75 Percent of the time

22 November 2013

How much of my Peace Corps service should be spent in my village? How much time is “enough”? And what does that even mean? Am I counting quantity here, or quality?

These are questions I’ve struggled with lately. Heck, I guess I’ve been pondering them since my first day in Mfuba, back in May at the start of our three-month Community Entry.

But I’d never actually quantified time in the vil until it suddenly became a hot topic among my PCV friends here in Northern Province. The last two times I’ve seen other PCVs, the subject has come up: what percentage of time do we all spend in the vil? Several have now calculated, and the general consensus is 60 percent in the vil, 40 percent out.

Now, a non-PCV might be shocked by this. To be honest, many of us were, too. 60 percent seems so small! But these are the numbers from PCVs whom I admire, and who are clearly doing great work in their villages. I think most of them were shocked by the low percentages, too. Theoretically, our villages are our whole reason for being here.

So what pulls us out of our villages? PC trainings and workshops, for one. Just in my short time in Mfuba, I’ve had a 12-day Interim Service Training, three days helping with a girls’ camp in Luwingu, and a three-day nutrition training. Coming up are a week-long Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) and a two-day environmental education training. Then there are the semi-annual Provincial Meetings – three or four days each time. And don’t forget there’s always at least one travel day at the beginning and end of each of these – two when us Northerners have to go to Lusaka for a training. Some PCVs also end up serving on our country-wide Volunteer Action Committee, or helping to train new PCTs when they first arrive. Then there are medical emergencies (like having parasites cut out of your toes).

These are the things we can’t avoid.

Harder to justify (for me, at least) are the non-essential times away. Like vacations. (I’ve had exactly one in over nine months in Zambia, and that lasted  6 days.) And the four days a month we’re allowed to stay at the PC office/house in Kasama, which I thought I’d rarely use, but turns out I use ALL of them for one reason or another. Or the random visits to see other volunteers at their sites for a day or two.

                       These guys?                                                                    Or these guys?

"Gu Crew" photo, taken at our Provincial Meetings. I'm technically in Kasama District, but I spend more time with the Luwingu PCVs than the Kasamers, so they invited me to join their photo instead. Back row: Erica, me, and Adam; Dan (left) and Tristan are up front.

“Gu Crew” photo, taken at our Provincial Meetings. I’m technically in Kasama District, but I spend more time with the Luwingu PCVs than the Kasamers, so they invited me to join their photo instead. Back row: Erica, me, and Adam; Dan (left) and Tristan are up front.

My Mfuba buddies: Left to right, Joyci, Annette, Obed, Memory, Doro, and Allan.

My Mfuba buddies: Left to right, Joyci, Annette, Obed, Memory, Doro, and Allan.










I feel guilty every time I leave Mfuba when I don’t HAVE to.

But why?

These past two weeks, I’ve struggled more with being in my vil than I have since Community Entry. I find myself feeling alternately exhausted, frustrated, withdrawn, lonely, and mildly depressed, usually in that order and then back around again.

I thought I’d feel more “at home” here by this point, and in some brief, shining moments, I do. But darn those language and cultural barriers! And the slow progress and cancelled meetings!

It just ain’t always easy.

This, our PC bosses would say, is why taking time away is good for mental health. They encourage us to take vacations and visit other PCVs, to keep ourselves sane. Every time I leave Mfuba, I come back feeling refreshed and ready to try again.

But it’s hard to shake the nagging feeling that I should be doing more in Mfuba, and making more friends in my village than outside of it.

So, guilt (and curiosity) got the best of me, and the other day I calculated my own percentages. Turns out I’ve so far spent 75% of my time right here in Mfuba.

This, my friends would say, qualifies me as a “village rat.” Which kinda makes me proud for no good reason. It’s what I aspired to when I first came to Zambia.

Besides, most days I LOVE my vil, and I usually WANT to spend time here. I know I’m lucky in that respect. A lot of PCVs have a much harder time with their neighbors than I’ve had.

But screw it: I’m plannin’ a big Christmas/New Year’s vacation! Maybe my quantity of time in Mfuba will plummet, but I’ll bet it greatly improves the quality.


Search & rescue

20 November 2013

Today Mfuba sent out a massive search party to find a woman missing in the woods. Last night, she didn’t come back from harvesting caterpillars. She’s not from here, didn’t know the area. And she had a baby strapped to her back.

I could be in Montana right now, listening for news of a skier lost in an avalanche. Or a tourist who didn’t return from a backpacking trip in Glacier NP.

Only here, there is no search & rescue team trained in such things. There are only the men of Mfuba (and a few women), organized by Headman Ba Bernardi.

First he sent out one of our town criers, telling everyone to come help, and announcing that no one was allowed to collect caterpillars today. Then the ad hoc search party fanned out, a few carrying axes, most carrying nothing.

At the end of the day, the only clue they’d found was one of the two buckets the missing woman had been carrying. It was empty.

