22 October 2013

Kayonga. Ifitobo. Utubambe. Cinamusanse. Mumpa. Cipumi. Finamuyungolo. Nalifipata.

The names spill out of Bwalya’s mouth as he ticks them off on his fingers, eyes rolled upward, trying to remember all of them and telling me, emphatically, which ones are the most delicious. He is practically drooling.

This was back in July, but now it is upon us: caterpillar season.

A mumpa caterpillar, held in the hand of Doris Kasonde.

A mumpa caterpillar, held in the hand of Doris Kasonde.

Cinsamba caterpillars are NOT edible. The kids won't even touch them.

Cinsamba caterpillars are NOT edible. The kids won’t even touch them.








Not everywhere in Zambia. Mainly here in Northern Province. And especially in Mfuba. Why? Because we still have a lot of trees. For now.

For the moment, the caterpillars are everywhere. I squish them under my bike tires, though I try not to. I pluck them off the walls inside my house and toss them outside. I watch them devouring all the fresh, green leaves that have magically appeared in this hottest and driest of months.

Mumpa caterpillars devouring the leaves in my yard.

Mumpa caterpillars devouring the leaves in my yard.

I’ve proclaimed my yard an empanga akacingililwa (protected forest), declaring caterpillar harvest off-limits within my tiny domain. (I’ve also forbid the kids from killing the bright red birds that have nested in the dead tree here.)

It was a strange decision to make: I explain that I have nothing against eating animals or insects. But there are so many of us humans, and we are eating more and more. The caterpillars that finish out their lives in my yard will go on to make more NEW caterpillars elsewhere, I tell them. Not to mention that the badly twisted and bent over mutondo tree in my yard is the result of an over-zealous caterpillar seeker when the last volunteer was here.

This is the real problem: in the scramble for caterpillars that is just now beginning, people will chop down trees just to get at them. Many don’t seem to make the connection that if you chop down the tree species that these insects favor, they won’t come back next year.

Or maybe they do. This is why people spill into the Mfuba area from nearby villages this time of year, I’m told: because they’ve killed most of their caterpillar trees and now must move on. Caterpillars are actually big business, dried and sold throughout Zambia in areas where they are no longer found.

Of course, it’s always easier to blame people from outside.

There was a big meeting at Ba Bernardi’s today (he’s the headman, after all) to try to figure out how to stop people from harvesting destructively, or harvesting caterpillars that are too young and small. Both are illegal, but with zero forestry officers in the area, enforcement is a joke.

So Mfuba’s trying to take matters into its own hands, with the village committee fining people who harvest illegally. Bernardi and three of the other men have applied to be volunteer forest guards, something I’ve helped along from the time Bernardi told me about the program months ago and asked me to pick up applications in Kasama.

But the guys were late going into town to apply: they lacked money for transport since the government was late in paying them for their maize.

So here we are, still waiting on their badges.

Cleaning cipumi caterpillars: live, squirming ones are in the green bucket; "clean" ones are in the dish at the bottom of the photo.

Cleaning cipumi caterpillars: live, squirming ones are in the green bucket; “clean” ones are in the dish at the bottom of the photo.

All the politicking and debate matter little to most of Mfuba, though. Even as the meeting dragged on, someone brought in a big bucket of cipumi caterpillars. Fat, green, squirming masses of them.

Baletina ifishimu.” Ba Dorothy told me, pointing. To my unpracticed ear, this sounded like “they are afraid of the caterpillars,” and I wondered who? The little kids?

No, no, no. Apparently there is a subtle difference in pronunciation between ukutina (to be afraid) and ukutiina (to clean caterpillars).

I find the similarity hilarious: “cleaning” caterpillars involves squezing one end ’til the guts pop out the other end. With some force, I might add. I myself was afraid some child would see the obvious opportunity to squirt green cipumi guts at a friend. Or a PCV.

Norida, Precious, Lister, and Mavis hold up their cipumi harvest.

