Hair culture

The women and girls of Mfuba love to play with my hair. They exclaim over how long, soft, and “slippery” it is.

The admiration is mutual. I love not only the fluffy softness of their hair, but also – and especially – the beautiful and ingenious ways in which they braid one another’s locks.

Three of my GLOW girls show off their braids. Left to right: Mwape, Mwango, and Chola.

Three of my GLOW girls show off their braids. Left to right: Mwape, Mwango, and Chola.

It is hard to over-emphasize how deeply embedded braiding is in the culture of Mfuba – and rural Zambia in general. Yes, women the world over – women of African heritage in particular – enjoy wearing elaborately woven hairstyles.

Here, though, braiding is fashion, art, and social fabric all rolled into one. Amidst the seemingly endless demands of farming and running a rural Zambian household, women and girls willingly and happily spend hours of their free time twisting and playing with one another’s hair.

A typical gathering of young hairstylists in Mfuba. Chola, Janet, and Harriet are braiding Annette (left) and Donna's hair.

A typical gathering of young hairstylists in Mfuba. Chola, Janet, and Harriet are braiding Annette and Donna’s hair.

The styles are seemingly infinite. Some become popular and then fade away; others seem to be all-purpose stand-bys. A few designs appear utterly unique. All spring from the familiarity that comes with spending most of one’s life in close proximity to the same group women – and from a creativity that might in other places be expressed through painting, drawing, or sculpting. Here, for most, braiding is the most accessible form of art.

The following are just a small sampling of the different types of braids I’ve seen in Mfuba.

A simple but beautiful design.

A simple but beautiful design.

Melba (left) and Memory show off their braids.

Melba (left) and Memory show off their braids.

Annette with of the more elaborate hairstyles. This one, like many others, isn't actually braided but is created from wrapping thread around the hair.

Annette with of the more elaborate hairstyles. This one, like many others, isn’t actually braided but is created from wrapping thread around the hair.

Ba Nellis, sporting a popular style of her own, braiding Ba Elizabeth's hair.

Ba Nellis, sporting a popular style of her own, braiding Ba Elizabeth’s hair.

Another style using cotton thread.

Another style using cotton thread.

This photo shows possibly my very favorite style. It also marks the first time Melba smiled at me! (For most of my first year in Mfuba, she dissolved into sobs upon seeing me, but I've slowly won her over, and this photo shoot represented a very happy turnaround.)

This photo shows possibly my very favorite style. It also marks the first time Melba smiled at me! (For most of my first year in Mfuba, she dissolved into sobs upon seeing me, but I’ve slowly won her over, and this photo shoot represented a very happy turnaround.)

Joyci and Gile, showing off two different styles. It is quite common for women and girls to go around with their hair half-finished, as Gile's hair is. Sometimes, work necessitates stopping halfway through and finishing later.

Joyci and Gile, showing off two different styles. It is quite common for women and girls to go around with their hair half-finished, as Gile’s hair is. Sometimes, work necessitates stopping halfway through and finishing later.

Two sets of hands simultaneously braiding.

Two sets of hands simultaneously braiding.

Another style using thread.

Another style using thread.

Sometimes they even let me in on the action! Yes, muzungus can braid, too! (It's tricky to work with such short hair, but I'm learning!)

Sometimes they even let me in on the action! Yes, muzungus can braid, too! (It’s tricky to work with such short hair, but I’m learning!)

Close-up of the thread-braiding process.

Close-up of the thread-braiding process.

At Luwingu Camp GLOW, the girls braided all the PCVs' hair!

At Luwingu Camp GLOW, the girls braided all the PCVs’ hair!

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Village justice

17 June 2014

Today Mfuba carried out a little vigilante justice on a local man accused of stealing maize. They covered his face in maize flour and paraded him around the village as a public humiliation.

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Getting the accused thief ready for his public viewing.

Mfuba’s nearest police officers are stationed 90 kilometers away. So most grievances go to our headman, Ba Bernardi. His most recent cases have involved:

  • A drunken man who sold all his family’s beans, then threatened to kill his wife when she confronted him;
  • A philanderer whose mistress moved from her village, 25 kilometers away, to Mfuba, then confronted the man’s wife here;
  • And a family that blamed their elderly father’s stroke on witchcraft, claiming the curse was carried out by another family, with whom they have an almost Hatfields-and-McCoys-type relationship.

(I am struck here by the similarities between rural Zambia and rural America. Well, maybe with the exception of the witchcraft.)

If the complainants are not satisfied with Ba Bernardi’s verdict, they can take their case to Chief Munkonge, who lives 25 kilometers away.