I’m virtually certain there are no wild predators left in our area, and even Kasama residents are well-versed in starting fires for cooking and warmth (not like it’s getting that cold at night at the moment anyway …) There are plenty of caterpillars and wild fruits to eat at the moment. But it was back to intense heat today; was she able to find a stream?

Since she’s still missing, Ba Bernardi tracked down the number for the local radio station out of Kasama, hoping her family there might hear news of her that way.

The mood in the village was strangely subdued today. Just as if this were happening in Montana.

I don’t know if they’ll search again tomorrow.

21 November 2013

We found her! Well, not really. Turns out she found a well-worn path yesterday and walked over 30 kilometers to the next village in that direction. Someone who had a vehicle brought her back to Mfuba this morning.

But not before the whole village had fanned out yet again. They left super early. I decided I’d offer to help, and with that in mind I went to Ba Bernardi’s at 5:45.

He and most of the others were already gone, but Ba Webby and Ba Bright were just getting ready to head out, and they said I could join them. I wolfed down a cold breakfast, filled my pack with water (figuring water-carrier might be my most useful function – and it was), and took off.

Here I must admit to having two motives, one entirely selfish. Yes, I DID want to help. But I also thought it would be a good way to see more of the forest without getting lost myself.

And boy was it. To my secret delight, we headed straight for the rocky escarpment (aka “mountain”) southeast of the vil, first on bike and then on foot, and spent the next seven hours out there.

We didn’t go up to the edge. That’s where Bernardi and a couple others were beating on plastic buckets so that the lost woman could head in that direction – if she heard them. Webby told me that if anyone found her, they’d change the drumming to fast and celebratory, so all of us out searching would know to come back.

The three of us skirted around below the escarpment, sticking to the protected forest to the south and southwest. We stopped every so often to give a high-pitched shout and listen for an answer, but Webby seemed as interested in catching birds and rodents as he was in finding the missing person. He and Bright put a few in their pockets, but they were full up by the time we came upon a medium-sized turtle. Webby’s solution: dig a shallow hole and place the turtle in it, upside down, legs flailing uselessly. He’d find it on the way back, he said. I gave him such a look, snapping that the turtle would suffer in the sun, and you know this IS a protected forest, buddy, that he relented and let the turtle go. Conversation #1,286 about how I don’t mind hunting, but I DO mind cruelty.

We also ate a LOT of wild fruits along the way. Which was good, since no one brought lunch.

Evantually we ran into two other men from the vil. Tagging along with them were two friends of the missing woman. I found out her name – Jackie – and that her baby is 9 months old. These friends, Ba Annie and Ba Gift, were somehow pawned off on us, and I soon realized why. Gift was very shy and quiet, but Annie was a bit melodramatic. She alternated between moaning helplessly with her head in her hands, and interpreting every dent in the soil, every fruit seed as a sign that Jackie had passed this way. Then again, I came to like her a LOT over the next four hours.

The five of us carried on, and along the way I was stoked to see foot-long millipedes (which Webby does NOT eat), mushrooms, and all kinds of beautiful flowers popping directly out of the ground, many with no visible leaves or stems. It killed me not to stop and botanize a little, but there were more important things to do. Like ask the PCV all about life in America, and how many children she has, and how/if Americans get married, and if you can hunt in America, and if Americans also get lost in the woods …

We headed downhill to the wetland along the Akamana Musamba. Akamana means “little river,” and it sure was tiny. It was after 11 when we reached this creek, and I was starting to swelter. So I dunked my head in – to the great amusement of the Zambians – and also got my ball cap and shirt wet.

Having lost any potential trail, the decision was made to circle back another way. About a half hour later, my phone rang. It was Ba Allan, telling us to return to the village. “We have seen her,” he told me, cryptically, in English. Then he hung up, talk time being an expensive commodity.

When I translated to the group, I must admit I didn’t know what to say. Did they find her alive? Was she OK? In my experience, Bembas are prone to speaking cryptically, but I’m not usually faced with the task of translating.

Annie and Gift must’ve sensed my hesitancy. “Is she OK?” they demanded.

Worried to be the bearer of bad news, I agreed to call back. “Balifye bwino sana!” (she’s great!) was Allan’s enthusiastic reply. Annie threw jumped up, ran around, threw herself on the ground, rolled around, and ululated her heart out. It was kinda hilarious, and in the end she even gave me a huge hug.

We finally got to meet Jackie when we got back to Mfuba. She was young, tired, and limping, but otherwise fine. Her baby’s fine, too. I told her she’s a strong woman, but I think she was too exhausted to reply.

I’m glad the rescue part of our searching proved unnecessary. So now I can just savor the adventure of our little excursion into the woods.


18 November 2013

I’m listening to the soft patter of rain on my thatch roof and the muffled sounds of receding thunder – from my first REAL rainstorm in Mfuba!

First rain storm of the season, pouring down on my yard and garden (right).

First rain storm of the season, pouring down on my yard and garden (right).

I saw another big ol’ storm in the town of Luwingu on Saturday, while I was there for a much-needed weekend off with my Gu Crew buddies. The five of us PCVs watched it roll in from a concrete amphitheater in the town park. Huge black clouds; high winds that tore branch after branch off the nearest eucalyptus (no worries: locals were on hand to immediately burn them, setting fires being a favorite pastime here.); and man did it get cold!

