Saturday, October 17, 2009


I realize it’s been months since I’ve written; several of you reminded me of that when I was back home recently. I would attribute my silence to writer’s block if I were an actual writer, but perhaps it’s just a case of sheer laziness; in any event, in an attempt to make up for it I have written my longest post ever, in hopes it will compensate for three or four posts.
I’m currently in Dadaab, which is in the Northeastern part of Kenya, for the second time. It's a semi-arid area, from the air once can see that it's flat with red earth; the only vegetation is clumps of thick, bushy shrubs armed with some truly vicious looking thorns. The weather, as usual, is extremely hot (the “wrath of Dadaab,” one Caseworker calls it) though it’s not even hot season yet; my hair has started to get long again, so in the middle of the day with the sun beating down it feels like someone wrapped my head in a wool blanket, and then set the blanket on fire.
Dadaab is the largest UNHCR operation in the world, as it encompasses the three refugee camps of Hagedera, Dagahaley, and Ifo (Dagahaley means "rocks" and Ifo means "dust" in Somali, some of the most apt names I've ever encountered). All told there are about 300,000 refugees, mostly Somali, living in the camps; it’s estimated that about 6,000 more a month are arriving from Somalia as the fighting has intensified in the south, with no end in sight. Unfortunately, we are not allowed to visit any of the camps as the security situation has been deemed too unstable, but I'm hoping that the next time I come up here things will be better and we'll be able to leave the compound we are staying in.
The UNHCR compound that has been built up here is strange, to say the least. Smack dab in the middle of a part of the country that is mostly barren and populated with refugees is a chain-linked, razor-wired compound that has small houses, sandy paths lit with ground lamps and delineated with white bricks stuck into the earth, a tennis and basketball court, several restaurants and bars, scores of new Land Cruisers and heavy trucks, and air-conditioning in all of the accommodation rooms. It seems entirely out of place, as I guess it is, though no doubt the long-term workers who are stationed up there are extremely grateful for every one of the amenities. The compound houses about 155 UNHCR workers doing 2-year stints, and any number of other workers from different organizations, all of whom would probably gladly maim you for a cheeseburger. We are restricted to the compound, so whatever entertainment there is to be had has to be found inside--lots of book-reading, movie-watching, and long email-writing.
On this trip I am serving in a different capacity as the first time I stayed up here. I am now the Field Team Leader (FTL), which means I essentially handle a lot of the logistics for the trip, provide guidance to the rest of the team on JVA policy, and liaise with implementing partners, among other things. The new position is a challenge but I’ve enjoyed it so far--there are (brief) times when I miss interviewing, however, as there are the occasional humorous or interesting moments that can occur in interviews. For instance, I was once interviewing an Eritrean refugee in Shire up in northern Ethiopia. We always ask about any medical problems the refugee might have, and this particular man reported that he had a “hemmorhage.” I glanced up quickly from the form I was filling in as this was obviously a very serious problem, although the refugee didn’t show any immediate signs of being about to keel over. I asked where the hemmorhage was, exactly, both so I could accurately fill in the form and also provide precise information for any doctor we might need to bring rushing in to save the man’s life. My interpreter paused long enough to give me a slightly surprised glance but began interpreting nonetheless, while in my mind I cycled confusedly through the possible physical areas in which the refugee could be experiencing such a serious medical event and not be dead. My confusion only began to grow as the man’s explanation seemed to last much longer than what was necessary for simply naming a body region--further, the reply was becoming animated and, to my deepening concern, quite graphic as he began pointing to his crotch area. Things were bordering on the obscene as he lifted himself slightly out of the chair and began grabbing at his groin and butt area before a light went on in my head: not “hemmorhage,” but “hemmorhoid.” I threw my hands up and cut off what was threatening to become a strip-show: “I got it, thanks, let’s move on.”
Dadaab is known among the field team for a number of things, but it’s most notorious for being home to a lot of scorpions and snakes--a field team member was once evacuated from here after getting bitten by an unknown creature. When we walk around at night, then, we’re often scanning the ground for any suspicious activity, nerves at a slightly elevated level. Twice already on this trip I have stopped dead in my tracks, heart jumping about in my chest, and stood for a few moments with eyes bulging at what turned out to be a curved stick lying on the path. Similarly, a friend of mine once launched herself several yards down the path we were walking on after a tree flower, blown by the wind, tumbled across her feet.
So it was in this context that several days ago I was walking alone at night to the cafeteria when I felt something clamp onto the back of my ankle, right around my Achilles Tendon. I unleashed a hybrid goose step/karate kick straight out in front of me and then shook my suspended foot in the air while taking a few small crow hops on my planted leg, all while resisting the urge to send aloft a warbling cry of panic. In retrospect, this entire sequence was one of the finer athletic achievements of my life, as not only did I not collapse in a heap in the sand during these frantic gyrations, but I felt whatever it was on my ankle shake off. I spun about, already determined that anything more hostile than a snail was going to send me careening through the darkness, only to be confronted by a thorny branch lying there benignly. After a few deep breaths and taking a moment to collect my scattered nerves, I continued on towards supper.
Our worksite is the small International Organization for Migration (IOM) compound within the larger UNHCR compound. The worksite is laid out in a rough square of cinder blocked buildings topped with tin roofs; the middle of the square is a bare, sandy area for vehicles and such. Unfortunately, our offices are in two buildings on opposite sides of the square, so in order to get to the other side one has to slog across about 40 yards of sand in the burning heat, a stretch that has unaffectionately been nicknamed “the desert.” Now, normally I incline more to the “lead-by-example” school of managing, but when the desert is involved I like to take the opportunity to empower my team members to build their personal capacity through increased responsibility--in other words, I delegate, as in “Stop your whining and get across the desert to ask Fundi where those paperclips are. And bring me back a Coke as well.” Normally these trips across the desert end with the trekker standing in my office in front of the a.c. unit that is going full blast and mumbling things like “come on, give it to me” while I yell at them to stop blocking the air flow to my desk.
Every evening an IOM bus takes the refugees back to the camps after we’ve finished interviewing them (a brief aside: like most organizations, JVA has its own unique lexicon that is primarily acronyms, with a few, mostly irreverent, abbreviations and nick-names thrown in as well. So, for instance, refugees are often referred to as “fugees,” interpreters as “‘terps,” and Somali women wearing the hijab with an additional veil across their face so only their eyes are visible as “ninjas.” But back to my story) The IOM bus driver is a cheerful old Somali guy with a longish, silver goatee, the tip of which has been dyed orange with henna, and which immediately became something I aspire to have one day. Mohamed, as he is named, is friendly and gregarious and strolls about the compound while waiting for the refugees to finish and chats up any JVA staff members he comes across. The very first time I met him his face lit into a friendly smile and he gave me a big wave and called to me “Yes, my brother Ibrahim, how are you?” I had to wonder if perhaps Mohamed might be bordering on senility after this greeting as he called to me as if he knew me, as if I really were his brother Ibrahim. When I ventured that my name was actually not Ibrahim but something else entirely he gave a dismissive wave of his hand as if this were mere foolishness on my part. “Ibrahim, inshallah, this time next year you will be a Muslim, and will be called ‘Ibrahim’.” It hasn’t been uncommon, then, for the rest of the trip to hear Mohamed bellowing a greeting to “Ibrahim,” a white boy from Maine, whenever I emerge from my office into the desert.
As is to be expected, I guess, we have a lot of IT problems on these trips. We’re all linked via wireless access points to the server laptop we carry with us and to the printers; when the link goes down, something that can happen for any one of approximately a billion reasons, work grinds to a halt. The FTL’s (me, in this case) number one priority is then to fix the problem at any cost so everyone can get working again. Since I am almost entirely IT illiterate these episodes are really trying and involve a lot of frantic phone calls to our Nairobi IT people, or me speed-walking across the desert to plead with the IOM IT guy to come take a look. It seems we have gotten most of the IT problems on this trip straightened out after having laptops, a replacement printer and wireless access point and cables sent up from Nairobi, though the replacement printer regularly emits an ominous grinding noise and will periodically simply stop printing. This is our last option for a printer, so it going down will be catastrophic for the circuit ride, so much so that every time the grinding noise starts my blood pressure jumps 15 notches. I’ve forbidden people from saying words like “uh oh” within a five foot radius of the printer, or even grimacing when they’re around it. I now have an entire routine I go through with the machine to get it running again, which consists of dismantling as much of it as I know I can put back together (which keeps the operation fairly limited), lots of sweating, heavy breathing and mumbled comments like “Come on, you piece of garbage; wait, I didn’t mean that.”
The last time I was in Dadaab I was doing interviews the whole time, and one in particular sticks out. It was a middle-aged Somali lady with three or four teenaged children; she was dressed in a slightly worn hijab and had a tired face that was just starting to show the beginnings of wrinkles. At the beginning of the interview she anxiously asked if she could talk to me without the children around; she then told me that one of them, a boy, wasn’t actually her child but he didn’t know that as she had kept it from him. These secret foster relationships aren’t all that uncommon among Somali refugees as it is exceedingly shameful to be an orphan or a bastard in Somali culture--I once had the foster father of a teenage girl tell me that he had never disclosed that she wasn’t his biological child as he was concerned she would become distraught to the point of suicide, thinking that she was a bastard or an orphan. So, oftentimes to protect the children from societal scorn parents will pretend foster children are their own, and will never tell the children.
The woman told me that she had decided to tell her son that he wasn’t her biological child as he was now old enough to know. Then, during the interview, she told me the story of how she had come to raise him. She was from Kismayo, a port town in the southern part of Somalia that has been wracked with fighting for going on 20 years now. A particularly vicious round broke out while the woman still lived there as two clans fired artillery shells and RPGs at each other from opposite sides of the town; after the shelling, the militias moved in. The woman, shattered from a vicious assault, fled with her three small children, having to leave her husband and several other family members dead and unburied behind her in their destroyed home. They joined a terrified mass of people streaming away from the burning city as the fighting raged behind them, and then, on the edge of town, she came across a little boy just old enough to walk. He was alone with no relatives in sight, and none of the other people fleeing knew the boy or where he came from. The woman grabbed him and continued her flight, now with four young children and without money, food, a family or husband or even a country, across Somalia and into Kenya, finally arriving in Dadaab. Seventeen years later she told her son about where he came from.
I sat stunned while I listened to the story. Unfortunately, I’ve heard far worse as far as violence and suffering are concerned, but the idea that she could spare a thought for an abandoned child just shortly after her world had collapsed around her was staggering. I stared at her for a moment; she looked ordinary, weary, not heroic or superhuman at all, yet she had performed one of the greatest feats of unequivocal heroism I had ever personally heard of.

