Fire!

Who does’t like to watch a good, roaring fire?

All the better if you can light it yourself and watch it sweep through a patch of tinder-dry forest at night. Oh, it’s a spectacular sight: flames leaping, grasses crackling, ash falling like snow, the world illuminated.

Ba Allan and Ba Bernardi watch the fire they started to make a firebreak around the Mfuba Co-op's field.

Ba Allan and Ba Bernardi watch a fire advance through the forest.

Until it gets out of control.

This is a (small) part of the problem we have here in the land of icitemene (slash-and-burn agriculture). I mentioned in an earlier post that it’s the season for planting trees. It’s also the season for chopping them down. Come September and October – our hottest, driest months – it will be the season for burning the resulting piles of dead trees to create ash that will temporarily boost soil fertility.

 

Chopped trees and branches (slash) just waiting to be burned to make a new field.

Chopped trees and branches (slash) just waiting to be burned to make a new field.

Those fires often run wild, threatening the surrounding miombo woodland ecosystem; everyone’s favorite snack, caterpillars; and the fields of farmers who are trying NOT to slash and burn.

Last year, Ba Allan’s field burned while he was away at a Peace Corps workshop, even though he was trying to practice conservation farming and preserve his crop residues.

This year, he’s ready.

Along with Ba Bernardi, Mfuba’s other nascent conservation farmer, Allan has made a firebreak around his field to protect it from the flames of October. Such “early burning” is common practice around people’s homes, not only for protection, but to clear out grasses where snakes may hide, and to induce the growth of fresh, green leaves for caterpillars to munch on.

It is NOT common around pre-existing fields.

Most seem to look at fire as either a fine way to clear out all those pesky weeds and crop residues – to make tilling (done exclusively with hoes) easier – or at least as a neutral, “ah well, it happens” occurrence.

Yet somehow, through sheer force of will, Ba Allan has managed to convince the Mfuba Co-op to make a firebreak around its field – a natural extension of the group’s adoption of some CF principles.

Ba Allan starting a fire around the Mfuba Co-op's field - to protect it from bigger, uncontrolled burning later in the dry season.

Ba Allan starting a fire around the Mfuba Co-op’s field – to protect it from bigger, uncontrolled burning later in the dry season.

Well, he convinced them all to SANCTION a firebreak. Only two people actually came out to help after dusk, when most Mfubans have finished their farm work for the day: Ba Bernardi and Ba Freddy. (I was only too happy to go out every night, and on the first night, when it was just me and Allan, Stephen, aka Bwalya, tagged along as well, since he clearly knows more about burning than I do.)

The flames were HOT! Stephen protecting his face.

The flames were HOT! Stephen protecting his face.

So instead of a big group finishing in a couple hours, it took four nights to circle the field.

With our limited manpower, the guys hadn’t wanted to dig out the recommended bare-soil barrier on each side of the area to be burned. Instead we relied on one hoe to put out spot fires, and green-leaved branches to beat out flames that advanced too far.

If the U.S. Forest Service employees who trained me in basic firefighting could’ve seen us, they might’ve had a heart attack.

All went well on the first night, as we carried a burning stick from Ba Agatha’s cooking fire to light the initial blaze, and used maize stalks and dried grasses to move the flames along.

On the second night, easterly winds sent a wall of flame much higher than I’d expected racing away through a patch of forest with which I was unfamiliar.

Flames around the Mfuba Co-op's field.

Flames around the Mfuba Co-op’s field.

“What’s over there?” I asked.

“Ba Abraham’s field,” Ba Bernardi answered.

Raised eyebrows from the PCV.

“He ALWAYS burns his field!” Ba Bernardi exclaimed.

Look of exasperation from the PCV.

Resigned eye-rolling from Bernardi and Allan.

We all ran to try to stop the flames, though the guys did all the work. They succeeded, amazingly, with only their branches and one hoe. I wonder if Ba Abraham will thank us for making him a firebreak, or burn the field anyway?

The next night brought more escaped flames, only this time Bernardi and Allan reacted more urgently: the roaring fire was headed toward the co-op’s own field, through a patch of tall, thick grasses.

I thought my face would melt off, but I did my best to clear the dried weeds while Allan came right behind me, full-steam, digging a narrow line of soil just ahead of the flames. It was strangely exhilarating in the way of all mildly dangerous situations.