Norida, Precious, Lister, and Mavis hold up their cipumi harvest.

Caterpillar guts!

Caterpillar guts!

Luckily, all the guts flew safely into a big, quivering, gelatinous mass on the ground.

We are safe for now.


A Zambian wedding

19 October 2013

I packed in a lot of Bemba intambi (culture) today. Or, at least, a lot of Pentecostal-Bemba intambi.

I was invited to a wedding in nearby Chisamba Village by Ba Bernardi, who, like many Mfubans has a lot of friends and family in Chisamba. I didn’t know the bride or groom, but I knew a lot of the other attendees, and they all seemed stoked to have me there. As usual, it was a little tough to follow everything that was going on, but here’s the gist:

Tons of people. More ubwali than I’ve ever seen in one place (and that’s saying a lot). A seemingly rich-family wedding, with fancy bride and bridesmaid dresses, lots of gifts, and not only chicken but BEEF on the menu. I’ve never seen beef cooked in my vil. The pastor was in a league all his own, with a headset attached to a speaker on his side, and his sermon read from a freaking TABLET! I have NEVER seen a computer of any kind in my neck of the woods. Then again, he was from Kasama …

The troupe dancing (young men and women together!) started well before the bride and groom entered. I was a little disappointed that this was all to Zampop played on a huge stereo system. Not a drum or a bush instrument in sight, even though someone had stashed a lonely bush guitar behind the last tree-limb bench in the church. (Bush guitar = handmade guitar. They’re pretty cool!)

The couple, looking very unhappy. Just as they're supposed to.

The couple, looking very unhappy. Just as they’re supposed to.

When the couple did enter, it was with eyes downcast, no smiles, the groom’s eyes hidden behind sunglasses, the bride’s behind her veil. They are apparently not supposed to look happy or act as though they are enjoying themselves in any way. They also don’t eat, save for one bite of cake. The rest they give to their parents. Celebrating is only for their family and friends, not for them.

The groom did crack a smile when the pastor teased him about something to do with god not wanting him to get bored being single his whole life. The pastor also talked about how it’s bad for a man to marry a woman 20, 30, or 40 years younger than himself (this couple were both clearly young – 18-22?). “God wants you to have fun!” he proclaimed. He even seemed to talk about the importance of communication in a marriage. I was on board!

At the end of a looong service, the bride and groom finally got to hold hands, and after their vows, they gave each other the most awkward hug I’ve ever seen. No kiss – until the pastor and a few others egged them on, and the groom gave her a tiny peck on the left cheek. I don’t think they ever looked into each other’s eyes.

Best man wiping the sweat from the groom's brow - and the rest of his head.

Best man wiping the sweat from the groom’s brow – and the rest of his head.

My favorite part of the service was when they called over the best man to wipe the sweat from the groom’s brow. (The bride and groom both being seemingly immobilized.) He did a good job, getting the groom’s whole head and even removing the sunglasses to wipe underneath.

The ceremony took us to noon. Then there was the reception, where I was (again) given a seat of honor right up front – and later forced to give a short speech! People, I don’t even KNOW the bride and groom! But I’m a mizungu, so I’m always the most exciting thing at any gathering, apparently.

At one point, in the midst of endless waiting for the bride and groom to enter, I got up to get some sorely needed water and one of the fritters I’d seen being sold outside the grass-fenced reception area. (Zambians have the whole waiting-around-at-a-wedding thing down, but NOT the appetizers-served-while-waiting-around thing. I was so freakin’ hungry!)

Suddenly, people started cheering at me, and I had no idea why. It wasn’t until I returned that one of my Mfuba friends told me they that when I’d stood up, they thought I was going to dance! (The Zampop was again blaring through huge speakers, but no one was dancing at that point.)

I’m slowly coming to accept my role as Mfuba’s pride & joy/U.S. cultural ambassador/entertainer of the Bemba masses. I mean, how can I deny them the extreme joy that they clearly get from listening to me speak Bemba, or watching me dance? So, I decided, what the heck, and got back up to dance.

