 September, is like some bizzare outdoor music festival gone wrong. (No, there are no tents, but yes, the place is starting to smell. Thank goodness it’s the dry season.) To local farmers and families, though, it is an incredible drain. Think of all the time wasted, not just by those waiting, but by those making repeated trips to bring food from 10 or 20K away. Even in a place where waiting around is no big deal, this IS a big deal.

The inefficiency blows my mind (yep, still an American), and selfishly, I think of the tree seeds Bernardi and Allan and I were going to collect, the soybean flour Mary and I were going to make, and the garden fence Bernardi and I were going to build – all plans for this week, before I leave for three weeks of PC training and a short vacation. Instead, here I sit, vomiting out blog posts at an alarming rate (my apologies, by the way).

Talking with Ba Bernardi at the shed yesterday, I had to teach him a new word in English: “ridiculous.”

A PCV loses her cool

5 August 2013

I totally lost my patience with the local ward councilor today. Raised my voice, and didn’t even say anything useful. As usual, I thought of what I SHOULD have said only later.

In my defense (if I have one; I’m supposed to be a mature professional, representing Peace Corps, right?) I’d just come off of a couple frustrating days where it seemed that people were asking me for more “things” than usual. In two separate incidents, two women who I’d begun to think of as friends asked me for money and malaria medicine, respectively. Neither of which I can give out, as a matter of both PC policy and personal ethics. Both of them already knew this.

So maybe I was on a bit of a short fuse with that sort of thing.

Still, when this politician showed up in Mfuba, entirely unannounced (during a week when most of the village was absent, weighing their maize for sale to the government), I was a bit blindsided by what happened.

I was summoned to talk with him, so I did. And I immediately got bad vibes from him. He introduced himself and told me how he’d worked with the previous PCV (though I’d heard nothing of this myself, and later found that this was a lie). During the course of the conversation, he told me how the government is going to install a borehole at the school (great news if it happens) and pave the rutted dirt road that runs from Mumana Lupando to Kapanda, and right past the Mfuba turn-off. He then asked if I would buy a metal roof for the Mfuba community school. I very kindly and calmly gave him my schpiel, which has become something of a mantra: that PCVs don’t give money or things, we give knowledge and education – which will outlast any road or roof.

As our conversation went on, in English, my neighbors had begun to gather, and I suggested we switch to Bemba, so everyone could understand. He did not. I felt more uncomfortable.

Finally the meeting actually began, in Bemba, with the councilor extolling all the things the government was going to bring to the area, and reminding them about 2016 elections. He then told them, “Ba bazungu (basically, the white person) – ah, and what is your name? (he hadn’t bothered to ask) – has said she will not buy iron sheets for your school. But she could afford to fly here from America in a plane …” he trailed off, staring at me.

That’s when I lost it. Before I thought about the words coming out of my mouth (such an unfortunately common theme in my life), I retorted that I did not pay for the plane ticket, and that everyone in the village knows I am here to give knowledge, NOT money. Sadly, I also raised my voice quite a bit, and looked mainly at my neighbors as I said all this. As if THEY were the problem, not him.

Despite my momentary immaturity, some seemed to back me up. A few even said what good work I was doing.

I had to leave soon after, to scarf down some lunch before a meeting in a village 12K away (a meeting which of course did not start on time, so I needn’t have rushed).

When I left though, still fuming, I walked my bike right past the community nsaka, where the meeting was ongoing. I had to make a brief stop at a neighbor’s to ask a question before getting on my way, but I must admit I was kind of hoping for the guy to make another comment so I could tell him off.

I got my chance.

In Bemba, he noted what a nice bike I have, then freaking asked me to give it to him, a sly smile on his face. I retorted that he didn’t need my bike, because he has a car, and a nice house – maybe even a second house in the capital – which I’m sure has a metal roof. So maybe HE should give the village a metal roof for the school.

He said something I didn’t understand. Then I just felt like everyone was staring at me blankly. No idea what was going through their heads, but I certainly wouldn’t have been pleased with me if I were them. Maybe I’d made the village look bad. I’d certainly lowered my own credibility. And who knows what the councilor said after I left. Dammit.

As I biked away, STILL fuming, I finally thought of all the things I should’ve said (in a calm, polite voice). Thought about how I’d had the power, right then, to open up a dialogue about government responsibility vs. personal responsibility (though one could certainly argue that it is the government’s JOB to provide school buildings, the Zambian government isn’t exactly rolling in dough, and that simply isn’t reality here.) We could’ve talked about whether people feel better receiving handouts or empowering themselves to make change and increase their own income, even about why they really want a PCV in the first place, and what both my and their roles are in this whole partnership.

But it was too late. I’d squandered an opportunity, and maybe even lost some respect. Not to mention my own anger took up way too much of my energy and kind of ruined my own day. Dammit.