Only a small corner of the co-op’s field burned, and I pointed out that this will make a good experiment, to see where the beans will grow best: in the burned or unburned rows.

As we walked back to the Mutale’s for a late dinner, patches of red embers still glowed among blackened earth, and the smell of wood smoke hung in the hazy air.

Man I love a good fire.

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Yoga in the vil’

10 August 2014

Odi? Odi?

It is early. I’m just finishing up my morning yoga practice – maybe even attempting the nearly impossible task of sitting in silence, with no thoughts swirling through my head.

But there will be no meditation today, because a small voice is asking to enter my yard. Maybe she wants to draw. Maybe he is returning a borrowed pot or tool. Occasionally the voice might belong to Ba Bernardi or Ba Allan, with some urgent early-morning matter to bring to my attention.

Odi? Odi?

I take a deep breath and open my eyes. Reluctantly, with as much cheer as I can muster, I answer: “Kalibu!” (Come in!)

This is my real yoga practice. Not stretches and crazy arm balances and attempts at meditation. Here in Mfuba, my practice happens mostly off the mat, every time I try to be social and kind when what I really want is to be alone.

This just happened in my yard one day. Stephen, aka Bwalya, started doing head stands. Then the smaller kids all wanted to try.

This just happened in my yard one day. Stephen, aka Bwalya, started doing head stands. Then the smaller kids all wanted to try.

I step outside and greet my visitor. I’m sure he or she thinks I was still sleeping, and I rarely tell anyone otherwise. How would I explain? I was stretching? Praying? Trying to rise to the challenge of another day? I let them think what they will.

This frequent ritual used to drive me nuts. (As did the morning ritual of cleaning bat droppings from the floor where I practice yoga – something to which I’ve grown accustomed more quickly than I have to the early-morning visiting.)

Damn you early-rising, constantly visiting Bembas! How am I supposed to clear my mind or relax when there’s always someone interrupting?!

I am so, so far from enlightenment.

Yoga isn’t about poses on a mat. It isn’t about meditating. I suppose everyone has their own take, but I think it’s really about finding peace wherever I find myself – physically, mentally, and emotionally. (And, probably, not judging and cursing my neighbors.)

Even if I find myself with 15 noisy, arguing kids in my yard, all calling out, “Ba Terri! Ba Terri!” when I’m trying to cook or do laundry or plan a workshop.

Kamfwa, Katongo, Muso, and Cila all trying to do hand stands against the back wall of my house.

Kamfwa, Katongo, Muso, and Cila all trying to do hand stands against the back wall of my house.

Even if someone asks me for things I’m not willing to give. Even if someone criticizes me. Even if I’m too critical of myself. Even if I’m just plain exhausted.

Even when a small voice asks for my attention at a time I consider to be inconvenient.

Yoga is accepting that I can’t change my own perceptions and cultural values – or the world – overnight. And that I can’t change anything in a vacuum, without friends, neighbors, or human connections.

And maybe – just maybe – yoga is realizing that I don’t need to change anything at all.

Around the Mutales’ fire

20 August 2014

I am seated around the Mutales’ three-stone cooking fire, and it’s getting late.

We’ve already eaten dinner, exchanged stories, maybe done a little Bemba-English language exchange.

I put my teapot on the fire, signalling I’ll be leaving as soon as it’s boiled. (My own charcoal brazier has probably died down by now, if I ever lit it at all, and I want hot water to put in my thermos for tomorrow.)

But then someone asks me a question, cracks a joke, or says, “You’re leaving already?” and we’re off again. The kettle boils. I take it off the fire. I’ll boil it again in a little while.

Why would I leave so soon, when an evening spent with the Mutale family – Ba Agatha, Ba Bernardi, Boyd, Stephen (aka Bwalya), Joyci, Cila, and Gile – is almost always the highlight of my day? Just hangin’ out with them in their nsaka can transform even my worst days.

Joyci, Stephen, and Gile goofing around atop some maize sacks in their family's nsaka.

Joyci, Stephen, and Gile goofing around atop some maize sacks in their family’s nsaka.

I don’t know what it is about them, but every single member of their family has a firm hold on my heart. They are warm and generous. They make me laugh. Somehow, they seem to understand and accept my strange habits and shifting moods in a way that few others do.

