A little help from my friends

From my journal, 25 March 2014, 06:15

I’m sitting in the trees next to my field, waiting for a kabwalala (thief). Sad that it’s come to this, but funny in a way, too: a PCV lurking in the bushes before dawn for the express purpose of catching a young child pulling up imbalala (groundnuts) and filching ears of amataba (maize).

Yesterday, just as I was winding down the day and thinking I’d have an early night for a change, Chola, Maria, and Allan Jr. came by. Like me, they’ve noticed that my crops are being stolen, here and there, bit by bit. Unlike me, they realized something needed to be done.

Maria in my field.

Maria in my field.

First they suggested setting traps to snag the kabwalala, who almost everyone I know agrees is a child, or, more likely, children, on their way to school.  This was by far the most entertaining suggestion, but they also mentioned the hiding-in-the-forest option, emphasizing, of course, that they would be happy to provide this service for a mere 10 kwacha (a fortune in terms of piece work here, especially when all you’re doing is sitting around).

For now, I’ve chosen to wait and see on my own. I want to catch these child thieves myself and put a little of the fear of god into them. Like the time I tracked down six-year-old Doro, who had stolen a colored pencil from me, and almost put her in tears. But she never stole from me again.

It’s not that I will starve without my crops. It’s not that I mind kids eating my food. It’s the principle: stealing is wrong, in this culture or any other. I’ve even talked with Ba Bernardi about this extensively, and we agree: in a culture where anyone who has food will give you some, there is no reason for anyone to be stealing from me. Except that I’m a muzungu, and my field is right next to the path through town – and on the way to school. I also know that other farmers have to deal with this too, and not just from children. They’ve caught people stealing maize, avocados, fish from fish ponds, you name it.

But that doesn’t make it right. I want to have maize and groundnuts to harvest and give away to people I actually WANT to give to. And no way am I going to be known as the person you can steal from.

Immediately after writing that entry, I heard a small cough coming from my field. I cautiously looked up to see my buddy Allan Jr., walking the perimeter and scoping the field. Now, some might think, “ah, he’s the thief!” But there are some people you just trust implicitly, and nine-year-old Allan is one of those. (Not to mention it was he who told me to wait in the bushes, and he is NOT a stupid kid.) I knew exactly what he was doing. So I stood up and silently motioned for him to join me. Instantly, a huge grin broke out over his face, and he came RUNNING across the field.

We spent the next hour together in virtual silence, sitting on my maize sack to keep the dew off of us. It took a long time for the sun to come up enough to penetrate the trees and grass. He must’ve been freezing. Zambians do NOT like cold, and like most young boys, Allan was clad only in a thin long-sleeve shirt and a pair of shorts. No shoes. I gave him my long-sleeve shirt to wear, then asked if he wanted to go home, since I was holding down the fort. He shook his head. This was probably far more exciting for him than it was for me.

Allan & me, waiting for a thief. This was toward the end of our vigil, just after the sun had risen through the trees.

Allan & me, waiting for a thief. This was toward the end of our vigil, just after the sun had risen through the trees and he insisted on giving back my shirt.

So we waited. We pulled apart grasses to discover their fuzzy insides, watched insects, listened to half the village – including the schoolkids – going by. We listened in on their talk and gossip, tried to guess whose voices we were hearing, whispering names of particular loudmouths and holding back giggles.

An hour came and went. It was 7:30, the time when even the straggling Grade 1 & 2 schoolkids should have passed, and we’d heard no one. How unexciting. We both returned home to have breakfast.

Not 45 minutes later, I returned to the field for a little weeding, and to be around when Grades 1 & 2 switched out with 3 & 4 in the 10:30-11:30 window. And dammit if there wasn’t a freshly-pulled-up bunch of groundnuts awaiting me!

So I made an executive decision, which I pitched to Allan, Mavis, and Maria when they came by again a couple hours later. (Though I tried to find Chola, she was nowhere to be found, and sweet, dependable Mavis seemed a good replacement.)

Mavis doing the laundry.

Mavis doing laundry.