I hope you are all well.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Nairobi and Plane Fires

Hello All,

The below is an email I wrote about three weeks ago but have only now gotten around to sending.

I am sitting in my hotel in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, writing this at the moment, myself and two other people from JVA flew in this morning from Nairobi.  We’re on our way to Shire (pronounced sheer-ay), a town in northern Ethiopia near Shimelba refugee camp, we should arrive there tomorrow after a short flight from Addis.

So, obviously I’ve been thrown right into the mix here as I was only in Nairobi for about a week and a half before this trip.  I will be in Shire for three weeks before I go back to Kenya for a little while before heading out again.  This is generally how the schedule goes for caseworkers, on average we spend close to three weeks out of each month traveling—hectic, but also a great opportunity to see a lot of interesting places.

I hope to write a little bit about Shimelba, which will be my first camp experience with JVA when I return, so in this email I’m going to make some random observations about Nairobi.  It’s a huge city, much larger than Lusaka and better developed, but also much louder, crowded, and dirtier.  The hurrying crowds and mobs of vehicles piloted by drivers I suspect to be slightly deranged gives the city an exciting, bustling feel to it—apparently the roads were not designed to handle the amount of traffic they now carry as there is almost a perpetual traffic jam throughout the city.  My very first experience with this utter chaos that is driving in Nairobi came on my trip back from the airport.  A friend had arranged for a taxi driver named George to pick me up.  I walked out of the terminal to see a smiling Kenyan holding a sign with my name on it; I was a little strung out from more than 30 hours of traveling from the U.S. but was relieved to see him.  He is a friendly, talkative guide who hustled my bags into the cab, hopped behind the wheel and gunned us out into traffic.

It only took me a few minutes to realize that this indeed was a far different place than Lusaka.  Traffic isn’t all that bad and is fairly orderly there, but after only a few kilometers of driving in Nairobi I had already made the decision to pull my elbow that had been hanging out of the car back inside to keep it from getting clipped.  There were no lines in the road, which meant it at times fluctuated from two to three lanes and then back again, depending on how many vehicles could possibly squeeze into the available space.  It is a motley collection of automobiles ranging in size from large 18-wheelers (called lorries here--as a former British colony Kenya insists on using improper English) to small motorcycles, all blaring their horns and trying to cut one another off at every opportunity.  There is a constant game of chicken being played out on the roads, with the driver with the most nerve usually winning a desired spot and a tongue-lashing from whichever other driver he had to almost run over to get there.  I commented on the seeming anarchy of the situation to George who had been rattling on about Kenya and Nairobi, pointing out interesting features along the road, glancing over at me to see if I was properly engrossed, all while steering us through the swirls and eddies of the traffic while I stared resolutely ahead refusing to make eye contact with George, hoping thereby to encourage him to concentrate fully on the tangle of cars all around us.  George nodded vigorously in agreement at my observation, and flapped his hand unconcernedly at the mess currently in front of us: “Like right now, I don’t even know where the lane is,” and then launched happily into another explication on the state of tribal relations in Kenya while I eyeballed a matatu (minibus) and lorry that were both converging on the spot we currently occupied.