Simply put, the Mutales are some of the best people I have ever known – in any country.

When I realized this simple fact a couple months ago, I asked Ba Agatha if we could eat together more often – like maybe three nights a week? “Of course!” she laughed, like it was the world’s most hilarious question with the world’s most obvious answer. “We always like having you over.”

But it isn’t just the ego boost I get from the Mutales’ kind acceptance of me into their family that makes me feel so welcome – so at home – sitting around the fire with them. It’s some magical mix of factors that can’t be put into words.

Something about looking up at the moon or the stars in utterly comfortable silence. About sharing stories while Stephen dutifully translates my awful Bemba into good Bemba and Boyd cracks jokes. Or sitting with Cila and Joyci pressed right up against me while we wait for Ba Agatha to finish stirring up a big pot of ubwali.

Ba Agatha talking with her daughter Gile while cooking ubwali over a traditional three-stone fire.

Ba Agatha talking with her daughter Gile while cooking ubwali over a traditional three-stone fire.

Around the Mutales’ fire, I’ve watched shooting stars with Boyd and Stephen; discussed gay rights with Ba Bernardi and Ba Webby; danced with Cila and Joyci; and compared cooking tips and religious beliefs with Ba Agatha.

A few weeks ago I arrived at the Mutales’ place exhausted, wishing I hadn’t invited myself that morning. It had been a long day, and it turned out dinner wasn’t even close to being ready.

Next thing I knew, Cila was leaning up against me, and Boyd was absentmindedly drumming on my charcoal brazier. I began to relax, and, without thinking, to move my shoulders in time with Boyd’s drumming. Any hint of dancing on my part always gets the kids going, so of course Stephen and Cila started giggling. Then Boyd stepped up the rhythm.

Boyd with the charcoal brazier that doubles as a drum or "heat necklace" when the coals have gotten very low.

Boyd with the charcoal brazier that doubles as a drum or “heat necklace” when the coals have gotten very low.

Next thing I knew, I was dancing and beat-boxing in my seat, and Ba Agatha was cracking up.

The whole scene was so hilarious that I was quite happy I’d finally thought to bring my camera to dinner. As soon as I pulled it out, more clowning around ensued.

Four of the Mutale kids around their evening fire: Boyd, Gile, and Cila up front, with Joyci in the background.

Four of the Mutale kids around their evening fire: Boyd, Gile, and Cila up front, with Joyci in the background.

Then Agatha and Bernardi’s visiting eldest daughter, Ba Brenda, uttered the words that always break the spell: “We’re going to miss you when you go back to America!” Usually it’s Stephen or Agatha who throw out this phrase, but the effect is always the same.

It makes me want to stop time. To take all of this – the smell of burning wood and good food; the feel of warm, wooly little heads; the impromptu music; the touch of cool night air – and hold onto it forever. To bottle this wonderful feeling and carry it with me on the bad days.

Or on the day when I’ll have to leave Mfuba for good. Which is coming faster than I think, and which, on nights like these, I can scarcely bring myself to think about.

First-world problems

6 August 2014

Woe is me.

I can’t get on Facebook to promote my blog in the Peace Corps Blog it Home contest, or to respond to all the nice comments from friends who’re trying to help me win. (And by the way, thanks to everyone who voted! I was a little sad not to win, but it was probably for the best: I have a lot going on here at the moment and didn’t exactly need time back ku Amelika. Though I did kinda WANTED it. ;+)

My e-mail’s not working, and I can’t even post this little tirade on my blog until I get back to Kasama at the end of the month. Stupid phone.

Ba Allan's homemade mini-screwdriver saved my phone from immediate ruin, but couldn't improve our awful network service.

Ba Allan’s homemade mini-screwdriver saved my phone from ruin but couldn’t improve our awful network service.

Yes, I’ve managed to bring my first-world problems with me to Mfuba.

My neighbors here don’t even know what Facebook is. (Heck, I barely did myself until I finally gave in and joined in April.) I’ve tried, at various times, to explain Skyping, Google, and my blog. I think they kinda get it. But if you’ve never been “online” before, these things are hard to imagine.

For my part, I never imagined I’d be as connected as I am here in Mfuba. I have a smart phone, and I can usually send and receive both texts and e-mails from my house – sporadically at least. A 20-minute bike ride to a small hill allows me to hold a conversation.