P.S. When I relayed this story to the PCV who preceded me in Mfuba, he all but cheered. Confirmed that the guy is a slime ball and claimed that what I’d said was spot-on, both for the village and for the councilor. So now I feel a LITTLE better. ;+)

My home ecosystem

4 August 2013


Who knows what lurks in the woods just beyond my icimbusu? Or within my house, for that matter.

While eating breakfast out on the porch this morning, I heard a familiar sound. Familiar as in AMERICA familiar. MONTANA familiar!

It was the cry of a hawk, and sure enough I looked up to see two swooping through the air, just above Agatha and Bernardi’s house. These were not the first I’d seen in Northern Province. I’d noticed a few elsewhere, of a different, much larger species. (They might’ve been eagles??)

These were smaller, maybe red-tail-hawk size, but they were the first I’d seen in my own yard! I was so excited! But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course. The Mutale family noticed the raptors at the same time I did, and I knew this by the shouting that came from their yard.

Hawks, of course, will eat any small land animal, including the domestic ones that most villagers rely upon. In Mfuba, birds of prey are generally NOT welcome visitors.

While out visiting another village last week, Bernardi and I saw one of the larger raptors. “Ah, they eat chickens, even small goats!” He told me. “Emkwai,” I said, accepting this fact, though not his aversion. “Even small dogs!” he continued, knowing of my affinity for the village canines and trying to sway me to his point of view.

I would not be moved. I maintain that it is always a good thing to see a wild animal in a place where domestic ones are the rule. Luckily I’m not alone in this. Two of my counterparts, both named Allan, have pointed out that hawks and owls eat mice and snakes, and both have told me that non-poisonous snakes are “our friends” because they also eat rodents that damage crops. I could’ve hugged them for saying something so outside the norm here. (Unfortunately, hugging a man would be culturally inappropriate.)

In all honesty, I must admit that my love for wild things is also conditional when it comes to the ecosystem within my own home. I’ve already mentioned the mice living in my roof, whose poop I have to deal with each morning. Then there are the bats, with whom I have a love-hate relationship. Yes, they’re just plain cool animals, and they eat flying insects. But they do nothing to stop the floor-dwelling ants or termites, and their flapping around inside my house wakes me up several times a week.

The non-poisonous spiders are fine with me as long as they don’t multiply too quickly, and I straight-up love the lizards that occasionally plunk down onto my floor, momentarily startled into frozen inaction by their drop from the top of a wall.

All in all, though, I still prefer the small ecosystem within my home to the domestic one in my yard. Especially as dry season wears on and livestock fodder becomes harder to find, some villagers are letting their goats and pigs out of their pens to graze at will (if they were ever penned in the first place).

The chickens and I have been playing the same game for months: they move the mulch away from my herbs and tree seedlings; I move it back. Every day.

Now, though, it’s the pigs that are giving me the most grief. Their rooting around almost destroyed my compost pile AND my two carefully planted and tended avocado seeds. That was the morning I had to go Kasama for mini-provs, and instead of leaving early as planned, I spent over an hour building brick-and-branch fortresses to keep them at bay while I was away.

While at mini-provs, I learned from another volunteer that our local chief has specifically told people that they MUST keep animals penned up to avoid damage to crops and gardens, or they will be fined. (With government presence virtually nonexistent in rural Zambia, the chiefs fill this role.) Armed with this knowledge, upon my return to Mfuba I talked to the headma (who happens to be my neighbor, Ba Bernardi) and then confronted the pig owners believed to be responsible. Of course, no one admitted that THEIR pigs were on the loose, but within two days I was informed that the co-op’s pigs had been slaughtered, and that I would have no more problems with other pigs. (Sometimes it’s just plain scary how much power I can wield around here.) So far that’s held true, but we’ll see …

In the mean time, I’ll keep rooting for the hawks – and hoping they take a liking to piglets.

Hoedown in the vil!

3 August 2013

I just had possibly the most fun I’ve yet experienced in Mfuba. Turns out my neighbors here LOVE old-time music and contra dancing! (at least, the watered-down version of contra dancing that I taught them this afternoon. Teaching the real thing proved MUCH too complicated for all of us.)

Donna and Kamfwa learning to Contra dance.

Donna and Kamfwa learning to Contra dance.

This all started with my desire to provide a forum for the constant stream of questions I get about “America.” Among the most popular:  How much does (fill in the blank) cost? What crops do you grow? and Are their black people in America? (Yes, folks, the rumors are true. Barack Obama is not an anomaly.) Unexpectedly, it also annoys me to no end when some people, mainly the women, inform me that Americans don’t HAVE any culture.