Predictably, they freaking loved it.

Knife-bearing child dancers.

Knife-bearing child dancers.

After the (un)happy couple arrived, there was more dancing by the bridesmaids and groomsmen, followed by two kids shimmying down the aisle with something long and narrow, wrapped in a Kasama grocery store bag. I had no idea what was going on until they delivered the item to the front, where a very small cake was set out. Ah! A knife! No ring-bearer or flower girl for this wedding (as there was no ring, and no flowers), but there were dancing knife-bearers instead!

Then followed a cake-cutting and bride-and-groom-cake-feeding-to-each-other, just like in the States, only the bride’s mom also had her hand on the knife with them.

Cutting the cake.

Cutting the cake.

Finally, in what was possibly my favorite part so far, they had what I came to think of as the “gift train.” All the guests grouped up by village, and then, one by one, danced their way toward the bride and groom in a sort of gift-bearing conga line. As each person approached, he or she deposited a plastic bucket or cup or bowl or money on the table up front. All gifts were cooking- or water-related, and none were wrapped. So everyone knew what you’d bought.

The dancing, gift-bearing line.

The dancing, gift-bearing line.

Then, finally, after endless hours, it was over. We spilled out of the makeshift reception grounds and, after a few more bride-and-groom photos (I was designated the official wedding photographer, being the only person with a camera.), I finally got to eat.

Which, for me in this meat-filled environment, consisted of ubwali and at least eight egg yolks. The whites had mysteriously been removed, and I later learned that egg yolks are typically reserved for important men. Here I occupy a strange space between man and woman (given more respect than the women and made to eat with the men, but still expected to wear a skirt or icitenge), so this, presumably, was the reason for the lack of egg whites. I expect to have my heart attack any day now.

Tired but finally full, I biked back home. The party went on, though, and I later learned many people stayed the night, or didn’t get back to Mfuba until very late. There was still much cooking, eating, and dancing to be done, but I was exhausted from my all-day stint as the one-woman mizungu show, and content to get back home before dark.


17 October 2013

It’s rare that I am aware of what effect I’m having here. We can never really know how our small lives change the course of things; often those ripples aren’t visible until we’re gone, sunk down and away, and we can only hope that, cumulatively, we’ve sent out more good than bad.

Today, though, I had a rare glimpse of a small wave of change – maybe only a glimmer of a thought – rolling out from my ungraceful plunk into the river of Mfuba.

Bwalya, Boyd & I were working together this morning, and I suddenly realized that my relationship with these two teen boys, ages 13 and 15, may have a bigger impact than anything else I do here.

Bwalya and Boyd helping me plant avocado seeds in my yard. They've told me I'll have to come back in 10 years or so, so we can eat avocados together.

Bwalya and Boyd helping me plant avocado seeds in my yard. They’ve told me I’ll have to come back in 10 years or so, so we can eat avocados together.

They’ve helped me plant trees and make compost, watched my field develop, studied English with me, and listened to my schpiel about the importance of education more times than they’d like, I’m sure. Previously unfamiliar with growing vegetables, they now know everything there is to know about my garden, since they take care of it when I’m away.

Last week I hired them, for 10 kwacha, to make me biochar – essentially, “charcoal” – from the leftover maize cobs still lying around. They’ve started making real charcoal – from dead trees only, since their dad, Ba Bernardi, is a big advocate of tree preservation.

So I figured, why not put their skills to work?

Bwalya covering the maize cobs with soil.

Bwalya covering the maize cobs with soil.

Biochar is supposedly fantastic for soil fertility and water-holding capacity. But I’d been told you needed a metal oil drum to make it. And who has one of those around here? Why not make it the same way you’d make charcoal? Bury the wood under a mound of soil so very little air can get in, light it on fire, and let it slowly smolder for a few days ’til you have that good black stuff.

