No sweat, no goats

4 March 2015

Ba Bernardi just spent three hours chasing two heavily pregnant goats all over the village: through fields, forest, wetlands, and a poorly timed rain storm. He returned shoeless, wet, and dirty, shaking his head. But he brought back the goats.

Ba Bernardi giving one of the goats water.

Ba Bernardi giving one of the goats water.

These are no ordinary village mbushi. They’d been impregnated by meatier, faster-growing South African Boer goats to produce cross-bred offspring that might do well in a Zambian village. Ba Bernardi had been prohibited from tying them up to graze until after they give birth, lest they somehow strangle themselves. Hence the goat-chase.

Such is the price of ubuyantanshi (development) in Mfuba Village. Piba ilibe icuma tacimona umunan’gani. (No one gets rich by being lazy, only through his own sweat.)

And boy has Ba Bernardi sweated these past two days.

The quest to bring cross-bred goats to Mfuba began way back in May 2014, when Ba Bernardi and nine other local farmers visited Miasamfu Agricultural Research Station. Among other projects that grew out of this visit, like the community demonstration field, the Mfuba Co-op decided they want to raise improved goat breeds.

Miasamfu livestock researchers had been giving out cross-bred goats to farmers in some communities, to study how well they grow in a village setting. But Mfuba wasn’t on the list, and Miasamfu didn’t trust that a large group would effectively care for their precious research animals. They wanted a dedicated individual.

Enter Ba Bernardi.

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

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

The Co-op elected him to deal with the goats with the understanding that some of the future offspring would belong to the group.

Then the petitioning and finagling began. Ba Bernardi and I made a second trip to the research station together, and were told: hey, we’re having a three-day goat-keeping workshop about 100 kilometers away from you. Come join us, and we’ll see.

Ba Bernardi abandoned his usual duties for three days, and we went. There he was advised to build a secure, raised enclosure for the goats, which he did, with help from the Co-op.

Ba Allan and Ba Abel working on a raised-platform goat shelter.

Ba Allan and Ba Abel working on a raised-platform goat shelter at Ba Bernardi’s place.

Months passed. No goats. No promised visits from livestock researchers. No reliable vehicle, they said.

Finally, Ba Allan (who’s played no small part in this adventure) convinced the Co-op to shell out 350 kwacha (more than $50, and no small chunk of change here) to transport the goats themselves.

But all this was just a prelude to the real, sweaty work.

Yesterday, Bernardi, Allan, and I travelled to Kasama to finally get the goats. This mission, which might have taken four hours in some parts of the world, turned into a 16-hour ordeal.

First a combination of the usual Zambian concept of time and a morning rain storm delayed our departure from Mfuba from 06:00 to 08:45.

Ba Bernardi talks on his cell phone as we bike, post-rain-storm, to the tarmac road to catch transport to get goats.

Ba Bernardi talks on his cell phone as we bike, post-rain-storm, to the tarmac road to catch transport to get goats.

Then Allan and Bernardi wanted to stop along the way to look at and analyze the demo field. I was so happy to see them engaged in conversation about the different techniques and their plans for weeding and fixing up ridges that I couldn’t imagine protesting. And anyway I’d carefully switched my brain into patience mode for the day. I’d known it would be like this.

Once we arrived at the tarmac we stashed our bikes with a friend, the guys set off in two different directions to find baskets in which to carry the goats, and I engaged in the usual amount of village pleasantries while our awesome driver, Bashi Nevis, set about filling his truck with as many other people as possible. This all took about an hour.

Bashi Nevis with his awesome Canter truck.

Bashi Nevis with his awesome Canter truck.

We then made the requisite dozen or so stops along the way, with the truck moving at a steady 70 kilometers per hour in between (50 kph on the hills). All of which got us into Miasamfu at 13:00 – just as everyone was leaving for lunch. Livestock researcher Ba Kasamu had already left, but as soon as I called his cell phone, he came right back to help us out.

He did the necessary paperwork and led us out to choose two very pregnant goats. So pregnant that Ba Kasamu advised us they could give birth within the next two weeks. And said we should travel carefully with them, lest they get too stressed and miscarry.

Ba Bernardi holding the smaller, less-pregnant of the two goats.

Ba Bernardi holding the smaller, less-pregnant of the two goats.

Then we tied each goat’s legs together, laid each on its side in a large basket in the back of the (luckily tarp-covered) truck, and proceeded to drive all over town. First to get permits from the district agriculture office that allowed us to transport said goats. Then to the local market to pick up more passengers. Then all over various rutted dirt roads to find fertilizer and other goods.