Adam and I, the newbies America’s mountainous West, grinned uncontrollably even as we shivered; breathed deeply of the cool, damp air; and cheered on the thunder and lightening. Dan, Erica, and Tristan, who’ve been in NoPro over a year and have seen this all before, were less enthusiastic. “Welcome to the next five months,” Erica droned.

We were undeterred.

Adam was the only one prepared with both a rain jacket and a warm hat. As he put them on, he said, “Do you ever find yourself putting on comfort clothes, even when it’s too warm and you don’t need to?”

Dan immediately called him out: “You’re only putting those on because you’re cold. Pansy.” My how quickly we’ve gotten used to the heat. The rest of us shivered in our short sleeves and shorts and summery skirts; we’d been sweating uncontrollably only an hour before.

Then we got to watch the clouds open up, flooding the streets of Luwingu. We all wondered aloud if it was also raining in our respective villages. As it turned out, nope.

So today, finally, I got to experience a big storm at my own home. Same spectacular display. Man I’ve missed thunderstorms!

Storm rolling in over my yard.

Storm rolling in over my yard.

I was so excited, all I wanted to do was watch it come in (even though initially I worried it could be just a tease). But no, this was the real thing.

At first I was so enamoured that I could do nothing but watch. Then I remembered my garden! A compost pile; not-yet-emerged tree seedlings; and a lettuce-tomato nursery made from a cardboard box – none of which should be getting soaked or pounded by a hard rain. So I threw on my rain gear for the first time since PST and went out into the yard. I laughed aloud to be out tromping around in the rain, covering things with plastic and thicker mulch. I almost felt like I was back on a farm in Montana.

It was only very belatedly that I remembered my house! What was getting rained on in there?! Miraculously, I found only one major leak. (Thank you, Ba Bernardi, for your tireless roof repairs!) Of course it’s right over my desk, where I like to keep notebooks, books, and electronics. But hey, better than over my bed …

It wasn’t until I came back out on the porch that I noticed the flying termites emerging from every tiny hole that the juvenile insects have been carefully boring into my walls for months. I thought I’d found and plugged them all with petroleum jelly, but there were untold dozens I’d missed.

Winged termites emerging from one of the many holes in my walls and hard-packed dirt yard.

Winged termites emerging from one of the many holes in my walls and hard-packed dirt yard.

It was like a cross between a Discovery Channel documentary and a horror movie: they were emerging in endless rivers of writhing wings and taking flight all over my yard. I took only a couple pictures before I decided: “screw this nature show” and got out the bug spray. It’s called, appropriately, “Doom,” and I sprayed it all over the porch, where I do most of my cooking. (At least I do the food PREP inside …)

But a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do to keep the nature OUTSIDE her house.

Now the rain’s coming down harder again. It could be a long rainy season.

But I can’t help it: I’m still looking forward to it.

My best friends in Mfuba

16 November 2013

When I arrived in Zambia, I was NOT what you’d call a kid lover. To me, they’ve always been just like small, overly needy adults. Some kids I love, some I can’t stand, around most I’m indifferent. I never got what the big deal was with children.

Somehow, though, the kids in Mfuba have become one of the very best parts of my life here. They give me hope when things feel hopeless, and laughs when I’m feeling down. Spending time with my favorite kids can send me right back into “I love this place!” mode.

I’d had a rough few days in the vil when Allan and I went to the Mfuba Community School to show them the letter and drawings I’d received from my friend Lish’s 2nd grade class back in Montana. We’re doing a kind of classroom exchange of ideas via Peace Corps’ Correspondence Match Program.

The first time I sent out a letter, I had just the kids nearest to me come over to draw pictures and give me ideas for writing the letter. But when I got back a whole stack of drawings “ku Amelika,” Bwalya told me we HAD to bring them to the school to show everyone. Like most of his ideas, it was a good one.

So we did, and it was the best thing I did all week. The kids were so freakin excited – especially when they got to make their own drawings and when I brought out the camera to take some photos to show the Montana kids.

Mfuba schoolkids showing off their drawings.

Mfuba schoolkids showing off their drawings.

More Mfuba schoolkids with their drawings.

More Mfuba schoolkids with their drawings.

And I could understand why: I was pretty stoked myself. I got to spend time with some of my favorite kids, and I got to know a bunch of others a little better. I try to go out of my way to greet and talk to the kids in other parts of Mfuba, but it’s tough to do: I just don’t spend as much time there.

In my neighborhood, I’m kinda old news, and anyway most of the kids are relatively well-fed and cared-for. Elsewhere, skinny, snotty-nosed kids fall all over themselves just to shake my hand, grinning ear to ear. My heart breaks a little every time. Especially for the many whose parents don’t even send them to school. THESE are the kids I wish I could help. But that’s a whole other story.

Anyway, it was great to hang out with a wider group of kiddos and to see them light up. It lit me up, too.

