Breaking my silence

23 November 2014

At what point do I stop excusing gender-based discrimination, harassment, and violence in Zambia by saying, “Well, this is your culture”?

At what point do I break my silence when a man or boy in Mfuba says something terrible about women, or when silence is the overall response to a misogynistic act? At what point does my own self-respect trump “respect” of the culture? At what point do I say, “I don’t care what your culture says: This is WRONG”?

These are questions I’ve been struggling with my entire service.

I know several men in Mfuba who beat their wives. And yet when I ask others about this, it’s dismissed with silence, laughter, or “Oh, he only does it when he’s drunk.”

I hear tales of married men with mistresses – “side plates,” they’re called – but this is accepted as no big deal. There’s even a proverb in Bemba that says, basically, a man’s infidelity doesn’t destroy the family. On the contrary: having multiple women is celebrated and encouraged behind the scenes, when the women aren’t around.

With my white skin and temporary status in this community, I am of course exempt from most of this. And still I’ve been grabbed by drunks in our local market. The response from the crowd surrounding me? Laughter.

I’ve met government workers – educated men who’ve traveled all over the country, and sometimes the world – who’ve hit on me and sent me lewd text messages even though we’ve talked about their wives and children.

When I’m the target, I say something. Tell the guy off, get angry. But who’s advocating for my female neighbors? The women who deal with gender discrimination day in and day out?

Women often carry the biggest loads - figuratively and literally.

Women often carry the biggest loads – figuratively and literally.

PCVs are always told: Be careful. Don’t get involved. Don’t alienate yourself from your community, or from a particular family, by casting judgments or trying to intervene.

But it’s not a particular family or a particular man. It’s everyone. The culture IS the problem. The more I see what’s really going on around me, the angrier I get, and the harder it becomes NOT to say something, not to cast judgments.

To be honest, I’ve begun to feel like a coward. I am hemmed in by my own natural tendencies not to “rock the boat,” and to look for the good in everyone. Here that’s compounded by my fear of offending my neighbors, male and female.

So I remained silent – dumbstruck was more like it – when Ba Dorothy, my GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) counterpart, said, after we’d just taught the girls how to use condoms: “This will never work. A woman can’t demand that a man use a condom. The man will just force them to have sex without one.” Right in front of the girls.

If they don’t demand condom use, I argued, if they don’t stand up for themselves and push for change, nothing ever WILL change.

Ba Dorothy shook her head. “That’s just the way it is.” The girls remained silent. They know the score.

GLOW Girls: future women of Mfuba.

GLOW Girls: future women of Mfuba.

And then came today. Ba Allan and I met with our Grassroots Soccer team – a group of about 25 young men and women ages 12-18 whom we bring together each week, mainly to talk about HIV prevention, with a little gender and communication on the side. Today’s lesson was specifically about gender-based violence.

We broke the teens up into single-gendered groups of three to answer such questions as: “Why do some men hit women?” “If a man makes his wife have sex with him when she doesn’t want to, is this rape?” and, “How would our community be different if men stopped abusing women?”

After discussing the questions in their small groups, the teens all came back together in a big mixed-gender group. And then it began.

Q: So everyone, why DO some men hit women?

A: Because they’re stronger. Because the women are being stupid. Because they’re not doing what the man wants.

I asked: Just because someone is physically stronger than another person, does that make it OK to hit them? This elicited laughter from most of the boys, silence and downcast eyes from the girls.

The answers came: Well, if the wife is being stupid, blowing money on clothes or fritters … yeah, it’s OK.

When we brought up the role of drinking and alcoholism in domestic violence, the boys seized on the notion of women drinking, saying it wasn’t right, because then no one’s taking care of the children.

What about when men drink? I asked. Laughter. Ah, it’s no problem for the men to drink.

I could give more examples, but basically the conversation continued in this vein for the next hour. The girls, whom I’d forced to sit interspersed among the boys, slowly filtered over to one corner of the room. I didn’t stop them. I understood the instinct: to gather together and protect one another. The girls eventually stopped talking at all.

I kept hoping Ba Allan would speak up and shut down the destructive tone of the conversation. That he’d step up in defense of the girls. He didn’t.

And neither did I.

I kept probing the teens, asking them WHY they felt this way. Asking, do you notice that most of the boys here are laughing, but that the girls are not? That the girls look sad? Why do you think this is?