When I first was accepted to Peace Corps Zambia, I expected none of these things. When I was talking with my boss, Ba Don, about what I wanted in a site placement, I told him I didn’t care one way or another if I had cell phone service at all.

Villages in Zambia range from full network, meaning PCVs living there can actually talk on the phone and browse the ‘net, to places where PCVs have to travel 2 kilometers and climb a small hill just to receive text messages. I wanted the latter; I got something in between.

And suddenly, my expectations changed.

I am now used to fairly regular communication via text and e-mail, so when the cell network goes down entirely for a day or three, I get all worked up and feel lonely.

And when I find myself a contender in a contest involving Facebook voting, I’m suddenly upset that cell service in Mfuba isn’t good enough for me to get online (or, alternately, that I’m too behind the times to properly install the Facebook app on my phone.)

All of which makes me wonder about the first PCVs who came to Zambia, 20 years ago. (Not to mention ALL PCVs 40 or 50 years ago.) Then there were no computers. No phones. No “resource centers” in the provincial capitals where PCVs could go a few days a month to Skype and upload photos and take a shower and speak English with other Americans.

Socializing at the Northern Provincial Resource Center. Megan and Eric hangin' out in the hammocks on Christmas Day.

Megan and Eric hangin’ out in the hammocks at the NoPro house/Provincial Resource Center.

I wonder how they did it. How they got through a rough week without at least exchanging a text message or two with another PCV. How they handled communicating with folks back home exclusively via letters that took weeks or months to arrive. (That’s how long it takes now, and I simply can’t fathom a postal system slower than the one we have now.)

I do imagine they were more integrated in their communities. Better with the local language, closer to their neighbors. It’s much easier to be standoff-ish in your village when you always have some kind of lifeline to other muzungus.

Then again, I suppose it’s all in how we handle the circumstances we find ourselves in. I can lament my lack of connection to the outside world, or I can focus on connecting with my neighbors.

I can go to one extreme or another, either using as many vacation days and working-in-town days as possible and living as a virtual stranger in my own village, or being a complete village rat and shunning friendships with other PCVs.

Or I can just be happy with what I have, appreciating everything in equal measure.

It’s all about expectations. For me, this applies not only to technology, but also to work, predictability, privacy, and a whole host of other things.

The less I expect, the happier I am.

What’s in a name?

It’s tough to remember all my neighbors’ names.

Who can blame me? Most adults in Zambia have at least three names. Some have four or even five. (These are just first names, not surnames, which add a whole other level of complexity. I don’t think anyone has a middle name, thank goodness.)

Almost everyone starts out with two names: one in Bemba and one in English. Both are given some days after the baby’s birth, after the parents have gotten to know the kid a bit.

From then on, it’s up to the family, and the child, which name gets used most often. Typically they’ll use the English name in school or when greeting an adult they judge to be important, and use the Bemba name in the day to day.

Hence I’ve often been surprised to hear kids whose names I know very well introduce themselves to another adult or a visiting PCV with a name I’ve never heard of.

Mwape, me, Chola, and Mwango. It wasn't until I took them to Camp GLOW that I learned Mwape and Chola's English names: Gladys and Evet.

Mwape, me, Chola, and Mwango. It wasn’t until I took them to Camp GLOW that I learned their English names: Gladys, Evet, and Precious.

As one might expect, some kids also get nicknames. Obed, aka Charles, has been nicknamed Chomba.

Obed, aka Chomba, with some kind of moss on his head.

Obed, aka Chomba, with some kind of moss on his head.

Some names get shortened. Among my favorites: “Boni” for Boniface and “Agri” for the unwieldy Aggripa. (When I first met Agri, I was sure the other kids were calling him “Ugly.” Which made no sense, as he is absolutely adorable.)

Agri. He's even more adorable in the photo posted on my Home page side bar at the moment.

Agri. He’s even more adorable in the photo posted on my Home page side bar at the moment.

Ba Brenda, Ba Agatha’s eldest daughter, took the unusual route of giving her second-born son just one name: Knowledge. His name is among my favorites.

Ba Brenda with her single-named baby son, Knowledge.

Ba Brenda with her single-named baby son, Knowledge.

Others include:

A-guy. (No idea the spelling, but it’s pronounced “Ah guy.”)