It wasn’t always like this. When I came to Mfuba they were sometimes the bane of my existence. They came to my yard in hordes and talked all at once and shouted “Ba Terri Ba Terri!” over and over and wouldn’t leave. I couldn’t tell most of them apart, so they were a faceless mass, demanding candy and my household belongings and colored pencils and, in general, a lot more than I wanted to give.

Slowly, though, in countless smaller exchanges, they’ve won me over. (Learning how to make them go away helped, too.)

What I find most interesting is how some of the kids who drove me the craziest when I first came to Mfuba are now among my favorites.

Doro in my yard.

Doro in my yard.

Like Doro. She stole a colored pencil from me my first week in Mfuba, so I tracked her down at her house and told her she was a thief. She was mortified and almost burst into tears. Then she stayed away from my house for a couple weeks. But now she is one of my most patient Bemba teachers, and a riot to be around.

Martin & Kamfwa holding (respectively) a brick and the "sweeties" they were given (not DIRECTLY by me ...) to carry bricks from the school to my nsaka.

Martin & Kamfwa holding (respectively) a brick and the “sweeties” they were given (not DIRECTLY by me …) to carry bricks from the school to my nsaka.

I went through a similar conversion with Kamfwa. When I first met him, he was demanding and pissy and would scowl at me when I wouldn’t give him things. Frankly, I thought he was a little brat. Then one day I happened to be in a particularly good mood, and when I saw him along the path I greeted him with a smile and, for the first time, shook his hand. He beamed back at me with a HUGE smile and has been my buddy ever since.

Obed. (He's standing in a partially demolished house that was being enlarged.)

Obed. (He’s standing in a partially demolished house that was being enlarged.)

Ditto Obed, whose “BaTerriBaTerriBaTerri” was the most incessant when I first arrived. Now I love it when I run into him.

Chola (in green sweater at right) with friends/cousins Mavis, Memory, Naomi, and, at the back, some girl who was visiting.

Chola (in green sweater at right) with friends/cousins Mavis, Memory, Naomi, and, at the back, some girl who was visiting.

And then there’s Kamfwa’s older sister, 13-year-old Chola. She is sass personified. She comes through my yard, hand on her hip, speaking in rapid-fire Bemba and rolling her eyes at me when I don’t understand. In the beginning, I wanted to smack her. Then one day I was eating ubwali with her family, and her mom (who seems to have given the harsh, sassy gene to every one of her kids) said something really cruel to her eldest daughter. Suddenly, Chola was wiping away tears with the edge of her citenge, trying to hide them before her mom saw. I almost cried myself to see this super-smart, confident girl being brow-beaten. Suddenly, I had a little glimpse into Chola’s personality, and my heart went out to her. She is no joke the smartest girl in our village, and I try to tell her so every chance I get. I also have to make a point of getting a photo of her with her hand on her hip! Can’t believe I don’t have one.

Then, of course, there are the ones who’d be adorable in ANY setting. The kind of kids who melt your heart just by their mere presence.

Agri in my yard, with a bowl of caterpillars on his head. Is he not the most adorable child you've ever seen?

Agri in my yard, with a bowl of caterpillars on his head. Is he not the most adorable child you’ve ever seen?

Agri falls into this category. The youngest son of my next-door neighbor, Ba Nellis, he’s 3 and was pretty shy around me at first. He has an unfortunate name, which at first sounded exactly like “ugly” to me. But he is a total sweetheart. He’s also the very first kid in the vil who let me pick him up. He LOVES when I hold him up over the garden fence to see my veggies. But he continues to be totally undemanding, just passing silently through my yard with a smile. He is probably the most photogenic child I’ve ever met, and I could post at least a dozen photos of him that are each so sweet they’d give you a toothache.

Katongo, with caterpillars on his head.

Katongo, with caterpillars on his head.

Agri’s older brother, Katongo, competes for the title of “My Absolute Favorite Kid in Mfuba.” In my first week in Mfuba, he saw me carrying armfuls of crop residues from the community nsaka to my house, and without a word, he started helping. He also has the endearing habit of greeting me at 4 p.m. by saying “Mwashibukeni mukwai!” (Good morning!) or walking through my yard, while I myself am stationary inside my hut and not going anywhere, and saying “Ba Terri, mwende bwino!” which means “Travel well, Ba Terri!” He makes me feel that I’m not the only one who gets mixed up in Bemba.

Ah, and then there are Annette and Lavenda. Though they’re cousins, they could be twins with the amount of time they spend together. They are sweet and photogenic and absolutely beautiful. These little girls are gonna be heartbreakers some day soon …

Annette with her currently gap-toothed smile.

Annette with her currently gap-toothed smile.

Lavenda, chewing on some amasuku fruit. (The bowl was a common theme with the kids in my yard that day.)

Lavenda, chewing on some amasuku fruit. (The bowl was a common theme with the kids in my yard that day.)

Ester (right, with headband), and Lazaro (the tall one at the back). The other kids I don't know so well. As I said, they all live at the end of town where I don't go so often.

