Water is life

28 May 2014

For the past eight days, we have followed the course of the Zambezi River watershed, going where its current takes us.

Zambezi waters at Chavuma.

Zambezi waters at Chavuma.

When Zach, Samwell, and I planned this post-Mid-Terms road trip through Zambia’s Northwestern and Western provinces, we decided from the start that we would just see where the road took us. Little did we know that the river that would ultimately determine the course of our journey, just as it has determined the culture and lives of the Lunda, Luvale, and Lozi people who inhabit its shores.

Time and again we were struck by how different life seemed to be in this slice of far-western Zambia, where thick old-growth forests remain the rule; soils are sandy and poor; and people are more reliant on hunting, fishing, gathering, and traditional crafts than on farming. On the surface, at least, the Lunda, Luvale, and Lozi seemed to be more directly connected to their environment – in a way that we Bemba PCVs both admired and envied.

Here we saw Zambians for whom swimming and kayaking are second-nature; who bathe daily in the cold, clear waters of the Zambezi; and whose lives are dictated by the rise and fall of flood waters on a river whose upper reaches remain wild and un-dammed. We did our best to follow suit, jumping in at every opportunity. (In spite of warnings about crocodiles and hippos, this is what everyone else did, too.)

Every time I dangled my feet in the river, I felt renewed.

We started out in the village of Mukeya, in Mwinilunga District, where Zambia bumps up against Angola and the Congo. Mukeya is the home of our fellow PCV Katie, and she took us down to the Lunga River, a tributary of the Zambezi that is the lifeblood of her community. In the 1970s, the village built a dam that funnels fish into a great big basket. They’ve maintained it ever since, and every morning, anyone who wants fresh fish knows to come and help with the harvest, which is shared among all participants.

Katie's host brother, Alex, cleans fish by the side of the river.

Katie’s host brother, Alex, cleans fish by the side of the river.

The dam also acts as an ad-hoc bridge, best navigated barefoot, as we quickly discovered. We were lucky to cross empty-handed. The women who came across from a neighboring village toted babies on their backs and shoes and other supplies in their hands.

Women walking across the dam.

Women walking across the dam.

It was on the Lunga that we saw the first of many dugout canoes, carved from single, large trees that even here are becoming less common as the population grows. The man who paddled this one across tacked deftly and seemingly without thinking across the swift current.

Dugout canoe on the Lunga River.

Dugout canoe on the Lunga River.

From Mukeya we took our first of many unexpected detours – to the town of Chavuma, based on a recommendation from some Zambians we met along the way. Here we saw the Zambezi itself for the first time. We camped above rapids that two months ago were completely covered by water. In another two months’ time, we were told, they will be transformed into a waterfall by falling water levels.

View from our campsite outside Chavuma.

View from our campsite outside Chavuma.

For two nights we watched from the rocks as the setting sun turned churning waters to shades of blue, green, and gold. Each time, we were joined by several young Zambian men, all bathing naked among the rocks. I never found the women’s bathing area, so I, the lone woman at this spot, had to be careful where I looked!

A man and his fishing net rest on the rocks. Notice the man is in his underwear - a rare public site in a nation where thighs are typically hidden in public.

A man and his fishing net rest on the rocks. Notice the man is in his underwear – a rare public site in a nation where thighs are typically hidden in public.

One day we walked the 11 kilometers one-way from Chavuma to the Angolan border (which PCVs are not allowed to cross) and were delighted to discover that the dirt road followed the Zambezi for some of its length. On the way back, I couldn’t help jumping in the river fully clothed, partly to stave off the hot sun, but mainly for the sheer joy of it.

Me, soaking wet in the Zambezi River.

Me, soaking wet in the Zambezi River.

On our journey from Chavuma to Lukulu, we took our first Zambian ferry across the Kabompo River, which marks the boundary between forested Northwestern Province and sandy Western Province, land of seasonal floodplains and the independent Lozi people.

Kabompo River ferry crossing.

Kabompo River ferry crossing.

The Lozi have a unique history among Zambians, made famous by the yearly Kuomboka, in which their paramount chief, or litunga, moves from his summer to his winter home as the floodwaters rise around Easter each year. (Kuomboka didn’t happen this year, since one of the chief’s wives had died, nixing any celebrations.) There have even been some attempts by Lozi leaders to secede from Zambia.

It wasn’t until we reached Mongu – the Western provincial capital and home of the litunga – that we realized the extent to which the Zambezi floodplain dictates the lives of its inhabitants, both human and animal.  All creatures – humans, hippos, crocs, birds – move and shift with the waters.

We were surprised to find that Mongu is actually 25 kilometers from the Zambezi itself, though it is connected to the river in rainy season by a vast expanse of flooded wetlands and – in more recent times – a flooded road that acts as a canal for both speedboats and traditional canoes.

Where Mongu and the Zambezi floodplain meet - 25 kilometers from the river's main channel.

Where Mongu and the Zambezi floodplain meet – 25 kilometers from the river’s main channel. Here you can also see a section of road that soon ends in the water.

About 10 years ago, the federal government attempted to build a year-round road from Mongu to the isolated town of Kalabo, on the Zambezi’s western bank, but the constantly shifting floodplain waters have so far thwarted these efforts, leaving behind collapsed bridges and sections of road that lead nowhere.

A fish eagle flies past a piece of disconnected bridge from an unfinished road mean to connect Mongu and Kalabo.

A fish eagle flies past a piece of disconnected bridge from an unfinished road mean to connect Mongu and Kalabo.

Boats remain the main source of transport west from Mongu.

Boats remain the main source of transport west from Mongu.