OK, if you come spend an hour-and-a-half weeding and hanging out in my field every morning, at the time when the younger kids are on their way to school, and keep your eyes peeled again when YOU’RE going to and from school later in the day, I will print you each two photos of your choice. (This is the ultimate reward for any child in my village.) They agreed, and Allan immediately chose the photo I’d taken of us waiting in the trees that morning.

Then: “Ba Terri, most of your maize is ready anyway. You should just harvest it.” And because they almost always know better than I do, I said, “OK, let’s do it.”

I have only three rows of struggling maize, so it didn’t take long. Before I knew it, Boke had joined us, along with some younger kids who were much less helpful. It was a great big crazy mess of a harvest, with cobs flying everywhere and Allan and Boke karate-chopping the maize stalks after they removed the cobs.

Allan and Boke (right) harvesting maize. Boke's little sister Melba was along for the adventure.

Allan and Boke (right) harvesting maize. Boke’s little sister Melba was along for the adventure.

It was also a great chance to finally GIVE away some of my maize. (The groundnuts will have to wait another week or two before they’re all really ready.)

Yes, I know this sounds like child labor, and it is. But these kids work all the time, planting their families’ fields, walking long distances to buy salt and cooking oil, slashing grass at the school, caring for younger siblings. Working for the PCV, on the other hand, isn’t work as far as I can tell. It’s an exciting opportunity to hang out with the muzungu, show off their skills, and get free photos. For me, it’s just a nice way to get a little help from my friends.

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Becoming the elders

22 March 2014

Today I accompanied a brand-new LIFE PCT to her new village for the first time. As she greeted a slew of future neighbors and friends, I instantly recognized the mixture of joy and mild terror on her face.

This was me, almost one year ago now, visiting my new home in Mfuba for the first time on Second Site Visit (SSV).

Me gettin' down with Ba Mary (left) and Ba Dorothy (right) on my first visit to Mfuba in April 2013. I was both excited and terrified.

Me gettin’ down with Ba Mary (left) and Ba Dorothy (right) on my first visit to Mfuba in April 2013. I was both excited and terrified.

In a little over a month, Taylor and five others (three Bembas, three Mambwes) will arrive in NoPro to officially take their places as our newest LIFE PCVs. We from the LIFE ’13 intake will become the elders. We will be looked up to, just as we looked up to the LIFE ’12ers, who are now about to leave.

I am not ready for this.

Yet somehow, my friend Adam & I took on that role a little early this week, welcoming the three Bemba PCTs to Mfuba for six days of hands-on, in-the-vil training during SSV. Along with their awesome language teacher Ba William, we tried our best to teach them a little about life and work in a rural NoPro village. And I marveled at how much I still have to learn myself!

We visited farmers in their fields and gardens, kids at the school. We had a little cultural exchange afternoon with the community. We planned a beekeeping workshop that got cancelled. (Ah, PCV Expectations & Disappointments 101.)

We also just hung out in my nsaka every night, staying up WAY past my bedtime talking about all kinds of interesting things. Highlights from the week included:

  • Our last-minute scramble to finish the roof on my new porch and slash all the grass in the yard before the PCTs arrived on Monday. We sure had fun listening to Zam and American pop while doing it, and we finished exactly 20 minutes before they showed up.
Ba Abraham (L) and Ba Bernardi scrambling to finish the porch roof!

Ba Abraham (L) and Ba Bernardi scrambling to finish the porch roof!

  • Hosting at least 50 Mfubans in my yard and just watching the dynamic of all those Zambians soaking up this whole new level of muzungu madness.
What could possibly be more exciting than having a muzungu in your village? Having FIVE muzungus in your village!

What could possibly be more exciting than having a muzungu in your village? Having FIVE muzungus in your village!

  • Playing games with at least 30 kids – the most I’ve had in my yard since my own first weeks in the vil, when even having half that number around kinda terrified me – and just loving it. What a difference a year makes!

    Nine young Mfubans piled into Adam's tent. They watched its construction with awe and were overjoyed to be allowed inside.

    Nine young Mfubans piled into Adam’s tent. They watched its construction with awe and were overjoyed to be allowed inside.

  • Talking about culture and superstitions in NoPro and in America with 27 of my neighbors, and trying to explain both Halloween and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow in Bemba.
  • Visiting farmers in their fields and gardens, and listening to them talk to the PCTs about all the different things they’re trying.