Bwalya lighting the fire.

Bwalya lighting the fire.

I had no idea if it would work, but with all the maize cobs still littering the community nsaka right next door, why not try?

Originally I pitched the idea to my counterpart Ba Allan. He feigned interest, but never followed through. Enter Boyd & Bwalya.

It took some explaining, and they clearly thought I was crazy (what else is new?), but for 10 kwacha, they didn’t really care.

Before we shook on the deal, I extracted a promise from them: before I paid them, we’d sit down for a brief lesson on record-keeping. “So you know where your money goes, and you can save for the future,” I told them. It’s something very few adults even know how to do here (sound familiar, Americans?), and it’s caused huge problems in our community, where money’s scarce to begin with. That’s a whole separate post.

Boyd & Bwalya’s eyes glazed over, much as yours might be doing now.

“You could save up to buy a bicycle!” I told them. Deal sealed.

As it turned out, Bwalya did most of the work. (Boyd had to put his parents’ errands first.). But when it came time to remove the blackened cobs (it worked!!), they were both on hand. I helped with sprinkling water to cool them off, and with putting them into sacks. It gave us all a chance to chat.

Biochar! It worked!

Biochar! It worked!

Suddenly, we were talking about religion and spirituality. They’re devout Christians, concerned for my soul, probably, and they asked, not for the first time, why I don’t go to church. I gave them my usual schpiel: that I think God is everywhere, not just in church. People build churches; God builds the forest. They seemed dubious.

The conversation morphed and shifted (Why is the Bible important? Is God really in the forest?) as I tried my best to remain impartial and hear what they thought about these things (as much as I could understand, anyway).

Then Bwalya brought up alcohol: God says you shouldn’t drink. We all agreed that the violence we’ve seen come from drinking too much is awful. They were unusually silent for a while after this, and I lapsed into my own unspoken thoughts about the tales of domestic violence I’ve recently heard. How much have these boys seen?

Then, suddenly, Bwalya asked me how I prayed out there in the forest or the mountains with God. And he wanted me to PRAY, right there. As in, “Tell me the words you say.”

I was a little taken aback. Not least because this is a pretty personal matter, kiddo! But also because just this morning, at the end of my yoga practice, I’d included him in my daily prayer. My yogi friends know it: “May I feel safe; may I feel happy; may I feel strong; may I live with ease.” Then you think of someone you love and say it to them. Then to someone you do not love at the moment. Then to the whole wide world.

This very morning, for the first time, I thought of people in Mfuba for the second and third go-rounds. Bwalya was the someone I love.

How did he know?

I recovered my composure and busted it out. Then of course I had to translate. I did NOT try to explain yoga, or the personalizations. Just that you say this first to yourself, then to people you love, then to everyone else in the world.

They seemed satisfied. I wished my Bemba and my cultural understanding of teenage boys were better.

Finally we finished. I gave them their financial lesson, along with a sheet of paper to keep tabs on, and their 10 kwacha.

They were stoked (for the money at least), but it seemed like such a small amount, considering all they’ve given me. I wanted to give them something that would actually change their lives for the better – in the long term. Maybe I have. I hope so much that I have.

I also wanted to give them a huge hug.

But they are teenage boys, and I am an awkward, culturally inept PCV, so instead I let them go with a handshake.

They took off across the road, ripples of happiness bouncing off of them and across the yard.

Life, one bucket at a time

9 October 2013

Some of you may remember way back in March, during our Pre-Service Training, when I was lamenting all the water my Bamaayo had to carry. Well now it’s me doing the carrying.

Since this is the hot, dry season, and since I insist on having a garden and planting trees, that’s a LOT of water carrying. Between watering the garden and tree nursery, bathing, washing clothes and dishes, and, of course, cooking and drinking, I average about 40 liters a day right now.

That’s 10 buckets of water, each one pulled up from the well, hand over hand. No nice pump-action borehole here in Mfuba.