Then we sat around and waited well over an hour for Bernardi and Allan, who’d gotten off at one point to attend to other business.

At this point, the goats had been tied up on their sides for four hours. On their behalf, for the first time all day, I got upset at Bernardi and Allan, snapping that after all the work we’d put in, how could they let their purchase of random household goods keep these poor pregnant goats suffering?!

The goats, pregnant and tied up in the back of Bashi Nevis' truck - before we picked up 16 additional people and a few chickens.

The goats, pregnant and tied up in the back of Bashi Nevis’ truck – before we picked up 16 additional people and a few chickens.

“Ah,” Ba Allan exclaimed. “Ba Bernardi met some family at the market. But goats are very strong. They’ll be fine.”

Unexpectedly, one of only two other female passengers jumped in: “If you were pregnant and tied up, would you feel fine?”

I could’ve hugged her. We re-situated the goats.

Finally, at 18:30, as darkness descended, we left town. With only a few short detours, we drove all the way back to Mfuba and arrived at 20:30.

Then followed the kind of minor chaos you’d expect from unloading two exhausted, freaked-out animals in the midst of a dozen neighbors and five dogs intent on herding.

But finally – finally – we got the pregnant ladies fed, watered, and into their comfortable accommodations for the night.

Then it was time for a little celebrating, and some late-night ubwali! None of us had eaten much all day, and we were giddy with hunger and excitement. We kept slap-shaking hands, and I couldn’t stop exclaiming, “We have goats! We finally have goats!”

Of course, the work of caring for, weighing, and measuring these goats has only just begun – as evidenced by Ba Bernardi’s goat chase this afternoon.

But no one ever got rich without a little sweat.

Advertisements

When words fail

How does one explain the ocean to someone who’s been landlocked her whole life, or the size of a jumbo jet to someone who’s only seen one from 30,000 feet away?

How does one convey the cost of things in America to families that pay for neither housing nor – for the most part – food? (I’ll never forget the time Ba Allan told me, “Ah, when you go back ku Amelika, you will get a very good job, making $300 a month!”)

Sometimes, I give up explaining altogether. Like when the kids ask me why all those dogs in the National Geographic Kids’ magazines are wearing clothes. Or the time when Obed was looking at another magazine, and, upon seeing a row of homes torn open by Hurricane Katrina, their contents disgorged, he exclaimed: “Salaula!” (“Second-hand clothing!”)

You’re right, Obed. That’s pretty much what it looks like at the monthly market.

Second-hand clothing and other items for sale at a market in town.

Second-hand clothing and other items for sale.

One night while eating with Obed’s family, I mentioned how much I miss mountains. His grandfather was perplexed: “Haven’t you ever been to the mountain here?”

I explained that, for me, it’s basically a hill with a small, beautiful cliff.

Ba Bernardi and Ba Evans atop Mfuba's "mountain." You have to walk very gradually downhill to reach it. But it is beautiful.

Ba Bernardi and Ba Evans atop Mfuba’s “mountain.” You have to walk very gradually downhill to reach it. But it is beautiful.

“What about the mountain in Munkonge? THAT’s a big mountain.”

Nope. Still just a hill. And it doesn’t even have a cliff.

I thought that showing them pictures from western Montana, along with a National Geographic magazine, would clear things up.

What I think of when I talk about "mountains." The Swan Range in the lower Flathead Valley.

What I think of when I talk about “mountains.” The Mission Mountains in Montana’s lower Flathead Valley.

But then came the follow-up questions.

“What are all those people doing?” (They were crowded at the top of Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park, staring at Half Dome.) Then later, “How do you walk on snow?” There is, of course, no word for snow in a culture that has never experienced it, so the rough translation is “water you can walk on.”

We muddled through, as we always do, but the conversation – like so many others here – left me frustrated.

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve wished I could plop someone from Mfuba down somewhere in America for a few months, to experience different weather, landscapes, cultures, and attitudes. I wish I could show them a really poor neighborhood, a big mall, a fancy bathroom, a suburban neighborhood, a desert, a popular national park, an ocean shore, a jumbo jet, or a very rural community – all the things they just don’t get (or believe) no matter how many times we go over it.

Because, let’s face it, all Americans are rich, we all live in huge cities, we all have guns, oceans are just big rivers, and life ku Amelika is amazing beyond belief. (Except that it gets really cold and no one eats the national Zambian dish of ubwali and everything costs money and you can walk on the water. I have at least managed to impart that much.)

It’s more or less what everyone in Mfuba thinks. And maybe, through the lens of their own life experience, it’s true.