At the height of rainy season, around March, the floodwaters reach right up to the town, which is perched on a plateau. The shantytowns that crowd the water’s edge are partially protected by sandbags, but still the waters lap right up against the walls of their mud-and-grass homes.

Homes on the edge of Mongu.

Homes on the edge of Mongu.

To get a better sense of riverside life – both on the edge of Mongu and in the tiny settlements scattered between Mongo and Kalabo – Zach, Samwell, and I took one of the daily speedboats that act as Kalabo’s main lifeline to the rest of the country.

Me, Zach, and Samwell on the boat to Kalabo. (Notice the guys' sweet braids - my handiwork from the day before.)

Me, Zach, and Samwell on the boat to Kalabo. (Notice the guys’ sweet braids – my handiwork from the day before.)

Here we saw a culture utterly different from any we’ve so far seen in Zambia. No mud-brick houses here. Instead homes are made either from mud and sticks, or, more commonly, entirely from grass. We were amused, however, to find many of these grass homes topped by tin roofs. Some even boasted satellite dishes.

Grass homes in the Zambezi Floodplain.

Grass homes in the Zambezi Floodplain.

Check out the satellite dish!

Check out the satellite dish!

Despite a decent number of speedboats based in Mongu and Kalabo, most Zambezi Floodplain residents rely on dugout canoes similar to those we first saw on the Lunga River. Again and again, we marveled at the skill (and core strength!) of these men and women as they balanced, upright, to paddle from place to place.

Poling around the floodplain.

Poling around the floodplain.

As one might imagine, fishing is a major source of food and income in this area. We stopped frequently to allow local fishermen to approach and sell bream or tigerfish to the wealthier speedboat passengers. As with any sales venture in Zambia, the haggling over price was entertaining, often engaging all passengers in teasing, joking, and false bravado.

A young man holds up his catch to attract our boat's attention.

A young man holds up his catch to attract our boat’s attention.

Haggling completed, a local fisherman hands over his catch of bream to the speedboat passengers who've bought them.

Haggling completed, a local fisherman hands over his catch of bream to the speedboat passengers who’ve bought them.

Another major source of income on the floodplain is the making of reed mats, which here are made from much sturdier-looking sticks than the bamboo mats of our homes in Bemba land. Transport of these mats was to me the most impressive feat I’d yet seen along the entire Zambezi watershed. We watched, awe-struck, as men poled tiny, unstable dugouts laden with hundreds and hundreds of reed mats.

Paddling a heavy load of reed mats to market in Mongu. The mats were piled so high that, at first glance, we thought this was a house boat!

Paddling a heavy load of reed mats to market in Mongu. The mats were piled so high that, at first glance, we thought this was a house boat!

Of course, it’s easy to romanticize riverside life in an isolated part of an isolated country. Especially for a freshwater-loving PCV who lives a long way from big rivers and misses their constant churn, flow, and renewal.

But I couldn’t help envying the people whose lives are so closely linked to the ebb and flow of the Zambezi watershed.

 

Advertisements

Back-road adventures

24 May 2014

I’ve written in the past about the adventure that is transport in Zambia. I thought I’d had my share of transport trials, being so “far” upcountry in Northern Province.

But this past week’s travels through Northwestern Province have given me new perspective. These towns are WAY the heck out there. There are PCVs who need two days just to travel to their provincial PC house in Solwezi. It’s another 13 hours from there to Lusaka – not because it’s any further than Kasama (an 11-hour drive if the transport gods favor you that day), but because the second half of the tarmac is so awful – narrow, crumbling, with a tapestry of potholes that resemble swiss cheese.

And on this journey – my first “road trip” in Zambia, meaning we’re visiting multiple far-flung destinations – Samwell, Zach, and I have chosen to go WAY past Solwezi. Out to where Zambia bumps up against the Congo and Angola and the roads snake through thick, old-growth forest on either side, with not a home or a bush path in sight for many kilometers at a time.

Zach and Samwell on a cushy bus between Solwezi and Mutanda - just before our hitching adventures really began.

Zach and Samwell on a cushy bus between Solwezi and Mutanda – just before our hitching adventures really began.

THIS, I think to myself, is the Zambia I want to see. The parts even most PCVs never get to.

Only problem is, when you plan this kind of road trip without a car, things can get tricky. The usual transport problems – crappy roads, even crappier vehicles, and what we all call “Zambian time” – are exacerbated by long distances and out-of-the-way destinations.

Luckily, these trials are often mitigated by the joys of connecting with other passengers.

A typical minibus scene. This playful baby was a key component of our on-board entertainment.

A typical minibus scene. This playful baby was a key component of our on-board entertainment.

Still, we’ve already waited on roadsides for a cumulative 10 hours or so, been crammed with eight other people into a 5-passenger vehicle, and ridden in a bus with two boxes of loudly chirping, escape-artist baby chickens.

Zach sits on Samwell's lap  while crammed with six other people into a five-passenger car.

Zach sits on Samwell’s lap while crammed with six other people into a five-passenger car.

Zach shares a seat with a box of escape-artist chicks.

Zach shares a seat with a box of escape-artist chicks.

Today I’ve opted to keep a record of the specifics of our journey from Chavuma to (we hope) Lukulu. I’ve finished my book, and I didn’t bring an iPod, so I’ve gotta pass the time somehow.

655: We arrive in town, having walked from our riverside campsite at dawn. We see a bus, with its engine already running. Yes! It’s going our way! (All the way to Lusaka, though we’re not ready for that just yet. We’ll get off in Zambezi, just 85K away.)

721: The 7am bus actually leaves. Early by Zambian standards. We are excited and begin to think we may actually reach our destination – the town of Lukulu, another 150 or so kilometers from Zambezi – today.