And since the water table drops in the dry season, the rubber rope has been extended by several feet – using nails that one must be careful to avoid. Slowly, one bucket at a time, I’m learning the length of rope by feel, so I no longer have to think so much about where those nails are; my hands just know.

Still, it now takes just a little bit longer to raise each bucket out of the well.

Bwalya is much more practiced at this than I.

Bwalya is much more practiced at this than I.

Bwalya and Boyd and some of the other kids used to love helping me fetch water. But they’ve now reduced their assistance to almost zero. I blame a combination of their own personal water-fetching needs increasing (everyone’s making bricks or watering SOMETHING now), and my waning celebrity status. At least near my house, I’m no longer the exciting one-woman mizungu show. Now I’m just a neighbor who’s a little slower at hauling up those buckets than everyone else.

This is the last card I have in my favor: Webby or Boyd occasionally get tired of waiting for me and just take over on the last couple buckets.

For the most part though, the only ones who actively try to help now are little Cila, Doro, and Annette, all of whom are way too young. I feel guilty making them do hard labor, and besides, they take much longer than even I do, and spill half what they bring up. So I tell them they have to wait ’til they’re older, even though they appear crestfallen every time.

I’m not complaining, though. My water source is MUCH closer here than back in Yuda Village (About 300 meters away, vs. the two kilometers Bamaayo had to schlep it.) Every time I get water is an excuse to chat with friends, and I’ve gained the confidence to carry a full 10-liter bucket on my head. (The jugs, with nice handles, I still carry two at a time, by hand.) Not to mention I’m getting ripped for the first time since trail work days. :+)

But I’m not gonna lie: I’ll be oh-so-happy when rainy season comes!

It’s funny how back in the States, I can be something of a water Nazi, always trying to conserve. Here, though, that argument seems beside the point. I’m working hard enough that I now bathe almost every day, thank you very much. And I enjoy every moment of it. I’ve also given up the idea of re-using my laundry water on the tree seedlings or the garden. The caustic soap here might just kill them.

Yesterday at the well, Ba Elizabeth asked if we fetch water in the same way in America. I felt somewhat embarrased to admit: we don’t fetch water at all. We turn a little handle, and water just comes out. Inside the house. I couldn’t bring myself to explain that there are several separate faucets throughout the house, partly because I’d then have to explain how big U.S. houses are. And that, like so many other unexplainable things here, is just a big can of worms I’m not yet prepared to open.

I expected Elizabeth to be shocked, amazed, maybe envious. But no. She seemed to greet this information as just one more strange thing we do in America.

Here, no one seems to think about how much water they’re using, or about how much effort it takes to haul it.

It’s just life, one bucket at a time.

This week in Mfuba

6 October 2013

It’s been an interesting and eventful week in Mfuba. I spent most of my mornings digging in my field next to the main path through town, so suddenly, I have a much larger window on village happenings and gossip. For better and for worse. Here’s just a sampling of the goings-on in my home vil this week:

  • A mother told me, quite casually and with a smile, that she was taking her 18-month-old daughter to the clinic for a follow-up because she “has malnutrition.”
  • I learned that a kid I’d thought was 4 or 5 is actually 8 years old. Same family as the malnourished 18-month-old.
  • I laughed ’til I cried during a soya baking demonstration with 25 Bamaayos, who lifted my spirits by proclaiming we should do this EVERY month. And so we will.

    Ba Mary and Ba Marita lifted my spirits by enthusiastically helping me teach other village women how to make soya cake and banana-soya biscuits!

    Ba Mary and Ba Marita lifted my spirits by enthusiastically helping me teach other village women how to make soya cake and banana-soya biscuits!

  • I was accused of causing the village’s fledgling HIV club to fall apart. (But was later told this was a lie. Still don’t know what’s going on half the time.)
  • One of the HIV club’s leaders was accused of impregnating a 17-year-old girl, who subsequently gave herself an abortion.
  • The police came to Mfuba – all the way from Kasama – to investigate. Apparently abortion is illegal in Zambia.
  • I went back out into my field and dug some more – perhaps more aggressively than usual – and felt a little better.
  • I worked happily and peacefully in my garden.