Just as it’s true to many Americans – through their own cultural perceptions – that “Africa” is basically one big country, that everyone on the continent lives in a grass-thatch hut, that it’s really dirty here, and that everyone is starving or involved in a war or both.

Try telling the average American about the 72 different languages and cultures in Zambia alone, each with their own way of doing things, and how – miraculously – they all get along smashingly. Try to explain that, actually, there are quite a lot of rich people here (just not in Mfuba).

Where the rich Zambians hang out - at Lusaka's fourth - and newest mall.

Where the rich Zambians hang out – at Lusaka’s fourth – and newest mall.

Try to explain to a “why-can’t-people-just-pull-themselves-up-by-their-bootstraps” sort of person how even the most hard-working Zambian villager can be thwarted by at least a dozen levels of social, political, educational, infrastructural, and environmental obstacles.

Yet this will be my responsibility when I return to my home country in just a couple months.

Right now, it seems to me an impossible task even to paint a mental picture of so many basic, daily activities in Mfuba – never mind trying to put it all in the context of global politics and economics.

I’ve lived such a tiny part of my life here – experienced such a miniscule slice of rural Bemba culture – that I still don’t understand it all. How on earth will any of my American friends or family ever really “get it” through words and pictures alone?

How will I explain eating ubwali with eight other people, all of us shooing away the chickens passing through and running over our legs? And how this can be perfectly normal?

Ba Mary dishing up lunch while the chickens vie for leftovers.

Ba Mary dishing up lunch while the chickens vie for leftovers.

How can I convey the social aspects of fetching water? And how carrying water isn’t the hardship that Americans might imagine?

How will I tell the story of a community coming together to repair the local school using little more than grass, wooden poles, and mud? And how this IS a hardship for the majority of Zambians, who are mostly neglected by their government?

Bana Chola whitewashing classroom walls using mud and a grass broom.

Bana Chola whitewashing classroom walls using mud and a grass broom.

How will I ever describe the sound of women keening at a funeral – and how it can break your heart in two?

As I do here in Mfuba, I will struggle not only to paint a visual picture, but also to include the sounds, smells, and FEELINGS of so many things my American neighbors have never experienced.

Just how DOES one define “big,” “diverse,” “difficult,” “joy,” “hardship,” “cold,” “family,” “sharing,” “chaos,” “belief,” or “development”?

It all depends where you come from, and how your life experience has shaped your view of the world.

Mfuba’s illegal charcoal industry

“A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

1 March 2015

Biking through the outskirts of Mfuba this morning, I heard a familiar sound: The ring of an ax biting into a tree.

I stopped and asked the man with the ax: why are you cutting down this big, beautiful tree? But I already knew the answer. “Ukupanga amalasha!” (“To make charcoal!”) came the cheerful reply.

The tree in question.

The tree in question.

My neighbor isn’t part of some illegal charcoal syndicate or international logging operation. He’s just a guy in the vil’. But he’s one small member of the huge “illegal charcoal industry” I always used to hear about.

I reminded him that the chief recently put out a decree to cease all illegal charcoal making. To stop felling these big trees for short-term gain. I told him he could get in big trouble.

He said nothing, but he stopped chopping. I biked a little way further, then called Headman Ba Bernardi, who in theory should be the local enforcement. But I knew he was on his way to church and probably wouldn’t answer.

I also know that nothing I say is going to stop illegal charcoal making. As long as there is money to be made in a place where money-making opportunities are scarce and no one enforces the law, illegal activities will continue.

Moreover, I am a total hypocrite to even say anything.

Just two days ago, I bought my seventh, 50-Kg sack of charcoal.

The evidence: bags of charcoal in my nsaka. Neither bag was made under permit.

The evidence: two bags of charcoal in my nsaka. Neither was made under permit.

A good-sized tree makes about eight bags, I’m told, so I can console myself by saying that my cooking has killed less than one whole tree during my two years here. But like someone who “only” drove the getaway car, I’m still an accessory to the crime.

With the exception of the two bags I bought from Ba Bernardi when he burned a dead tree near his house, I’ve been supporting the illegal charcoal industry, and I know it.

Trees are coming down like crazy around Mfuba these days, and the biggest ones are being chopped to make charcoal. Not for average villagers, no. In rural Zambia, the only people who can afford to buy charcoal at 12 kwacha (about $2) a bag are me and a handful of other “rich” residents, primarily teachers and other Peace Corps Volunteers who can’t be bothered constantly gathering wood for our fires.

PCV Christina cooking over her charcoal brazier.

How Christina and most other PCVs cook: over a charcoal brazier.