I asked: How would you feel if your wife was beating you? Peals of laughter. “That would NEVER happen!”

I asked: Who here LIKES to be hit? No one. Then WHY do you think it’s OK to hit women? Silence.

But the whole time, I never came out and said, “This is WRONG. There are many good things about your culture, but this is not one of them. I don’t care what you think, violence against women (or against anyone), in any form, is absolutely WRONG.”

I walked away feeling I’d failed. Feeling complicit in my neighbors’ crimes.

Feeling that it just isn’t always right to remain silent and “respectful.”


Battle for the forest

16 November 2014

Before the sun rose this morning, Ba Bernardi and I set off into the forest. What we found under the first rays of sun was a battlefield in the fight against deforestation.

Hundreds of cut trees littered the landscape, all felled in the past three weeks by caterpillar hunters. Elsewhere, much larger trees are coming down as part of the illegal charcoal market. And let’s not forget slash-and-burn agriculture.

Trees felled to get the caterpillars at their tops.

Trees felled to get the caterpillars at their tops.

From the looks of it, Mfuba is losing the war.

But Ba Bernardi is still fighting.

This is his father’s land. The elder Mutale was one of the very first people to farm and then to settle in Mfuba, beginning in the late 1970s. In the middle of this patch of forest, where now no one lives, Bernardi’s father built a house in 1986.

Four years later, he died, and Ba Bernardi took over the land, which now encompasses 50 hectares. Ba Bernardi farms about 6 hectares himself now. The rest runs wild up to the adjacent protected forest.

That area gained its protected status from Chief Munkonge, and so far, the ban on farming or tree-cutting there has been largely respected.

Not so on Ba Bernardi’s land. He has a deed from the chief, declaring this bit of forest officially his. But he doesn’t yet have a federal government deed. As with most anything related to the Zambian Government, this will require a costly and monumental effort on Ba Bernardi’s part.

For now, all he has is his own limited power as headman, and the small sign he’s placed at the boundary to his land.

Ba Bernardi posing by the "Ulupili Mountain" sign he recently made to mark his land.

Ba Bernardi posing by the “Ulupili Farm” sign he recently made to mark his land. “Ulupili” means “mountain” in Bemba.

Ba Bernardi recently found some neighbors chopping away in his father’s forest, preparing a slash-and-burn field. He stopped them before they burned, but the damage remains.

Ba Bernardi’s forest is about 4Km away from his home, so he doesn’t get out there every day. And most everyone knows when he’s not around, so much of the damage happens in the late afternoon, or on Sundays, when Ba Bernardi’s in church.

More trees cut down.

More trees cut down on Ba Bernardi’s land.

On this early Sunday morning, sure enough we found people harvesting caterpillars who hadn’t first registered with Ba Bernardi. (All those who come to Mfuba from elsewhere for caterpillar harvest must first come to the headman, and must give the village one gallon of what they collect.)

They were women, and women don’t use axes, but it’s likely their husbands were toting them.

Even if Ba Bernardi catches men in the act of cutting down trees, he has no legal authority to stop them. He also fears violence if he were to find himself outnumbered by the offenders.

Ba Bernardi brought me out on this reconnaissance mission to take photos of the damage. Photos I’ll e-mail to Zambia’s Director of Forests, in the capital, Lusaka, in a last-ditch effort to get him to help us – or at least to call or write back, which he’s so far failed to do.

Ba Bernardi surveys the damage.

Ba Bernardi surveys the damage.

I’ve written a few times now about the efforts of Ba Bernardi and three other Mfubans to become honorary forest guards so they can protect the trees that are still left. But the paper applications they submitted in September 2013 remain in limbo, mired in the bureaucracy of the Zambian government.

Meanwhile, the trees continue to fall.

From the heart

15 November 2014

There’s nothing like a good, heart-felt hug.

Today I received my first one from an adult Mfuban.

Banakulu Teba didn’t give me the fake-y, two-sided, back-and-forth Bemba hug where you keep thinking they’re going to kiss your cheeks European-style. Or the quick embrace I often give the kids.

Kuku mukwai,” she said when I ran into her at a neighbor’s house.

In my nearly two years of learning Bemba, I’d never heard this greeting. I shook her hand and grinned, repeating, “Kuku mukwai?” with the perplexed look and raised shoulders that everyone knows is Ba Terri-speak for, “What the heck did you say?”