723: The bus stops to pick up more passengers.

750: We’ve gone about 10 kilometers – maybe – and stopped at least 10 times. We wonder how many days these poor saps will take to reach Lusaka, nearly 1,200 kilometers away.

752: The bus stops again. We take bets on when the next stop will be. Being ever-optimistic, our guesses range from 7:10 to 7:14.

753: The bus stops.

801: We’re actually picking up speed. Fingers crossed …

808: The bus stops.

913: Arrive in Zambezi. I discover a large wet patch on my butt and try not to think about what was on my seat.

915: Trying to find transport to Lukulu, we learn there’s nothing from here due to an unbridged river crossing. We must go another 50K east to Mumbej, from where there is sporadic transport – and ferry crossings – to Lukulu. Our deathly slow bus is going that way. We seriously consider hitching but eventually decide that the time spent walking to a good hitching spot and actually finding a ride will probably be equivalent to the slow bus ride. And at least the bus is a sure thing.

940: We pay another 30 kwacha and re-board. (Lucky for us, the driver’s announced “10-minute break” went long.) The bus drives about 200 meters in the direction of the bus station exit.

959: We are actually back on the road.

1058: We arrive in Mumbej. I’ve fallen dead asleep, so it’s a bit jarring to find myself suddenly on a dusty roadside, surrounded by young boys hawking bananas, fritters, groundnuts, and a strange new substance called chinganda. In a daze, I follow Zach and Samwell to the Lukulu turnoff.

1101: Just as we reach the junction, we see a tiny car turning our direction. It is packed full. We stick out our arms anyway.

1102: It’s our lucky day! Two of their passengers get out, so they can squeeze us in, strapping our backpacks into the overflowing trunk. While waiting, we buy chinganda and discover it to be a mainly flavorless but not half bad mixture of groundnuts, cassava, and perhaps some mystery ingredient we can’t pinpoint.

Strapping our bags into an already-chock-full hatchback.

Strapping our bags into an already-chock-full hatchback.

1117: On our way. Bumping along a dirt road, smashed together with seven people in all and a lot of bags.

Zach, me, and Samwell in the clearest photo I got from inside the car. Did I mention this was a bumpy ride?

Zach, me, and Samwell in the clearest photo I got from inside the car. Did I mention this was a bumpy ride?

1200: We reach a ferry crossing of the Kabompo River, a tributary of the Zambezi. This waterway marks the boundary between Northwestern and Western provinces. Here we officially enter Lozi territory, though we haven’t yet learned how to greet in this language. Bits of Lunda and Luvale are still bumping around in our brains from the past week.

Kabompo River ferry crossing.

Kabompo River ferry crossing.

1205: Our driver, Ba Abel, has found a leak in the brake fluid line and proceeds to clamp it off with a piece of string and a bit of rubber.

1220: Ba Abel and his friend Ba Risen (as in “Risen from the dead,” he informs us) roll a joint. Risen, a jovial guy who works for the local government, tells us only weak-minded people think pot’s bad for you. We agree.

1222: Zach fills his water bottle from the river, next to a bamaayo doing dishes. We board the ferry. On the other side, we buy bananas and stale “scones” from bamaayos under a mango tree. This is lunch.

Women selling food under mango trees.

Roadside markets always gravitate to the mango trees.

1250: Back on our way.

1403: Having chosen the sandy side of the road over the rocky side, Abel gets stuck. Risen takes over the wheel, Abel digs a little around the tires, and Risen gets us our no problem. As we get underway again, he tells us we’re now more than halfway to Lukulu.

1510: The car stops abruptly. The radiator is smoking. We are extremely lucky to have broken down in the middle of a village, where water is available.

Cooling the radiator in the middle of a village.

Cooling the radiator in the middle of a village.

1520: A crowd gathers to ogle us as Risen and Abel cool and then fill the radiator. I take a couple photos of the scene, and the kids seem almost afraid. Not used to this timidity among Zambian children, I try to use my extremely limited Luvale to get them out of their shells. I fail. I show them the photos I’ve just taken. Instant success!

Ah, the joys of sharing the camera with Zambian kids.

Ah, the joys of sharing the camera with Zambian kids.

We spend the next 20 minutes taking photos, looking at the results, and learning one another’s names. These kids are so polite they don’t even touch the camera screen! I am having a grand old time and barely notice that the car still won’t start.

1535: Apparently the battery’s also dead. Luckily by this time a local teacher has stopped to help us, and he gives us a jump.

This is clearly the most exciting thing that’s happened here for a while.

Villagers watch as we jump the battery.

Villagers watch as we jump the battery.

1558: Back on the road, waving to new friends as we pull away.

1640: As we approach Lukulu, the Akon song, “Beautiful” comes on. Extremely popular in Zambia at the moment, it’s a love song with an auto-tune-enhanced chorus: “You’re so beautiful. So damn beautifu-ul.” But what comes to mind for me is Zambia. This wondrous country that I have the privilege to live in and travel through. So damn beautiful.

And then, a quick second, my fellow travellers. Risen, Abel, the man and woman in the middle seat who’ve barely spoken the whole trip, the teacher who stopped to help us out, the bamaayos who gave us water, the kids who crowded around my camera. So damn beautiful.

But maybe most of all, in this moment, Samwell and Zach, my PCV brothers, crammed into the tiny back seat on either side of me, limbs wound around one another whether we like it or not. We’ve shared so much, on this journey and in our first 15 months in Zambia. We are ALL so damn beautiful.