    New PCTs visiting Ba Better's irrigated garden. We talked about what he grows, markets, and soil fertility. He gave us a bunch of sugarcane. (Of course) Photo courtesy Adam Ellowitz.

    New PCTs visiting Ba Better’s irrigated garden. We talked about what he grows, markets, and soil fertility. He gave us a bunch of sugarcane. (Of course) Photo courtesy Adam Ellowitz.

  • Spending two solid hours at the school while the kids exchanged drawings with our 2nd-grade pen pals in America. It was so great to have five muzungus working the room!
  • The spectacle of Cila, Norida, and Lavenda watching four muzungus simultaneously flossing their teeth.

    Cila, Lavenda, and Norida stand transfixed at this new muzungu ritual: flossing!

    Cila, Lavenda, and Norida stand transfixed at this new muzungu ritual: flossing!

  • Having the kind of thoughtful-insightful-hilarious conversations that always seem to break out among PCVs. And thinking: these guys are gonna be fantastic additions to the NoPro family!
  • Cooking up elaborate Mexican and pseudo-Italian dinners to the sounds of American music! (Both food and music really are best when shared.)

    Breakfast burritos!

    Breakfast burritos!

  • Slaughtering, plucking, and cooking a chicken in my yard.

    Scott, Cody, Adam, and Taylor find their inner carnivores.

    Scott, Cody, Adam, and Taylor find their inner carnivores.

  • Chatting in Bemba with Ba William, who helped me so much with my own language learning back in PST.
  • Watching some of my favorite kids become best friends with some of my favorite PCVs.

    Joyci and Cila braiding Adam's hair. He was a huge hit in the vil.

    Joyci and Cila braiding Adam’s hair. He was a huge hit in the vil.

  • Walking out to the wetland at sunset and remembering the first time I visited that very spot, almost one year ago.

    Scott, Taylor, Cody, and Adam (foreground, back to the camera) enjoying the view at the dambo.

    Looking to the future: Scott, Taylor, Cody, and Adam (foreground, back to the camera) enjoying the view at the dambo.

Ready or not, here comes my second year in Mfuba.

Inspiration

“Let’s say we all together try to do something good, like planting trees. And we all have faith in that. That is god. … God is a person. This is what I know.”

— Ba Allan Kasonde, PCV counterpart extraordinnaire, on faith and what he believes in.

So maybe Ba Allan was sucking up a bit with the “planting trees” part, but I still think I have the best counterpart ever. (And he DOES seem pretty into tree-planting.) I also think it’s just amazing that we can sit and talk about our beliefs and views on god, in a country where the conversation typically starts and ends with, “Why don’t you go to church?”

Nsoka!

14 March 2014

Ba Bernardi killed one of those big, ultra-poisonous African snakes (nsoka) today.

I was visiting at the time and watched the whole thing from just a couple meters away. I couldn’t help but worry: what if he misses?

But come on. It’s Ba Bernardi. I should’ve known: he doesn’t miss. One hard whack of his machete and it was done for, head severed halfway off.

Gaboon viper, and the machete that did it in.

Gaboon viper, and the machete that did it in.

It was a mboma snake, Bemba for, I later learned, Gaboon viper. Apparently it is the world’s heaviest viper (it sure did look fat), has the longest fangs of any viper, and yields the highest amount of venom of ANY venomous snake.

Its diamond-shaped head and huge fangs were enough to convince me.

Boyd found it curled up in some tall grass he was slashing. Even before Bernardi killed it, a small group of family and visiting neighbors had gathered round to watch. And still the snake made no move to strike, or even to move. According to Wikipedia, Gaboon vipers “are usually very tolerant snakes, even when handled, and rarely bite or hiss, unlike most vipers. However, bites by bad-tempered individuals do occur.”

I couldn’t help but notice that the death of this (rather beautiful) reptile was completely unprovoked. Here was Boyd, slashing all around it, then a dozen people surrounding it. And as Bernardi pointed out later via the bare patch of soil where the snake had lain, it had been there for quite a while. Right next to a well-travelled path. Yet no one had even known.