Zambia has a dual system of law. Some things fall under the purvey of elected and appointed government officials (the police, courts, and legislatures, both federal and provincial). Others are handled by hereditary or communally chosen tribal officials (chiefs, sub-chiefs, and headmen/women).

Sometimes, however, the offense is so apparently clear-cut that local residents take matters into their own hands.

Such was the case with the maize thief.

Soon after finishing lunch today, I heard a lot of shouting from in front of my house. Then one voice rose above the rest. “Kabwalala!” (“Thief!”) “Come see the kabwalala!”

This was clearly something I didn’t want to miss. I left my yard and went out to the main path through Mfuba.

There, surrounded by a small crowd, stood the man whose face had been covered in maize flour. Four ears of maize were tied around his torso, and, strangely, a sign around his neck proclaimed the variety of hybrid maize he’d stolen from a nearby field. (I’ve received no royalties from said maize company.)

P1080687The man hung his head and said not a word while people gathered to chastise him. I later learned that he’d supposedly gone several nights in a row to steal from a neighboring village, and that he’d finally been caught by a combination of eyewitness accounts and old-fashioned detective work: maize had been mysteriously appearing at his home, he’d been spotted in the area late at night, and the soles of his sandals matched the prints of those coming from the offended maize field.

As soon as I arrived on the scene, everyone wanted me to get my camera, so I could “show people in Amelika what we do with thieves here.” Happy to oblige, guys.

A crowd gathers to berate the maize thief, at right.

A crowd gathers to berate the maize thief, at right.

The whole scene made me a little uncomfortable. Even Ba Bernardi, normally so jolly and forgiving, was jeering at the accused thief and hamming it up for my photos.

Ba Bernardi chastising the accused maize thief.

Ba Bernardi chastising the accused thief.

Then, suddenly, someone grabbed a tree branch and started whacking the thief with it. A few people cheered, and I thought, oh no, this is where it goes bad.

I opened my mouth to protest, but luckily, in the same instant, Bernardi snatched the stick away from the guy and said, basically, hey, that’s enough.

A few moments later, the vigilante justice group moved on, to parade the thief around the rest of the village. The calls of “Kabwalala! Come see the kabwalala!” receded into the distance.

Note: Ba Bernardi later judged that the accused thief was in fact guilty and would have to return all the maize he’d stolen and then some.

The police were called to deal with the drunken man who threatened his wife, but the drunken man cried and pleaded so much on the walk out to the tarmac that his wife dropped the charges.

Ba Bernardi ordered the philanderer’s mistress to go back to her own village. Of course, their extramarital relationship will most certainly continue, but according to Bernardi, it won’t be a problem any more.

I still don’t know what the heck’s going on in the witchcraft case.

The fix-it kings

16 June 2014

This blog post is courtesy of Ba Allan, counterpart extraordinaire and now, apparently, my own personal handyman. Without him, my phone would not be working to write this.

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Ba Allan, posing with his cell phone. Though cell service has been available in Mfuba for only a few short years, he knows more about fixing phones than I ever will.

On a bike ride this morning, my phone slipped out of its usual small bag, the zipper of which is busted. (Maybe I should bring the bag to Ba Allan as well.) Somehow, some water got into the phone, and it stopped working.

I removed the battery to let it dry. Charged it just in case. No luck.

Ba Allan just happened to come by at this point. He suggested I open up the phone itself – all the electronic bits that scare me.

I assured him I could handle it. I tried removing the tiny screws holding it together, first with my eyeglasses screwdriver, then with a paperclip, then with a nail. No luck.

I went over to Ba Allan’s to admit defeat, bringing the tools I’d tried.

Ba Allan looked at the nail for about five seconds before getting to work. First he chopped up a handy piece of wood. Then he banged the end of the nail flat, using an ax head and a rock. Finally, he pounded the flattened end of the nail into the wood. Instant screwdriver.

Ba Allan's homemade mini-screwdriver saved my phone from ruin.

Ba Allan’s homemade mini-screwdriver saved my phone from ruin.

Of course, the business end of the nail still didn’t fit the phone screws, so Ba Allan used that same rock to file it down until it did.

He unscrewed the phone, carefully pried it open, and then proceeded to point out to me all its various working parts before setting it in the sun to dry.

During the whole process of prying open the phone, I couldn’t stop cringing. I worried the phone would break, and I’d be out 1,000 kwacha. Noticing my pained expression, Ba Allan said, “Why are you afraid? It will be fine.”

I should know by now to trust rural Zambian fix-it skills. It’s just that I am not the fix-it type, even ku Amelika. I’ve gotten much better here, having learned that you can do a LOT with bits of wire, string, and fire. But I will never be as good as my neighbors.