How Doris and everyone else cooks.

How Doris and most everyone else cooks: over an open fire.

There is a permit system through the District Forestry Office, but no one ever buys a permit. Why would they? No one from the forestry office has ever come to Mfuba, as far as anyone knows. Like most of the Zambian government, they are chronically underfunded and often undermotivated.

A year and a half ago now, four men from Mfuba, led by Ba Bernardi, applied to be honorary forest guards. This volunteer position gives citizens a bit of training and the authority to stop any illegal tree felling in their area.

Despite frequent phone calls, several visits to a half dozen forestry officials, and e-mails to top officials in Lusaka, the applications remain stalled in the capital.

Meanwhile the illegal charcoal trade goes on, unabated. (As does the illegal felling of trees for other reasons, like caterpillar harvest.) As long as the vast majority of Zambians remain without electricity or other means of cooking, it will continue. Electricity is sporadic even in urban areas. Even in the capital. I recently stayed with a couple friends who live in a middle-class neighborhood in Lusaka, and the power went out right at 6 p.m.. So we pulled out the charcoal brazier – just like in the village, and just like many a night at the Peace Corps provincial house in Kasama.

As a result, most charcoal – including the vast majority produced in Mfuba – is actually sold in cities, where it fetches a much higher price.

The “illegal charcoal trade” was formerly a nebulous concept I’d read about only in National Geographic Magazine. I never expected to be a part of it – or to be so intimately connected to those “illegal charcoal makers.”

But here I am, lighting my charcoal brazier every night.

And there was my neighbor, whom I ran into again on my way home, headed deeper into the woods with his ax over his shoulder.

Three days later, I returned to where I’d first found him chopping, to find he’d finished the job. That big tree lay on its side, next to two other felled giants.

Three more down.

Three more down.

Toilet taboos

24 February 2015

Ba Miniva just wandered over from the Mfuba Co-op meeting next door. I greeted her and asked if she wanted to sit on the porch.

But I knew – I could sense – the real reason she was here.

She wanted to use my icimbusu.

She fidgeted a bit and said, “Ah, can I borrow a dish? We’re winnowing maize.”

I ducked into the house to grab one, and sure enough, by the time I popped my head back out, she was gone. I caught a glimpse of her entering the icimbusu, then heard her lift the plastic dish that covers the hole.

I laughed to myself.

This is one of those Bemba cultural things that I still can’t get over. No one – and I mean NO ONE – will ask to use the toilet, or say they’re going to the toilet, or even let you see them heading in that direction if they can possibly help it.

Me demonstrating how to properly use the icimbusu. My neighbors would shit themselves if they knew that my brother and I had entered the pit toilet together to take this.

Me demonstrating how to properly use the icimbusu. My neighbors would shit themselves if they knew that my brother and I had entered the pit toilet together to take this.

This conservatism leads to all kinds of situations that I find hilarious. Like when I’m in a vehicle and someone asks the driver to stop along an empty roadside because they want to “gather mushrooms” or “get some fresh air.” And next thing you know, everyone in the vehicle is out “gathering mushrooms.”

The cultural taboo of being seen going to heed the call of nature is the main reason it’s taken so long for rural Zambians to build or use pit toilets.

Only a generation ago, my neighbors all pooped in the woods. Then it was easy to say you were just going to “collect firewood.”

This system worked fine – as it did worldwide anywhere where population density remained very low.

But now, despite a growing population, pit toilets remain a tough sell in some areas. This has lead to an actual campaign to convince people to build and use pit toilets, which remain nonexistent in many villages.

Believe it or not, the Zambian Government is giving away these amazing hats for free!

Believe it or not, the Zambian Government is giving away these amazing hats for free!

Because, you see, if you have to use an icimbusu, then everyone KNOWs what you’re doing when you head inside. You can’t exactly pretend you’re going in there to “powder your nose,” as some stuffy Americans might say.

This dilemma has led to a practice that crosses my own personal gross-ness barrier: peeing in the ulusasu (bathing shelter) instead of in the icimbusu.

The icimbusu is the tiny building in the background. The ulusasu is the grass structure closer to the house. Notice the difference, people?!?

The icimbusu is the tiny building in the background. The ulusasu is the grass structure closer to the house. Notice the difference, people?!?

I’m not sure if those who duck surreptitiously into the bathing shelter think they’re fooling us into believing they’re just taking a quick, waterless bath (since they clearly didn’t bring any water in there), or if they just feel it’s preferable for everyone to know they’re peeing than for everyone to assume they’re pooping.