    My little home garden.

    My little home garden.

  • I lifted up a half-dozen kids so they could see over the garden fence – an event that seemed to cause great joy.
  • I was accused of not teaching enough.
  • I was accused of forcing a farmer to grow tobacco, because I wouldn’t buy him onion seed (same guy). (who on earth would’ve thought I’d become so influential! ;+)
  • A different farmer told me with some excitement that he was going to try conservation farming in a small part of his field this year.
  • Riding home at nightfall, I watched a wall of flame engulf a good chunk of our wetland. Beautiful and terrible at the same time.
  • I learned that my favorite guy in the village beats his wife. “Only when he’s drunk,” I was assured with a laugh.
  • I found this out because there was an outbreak of domestic violence at their grown son’s house, which spilled into the main path through town.
  • I shut myself in my hut, cursed the world, and felt helpless.
  • I took a deep breath, went back outside, and started over again.
  • At least a half-dozen kids brought me wild amasuku and mfungo fruits that they’d gathered. Delicious!
  • Two of my favorite girls couldn’t go to school because they had to accompany sick family members to the clinic 12K away.
  • A whole slew of other kids couldn’t go to school because there were no teachers present, the staff of seven having been cut back to five, for teaching almost 400 kids.
  • I went back out into my field and dug some more – perhaps more aggressively than usual – and felt better.
  • I was told that a man in a village 20K away impregnated a dog. Every person I’ve talked with insists this is true. I couldn’t stop laughing.
  • I felt utterly alone.
  • I danced in the rain with two of my favorite kids, ecstatic over the first water we’ve seen from the sky since mid-May (even if it was only sprinkles) and felt completely connected to the pulse of life on this planet.

Schooled (I’m not as Zambian as I thought I was)

27 September 2013

Went to get more cow manure late this afternoon, to make a new compost pile. This time, I did not ride proudly back to Mfuba. My badly abused panniers got caught up in the spokes, and I fell.

A huge crowd of kids came to watch. I asked the two oldest to help me right the bike. (This time the sack definitely weighed 50 kilos.) We adjusted the load. I got back on, pedaled about 50 feet, and fell again. I let out a string of curse words that I trust they did not understand.

A larger crowd gathered. The two boys who’d helped me pick up the bike started haggling: 20 kwacha to bring the sack to Mfuba for me. No freakin’ way. I’d walk the bike first.

10 kwacha. No. The kids in Mfuba woulda done it for free. 5 kwacha. OK, worth it.

(What has happened to me that I’d let a 12-year-old struggle with MY 50 Kg of manure for 6 kilometers, and not even want to pay him?!)

A man – maybe the kid’s father, maybe not – appeared with a bike. He looked neither friendly nor pleased, but still I thought, ah, HE’s going to offer to carry the manure. Crazy that I’ve come to EXPECT people to go out of their way for me, but there you have it.


“He’ll take it,” the man said, cigarrette dangling precariously from his lips as he gestured to the kid. We moved the load from my bike to his, and the kid attempted to take off.

He wobbled for about the same distance that I had, then fell over.

I felt instantly validated. “See, it’s hard!” I exclaimed in my appropriately childish Bemba.

If I were a better person, I would’ve felt bad for the kid, wondered if he was OK. Instead, I was merely relieved that I hadn’t been shown up by a 12-year-old.

Finally, reluctantly, the guy with the cigarette said he’d take it. But he did NOT seem to take the whole Zambian helpfulness thing to heart. We rode back to Mfuba in silence. Upon arrival, I gave him 5 kwacha, and he took it, still put out, which is frankly exactly how I would’ve felt if I were him.