Ester (right, with headband), and Lazaro (the tall one at the back). The other kids I don’t know so well. As I said, they all live at the end of town where I don’t go so often.

Also falling into the way-too-adorable category are Lazaro and his little sister Ester. They live at the other end of town, but I find myself heading that way every once in a while just to greet them. They both use any excuse to touch me: a handshake, stroking my arm hair. But they do it with such joy and awe, and in such an unassuming way, that somehow I am totally OK with it.

Loyci with baby brother Musonda on her back.

Loyci with baby brother Musonda on her back.

Then there’s Loyci, who easily competes for smartest girl in the village and is clearly a leader at the school. One of those kids who seems to be popular because she’s actually a nice person. She demands nothing at all of me, but is always friendly and sweet.

Last but certainly not least, there are the kids who’ve had me from the beginning. The ones I loved almost instantly due to their kindness, helpfulness, or just plain great personalities. Interestingly, they’re not necessarily the personalities I would’ve picked out as my best friends in the vil, but here they are.

Mavis, right, holding up caterpillars with cousin Donna. They're both basking in the shade of my tarp water catchment, which they'd just helped me set up.

Mavis, right, holding up caterpillars with cousin Donna. They’re both basking in the shade of my tarp water catchment, which they’d just helped me set up.

Mavis is the biggest sweetheart you will ever meet. She is almost painfully shy, and she rarely speaks around me. But every time she smiles, she practically glows. And she ALWAYS smiles at me. She goes out of her way to help me with any project, and seems to feel privileged to do so. Her proudest day in the village was getting to wear my backpack when I was playing netball and had to ditch it.

Joyci after sweeping my yard. Her broom's hiding Lavenda, I think.

Joyci after sweeping my yard. Her broom’s hiding Lavenda, I think.

Joyci is moody. Prone to crying fits even though she’s 8 or 9 – an age where most kids here have gotten over that sort of thing. But she LOVES to drum and dance and sing – with me, other kids, or even by herself – and she does so with a soul and enthusiasm that I just don’t see in many people. No small, hip-swaying movements for Joyci. She dances in ecstatic leaps and bounds that remind me of me when I was a kid, and it’s virtually impossible to get a good photo of her in motion, so you’ll have to settle for one of her after she swept my yard one day.

Finally, anyone who reads this blog knows about Bwalya. He only arrived in Mfuba about a year ago, after his father died and his mom couldn’t take care of all the kids. So now he lives with relatives here. He recently told me that Bwalya is only a nickname he’s been given here in Mfuba. He prefers his English name, Steven, so I’m trying to remember to call him that. I’d do just about anything for Steven. Partly because he does so much for me: watering my garden, helping me plant trees, helping me out in my field. And since he knows I love wildlife, he’s made it his duty to point out every cool bug and lizard he finds. We recently spent 30 minutes stalking a blue-headed lizard, called cikolokombwa in Bemba.

Steven, aka Bwalya, posing with a lizard you can JUST make out in the twisted trunk of the tree at left.

Steven, aka Bwalya, posing with a lizard you can JUST make out in the twisted trunk of the tree at left.

Steven is prone to angry outbursts at younger kids who he thinks aren’t
behaving properly, especially when they’re doing so around me. But, more often, he dotes on them, especially the youngest, holding them in his lap and telling them stories. He also gets frustrated with me. One of his most frequent phrases is “Mwandini, Ba Terri!” (which loosely translates as “For Pete’s
sake, Ba Terri!”) uttered when he doesn’t understand me, or vice versa. He
is one of my best Bemba teachers, yet you can tell he sometimes grows weary of our ongoing communication barriers. Steven’s a natural leader among the kids, even with his short time in the village. Yet he can be moody and cranky, and he is NOT a morning person. Basically, he’s a typical 13-year-old boy.

These kids, collectively, have done more to make me love Mfuba than anyone or anything else. They are the heart and soul of this place, and for that I am grateful.

Caterpillars, Part 2 (Or, one more reason to pray for rain)

13 November 2013

Suddenly, I am a stranger in Mfuba all over again.

Can't remember the name of the fuzzy caterpillars at left, but next to it are two mumpa and one cinamunkakankaka (say that one three times fast.)

Can’t remember the name of the fuzzy caterpillars at left, but next to it are two mumpa and one cinamunkakankaka (say that one three times fast.)

Hordes of people have descended on our little corner of Zambia, from as far away as Lake Bangweulu, Kasama, and even Lusaka. And they are all here for one thing: ifishimu (caterpillars).

I see them walking into the vil now in a constant stream, from all directions, more every day.

I can’t imagine how the caterpillars in our little patch of forest can possibly support them all. But at 20 kwacha per bucket – more than a day’s wages doing hired labor – they’re all giving it a shot. For the first time, I fully understand why Ba Bernardi and many others are so worried about potential tree-cutting. I’d had no idea it would be like this. If they wanted to, these caterpillar hunters could raze every tree in a 5-kilometer radius.

