Return to Yuda

29 January 2014

My roots in Zambia (shallow though they may be) are firmly planted in the soil of Yuda Village. This small community outside Chipembi is where my Bamaayo, my Bataata, and all of their extended family and neighbors patiently taught me how to speak Bemba, cook ubwali, dance like a Zambian, and generally adapt to life here. It’s the host village where I spent 10 weeks during Pre-Service Training.

I never got tired of the view behind my little house on my host family's compound in Yuda Village.

I never got tired of the view behind my little house on my host family’s compound in Yuda Village.

Today I returned Yuda. It was at once a reminder of how I got to where I am today, and a remedy for those feelings of loneliness and isolation I sometimes struggle with in my new home of Mfuba. I was honestly shocked at just how comfortable and content I felt, even after nine months away. It was like going home.

With all my medical tests finished and my neck lump greatly reduced (see “Medical Mysteries of Zambia”), I’d found myself waiting around Lusaka for the results of one last biopsy, with three days to go and nothing to do. Then suddenly I remembered: Chipembi is only about two hours from Lusaka. And since Peace Corps Zambia is gearing up for the next group of LIFERs to arrive next week, there are vehicles going back and forth to Chipembi nearly every day.

So I enquired, and, sure enough, caught a ride up yesterday afternoon. Today I borrowed a bike and rode out to Yuda, completely unannounced.

Along the path to my host parents' field outside Yuda. This photo - and all the rest - were taken last year, when I was still living there. Ba Samwell is on the left; Bamaayo's on the right.

Along the path to my host parents’ field outside Yuda. This photo – and all the rest – were taken last year, when I was still living there. Ba Samwell is on the left; Bamaayo’s on the right.

Since I arrived around 10 a.m., Bamaayo, Bataata, and nearly everyone else was out in the fields. No problem. I just walked out there myself with a small troupe of familiar-yet-shockingly-much-taller kids both leading and following.

I have to admit, on the bike ride from Chipembi to Yuda, I’d been a little nervous. Would they be happy to see me? Would I finally be able to have a real conversation with my host parents, who speak no English? Or would I stumble and flail and disappoint my ever-critical Bataata yet again? What if the whole visit consisted of uncomfortable silence?

My Zambian family: Bataata, Ba Margaret, and Bamaayo, with Lucy and Libby up front.

My Zambian family: Bataata, Ba Margaret, and Bamaayo, with Lucy and Libby up front.

I needn’t have worried. From the moment I emerged from the forest into their maize field, the joy we all felt was palpable. First Bataata, then Bamaayo, came running to hug me, and we could hardly stop. I was elated to find that quite a few of the neighbors were out there as well, helping with the weeding. It was a full-on reunion.

Ba Margaret immediately announced that they were done for the day anyway, and we all headed back to the vil. Along the way I enquired about the rest of the extended family, and my host parents exclaimed over how good my Bemba had become. (You can usually count on parents to exaggerate your accomplishments, especially when they haven’t seen you in a while and have conveniently forgotten your faults.)

Back at the house, Bataata showed me the moringa and msangu trees they planted while I was living there, telling me he thinks of me every time he looks at them. I was utterly touched, and felt bad for all the times I wanted to yell him for his impatience with my Bemba progress.

It wasn’t long before all the guys called me over to the shade of the mango tree to talk. Bamaayo, on the other hand, was rushing around the yard, clearly preparing to cook lunch. Oh no you don’t, I thought. This woman spent 10 weeks cooking and cleaning and fetching water for me, and no way am I going to let this happen when I can now do all these things perfectly well myself.

So I told Bamaayo I’d do the dishes, and by the way, I’d brought food to cook for lunch. So we left the guys behind and hung out in the hot sun together ‘til the dishes were done. (She still sand-scrubbed the pots; I did the rest.) Then I proceeded to chop up and cook all the veggies for the makings of a veggie-masala-dhal-type dish, while Bamaayo sat next to me, doing absolutely nothing but chatting and laughing. (Realization No. 1: Bamaayo’s knife, a dull lump of metal with no handle, gives blisters to anyone lacking her ultra-tough Zam hands. Realization No. 2: I didn’t realize just how awesome my Bamaayo is until I’d moved out on my own. Realization No. 3: I’d actually accomplished the goal that got me through the long days of Pre-Service Training – to one day hold a real conversation with Bamaayo.)