Not just any guy, this is Ah-guy!

Not just any guy, this is Ah-guy!

Mapalo, which means, “blessing.”

Ubupe, which means “gift.”

Katongo, which just sounds fun.

Better.

Ba Better, carrying sugarcane back from his awesome garden. His name has done well for him, as he really does much "better" than the average Mfuban.

Ba Better, carrying sugarcane back from his awesome garden. His name has done well for him, as he really farms much “better” than the average Mfuban.

Kutemwa, which means “Like” or “Love,” depending on your interpretation.

Love, pronounced not as Americans would pronounce it, but as, “Lah-vu.”

Musonda, which means “spirits,” specifically the kindly forest-dwelling spirits that bring us caterpillars and other bounties. Anger those spirits, I’m told, and they’ll take away the caterpillars.

I’m biased to like this last name, as it’s the Bemba name I was given. But it’s a common one for boys and girls alike. It’s frequently shortened to “Muso.”

Muso looking up from a big sack of groundnuts.

Muso looking up from a big sack of groundnuts.

Loyci with her little sister, Muso.

Loyci with her little sister, Muso.

GLOW girl Muso, left, holding someones baby and standing with her friend Cynthia.

Muso, left, with her friend Cynthia.

All of these are just the names given in childhood. Once a woman has a child, she’s known from then on as the mother of her eldest child, “Bana _____.” When she has a grandchild, her name changes again, to that of the mother of her eldest grandchild, “Banakulu _____.”

Thus Ba Agatha (who is “Ba Angata” in Bemba) became Bana Brenda but is now known as Banakulu Ino, after Brenda’s oldest child, Innocent. Ba Dorothy was Bana Nellis but is now Banakulu Muso, after Nellis’ eldest.

Same goes for men. “Bashi Mwaba” is Mwaba’s dad. “Bashikulu Sampa” is Sampa’s grandfather.

Such is the importance given to having children and grandchildren that often no one even knows, or at least no one remembers, the person’s original, pre-offspring name.

If only I’d known this to begin with, I would’ve saved a lot of time asking adults their given names when no one uses those anyway. I’m the only one who calls Ba Agatha “Ba Angata.” (Well, except for her youngest child, two-year-old Gile – aka Gracious – who’s hilariously taken to mimicking me and calling her mom “Ba Angata!”)

Ba Agatha, aka Ba Angata, aka Bana Brenda, aka Banakulu Ino, with her 2-year-old daughter, Gracious, aka Gile.

Ba Agatha, aka Ba Angata, aka Bana Brenda, aka Banakulu Ino, with her 2-year-old daughter, Gracious, aka Gile.

I’ve found myself looking for the home of “Ba Derrick” or “Ba Dinus,” only to discover that no one knows who those people are. Instead I find myself in a complicated game of describing the person, until someone realizes, “Ah, you mean Bashi Abraham!” Or, in Ba Dinus’ case, Bashi Love.

All of these different names could be interpreted as obstacles to getting to know one another. Or, seen in another light, as a way of getting to know people again and again, on a deeper level each time, as we discover more about one another.

Maize time

25 July 2014

It’s well after dark, but loud voices, blazing lights, and a truck engine spill into my yard from across the road.

This is not your typical Friday night along the single-track, electricity-free dirt road through Mfuba Village. But it will be for the next month or so.

Welcome to maize season.

For the past few weeks, the harvest of rural Zambia’s primary cash crop has been in full swing. At every home I visit, I find heaps and heaps of dried maize.

Men of the Mfuba Multipurpose Co-op pounding maize cobs to remove the kernels.

Men of the Mfuba Multipurpose Co-op pounding maize cobs to remove the kernels.

On every three-stone hearth, I find maize cooking in various incarnations: dry roasted; whole, pounded kernels cooked down into “sample;” maize flour transformed into porridge and ubwali.

All at once, everyone is shucking, shelling, winnowing, and bagging their primary income for the year. (Though, sadly, my neighbors make less money on maize than on any other crop. If you factor in labor, they’re actually losing money.)

Ba Agatha and Ba Elizabeth winnowing the chaff from the maize.

Ba Agatha and Ba Elizabeth winnowing the chaff from the maize.