If you would’ve told me six months ago that I’d become a defender of U.S. culture, I would’ve laughed in your face. But here I am, doing just that. (Being an ex-pat does strange things to a person …)

To be fair, my dislikes about U.S. culture – the consumerism, selfishness, bigotry, and fundamentalist rhetoric that sometimes plague all sectors of our society – remain as strong as ever. And I am truthful in explaining these problems to the best of my abilities.) But living here, I’ve come to appreciate so many things I previously took for granted: ingenuity and that clicheed “can-do” attitude; women’s rights and independence; social mobility; tolerance and even celebration of all our different cultural, religious, and creative differences. In my humble opinion, many of these things are best expressed through music.

Enter “American Culture Day.” Originally planned to include stir fry, a Q & A, AND dancing to American music, the idea was to invite everyone in the vil to the community nsaka next to my house. But then that sorta got cancelled because a big chunk of the vil is still sleeping out amidst giant sacks of maize at a shed 12K away, waiting for the government maize-buying bureaucracy to call their number. (This is a whole separate blog post.) They requested that I move the date to next week, when all that is over (we hope). I complied, and I passed this news along to everyone I met on my return bike ride.

Except that when I arrived to my neck of the vil, my neighbors (namely the ever-opinionated Katongo sisters, whose husbands and offspring form the core of Mfuba) were quite displeased, to say the least. We’d been talking about American dancing for a week, and they wanted to dance, dammit!

OK, I said, we’ll have just the music portion.

I’d made a playlist that was a mix of classic rock, old-time, bluegrass, and hip hop music – genres which I think display a good cross-section of American culture, and which I happen to personally like. From my blessedly scant knowledge of Zam pop, I assumed they’d enjoy Lauren Hill, Outkast, and Beyonce far more than Sam Bush, Trampled by Turtles, or Foghorn String Band. And they certainly seemed to enjoy gettin’ down to the former group. (Oh man, you haven’t lived ’til you’ve watched 50 Zambian villagers shaking their left hands in the air a la “All the Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)!”

But I was utterly unprepared for the glee with which they took to contra dancing. Maybe it was my preceeding explanation, about this being rural mountain music, sprung from the various influences of poor European immigrants and escaped slaves (the banjo’s originally from Africa) who congregated in the Appalachians. Or maybe some deep-seated human appreciation for good fiddle tunes. :+)

Whatever the reason, they freaking loved clasping hands and galloping between our two lines of clapping, dancing, stomping folks. (The hollering and yeehaws were especially appreciated, being so similar to Bemba ululating.)

The most amazing thing (to me) was that I was able to convince men and women, boys and girls, to hold hands and dance TOGETHER. Timidly at first, but all-out in the end.


Boyd and Mavis dancing together.

People of the opposite sex do not dance together here. Handshakes aside, men and women don’t touch one another in public, even if they’re married.

Anyway, I freaking LOVED our little hoedown, and everyone else seemed equally enthused. Toward the end, Ba Lister and Ba Judith stole the baseball caps right off the heads of Ba Better and Ba Boston, then paraded jauntily down the line together.

I told them they looked like total gangstas – a term with which they’re apparently familiar – and we changed gears to finish up with Outkast’s “Hey Ya.”

Freakin’ perfect.


Lister and Judith, with Better and Boston’s ball caps on their heads.


Bwalya and Judith gettin’ down! (The white arms on the right are mine.)

I’m so stoked for the re-up next week!

Oh, and I’ve told them they’re now required to bring out their drums again sometime soon! After all, this is cultural EXCHANGE,  right?

P.S. The maize weighing will continue through the end of September, I’ve found. Second American Culture Day got cancelled, but I’m hoping for October …

The Recyclers

3 August 2013

There are no trash disposal or recycling services in rural Zambia. Instead, as with so many odd jobs, these two functions are carried out by children.

Yes, many people burn their trash. But that doesn’t take care of nearly all of it. Especially on the morning after Monada – the market in nearby Lubushi where hundreds, maybe thousands, gather to buy and sell various goods on the 2nd of every month.

Enter the kids. They are experts at converting plastic bottles, bags, tins, bits of wood, cardboard, old mosquito nets, ANYTHING, into toys of all kinds.

Old bike tires = fun toys!

Old bike tires = fun toys!

Cars and trains are the most popular creations, but I’ve also seen two young boys construct entire “shops” out of trash, complete with fences, a road, and old cookie packages that they were “selling.”

Agri and Katongo showing off their "motoka."

Agri and Katongo showing off their “motoka.”

This morning, I joined them in their recycling efforts.

I’d biked into Lubushi to collect ShakeShake containers, which I knew would be plentiful post-Monada. ShakeShake, or Lusaka beer, which is its brand name, is a combination of maize and sorghum, fermented into a truly vile alcoholic beverage that brings shame upon the name “beer” as I know it. But its empty containers are fantastic for planting seedlings, which is what Ba Allan and I plan to do come September. Collecting them also gives me the opportunity to talk with random strangers who want to know what the heck I’m doing, and to tell them about the importance of planting trees! (Most seem dubious, but I yammer on in my pigdin Bemba anyway.)

