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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.