Yet George is a bit of a magician as he managed to get us to our destination alive, which is all I was asking for at that point, while also providing a brief tutorial on Kenyan history and politics.  That was my introduction to Nairobi traffic and my awe of it has only increased since then, especially as I’ve since been a pedestrian trying to navigate a road crossing.  There doesn’t appear to be any standard procedure for pedestrians in the city; they don’t have the right of way, but I’m assuming it’s illegal to run them over as well.  Usually what happens is a large group of walkers will gather on the edge of the road that needs to be crossed.  Finally, at the slightest hint of a break in traffic, one intrepid soul will plunge into the gap followed hurriedly by the rest; my theory so far is that the larger the group, the less willing a driver will be to hit them all as it will mean more damage to his vehicle.  Hence, in these situations I try to get on the edge of the group furthest away from oncoming traffic in order to provide as much of a human buffer between me and the vehicles as possible.

I was delighted to find that Nairobi has a lot of second clothing markets, like in Zambia.  There are always gems to be found in these places as it is all cast-offs from the West; what makes it particularly interesting is that oftentimes the clothing will be quite old, from the 80’s and early 90’s, which means one can easily find a t-shirt with a slogan from those eras (I saw a t-shirt in Zambia that said “You’re beautiful…NOT”).  On my first full day here I and some friends went to one of these markets, stall after stall stuffed with old clothing.  The hawkers here are slightly more advanced in their attempt to cheat you than in Zambia; most of them have removed the size tags from the trousers, so when you tell them your size they randomly pick out a pair of trousers and declare them to be the right ones.  In order to prove it, they will produce a plastic measuring tape and run it around the waist and down the inseam to prove their point.  What is delightful about this entire process is that if the pants are indeed too long, they will position the tape right at the crotch and show you so you’re assured they are starting in the right place, then distract you with their other hand that is bringing the tape down the pant leg while sliding the tape back a few inches up at the crotch.  So, when the tape reaches the cuff, they will have slid the tape on the other end far enough back that it shows the measurement you told them earlier.  The merchant will then declare “exact,” while random other hawkers who have gathered around to watch the muzungu get fleeced will nod solemnly and, in chorus, declare “exact.”  The merchants are slick enough about the bogus measuring that it took me a few seconds to figure out exactly what they were doing; if I didn’t have a preconceived opinion of merchants at these markets as hybrid con artists and entertainers, I probably wouldn’t have caught the fudging at all.  Fortunately I did though, otherwise my feelings would have been hurt when one hawker told me I had a 38 inch waist and then “proved” it—he was able to chop off about 6 inches with some fraudulent measuring of the shorts’ waistband, then by measuring over the shorts and shirt I was wearing managed to add several inches to my waist despite me sucking it in.  I could only laugh at the sheer brazenness of the display, and left with my self-esteem intact.

At another stall, as per my normal bargaining routine, I pointed out various flaws I found in the clothes I was interested in purchasing.  The particular gentleman I was dealing with at the time, named Boniface, would immediately dismiss my criticisms and declare that the item’s brand was “nice.”  I pressed him about a stain on a particular set of trousers hard enough that he obviously felt the brush-off couldn’t work any longer, and so turned the trousers inside out and declared that the stain was “on the outside, not inside.”  Unsure why this was supposed to reassure me I then made the observation that I would only be comforted by that knowledge if I planned on wearing the trousers inside-out.  He stared at me for a second and I could see the wheels turning as he cycled through his list of selling tactics.  Finally, he grasped the trousers by the waist, flipped the brand name up for me to see, and declared “Dockers, they are nice.  Nice brand.”  Well, touché, no way to argue with that, so I slapped him on the back and forked over the money.

I have had a lot of people asking me about the plane fire I mentioned on Facebook; it happened when we were trying to make it to Shire, the day after I wrote the above email.  We had flown on a small, two-engine prop plane from Addis Ababa to Mekelle and landed there to allow some passengers to get off.  I was mostly asleep when the plane started down the runway to take off, but still felt it abruptly start slowing down after it had gotten up to take-off speed.  I thought this was strange but couldn't give it much thought in my sleep-addled state until I was hit in the head by a guy grabbing the back of my chair to jump up.  I opened my eyes to see people sprinting down the aisle towards the front of the plane; I then turned around and saw smoke filling the cabin.  Meanwhile a jam of people pushing forward was developing at the front of the plane; a man jumped into the aisle, spread his arms and yelled "Selam, selam" ("peace," in Amharic).  The crowd of people seemed to ease back slightly at the man's commanding tone until a stewardess appeared yelling "Go, go" and flapping her arms wildly towards the exit.  That was the end of Selam-ing and the mad rush began anew with increased fervor.  I decided I should join at this point and moved down the aisle picking up the various baby accessories the woman in front of me with a child was scattering about in her haste to get off.  I finally made it onto the runway and glanced down the length of it to see it a single firetruck with an anemic flashing red light trundling its way towards us, rather pathetically I thought.

I have mentioned more than once in these emails from Africa that I have moments of perspective when I can fully see the absurdity of my situation at the moment--this was one of those times.  I was standing in the bright sunlight of northern Ethiopia with a small plane on fire behind me, surrounded by crowds of Ethiopians chattering excitedly in Amharic and Tigrinya, children wailing, the field next to the runway swarming with Ethiopian soldiers sprinting towards us while I stood dazedly holding a baby-blue bootie and pacifier.  When I was younger and trying to picture what I would be doing at the ripe old age of 27, when I would be operating in that mysterious, hazy but momentous sphere of adulthood, this was not what I envisioned, not even close.  I lacked the imagination for it and could as little picture the details of life in Africa as I could Mars; yet my young heart would have been thrilled though thoroughly perplexed to see me standing on that runway.