I’ll admit to wishing the snake had found a more secluded spot and never been found. Then again, I would’ve felt differently if it had turned out to be one of those “bad-tempered individuals” and bitten one of the kids.

And of course I’d never say this to my neighbors, who wouldn’t even touch it after it was dead. When I ran to get my camera, they used sticks and the machete to move it into a more visible spot, and, later, to drop it into a pit toilet. When I told them that some people in the States eat rattlesnake, they were horrified. Here no one eats even non-poisonous snakes. A cultural taboo.

Whoa, check it out ... Boyd & Bwalya have the sticks.

Whoa, check it out … Boyd & Bwalya have the sticks.

It IS OK, however, for the entire neighborhood to gather ’round and poke at the dead snake with sticks.

This spectacle was the most exciting thing to happen in Mfuba all week; people came from everywhere within shouting distance the moment Boyd yelled, “Nsoka!”

By the time it was dead, a crowd had gathered to gasp and give thanks that the snake hadn’t killed anyone. I certainly agreed with that.

Once my camera came out, the ever-assertive Ba Martha told Ba Bernardi he should pose with the snake in a reenactment of the killing. Rural Zambians love nothing more than posing for a photo, and Ba Bernardi is no exception. He IS unique, however, in that he can’t stop himself from grinning, whether or not he’s in front of a camera. (All my other neighbors prefer to stare solemnly into the lens; the only way I get them to smile is to exclaim, “seka sekeni!” which I thought meant, “smile!” but I later found out means, “laugh!” which is just hilarious enough to make them do it, and to become a Ba Terri catch phrase in Mfuba.)

Ba Bernardi, reenacting the killing. Isn't he a total badass?

Ba Bernardi, reenacting the killing. Isn’t he a total badass?

This one time, though, I insisted that Ba Bernardi look serious. He obliged, and was so happy with the result that he asked me to print a copy when I go into town again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ba Martha doing her own snake-killing reenactment.

Ba Martha doing her own snake-killing reenactment.

Next Ba Martha decided she wanted to do her own reenactment. At first she was using her umbrella, but she then decided a stick would look better. The crowd loved this performance, and in typical fashion loved seeing the digital version on my camera screen even more.

Perhaps egged on by the camera, Boyd and Bwalya proceeded to stab at the neck wound and to pry open the snake’s mouth and examine it from every angle. It was discovered that when you tap one of the dead snake’s fangs, the muscles in its jaw twitch.

World's longest fangs indeed.

World’s longest fangs indeed.

I was fascinated, suddenly transported from softie, “nsokas have a right to live, too” muzungu straight to Bemba teenage boy mode. Now THAT is freaking cool.

Note to self

3 March 2014

I have to go back to Kasama tomorrow for various work-related reasons, and I really don’t want to leave. This entire past month, I’ve been loving life in Mfuba. Not even going through the usual ups and downs.

The best part of my job.

The best part of my job.

Ever since I returned from forced medical leave in Lusaka, I just appreciate everything – mainly everyONE – in the vil so much more.

I don’t know how long this will last, but I’m trying daily to remind myself of these two crucial things: 1) never again in my life will I be able to make so many people so ridiculously happy, just with a simple greeting or a few moments of my time, and 2) why on earth would I not take full advantage of that?

Generosity

25 February 2014

No.

Perhaps the most unhelpful, self-limiting word in the English language. In Bemba it’s awe, usually with strong emphasis on the first syllable: AH-we!

You’d be shocked at how often I say it here.

How on earth can I say "No" to these guys? So I'm trying to be more generous with "hangin' out in Ba Terri's nsaka" time. Clockwise from left: Gile, Joyci, Willy, Charles, Obed (eyes closed), Allan Jr., Kamfwa (with the wide eyes), Arnoldi.

How on earth can I say “No” to these guys? So I’m trying to be more generous with “hangin’ out in Ba Terri’s nsaka” time. Clockwise from left: Gile, Joyci, Fabby, Charles, Obed (eyes closed), Allan Jr., Kamfwa (with the wide eyes), Arnoldi.