Across the generations

17 May 2014

During this past year in Mfuba, I’ve never really been the lone muzungu. Yes, I am the only white person currently living here, but my PCV predecessor, Steve, has always been with me in spirit.

From the day I first visited, back in April 2013 – when “Ba Stevu” organized half the village to greet me with singing, drumming, and dancing – through the entire past year, when he was the PCVL (PCV Leader) for my province, Northern, Steve has been a huge part of my service.

Steve playing the drum with Ba Boston at the welcoming party he organized for me when I first visited Mfuba in April 2013.

Steve playing the drum with Ba Boston at the welcoming party he organized for me when I first visited Mfuba.

Mfuba is our village, not mine alone.

Typically, PCVs come to Zambian villages in threes: the “first generation” volunteer spends his or her two years just getting the neighbors used to the strange customs and habits of muzungus. Sometimes that PCV gets some good work done; sometimes his success is measured simply in relationships established and foundations laid.

Ideally, the “second gen” PCV is the one who can really get his or her hands dirty – getting projects off the ground and doing what we’d call “work.” The “third gen” PCV focuses on wrapping up existing projects, perhaps working more on finer business skills, and preparing the community for life without a PCV.

As my counterpart Ba Allan once told me: “Ba Stevu prepared the garden beds. Now we will plant!” I added, “And with the last volunteer you will harvest!” I hope.

This is all theoretical, of course, and depends a whole lot on individual people and community interest, but it’s a rough model we try to follow.

“Ba Stevu” was first gen. I am second.

Throughout my service, I have been compared to Steve, for good or for ill. “Ba Stevu could draw beautiful pictures of us. Why can’t you?” “Ba Stevu carried us on HIS bicycle; why don’t you?” “Ba Stevu did not farm; you are much stronger than Ba Stevu!” (This last one is actually a lie; Steve DID have a small field, but he used it strictly to multiply agroforestry seeds, and it was in a fairly inaccessible spot, away from the road, where few saw it.)

Occasionally, these comparisons drive me nuts. I am NOT Ba Steve! All muzungus are not the same!

I will admit, though, to being eternally grateful for the most common Terri-Steve comparison: “Ah, Ba Stevu did not speak Bemba! YOU are a real Bemba!” It is the one talent that sets me apart, and possibly my most redeeming feature as a PCV: I speak the local language reasonably well. Steve’s Bemba vocabulary, by his own and everyone else’s account, consisted almost entirely of basic greetings and the phrase, “takuli ubwafya!” (“no problem!”)

Such comparisons are quite common across the generations of PCVs. What is most uncommon about my and Steve’s relationship is that, after he finished his service in Mfuba, Steve extended his Peace Corps service for a third year as PCVL in his home province, which became my home province as well.

Typically, PCVs have little to no contact with their predecessors. The idea is to allow the next generation the freedom to learn their own lessons, make their own mistakes, work with their own strengths instead of those of their predecessors.

I suspect that some PCVs who extend for a third year find it difficult to “let go” of their village and let someone else take over. I know I would.

But Steve never, ever told me what to do in Mfuba. When he left, he left the vil in my care.

Yet he was always there when I visited the NoPro house, and it wasn’t long into my service before Steve and I began swapping stories, minor frustrations, and idle gossip from Mfuba. I would arrive at the house and exclaim, “You’re not going to believe what Ba Dorothy said to me the other day!” or “Glenda got married!” or, “Ba Maxwell says hi,” or “The women’s co-op is on the verge of falling apart – again …”

And it wasn’t long after that that I began greeting Steve with a great big hug. He was no longer my predecessor or my current PCVL – he was one of my best friends in Zambia.

Steve, our PCVL (Peace Corps Volunteer Leader) at the NoPro house - and my predecessor in Mfuba village - shows off the Zambian flag scarf he got for our Christmas morning white elephant exchange. Zach's admiring him.

Steve, our PCVL at the NoPro house, shows off the Zambian flag scarf he got for our Christmas morning white elephant exchange. Zach’s admiring him.

I looked forward to hearing his anecdotes and impressions of the same hilarious-amazing-frustrating things I’m now experiencing in “our” village. It’s been a unique and wonderful opportunity: getting to talk on a regular basis with someone who knows exactly what I’m experiencing but manages never to judge me (at least not outwardly!) and instead encourages and inspires me as any good friend would.

Starting today, though, I’m on my own. Yesterday Steve completed his three years of Peace Corps service and caught a plane out of Zambia.

Before he went, just last week in Kasama, he joined me and a group of our neighbors for a soft drink after our visit to Miasamfu Agricultural Research Station. I’d invited Steve to meet up with us at the end because I knew everyone in the group wanted to greet him before he left.

I convinced him to give a joint speech: He rallied them together and told them they should put to use what they’d learned on the tour. I told them they should all thank Ba Stevu. Without the work he put in as the first PCV in Mfuba, we wouldn’t where we are today.

Every time a farmer explains to me the benefits of conservation farming – whether or not he’s actually practicing it – that’s Ba Stevu’s doing. Every time the kids do tree pose in my yard, every time I see nitrogen-fixing sun hemp or pigeon pea growing in someone’s field, every time Ba Allan preaches about the need to stand up to unhelpful or corrupt government officials – this, too, is Ba Stevu’s influence.

Seeing these small ripples of change emanating from his service gives me hope for my own.

My first Zambian national park

12 May 2014

I hear most visitors to Zambia come strictly for the wildlife – to visit national parks; go on game drives; and spot elephants, hippos, lions, leopards, and zebras.