Kuku mukwai,” she repeated, and gave me that big hug. Leaned to the right for the real-deal, heart-to-heart, and squeezed.

Banakulu Teba.

Banakulu Teba.

I was so taken aback with happiness that as soon as she pulled away, I pulled her in with another “Kuku mukwai.” (Which, somehow, apparently comes from “ukukumbatana” – to hug.)

It caught me off-guard, this expression of emotion from an adult in my village. To be fair, I love Banakulu Teba, aka Ba Teresa. She’s about the age of my own grandmother, and we have a similar grandma-grandkid relationship.

But, perhaps like my own Mamma, I’d begun to take her for granted. I think a lot about visiting Banakulu Teba, but I don’t do it nearly as often as I should, even though she lives just a 10-minute bike ride away.

Banakulu Teba was with the group of five women who came to visit me my first week in Mfuba, when word got around that I was having a rough day. It was she who said, “We heard you were missing your family. Don’t miss them. … We’re your family now, too!”

What amazes me about Banakulu Teba – and what seems to strike most people – is how brightly she shines, in spite of having lived a pretty tough life.

Banakulu Teba weaving wetland grasses into a broom.

Banakulu Teba weaving wetland grasses into a broom.

She isn’t sure what year she was born. Her husband would’ve remembered, she says, but he died many, many years ago now. Based on her children’s ages, she’s probably in her late 70s, but to me she looks older and wiser than that, with a beautifully weathered face that wears every wrinkle and crease with ease.

Banakulu Teba grew up in a village about 30 Km away from where she lives now. (Mfuba didn’t even exist at the time; it was only settled in 1980.) She was in Grade 5 when her parents died, so that was the end of schooling for her.

It’s just as well, she says. She was always far-sighted and had a hard time reading anyway. But her eyes have always been (and still are) keen for long distances.

Banakulu Teba gave birth to the first of her 11 children in 1954. She has since buried all but one of her offspring, as well as several grandchildren.

She lives alone – an almost unthinkable situation in Bemba culture – though I’m pretty sure a gaggle of great-grandchildren sleeps at her house every night, and she never seems to lack for visitors. Still, her face lights up every time I come to visit.

I really need to visit more often.

Banakulu Teba continues to farm – “panono panono” (“slowly slowly”) – she says. She’s also the one who taught me the basics of keeping chickens.

Like many older folks in the area, she’s still more interested in making sure her grandkids are well-fed than in making money. She says she doesn’t need much, and she trusts in God to get her through.

Whatever it is that keeps her going, it keeps the rest of us going, too. Banakulu Teba is a well-respected member of the community, valued for her wisdom and clear-headedness.

Banakulu Teba (far right), with other Mfuba Co-op Executive Board members, is a respected leader in the community.

Banakulu Teba (far right), with other Mfuba Co-op Executive Board members, is a respected leader in the community.

And, I imagine, for that light she shares with the rest of us.

Kuku mukwai,” Banakulu Teba. “Kuku mukwai.

Northern Zambia by bike

I’ve covered a lot of territory on my trusty Peace Corps-issued mountain bike. But I just completed the best bike adventure of my service in Zambia – possibly the best adventure I’ve had here, period.

Over the course of nine days, with a few rest days in between, I biked 930 kilometers (almost 580 miles) of dirt, gravel, tarmac, and bush path. I traveled from Mfuba, around the west side of Lake Bangweulu and into Luapula Province; to the lakeside town of Samfya; up the road north to Mwansa, Mwense, and Kazembe; east to a whole bunch of beautiful waterfalls; further east on the worst road I’ve ever been on to Mporokoso; and finally my longest-ever day of riding, from Mporokoso back to Kasama. Tomorrow I’ll bike my usual 90 km from Kasama back to Mfuba, officially getting myself over the 1,000-kilometer mark, just to sound a little more bad-ass.

Along the way, I traveled with a changing cast of PCV friends, and biked a couple legs on my own. I visited the villages of five different PCVs; followed the waterways of the vast Bangweulu watershed; explored small towns; and camped beside some of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen.

Undertaken during the hottest, driest part of the year in Zambia, the journey was mostly sunny and sweaty, though it did pour rain for about 20 km one morning, which was nice. Luckily I found rivers to jump in almost every day.

The ride itself would’ve been well worth it, but ultimately the trip’s most memorable moments were spent with people: the Zambians who offered me directions, food, and occasionally music, as well as my fellow PCVs, some of whom I hadn’t seen in many, many months. Long talks around campfires; communal meals; swimming, sliding, and jumping off various waterfalls; and just hanging out by the waterside were what really made the trip.