Awe, I will not give you sugar. Awe, I do not have medicine for you. Awe, I will not buy you things when I go to town. Awe, I will not take your picture, because you’re just going to want me to print that photo without paying me for it, and then all your friends will want one, too. Aweyou can’t hang out and draw today kids, because Ba Terri is sana busy!

Who would’ve thought that joining the Peace Corps would make me a more selfish, negative person? But listen to me in “awe” mode, and that’s exactly what you’d think.

Of course, saying “no” is sometimes necessary in the interests of preserving one’s dignity, principles, or – as is sometimes the case for PCVs in Zambia – sanity. But I find it incredibly ironic that I came to Zambia wanting to help in some way – to give of myself – yet somehow I find myself feeling so very UNgenerous here – more selfish than I ever felt in the States.

Partly that’s because I’ve never had to think too much about being generous in the States. Almost no one asks me for anything there.

In my last five years ku Amelika, my average annual wages were about $12,000. I may love to bake cookies for friends, but am NOT the one you come to when you need a loan, and it’s not part of our culture to ask for much anyway.

In rural Zambia, however, my monthly stipend of 1,700 kwacha (about $300) makes me rich. Of course, none of my neighbors know how much money Uncle Sam gives me, but that doesn’t matter. I am an American and I buy things at the fancy grocery store in Kasama and I can drop 320 kwacha (about $64) round-trip to go to Lusaka, 12 hours away. I am rich.

And then there’s the cultural aspect. In rural Zambia, if you “make it” with a job in town, it’s pretty much expected that you’ll help out your relatives back in the vil who’re just scraping a living out of their farms. Just like those salaried teachers and government officials, I’m like the rich aunt that everyone’s so excited to see.

Problem is, I make a LOT less than even the teachers here, and I cannot support 800 relatives here in Mfuba.

Oh, and then there are those Peace Corps mantras, repeated ad nauseum: “I’m here to give knowledge, not things.” “Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish …” you get the idea. If I give my neighbor sugar and 10 kwacha, what’ll she do when I leave? Would I be creating some kind of unsustainable dependency?

I don’t really know, and my thoughts on the matter shift from day to day. Maybe I’m making too big a deal of all this.

The fundamental questions, however, remain: What does it mean to be generous? And how can I be generous if I’m saying “no” all the time?

I’ve been pondering this a lot lately, ever since I returned to Mfuba after an unforseen two-week medical absence. Having my service in the vil unexpectedly snatched away from me made me realize just how much this place – more specifically the people at its heart – mean to me.

So I started thinking, “How can I be a better PCV?” And the inseperable corrolary: “How can I be a better neighbor, a better person?”

One answer was to just relax and slow down. Focus more on visiting, less on work. Follow my neighbors’ example and just chill.

The other? Be less selfish. Say “No” less often. This is the one I’ve found more difficult to put into practice. If I’m not prepared to start giving things away, how do I do that?

And then the answer dawned on me: I can be more generous with my time. With myself. I can change that quick, thoughtless “awe” into a thoughtful conversation.

So here’s the plan I’ve tried to stick to this month: when someone comes by asking for something, I sit down with them and try to find out WHY they’re asking, and maybe how they can solve their problem without a PCV handout.

When a young mother of two kids under two came by asking for sugar, I asked her what else she might put in her porridge to get the kids to eat it. Maybe fruit? This turned into a long talk about nutrition and how to get a fussy kid to eat well.

And when a young man came through my yard with a huge cut on the sole of his foot (he was farming barefoot, as the majority of Mfubans do), I said I couldn’t give him medicine, but I did tell him to wash it well, wrap it in clean cloth, and go to the clinic where they could put stitches in it. Two days later he was walking around like nothing had happened. Came by to say he’d followed my advice – well, except for the clinic bit …

Clowning around with the Mutale family. L to R: Gile, Ba Agatha, me, Bwalya, and Webby. Notice Agatha playing with my braid. Women and kids of all ages love to just play with my hair, casually and without ever asking.

Clowning around with the Mutale family. L to R: Gile, Ba Agatha, me, Bwalya, and Webby. Notice Agatha playing with my braid. Women and kids of all ages love to just play with my hair, casually and without ever asking.