Me, I’ve focused mainly on the human part of the ecosystem. In my home in Mfuba Village, the natural world is all around me, but we are at least a five-hour drive from the nearest national park, and our little slice of the environment has been altered – perhaps irrevocably – by the usual human desires to be fruitful and multiply. I don’t travel a whole lot, and I don’t have a lot of cash, so exorbitantly expensive trips to Zambia’s national parks have so far been out of the question.

This weekend, though, I got lucky: a work-related trip to Kasanka National Park!

View across one of the many wetland-fringed lakes in Kasanka NP.

View across one of the many wetland-fringed lakes in Kasanka NP.

Me and my PCV buddy Adam traveled there to plan for Northern Province’s first-ever Camp TREE – an environmental camp for a bunch of village kids and adult mentors who’ve also never been to a national park in their own country. We were meeting with Bastiaan, the volunteer coordinator for Kasanka Trust, which manages both Kasanka and Lavushi Manda national parks. The latter, which is a bit closer to us in Northern, will be the site of our Camp TREE, but Kasanka is where Bastiaan lives and works, so off we went.

Lucky for us, Bastiaan helped us out with transport from our turn-off north of Serenje all the way into the park.

Adam enjoying the sun and wind on the drive out of the park.

Adam enjoying the sun and wind on the drive out of the park.

Luckier still, he let us stay there for two nights, free of charge, and showed us around the park while we were there.

I must admit I chafed at Kasanka’s restrictions on exploring. In the States, I am free to wander off into any National Park or National Forest all on my own, even to get myself killed by a grizzly bear or mountain lion if I should be so unwise or unlucky. In Kasanka, however – as in most Zambian national parks, I hear – I was not allowed even to take a four-kilometer walk around a lake right next to the park staff housing complex without an armed guide. As there were no guides available, I couldn’t go.

With that said, we did get to go on a couple beautiful drives; see intact, unpopulated miombo woodlands; watch huge water birds, baboons, monkeys, puku, and warthogs; relax by a streambank littered with hippo tracks; and view the sunset at a spot with sweeping vistas.

All in all, a short but refreshing break for the soul.

As usual, photos say it best.

Climbing to the top of one of viewing platforms. In a mostly wooded ecosystem devoid of large mountains, this the best way to get a good view!

Climbing to the top of one of several viewing platforms in the park. In a mostly wooded ecosystem devoid of large mountains, this the best way to get a good view!

View from the top!

View from the top!

View from another platform, right next to where we stayed, just after sunrise.

View from another platform, right next to where we stayed, just after sunrise.

You might just be able to make out the kinda baboon in the crook of this tree, center of photo. There were dozens assembled, but I scared them off with my early-morning presence.

You might just be able to make out the kinda baboon in the crook of this tree, center of photo. There were dozens assembled, but I scared them off with my early-morning presence.

This baboon just hung out on a parked vehicle, apparently unafraid.

This baboon just hung out on a parked vehicle, apparently unafraid.

Termite mounds are common around Zambia's wetlands and miombo woodlands.

Anthills are common around Zambia’s wetlands and miombo woodlands.

On a drive through the park.

On a drive through the park.

Woo hoo!

Woo hoo!

Peaceful spot along a slow-moving river.

Peaceful spot along a slow-moving river. This is a common spot for hippos and crocodiles, though we didn’t see any.

Hippo tracks into the water!

Hippo tracks into the water!

Empty turtle shell, still intact but found upside-down. Wonder how this guy died ...

Empty turtle shell, still intact but found upside-down. Wonder how this guy died …

Sweeping sunset view.

Sweeping sunset view.

The power of new ideas

“One’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes

9 May 2014

In the day-to-day life of a Peace Corps Volunteer, it’s often difficult to see progress of any kind. We long for tangible projects – a new beehive, a successful garden, 100 trees planted, a family that uses record-keeping to sustain their food and monetary resources throughout the year. We want some clear sign that our efforts are having a positive impact on our neighbors’ lives.

We rarely get that satisfaction.

To avoid getting discouraged, I try to remind myself about the tiny trickles of snowmelt that give birth to rushing rivers. The single footstep that triggers an avalanche.  My job here is simply to share ideas – to teach and to help where I can. Any progress that happens will be entirely up to my neighbors.

Using that as my measuring stick, today was like thousands of raindrops merging into that mountain stream, or a stampede of elephants across that snowy mountainside.

After months of cajoling, coaxing, and organizing, I convinced 10 local farmers to take a tour of the Miasamfu Agricultural Research Station just five kilometers outside the provincial capital of Kasama.

Ba Foster showing a group of Mfuba and Mumana Lupando farmers a field of faster-growing cassava at the Miasamfu Research Station.

Ba Foster showing a group of Mfuba and Mumana Lupando farmers a field of fast-growing cassava at Miasamfu Research Station.

This may not seem like much, but let me put it in context with a few key points:

  1. Miasamfu is a government-run facility where actual scientists are doing actual research on all kinds of new crops, ways to improve soils, better methods of raising livestock, and better food storage methods.

    Examining a goat dip tank.

    Examining a goat dip tank.

  2. These scientist-farmers are promoting many of the same paths to financial and food security that I myself have been preaching, except that they are actual Zambian farmers, and their fields are doing MUCH better than mine!
  3. Miasamfu will be around as a resource for my neighbors for much longer than I will be.
  4. The research station provides – free of charge – seeds and technical advice to any community willing to provide a small piece of land and labor for an experimental “demo field” utilizing non-traditional crops or soil-improvement techniques.

In short, bringing 10 farmers to see this treasure trove of new ideas, methods, and seeds could be one of the most important things I do in my service.