After watching for 15 minutes small groups of men battle in vain with fire extinguishers and water to put out the fire we were put in a Land Cruiser and taken back to the airport, though not before I had memorized the plane's tail number in case they had any ideas of putting us back on the same contraption.  We waited for about five hours for another plane to be flown up from Addis; it was funny to board the new plane, the same type that had caught on fire, and see 95% of the passengers crammed into the front section with the back almost completely deserted.  We eventually hurtled down the runway and lurched into the sky while the gentleman behind me chanted prayers in Amharic.  Then we were out over the emptiness of northern Ethiopia; from the air it looks incredibly forbidding, all jagged rock and dustland gouged with ravines, sun-blasted and baked into hard edges, lonely roads twisting through on their way to small clusters of browned building with tin roofs flashing at you in the sunlight, little outposts seemingly huddled against the extremity of their surroundings.  It's hard to believe people can survive out there; I spent the entire short plane ride to Shire with my forehead pressed against the window marveling at the landscape and wondering about the people who live there, hopeful that I'll some day get to meet a few of them.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Home Again, Home Again

As most of you probably know, I am back home in Maine now. I ended up leaving Zambia fairly quickly as I was offered a job in Kenya that I decided to take, so in order to have as much time at home as possible I had to rush to finish up with the CDC and Peace Corps and then head to Maine. It was a whirlwind last couple of weeks, so much so that I still feel like I haven't had a chance to entirely process what my experience in Zambia meant to me and what leaving it has meant as well. Hopefully that will come later, though I don't have all that much time as I am leaving for Kenya on the 27th.

I have told some of you that I have seen that I am going to try to write out some stories from my time in the village before I head back to Africa. There were some things I wanted to write about but never managed to get to, so hopefully telling some people will keep me accountable. First though, I wanted to say a little bit about what I was thinking as I left Zambia.

I usually like telling stories to illustrate a point I'm trying to make, as it spares me the difficulty of coming up with an original thought, so I'll do the same here. More than a year ago I was sitting with ba Saya on a lazy, hot Saturday afternoon in the shade of the big Mango Tree in his yard, as was our custom, trying to elude the grip of the intense African heat. His wife, a bubbly, plump, brown-skinned woman, a pure Bemba from Kasama who called me "my son" and made me smile just to look at her, was sitting on the porch shelling Maize slowly into a wide and shallow woven reed basket. Collins was sitting on a short, roughly-carved wooden stool next to ba Simbaya and I who were perched precariously on dilapidated bamboo chairs. Shadrick, the youngest son of about 14, was wandering aimlessly about the yard while the only daughter, Chipo, assisted ba Saya's wife.

We talked occasionally but mostly we sat in companionable silence, which very much counts as doing something in the village. I had spent a lot of time at ba Saya's place but had never really taken the opportunity to examine his house thoroughly; as a government employee, he was one of the wealthiest people in the village and therefore had one of the nicest houses. It was a rectangular, concrete building that once had been painted blue around the base and white higher up, but now the faded paint was peeling off everywhere, leaving ragged, star-shaped patches of bare concrete speckling the walls. The slanted, corrugated tin roof was rusting, the piece of chitenge cloth hanging in one of the doorways was frayed and faded and billowing slowly in a light breeze. The other doors were manned by heavy, chipped and battered slabs of wood, one of which had cracked in the middle allowing the bottom part to swing independently of the top. Around the house, the yard was displaying an entirely typical Zambian village scene: chickens pecking and scraping at the hard-packed dirt of the yard, goats clomping impudently through on their way to make someone's life miserable, piles of shelled groundnuts drying on a reed mat on the ground, a brazier full of sparking charcoal burning to the side. Here, of course, were all the signs of what the West would consider poverty at first glance, but there was something else as well. I leaned back in my chair and looked again: the mother chatting quietly with the daughter who was languidly picking out twigs and small stones from the shelled Maize, the son strolling out of the yard to run an errand for his father, Collins sitting on his small stool to my left playing idly with a piece of bamboo, Saya to my right watching his wife and daughter in between his short spells of dozing off. It was then I felt a stab of an emotion I never expected to feel out in the village: jealousy.

By nearly every conceivable measure, I was far better off than this man who lived in a rusted, peeling paint concrete building in the middle of Africa; I was born and raised in the U.S., that mythical land where most people own cars and go to school and have more than two shirts and live in massive houses with electricity, running water, microwaves, televisions, toasters, DVD players, ovens, etc., etc., etc...even my living allowance of $250 a month put me on an economic level beyond him. And yet here I was envious of him, which seemingly made no sense; there were probably very few people in Zambia who wouldn't leap at the chance to have grown up with the privilege and wealth that I did. But that was the case, I was jealous and feeling the truth of the lessons we're all taught from a young age, about how unimportant material possessions are compared with the importance of home and family. Ba Saya was in a safe place where he well and truly belonged, something I hadn't felt since I had left the U.S. more than a year earlier, and wasn't to feel for another year. Home, and all that it means, was more than 6,000 miles and seeming worlds away from me.

The difficulty of being so far from home is doubtlessly what made the experience as special and meaningful as it was, yet there is also the constant, building pressure, the alienation, of being someone different. It's one of the reasons Volunteers form such strong friendships so quickly--being with another PCV means you're not different, there's someone else like you there and, together, you can face all the people who think you're strange, can joke and commiserate with one another when people laugh at your white skin or your hair or your clothing or your accent. Similarly, it's one of the reasons that PCVs, when they make it to the provincial houses after a stay in the bush, lay on the couches and watch hour after hour of movies, or devour four month old gossip mags, or want to simply sit with other Volunteers and listen to Americans talk--they want to reconnect to the culture where home is, where they feel smart and competent and normal.

So, finally, after two and a half years of feeling consistently out of place, of feeling different and strange no matter what I did to not be so, I am in place and not (as) different and strange. I am home, and don't need to feel jealous of ba Saya any longer.

Ba Saya

I hope this post finds you well and recovered from the holidays. My Christmas and New Years was a lot of fun as I rattled around in South Africa, Swaziland, and Mozambique throughout; I hope to eventually write about my travels there as Mozambique in particular is a beautiful and interesting spot, but I first wanted to write a little bit more about the people who made my time in my village so memorable.

One of my best friends in the village was a man named ba Saya, the agricultural officer for Muyembe and the surrounding areas. He is originally from Northern Province and is a Namwanga by tribe but married a Bemba, moved to Luapula and then eventually to Muyembe with his family. Because most of my work was agriculture-related we necessarily spent a lot of time together, and became fast friends (his son, Collins, who I’ll probably write about some time, was my best friend). Ba Saya is a few inches shorter than me with a receding hairline and a thin moustache struggling for survival on his upper lip; he has a slight gap between his front teeth and a slow smile that creases his face and deepens the wrinkles on his forehead and sets his eyes shining. It was an infectious smile, and I couldn't help but grin back in return every time. There was actually a lot about ba Saya that made me grin regularly; he was genuinely excited to learn, and often after I had explained something about, say, a new agriculture technique his face would light up and he'd let loose with a delighted 'ooooooookay,' shake his head admiringly and give a chuckle. Given that most of the answers I’d provide him with I had usually looked up a few minutes before in a reference book in my hut, he had far too high an opinion of my knowledge and abilities, and was personally insulted when other people didn't have the same ardor for listening to me ramble on as he did. He also took it upon himself to be my protector in the village, arguing with Zambians about prices they were charging me that he thought were too high, heading off drunks who were staggering their way over to talk to me, and once giving an assembled group of villagers a tongue lashing when they complained that Peace Corps never gave them free stuff. At the end of these interventions he would inevitably turn to me with an aggrieved shake of his head and declare, "These Africans..." before launching into a disquisition analyzing the shortcomings of Zambians in general and those specifically of whichever person we happened to be dealing with at the time. I would always assure him that I didn't take it personally, but he would remain unsatisfied at what he perceived to be the lack of respect for the infinite knowledge I was bringing.

