Wednesday, June 6, 2007


I was actually able to motivate myself and write two posts within the space of a couple of days, first time that's happened I'm pretty sure.

So, a couple of random village stories. These are both taken from my journal for which I apologize, but I promise I will not subject you to 'journal-ly' talk (example: I was watching the sunset today and started thinking about death, and how someday I'll shuffle off this mortal coil...nobody wants to hear that junk, which is why you put it in a journal. Back to the story).

Right now I'm sitting in my chair watching a ragtag band of iwes (children) furiously sweeping my yard, they're setting to with such vigor they've kicked up a small dust storm. This is high comedy marked by collisions, loud cries of "iwe!" (you) and lots of sweeping to cross-purpose as one child will brush the leaves and twigs in one direction only to have another sweep it back into the area just cleared. So, essentially, the yard has been divided into 8 mini-kingdoms, each cleared by sweeping the refuse into the neighboring area.

This all started when I promised the kids clustered around me that I'd give them each a sweetie if they swept my cluttered yard free of the detritus that had collected in my absence (it collects even when I'm here although not as quickly as I'll occasionally kick a bit of it away on my way out of my yard). There was a brief pause as they processed my heavily-accented bemba, sifted through my outrageous sentence structure, and parsed my misplaced inflections; then their faces lit up when the import of my words dawned on them, followed by a stampede out of the yard, bare feet thumping against the packed dirt, laughter and squeals of delight trailing behind them. Silence settled around me, and I imagined birds chirping, crickets singing and a soft breeze shushing through the trees. Then they returned, bursting into my yard wielding makeshift brooms of twigs (the conservationist in me wondered how many bushes' deaths I'd just commissioned because I'm too lazy to sweep my own yard) and began their mostly ineffective but ferocious sweeping. There was one kid standing in the middle of the yard beaming at me, clearly wanting to make sure that I noticed that he was working so he could be justly rewarded later. The problem was that he wasn't really sweeping, he was mostly flailing the ground with a few bedraggled twigs while he maintained his 100 watt, self-satisfied smile directed my way. He either thought I was unfamiliar with what constitutes sweeping (actually, a reasonable conclusion to draw, there is nothing in my village conduct that would have disabused him of that notion) or that I was more interested in form and a pleasant demeanor than actual results. I gave him a sweetie anyways because he made me laugh.

Early one morning joel and I helped one of my village friends, ba Kaunda, to harvest her groundnut (peanut) field. Ba Kaunda is one of the most respected women in the village and a banacimbusa, a teacher of tradition to younger women in the village concerning marriage, keeping house, etc...very important in the village setting. She looks the part as well as she is tall and big boned with high, prominent cheekbones; she is highly educated by Zambian standards and speaks very good English. She is easily my best female friend in the village, which is how I ended up helping her harvest her groundnut field. I was enjoying the time, it was early so the day was still cool and the village mostly quiet. I could look across the river at the dambo (low-lying, swampy area with high elephant grass) and admire the brassy rays of the early morning sun slanting towards us. The work was easy, there were 2 iwes hoeing the plants out of the ridges and piling them together. We would come along after and pick the shells from the plants and deposit them in a large mealie meal sack. Ba Kaunda was plying Joel and I with questions about life in America which we'd do our best to answer, asking in turn about Zambian life for comparison purposes. We covered a lot of ground: wealth, sexual norms, food, grieving, at times laughing at the strangeness of the other culture's traditions or marveling at just how similar we could be. There was a brief pause in the conversation and we worked on in companionable silence until ba Kaunda asked another question: "did you know that while you were gone my daughter died?"

No, I hadn't known. Her oldest daughter had died in Chimpempe while away at school and had been buried there, the body unable to be returned to Muyembe. Ba Kaunda explained that it had been a stomach problem of some sort, nobody seemed to really know but it had killed her daughter quickly. As she was explaining this to me the slightest tremor ran through her voice and she bent quickly over a pile of groundnuts. I stared down at my feet, embarrassed to witness this dignified woman's pain and understanding how awkward and inadequate I was. She shakily finished her story, the hurt almost palpable in the air. I offered my condolences, fully aware that the words I voiced were part of the American grieving ritual where certain stock phrases are expected and used, but which are probably mostly meaningless over here.

