A wet Christmas

I dreamed of snow for Christmas, but the only white thing in Mfuba was me.

I spent the holiday in the vil’ this year, soaking up a lot of ubwali and our first decent rains in two weeks.

Nothing too exciting happened. Gift-giving isn’t big, since no one has much money, especially this time of year. Ditto big holiday feasts.

A small minority of my neighbors went to the Catholic church midmorning. Some of them stopped by my place on their way to or from church, including some young girls who wanted to drum and dance.

Christmas music on my front porch. Kessia's drumming on the left, but I don't know the others too well.

Christmas music on my front porch. Kessia’s drumming on the left, but I don’t know the others too well.

The rest split about evenly into two camps: those who went and worked in their fields all day, just as they do every day this time of year, and those who got themselves stumbling drunk.

The latter started last night. As I was sitting in the cozy bubble of the Mutales’ nsaka, eating a Christmas Eve dinner of ubwali, beans, caterpillars, and wild mushrooms, the partying was just beginning. Men and women alike stayed up ’til all hours, drumming and dancing and drinking. They woke me up twice in the night, singing-shouting-stumbling their way home on the path that runs past my yard.

All we did in our small corner of Mfuba was help Boyd begin studying for his Grade 7 exams, tell stories, and debate the relative importance of Christmas, Christmas Eve, and New Year’s Eve. (In my American family, Christmas Eve reigns supreme.)

I learned that many Bembas, Ba Bernardi and Ba Allan included, consider New Year’s to be a bigger, more exciting holiday than Christmas. Neither of their families killed a chicken for Christmas, but both plan to for New Year’s Eve.

Many people also make New Year’s resolutions, including Ba Allan. But not Ba Agatha or Ba Bernardi. “I changed once a long time ago,” Agatha joked. “I’m done changing.”

Our biggest Christmas Eve excitement was eating freshly fried ifitumbua, which their oldest daughter, Brenda, made for the holiday.

Up until this point, my Christmas Eve had been slightly frantic, as I tried to get everything done before I left for my last Peace Corps-sponsored vacation on the 26th. (Somewhere in between the drunks and the workers, I stayed sober but refused to work on Christmas Day, aside from my usual household chores.)

On Christmas Eve I’d had two separate meetings with farmers, then found myself planting the last of my seedlings in the rain at 5 p.m. I was grateful for getting soaked, though. The soil had previously been too dry to transplant my tiny, nitrogen-fixing gliricidia trees.

My most crucial pre-holiday projects finished, I spent Christmas morning on my porch, making a ton of banana bread (aka, “cake”) with Boke, Joyi, and Allan Jr., then handing out small portions to any child who came by.

Yay banana cake! Joyci, Boke, and Allan, Jr.

Yay banana cake! Joyci, Boke, and Allan, Jr.

I also used Christmas as an excuse to unload some of the empty peanut butter, honey, and cooking oil bottles I’d been hoarding. I let all the kids with whom I’m close choose their own gift: either a container or 12 bottle caps, which I’d biked in from the PC house in Kasama, knowing there weren’t enough containers to go around.

With just one exception, every boy chose the bottle caps – to play a board game called “Solo” or “Drafts” – and every girl chose a container, then promptly gave it to her mother to use. (Doro was the lone exception. She took the bottle caps.)

When things started to get out of hand with the dozen kids present, it was the perfect time to bike to my cell reception spot to call my brothers and friends in the States.

That was when I got rained on for the second time in two days. This time, happily, it was an actual storm. But I was prepared. I put on my rain jacket and huddled under my too-small umbrella with the phone pressed close to my ear as the rain came down and the road turned into a river.

For those of you who talked with me on Christmas Day, here's what I looked like, standin' out in the rain with a cell phone.

For those of you who talked with me on Christmas Day, here’s what I looked like, standin’ out in the rain with a cell phone.

The view from under my umbrella.

View of the road from under my umbrella.

I finished my calls just as the rain was letting up, then biked back home. Then, legs covered in mud, I wrapped up my holiday with one more shared ubwali meal (at Ba Allan’s) and the delivery of more banana bread to families whose kids had missed out this afternoon.