I suggested to Ba Bernardi that, if he wants, we could get everyone together some evening and talk about the importance of trees. But Bernardi, who’s been around the makeshift camps and out in the forest way more than I, told me he’s seen no axes. And I’ve heard no chopping noises at all, myself. So we’re hopeful.

Still, I’m continuing to pray for the first big rains – now three weeks late. That will be the end of the caterpillars (which will burrow underground until they emerge as butterflies starting in January) and the caterpillar hunters.

Caterpillars drying in the sun at "caterpillar camp," aka the Mfuba community nsaka.

Caterpillars drying in the sun at “caterpillar camp,” aka the Mfuba community nsaka.

Dozens of the latter have set up camp in and around the community nsaka next door to me, dozens more around Ba Bernardi’s yard, countless numbers scattered elsewhere. Among them are traders from Kasama who’ve brought in all kinds of cheap plastic things, second-hand clothing, and ifitenges to barter for buckets of caterpillars; and vehicles driving down the crappy dirt roads, buying wholesale.

In the early morning hours the caterpillar hunters fan out, buckets on the heads of women (and children who should be in school) and in the arms of men. In the afternoon they can be found clustered in the shade, squeezing out mounds of caterpillar guts. At night, I see their fires blazing all around – not just cooking fires, but also big bonfires that char the caterpillars to a crisp, rendering them lightweight and transportable. With money flying everywhere, it’s like a party every night. One that, at first, I was pretty happy NOT to be invited to.

Slowly, though, I’ve gotten to know some of these newbies – especially the kids, who’ve become sudden besties with a lot of the Mfuba kids. Overall, our visitors are overwhelmingly nice people.

I also just learned from Ba Allan that it’s not like this every year. The butterflies’ migration patterns shift over the course of years. If their favored trees remain intact long enough, they might return to the same area for 10 years or so before moving elsewhere. If all those trees are cut, well, they’ll move on a lot faster – say, after three years. Last year was the first year the caterpillars came to Mfuba in large numbers.

How long will this boon last? It’s all up to the collective will of a bunch of strangers out to make as much money as possible. I still wish Ba Bernardi’s honorary forest guard application wasn’t being delayed in Lusaka.

For me on a personal level, this whole experience is a little like community entry all over again: having to sort out hundreds of random strangers via a language I barely know. The differences being that my Bemba’s now a bit better, and these new people I don’t HAVE to get to know if I don’t want to. As I said: as soon as the first big rains come, they’ll be gone along with the ifishimu. Still, I’m trying to make an effort – you know, in the interests of Peace Corps PR and general conservation efforts and all. ;+)

Interestingly enough, I find myself resenting these newcomers – even the friendly ones who seem shocked but pleased to find a Bemba-speaking muzungu in town. Because, hey, this is MY village. Who the heck are you? Similar to my feelings for tourists in western Montana.

Having lived in MT only 5 years myself, even my reaction there is laughable. But here? Where I’ve lived only 6 months?! How ridiculous and arrogant am I to think of THESE people as the outsiders? After all, many have some distant relative or another here. Even the ones whom no one in Mfuba knows can at least speak the language.

But I can’t help it: I’m still praying for rain.

Waiting for rain

7 November 2013

Please let it rain. Please let it rain.

I don’t know who I’m praying to, but I find myself reciting this mantra unconsciously, repeating it over and over before I even realize I’m doing it.

Yesterday we had a brief, two-part shower; each part lasted less than 10 minutes, yet the smell of water on parched earth filled me with joy. I was eating ubwali with a neighboring family during part 1, and via sheer coincidence, 9-year-old Joyci was there with me. She was the one who danced in the rain with me during our first shower one month ago, so we did it again.

In that intervening month, I’ve seen not a drop of precipitation. Mfubans used to get their first good, heavy planting rain right around Zambian Independence Day, 24 October. But, as Ba Bernardi has told me, “the weather is changing,” and that hasn’t happened for several years now.

To be fair, the hot season of October and early November hasn’t been nearly as bad as I’d imagined. Yes, we all try to avoid work of any kind between 9 am and 4 pm, and I sweat while sitting still any time after 12. But it still cools off at night, and for this I am grateful.

Still, the heat is getting to me. I am routinely fooled into thinking I hear sprinkles of rain on the trees, when what I’m actually hearing are caterpillars eating away at the leaves. The heat has also brought out the locusts with their incessant, high-pitched midday song, and the termites, which I can hear munching away at my roof and my garden fence. It’s all kind of eerie, like an audio mirage that seems to intensify the heat.

But the real reason I am so desperately craving rain isn’t because I want an end to the heat, or because I want to see things growing in my field, or even because I’m missing the cool wetness of Western Montana forests. All of which would be reason enough.

No, I am just plain exhausted. From fetching endless buckets of water from the well. (My average is up to 50 liters a day now, and don’t even talk to me about laundry day.) From all the field and garden and tree nursery work. From building grass-and-stick structures to protect every living thing from locusts, and then finding they’ve lopped off another watermelon vine anyway. I am especially tired of trying to fit this work in amidst all the workshops and meetings rolling out before me like an endless desert.