I'm hesitant to tell stories like that, which is why my posts are usually filled with only funny (well, attempted funny at least) or innocuous tales. The sad stories happen in a certain context that is usually too difficult to describe in a post. I don't want people to only believe that all is death and despair over here, as nothing could be further from the truth. Yet it is true that tragedy seems to lurk nearer the surface in zambia, and strikes frequently. Mostly, I told this story to someone on the phone who asked me to write it down, so I did. Hope you all are well.

Sunday, June 3, 2007


i am currently down in lusaka, we've just had TOT (training of trainers, part of peace corps' ongoing love affair with acronyms) which is basically a logistics meeting for all the trainers who will be helping with the new intake of volunteers due in june. i'll be helping to train the life group for the last 3 weeks of training, should be fun. this also is a reminder that i now have been in zambia for a full year, seems incredible.

my friend joel has left, back to the land of milk and honey. we had a great time while he was here, the presence of not one but two muzungus in muyembe really thrilled the children--they got some quality white man watching in. joel and i started playing frisbee on the soccer pitch when we didn't have much else to do, giving us an opportunity to showcase our 2 inch vertical leaps, mediocre running ability and lead hands. the first time we played i looked up after the first few tosses to see knots of children literally sprinting towards us to get a look at what we were doing. every frisbee game after that we'd be surrounded by kids which made it difficult to chase down errant tosses--a problem since 90% of our throws could be categorized as such. once we grew tired, though, it was nice to have them around as they would scamper after particularly bad throws as well as the occasional hat hurled in frustration. plus, the game was so foreign to them they probably didn't realize you aren't supposed to allow the frisbee to bounce of your hand/knee/face or launch it 20 feet over your partner's head.

last week the life/rap programs in luapula held a week-long workshop for village counterparts on a variety of subjects. it was a good time and beneficial i think, there were several interesting discussions about gender. it is funny to hear zambians air certain opinions on the topic, mostly because we westerners have been trained to be so highly sensitive about the subject; zambians, however, will blithely bust out with a sexist comment. as the only american male at the workshop it was sometimes up to me to try to counter some of those opinions since the american girls probably didn't have as much credibility in zambian eyes. one counterpart in all seriousness opined that good nutrition lessens divorce since "women aren't so difficult, if they're well-fed they will be happy." knowing i should say something, i broke in and offered that that was probably only true if there was chocolate involved. somehow, the girls later forgot to thank me for defending them.

we always try to incorporate hiv/aids discussions into every workshop we have, simply because all other development work we try to do is pointless if zambia doesn't start halting the epidemic that is absolutely crippling the country. so, hiv/aids education is critical and serious, but there are moments when it is difficult to maintain the somber face the topic deserves; i usually find myself wondering what the appropriate facial expression should be when watching a zambian counterpart struggle to demonstrate the proper condom application method using whatever model we have had to press into service (a bike pump once, usually bananas or cucumbers--a pcv once used a bottle of beer in a bar. he told me later that he was feeling pretty good about his extension technique until he tried to fill a condom with a liter of water to prove his boast about how strong condoms are. the condom broke, spilling water all over the floor and leaving him to try and convince a skeptical crowd that he'd been using one that had expired).

we recently had our province-wide meetings; me, shawn, richard, maneesh, and parker all decided to kill and roast a pig as we'd done during manfest '06. we spent a lot of time bragging about how this pig would be the best pork anyone had ever had, since we'd done so well at shawn's the one time we'd tried it (we now understand that that particular success was what is commonly referred to as "blind luck"). i killed the pig and we then convinced the guard to clean it, who finished the job about 3 times as quickly as we could have. we stuck it in the ground and continued raising expectations of magnificent pork among the other pcv's. about 14 hours later, with an expectant crowd gathered around, we pulled the pig out. silence...and then richard turning to erin and discreetly inquiring if she could run to the store and get 5 extra bottles of barbecue sauce. the pig was nowhere near cooked, a serious blow to the assembled male egos. several rash promises were made (mostly be me and shawn) to eat the thing anyway to prove all the complaining crybabies wrong but cooler heads prevailed and we ended up butchering the thing and roasting it like crazy. the pork turned out ok but what little faith the girls had in our culinary abilities was forever destroyed.