And that was it. Possibly my most uneventful Christmas ever. But in the land of unpredictability, I consider that a day well spent.



22 December 201

“Always perform with detachment any action you must do. Performing action with detachment, one achieves supreme good.” — Bhagavad Gita

Why must I always seek words of wisdom in books and spiritual texts?

My neighbors give me the same advice, in much more practical form, almost every day:

Mwisakamana, Ba Terri.” (“Don’t worry, you silly muzungu!”)

Don’t be attached to whether your trees die, or whether weeds overtake your field.

Don’t worry about whether the co-op’s conservation farming demonstration field is planted properly (or at all). Don’t worry about whether Mfuba gets its hybrid goats, or its honorary forest guards, or a metal roof for its school.

Mfuba Co-op members preparing their conservation farming demonstration field.

Mfuba Co-op members preparing their conservation farming demonstration field.

Just keep on digging and planting and teaching and making phone calls and visiting government offices, without attachment to the outcomes.


Easier said than done. Especially with the end of my service looming.

In just four days, I will go on the last vacation of my Peace Corps service. Then straight to Lusaka for COS (Close Of Service) conference – the last PCV workshop for the group I came into Zambia with back in February 2013. The one where we’ll be advised on how to wrap up projects, leave our villages, and re-enter life ku Amelika.

Then I’ll have three months left in Mfuba and – capwa – two years gone.

I know that all work here happens panono panono (bit by bit). That culture and my own learning curve have always dictated a slow, faltering kind of progress. That – as all PCVs are taught – it’s rare to see any lasting change during one’s service.

Even change that occurs somewhere down the road is likely to be small and incremental.

But it’s hard to accept sometimes. I want to SEE progress! I want my field to be a lasting teaching and learning tool. I want the co-op to have a successful demo field from which they can learn and multiply new seed varieties. I want my neighbors to have better and more varied sources of income. I want Stephen and Boyd and Cynthia and Cila and Obed to get a good education.

Homework time on my front porch.

Homework time on my front porch.

I am attached to these things. To the idea that my actions have the potential to help bring them about.

Or maybe what I’m really worried about is the possibility of leaving Mfuba with my neighbors still thinking I didn’t do anything for them in these two years.

Maybe I’m really just trying to assuage my own guilt about returning to the land of comfort, excess, and store-bought food while my neighbors stay right here, hand-tilling their fields and struggling to get their kids through Grade 9.

So what is it I’m actually attached to? Seeming like a good person? The sense of satisfaction that comes from seeing a big project through to completion? The warm, fuzzy feeling of having done something “good”? The ego-driven desire to “leave my mark”?

Because, really, whatever happens in Mfuba – in the next three months or the next three decades – isn’t up to me. It’s partly up to my neighbors, separately and collectively. Partly up to global politics. And partly up to twists of fate and chance that I’ll never understand.

So why AM I so attached to the results of my daily actions here?

Perhaps I should take the advice of Lao Tzu:

“A tree that fills a man’s embrace grows from a seedling. A tower nine stories high starts with one brick. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Act and it’s ruined. Grab and it’s gone. People on the verge of success often lose patience and fail in their undertakings. Be steady from the beginning to the end, and you won’t bring on failure.”

Or maybe I should just take a deep breath and listen to the words of my much-more-succinct Bemba teachers:

Imiti ikula empanga.”

“Small trees make the future forest.”

(Not so) black and white

15 December 2014

“Ba Terri, do you have something to make my skin white like yours?”

Of all the things that pain me here – of all the heartbreaking injustices and inequalities – this one hurts the most. The desire to be white.

Today the question came from Cila – one of the most adorable little girls I have ever known, of any color. Just six years old, and already she’s soaked it in like a little sponge: black is NOT beautiful.

Cila in all her glory.

Cila in all her glory.

It seems I spend a lot of time in Mfuba trying to convince young girls that they are pretty. That they look better when they don’t cake their faces with white powder. That, actually, I love their hair as much as they love mine.