Yes, suddenly, everyone realizes that planting season is upon us, and they should prep their fields and organize all their clubs and co-ops that haven’t met since August. So, just as suddenly, everyone wants me to teach about conservation farming, record-keeping, gardening, and whatever else they can think of.

And then I go to Kasama for a workshop and some medical issues and stay up late nights talking to other PCVs and bike 90K back to Mfuba in the blazing heat and start all over again.

I long for the rains to come because I long for alone time. Quiet, lazy time.

I’ve heard the stories from other PCVs: hours upon hours to read, take naps, and huddle up in your house, blissfully alone while all your neighbors huddle up in their own homes and refuse to venture outside for a meeting of any kind. This possibility is a fantasy I like to play in my head as I’m scrambling to get my garden watered before biking to another meeting.

I know what I’m asking for. I know that the rains will push the rodents into my hut and stir up clouds of mosquitoes. My grass-thatch roof will surely leak. I know I’ll long for dry, sunny days.

But I don’t care.

Please let it rain. Please it rain.

Village communication

5 November 2013

It’s about 8 p.m., and our town crier just biked past, shouting through the darkness at the top of his lungs. Not sure if Ba Ronaldi holds this title officially, but it’s how I think of him, and of Ba Evans, who shares the job. Whenever there’s important news that everyone in Mfuba needs to know, Ba Ronaldi and Ba Evans are the men for the job.

Ba Ronaldi on my shed roof.

Ba Ronaldi on my shed roof.

Ba Evans, working on Ba Bernardi's new metal roof.

Ba Evans, working on Ba Bernardi’s new metal roof.









Today it’s about a meeting tomorrow at 7 a.m., with the District Education Board Secretary. A very important meeting, to discuss the many problems at our nearest primary school, 6K away. I could write a book about that, but I’ll spare you.

Since the meeting was set up a bit last-minute, Ba Ronaldi and his late-evening bike ride are the best way to put out the word.

If you want to send a message to just one person, or one group, communication is best achieved via “bush note.” Just write a short note and give it to a child to deliver. That’s if the recipient lives nearby. If the recipient lives in another village, you give it to an adult who happens to be headed in that direction – or knows someone who is.

Bush notes require literacy, which not everyone possesses, but there’s always someone nearby who can read the note, or decipher a PCV’s broken Bemba. Ba Evans’ and Ba Ronaldi’s services, on the other hand, have no such limitations.

Yes, there are cell phones in Mfuba. But I’d guess only about 20 percent of the population has one. Even those people often lack money for talk time, and the network here sucks anyway. So cell phones are a secondary form of communication at best.

When you want to be sure that your message gets through, the surest way to send it is the surest way to get anything done around here: rely on your neighbors.

Beneath a tough surface

31 October 2013

WARNING: If you’re the squeamish sort, you might not want to read this post. You certainly don’t want to look at the photos. But for many of you, I know this is the crazy-medical-stuff-that-can-happen-in-Africa post you’ve been waiting for. I must admit, I was strangely excited by this whole thing, myself. At first, anyway.

I just had nine small parasites removed from my toes. And by “removed,” I mean, cut out with a scalpel. At Kasama General Hospital, which is the kind of under-funded, 1960s-era hospital you might expect of a developing country. Short on supplies, with the doctor using a rubber glove as a tourniquet and a cardboard box to dispose of the bloody gauze.

The aftermath: bloody toes.

The aftermath: bloody toes.

I’m pretty sure the doctor only gave me anesthetic because I asked for it. When he first explained the procedure, he didn’t mention it. Then again, he walked with a distinct limp. I don’t know his life story, of course, but I felt like kind of a wimp asking for the anesthetic. Zambians, I’ve come to learn, are a heck of a lot tougher than me. I wondered whether all the people out in the waiting room would have gotten anesthetic. But once he started cutting, I was so glad I’d asked for it!

OK, back to the beginning: about 12 days ago, I noticed a little black dot on the big toe of my right foot. I thought it was a splinter, but I couldn’t get it out, so I decided to ignore it for a while. Then another showed up on another toe, and another. I realized these probably weren’t splinters.

But I had big plans for the upcoming Zambian Independence Day on 24 October. (Took a back-road bike adventure to meet up with other PCVs and see Dan and Adam’s sites, 80 and 100K away from me, respectively.) And I did NOT want to call the Peace Corps medical office and have them tell me I had to come into the PC house in Kasama. Or, god forbid, Lusaka. I was slated to be in KSM on the 27th for a nutrition workshop anyway. No sense spending more time in Kasama than I had to.

Parasite toes.

Parasite toes.

Well, by the time I made it in, the infection had grown to include four toes on my right foot, one on my left, and one spot on the sole of my right foot. Everyone at the house thought it was a fungus. I called the PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer), who asked me, “Does it itch?” Nope. Kinda hurts. “Is the skin peeling?” Nope. “Hmmm … send us a photo.”

I figured I’d do it in the morning. The next three days of training would preclude much treatment, anyway.

Close-up of my right pinky.

Close-up of my right pinky.