Now it’s time to take those precious white kernals to the government’s Food Reserve Agency (FRA) shed, 10 kilometers away. There, after waiting around for several days, my neighbors will weigh their maize and receive a receipt, to be redeemed a month or two in the future, when the government finally deposits the money at a bank in Kasama, 90 kilometers away.

Hundreds of bags of maize, just waiting to be weighed and purchased at the FRA government shed in nearby Lubushi.

Hundreds of bags of maize, just waiting to be weighed and purchased at the FRA government shed in nearby Lubushi.

But right now, no one is thinking about the wait, or about all the complaining they’ll do about the cost of fertilizer and the lateness of their slim profits.

For the next month or so, spirits in Mfuba will skyrocket alongside the explosion of traffic along the main “road” through town. Where normally we might see three or four vehicles a month, we will see four or five a day, as large open-bed trucks shuttle tens of thousands of pounds of maize between here and the FRA shed in Lubushi.

Bashi Lucky and Ba Evans loading maize into the back of a truck in Ba Bernardi's yard. This was taken last year, before Ba Bernardi got his new metal roof.

Bashi Lucky and Ba Evans loading maize into the back of a truck in Ba Bernardi’s yard. This was taken last year, before Ba Bernardi got his new metal roof.

In a village where not one person owns a vehicle, where long-distance visitors and cash both are scarce, the excitement surrounding this influx of people, money, and sheer possibility is palpable.

Across the road at Ba Bernardi and Aa Agatha’s, the light and noise of the big truck are accompanied by good food, hearty laughter, and loud conversation. It’s time for celebration.

It’s maize time.

Peace Corps’ Blog it Home contest: Vote for thewandererinzambia!

As I mentioned in a post on 20 July, my little ol’ blog has been chosen as a finalist in the Peace Corps’ Blog it Home contest – and voting begins today on the Peace Corps Facebook page! Thewandererinzambia is one of just 20 finalists chosen from over 350 entries, so I am incredibly honored.

To vote, you can either go to the PC Facebook page and click on “Blog it Home Contest Finalists – VOTE NOW!” or just go straight to the page with the link I’ve included here.

There you can vote for thewandererinzambia by “Liking” the photo chosen to represent my blog, of my buddy Agri carrying a bowl of caterpillars on his head.

Agri carrying a bowl of caterpillars past my front door. This is the photo representing my blog in Peace Corps' Blog it Home contest.

Agri carrying a bowl of caterpillars past my front door. This is the photo representing my blog in Peace Corps’ Blog it Home contest.

You can also click on any of the photos to check out some other amazing Peace Corps blogs.

Voting will continue through 10 August, and the winner will be flown to Washington, D.C. for a week in September, to share with Americans the culture of his or her host country. I’ve already got some great ideas for sharing Zambian culture – and thoughts from my neighbors in Mfuba – in my home country, so I’m really excited about this possibility.

There are many amazing blogs in the running for the Blog it Home contest, but if you choose to support mine – and Peace Corps Zambia, as I’m the only finalist from this great country – I’d much appreciate it. Thanks so much, and feel free to pass these links along!

Our house is your house

23 July 2013

It’s a little lonely around my place lately, ever since my next-door neighbors, Ba Nellis and her family, moved out.

They now live less than a kilometer up the road, but still I miss greeting Ba Nellis each morning as she passed through my yard to fetch water. I especially miss Katongo and Agri’s daily shouts of, “Good morning, Ba Terri! Travel well!” Even when I clearly wasn’t going anywhere.

Agri and Katongo, eating dried caterpillars (in Katongo's shirt) at my front door.

Agri and Katongo, eating dried caterpillars (in Katongo’s shirt) at my front door.

Now my neighbors’ little home sits empty, the result of a complicated house-switching domino effect that began a couple months ago.

When Ba Mwaba got married last year, she and her new husband took up residence in an abandoned, mildly dilapidated home just across the road and a few doors down from her father, Ba Allan. Like the one Nellis just moved out of, it’s the type made with poles and plastered with mud.

Meanwhile, Ba Webby had just built a small but sturdy little mud-brick home on the other side of Ba Nellis. Originally an orphan who came to live with Ba Bernardi’s family years ago, Webby is now 23 and looking to strike out on his own (even if this means moving just 200 meters away).

Webby hadn’t yet moved into his new place, since he lacked money for a wooden door and windows, but I figured he would soon.

Then, next thing I knew, Mwaba and her husband, Ba Brian, were living there.