And then there are the things I’ve just decided to say “yes” to more often. Like letting the kids hang out in my nsaka even when I’m busy working. Taking more requested photos. Sharing more secret handshakes with the kids. Letting the women play with my hair whenever they want. Helping more with homework.

Oh, I’m still messing up left and right. Maria and Doris, ages 12 and 13, came by the other evening at 1800, wanting to look at magazines and practice writing. I was tired and wanted to cook dinner. I told them it was too late. It wasn’t ’til later that I remembered how often these two girls don’t go to school because they have to take care of younger siblings or help around the house. I also realized they’d been out harvesting beans all day. Just before dark was the only time they had.

I spent the rest of the evening kicking myself, even though maybe I HAD needed the rest.

And a few days ago I chased a horde of kids away with an uncharactaristic “fumeniko!” (Please just leave!) because they would not stop demanding I give them things.

But this evening, I spent a good chunk of time helping Boyd figure out Roman numerals (which first involved remembering myself!) My dinner got cold; I opted not to bathe.

But I felt so much more happy after that simple act of saying: “Yes!”

Misguided interpretations

24 February 2014

Muzungu pele! It’s a constant refrain we PCVs hear, shouted at us from the streets of Kasama, or along the tarmac on the way there. Or is it, muzungu BELE?

Until last week, I’d never heard this phrase around Mfuba. But get anywhere closer to “developed” Zambia, and there it is. All the time. Among the litany of things that Zambians I don’t know like to shout at me – muzungu! (white person! Generally uttered with great joy); iwe! iwe! (you! you!: impolite version usually reserved only for children); howareyouhowareyouhowareyou?; boi! (friend!); and the ever-irritating hissing and whistling (both uttered exclusively by young men) – it is the one most talked about among PCVs.

Like so many things in this country, even after one or two years of living here, none of us really know what the heck it means. Me, I’ve come to think of muzungu pele (or bele) as symbolic of that cultural chasm that I like to fill with what I THINK I know about Zambians.

I want to understand – in a way that fits nicely into my American brain – but I don’t, so I make up something that seems to fit, sometimes without even realizing it. Put a label on it, place it in a little box in my mind, and go on with my day, confident that the world remains the way I myself see it. (Surely there is some profound life lesson here.)

To me, there was no question: muzungu PELE meant “muzungu give me” from the first time I heard it. Ukupela means to give, and pele is the command form of that word. “Give me.” When one becomes used to constantly being asked for things, it makes sense, right?

Except that other PCVs have asked various Zambian neighbors, and gotten a whole slew of different responses. One of which supports my theory, but many of which do not.

The two main counter-theories are: 1) muzungu BELE means “fake muzungu,” as in, real muzungus are super rich and drive fancy cars, so we with our bikes and filthy clothes are not “real” muzungus; and 2) muzungu BELE comes from a popular song (which I’ve never heard) and means “beautiful muzungu.”

This last suddenly opened up in my mind as a distinct possibility the other day, while I was drawing with some of the kids in my vil. Some were copying photos out of National Geographic magazines, and most had chosen scenes of hunting or pictures of the ever-popular motoka (sound it out; you’ll get it). But 13-year-old Doris, who is beautiful just as she is but like many young girls LOVES to “powder” her face white with rock-chalk, had chosen to reproduce an advertisement with a pale-skinned white woman in it.

As Doris was drawing, she began singing, softly and under her breath: “muzungu bele.” I listened long enough to be sure I wasn’t hearing incorrectly, then asked her about it. She dissolved into giggles and refused to give an answer. Of course.

Trouble is, you can’t usually – or ever – put Zambian intentions or culture into a neat little box. Partly because cryptic, round-about speech is commonplace here.

But mainly because you can’t do that with ANYone’s motives or culture.

The Ride

12 February 2014

Sunrise from the road out to the tarmac, taken in late October (dry season). That time of year, I had to leave for Kasama VERY early in the morning to avoid the searing heat.

Sunrise from the road out to the tarmac, taken in late October (dry season). That time of year, I had to leave for Kasama VERY early in the morning to avoid the searing heat.

This week I rode my bike to Kasama for the first time since mid-December. I’d been taking public transport instead due to a bikeless friend coming to visit, and then getting sick.

