Community work

4 April 2015

How hard would you work to improve your children’s education? Or to make your community a better place to live?

Would you spend several days a month making bricks? Digging a dirt road by hand? Carrying buckets of gravel on your bicycle or on your head?

Stephen and Boyd making bricks.

Stephen and Boyd making bricks.

These are just some of the many tasks required of my neighbors. Tasks that in developed countries – or in wealthier parts of urban Zambia – would be done by the government. Here though, and in the vast majority of the country, it’s DIY or nothin’.

Now that planting season is over and my neighbors “only” have to begin harvesting and digging their fields for the next planting season, the chief, the local schools, and the Mfuba Village Committee all are vying for their time and energy with various required infrastructure projects.

This morning, we spent a couple hours turning a section of footpath into a vehicle-friendly road – after most people had already worked two hours in their fields. This project is the brainchild of the villagers themselves, who want vehicles to be able to drive into Mfuba more easily come maize-harvesting time.

Ba Ida, Bashi Chisala, and Ba Bernardi building a new road through Mfuba.

Ba Ida, Bashi Chisala, and Ba Bernardi building a new road through Mfuba.

This afternoon, most of the community will walk or bike four to seven kilometers away, depending where they live, to collect by hand two buckets’ full of gravel from the shoulder of the tarmac road. This job was a condition for getting a metal roof, window frames, and cement floor for the Mfuba Community School. Bring two buckets of gravel per person to improve the floor, local government officials told the village, and we’ll bring the cement and other materials for improvements you’ve been wanting since you built the school (also by yourself and by hand) in 2006.

I can complain all I want about how education isn’t a big enough priority for parents here (and for some – the ones who almost never turn out for these community work projects – it’s true).

But the reality is, the vast majority of Mfubans work their butts off for educational and community improvement projects that elsewhere would be done by government-funded front-end loaders, road graders, and construction firms.

Women of Mfuba carrying buckets of water to the brick-making pit. Water=mud. Mud=bricks.

Women of Mfuba carrying buckets of water to the brick-making pit. Water=mud. Mud=bricks.

Here’s a list of projects – just the ones I know about – to be completed within the next three or four months:

1) Mold bricks for the Mfuba Community School, to build a small house for a second teacher we all hope will eventually be hired. When I asked Headman Ba Bernardi how many bricks they have to make, he told me, “We’ll mold bricks until our strength is gone.” A little melodramatic, maybe, but a good synopsis of the Bemba work mentality.

2) Mold more bricks for the primary school six kilometers away, which teaches grades 1-9 and has only five classrooms but wants to build two more.

3) Weed and later harvest the community demonstration field.

Planting beans in the community demonstration field, using a moveable string to keep planting spaces consistent.

Planting beans in the community demonstration field, using a moveable string to keep planting spaces consistent.

4) For homes that don’t already have them, build an ulusasu (bathing shelter), trash pit, and icimbusu (pit toilet). (This is part of the chief’s sanitation-improvement agenda.)

5) Prepare and plant 50, 10-meter rows of perennial cassava behind each house (part of the chief’s food-security agenda), and then keep the goats and pigs away for the next seven months ’til their owners tie them up again next planting season.

Then there’s all the ongoing maintenance, like keeping the existing dirt road passable and weed-free; slashing grass around the school and community nsaka; and constantly repairing the thatch roof that currently covers the school.

Putting plastic and grass thatch over the Mfuba Community School roof.

Putting plastic and grass thatch over the Mfuba Community School roof.

So now ask yourself: Would you put in all that manual labor? What would your community look like if that were the only way to get things done?

I wonder what my community back in the States would look like, and how well it would function, under these circumstances. I imagine – in a best-case scenario – we’d all be complaining and collapsing from exhaustion.

Mfubans, well, it’s not that they don’t complain. They KNOW how unfair this is.

They know their government – that nebulous, unapproachable, far-away-in-the-city concept that means little to nothing here – isn’t coming to rescue them.

They even have a proverb that explains it all: “Akacila kambushi kasengulopo kekele.” Literally, the goat’s tail wipes its own butt first. Or in the case of the village, take care of your own mess before you worry about someone else’s.

So my neighbors roll up their shirtsleeves, suck it up, and start digging.

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Lift me up

3 April 2015

Njimyeniko!” The kids want me to raise them up over my head.

But this is just a code word we’ve created together. What they really want is a hug.

Who doesn’t?

Me carrying Boni on my back. We weren't even going far. It was just another excuse for affection.

Me carrying Boni on my back. We weren’t even going far. It was just another excuse for affection.

Public displays of affection between adults and children over the age of two are virtually nonexistent in Mfuba, and for a long time I wasn’t much different than their parents on this front. I stuck to an evolving set of complicated handshakes, or my hand on a small head or shoulder, to show the kids I cared.

My closest friends know it sometimes takes me a long time to be comfortable initiating a hug. I don’t know why. I love hugs. Maybe old fears of rejection just die hard.

Even here, I worked my way into hugs slowly, by lifting kids up to look over my garden fence or to sit on my nsaka wall, and by playing games that force us into close proximity. One of my and their favorite games is the one where we all dance around until I yell out a number. Then we have to scramble to form ourselves into groups of that number.

Yelling out the number five got these kids into a tight-knit huddle.

Yelling out the number five got these guys into a tight-knit huddle.

It wasn’t until about six months ago that I started hugging my best friends in Mfuba for real.

But the kids still use “njimyeniko” as the excuse to wrap their grubby little arms around me. It’s become one of their most popular requests, outpacing even “atekunyeni!” (“tickle him!”)

It’s OK. I get it. I and the other adults here have made up the rules: don’t get too close to us. Don’t show too much emotion or affection. Don’t SAY you want a hug.

But why? Why do we hold back?

I look back on my two years in Mfuba and wish I’d hugged the first kid who helped me with my Bemba or offered me a kind word. I wish I hadn’t bought into the whole adults-don’t-show-emotion scam, which happens with too many of us back in the States, too.

I wish I’d hugged my favorite Mfubans much, much sooner.

But it’s never too late. So now, in these last weeks, I’m dishin’ out affection at every opportunity.

Because, really, it’s the kids who are lifting me up, with every warm embrace.