Below are selected photos from the journey. More can be found in the Northern-Luapula Bike Adventure Gallery.

Meet the Peace Corps counterpart

Meet Ba Allan. He himself would tell you, proudly, “I am the Peace Corps counterpart.”

Easy to say. But the follow-through is almost unimaginably difficult sometimes, and, far too often, I forget this. I forget to appreciate how amazing Ba Allan is. How lucky I am to have him as a counterpart, and as a friend.

Me and Ba Allan.

Me and Ba Allan.

For those not familiar with Peace Corps lingo, a counterpart is someone in a PCV’s host community who works alongside the PCV, prodding people into action. Finding the right CP can make or break a PCV’s service, since any ideas for change – if they are to be sustainable – must come from within the community.

A good counterpart is very, very hard to find.

It takes a lot of guts be the person – in any community – to do things differently. To take a risk. To risk being a pariah.

That goes double for a PC counterpart introducing new (aka crazy) ideas to his friends and family in a place where culture and the status quo run deep. And working his butt off without getting a dime in the short term. (In the long term, we all hope that the counterpart’s new farming and business ventures will pay off.)

Like any good counterpart, Ba Allan is a respected leader in his community – one of those rare souls who actively seeks to make the world a little better, who sees learning as a lifelong process, and who isn’t afraid to shake things up a little. He was doing this long before I arrived.

Although he was only able to finish Grade 7, Ba Allan is one of the most educated people in Mfuba – the one everyone turns to for advice and help with translating government documents. He knows the value of learning. “Amasambililo tayapwa” (education never ends) is one of one of his favorite phrases. He is the only person I know here who helps his kids with their homework.

Ba Allan inspires me to be a better volunteer, and a better person.

He knows how to captivate an audience of any age, whether discussing conservation farming or record-keeping. He’s particularly amazing at teaching young people. Some of the best moments in my service have been spent watching him in action: busting out some song that the kids all love, getting teenagers to plant trees, or playing capture the flag.

Ba Allan teaching our Grassroots Soccer HIV/gender club how to plant moringa trees.

Ba Allan teaching our Grassroots Soccer HIV/gender club how to plant moringa trees.

Ba Allan has a million ways of prodding his neighbors into action.

I sometimes lose faith in this whole “sustainable development” game, but Ba Allan never seems to.

“You are doubting,” he will say. “Don’t doubt.”

My biggest doubts, however, came not too long ago, when Ba Allan and I hit a rough patch in our relationship. I won’t bore you all with the details, but basically Ba Allan and I have very different cultural values and ideas about what development means. We see the act of giving, and the role of a rich American living in Mfuba village, in very different ways.

To be perfectly honest, Ba Allan drives me nuts sometimes. I am certain the feeling is mutual.

I’m prone to misinterpreting his sometimes cryptic way of speaking. Like all good Bembas, he likes to couch everything in metaphor and proverbs. Like all good Americans, I am great at ignoring subtlety and prefer to just get to the freaking point, Ba Allan!

Our mountain of misunderstandings and cultural differences finally caught up with us a couple months ago, and I found myself crying in front of Ba Allan and his wife, Ba Mary, confronted by their anger at me, and mine at them.

(It’s worth noting here that Ba Mary also deserves a shout-out, since, as Ba Allan likes to say, there’s no way he could be the Peace Corps counterpart without her. She’s the one who picks up the slack on their farm when he’s out teaching with me, who makes sure her husband gets food and clean clothes before heading to some workshop at some ungodly hour of the morning.)

I cried because I feared I would lose Ba Allan as a counterpart, and I don’t know how I’d be able to help our community without him.

Over the course of an afternoon, we patched things up. Now we’re slowly getting back to our old familiar hanging out and talking.

Ba Allan’s back to cracking jokes and sharing with me all his plans and dreams to improve life for his kids.

But I didn’t know for sure that I myself had moved on until just the other day. We’d been teaching in a village 12 km away, and this particular group began insisting that I “get their name out there” with local NGOs – basically so they can get a grant for some not-yet-defined project. Ba Allan admonished them: “Yes, and what have YOU done? Ba Terri got that NGO to come out here for the HIV testing event that you wanted, and she did all the work. Why are YOU not talking to NGOs in Kasama?”

