Saturday, September 16, 2006


i'm in mansa for provincial meetings and i decided to bite the bullet and pay for some internet time at the local internet cafe so i could get out an update.

i've been at my site for a little over a month now, there are ups and downs but over all i would say that things are going well. i am somewhat busy--very busy actually when compared with what i am supposed to be doing for the first 3 months at my village. i am currently working with a woman's group that is interested in starting a small shop in muyembe, the proceeds of which would benefit the local OVC (orphans and vulnerable children). there are also plans in the works to help a few other women's groups with some income generating activities, such as soya bean production, sunflower seed oil production, and perhaps some small animal husbandry. i will also be traveling to the nearby refugee camp in the next couple of weeks to offer my assistance; the camp is called kala and is run by world vision and unhcr, it harbors those who have fled the long-running war in the democratic republic of congo. perhaps the project i am most excited about though is working with a missionary couple who are building an orphanage for double orphans in kazembe (children who have lost one parent are considered orphans in zambia; those who have lost both, double orphans). they want the orphanage to be self-sufficient, so i will be helping them plan a large garden, perhaps do some small animal husbandry, and probably plent of soya activities as well with them. there is a desperate need for orphanages, especially well-run ones, in zambia; most orphans are taken in by relatives or even a neighbor, but they constitute a large burden on families that are already struggling to feed their own children. plus, many babies are abandoned--the kazembe orphange will be trying to take in abandoned infants primarily.

life in a zambian village is strange, as you can imagine. i am a constant source of amazement and amusement for the many, many children running about muyembe; they will often come into my yard and simply stare at me as i sit reading on the front stoop. most of them have distended bellies that are a sign of malnutrition, runny noses and a hacking cough that is indicative of internal parasites. but, like children anywhere they run about playing, laughing and fighting, although there is no doubt that their lives are difficult.

i attended a funeral the first week at village, a blind old lady i did not know died. the bell at the catholic church was rung signalling the death, and people began to slowly make their ways towards the house. i went with two of the group of young guys that i hang around with, anjiou and patrick, and we sat with the men outside the house while the women went inside to mourn. there was an absolute din coming from inside, wailing, crying and screaming, and i was extremely grateful that men are not allowed inside during these occasions. the younger men, myself included, went to dig the grave after a half hour or so, which turned out to be brutal work. the ground was hard-packed clay that would be ripped up a couple of inches or so at a time with a hoe, then dug out with a shovel. fortunately there were about 20 men there who took turns spelling each other; being able to dig seemed to be a matter of pride and most of the men would become insistent that they get to take their turn. i even took a hand for about 5 minutes; i stood in the hole up to my chest, sweat pouring down, limbs burning, lungs gasping for air, launching soil up and out of the grave, all the while trying to adopt an air of nonchalance so all the zambians clustered around watching wouldn't think the muzungu was a wimp (which they do any way, they assume i am incapable of doing any physical labor for myself; if i attempt to do so when there is a zambian around, they will try to stop me so they can do it on my behalf.) when i heaved myself out of the hole a "well done" issued from a man i didn't know in the crowd, and i sensed that they appreciated the effort--i'll admit, i relished the small sense of accomplishment i experienced when i managed not to collapse in the bottom of the grave. all told, it took about 4 hours to dig the thing.

the funeral service in the evening was short; it was preceded by a procession that snaked through the village, led by the priest and altar boys and trailed by the mourners, many of whom were singing. afterwards all went back to the mourning house and sat about for a brief while to show their respect, after which they were free to leave.

in muyembe there are several other customs governing the conduct for a funeral--i'm not sure if these are bemba traditions or are exclusive to my village. before the bell can be rung signalling the death, the chief must be informed. the family will send a small gift, a chicken, some money, etc., and tell him what has happened. he will then not eat from that point on until the body is buried, which is why the burials happen within the day. the chief is then responsible to contribute something to the funeral, although i don't believe he attended as i did not see him there. after the burial, those who were very close to the deceased will spend the night once at the house; village members not as close but who want to pay their respects will go for about an hour to sit at the house every evening for a week. if there is a surviving spouse (and this is a bemba-wide tradition), that spouse must be released by the family of the deceased before he/she can remarry. the permission is granted in some sort of ceremony that varies slightly: a white substance (maize meal, chalk, etc.) will be sprinkled on the head of the survivor, or they will wear a bracelet of white beads until it breaks, at which time they are cleansed of the deceased's spirit and are free to remarry.

perhaps my favorite time in the village is church. i will hopefully in a later email have the chance to explain more about the service, but for now i will talk about part of the offering service. specific sections of the church every week are invited to participate more fully than the other parishioners when the offering is being taken. altar boys stand at the head of the single aisle running down the center of the church while the chosen section forms a double line with women at the front. they then do a slow dance-shuffle down the aisle, swaying to the singing and drumming, to deposit their money in the waiting baskets; the women are usually more animated than the men, although usually the men do well also, shuffling rhythmically along, dipping and twisting their torsos. sometimes there is a teenage boy bringing up the rear, suffering the burden of needing to appear cool, who will only indulge in a demure slouch down the aisle. the inescapable thought i have every time i watch is that it reminds me of a conga line, although more artistically executed. i did not participate the first time my section (st. anthony's) performed, but i am planning on shaking what my momma gave me down the aisle the next time. zambians are generally boisterous, upbeat types, and it could cause a sensation when they see the muzungu joining in, however poorly.