GLOW girls Harriet and Mwape.

GLOW girls Harriet and Mwape.

To no avail.

No matter how many times I told Cila how beautiful I think she is, she was unconvinced. “No, Ba Terri, black skin is NOT beautiful!”

There are so many dimensions to this, it’s impossible to know where to begin.

Yes, girls of all races often want to look different than they do. Self-loathing is something in which girls the world over are well-versed.

Camp GLOW teaches about self-confidence, assertiveness, and self-esteem.

Camp GLOW teaches about self-confidence, assertiveness, and self-esteem.

And yes, in America, black kids definitely grow up with society telling them – in ways both subtle and overt – that white is where it’s at. That black equals other, equals inferior.

Of course, there is a whole heart-wrenching, muddy history to this kind of internalized racism – one which, as a white person, I will never fully fathom.

But here in Zambia, self-loathing among my neighbors seems to have a whole other dimension.

Boys, too, tell me they don’t like their skin, their hair, their bodies. Men ask me if I know of any lotions to lighten the skin of their wives.

Shouts of “muzungu bele” (which I’m now virtually certain means “beautiful muzungu” – at least to most people) follow me wherever I bike.

Of course, my experiences are mostly limited to a very small, very rural slice of northern Zambia. In the provincial capital, Kasama, I’m sometimes greeted with indifference and occasionally scowled at.

Yet once, in the capital, Lusaka, of all places, two men told me that they believe in the Bible – rather than in the spiritual practices common in most of Zambia just 100 or so years ago – because, “we believe God sent white people to teach us the right way.”

When I heard that, it felt like a thousand lightning bolts crashing in my head all at once. Every time I’d heard, “Ah, we blacks. We are so far behind” suddenly made a horrifying kind of sense.

Except that it makes no sense at all.

Here, black people are far and away the majority – not some marginalized group. (Though, of course, they ARE marginalized on the world stage.) Here, within living memory, white people took over land that did not belong to them, imposed taxes that local people (who did not use money) could not pay, then forced them to work in mines so they COULD pay.

The Transatlantic slave trade didn’t have a huge impact on far-south, landlocked Zambia, but it still weighs heavily on the history of the region.

In my mind, Zambians should HATE white people. Or at least strongly distrust us in the way that many black Americans do.

Yet somehow, we are revered. Greeted with huge smiles, asked to name babies, and looked to as if we are the messiahs of “development.” There are people living within 10Km of me who know more than I do about a whole range of subjects. Yet no one listens to them. They listen to me, because I am white.

Ironically, all the attention we get as white PCVs (and, let’s face it: the vast majority of us ARE white) drives most of us nuts. Me included.

Black PCVs have a completely different experience here. As one of my PCV friends recently noted, while talking about white PCVs’ annoyance at being constantly stared at: “Welcome to my world, all my life.” Meaning, the world of a black person in America.

Only in America, white people don’t usually stare at black people with awe and reverence, or because we think they are beautiful. White people in America typically stare at black people the way I imagine black Zambians SHOULD stare at white people here: with an unspoken, entitled sense of being the dominant race.

Except that, like Cila,most Zambians I know seem to have absorbed to the core of their being – without even realizing it – that they are somehow inferior.

Cila (second from right), with friends Donna, Line, and Minus.

Cila (second from right), with friends Donna, Line, and Minus.

And what’s even worse is this: Cila and her friends aren’t the only ones who believe it. They didn’t get this idea out of nowhere.

Millions of people worldwide – mainly white, mainly privileged, mainly a lot like me – believe it, too. Not out loud. No, that would be racist. Often, not even consciously.

But we’re all simmering in the same murky, prejudiced soup, with all our flawed notions of “other,” “different,” “good,” and “bad.” We white people penned the recipe, but everyone has soaked up the same destructive thoughts, whether we acknowledge it or not.

I’m not saying I’m above any of this, or that I have any profound answers that wouldn’t sound ridiculously trite.