I even cooked the ubwali – the only time during the actual visit when I was genuinely nervous. (It’s stressful being entrusted with the national staple dish!) Thankfully, it turned out great. Whew!

We ate together, just the three of us, but I was glad Ba Margaret stopped by for a bit. Bamaayo and Bataata both proudly told her that I’d cooked the whole meal. They did NOT say whether they actually liked the food.

Ba Samwell's family (my family, too, since they're cousins of my parents): Ba Eunice, Ba Felix, and up front, Kennedy, Bwalya, and Junior.

Ba Samwell’s family (my family, too, since they’re cousins of my parents): Ba Eunice, Ba Felix, and up front, Kennedy, Bwalya, Samwell, and Junior.

Then we went next door to visit with Ba Eunice and Ba Felix, Ba Samwell’s host parents. A steady stream of visitors came and went, including Yuda’s headwoman and my little sister Lucy, who appears to have grown six inches and is now in Grade 8!

We sat under the mango trees for hours, talking about my new home and my job and their crops and the borehole that’s still broken and Ba Rita’s now five-month-old son. I understood almost everything they said.

I felt a sense of belonging that’s rare in my new home in NoPro.

See, in Mfuba, I have a job to do and a slight guilt complex and a whole lot of people constantly asking me for things – or asking me why I do things in all the strange ways that I do things. My Yuda family, on the other hand, seems to have no expectations of me whatsoever. I think they were happy just to see me, and I felt that extremely rare commodity that I suppose some people come to expect from family: unconditional love.

In fact, everyone in the village kept thanking me over and over again – for visiting, for volunteering in their country, for practically nothing at all.

No, no, no, I said over and over. Thank YOU. You are the ones who took care of me when I had the skills and vocabulary of a three-year-old. You are the ones who taught me everything I needed to know live by myself in rural Zambia, with a level of patience I can’t even fathom. Without you, I could’ve never become a PCV. Without all the families like you, all around Chipembi, none of us PCVs could ever do our jobs well. YOU are the ones whom Zambians all over the country should be thanking.

That feeling stayed with me the rest of the day, even as I rode back to Chipembi in the pouring rain an hour before dark, having stayed much too late because everyone assured me that the storms were just passing around us and that it wouldn’t rain ‘til nighttime.

Sunset view from the bike ride between Chipembi and Yuda. Taken back when I was still living there.

Sunset view from the bike ride between Chipembi and Yuda. Taken back when I was still living there.

As I bombed down that old familiar, bumpy hill, I thought first of my old next-door neighbor Ba Samwell, whose dedication to learning Bemba rubbed off on me and inspired me to keep trying. We’d ridden into Chipembi nearly every day during PST, practicing our garbled Bemba along the way. My Bemba brother, he is as much family as my Bamaayo and Bataata. Everyone in Yuda had asked about him, of course, and I know we all wished he’d been there.

Then my mind drifted back to my Zambian family. I promised I’d come back to visit again before I return to the States. After all, I told them, I may live in Mfuba, but I was born in Yuda. It’s there where I can return to my roots.


Medical mysteries of Zambia

An itchy, viral skin disease that covers the entire body. A fungus below the fingernails. A bacterial infection of the vagina. An internal neck abscess that may or may not be tuberculosis.

These are the cumulative afflictions of three PCVs stuck at the PC bunkhouse in Lusaka “on medical,” as we say. (Being on medical basically means being forced to come to Lusaka for an indeterminate amount of time because you’ve got something they can’t treat upcountry, or something they can’t diagnose without personally seeing you and poking you with lots of needles.)

That last condition – the big neck lump that continues to remain a mystery – belongs to yours truly.

My neck lump. See, it's not really even that bad. Or is that just what I tell myself?

My neck lump. See, it’s not really even that bad. Or is that just what I tell myself?

At first, PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Office) here in Lusaka thought it was a bacterial abscess, especially since I’d been on-again-off-again feverish, ache-y, sore-throat-y, and exhausted back in Mfuba, pretty much since the new year. But not according to my blood work. So now they’re thinking maybe TB – which I’ve learned can actually occur OUTSIDE the lungs! Oh the things you learn in Zambia! Or it might turn out to be what’s called a “cold abscess”: medical jargon for “we never found out what kind of abscess it was.”