Ba Mwaba on the doorstep of her new home - originally intended to be Ba Webby's home.

Ba Mwaba on the doorstep of her new home – originally intended to be Ba Webby’s home.

“Did they buy it from you?” I asked Webby. “No, they’re just borrowing it,” he replied. This seems to be fine with him. No one buys or owns property here, and sharing runs deep.

If you want a piece of land for a farm or a home, you just ask the headman if it’s OK, and it becomes yours. As far as I know, Ba Bernardi’s never said no.

Then week before last came the rumors that Ba Lawrence and his wife, Ba Celestina, would soon move back to Mfuba. They are the parents of the seven venerable Katongo sisters whose families make up the core of our side of Mfuba (Ba Agatha, Ba Mary, Ba Dorothy, et al.)

Ba Lawrence and Ba Celestina were chased out of town almost three years ago on accusations that Ba Lawrence, a highly skilled carpenter, was practicing witchcraft. (This is a seemingly common fate of rural Zambians who become successful.)

They left behind one of the nicest homes in Mfuba – a large, mud-brick, tin-roofed affair that Ba Allan’s family of 10 quickly moved into. They’d previously been living in the mud-and-stick house next door to me, so this was a definite upgrade.

Ladies of Mfuba hanging out on the front porch of Ba Allan's current, swanky home (built by his father-in-law). You can't see the metal sheeting, but just having two doors and those big wooden window shutters is a serious sign of a really nice home as well.

Ladies of Mfuba hanging out on the front porch of Ba Allan’s current, swanky home (built by his father-in-law) during his daughter Mwaba’s wedding. You can’t see the metal sheeting, but just having two doors and those big wooden window shutters is a serious sign of a really nice home.

Once Ba Allan’s home was empty, Ba Nellis and her family moved in. This was all before my time in Mfuba, so Ba Nellis has always been my next-door neighbor.

Katongo and Agri - along with their aunt Naomi - in the doorway of the home they just left.

Katongo and Agri – along with their aunt Naomi – in the doorway of the home they recently left.

Now that Ba Lawrence is expected to return, Ba Allan and Ba Mary will have to give up their posh residence and move back to their now rather run-down former house. In anticipation of this, and because Mwaba’s home had opened up, Ba Nellis and family moved out.

Ba Nellis, her husband, and all four kids together in front of their latest home. It is an extreme rarity to have all members of a nuclear family together at one time, by the way.

Ba Nellis, her husband, and all four kids together in front of their latest home. It is an extreme rarity to have all members of a nuclear family together at one time, by the way.

But Ba Allan’s family hasn’t yet moved in, leaving an empty place next to me.

The home that Ba Nellis and her family have left abandoned, for now.

The home that Ba Nellis and her family have left abandoned, for now.

It occurred to me the other day that, if this were in the States, we might worry that the abandoned home would become the site of drug sales or other illicit activity. Here the worst thing that could happen would be a snake taking up residence.

If the rumors don’t pan out, and Ba Lawrence doesn’t come to kick Ba Allan’s family out, I’m sure someone else will eventually take it over.

Maybe Ba Webby, since he’s back to being homeless. He still sleeps at Ba Bernardi’s some nights; others he stays with Ba Dorothy’s second-eldest son; others, who knows?

All this switching of homes is just an outgrowth of the general “my house is your house” mentality here. I’ve often showed up at a home early in the morning to find a whole gaggle of children giggling their way out of bed. Only half of them are likely to be the children of the parents in residence.

Meals are the same. Every time I eat with Ba Bernardi’s family, I get a slightly different cast of characters. Sometimes Webby’s there, sometimes not. Neighbors often come by to eat unexpectedly. Ten-year-old Joyci is frequently absent; she seems to dine at a different home every night.

Everyone gets fed, and everyone finds a place to sleep, somewhere or another in this communal din of sharing.

Save the trees

22 July 2013

‘Tis the season for starting a tree nursery in Mfuba. Between now and early September, Ba Allan and I will again be encouraging our neighbors to plant seeds in hopes of having seedlings to plant once the rains set in in December.

Recently, I stopped by Ba Allan’s just to chat and was overjoyed to find him already planting orange and amarula seeds in plastic poly pots he was re-using from last year. (Amarula is a native fruit tree that also can be used to make a delicious type of alcohol.)