In spite of everything, Ba Allan still had my back.

I could’ve hugged him. If only that were culturally appropriate.

As we rode home together, laughing about the day, I counted my blessings. I couldn’t ask for a better counterpart.

Six weeks

I always say I could write a post every day (if I had the time and technology and wanted to drive all my readers away). But it’s true: life in Zambia rarely ceases to amaze me.

I recently spent six consecutive weeks in Mfuba, consciously trying to appreciate life here and to not take the little things for granted. So I thought I’d share here some moments, both unusual and utterly typical, that together make up life in my village.


11 September

Over dinner with the Mutales, I learn that the Mfuba Co-op’s field burned – in spite of our firebreak. So much for conservation farming.

No one knows if the fire entered from outside, or if some kid lit it from inside – a common practice used to flush out bush rat if you want the uncommon delicacy of meat for dinner.

All that work: trying to get all the co-op members on board, retaining crop residues, making the firebreak … Sometimes, it’s hard not to lose hope.

Flames around the Mfuba Co-op's field.

Flames around the Mfuba Co-op’s field, when we were burning a firebreak in August.

13 September

I attend a wedding in the nearby village of Chisamba and note that the bride and groom both are wearing glasses. The exact same glasses that the couple who got married there last year wore. At that time I thought it unusual that BOTH bride and groom wore glasses, since almost no one here does.

Now I know that glasses are considered high fashion. People think I wear mine just for looks, and it’s become the new thing for neighbors to ask me to take their pictures wearing my glasses.

Sisters Eunice and Annie. Eunice is wearing my glasses, and Annie put them on for the next photo.

Sisters Eunice and Annie. Eunice is wearing my glasses, and Annie put them on for the next photo.

14 September

A 17-year-old boy came to my house to ask me about a hard-on he’d had for over five hours. He couldn’t get rid of it.

Only it took a long time for me to get what he was saying. He couched the whole talk by saying he’d been watching a video on a cell phone, and in the video this had happened …

I didn’t realize he was talking about himself until he showed me his penis. I am not making this up. It is shocking the trust that he and some of the other teens on our Grassroots Soccer HIV/gender team have in me.

Lee dodging "HIV risks" as part of a Grassroots obstacle course.

Lee dodging “HIV risks” as part of a Grassroots obstacle course. (He is NOT the boy who came to my house today.)

15 September

Spent more than two hours waiting on the side of the tarmac road for a government official who never showed. He was supposed to come see if Ba Bernardi could be approved to keep three fast-growing goats as part of an agricultural research project. At the end of the research period, Mfuba would get to keep the goats.

Turns out the government vehicle had broken down, and no one thought this warranted giving us a call.

I raced back to Mfuba to find Ba Agatha, who’d already killed a precious chicken and was cooking it for the no-show livestock researcher. (Important guests MUST be served meat.)

She looked up from the Bemba Bible she’d been reading while waiting for us and said, “I knew he wouldn’t come.”

I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been. She’s dealt with the Zambian Government for far longer than I.

Glancing at the Bible, I asked, “Are you looking for patience in there?”

Ba Agatha just laughed.

16 September

Attended the funeral of an old man. I’d barely known him, but here that doesn’t matter. Everyone goes. It was late in the day, so I told myself I’d sit for just 30 minutes. Somehow that turned into over an hour.

I’ve gotten very good at sitting quietly, doing nothing.

Then suddenly one woman inside the house began wailing loudly – a high-pitched, keening cry. A baby named Christopher, who’s just learning to crawl, stopped dead in his tracks. He sat down, and after a moment began to wail along with the unseen woman, with exactly the same intensity and pitch. Like he knew exactly what was happening.

17 September

Awoke from a fitful night’s sleep, punctuated by the singing and drumming that came in through my open window all night. This was the continuation of yesterday’s funeral. It’s common practice to stay up all night after someone dies.

Though I haven’t yet been to an all-night wake, today I decided, for the first time, to go to the burial. Along with the rest of the village, I followed the icitenge-wrapped casket out into the forest, to a place with several bare mounds of earth.

After some words of remembrance and some from the Bible, the men lowered the casket into the hole and began shoveling soil on top with their hoes. Everyone took a turn.

All the while – from the old man’s home to the graveyard, and during the burial – the singing went on.

