Blog it home

I just learned that this blog has been chosen as a finalist in the Peace Corps “Blog it Home” contest! (Voting to choose the winner will happen on the Peace Corps’ Facebook page, from 1-10 August, so here’s my shameless plug for support. :+)

I must admit, I’m more than a little shocked to be in the final round.

Who woulda thought that a former technophobe would be even a contender amongst the hundreds of amazing Peace Corps blogs out there? Who woulda thought that my ramblings from a mud-brick hut in Mfuba Village would be noticed on a larger scale?

The “Blog it Home” contest is part of the Peace Corps’ Office of Third Goal, whose aim is to promote Americans’ understanding of other nations and cultures.

See, PCVs actually have three goals within their service. Goal One: To help developing countries improve standards of living via sustainable, community-led projects. Goal Two: To teach people of other nations and cultures about American culture. And Goal Three, which brings it all back to the States, via letters, the awesome World Wise Schools Correspondence Match program, visits from friends and family, and, yes, blogging.

In my humble experience, Goal One happens so slowly, so imperceptibly, that it’s tough for most PCVs to know if we’ll have any impact at all in the long run. Goals Two and Three? Now those are the ones that make my service – and the world – go round. They are the spark that keep me going when what I’d normally call “work” seems to be an endless string of fruitless workshops, cancelled meetings, and bumbling mistakes.

Needless to say, I am honored to be a finalist in this contest. I believe wholeheartedly in “Third Goal,” especially considering our often sheltered, insular world view living in one of the world’s most powerful nations. Sharing glimpses of life in Zambia – and in Mfuba in particular – is the reason I keep up with this blog.

I’m also more than a little nervous.

If I win this contest – slim as that possibility might be – I will be flown to Washington, D.C. for a week of publicity and cultural exchange in our nation’s capital. (And I thought returning to Montana in another nine months or so would be scary!)

There is no part of me that looks forward to the immense culture shock of going from rural Zambia to a sprawling American metropolis. And no part of me that wouldn’t feel guilty about leaving my village for so long. But so goes my life. I am caught between two worlds.

I want to spend as much time in Mfuba as I can, while I can, working on Goals One and Two. I have only about nine months left here, and every moment counts.

At the same time, I believe in the importance of sharing our experiences as PCVs in far-flung cultures and nations, of trying our best to celebrate and look with wonder at our differences (even – maybe especially – on the days when those differences drive us nuts!) I believe in the daily act of noticing and highlighting the innate beauty and sameness within all of us, worldwide.

In my day-to-day existence in Mfuba, it’s virtually impossible to see any real “change” or “improvement” in my neighbors’ daily lives. I often wonder what those words even mean on the ground.

What I see, instead, is cultural exchange – meals shared; discussions about faith and belief and race and human rights and the best way to cook vegetables; laughter and smiles; friends made. And for that, I thank my neighbors in Mfuba and the surrounding area. THEY are the ones who make Second and Third goals so fun and rewarding. They are the ones who make this blog come alive.

Singing and drumming at a traditional Bemba wedding.

Singing and drumming at a traditional Bemba wedding.

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Satisfied

After finishing a meal – any meal – my neighbors will almost invariably say, “Naikuta.” It means, “I am satisfied.”

No one says, “I am full,” the phrase Americans would use. To have a full belly and to be satisfied are two entirely different things, and, to their credit, the Bembas get this.

I’ve heard “naikuta” after meager meals of cassava ubwali and bean leaves. I’ve heard it after someone has eaten a veritable feast. (It must be noted, however, that no Zambian I know can EVER be satisfied if they have not eaten ubwali, the most important food in this nation. As long as there is ubwali – even ubwali all by itself – it is quite possible to be satisfied with very little.)

Lavenda eating millet-cassava ubwali with cabbage.

Lavenda eating millet-cassava ubwali with cabbage. She seemed quite satisfied with the meal.

Unlike the more measurable “I am full,” being satisfied is a state of mind.

This distinction has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s harvest season, and everyone is stuffing their faces while they can. “Carpe diem” is how I’d describe it.

Ba Scolastica with two of her kids, Charles and Loyci, shelling maize.

Ba Scolastica with two of her kids, Charles and Loyci, shelling part of their big maize harvest.

Families are constantly feeding me or giving me food. I often find myself eating two full meals in a row.

Naikuta SANA.

At the same time, I’m doing my best to teach about budgeting and food security – the very opposite of what we’re all doing at the moment. I am conflicted, to say the least.

With one breath, I tell a mother and father not to sell all their beans, groundnuts, and maize – to put in the rather small amount of effort necessary to preserve their food from bugs and mice so they can eat well year-round instead of selling early at rock-bottom prices and blowing the money in a few short months.