When I first joined PC Zambia, perhaps like most African PCVs, I think I envisioned having your typical intestinal afflictions, a tapeworm, or maybe even a botfly. But I truly had no idea of the sheer number of bizarre medical conditions in this part of the world.

It makes sense, I suppose: this IS the continent where humans evolved, right alongside all the other things that evolved to live off of us. And since my personal genetic line has been away from Africa for millennia now, my wimpy little American immune system is equivalent to that of a six-month-old Zambian. As in, I’m susceptible to any-freaking-thing.

I do consider myself lucky that I have yet to experience the explosive diarrhea that has plagued most of my PCV friends by this point. Instead, I get jiggers in my toes!

And now, this.

I’d been feeling “off,” with some random but minor, on-again-off-again symptoms, since 1 January. Then what I thought was my the lymph node on the right side of my neck began to swell. This often happens when I’m sick, so no big deal.

But then it kept on swelling – to golf-ball size – by Monday the 13th. And it started to hurt a little. So finally, reluctantly, I called PCMO. The nurse advised me to take ibuprofen three times a day for a few days and report back.

I was out of ibuprofen. I also had a TON of work to do in Kasama before the end of the month: quarterly report, writing a grant, visiting government offices … So on the 16th I headed into Kasama – just for the day – to try to take care of some of this stuff and get more ibuprofen.

There I ran into Ba Walter, a PCMO nurse who happened to be visiting NoPro. His reaction when he saw the big bulge in my neck: “That is NOT normal! You need to go to Lusaka and get that checked out!” (Bedside manner is not Ba Walter’s strong suit.)

Being the kind of person whose stubbornness typically trumps any health concerns, I refused. “I don’t want to just leave my village for who knows how long when I said I’d be gone one day,” I told him. “Besides, I have stuff to do in the vil. I have to come back to Kasama next week to write this grant, so if I’m still feeling bad and this hasn’t gone away, I’ll come down to Lusaka then.”

I returned to Mfuba. But by the end of my 5K shortcut walk from the tarmac to the village, I was exhausted and feverish again. Not good.

So I explained to Ba Bernardi, Agatha, and Allan; spent one night at home; and headed right back to Kasama the next day. On Sunday, I took the 11-hour bus ride down to Lusaka, where I’m now ensconced at the PC headquarters bunkhouse for “on medical” PCVS.

Since my arrival, I’ve had a physical exam, two rounds of blood work, an ultrasound, a chest x-ray, and a needle-stick TB test (which didn’t indicate I have TB, but is not completely reliable). Tomorrow or Friday will be the biopsy of my mystery abscess. (Thank goodness they found someone in Lusaka who can do this; for a while there was a debate about whether to send me to the regional PCMO in Pretoria, South Africa, for this procedure.)

It’ll be three days before the biopsy culture reveals whether the abscess is or is not bacterial. If it is, I’ll be given antibiotics and sent on my way. But the doctor here doesn’t think it’s bacterial.

The biopsy culture won’t reveal whether it’s TB for eight weeks. Yes, EIGHT WEEKS. I’ve been told I will not be kept here that long. But if it does turn out to be TB, I’ll have to come back down to LSK and receive TB treatment, including medication I’d have to take for several months.

And maybe, if the abscess continues to be painful, I might have to have it drained or removed. Depending on whether it’s an abscess IN my lymph node, or an abscess OUTSIDE the lymph node. Which they also haven’t figured out.

Confused? I sure am.

Such is the life of a PCV stuck in Lusaka on medical.

Me and my two fellow sickies here are all going through some version of the same thing. Endless tests followed by endless waiting. Each one of us has dipped into some version of whiny, selfish melodrama at some point. I think it’s because we – like most PCVs – are used to being perfectly healthy back in the States. We rarely get sick, and when we do, we don’t even GO to the doctor.

We certainly don’t get dragged unwillingly from our homes and forced to stay in a strange city 13 hours away for an unknown length of time.

Here, though, it’s not always up to us. PCMO won’t let us just ignore that strange swelling until we’re unable to eat or walk. Americans would be horrified, and there’d be an investigative special on national news. And then we’d all have to answer silly questions about how scary Africa supposedly is, you know, with all these crazy diseases we Americans can’t handle.