But there are two problems with this system, as I see it. First, if everyone pees in the ulusasu, then when you head specifically for the icimbusu, everyone KNOWS you’re pooping, making icimbusu use even more difficult to support.

Second, if everyone pees in the ulusasu, it reeks! And who wants to bathe in the pee spot?

Hence one of my personal crusades has been getting kids not to pee in my bathing shelter. I tell them they can pee in the cimbu or just in the woods right behind my house if they prefer. (Though they cannot, I always remind them, poop in the woods.) They always take the second option.

My second personal crusade is getting people to actually say they’re going to the bathroom. It’s one of those areas in which I’ve chosen to blatantly hold on to my dirty-hippie-American ways in the face of Bemba cultural assimilation.

This is partly to show vocal support for better hygiene practices. How can you improve sanitation and disease prevention if no one will talk about these things?

A great educational mural painted on a school in nearby Mungwi District. I took this almost two years ago and have been just waiting for the chance to post it!

A great educational mural painted on a school in nearby Mungwi District. I took this almost two years ago and have been just waiting for the chance to post it!

But, let’s face it: it’s partly for my own amusement as well. Whenever anyone shows up at my house with an “Odi?” (“May I come in?”) and I’m in the cimbu, I yell out, “I’m in the icimbusu!” I then purposely and visibly wash my hands before greeting the person, whether I was pooping or only peeing, because this particular hygiene practice hasn’t yet caught on with everyone in Mfuba.

Agri, Annette, and Lavenda using my tippy-tap - a home-made, hands-free hand-washing device that I make a point of using in front of them.

Agri, Annette, and Lavenda fighting to use my tippy-tap – a home-made, hands-free hand-washing device that I make a point of using in front of them.

When only the kids are over and I have to use the cimbu, I announce, “I’m going to pee!” or occasionally, “I’m going to poop!” Even if I really am only going to pee.

The kids love this almost as much as when I admit I’ve just farted. Though they usually refuse to believe me and proceed to lay the blame on one of their unsuspecting playmates. When I insist, “Everyone farts! Even your parents fart!” they look at me with horror and deny completely the possibility that mom and dad might occasionally pass gas.

I have made a tiny bit of progress in this area. Just a month or so ago, I was quite pleased when seven-year-old Obed announced, on his way to the cimbu, “I’m going to poop!”

Obed!

Obed!

I’ve never used the word “poop” around an adult, not ACTUALLY wanting to offend them, though I have told people when I’ve had ukupolomya (diarrhea). We all have to be able to talk about that to know how to prevent it.

Besides, every once in a while, I just can’t help myself. It’s fun to push the boundaries a little.

When Ba Miniva returned from the cimbu, I smiled and said, “You couldn’t just SAY you wanted to use the icimbusu?”

She feigned incomprehension and took the dish I gave her, without comment.

At least I didn’t ask her if everything came out all right. I’ll leave that to the next PCV.

The village exchange program

When I set up my home in rural Zambia, I expected the small village of Mfuba to be my universe – my reference point for what defines “rural Zambia.”

But as it turns out, there are a lot of us PCVs here – more than 280, last I heard – and each of us, in each of our individual villages, has discovered our own definition of “rural Zambia.”

PCVs (and staff) of NoPro. Each one of our experiences has been shaped by a unique village placement.

PCVs (and staff) of Northern and Muchinga provinces, at our semiannual provincial meetings. Each one of our experiences has been shaped by a unique village placement.

According to the Peace Corps Annual Volunteer Survey, Zambian PCVs’ sites remain the most rural and “undeveloped” of any where the organization serves. Yes, this means almost all of us live that stereotypical Peace Corps experience – the one that barely exists anymore, but remains what most people imagine: thatched-roof, mud huts with no electricity or running water, in far-flung communities with limited transport options to the nearest town.

But within this basic framework, the differences among villages where we serve are infinite.

Mfuba has about 90 households – probably between 800 and 900 people total living in homes spaced some distance apart, with lots of trees in between. Other Zambian PCVs may live on a compound with just one other family, with their next-nearest neighbors a couple of kilometers away; or in a densely populated area, with several other houses right up against their own front yards. PCV host villages can range from just five or six homes with only a few dozen residents up to nearly 10,000 people in a single large village.

(If you want to know more about what life is like for PCVs in other countries, check out my friend Hannah’s blog. She’s trying to interview a PCV from every country where Peace Corps currently serves!)

Of course, I can ride my bike in just about any direction and visit a never-ending string of different villages, but spending time in a community where a PCV serves opens doors in a different way. Typically, that PCV has a ready-made circle of family, friends, and kids who will want to come over and hang out. He or she can act as tour guide and interpreter, opening up whole new worlds I’d never experience otherwise.