With the next, I happily accept a big bag of groundnuts.

Shelling and sharing groundnuts. Ba Better brought these to a local bola game, and everyone happily dug in. Muso's looking up at the camera.

Shelling and sharing groundnuts. Ba Better brought these to a local bola game, and everyone happily dug in. Muso’s looking up at the camera.

I remind them that, instead of gorging themselves on sweet potatoes now, they could cook and dry them, and have the resulting (insanely delicious) insemwa for months to come.

Then I eat a big, delicious bowl of sweet potato-groundnut ifisashi.

Who can blame us?

Isn’t harvest season a time of joyful feasting the world over? Who wouldn’t want to eat well and make a little money after the long rainy season months of hunger and rationing? Who on earth wants to think of food budgeting now?

Carpe diem, right?

Not for me. I can’t help feeling a twinge of guilt every time I’m given food, or encouraged to eat more. Unlike last year, I know what January will look like. Families cutting back to two small meals a day. Babies steadily losing weight at the local clinic’s monthly Under 5 weigh-ins. Kids subsisting on cassava and greens while hungrily eyeing my protein-rich eggs and lentils.

I want to refuse all edible gifts and scream, “Ration your food!” But this would be culturally insensitive and inappropriate, so I don’t.

Perhaps my neighbors can find satisfaction in simply accepting what the seasons offer them – in living for today and not constantly worrying about the future.

On this front, however, I am not yet satisfied.

Big is beautiful

28 June 2014

Ba Dominic: Ah, Ba Terri, you are looking very fat!

Me: Um, thanks.

Dominic: When you came here last year, you were so skinny, but now (smiling appreciatively and using elaborate hand gestures) you are looking VERY fat!

Me: Yeah, thanks. Must be all that ubwali!

Dominic: EY-yah!

Here in Mfuba, fat is beautiful, and to be told you are fat is a big compliment. It doesn’t even mean you ARE fat in the way we Americans would think of it. It really just means you look well-fed. It implies you’re well-off – a status that is generally admired here.

I’ve had people tell me I’m fat more times than I can count, and even though I’ve always been considered skinny in the States, I can’t help but cringe when I get this particular “compliment.” It makes me worry that I AM getting fat (the American version), and it kinda makes me want to smack the messenger – especially when I know I’ve been eating a lot recently.

Do I look fat? Chola, at right, has also given me the fat compliment.

Do I look fat? Chola, at right, has also given me the fat “compliment.”

Still, I try to keep my perspective. I look at rural Zambians (male and female alike) and admire their lean, muscled frames, honed through a lifetime of manual labor and limited food options. They look at us and admire our soft, well-fed and university-bred bodies, wishing they didn’t HAVE to do all that manual labor. Wishing they could eat all those fatty, sugary foods we take for granted.

It’s ironic that in the United States, richest of all nations, crappy, poor-quality food is so cheap that we’ve all gotten “fat,” while in rural Zambia, healthy food is about all we’ve got: beans, groundnuts, greens, maize, cassava, mushrooms, caterpillars, wild fruits of all kinds.

Cooking oil, sugar, and store-bought amabiscuits (cookies) are luxury items, while a massive bunch of rape or chinese cabbage that could feed a family of six goes for 1 kwacha – about 15 cents. Ku Amelika, those same greens would cost you $4 – more than a full meal at a fast food restaurant.

Ba Jennifer washing leafy greens in her garden with baby daughter Beauty on her back. All these veggies together cost about 1 kwacha.

Ba Jennifer washing leafy greens in her garden with baby daughter Beauty on her back. All these veggies together cost about 1 kwacha.

To put this in perspective – and to explain, perhaps, why big is so beautiful here, let me share one more conversation. This exchange took place back in February, at the tail end of hunger season, when even well-off families were rationing food.

 Bwalya: What time is it?

Me: 13:08.

Bwalya: Ah, we’re late!

Me: Late to do what?

Bwalya: To eat.

(Lunch was already cooked, just waiting to be eaten.)

Me: Are you waiting for your parents to come home?

Bwalya: No.

Me, after a sudden revalation: You were hungry but didn’t want to eat too early and be hungry for dinner later?

Bwalya: Yep.

Bwalya and his family are not starving in any way. They always have enough food. But sometimes just enough. Like 98% of kids in Mfuba, Bwalya has not one extra ounce of fat on his body. When he came down with malaria recently, his arms turned to sticks, and his entire face looked hollowed-out. I was genuinely worried.

I guess I’ll take being “fat” any day.