So here we wait, trying to remember Rule Number One of PC Zambia (and life): Let go. Because you actually have no control over anything. You just want to think you do.

Especially when you have an unknown lump in your neck, reminding you every day of your own fragile existence on this continent.

Losing a friend from afar

12 January 2014

Basil died yesterday, and I just now found out. He was my brother’s dog – the dippy, perpetually confused retriever everyone loved to make fun of. But Basil was as sweet and loyal of a dog as you’d ever find, and he was possibly a better hiking buddy than my brother. (See more photos of Basil here.)

Me, Lee, Basil (left) and Roxy during a visit to Montana in 2011.

Me, Lee, Basil (left) and Roxy during a visit to Montana in 2011.

I found myself in tears when I found out, and maybe not just because it was the loss of a loved one (even if he was “just a dog”). Not only because I suddenly felt bad for always making fun of Basil. And not only because there will be a big empty place at Lee and Jorge’s place when I return.

Part of my tears, I think, were because I found out about Basil’s death via e-mail. Because I’m here in Mfuba, so far away, where phone calls aren’t an option unless I bike 10 minutes up the road, and they’re expensive anyway. I can’t even visit Lee and Jorge to give them a hug.

Strange this feeling. Even when I was still living in the States, I was a 12-hour drive away from my brother’s place, and I’ve been a lot further away than that many a time. I’ve spent entire summers out in the mountains, with little to no contact with family and friends. I’ve travelled in other countries for months at a time, gone without speaking to my brothers or my closest friends for months at a time. We’re all used to this, right?

Sometimes, though, Peace Corps Zambia feels like a whole different ball game.

I worry about my Mamma, who’s 80 and not in the greatest physical shape. How would I feel if she died while I was way over here?

I remind myself that anyone I love can die at any moment; life’s like that. We come and we go, and we do the best we can in the in between. For me that means trying to balance my selfish adventures with my love for Lee, Jay, Mamma, and all my friends back home.

I think they understand why I need to do these crazy things that take me away all the time. But every once in a while, I don’t quite get it, myself.

Rest in peace, Basil.

LIFE lessons

10 January 2014

“Ah, your groundnuts are growing so well!” “Ah, you know how to farm!”

My neighbors are so charitable, pointing out anything good they can think of – to try to make me feel better, I suspect. But in a culture where it’s rare to criticize someone to her face, I can’t help but wonder what they’re saying about my field behind my back.

Let’s just say that my first attempt at conservation farming (aka ubulimi busuma) has left a lot to be desired. Blame it on lack of experience — both here in Zambian and in the States (where I’m not actually a farmer anyway!) — or whatever you like, but as a LIFEr, whose main teachings are supposed to be about farming and food security, this is embarrassing, to say the least.

Yes, my groundnuts are inexplicably thriving.

But after an initial good start, my maize stalks are turning yellow and red. After days of increasingly concerned insistence from Boyd and Bwalya, I’ve broken down and accepted chemical fertilizer from Ba Bernardi and Ba Maxwell. No more organic farming for me, haha.

To be fair, I always tell people that when converting to CF, it’s best to keep using fertilizer, if you have it, until you build up nutrients in the soil. Especially when growing nutrient-hungry maize. But such a bummer that my idealized notions of simply intercropping with legumes weren’t enough for my own maize crop.

Then there are the beans and soybeans. Both are clearly stunted, and it’s all the more obvious because there, right next to my field, are Ba Bernardi’s healthy, thriving soya beans, grown the old-fashioned way of turning over the entire field with a hoe. It’s hard not to feel that my minimum-tillage beans are being mocked througout Mfuba.

My field. Note stunted, sparsely planted, beetle-eaten soya beans at center.

My field. Note stunted, sparsely planted, beetle-eaten beans at center.

Ba Bernardi's soyabeans.

Ba Bernardi’s soyabeans.