All I can do is look at my kids – all my little Bemba brothers and sisters – and tell them over and over how beautiful they really are. Not MORE beautiful than me, but just the same. And then keep saying it until we all believe it.

Circle of friends.

Me and my kids.

Don’t Say Thank You

The other day, as I was leaving the Mutales’ place after yet another delicious meal with them, I thanked Ba Agatha for the food.

“You say thank you a lot,” said their eldest son, Ba Oscar, who had just returned home from being away at school. Well, yes. This is how we show respect in American culture. It’s just what we do.”

“But you know you don’t have to say thank-you,” Ba Agatha said. “Yes,” Ba Bernardi concurred. “You’re family!”

I thought about writing a blog post about this, but my fellow PCV Hannah Harrison already did. She lives north of me, in the land of the Mambwe tribe. But in this respect, the food-sharing culture is exactly the same. Ditto water, hot coals to light a fire, and anything else considered “free.”

Hannah Goes Fishing

I am sitting in a circle on the floor with my neighbors, Ya Royda and Ya Lackwell. Between us is a giant bowl heaping with hot nshima. Surrounding it are several smaller bowls of boiled vegetables and beans. Lunch time.

We all dig in. Everyone waits for me to serve myself first. As the “guest”, no one will eat until I have taken a hearty portion. I insist that the hosts, my kid siblings, literally anyone else would be welcome to go first, but I’m fighting thousands of years of ingrained respect and tradition. Normally I’m an avid proponent of fighting the system, but the Ya Miyos here are way tougher than I am and so I take my lump of nshima in silence and start munching away.

We eat quietly, lips smacking with sticky nshima. Occasionally someone will attempt conversation with me in basic Mambwe, or occasionally…

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Beat that drum

11 December 2014

Umupama pamo utule n’goma. To beat the head of a drum again, and again, and again …

Taken figuratively, this Bemba proverb means to keep trying, keep trying. Kinda like the English, “If at first you don’t succeed …”

I’ve been poundin’ on that drum a lot lately.

Take my field, for example. Last year I tried some things that just didn’t work. My legume harvest was pitiful, my ridges worn down to nothing by the rains. Oh, and a lot of my maize and groundnuts got stolen.

My field. Note stunted, sparsely planted, beetle-eaten beans at center.

My field. Note stunted, sparsely planted, beetle-eaten beans at center.

This year, in an effort to improve the soil for the next PCV (and to save myself the headache of tracking down little thieves and feeling suspicious of my neighbors), I’m planting an improved fallow that can be turned over to alley cropping next year. For non-farmers: I’m planting nitrogen-fixing trees in rows three meters apart, then planting nitrogen-fixing annuals in between.

In the years to come, the next PCV – and later Ba Bernardi, whose field I’m using – can plant crops in between the trees, which can be cut back continuously and used for firewood.

I’ve ditched the idea of minimum tillage, touted by our Peace Corps trainers and farmers in lower rainfall areas of Zambia. It didn’t work so well for me last year. Instead I’ve taken the advice of local agricultural researchers, as well as many of my neighbors, and reverted to the tried-and-true Bemba method of turning the soil and making ridges. Luckily, I’ve had Stephen and Boyd to help me with that.

Boyd making ridges in my field.

Boyd making ridges in my field.

Of course, the moment I planted the first seedlings, it stopped raining. For a solid week. The sun beat down, the beetles that demolished my beans last year came to eat the seedlings, and Ba Allan could barely stifle his laughter when he came upon me watering my field. No one waters their fields. They’re just too big. If the rains don’t come, you’re just SOL.

Luckily I’d only planted a few dozen of my few hundred trees. But now the weeds are coming up, and they may soon overpower my nitrogen fixers, which need rain to grow…

And then there’s the Zambian government. As out of my hands as the weather is, but so much more frustrating.

I need a full drum kit – plus a couple extra Bemba drums – for these guys.

We’ve been trying to get a metal roof on Mfuba’s community school for nearly a year, and a response to Mfuba’s honorary forest guard applications since September 2013. I’ve spent so much time in government offices, I I think I know the civil servants of Kasama better than I know some of my neighbors.