In all, I’ve visited 21 Zambian PCVs in their home villages. This includes Peace Corps-sponsored First Site Visit and Second Site Visit, as well as vacation time and days spent collaborating on work projects with my nearest neighbors.

Every community I’ve seen has been unique, reminding me that no two PCVs’ experiences are ever alike. An accident of geographical placement can have a huge effect on one’s time in Zambia.

Dan lived with neighbors packed right up against him – even though he lived 76 kilometers from the tarmac – while Scott has quite a bit of privacy in his yard, in spite of living just three kilometers from the sprawling town of Mpika. (You can see city lights from his yard at night. Whoa!)

When we visited Dan's place for Independence Day, neighboring kids crowded right up into the doorway to watch Erica cooking.

When we visited Dan’s place for Independence Day, neighboring kids crowded right up into the doorway to watch Erica cooking.

At Scott's site, Adam and Zach enjoy pizza - brought in by bicycle from just 5 Km away - and hair-braiding services.

At Scott’s site, Adam and Zach enjoy pizza – brought in by bicycle from just 5 Km away – and hair-braiding services.

Gordon’s site – like many in Eastern Province – boasted lots of climb-able rock outcrops, few trees, and high population density.

Looking across the soccer (aka bola) pitch at the closely spaced homes of Chimutanda.

Looking across the soccer (aka bola) pitch at the closely spaced homes of Gordon’s village, Chimutanda.

Kate lives a short walk from a beautiful lake – but an even shorter distance from a rowdy bar that has negatively affected her service.

A traditional canoe on the shore of Lake Lusiwasi, in Kate's backyard.

A traditional canoe on the shore of Lake Lusiwasi, in Kate’s backyard. This tranquil scene contrasts sharply with the thumping music and drunken banter at the nearby bar.

Taylor lives in the same vil’ as the Chieftainess, so she has government services and tuck shops galore – even though she is 56 kilometers of awful dirt road away from the nearest town. Morgan, on the other hand, hangs his hat only 17 kilometers from the tarmac, but his community is about as isolated as it gets: at the end of a dead-end road, its one primary school only built in 2006. Oh, and his neighbors found a hippo eating their crops last year.

Wading across the Lukulu River - same place where the hippo was found - at Morgan's site.

Wading across the Lukulu River – same place where the hippo was found – at Morgan’s site.

Jim and Julie’s village – 45 kilometers from the nearest paved road – felt like a town to me. They have two lodges, an auto repair shop, and tuck shops that sell cold beverages and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes!

Luke lives between the Great Northern Road, which runs from Lusaka up to Northern Province, and the Zambia-Tanzania railway line, so he’s gotten used to the sounds of trains and big trucks barreling by all night. Christina’s home is just two kilometers from a good-sized town, so she can buy fresh vegetables every day, but she will never, ever know everyone in her community.

Faye’s community also felt a little overwhelming when I first biked in, what with the huge coffee plantation and processing plant. But the village where she actually LIVES, 3 kilometers away, feels as small and remote as anywhere you’d find.

The view from Faye's front porch.

The view from Faye’s front porch.

I’ve visited at least one village in every province where Peace Corps serves, except for Southern Province, only because I haven’t managed to travel there, period. (For the record, this includes: Northern, Luapula, Muchinga, Central, Eastern, and Northwestern provinces. Our few third-year, aka extension, volunteers often live in towns, or even in the capital of Lusaka, but that’s a much different experience.)

But the majority of villages where I’ve spent a night or two – 12 of the 21 I’ve visited – have been right here in Northern province, within the two districts that my own community straddles: Kasama and Luwingu.

Even within such a relatively small area, differences can be huge.

Though I’ve so far mostly mentioned physical differences, cultural and demographic characteristics typically have a much bigger impact on a PCV’s service. (So do the race, gender, and sexual orientation of a volunteer, but that’s a whole other post.)

Poverty and education levels vary wildly within the broad category of “rural Zambia.” Kids at some sites are visibly undernourished and neglected, while others look fine save for tattered clothes.

In some villages, most kids don’t even make it to school; in others, a secondary school is within walking distance, and attendance at the primary level is at least decent.

PCVs in some areas work with commercial, export-oriented farmers who hire local workers. Elsewhere, meeting a farmer who tills more than two hectares (five acres) is rare, because all work is done by hand, with hoes.

Some PCVs live right up against Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, or Tanzania, with all the resultant cultural and social exchanges that entails.