I have a lot of great memories of time spent with ba Saya, but two stand out. The first involved his bike that he struggled to keep together the entire time I lived in Muyembe. He did a lot of cycling to other villages and would often walk back pushing the bicycle after a tire was punctured or the chain broke or a spoke snapped. He was sitting on my porch with me one evening smoking a cigarette; I had started giving him flavored pipe tobacco which he rolled into cigarettes and enjoyed immensely, and it had become a bit of a tradition. He'd had a particularly trying day of struggling with the bike and was bemoaning the fate of being cursed with such a contraption. So, I taught him the word 'cantankerous' to better describe the bike; after obtaining a faint approximation of the correct pronunciation, he was visibly more cheerful. Thereafter whenever he would refer to that bicycle he would always use cantankerous, as in "I was going to Milindu on that cantankerous bicycle," or "the tire on that cantankerous bicycle..." Frankly, it made my day whenever I heard it, although I wasn't aware of how fully he had grasped the nuances of the word until a few weeks later. We were biking back from Kawambwa and he was slightly tipsy after having drank some home-made beer in town and was asking whether I had any more pipe tobacco left, but I had run out recently. He asked if it was possible for me to get any more and I explained it was from the States and so would be difficult to get, especially since my parents didn't approve of smoking and so wouldn't be likely to send it. He urged me to try but I told him I was quite sure they wouldn't budge on the matter. He ruminated on this unpleasant news for a few moments as he wobbled his bike up a hill, then visibly perked up. He glanced over his shoulder as he teetered precariously on the bike, and made his final plea: 'No ba Joshua, you must tell them not to be cantankerous.'

My other favorite memory is when a Programme Against Malnutrition (PAM) project that involved giving away fertilizer came to the area. Naturally a village meeting was held and two PAM representatives explained the project and the proper application of fertilizer...for more than four hours as I went slowly cross-eyed. I would usually attend these meetings even if I wasn't directly involved, and was always placed at the front of the room as a sign of respect for my position. That was very nice and flattering but it also prevented me from falling asleep or pounding my head against a desk which is what I normally wanted to do at these things. I have never met someone who can beat a dead horse like a Zambian can; I think largely it's a result of a culture that didn't have reading and writing until less than 100 years ago and still relies heavily on oral tradition, and the boredom that is rampant in the village; sitting around and discussing something ad nauseam counts as entertainment. Yet as I sat glazed over at the front struggling to maintain my cultural sensitivity I couldn't help but think that Westerners would have finished this meeting in half an hour tops, including a coffee break. It was finally finished though and everyone trooped over to ba Saya's house to receive their fertilizer. I first went back to my hut to get my camera as I knew there would be the strong possibility of a bicycle being loaded to a point that defied belief, and I didn't want to miss a chance for a good photo. By the time I got to ba Saya's house the proverbial wheels had already started to come off; he was standing on his porch and I could tell he was getting excited as he tried to explain the process to the farmers, the same process that had just been discussed for four hours. They were grumbling about the amount of fertilizer and asking for more, while ba Saya tried to maintain his authority and an orderly process, the prospects for which were rapidly slipping away. As the grumbling got louder he in turn got louder and eventually hopped off the porch and into the middle of the group--I knew when he switched from speaking English to rapid-fire Bemba things were getting real. Soon he was shouting excitedly and flapping his arms about while kicking up a small dust storm as he pirouetted about to facilitate his haranguing of first one offending farmer and then another. There wasn't much I could do to help and any moral support I might have lent was badly compromised by my poorly-stifled laughter, so I snapped a picture and beat a hasty retreat. Looking at this picture still makes me laugh more than a year later: there's ba Saya, his shoulders hunched with the force of him chopping down with his hand to accentuate a point, a bedraggled list of recipient farmers clutched in his other hand that he is gesticulating with to further strengthen his case, surrounded by a milling crowd of clearly unimpressed farmers while a little dust lingers in the air.

A few hours after the whole affair I wandered back over to find him sitting in the shade of a Mango Tree; he was the picture of deep contemplation as he sat clad in a pair of shorts in a beat up bamboo chair with his chin sunk nearly to his bare chest. When he saw me approaching he heaved himself out of his chair with a world-weary sigh and shuffled over to greet me. Fighting back a smile at his spent demeanor, I asked him how things had gone; he gave a slow sad shake of his head and said, 'ba Joshua, you know, these Africans...'

Friday, November 14, 2008

Wedding and Wind Scorpions

We are enduring the worst of the hot season right now; it rains so much in Luapula that I would often grow tired of it, but now I am fervently hoping for the rains to begin to break the heat. I've woken up several nights with my sheets soaked through with sweat, and now lie on my side to minimize the surface area I can sweat from. I also have a fan set up as close as I can get it to my bed without risking injury to myself, though if it's hot enough it barely helps as it simply swirls scorching air over me.

I traveled down to Choma district in Southern Province a little over a week ago to see two of my Peace Corps friends get married in a village ceremony. It was a lot of fun and was nice to spend a few days back in a village. The village itself was in a bit of an uproar the whole time we were there; one foreigner is huge entertainment in remote areas, so more than a dozen is tantamount to the circus coming to town and setting up the center ring in your front yard. Plus there were all the preparations for the wedding feast that took a small army of women several days to prepare; I wandered over a few times to stoke my appetite and admire the process of cooking that much food over open fires. Cooking is always a long production in the village, but to prepare that much food in massive cauldrons is truly a feat.

A brief aside: by most measures many villagers are highly uneducated, especially the older generation and women as they are the first to be taken out of school, it's not seen as critical for a girl to be educated like a boy should be, they tend to get married and have children at very young ages, etc. In remote areas it's not uncommon to find people who have lived their entire lives in the same village, without even having been to the nearest town that has proper shops, electricity, tarmacked roads, and things of that nature. So, their life experiences and education are extremely limited; yet, they also are unparalleled experts at what they do. I've sat around watching women cook, for instance, and they have it down to a science and an art--their movements are deft and sure, there's little wasted motion, no pausing to try to remember measurements or times, and they move with purpose and strength (I realize strength isn't commonly associated with cooking, but watch a bamayo stir heavy, thick, gruel-like nshima with a carved wooden spoon and you quickly understand why they could probably cripple me using just their forearms). Or there was the time I was sheltering from a thunderstorm in an office building at a refugee camp. I stood on the porch watching the storm probe the earth with preliminary rains, like liquid skirmishers, gathering itself to unleash a torrential downpour. Then three women with large bundles of firewood--some of the poles were easily five or six feet long--came into view. I stood gaping as they trotted by at a fast clip, eyes fixed straight ahead, chins tilted slightly up, necks straight and rigid, in order to keep the 50 or so pounds of firewood in place on their heads...and each one had a baby fastened with a piece cloth to their backs as they nimbly maneuvered down the muddy road. And it's the same thing with the men as they carve furrows out of the ground for their fields with home-made hoes, or build a charcoal mound or take down a tree with an axe. I always enjoy watching these people who are some of the most deprived in the world and yet who possess world-class skills in their areas of expertise. It's a delight every time.