Once it was all over, I stopped by Ba Nellis’ house briefly. She asked where I’d come from, and I relayed the whole story, complete with sound effects. Partly for her amusement, partly to atone for my earlier arrogance.

Something’s gotta keep me humble.

All eyes on me

27 September 2013

What’s more intimidating than being a lone mizungu in a remote Zambian village? Being a lone mizungu planting her field right next to the main path through the vil.

Like most of my more ridiculous schemes, I’m doing this on purpose. I asked Ba Bernardi if I could farm this small piece of his field (ten beds total, each less than 40 meters long) precisely BECAUSE of its location.

First few rows of my field, with minimum-tillage basins made more visible by the ash I've placed on top. Next step: backfill, then wait for the rains.

First few rows of my field, with minimum-tillage basins made more visible by the ash I’ve placed on top. Next step: backfill, then wait for the rains.

I don’t want to just tell people they should change their farming methods to improve crop yields and still have fertile land in the future; I want to show them that it’s possible, and less labor-intensive than what they’re doing now. I want people to see me out there digging, and I want them to be able to ask questions if they want.

Enter my little piece of land.

I’ve already got a small garden going, but you have to purposely walk into my yard and look over the pig-proof fence to see it.

The field’s a different proposition altogether.

And let’s not forget that I have never had my own field, or even my own garden, before. My previous farming experience has been limited to doing precisely what real farmers tell me to do when I’m helping on THEIR farms.

Also, in typical crazy mizungu fashion, I will NOT be growing just one crop when rainy season begins in mid-november. I’m planning an intercropped hodge-podge of dry beans, groundnuts (that’s peanuts for the Americans), cow peas, soybeans, maize, squash, and a local squash-like plant called amonkolobwe.

I don’t have the time or the giant family to maintain whole hectares of crops. So I’m trying several different things in a small area – just like I’ve seen good farmers do elsewhere: Using manure and ash in four of my rows instead of the ubiquitous “compound D” fertilizer and lime, which farmers typically receive from the government too late to be of much help, anyway. Using no fertilizer at all in the other rows (many here can’t afford it anyway.) Intercropping. Solar planting, which involves planting maize a good month BEFORE the reliable rains set in, to get that big flush of nitrogen from the very first big rain. Growing green manure crops between crop rows to slash back into the soil.

My hope is that things will grow well, and I can lead/teach by example. Ba Bernardi has given me some serious help in that he did NOT burn his fields this year, and he left behind the maize residues as organic matter to protect and enrich the soil. These are two main tenets of conservation farming (CF), as it’s called here. (The others are crop rotation and minimum tillage, which I’m doing by digging just small holes along the ridges where I’ll plant.)

Another bonus is that Bernardi and his family have been farming this piece of land since 2009, so this is approaching the time when it would normally be abandoned and a new field cleared out of the forest. So if I can make things grow well here – especially two years in a row – it would be a fantastic selling point for CF, and for trying new things in general.

That, of course, is a big IF.

Already, though, as I’ve been digging my basins and the past week, I’ve fielded a LOT of questions from passersby.

Most people who’ve walked by are clearly skeptical. But I’ve had two fantastic discussions with a couple young guys, both of which basically turned into full-on demos. And, of course, all the kids are into it as they head to and from school.

If nothing else, I appear to be getting a little respect from everyone just for farming, period. Skeptical of my crazy method of field prep or not, they are all little shocked – but universally pleased – to see me bent over with a hoe just like everyone else.

Me, I’m stoked to be digging in the dirt, reviving long-dormant callouses and that unique sense of satisfaction that comes from physical work. I’m also loving that I get to watch the whole village’s comings and goings – something I can’t imagine I would’ve said four months ago.

It may be a different story when the rains come. Everyone in Mfuba will see whether I succeed or fail in this little experiment.

But hey, nothing worthwhile is ever without risk. Joining Peace Corps Zambia wasn’t exactly part of the “play it safe” plan, either.

So, why not give farming a shot? There are only about 800 people watching.