Ba Allan planting trees with some of Mfuba's younger residents.

Ba Allan planting trees with some of Mfuba’s younger residents.

Others have been harder to convince. I mean, why plant trees when they’re all around us?

Mfuba’s residents are very lucky to still be surrounded by forest. It’s almost all second- and third-growth, but at least it’s there.

My favorite tree: the big landmark mpundu, halfway between Mfuba and Lubushi. Fresh fruit bonus on the bike ride!

My favorite tree: the big landmark mpundu, halfway between Mfuba and Lubushi. Fresh fruit bonus on the bike ride!

As you move closer to the provincial capital of Kasama, and especially as you head south toward Muchinga and Central provinces, you see fewer and fewer trees. I recently visited another PCV outside Mpika, in Muchinga Province, and was struck by how windy and dusty it is there. The reason? A major dearth of trees.

Zambia has one of the world’s highest rates of deforestation, and even in the 15 months that I’ve lived in Mfuba, I’ve seen a LOT of timber come down.

In the interests of full disclosure, I came to Zambia as a tree hugger. I still wear that title with pride. But over the past 18 months, I’ve become a people-hugger as well. And people NEED trees. Nowhere more so than here in rural Zambia.

The following are just some of the nearly infinite uses of trees here in Mfuba:

  • Roofing poles, like those used to build my shed.

    Ba Bernardi and Ba Abraham pass poles up to Ba Ronaldi while building the roof to my tool shed.

    Ba Bernardi and Ba Abraham pass poles up to Ba Ronaldi while building the roof to my tool shed.

  • Poles for fences, bathing shelters, pit toilets, and grain storage sheds.
  • Firewood.
  • Charcoal. (Few in my village use charcoal, but due to unreliable electricity supplies in towns and cities, urban Zambians typically use it to cook, so there’s a huge market.)
  • Tooth-brushing sticks.
  • Dish racks.

    Ba Bernardi and Ba Allan building an akantamba (dish rack).

    Ba Bernardi and Ba Allan building an akantamba (dish rack).

  • Ulushishi: the bark rope that binds everything together, including all the above-mentioned construction projects.
  • Tool handles.

    Luca with a handle he was making. It was later made into an ulukasu (hoe).

    Luca with a handle he was making. It was later made into an ulukasu (hoe).

  • Chairs, stools, tables, etc.
  • Wooden cooking spoons.

    Burning designs into wooden cooking sticks.

    Burning designs into wooden cooking sticks.

  • Protection of young fruit tree seedlings from wandering goats, pigs, and chickens. (No, the irony is not lost on me. I insist on using only dead branches left over from trees others have chopped down. But I still feel like a hypocrite sometimes.)

    Small tree branches protecting my even smaller avocado seedling.

    Small tree branches protecting my even smaller avocado seedling.

  • Mortars and pestles, used to pound and prepare all kinds of foods.

    Norida pounding mpundu fruits in her family's ibende (mortar).

    Norida pounding mpundu fruits in her family’s ibende (mortar).

  • Scaffolding to build homes and other structures.
  • Wild fruits.

    Wild imifutu fruits.

    Wild imifutu fruits.

  • Shade.
  • Homes for caterpillars.

    Mumpa caterpillars devouring the tree leaves in my yard.

    Mumpa caterpillars devouring the tree leaves in my yard.

 

Perhaps the single biggest contributor to tree felling in my area, though, is the icitemene (slash and burn) agriculture system. Farmers chop down trees (or just take off the branches of the big trees), pile them in a big heap to dry, wait ‘til the height of dry season in September or October, and burn them. Then they incorporate the ash into the soil to reduce acidity and increase nutrients.

A pile of slashed trees, just waiting to be burned.

A pile of slashed trees, just waiting to be burned.

Most of the trees do sprout back, but they never get to grow big, and soil fertility lasts only a short time with this system. So after four to six years, farmers have to move on to a new plot, cutting and burning more trees to make another field. This was fine when Zambia’s population density was very low, but the population is growing all the time.

When I first came to Mfuba, I asked a lot of people, “Do you think there’s enough forest to go around? Do you think your children will all have enough land to farm?”

“Of course,” they all told me. Most looked at me like I was crazy to even ask the question.

After all, the forest is all around us. But for how long?