Back to the wedding: on the first day I was given the chance to slaughter a goat which I gladly took up. I had never killed one though there was not a day in Muyembe when I didn't want to, given that they are evil incarnate (If you want to start most any Volunteer raving, ask them how they feel about goats and you'll probably hear stories about how awful they are and how the Volunteer had plotted to covertly kill a few of them as an example to the rest. I had a friend in Eastern Province who found one in his outdoor kitchen; he wrestled it to the ground and then proceeded to slap it four times in the face before finally letting it up). Now village knives are notoriously dull which leads to painfully slow slaughters and traumatized PCVs, and the bare piece of metal I was handed that was ostensibly a knife was no different, but I started in anyways. The accepted method is to saw away at the goat's neck until the goat dies or you collapse; fortunately the goat died first in my case, though it was nip and tuck. After it was over some of the village men took over the butchering, obviously having concluded from my slaughtering efforts that I wasn't entirely competent in the goat killing/slaughtering arena. We rescued the testicles and fried them up and ate them later; they were marginal at best, and I ate them mostly for bragging rights which, in retrospect, isn't a great reason.

There was, of course, plenty of dancing. Before the wedding started some of the older women started an impromptu session, something I smugly expected to be only for females until a very determined old lady grabbed me. I briefly calculated my odds of being able to beat her off and put them at 50-50, maybe 60-40 in my favor if she was tired from nshima cooking; but, I hadn't embarrassed myself in a few hours so I decided to give in and start dancing, which would be punishment enough for her and the other women anyways. I went into my normal routine which has been, unjustly I think, compared to a slow seizure, like maybe it's happening underwater, and continued my normal routine of convincing myself that all the laughter was merely admiration being expressed. The dancing was mercifully brief by Zambian standards, cut short no doubt by the women's concern that I might need medical attention, and everyone filtered off to prepare for the ceremony.

After changing into my less dirty shirt I settled in to watch the wedding. The groom came out escorted by a parallel line of dancing school girls. He shuffled along and appeared to be limping though he clarified later that he was actually executing a prescribed dance step, and made his way once around a hut. The bride came out of the hut and they were covered with a chitenge, a piece of cloth essentially, locked pinkies, and then shuffle-limped to several chairs that had been set up on the edge of a bare patch of ground. All the villagers, including many from the surrounding areas, formed a solid circle five or six people deep all the way around the chairs and the open area; a very intoxicated man was on crowd control duty which consisted of him flapping his arms and yelling loudly as he rushed around the inner part of the circle and mock charged anyone who threatened its integrity. There was then several brief speeches from the different headmen attending, along with the bride and groom's village parents. Directly following that was a ceremony to exhibit how the bride and groom were prepared to care for their respective in-laws if and when it became necessary. The pair carried a plate of food to a line of people meant to represent their families of which, as a friend of the groom, I was a part. They then moved down the line kneeling before each person and offered them the plate; the person would select something to eat and the bride and groom would move on to the next person. I found the process to be interesting for a couple of reasons; one because I enjoyed the fairly elegant symbolism, but also because it highlighted the cultural reality in Zambia that relatives, even by marriage, are expected to provide for other relatives, including distant ones. It is somewhat common and perfectly normal for children to be raised by grandparents, aunts and uncles, or cousins, even if the child's parents are still alive, and for wealthy relatives to send money for schooling, food, transport, etc., to relatives they've never even met.

Things then rapidly moved into the gift-giving phase; essentially the master of ceremonies stood in the center of the circle and browbeat everyone until they came forward with money or a gift. The m.c. would then hold up whatever the person was offering, announce how much it was or, if it was a gift, offer his best estimate of its worth which was usually wildly inflated. All of this was mortifying to the Americans present, especially the bride and groom who had asked that this part be skipped, but perfectly normal to the assembled Zambians. We all breathed a sigh of relief when the gift-giving had finished, the end of which also marked the end of the ceremony.

The rest of the day was spent relaxing and stuffing ourselves on goat and chicken. We built up a big bonfire and stood around chatting and listening to the general hubbub of the large crowd still socializing and excitedly discussing the day's events. Excitement among the Americans would also occasionally flare up when a wind scorpion would approach. I had heard of these things but had never seen one until that night; in Zambia they are alternatively known as wolf spiders although they are neither a scorpion or a spider. They are big and hairy with large, over-sized jaws that can be a full one-third of their body length, which can reach five inches. While their physical appearance alone qualifies them as something I kill or run away from on sight, the most disconcerting feature of wind scorpions is that they are highly aggressive and target any light source; they lie fairly flat most of the time but when approached or if they sense something nearby worth terrifying (a half-asleep Peace Corps Volunteer walking barefoot to the pit latrine in the middle of the night, for instance) they raise their body off the ground on their hairy legs and sprint straight for their prey. One of my friends in Northwestern Province where wind scorpions are very common told me that the first time he saw one he bolted into his house, leaped onto his bed and wrapped his mosquito net around himself. Another guy, a former college rugby player built like a boulder, was sitting on his porch eating and ended up tossing a full plate of food in the air and jumping into his yard when he turned to see one glaring at him from an eye-level ledge inches away. So, to see one of those things busting out of the night in a scuttling, hairy, spider-y kind of way is alarming, to say the least, and they were out in force that night, attracted by the bonfire from which I risked burns in order to be close enough to see them coming. Leaving the safety of the fire was hard on the nerves; we were able to track several girls' progress to and from the pit latrine by their shrieks whenever a scorpion charged them or when the guy with them for protection would yell "look out!" and point to an empty patch of earth at the girls' feet.

The next morning we packed up our tents and backpacks, said goodbye to the village, hopped in the back of a pickup truck and roared our way over potholes and bumps into Choma. From there everyone scattered, either to Lusaka or Livingstone or back to their villages. I was exhausted but satisfied: dancing with mayos, eating goat testicles, avoiding wind scorpions--there's really not much else I could have asked for.

