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.

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