Last but certainly not least is the full hippie drum circle that I’ve brought upon myself: the projects that have sprung from our visit to Miasamfu Agricultural Research Station way back in May.

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

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

Sometimes I wish we’d never gone. Or at least that I hadn’t raised the collective hopes of Mfuba by suggesting we might get a conservation farming demonstration plot with new crop varieties, or a set of hybrid goats.

These days my cell phone expenditures are through the roof with all the calls I make to the dozen or so different researchers and coordinators at Miasamfu. I’ve logged significant bike mileage just going back and forth between their offices and the Peace Corps office in Kasama.

I’m pretty sure everyone at Miasamfu is sick of hearing my same old tune: “So, last week you said you would: (fill in the blank) inspect our goat shelter/teach in Mfuba/set up that demo plot/bring us goats/sell us seed/do anything that you’ve said you’d do. Now you’re saying that’ll happen NEXT week? IF your vehicle doesn’t break down and your plans don’t change?

I feel like a broken record with a slight warp in it. Playing the same tune over and over, with slight variations each time, to see if anything will come out sounding decent.

Umupama pamo … Sometimes just sounds like banging my head against a wall. But I’m gonna keep right on playin’.

The sweetest time of year

I’ve spent the past week stuffing myself with wild fruit. Eating entire meals composed solely of sweet-tart ifisongole; soft, plum-like mufungo; and, especially, gooey, deliciously sweet amasuku.

Inside of an amasuku fruit.

Inside of an amasuku fruit.

It is the season when the miombo woodlands of Zambia are at their most generous. Caterpillar harvest is just wrapping up, wild mushrooms (“uboa”) are popping up everywhere, chikanda root (used to make “African bologna”) is on its way, and men are out in the forest gathering fresh honey.

But most abundant of all are the wild fruits.

Fruit season started in Mfuba back in June, but at that time, only the fleshy, sugar-sweet mpundu fruits were available. Then in July and August came chewy imifutu, and some others whose names I’ve not yet learned.

Imifutu fruits.

Imifutu fruits.

October brought the first mfungo and ifisongole – more of my favorites. Especially ifisongole, which have a hard shell you have to break over a rock to reveal the slimy-but-delicious, brain-like seeds inside. Getting at those seeds is half the fun.

Icisongole fruit. They look more like brains when you first crack them open and the seeds are all in a big, round ball.

Icisongole fruit. They look more like brains when you first crack them open and the seeds are all in a big, round ball.

But to me, the best part of wild fruit season is at the end, when my favorite fruit, amasuku, is around. And that’s right now.

Kids bring bowls full of fruit to my doorstep, wanting to share in the abundance. I scour the ground for fallen fruit while on bike rides.

It’s the time of year that most makes me think of home. Of Montana in August and early September, when the wild strawberries, grouse berries, thimbleberries, serviceberries, and, of course, huckleberries, are out. When you go out into the woods with a different mind-set: that of hunter-gatherer.

Only here, all wild fruits grow on trees, rather than on shrubs and vines.

Amasuku fruits on a low-hanging branch.

Amasuku fruits on a low-hanging branch.

Even the mulberries and mangoes, which aren’t native but more or less grow wild anyway, are up high. So kids spend afternoons climbing trees, or knocking fruit down with long sticks, tool handles, or rocks.

Chola throwing rocks at an imifutu tree to knock down the delicious black fruits.

Chola throwing rocks at an imifutu tree to knock down the delicious black fruits.

It’s the time of year when the Bemba proverb, “Nkalya mailo, apile chanuma” is most apt. (Basically, don’t wait to eat tomorrow, because you never know if tomorrow will come. Get it while you can.)

In just a few weeks, all the wild fruits will be gone (except for mangoes, which will continue on through January). This time next year, I’ll be back in the States, eating frozen Montana berries … and dreaming of ifisongole and amasuku, which are pretty much impossible to preserve and bring back with me.

So I’m gettin’ it while I can.