I hope you are all well. All the best, Josh

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Hitching, Mwanawasa, and African Politics

i hope this post finds you well, things in zambia continue on mostly the same. i realize it's been another long stretch since i last wrote, i have found that there are fewer things of interest to report now that i live in a modern city. the lack of items of interest hasn't stopped me, however, from writing possibly my longest post yet, so consider yourselves fairly warned.

i did get malaria last month for the first time, although i was fortunate as it was a fairly mild case. malaria is a scary illness for people without access to proper medication, and is responsible for more deaths in sub-saharan africa than hiv/aids--one of the great tragedies of the disease is that it's easily treatable with a number of different medications. i ended up taking coartem which is cheap and highly effective, although it also seemed to tick off the malaria parasites before killing them. i had been able to operate more or less normally before taking the medication, but a few hours after my first dose i had to struggle up the stairs to my bed where i had a vicious bout of the chills that set my bed jitterbugging up and down. i had one more bad evening (malaria works in waves--the parasites enter your bloodstream, destroy a bunch of red blood cells, then stop to reproduce. they re-emerge more strongly about 24 hours later and repeat the process) and then that was pretty much it other than fatigue and a general lack of strength and stamina. even though i was quite sick it wasn't nearly as bad as it can be and usually is, i've been around people with a serious case and they can just barely move; some pcv's have had it to the point that they couldn't get out of the bed to go the bathroom and general unpleasantness ensued (this is a common enough occurrence that having malaria guarantees a bed to yourself, even if there are other pcv's around who have no place to sleep).

over the fourth of july holiday i went out to malawi again, back to the same place i went for easter of '07. i won't say much about it as i've already written about lake malawi, other than to say that it was just as beautiful and relaxing as last time. malawi is similar enough to zambia that it feels familiar--the languages they speak are all also spoken in zambia, and the primary tribe in malawi, the cichewa, populate most of the eastern province of zambia. getting there can be a hassle though, it took us two full days of traveling to get to our final destination and that was even with some extraordinary luck hitch-hiking.

'hitching,' as it's known here, is a popular way of getting around for everyone, peace corps volunteers especially. shortly after arriving in country i overheard several veteran pcvs discussing whether they should hitch to lusaka from mansa, and one said that she didn't want to as she 'already had enough stories.' that is usually the way hitching goes, you're almost always guaranteed to have a tale to tell when you've finished, although it's usually one that's only funny after some time has passed and the fatigue and aggravation have receded. pcv's have some spectacular hitching stories and some have amazing luck, but i'm a grade-a cancer during hitching attempts, which is why i've mostly given it up. however, we decided to give it a shot anyway and were eventually picked up by a german expatriate named ully; now, one of the reasons i enjoy africa so much is the interesting people you meet, and ully did not disappoint. he's an engineer who's lived here for more than 20 years, an ex-special forces commando who grew up in west berlin and is personal friends with the zambian vice-president, rupiah banda. he's a big, barrel-chested guy with a wide face and short, salt and pepper hair and a commanding air about him, and is possibly slightly paranoid; he told us on one stretch of road that it was a bad place for car-jackings but that we shouldn't worry as he carries a .357 ruger revolver in the vehicle with him, which he had his girlfriend riding on the passenger's side fish out from beneath her seat so we could properly admire it. he is also certifiably insane on the road; 140 km/hr was his preferred cruising speed, and he apparently viewed potholes not so much as obstacles to be avoided but as challenges to be confronted--he told us that he had customized the suv's shocks with some sort of inflatable device, which is why he didn't bother avoiding the potholes. all of that made for an interesting ride but also a pleasant one as he gave us sandwiches, sodas, and candy bars, cranked the american classic rock he was listening to from his satellite radio, and worked on setting a land speed record to chipata. i often have moments over here where i am deeply, deeply grateful for the experience i'm having, and as i sat back in padded suv comfort while ully drove at 140 km/h with his knees as he wrestled with opening a bag of crisps, all while regaling us with stories from his commando days as led zeppelin songs pulsed through the vehicle and the brownish landscape whizzed by me outside the window, i had another one of those moments.

last month i traveled to luapula for a going-away party for my group. i've mentioned public transport in my emails enough that most of you are probably tired of hearing me complain about it, but you're going to have to bear with me one more time. on this particular trip i was feeling smug at my good luck in getting a mostly-empty bus that left close to on time, until we pulled into a petrol station in kapiri mposhi that is about two and a half hours from lusaka. i was half asleep as the bus had left at 4:30 a.m., but i still heard the zambian a few seats over stand up and make a general announcement that 'the bus is on fire' before speeding down the aisle. normally that sort of situation would send me in a panicked gallop off the bus, shoving people aside if necessary, but sometimes in zambia people tend to badly overreact so i ignored the warning. a few seconds later, however, i started smelling smoke; this was an interesting enough development that i snapped fully awake. my mind was further focused when i noticed smoke pouring into the front section of the bus, and people streaming into the aisle. i joined them in what i hoped was a collected manner, resisting the urge all the while to trample a mother with a baby on her back who was not moving with the dedication i thought the situation demanded. when i finally made it out the left front wheel hub was producing clouds of smoke, the result of a 'problem with the bearings,' according to a mumbled explanation from the conductor. kapiri mposhi was already my least favorite zambian city, and the following four hour stay in the parking lot of a petrol station as i tried to avoid drunken street vendors did nothing to approve my opinion of it. but, we finally got under way and i safely arrived in kazembe after an 18 hour journey.

i am now one of 6 or so volunteers from my intake remaining in zambia, the rest finished their service last month and many of them are back in the states now. it was sad to see them go, i have a lot of good memories with many of them. i have been surprised at the depth of the friendships i formed here, and looking around the peace corps community it's obvious that many others have done the same. i think i'm surprised because, apart from perhaps a few close pcv neighbors, you only see other volunteer friends once every few months for a couple of days; yet somehow you still manage to connect with them and form a very strong bond. there are a variety of reasons for it, i think the biggest being the intensity of the shared experience. working as a pcv in zambia is such a bizarre, bewildering, thrilling, unique experience that it is only another volunteer that can really understand what's happening with you. when you're struggling to articulate your irritation or sorrow or elation over something that happened in the village, you don't need to be eloquent or fill in the gaps in your story for another pcv because they already know what you're trying to matter what you're trying to express, chances are that the person who best understands will be another volunteer. so, you come to rely on volunteers in many of the same ways you relied on family in the states (the first time a pcv visited me in my village i very nearly tackled him with a hug i was so delighted to see him, after a week and a half by myself). my friend katie described this dynamic best when we were sitting around reminiscing towards the end of her service and the beginning of my extension, looking back at our time in the country and marveling at how far we'd come. she said that the peace corps experience was like a bizarre blind date where you're thrown in with a bunch of strangers, only to fall in love with them. that's the best description i've heard of all of this so far.