20 September

Allan Jr. and Stephen (aka Bwalya) came over to study English. This mostly means playing “Hangman” on my porch, then changing one or two letters to make new words and talk about similar word sounds.

Stephen’s current life goal is to be the one his fifth-grade teacher calls on to read English in class. Allan is only in Grade 4 but is wickedly smart. When I asked them today for words they wanted to know how to spell, Allan suggested, “discussion.” Show-off.

They got hung on that one, but only just barely. I cannot believe how much better they’ve gotten in just the past year.

Stephen and Allan Jr. patiently copying down the day's English lesson.

Stephen and Allan Jr. patiently copying down the day’s English lesson. 

21 September

I’ve got a wicked sore throat and a runny nose. Ba Allan says I’m sick again because I’ve been carrying too much water for my garden and trees. His wife, Ba Mary, blames too much bike riding for my frequent colds. Obviously, muzungus are just too weak to handle these things.

22 September

Obed, Katongo, and Boke came over to draw. I was still feeling sick, but I let them hang out a while anyway.

I happened to be low on water and didn’t feel like fetching it. I asked Boke – the oldest at eight or so – if he’d fetch me one bucketful when he finished drawing. He excitedly agreed.

Then Obed and Katongo started in: “Give us your containers!” I’m so used to people asking me for my stuff that, even though these kids rarely ask me for anything, I sighed, and started to say no. Then I realized: they didn’t want my containers. They wanted to fetch water for me, too.

Obed (foreground) and Boke are rarely happier than when they get to help me with some chore.

Obed (foreground) and Boke are rarely happier than when they get to help me with some chore.

29 September

Upon returning from school, Boyd asked me: “Did you go to Mumana Lupando today?” (I had: to make some phone calls on the little hill where I get good cell reception.)

He – and probably most of the village – know my unusual muzungu bike-tire- and sandal-prints by heart. So they always know where I’ve been. In another place, this would be unnerving. Here, in the land where everyone asks everyone, all day and every day: “Mwaya kwi?” (“Where are you going?”), it just means they’re lookin’ out for me.

2 October

Threw up on the side of the road in Mumana Lupando this morning, right in front of all the little shops that never actually sell anything.

I’d just staggered out of a vehicle, having returned from an unexpected overnight in Kasama where I’d eaten a whole lot of rich mac n cheese, and then chocolate (things my body is no longer used to in large quantities), the night before. Probably the spectators to my spectacular, sandal-splashing upchuck figured I was hung over from drinking in town.

“What is wrong with you?” a man yelled to me in English. As is typical of Zam-English, he didn’t mean the question the way my American ears interpreted it. He was actually concerned.

Lickety-split, someone else said, “Take her to Ba Allan Mwango’s.” Ba Allan is my counterpart for all things in Mumana, which is his village. Someone took my heavy backpack, and I spent the rest of the morning lying on Ba Allan’s floor, ’til I recovered enough for us to teach the Grassroots Soccer HIV/gender club at the school that afternoon.

When we got up to leave, I noticed tiny ants had swarmed my left sandal, no doubt eating up the leftover vomit. Nothing goes to waste around here.

3 October

There’s a rumor going around Mfuba that there’s a war ku Amelika. I heard the word, “nkondo” from a dozen people throughout the day.

I e-mail my brother and learn that my home country is re-invading Iraq and Syria in response to the beheading of American journalists. I have two thoughts. First, why do all my neighbors know what’s going on in the world before I do? Second: I kind of prefer being out of touch.

6 October

Spent a solid two hours working on my bike today. Fixed a flat, changed the brakes, cleaned all the cables and the chain … Am so proud of myself I can hardly stand it. Wonder if “bush bike mechanic” is something I can now put on my resume.

7 October

This morning, six-year-old Obed came over with Gile, his two-and-a-half-year-old cousin, on his back. He was taking care of Gile while her parents went to work in their field.

I didn’t even find this unusual.

This afternoon, I ate bush rat with Boyd and Stephen. They’d caught it on their way home from school and were stoked that they’d talked the vegetarian PCV into trying it.

I could still see it’s big, rodentian front teeth.

Cultural integration complete.

Bush rat and baby caterpillars, served with ubwali.

Bush rat (right) and baby caterpillars, served with ubwali.

8 October

It is so hot, I wanna shoot myself. Or just lay down on the semi-cool concrete floor … Last year I was spoiled: hot season came late. No such luck this year.