The fantastic folks at Miasamfu – some of whom I’ve visited multiple times for advice myself – told me the tour would take about two hours, maybe a little longer, depending on how many questions there were. Instead, they spent a solid five hours – on a Friday afternoon no less – explaining everything they do there.

They showed us around their upland rice fields; explained how to recognize different insect pests and make natural pesticides; demonstrated better ways of keeping bugs out of stored maize and beans; described Miasamfu’s improved bean variety trials and how local farmers can get involved and make money off the project; showed how to build better, village-friendly chicken coops; announced upcoming mushroom-growing workshops; and invited the group to return next rainy season to get free of faster-growing cassava varieties and vitamin-rich orange sweet potatoes.

Checking out experimental chicken coops.

Checking out experimental chicken coops.

Much to my delight, they emphasized improving and maintaining soil fertility by rotating crops and retaining crop residues! (aka, via NOT using slash-and-burn agriculture!)

Ba Pamela explains budding citrus trees to get the best oranges.

Ba Pamela explains budding citrus trees to get the best oranges.

We all skipped lunch, and my stomach was growling like crazy by the time we left at 4 p.m. But the excitement in the air was palpable.

I was beside myself with happiness as my neighbors asked question after question about different farming techniques; oooh-ed and aaah-ed over the on-site weather station; and discussed creating markets for alternative crops.

Ba Bernardi examining one of Miasamfu's many insect pest specimens.

Ba Bernardi examining one of Miasamfu’s many insect pest specimens.

I could see their enthusiasm, and it was contagious.

I know every one of these farmers learned a whole lot. I suspect that at least a couple of them will try some of these new techniques or crops themselves. I hope that they can organize the rest of the community to support a demo field. I pray that an avalanche hits Mfuba.

I may not see it in my service, but I am watching a blizzard of new ideas piling up, just waiting to be released.

An artist at work

7 May 2014

There is no word for “artist” in Bemba, but I wish there were. That’s exactly what I’d call my friend and sometimes counterpart Ba Allan Mwango.

Though his formal schooling ended after grade 7, you’d never know it. Ba Allan (not to be confused with my main counterpart Ba Allan Kasonde) is an amazing and resourceful gardener; he has great business skills; and his English is better than anyone else I know in my area. Ba Allan has taught me a lot more than I’ve ever taught him, and he contionously surprises me with new skills and bits of knowledge that blow me away.

But this takes the cake.

Last month when my brother came to visit, our first stop was lunch at Ba Allan’s. Then the day before Lee left, Ba Allan showed up at my house with a gift for Lee: two beautifully decorated imwimko (cooking sticks, or, in U.S. lingo, wooden spoons). Both Lee and I were surprised by his generosity, and then even more so by his response to my question: “Who made these?” “Me,” he said.

I commented again on this amazing skill the next time I visited Ba Allan, and he offered to show me his craft sometime. Yesterday he did.

He started out with a hunk of mukwa (a fine-grained, glossy, reddish wood) and an ax. No shoes, though. He owns shoes, but like many rural Zambians, he seems to feel most comfortable without them. I tried not to cringe as the ax came down again and again just inches from his toes, which were gripping the log on which his work evolved.

 

Ba Allan's son Chris looks on as his dad deftly handles the ax.

Ba Allan’s son Chris looks on as his dad deftly handles the ax.

Then came the imbaso – a very sharp, specialized tool. My fear for his toes increased, but Ba Allan carried on, explaining that he’d learned this skill in primary school, back when education was much better and there was a crafts program even in the lower grades.

Using the imbaso for finer carving.

Using the imbaso for finer carving.

Once he’d hewn four rough spoons and done some sanding and smoothing with the blunt edge of his ax head, we moved to the fire. No ordinary fire, this one was fueled by charcoal made from the ndale, or snake bean, tree. It burns much hotter than regular charcoal and is used by blacksmiths to make metal tools. It only glows red-hot, however, when stoked by a bellows. I got that honor for a while, then switched out to take pictures.

 

Traditionally, Ba Allan said, the bellows would have been made from animal skin, the pipe running to the fire from clay. Now plastic bags and a metal pipe do the job.

The plastic bellows is at right.

The plastic bellows is at right.

Watching Ba Allan burn intricate designs into each umwinko was my favorite part of the entire lesson. Not only because of his skill in using a few metal tools to burn a variety of patterns, but also because of how quickly and deftly he worked – like he wasn’t thinking at all.

When I told him it would’ve taken me forever to decide what designs to burn, and another eternity to replicate them, he just laughed. He said he just burns whatever comes to mind.

Ba Allan also used hot metal to burn and smooth the edges of the imwinko before sanding them over one last time with the blunt edge of his ax.

As I sat there admiring them, breathing in the rich smell of smoky mukwa wood, I silently chose the design I liked best. Well, OK, the two or three I liked best. I hoped he’d give me one.

And then he handed me all four! I could not believe it! “Really?! Are you sure?” I asked, unable to believe my eyes.

But I should’ve known. Ba Allan is the quintessential generous Zambian, and the embodiment of why I love living here: surprises await me every day.

I asked Ba Allan if he knew of any equivalent word for “artist,” in Bemba. None exists, he told me. But the word for one who has this skill, “woodworker,” is “kabasa.” I guess I’ll settle for that, but like so many things in Zambia, the label encompasses so much more.

Fun with beans

6 May 2014

Turns out, jumping and playing in a big ol’ pile of dried bean vines is just as much fun as jumping in a pile of freshly raked leaves ku Amelika.

Joyci, Lavenda, Agri, Katongo, and Donna having a grand old time.

Joyci, Lavenda, Agri, Katongo, and Donna having a grand old time.

Maybe even more so, cuz the pile is bigger, softer, and bouncier!