i'm not sure if this got any coverage in the states, but the president of zambia, levy mwanawasa, had a serious stroke at an a.u. summit in egypt at the end of july; reuters and the bbc reported that he had died, and the president of south africa even issued a condolence statement. as it turns out the reports were premature as he did not die for about another month; on news of his death a mourning period of 3 weeks was declared that just ended last week. zambia has only had three presidents since independence, so this was an unprecedented situation and there was some concern about how the country would deal with it. however, everything remained calm and the government continued to function, and elections have been announced for october 30th. as sad as it was for the people of zambia to lose a president who by all accounts was a fairly decent head of state, it was at least encouraging that there was no violence and the succession of the vice president to acting president was smooth and orderly; too often in africa and elsewhere these types of situation devolve into a crisis.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Water, Water Everywhere

well, very sorry it's been so long since i've written, i don't have a very good excuse for my apathy other than that i feel like there's not too much going on that's worth writing about. i work in an office all day now in front of a computer, and most of the time feel very little like a zambian peace corps volunteer, seeing as the essence of that experience is getting dirty and smelly for weeks on end in the bush, emerging to eat enough dairy to get sick, and then heading back to the village. however, lusaka is proving to be a lot of fun of the more conventional variety; there is a large community of western aid workers, embassy staff, etc., who live here and manage to keep themselves entertained--braiis (cookouts), ultimate frisbee, the hash (a group of people who get together and run pre-laid out courses that are deliberately confusing so most people get lost--all for the sheer pleasure of it...weird, i know) and other activities along those lines. the beauty of it is that, specifically with americans, there is an instant bond and the feeling of kinship that comes with being countrymen in a different country--that feeling is so strong that many of them are even willing to cart peace corps volunteers around in their vehicles and overlook the fact that we're the american equivalent of poor relations with bad table manners.

my new job is in the public health sector, a field i knew next to nothing about before starting this job, so i've been learning a lot. the program has a heavy emphasis on anti-retroviral therapy and antenatal care; as i've spent most of my life being largely grossed out by the idea of childbirth, i've had to spend a lot of time with a dictionary figuring out what all the terms associated with antenatal care mean...however, discovering, for instance, what 'meconium' is has not helped me in the grow-up-about-childbirth category at all. since smartcare (the name of the project i'm with) concerns electronic medical records, many of the people i work with are software/computer guys--there's actually only one other person in the office without a computer background, so i spend a lot of time exchanging eye rolls from across the room with her. pretty much the only way to confuse me more than i am when dealing with antenatal terms is to use some software programming lingo around me. on the rare occasion when i haven't successfully avoided a software-related task, i find myself during the briefing meetings trying to take my cue from people who know what's going on: i'll watch them out of the corner of my eye, and if they nod in agreement to something that's been said i'll nod as well in what i hope is a sage manner, and throw in a concurring grunt if their nodding seems to be particularly committed. the irony is, of course, that i used similar methods in the village when i was confused, so it's a technique i've perfected.

over easter i went down with a group of pcvs to livingstone in southern province, to see victoria falls. this was my third time down there so i'd seen the falls before but had never done a proper tour of them, and decided to do it this time. the night before i went a girl who had gone earlier told me she spent the entire time they were at the face of the falls simply shouting "it's intoxicating!" well, that actually proved to be a pretty good description of the experience. in tonga, the language of the tribe in that area on the zambian side of the zambezi river, the falls are called mosi-oa-tunya, "the smoke that thunders." david livingstone reportedly said upon first seeing them "...scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight;" i wasn't able to muster anything quite that poetic, although i took a stab at it with "holy crap, they're massive." and i was right, they are massive, about a mile wide and 360 feet tall, the water plume it sends up can sometimes be seen 30 miles away, and during peak flow times about 105,000 cubic feet per second of water plummet over the falls. obviously, though, numbers don't begin to capture the size and power of victoria falls that you experience when you're close up against them.

the falls stretch in a gently curving fashion all the way across the zambezi river, the far side being lost in the mist. livingstone island, a small patch of tangled, heavy vegetation perched on top of craggy sheets of bare rock sits directly in front of the falls, only about 200 feet away, and offers an unparalleled view and the opportunity to get completely drenched. there is a small clearing where crowds of people congregate before heading down the trail that takes you over the bridge and onto the island; here, people who have just returned from walking the trails are wringing out their clothing and checking to see if their cameras survived the trip, while tourists preparing to head down the trails are donning rainjackets and wrapping their electronic gear in plastic. my group stopped here briefly so we could make similar preparations; i opted for a stylish red sox poncho (some of my more low-brow companions claimed to be embarrassed by it; normally that type of mis-guided remark would upset me, but this time i simply reponded with the observation that they're stupid).

as you start down the trail the rock path starts to become slick with moisture, and soon the overhanging branches are shedding heavy drops of water on you. there is a steady roar and you can glimpse through the trees a mountain of churning water, and then you step out from the relative protection of the woods and into one of the bare overlooks jutting out over the edge of the gorge. chunks of greenish-white water tumble slowly over the lip of the falls and disappear into the fog below, and a perpetual haze of mist comes streaming back up with force, as if fired from a water cannon. the slick black face of the cliff off to your right has swathes of soggy moss clinging to it, made into tenuous islands by the streams of water gushing down the surface of the rock. the trees toss and sway in the wind churned up by crashing water, the same wind that is sending sheets of fog swirling around you and driving heavy rain onto your head and shoulders, all in the midst of a bitingly sunny day. you turn and look at your friends; the closest ones have an exhilarated look on their faces that are flushed red from being pelted by water and wind, their eyes are squinting against the onslaught and their soaked hair is plastered down on their heads. farther away your friends are fuzzy smudges in the mist until they get closer and their bodies begin to take on definition, the same silly grin creasing their faces that you know is plastered on your own.

then you step onto the cable bridge that leads to livingstone island; it hangs there over a gorge, in front of the face of the falls, streams of water flowing down it ankle-deep in places; pot-bellied indian men with their shirts off are dancing and laughing in the driving fog, kicking and splashing in the pooled water like children after a rainstorm. you lean over the edge of the bridge with a hand raised to protect your eyes that are being pelted so insistently with water; a slightly dizzy feeling grips you as you confront a wall of angry water whose dimensions can't be discerned as they're cut off by the mist, a wall barreling its way down into the gorge. your disorientation is increased by the confusion of competing gusts of wind striking you from below, behind, above, and in front, and you're completely overwhelmed with the giddiness of being in the grip of an unimaginably powerful force. it is, in a word, intoxicating.

so, victoria falls is beautiful, though the experience is much more than simply viewing them, the sensations you experience in the mist and the rain and the wind are equally important. it's the only natural wonder of the world i've seen, and it was all i think a wonder of the world should be. as always, you'd be much better off seeing it for yourself rather than taking my word for it. i hope you are all well. best, josh