When we first arrived in Zambia, each of us had our own vision of what life in a rural African village might look like. Some of us got more or less what we pictured. Others, not so much.

But by and large, we’ve all made our peace, and our homes, regardless of where we’ve found ourselves.

The following is a sampling of photos I’ve taken in various Zambian PCVs’ home villages:

The sex lives of muzungus

Depending who you talk to, I am either a complete floozy who sleeps with every male PCV I know, or a 37-year-old virgin.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the sex lives of muzungus is such a topic of interest. After all, we PCVs theorize endlessly about the sex lives of our Zambian neighbors, which seem on the surface to be so different from ours.

Rural Zambian couples barely speak to one another, let along touch, in public. Yet women are taught all kinds of ways to please their future partners at the elaborate overnight events preceding weddings, and they use various herbs and rituals to alter their bodies.

Bana Cibusa handing painted rocks to Ba Nellis and the bride, Ba Priscilla, at her village wedding.

Bana Cibusa handing painted rocks to Ba Nellis and the bride, Ba Priscilla, on the morning preceding her wedding.

In theory, unmarried women and girls don’t yet know these things, but go to any Camp GLOW and it becomes apparent that they know more than they’re letting on. (It’s considered scandalous for a girl to admit she knows anything about sex or her body, so it’s sometimes tough to know what she actually DOES know.)

It’s common for PCVs to share bits of mildly scandalous info we glean from various Zambian friends, and then come up with our own half-baked theories. Why wouldn’t Zambians do the same?

I’ve heard only a sliver of what my neighbors thought when they saw PCVs Dan and Adam sleeping in the same tiny house as me – at the SAME TIME! Then just weeks later, Samuel came and slept with me. And later, Morgan shared the house with me AND Faye! Apparently even my cohabitation with my brother when he came to visit raised a few eyebrows.

In a society in which it is taboo for a grown man and woman (even a brother and sister) to sleep in the same room – let alone the same bed – imagine the scandal of this constant parade of sleeping partners.

Some time ago, I had a talk with a group of female neighbors about the fact that it is indeed possible for two opposite-sex Americans to sleep in the same room – even in the same bed – without having sex. I think I was able to convince them of this eventually.

But then Ba Dorothy asked, conspiratorially: “Yes, but what about the BLACK men in America?”

Ba Dorothy and I have had a lots of talks about sex. She was, after all, my main counterpart for HIV, and at Camp GLOW with Harriet and Patricia (up front).

Ba Dorothy and I at Kasama Camp GLOW, with Harriet and Patricia (up front).

I found myself mildly offended, yet I couldn’t help it. I cracked up. No, Ba Dorothy, sexual norms aren’t genetic. They’re cultural. Men with a larger share of African ancestry are not sex maniacs, and men with more European blood are not sexless, as she was implying.

Then came Luwingu Camp GLOW. Like most PCVs – and most Americans – we in Luwingu are prone to hugging across gender lines. We made a point of being open with the girls and explaining to them that, yes, Dan and Erica are dating, as are Jesse and Hayley. But the rest of us are not in any kind of physical relationship with one another. Americans just don’t mind showing affection across genders.

Watching the sunset at IST, in the early days of our service, with three of my best friends: me, Adam, Samuel, and Ryeon.

Watching the sunset at IST, in the early days of our service, with three of my best friends: me, Adam, Samuel, and Ryeon.

We thought they understood.

But then, in a lesson about how HIV spreads, Dan decided to use the PCVs as examples of multiple concurrent partnerships (MCPs), which is a major factor in the spread of the virus in Africa. “So let’s say Ba Terri and Ba Adam are dating,” Dan started out. “And they are not using condoms.” (Giggles throughout the room.) “Adam thinks Terri is being faithful, but then she goes and sleeps with Jesse, Tristan, and me.” (More giggles.) “And I have HIV. What will happen to Terri and Adam?”

Of course, Dan explained dutifully that this was just an example, but you could see the gears turning in their wide-eyed heads.

Adam later overheard a group of girls speculating about a tangled web of multiple PCV partnerships. I must admit, I found this kind of hilarious.

Then, only weeks later, I heard the exact opposite.

I was chatting with Ba Dorothy, Ba Nellis, and Bana Brennam about my PCV predecessor in Mfuba, Ba Steve. As usual, they were expressing horror over Steve’s childlessness – at age 62.

“Ah, he will die alone,” Bana Brennam said, shaking her head sadly.

“He just doesn’t feel sex,” Ba Dorothy added.

Wait, what?! Ba Dorothy, what do you mean by that?