As soon as I arrived at the trash-strewn road today, I saw them. Dozens of children, aged two to perhaps 12, dragging away various odds and ends piled in cardboard boxes or on reed mats to which they’d attached string or cloth or plastic “ropes” for ease of transport.

Kids converting yesterday's trash into today's toys and household items.

Kids converting yesterday’s trash into today’s toys and household items.

Now, these are kids who don’t know me. Maybe they’d seen me biking around, but they’d certainly never held a conversation with me. Nevertheless, they eagerly joined me in my quest once I explained it. Unfortunately, they were really shy around the camera. (I WISH that were true in Mfuba! The kids there can’t get enough of my camera and sometimes drive me nuts with “kopeniko!” (Take my picture!) So I only got one decent photo – of a kid named Pasco and a little girl, Gloria.

I know we can’t recycle everything, and I can see the great Atlantic garbage patch growing even as I write this. (Or is it the one in the Indian Ocean to which we’re contributing?) But I try my best to do my part.

And it’s always more fun when the kids join in.

My new shed: a cost-benefit analysis

25 July 2013

My new shed is finished! Just waiting to accept my bike, my tools, extra water jugs, and all the other things that’ve been cluttering up my house. Having it built was both the best thing I could’ve done during community entry, and the worst.

The best partly because I have way too much crap, and my tiny home (half the size of my Whitefish studio apartment) feels so cramped. I can hardly wait to stretch out in my yoga practice, or play guitar without bumping the instrument into a bike tire. Mostly, though, I love the way this building project brought all sorts of people into my yard – many of whom I might never have talked to much otherwise. I now have fond memories of 30 men and boys making hundreds of mud bricks in my yard while we listened to Zam pop on Radio Mano, the local station.


Ba Emmanuel laying down mud bricks from a mold.

I also got to learn a ton about brick-laying from Ba Chilando. Sadly, Ba Agatha snuck in to cement the floor when I wasn’t around! But I talk to her all the time anyway … I’ve also met the village “bush carpenter” (“bush” because he’s not very good), who made the door.

Best of all were the guys who showed up to put the roof on for free (building and maintaining the house roof is the village’s responsibility, so I guess they decided the shed roof was part of that.) There was a lot of music and dancing then, including Ba Ronaldi bustin’ a move on top of the roof!


Ba Bernard and Ba Abraham handing poles to Ba Ronaldi for the roof.


Get up to get down: Ronaldi and Bernard bustin’ a move.

All of this for just 290 kwacha (less than $60).

The reasons it may have been the worst thing I’ve done during CE are mainly of the environmental variety. Here I am preaching conservation and “save the trees from icitemene” (Bemba for slash-and-burn agriculture), and what do I do? Have a bunch of trees cut down on my behalf.

If I can plead ignorance as a defense, I truly didn’t realize how MANY trees would need to be cut. There was the door and door frame, of course, and I specifically said I didn’t need a window to eliminate that wood source.

But I forgot that the roof support beams would be made from wood, and that ulushishi, the bark rope that holds most of rural Zambia’s homes, firewood, and produce together, also comes from trees.

I was entirely unprepared, however, for all the trees that were killed just to make scaffolding! Because, how do you reach the top of the walls when you’re laying bricks? Or building the roof? And no sensible Zambian would use the SAME scaffolding for all the walls, would he? No, for each wall, it is necessary to cut a whole new batch of trees and construct another. Sigh …

Boyd helping Ba Chilando lay bricks.

Boyd helping Ba Chilando lay bricks. Notice the scaffolding.

I console myself with a few thoughts:

1) I will be much happier with a little breathing room, which will in turn make me a nicer volunteer, right?

2) I will re-use every one of those poles, for my garden fence, re-building my bathing shelter, and anything else I can think of.

3) and most important: even if I had 10 sheds built, even if I had a mud-brick palace built, the environmental impact still wouldn’t even come close to my impact in Montana, heating my apartment and driving around and buying various plastic-packaged items.

Because, let’s face it, I can lament all I want to the wanton destruction of the Zambian environment via icitemene or cooking with firewood and charcoal. The damage here is so obvious, so in my face every day.

But how many forests have we Americans destroyed building our giant homes, or mining for the metals that power all our electronics, or drilling for the oil that fuels our vehicles and makes all our plastic packaging and gadgets?

It’s easy for me to tsk tsk the way people here supposedly abuse their environment. But they’re just trying to put food on the table and a roof over their heads – literally. Me, I want to travel the world and buy that new pair of hiking boots and an iPad.

I guess it’s all about perspective.