After quite a bit of consultation with Ba Allan, I think I know what the problem is with the beans and soyabeans, but it’s too late to fix now. Basically, soyabeans are planted after the rains are already well-established, and I had to replant my other beans around this same time due to massive insect damage early on – which wouldn’t have been so bad if I’d just planted more beans in the first place, I’m told. So by the time I planted these crops, the heavy rains had washed away my permanent ridges to such an extent that the basins I’d dug atop them were no longer 20cm deep. They were probably more like 5 or 10cm deep. So the roots of my poor, struggling beans and soyabeans are now trying in vain to grow down into the subsoil. The topsoil, meanwhile, has washed into the furrows between ridges. Thank goodness my field is flat! And thank goodness Ba Bernardi retained his crop residues and didn’t burn, so there’s something to hold the soil in the furrows for next year!

I can’t lie; I feel like an idiot – typical outsider who doesn’t know what the heck she’s doing, trying to teach people who DO know what they’re doing. There are definitely parts of me that wish I’d stuck with farming far, far away from the main path through Mfuba, so at least my failures wouldn’t be on full display.

But on my good days, I look at the quote on my wall, left behind by my PCV predecessor: “Perfection is the enemy of progress.” I remind myself of what I’m always telling my neighbors: that there is no one “right” way to farm (as long as you don’t burn your fields! Please just don’t burn your fields!). That it’s important to try new things on a small scale and see what works and what doesn’t. That I’m here to learn, too.

And boy am I ever. I’m already planning how I’ll do things differently next year. But that’s so far away – practically the end of my service! And in the mean time, how many people are looking at my field and thinking: No way am I going to try conservation farming; this muzungu doesn’t know what she’s doing.

Luckily, there’s one thing that keeps me from feeling that all is lost. Three things, actually: the fields of the Mfuba Cooperative; of Ba Maxwell and Ba Scolastica; and of Ba Bernardi and Ba Agatha. All three are trying CF for the first time this year, and doing it in a way that makes sense to them, using what they already know about farming here. (For the co-op, that’s actually 40 people getting their own hands-on training!) And in all three fields, the crops are thriving.

As Ba Agatha encouragingly  pointed out to me the other day: “Ba Terri, where we’re trying ubulimi busuma, our crops are growing bwino sana (really well)!”

Thanks, I told her. At least ubulimi busuma is working for someone! And boy did we have a good laugh. Sometimes, laughing at myself is the best medicine. If only it could rescue failed crops …

Mfuba through new eyes

6 January 2014

My friend Samuel (aka Ba Samwell) just spent two days visiting me here in the vil, and the experience reminded me again of what a special place Mfuba is. Just as when Adam & Dan biked out for an overnight back in November, I got to see the vil through new eyes, and I loved what I saw.

Path down to the dambo, which Samwell & I walked to visit some neighbors.

Path down to the dambo, which Samwell & I walked to visit some neighbors.

I’ve had similar experiences in the States. I live in some beautiful, wonderful place for a little while, and I quickly begin to take it for granted. Until a friend comes to visit, and I get to appreciate it all over again.

It’s easy to complain sometimes: all the meetings to which no one shows up, all the tiny everyday invasions of my privacy (aka my American bubble), the bats that take over my house every time I leave for more than a night. (Yes, the first hour of Samwell’s visit was spent reclaiming the place after 10 days away for the holidays.)

But really, I live in an amazing place. Where else on earth have I ever stayed where my neighbors all come by to say hello to my visitors (if we didn’t stop by their place first) and are genuinely excited to hear all about them?

The kids were unfailingly polite. (Well, Joyci did suddenly turn into a bit of a creeper: she could NOT stop staring! Maybe it was Samwell’s ponytail …) Agatha & Bernardi were thrilled that we wanted to eat dinner together.

No one called me a prostitute for having only male visitors (though I did get some looks of disbelief when I explained that, no, really, this guy is ALSO just a friend). No one gave me a hard time upon discovering that both Samwell’s Bemba and his cooking are better than mine.

Samwell and I walked paths I hadn’t walked in months, visited people I hadn’t seen in a while, bounced ideas off each other about what we’ve been doing for work in our respective vils. Oh, and we planted a living fence around my garden, which I hope will one day eliminate the need to build a new wood-and-grass one each year.

Samwell planting jatropha cuttings around my existing garden fence.

Samwell planting jatropha cuttings around my existing garden fence.

My neighbors are already asking when Ba Samwell will be back to visit.

Me, I’m just trying to hold on to this feeling of wonder, reminding myself, yet again, of how fortunate I am to live here.