Intense laughter. Then, “He doesn’t want sex.”

Are you saying you think Ba Steve has never had sex?!

Silence. Then, “Well, he doesn’t have children …” (I’ve since learned that the older women know of a whole range of herbs that can “cure” men of infertility. How do they know when it’s the man who’s infertile? “Oh, we know!” Banakulu Line once told me – again, to much laughter and knowing looks among the other women.)

Suddenly, a light bulb went on in my head. “Wait, do you think I’VE never had sex?! Because I don’t have children?”

Silence. Raised eyebrows.

“Family planning!” I exclaimed for perhaps the 100th time in my service. “We use family planning! We decide not to have children until we’re ready!” (“Family planning” is the term for any form of birth control here.)

The women remained dubious.

“Wait, is this why you think muzungus can sleep together without having sex? That we have no sex drive?”

More raised eyebrows. Basically, that seemed to be exactly what they were thinking.

Strangely enough – culturally – I was more outraged by this implication than I was when the GLOW girls thought I was sleeping with four different male PCVs.

Imagine that: I have my own cultural perceptions of sex, too.

The passage of time

11 February 2015

Today I watched a couple of almost-two-year-olds play at farming. Musonda was born during my third month in Mfuba, Elliot during my first week.

Musonda, aka Martha, isn't yet two years old but was already trying to help in the Mfuba Co-op demonstration field.

Musonda, aka Martha, isn’t yet two years old but was already trying to help in the Mfuba Co-op demonstration field.

Elliot, with his older sister and an akakasu (a tiny version of the larger hoe, it's used for planting seeds.)

Elliot, with his older sister and an akakasu (a tiny version of the larger hoe, it’s used for planting seeds.)

It’s crazy to see them walking around. Especially Muso, Ba Scolastica and Ba Maxwell’s daughter, whom I met when she was just one day old.

Musonda at one day old.

Musonda at one day old.

My two-year anniversary in Zambia is this Friday – the 13th, interestingly enough.

I know I shouldn’t be counting down the passage of time – shouldn’t be counting days, months, years.

But these days, it’s hard to forget. My friends and neighbors remind me constantly: “You’re leaving in April!” “Are you really leaving in April?” “It’s been two years already?!” “Two years isn’t long enough.”

Yes, it has indeed been two years, and they’re right. It isn’t long enough. I feel I’ve just begun to really understand Bemba, just begun to know enough to be a useful PCV.

And yet, two years IS a significant amount of time.

Reminders of the passage of time are everywhere: The six new homes that have gone up in my neighborhood. The huge swaths of forest cleared. The kids I remember as tiny things who are now going to school.

Obed, left, at age five, with Maria and Cila.

Obed, left, at age five, with Maria and Cila.

Obed with his school bag, age seven.

Obed with his school bag, age seven.

It’s a truism that the days pass slowly, but the years fly, and nowhere is that more true than here. Over the past two years, so many of the days have crawled by at the pace of a caterpillar.

I’ve spent countless hours – probably whole weeks of my life – just waiting. For people to arrive at a meeting; for a vehicle to pass and give me a lift; for some government worker to show up or call me back; for the cell network to cooperate so I can send an e-mail; for a counterpart to show up; for an appropriate moment to leave an uncomfortable visit; for buckets of water to rise, hand over hand, from the well; for my charcoal brazier to get going; for ubwali to be cooked.

I’ve passed countless more in silence: shelling groundnuts or maize; braiding hair; listening to speeches I don’t understand; hanging out in someone’s nsaka with limited conversational material; sitting at funerals.

Time passes panono panono, until it hits me over the head in moments like these, and suddenly, two years are gone.

How long should we drag this out?

Some of you may have noticed that I haven’t posted in a month. Though, let’s face it: this is nothing new. I often go a month or more without a post, then vomit out five posts in four days.

It’s not because I’m not writing, and not because there isn’t anything to write about. If I had the time and the Internet access, I’d probably write a post every single day. Life in Zambia – or in general – never ceases to amaze me. There is SO MUCH I’ve never included here.

Problem is, I currently have a backlog of about 10 posts I’ve written in the vil’ but never published during my limited time in town; a list of yet-to-be-written post ideas about the length of my arm; and less than two months left in Zambia.

So I have a proposal: What if I keep writing for a little while when I get back to the States? Thoughts? Comments? Are you sick of me yet, or do you wanna keep thewandererinzambia going just a little while longer?

For me, it might be therapeutic to continue my Zambian ramblings for a little while, to ease the transition back ku Amelika. For you? Well, you’ll have to let me know. Wanna stick with me for a little while?