But that night, I awoke with my right foot throbbing with pain. (I would later learn that my little parasites were most active at night.) So I took and sent the photo at 2 a.m.

Ba Shebo, the nurse in Lusaka, e-mailed back the next morning with some interesting information: 1) I had jiggers, a parasitic sand flea that burrows under the skin of the feet because it’s a “poor jumper”; 2) I would have to have them “surgically removed,” either at the PC medical office in Lusaka, or with a PC-approved doctor in Kasama; and 3) the photo I’d sent was the best, most visible example of jiggers that Ba Shebo had ever seen. “Do you mind if I used it at PST [Pre-Service Training] to talk about skin infections with trainees?” she asked. (I agreed, so now my foot will be famous in PC Zambia circles. I’m so proud!)

This is the photo that will now be shown at medical sessions in Zambia Pre-Service Training.

This is the photo that will now be shown at medical sessions in Zambia Pre-Service Training.

Here are some excerpts from Ba Shebo’s e-mail:

Tunga penetrans is known as the chigger, jigger, chigoe, bicho do pé or sand flea. … The female feeds by burrowing into the skin of its host. The abdomen becomes enormously enlarged between the second and third segments so that the flea forms a round sac with the shape and size of a pea.

… A small, inflammatory papule with a central black dot forms early. Within the next few weeks, the papule slowly enlarges into a white, pea-sized nodule with well-defined borders between 4-10mm in diameter. This lesion can range from asymptomatic to pruritic to extremely painful.

While both male and female sand fleas intermittently feed on their warm-blooded hosts, it is the pregnant female flea that burrows into the skin of the host and causes the cutaneous lesion. She does not have any specialized burrowing organs; rather, she simply attaches to the skin by her anchoring mouth and claws violently into the epidermis. Since this process is painless, it is thought that the flea may release some keratolytic enzymes. After penetrating the stratum corneum, the flea burrows to the stratum granulosum, leaving her posterior end exposed. The “black dot” of the nodule is this posterior end of the flea sticking out. The opening provides the flea with air and an exit route for feces and eggs. With its head in the dermis, the flea begins to feed on the host’s blood and enlarges up to 1cm in diameter. Over the next two weeks, over 100 eggs are released through the exposed opening and fall to the ground. The flea then dies and is slowly sloughed by the host’s skin.

(“Claws violently into the epidermis” is my favorite phrase from this whole thing.)

Anyway, I made the decision NOT to go all the way to Lusaka, and to have the jiggers removed at Kasama General Hospital.

The doctor was perfectly kind. While he cut away, digging out large chunks of skin along with the jiggers and their white masses of eggs, we chatted about our respective families and our respective jobs. He even let me take some photos of the procedure. When I got a little woozy and had to lie back on the exam table, he asked if I was OK, and kept talking to me to make sure I didn’t pass out.

Cutting out parasites with a scalpel. The big toe was the toughest, with three to dig out in all.

Cutting out parasites with a scalpel. The big toe was the toughest, with three to dig out in all.

But still, this was NOT an American hospital. Don’t worry, the scalpel and needles the doctor used came out of sterile, one-use packaging. But it took a bit of time for the nurse to find a face mask for him, and in the mean time, he worked on, occasionally getting a little blood on his coat or his face.

It was hard to tell if the sheet over the exam table had been washed, but the doctor placed the sterile packaging from his rubber gloves under my foot. It caught most, but not all, of the antiseptic and blood.

There was a lot of blood.

Egg mass spewing out of the cut on my foot.

Egg mass spewing out of the cut on my foot.

I couldn’t help feeling bad about the amount of gauze he had to use, not to mention the anesthetic and the bottle of hydrogen peroxide he gave me before I left. All medical services are free in Zambia, but clinics and hospitals are chronically underfunded. Would a Zambian patient have gotten anesthetic? Would she even expect it? Would there be enough gauze for everyone else in that waiting room?

At the end of well over an hour of gouging and slicing, blood was still oozing from my feet. I received no bandages, however. Instead, the doctor simply told me to soak my feet in warm salt water and clean the wounds with hydrogen peroxide daily, to “harden up” the cuts. I put my dirty sandals back on and limped out of the hospital, exceedingly glad I’d decided to take a taxi rather than ride my bike.

It wasn’t until I got back to the Peace Corps house that I realized I was in a mild form of shock. When everyone wanted to know how it went, I started out excitedly telling every gruesome detail and showing off my bloodied toes. I ended up crying. And throughout the evening, I found myself with tears in my eyes at the slightest provocation.

I guess you could argue that I’ve just been through a traumatic experience, so maybe being in shock over this is normal.

But I’m pretty sure my Zambian neighbors wouldn’t cry. When I showed my parasite-inflicted toes to my counterpart, Ba Mary, who’d come to Kasama for the nutrition training as well, she explained that it’s not uncommon for Mfubans to get those same bugs. (They mostly walk barefoot, after all.) They just notice them early, and dig them out with a needle. She didn’t mention going to a clinic.

Problem is, I’m NOT a Zambian. I have NOT “hardened up.”

But my toes sure have.