Got a leak in your water jug? Anyone here knows to melt it sealed with any of the random bits of plastic lying around. Got a LOT of leaks in your water jug? Turn it into a seedling nursery or flower pot.

Lacking thread to sew your child’s constantly torn pants? Pull the plastic threads out of a maize sack.

Pot handle fell off? Melt down a bit of wire to replace the screw that came loose.

Need a broom? There are any number of weeds, shrubs, and grasses that will do the trick.

My home-made broom - great for sweeping my dusty yard in the dry season.

My home-made broom – great for sweeping my dusty yard in the dry season.

Making a much nicer broom from dried grasses. This kind of broom is meant for sweeping inside the house.

Making a much nicer broom from dried grasses. This kind of broom is meant for sweeping inside the house.

Here in Mfuba, as elsewhere in rural Zambia, bricks become stools, old bike tubes become bungee cords, and plastic bags are tied together to make balls. Everything turns into some child’s homemade “motoka” at some point.

Necessity is the  other of invention, indeed.

Change your language, change your mind

Learning another language doesn’t just mean changing the words that come out of one’s mouth. It also requires changing the way in which one thinks – wrapping the brain around an entirely new culture. Culture and language are inextricably linked.

So attempting to switch from English to Bemba means I must alter not only my speech, but also my perceptions.

It’s a fundamental shift that, for me, is happening panono panono (slowly slowly).

Think of the old adage about Inuit languages having dozens of words for snow. Bemba has a seemingly infinite number of very specific words for planting, harvesting, processing, and cooking various foods.

Ba Deria, grinding millet. That's "ukupela amale," in Bemba.

Ba Deria, grinding millet. That’s “ukupela amale,” in Bemba.

Ditto anything to do with the many uses of trees.

On the other hand, Bemba has an apparent dearth of words with which to explain emotions and superlatives – something that frequently confounds this easily excitable PCV. The same verb, “ukufulwa,” is used for “to be angry,” “to be annoyed,” and “to frown.”

Amazing? Interesting? Fantastic? All fall under the same phrase, “Cawama sana,” which simply means, “It’s very good.”

There is literally no way to say “I love you” in the way that native English speakers would use the phrase. The word icitemwiko means love, but it seems to be used mostly to describe larger concepts, like God’s love. In typical speech, there is only, “I like you a lot” or “I prefer you a lot.”

Now take the concept of respect, which permeates Bemba language and culture. (My neighbors are fond of telling me that in English there is no respect.)

There’s the use of “Ba” (esentially a gender-neutral “Mr.” or “Mrs.”) before a name; the word “mukwai,” which doesn’t really translate but denotes respect and can be added to any greeting or statement; and whether one uses the polite or impolite form of a command. Personal pronouns and verb conjugations also depend on whether the person being addressed has earned respect: those without respect are addressed as “iwe!” the impolite form of “hey you!”

Basically, the older the person, the greater the respect. From what I’ve been told, anyone who is under 30 years old or so, or anyone who has no children, automatically gets no respect, at least in speech. (Despite my childless-ness, I still get respect. Muzungus ALWAYS get respect, much to my chagrin.) Also, one will always refer to one’e elder siblings with respect, and to one’s younger siblings without respect, no matter how old you all get.

This is another Bemba concept with which I struggle. I speak respectfully to any child over age five. I have adapted over time, however. I used to refer even to babies with the respectful form of verb conjugation.

They may be adorable, but in Bemba, the kids of Mfuba get no respect.

They may be adorable, but in Bemba, the kids of Mfuba get no respect.

One of the toughest mental shifts for me remains the use of polite versus impolite commands. Anyone in the above-mentioned “no respect” category will be ordered about in the following manner: “stop that!” “come here!” “give me that!” “hurry!”

"Iwe! Sweep my yard!" Young girls like Cila (left) and Joyci get no respect.

“Iwe! Sweep my yard!” Young girls like Cila (left) and Joyci get no respect.

The exclamation marks aren’t my own exaggerations. These commands are typically shouted. (As is, to my let’s-discuss-this-calmly English sensibilities, well over 50 percent of all spoken Bemba.)

Me, though, I just can’t stop myself from politely saying: “please stop that,” “please leave my yard,” and “please go home,” even to a screaming bunch of five-year-olds.

I also continue to ask, “Can you help me?” or, “Are you using your rake? Can I borrow it?” even though everyone around me insists that this is NOT correct. I should simply say, “Help me,” “Loan me that,” or “Give me that.” And I should not get upset when someone uses these same phrases with me.