9 October

Spent the day with Ba Bernardi in our district capital, Kasama, knocking on many, many government doors. Normally my absolute least favorite part of the job, this task was suddenly kind of fun when I got to share it with the headman. Bonus: TWO free rides (one in an airconditioned, leather-seated SUV!!! Unheard-of luxury!), and ice cream cones (Ba Bernardi’s first).

13 October

Biked up the steepest hill in my area in the blazing sun of 3 pm. I now feel invincible.

15 October

Today I drank a cold Coca-Cola on the side of a tarmac road, just before being magically transported the last 50 kilometers to Luwingu in a Peace Corps Land Cruiser.

It felt like a scene out of someone else’s life.

I’d biked about 30K before I stopped to wait for our new PC Zambia country director, Leon Kayego, to pass me. (He’s visiting several villages in NoPro and wants to talk to lots of PCVs.)

My bike was placed atop the cruiser, next to a big cooler. Somehow, in the excitement of giving out ice-cold beverages to everyone in the vehicle, my bike fell. The front rim is now so bent that Adam and I had to remove the front brakes so I could still ride it the 20 kilometers from Luwingu to Jesse’s village of Kuta (where Ba Leon would later meet us).

The wheel wobbled all the way there, and all the way back to Mfuba the next day.

Somehow, this is exactly what I’ve come to expect from my Peace Corps service: moments of great, unexpected joy resulting from the smallest of luxuries, followed immediately by a great big f*** up that turns out to be not such a big deal after all.

16 October 2014

I return to Mfuba to the smell of rain. Heading in from the tarmac, there are puddles instead of sand traps, ripples and waves imprinted by running water.

I bike through clouds of just-emerged winged termites, thinking, ah, I JUST missed an early rain! Then, a few kilometers from home, big, cold drops begin to pelt my salty-grubby skin. After two sweaty days of bike riding, I feel refreshed and alive.

18 October

Early this morning, I found Stephen working away in my field. When I hadn’t found him at home at 5:45 a.m., I assumed he hadn’t left the house yet. Wrong. He was already working on the tilling we’d begun a few days before.

As I approached, I could see him digging away – deliberately, patiently, the way he does most things.

I apologized for being late, but he smiled and said, “Mwisakamana.” (“No worries.”)

Suddenly, I was filled with so much love for this cocky, grubby, funny teenager that I felt my heart might burst.

Stephen tilling my field.

Stephen tilling my field.

20 October

It’s only 7:15 a.m., and I hardly know what to do with myself.

We got our first BIG rainstorm last night. (It rolled in just as Stephen and I were heading to his place for dinner. We were on the path under my umbrella when, all at once, he yelled, “Run, Ba Terri, run!” and was off.)

This storm came much earlier than last year’s first big one, and about five days earlier than normal.

So, all of a sudden, everyone in Mfuba is out tilling their fields or gathering caterpillars. I finished prepping my tiny parcel with Boyd and Stephen two days ago, and I don’t eat caterpillars.

I’ve patched the small leaks in my roof with duct tape. Ba Bernardi says he’ll come over this afternoon to inspect the roof of my porch, which became a small lake last night.

Patch job on the inside of my roof. (Thanks to all those who've sent me duct tape - especially the Superman tape!)

Patch job on the inside of my roof. (Thanks to all those who’ve sent me duct tape – especially the Superman tape!)

I certainly don’t need to water anything today, so there goes my usual hour of fetching and hauling 90 liters. No more constant vigilance against goats and chickens, either.

For my neighbors, work now begins in hyper-drive. For me … It’s probably just as well that I go on vacation in two days.


21 October

This morning I received my first chicken, then five minutes later watched Ba Allan nearly get killed by an angry cobra. All before 7 a.m.

It’s gonna be a busy day.

And not only for me. The whole village is getting ready for an important visitor. Ba Henry, my fantastic Peace Corps boss, is coming to talk with the community about my – ulp – replacement.

The activity began at 6 a.m., with my neighbors split into three groups. One group went to work in the community demonstration field; one began building a raised platform in their (soon-to-be, we hope) goat shelter; and one came to my place to fix my falling down bathing shelter and to make the path to my house look presentable.

Ba Juliet, Ba Miriam, and Banakulu Mishek, prepping the community demonstration plot.

Ba Juliet, Ba Miriam, and Banakulu Mishek, prepping the community demonstration plot.

Then of course there was Ba Agatha, cleaning and cooking away all on her own.