Man had I missed that ride!

It’s crazy how little I notice changes in the landscape when I’m riding in a vehicle (to be fair, I’m often asleep). From the seat of my trusty mountain bike, everything is so much more accessible and beautiful: the rolling hills; the now-lush forest: the birds; the rain-swollen, wetland-fringed Lukulu River.

Lukulu River and wetlands in flood. My favorite spot along the ride from Mfuba to Kasama.

Lukulu River and wetlands in flood. My favorite spot along the ride from Mfuba to Kasama.

I virtually flew the 90K from my site to KSM, making it in record time without even trying. (I think I had a lot of pent-up energy from having virtually zero physical activity this year. It just felt so GOOD to be doing something!)

On the return today I was much slower: the wind was blasting in my face; I got rained on; and I was towing groceries, two books, and 21 short wooden sticks: cuttings of Glircidia, a fast-growing, easy-coppicing tree that fixes nitrogen in the soil. (I’m going to add them to my live garden fence.)

My trusty ride, loaded down with books, groceries, and gliricidia cuttings (those leaves sticking out the back).

Ready for the ride home: my trusty bike, loaded down with books, groceries, and gliricidia cuttings (those leaves sticking out the back) just before I left the PC house in Kasama.

Even with the slower pace, it was still so worth it.

In an area devoid of mountains to climb or snow to ski in, long bike rides are kind of what I live for. They keep me sane and afford me a kind of solitude generally lacking in the rest of my life here.

Sure, if I’m biking on the tarmac, I end up greeting hundreds of people along the way. But I get to whiz right past, leaving it at that. There are long stretches where I don’t see a soul. Vehicles are few and far between.

Unusually hilly dambo area near fellow PCV Evan's village of Malonda.

Unusually hilly dambo area near fellow PCV Evan’s village of Malonda.

Riding the back roads is even better, as you might imagine. (I may even take up mountain biking when I get back to the States, since that’s basically what I do here.) I’ve come across tiny, hidden streams; towering termite mounds; incongruous rock outcroppings; and expansive wetlands.

My favorite ride so far was the 75K I biked to my PCV friend Dan’s village for Zambian Independence Day. Two huge rivers, a perfect lunch spot with a sittin’ log on the edge of a stream, and countless wetlands stretching out to the horizon. In this relatively flat landscape, wetlands (called dambos here) are the equivalent of mountain peaks, offering sweeping views you can’t get elsewhere.

Water lily at my feet, which were dangling in the water at this perfect rest stop on the way to Dan's site.

Water lily at my feet, which were dangling in the water at this perfect rest stop on the way to Dan’s site.

Typical Zambian back-road bridge repair. Sketchy for a vehicle, but not for a bike!

Typical Zambian back-road bridge repair. Sketchy for a vehicle, but not for a bike!

My next big bike adventure – the biggest yet – will be a week-long (maybe two-week-long?) trip on back roads around Lake Bangweulu. I can hardly wait.

But I’m gonna have to do some smaller adventures in the mean time, to get my butt back in shape. Of course, I hope to keep on doing “my ride” to Kasama on a regular basis, too.

The importance of ubwali

15 February 2014

Two scrawny dogs just wandered through my yard, for one reason only: they smelled the ubwali I was cooking. These are Zambian dogs, and they don’t come by for any other food.

I’m not kidding.

Ubwali – Bemba for every Zambian’s most cherished food, nshima – is what EVERYONE eats. Pigs, dogs, and chickens get the leftovers.

I’m shocked that I have yet to write a comprehensive blog post about ubwali.

To make up for this glaring oversight, let me put you all in the know: ubwali resembles a big, steaming lump of cooked play-dough. Some families will scoop ubwali out into separate “lumps”; most serve it up in one big mass.

Ubwali feast we shared with Dan's neighbors on Zambian Independence Day. Because it was a celebration, and because a muzungu was hosting, there was an unusually large number of accompanying relishes: beans, greens (umusalu), and pork (usually reserved only for the well-to-do).

Ubwali feast we shared on Zambian Independence Day. Because it was a celebration, and because a muzungu was hosting, there was an unusually large number of accompanying relishes (umunani): beans, greens, and pork (typically eaten only by the well-to-do).