They also make great “fertilizer” when left in one’s field as mulch.

Lucky for this farming PCV, whose own crop biomass left something to be desired, the Mfuba Farmers’ Co-op carried their dried bean crop right up to the community nsaka next door. Just like last year, they pummeled the dried vines ’til the beans came popping out; gathered up and winnowed the beans; then just left big piles of vines behind.

Last year, these piles sat for a few weeks, until someone burned them – sadly, a favorite pastime here. But this year, I was ready. If they weren’t going to return their crop residues to their field – a main principle of conservation farming, or any other good soil management scheme – then I’d take them to break down in my own field.

Kids had already gathered to pick up the left-behind beans by the time I arrived with the communal neighborhood wheelbarrow to start making trips to my field, and a small group scrambled to help me. For some, like Annette and Allan, Jr., this didn’t last long. But little Katongo and Agri stayed with me from start to finish.

Agri, Annette, and Katongo (riding atop the beans).

Agri, Annette, and Katongo (riding atop the beans).

In all we did at least 10 round trips, and though my field’s only about a five-minute walk away, that adds up when your’re only four and six years old.

At first I would bring a load with the kids tagging behind, then carry a kid or two back in the empty wheelbarrow.

Katongo in the wheelbarrow.

Katongo in the wheelbarrow.

Just as this was starting to get tiring (especially as they wanted to RUN! with the wheelbarrow), Katongo said HE wanted to take a turn “driving.” So I grabbed an icitenge, loaded up a bundle on my head, and handed over the wheelbarrow to him.

Katongo ALMOST made it all the way, but he was done in by the tiny termite mound right before my field. He’d continuously refused my offers to help, but here, sweaty and breathing hard, he gave in. I told him I was sure he’d make it next year, when he was just a little bigger.

Then his older brother Muso stepped in on wheelbarrow duty, and Katongo and Agri wanted to carry loads on their heads! Four-year-old Agri carried a load I’d intended for myself. I swore he’d collapse, but he made it all the way, right along with Katongo, and I began to wonder if I was contributing to child labor and permanent stunting of young children.

Katongo (hidden by his giant load) and Agri arrive in my field.

Katongo (hidden by his giant load) and Agri arrive in my field.

The boys, though, seemed to be having the time of their lives, with Muso racing and trying to chase his little brothers most of the way. I swore all the vines would end up dumped in the road, but they always made it, and I always hauled them back in the wheelbarrow, except when Muso wanted to.

After four solid hours of this, punctuated only by water breaks, digging up a few sweet potatoes, and lighting my charcoal brazier, I reluctantly called it quits. I had a 2 pm meeting in the next village over, but in that moment all I wanted to do was keep hangin’ out with these kids (who happen to be some of my best friends in Mfuba).

Luckily I’d boiled up enough sweet potatoes and groundnuts for all of us, so we could have a big lunchtime feast together.

And I am totally printing out a couple photos for them from our day of work(/play?). Especially this one.

Allan Jr., Katongo, and Agri.

Allan Jr., Katongo, and Agri.

On being female

4 May 2014

It’s been a tough week to be a woman in rural Zambia. Or, a tough week to be a feminist-leaning American woman in rural Zambia, anyway. I’m still trying to figure out how my female neighbors feel.

It started last weekend, when a guy I barely know walked through my yard to see if I wanted to buy charcoal. I was fixing a flat tire on my bike. “Ah, muli abaume!” (“You are a man!”) he exclaimed, full of admiration that a woman could actually be fixing a bicycle.

Zambian men throw this phrase at me all the time – whenever I’m found using a hoe or biking long distances. They seem to think it’s a compliment.

Making bricks. This one really made the guys crack up.

Making bricks. This one really made the guys crack up.

I’ve never once had someone exclaim: “Ah, you are a woman!” in admiration when I carry heavy things on my head or fetch endless buckets of water or run an entire household by myself. They certainly don’t say these things to men, because men don’t do those things.

Tough ladies: Ba Memory, Ba Annette, and Ba Florence, harvesting millet with babies on their backs.

Tough ladies: Ba Memory, Ba Annette, and Ba Florence, harvesting millet with babies on their backs.

In the past I’ve laughed off this comment. Silly Zambian men! Your wives could also ride and fix bicycles if they owned them! But on this particular day I was sick of it and kinda let the guy have it. “No, I am a woman,” I said, “And I do not WANT to be called a man.”

Women in pants! Ba Brenda and I took this photo because I was so shocked to see another woman in Mfuba wearing pants! Now I'm not the only one!

Women in pants! Ba Brenda and I took this photo because I was so shocked to see another woman in Mfuba wearing them. Now I’m not the only one!

Trouble is, here muzungu women find themselves in the awkward position of being what I sarcastically call “honorary men.” In a culture where the sexes rarely mingle, the guys always want me to eat and hang out with them. I always want to go to the women’s side. I’m never sure what the women want because they’ll rarely say what they want in front of the men. I end up feeling like a bit of a ping-pong ball.

I recently taught a chicken-keeping/record-keeping workshop to two women’s groups in Kapanda, 12K away from Mfuba. My counterpart Ba Allan was the only man there, other than one random guy who seemed to be there just because he was friends with Allan. The workshop concluded with them telling the women they’d have to include male “helpers” in their clubs because, as the women lamented themselves, only men can make bricks or build a chicken coop.

(The women’s co-op in Mfuba admitted a few guys on similar grounds two years ago. Now both their chairman and treasurer are men.)