On the other hand, there is one thing about the Bemba mindset that I’ve taken to like a fish in a mountain stream. (Hahaha. There are no mountains here. But of course my neighbors use the word “mountain” to refer to hills. Barely perceptible inclines are called hills.)

Amapinda (proverbs) are many and varied and often inscrutable to the American brain. Yet I love them (I mean, I like them a lot) precisely for this reason. And possibly because I’m a sucker for a good metaphor.

Perhaps nothing gets at the heart of a culture – and a language – like the time-worn advice gleaned from proverbs.

So let me end this post with a few of my favorites; their rough translations; and what the heck they actually mean, at least as far as I understand them.

  • Icikondo aciba cimo nga tacii pununa – A single person has no problems.
  • Umunwe umo tausala inda – One hand cannot pick out a louse. (One person can’t do what many can do together.)
  • Umupama pamo utule n’goma – To beat the drum again and again and again … (You must teach someone/reinforce teachings again and again …)
  • Imiti ikula empanga – Small/growing trees make a forest. (Small things can add up/grow into big things.)

A year gone by

8 June 2014

This morning I found myself crying in my hut, windows closed so no one would know I was there, wishing I were back in Montana. Six hours later, I was grinning wildly, watching Mfuba’s football team hold its own in a tie game while I huddled, shivering in the cold-season twilight, with three of my favorite kids.

Huddled for warmth: Obed, Doro, me, and Cila

Huddled for warmth: Obed, Doro, me, and Cila

At that moment, I thought to myself: This could be Community Entry all over again – the first three months of my service, during which I experienced more ups and downs than the wildly fluctuating Zambian kwacha (the country’s recently rebased currency).

Then I realized: exactly one year ago, I WAS in Community Entry. In fact, today marked my 13-month anniversary in Mfuba.

My view from the front porch has reverted to exactly the way it looked last year (other than the addition of my garden fence), and somehow, I’ve reverted to the same wild mood swings I thought I’d left behind months ago.

The language and cultural barriers have been lowered, but they are still most definitely there. I still sometimes snap at kids who won’t go away when I’m on visitor overload.

I feel much closer to at least a few people than I did last year, but that also means it hurts even more when those same people imply that I’m not a good volunteer if I don’t give them money and things. (Which is what got me crying this morning.)

I see glimpses of real progress in our work. (People actually building beehives! A group of farmers preparing a demonstration plot for experimental crops to be brought in by the local agricultural research station!)

Ba Abel and Ba Allan showing off the stand atop which they will build their second mud-brick bee hive.

Ba Abel and Ba Allan showing off the stand atop which they will build their second mud-brick bee hive.

But I also see failure around every corner. (The co-op continuing to lose money without even realizing it. The death of our nutrition workshops. The seeming futility of bringing more girls to this year’s Camp GLOW when the most enthusiastic candidates have only made it to grade 4 and barely attend anyway.)

Overall, I feel much more a part of the community. At that football game today, I knew all the players on our team. I whooped and hollered with our GLOW Club girls as they did their best to teach me Bemba sports cheers. And I actually understood and shared in most of the adults’ cheering and jeering. (Among my favorites: “You kick like you have the legs of a little boy!”)

Lucky celebrating an Mfuba goal.

Lucky celebrating an Mfuba goal.

But perhaps this just means that it hurts all the more when someone whom I’ve come to think of as a friend treats me like just another muzungu, here to give money.

Then again, maybe it also means that I’m not as ready to give up as I was this time last year. I’ve come to truly care about this crazy village!

And here are just a few reasons why, all of which happened on the very same day that I found myself crying in my hut:

  • Because I felt utterly comfortable huddling for warmth with Cila, Doro, and Obed.
  • Because Ba Mary and Ba Ida kept slapping my shoulders and hands as we all cheered together – just like they do with all the other women in Mfuba.
  • Because as I was walking home by myself in the twilight, Ba Mwaba and one of my favorite GLOW girls, Mwango, invited me to run with them to keep warm.
  • Because when I went to Ba Agatha’s to get hot coals for starting my charcoal brazier, she said, “Wait. Let me get you a cup of amonkoyo first,” and wanted to sit and chat, just the two of us, before the rest of her family came streaming in from the game.

    Bwalya, Ba Agatha, and Gile (in the corner): three reasons I love Mfuba.

    Bwalya, Ba Agatha, and Gile (in the corner): three reasons I love Mfuba.

  • Because as I walked back across the road with my hot coals, one of the visiting players said, probably not realizing I understood, “She lives here?!” Yes sir, I do.