Depending on what part of the country you’re in, the time of year, and the personal preference of the family in question, it can be made from maize, cassava, millet, or sorghum flour – or any combination thereof. It varies in color, texture, and flavor depending on the type of flour used. Well-off Zambians in towns and cities often prefer ubwali made with white, processed, store-bought maize flour (think Wonder Bread), but this is by far the most awful and tasteless variety.

Millet-cassava ubwali, eaten with cabbage umunani. The ubwali's reddish color comes from the millet.

Millet-cassava ubwali, eaten with cabbage umunani. The ubwali’s reddish color comes from the millet.

I’m lucky to live in an area where all types of ubwali are available. My personal favorite is the cassava-millet mix, though I have a soft spot for the pure-maize ubwali that was our staple back in Pre-Service Training in Yuda Village.

Eating ubwali at our Yuda Village going-away party. L to R: Ba Grace, Ba Margaret, me, and Samwell.

Eating ubwali at our Yuda Village going-away party. L to R: Ba Grace, Ba Margaret, me, and Samwell.

Most Zambians tend to eat a LOT of ubwali with just a little bit of relish. (Umunani in Bemba, relish is anything you eat with ubwali: veggies, beans, chicken, mushrooms, caterpillars, you name it.)

Recently I’ve had two neighbors tell me that they were not doing well, because they were so hungry. But wait a minute, I said. Currently there are mushrooms growing wild everywhere, cikanda roots (a delicious food I’ll have to wait and write about later), all kinds of greens in the fields, perennial cassava, and early beans that everyone but me is harvesting (see: my stunted crops). Unlike last month, there’s a TON of food around.

Response: “Ah, but we don’t have ubwali.”

Each time, I almost laughed out loud.

Almost. I don’t want to diminish hunger season here. I know a lot of families were short of food, though in my area at least it seemed much less terrible than I’d imagined. Food storage and budgeting are definite problems.

But there’s ALWAYS cassava, which means there’s always ubwali, right?

Wrong. You can only eat cassava roots after soaking them to remove the cyanide. Yes, cyanide. Roasted or boiled cassava can be cooked prior to drying, but you can’t make cassava flour – or cassava ubwali – if you don’t have a sunny day or two to dry the soaked roots – which in rainy season we often don’t.

Cassava drying in the sun after first being soaked for a couple days and broken up into little pieces.

Cassava drying in the sun after first being soaked for a couple days and broken up into little pieces.

So despite our greatly expanding food options at the moment, apparently hunger season won’t be over in the minds of many rural Zambians until they can reliably make cassava flour in the slightly sunnier months of March and April. (Or, preferably in this maize-transfixed culture, until they can grind maize, which won’t be available ’til May.)

Eating ubwali straight out of the pot while everyone was camped out waiting to sell their maize last harvest season. Notice the big lumps in Annetta and Kafula's hands.

Eating ubwali straight out of the pot while everyone was camped out waiting to sell their maize last harvest season. Notice the big lumps in Annetta and Kafula’s hands.

This cultural emphasis on ubwali makes a lot of sense in rural areas. Ubwali is cheap and fills you up. It’s almost entirely lacking in protein, and pretty low on vitamins. (The maize used to make it is NOT the delicious sweet corn you Americans are thinking of, but a starchy, tasteless version that I think is what Americans give to feedlot cattle.) But everyone loves it.

So do I.

It’s hard to explain, but there’s something deeply satisfying about the simple act of rolling ubwali in your hand. Ubwali is eaten communally, with everyone reaching into a big bowl, taking a chunk, and rolling it in their right hand until it’s formed into a handy device for scooping up umunani.

Sometimes when I eat with families, they’ll give me a “side plate” on which to put my ubwali and umunani – a gesture of respect, and maybe understanding that I don’t want all their germs. I do preach a lot about the need for better hygiene, but I secretly hate having a side plate.

I also prefer to eat ubwali with other people over eating it by myself, but sometimes I’m just too tired for visiting after dark, so I occasionally make it for myself. (Besides, then I can fry the leftovers in oil and spices the next day  – ah, American culture – rather than giving it to the dogs.)