After talking about chickens, we were invited to eat lunch – me, Allan, and this random guy who’s not even a member of the club! I put my foot down. “This is a WOMEN’s club!” I exclaimed. “I am a woman! Why am I eating with only men?!” The men and women alike proceeded to explain that Zambian women can be “shy.” I convinced the two club chairwomen to join us anyway, thus sparking a very awkward, culturally inappropriate mixed-gender meal.

But back to this week.

We held gardening and beekeeping workshops. Total cumulative female attendance: zero.

But this isn’t the sad part. The sad part is I no longer EXPECT women to attend, unless we’re teaching a specific club that has female members who are therefore forced to attend. I ask my female neighbors if they’ll be coming to today’s workshop, but I realized this week it’s now just something I have to say to convince myself I’m TRYING to empower women …

Women DO come to our cooking demos and nutrition talks, though they’re kinda forced to come to the latter, which we hold at the monthly Under 5 child weigh-ins, where the clinic workers shout at them and withhold their kids’ weight cards ’til they listen to the muzungu.

The kicker, though – the thing that brought all my culturally biased gender opinions to a head – was our GLOW meeting this afternoon.

GLOW girls! Joyci, Doris, and Gladys explaining their drawings of the future. Notice Gladys has had to bring her little brother to the meeting because she's the one looking after him.

GLOW girls! Joyci, Doris, and Gladys explaining their drawings of the future. Notice Gladys has had to bring her little brother to the meeting because she’s the one looking after him.

Ba Dorothy and I taught the girls about boyfriends and peer pressure. How to say no to sex, or, if you can’t/don’t want to say no, how to use a condom. We’d planned this whole thing previously, but then, in the middle of the lesson and in front of the girls, she tells me, “There’s no way they’re going to convince a man to use a condom. He will refuse.” Meaning, basically, game over. If a guy refuses to use a condom, the couple will have sex anyway and not use one. I tried to keep my mind away from the exact definition of rape.

Unprofessional and culturally insensitive as this may be, I got on my soapbox right then and there. (Heck, they’ve got to be used to this kind of behavior from me by now.) I said that if women never stand up to men, nothing will ever change. “You have power!” I exclaimed. “Don’t let anyone force you to do something you don’t want to do!”

The girls looked a little unnerved. Ba Dorothy sighed. She knows I just don’t “get it.”

And she’s right. I try my best to take off my American glasses and see where my neighbors are coming from.

But sometimes, I just can’t.

Sometimes, it’s tough to be a woman in rural Zambia.

The art of mourning

25 April 2014

I am caught between two cultures, trying to decide how I should be mourning my grandmother’s death.

Today I didn’t want to return to Mfuba. First time that’s happened since before Christmas. I’d spent two days in Kasama, trying to contact family and friends after my phone e-mail crapped out right after my Mamma died. (Bad timing, huh?) I’d also gotten food poisoning somewhere in there – my first real bout of puking and diarrhea in Zambia.

I think I was still needing the muzungu bubble of the NoPro provincial house, still trying to deal with a lot of things, still deciding how I feel.

So this morning, I delayed and delayed leaving Kasama, for no good reason. I could’ve easily left at 10 a.m. but didn’t get going ‘til after noon. I felt like crap on the bike ride home and ended up hitching two-thirds of the way, dreading my return the whole way.

But I came back anyway, because I had so much to do: finish building my compost pile and resuce those rotting green leaves we’d collected before I left; plan Sunday’s GLOW meeting with Ba Dorothy; re-schedule the nutrition meeting and Youth Club workshop I’d bailed out on when I decided I couldn’t handle staying in the village with my feelings and no connection to the outside world.

Then as soon as I arrived back in Mfuba, I was called over by a big group of my neighbors who were just hangin’ out. Not surprisingly, they’d all heard, and greeted me with the standard funeral greetings: “Mwalosheni mukwai” (You are mourning) or “Mwaculeni mukwai” (You are suffering.)

I sat around for a little while, then asked Ba Dorothy if we could meet tomorrow to plan Sunday’s GLOW meeting. “Teti,” she said, which just means “can’t.” I thought she was about to tell me she had some other commitment, but no. I can’t work for several days because I’m in mourning. If I work, people will think I didn’t care for Mamma.

No compost-making, no teaching the girls about boyfriends and peer pressure, no meetings. “Intambi,” (culture) Ba Dorothy said.

I was immediately angry. I should’ve just stayed in Kasama another night after all! Why did I even come back here? No wonder nothing ever gets done around here! Where are everyone’s priorities?! Mamma would WANT me to carry on and teach, wouldn’t she?

And then I caught myself. Isn’t this what I love about Bemba culture? Their care and compassion for family? And couldn’t I actually USE a break for a change? And then: what the heck is wrong with me that I can’t just stop DOING things and mourn my grandmother? Why do I always have to bury my feelings and move on? Even calling my two good PCV friends this morning, I barely mentioned Mamma, then moved right on to our work and vacation plans.

I could argue that this numbed reaction is the product of being so far away. Mamma’s death doesn’t really seem real, to be honest. Maybe it won’t until I go back home and CAN’T call or visit her. But mainly, it’s just me. I’m an “I’ll be fine,” kinda person. Like many Americans, I don’t deal well with sadness.

So I’m caught between these two feelings, these two cultures. Part of me is ticked off at my neighbors: Who are they to impose THEIR culture on ME when I’M the one mourning, not them? This is NOT the way Americans do it. Dammit we have work to do!

Another part of me thinks: wow, their way makes so much more sense! I actually DO need to slow down and let myself have feelings once in a while, and having this forced on me may be the only way it happens. Maybe this is exactly what I need?

But I can’t help it. I’m still a stubborn American. I’m still fretting over the compost, my garden, and another week without GLOW.