Nothing like a big wig visiting to inspire people to work!

The chicken and the snake, well, they were just coincidence. The former was a trade I’d been waiting on for nearly a year and had frankly given up on receiving. Of course I got her the day before I leave for vacation. I’ll have to rely on Boyd and Stephen to feed her while I’m gone …

The latter Ba Allan and Ba Bernardi found in the goat shelter. A far more exciting experience than the last snake execution I witnessed. Allan and Bernardi had only bricks and a couple of sticks, and the snake was tough to corner in the darkness of the windowless building.

It was kind of terrifying watching the guys throw a brick or jab a stick at the snake, then jump back out of the doorway.

But in the final act, I really thought Ba Allan might get bitten! The cobra came through the crack between door and door jamb, hood fully flared, fangs bared, spitting venom for all it was worth. Ba Allan, armed only with a long stick, took several blows to kill it.

Ba Allan killing a cobra with a stick. You can just make out the snake in the crack of the door where he's jabbed the stick.

Ba Allan killing a cobra with a stick. You can just make out the snake in the crack of the door where he’s jabbed the stick.

Kinda terrifying. So scary, in fact, that I stopped taking photos. But the image will remain forever imprinted on my brain.

What a way to start a big day.

No easy answers

19 September 2014

Kamfwa showed up on my doorstep after school today, notebook in hand.

“Find the answer,” he told me, pointing to his first-grade math homework. Boni and Better were right behind him.

“Let’s see what you have, first,” I said. “Ah, 5, 10, ___, 20, ___. What do you think you need to do here?”

“Ba Terri,” Kamfwa said, more emphatically this time. “Find the answer. Write the answer.”

“How will YOU learn if I write the answer?” I asked him. “You have to know in YOUR head, not mine.”

Kamfwa, rolling his eyes: “Sigh …”

Kamfwa, dancing with his school notebook on a homework-free day.

Kamfwa, dancing with his school notebook on a homework-free day.

This is a recurring theme in my life here. Everyone wants the easy answers. The magic grant money, the handout, the free seeds, the instant solution to all their problems.

Don’t we all?

I sure do. I want the easy answers to: “Why am I here in Zambia?” “Is my presence here helping anyone?” “Will anything we do in Mfuba last beyond my two years?” “Is this all worth it, or would I be better off back in my old, comfortable life in Montana, snuggling down for the winter with the people I love and miss?”

I empathize with Kamfwa, even if he doesn’t realize it. No one’s giving me any easy answers, either.

And trust me, walking a bunch of first-graders through counting by fives is no cake walk.

Nor is teaching a group of farmers why they’d be better off NOT burning their fields, knowing that they’re all going to burn anyway. Or working slowly through the costs and benefits of growing different crops with neighbors who can barely do basic math.

It sure would be a lot easier – for ALL of us – if I were simply a source of easy fixes. Here you go. Here’s the money for your kid’s school tuition this term. Here’s a new bicycle. Here’s some magic fertilizer so you don’t have to take care of your soil. Here’s the answer to that math question.

The boys grumbled all the way through our agonizing math lesson. As did two of the three first-grade girls who followed them.

But some get it.

Like Evet, who soldiered on through the problem with me and was the only student today who really seemed to understand the concept in the end.

Homework time on my front porch. Evet is second from right.

Homework time on my front porch. Evet is second from right.

Or Boyd, who comes back for homework help time and time again, even though he KNOWS that asking me for help equals sitting on my porch ’til dark, working through some complex sixth-grade assignment ’til his head hurts (or so he says).

Or Stephen, who has an amazing tolerance for learning to read English via rules on vowels and “when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking.”

Stephen and Allan Jr. patiently copying down the day's lesson.

Stephen and Allan Jr. patiently copying down the day’s lesson.

I wish I had half the tenacity of these students. The ones who struggle so hard to think outside the box and “get it.”

Lately, I’ve been struggling to find my own answers. And it would be a heck of a lot easier if someone would give me a little life cheat sheet.

But to quote my Mfuba predecessor, Steve, “There are no great answers. Only great questions.”

I wish I had half the tenacity of these students. The ones who struggle so hard to think outside the box and “get it”

Lately, I’ve been struggling to find my own answers. And it would be a heck of a lot easier if someone would give me a little life cheat sheet.

But to quote my Mfuba predecessor, Steve, “There are no great answers. Only great questions.”