Friday, December 14, 2007

Jab, Iwe, Jab

I hope this email finds you well, I’m fine although a bit harried from trying to make all the last-second preparations for leaving my site. I’ll officially be leaving muyembe village on December 17, so just a few short days left. the following are a few odds and ends i've been meaning to mention in previous emails but never really got around to.

I keep waiting for the village to feel differently now that I’m about to leave, more dramatic some how, but it doesn’t. life continues on pretty much the same as always, with me bumbling my way through the village experience. I’ve told all my close friends that I’m leaving, their disappointment and sadness at hearing the news has been slightly gratifying but mostly painful. I’ve shared a lot of adventures, funny moments, mis-steps, and cultural understandings and misunderstandings with all of them. It is difficult to cultivate a friendship with most Zambians beyond a certain level because of any number of barriers—race, gender, culture, class, language, etc. but with some of my friends we were able to get beyond those, and the results were incredibly rewarding, allowing me a longer glimpse into Zambian life and the companionship of people with whom I could have an honest conversation about difficult topics.

One such friend is bana kaunda, the lady I wrote about some time back who lost her oldest daughter to a stomach ailment. Because of the barriers to friendship mentioned earlier, some people are hesitant to approach me to talk, ask if I wanted to join in an activity, etc., but that distance was never a problem with bana kaunda—she was always at ease with me and didn’t hesitate to ask if I wanted to be involved. She would wander over, for instance, and ask if I’d like to help her pound cassava (of course I said “no, that’s woman’s work,” but I appreciated the gesture nonetheless), or, just recently, if I’d like to observe a pre-marriage ceremony.

Realizing that this was a chance to add to my already impressive record of challenging Zambian gender stereotypes, I agreed. my status as a muzungu, my whiteness, and the fact that I was willing to take pictures of it all granted me exemption from the normal restrictions on male participation in this sort of thing, an informal ceremony intended to prepare a young girl for her impending marriage. The girl has to remain solemn at all times and immediately obey all instructions from the collection of banacimbusas—older, respected female teachers responsible for guiding the younger women of the village—who are conducting the proceedings. It was funny to watch these dignified women, quite drunk, squabbling about the details of the different rituals, dancing, laughing, and generally behaving as any group of friends the world over do when enjoying themselves. One old lady in particular was constantly hustling her stout body about, shouting orders at the girl, dancing, singing and laughing, her lined face lit with energy. At one point during her dancing she got a bit carried away and began hiking her chitenge above the knee-level threshold deemed acceptably modest in Zambian society. The other bamayos shrieked with laughter at her to stop, echoing the silent scream I’d emitted inside my own head. All in all it was a fascinating time and I was very fortunate to be allowed to watch—to my knowledge I’m the only male in peace corps zambia who’s observed this sort of thing (plenty of female pcv’s have).

I don’t think I’ve ever written about my charcoal-starting travails, mostly because it’s not that interesting and reflects badly on my ability to perform simple functions. Suffice to say there have been multiple occasions when it took me more than 2 hours to cook a meal, highlighted by me nearly hyperventilating after spending minutes blowing with all my strength on a single stubborn spark. However, I’ve persevered, refused to be beaten and finally conquered the problem: I bought a kerosene stove. It works pretty well although there are a few design flaws, most noticeably the one that enables it to try to kill me by emitting fireballs. The first time it happened I was cooking breakfast and received a glancing blow after I’d somehow convinced myself it was a good idea to bend over the burner to get a closer look. I was left looking singed but a good deal warier of kerosene stoves.

We’ve had a mini-drought that’s just broken, thankfully, in the last week and a half or so. Obviously, rain is hugely important for agricultural purposes but is also crucial for replenishing the nearby river that provides all the drinking, bathing, and washing water. The swimming hole I bathe in had gotten particularly disgusting, the last few times I was in there I couldn’t see my hands held at my waist below the surface—whenever I’d get water up my nose I could practically feel the schisto attacking my brain directly.

The higher water level also makes it easier for me to fetch all my water. I use an old 20 liter kerosene can that is really heavy when full. To fill it entirely when the river is low I have to clamber out on slippery rocks into the middle and then try to hop back on the same rocks while lugging this heavy, unwieldy can. I never attempt this when people are around to watch as the potential for humiliation, which despite my frequent interaction with I’ve never gotten entirely used to, is simply too great. If people are around I assume a pathetic, bewildered air (easy as it’s only incrementally removed from my normal village expression) and wait for someone to take pity on me and order their child to fill my jerry can.

Zambia has the women’s world featherweight boxing champ, esther phiri. She’s a national hero and her bouts attract huge television audiences inside of zambia. She recently fought and beat a u.s. contender, opening me up to some good-natured ribbing from the Zambians I was watching the fight with and with whom I’d been trying to talk smack. The concept of ‘talking trash’ hasn’t really taken hold here, and it soon lost its thrill after the third or fourth time I would make an outrageous claim, something like ‘I hope esther’s enjoying her last few moments of being able to walk,’ and all the Zambians in the room would pause and give the comment the type of thought usually reserved for an idea with actual merit. when the fight was over i left, the first time in my life i've received hugs and handshakes from fans cheering for a person i'd just spent an hour trying to insult.

I attended esther’s previous fight in Lusaka when she beat a Romanian challenger. The title bout was a big disappointment with the challenger hurting her arm halfway through the 2nd round and conceding, but the 3 or 4 preliminary fights were a lot of fun. There was a huge guy several rows from us dressed in a fatigue hat, tank top, cargo pants, and chunky boots. Throughout each fight he would shout ‘jab, jab, jab, jab’ incessantly and so earnestly I felt like he’d be mortally offended if the boxer didn’t heed his advice. In between rounds he would turn to his companions and regale them on the same theme, waving his arms about and bobbing his head forward with the force of his conviction: ‘the jab, it is important. Yes, very important.’ At one point he rushed shouting to ringside, apparently so the boxer in the corner could more fully grasp the nuances of his advice. The security guards posted there to prevent just such occurrences dallied conspicuously on their way to remove him, although they assiduously attacked any smaller troublemakers.

Apart from the delight I took in watching the proponent of jabbing, the fights themselves were interesting. I was struck at how boxers moved when they were in tight with their opponent—I could only compare it to how I’d seen a snake dance about with its body raised off the ground as if a wire were running the length of it. The fighters would move the same way, erect in the middle of a hail of blows, moving with a fluid but incredibly rapid smoothness that would necessitate jerky or abrupt movements in non-boxers. When the boxers would start to really slug it out the crowd noise would swell into a mob roar punctuated, of course, by the bellowing from a few rows over: ‘jab, jab, iwe, jab!’

i hope you're all well. have a merry christmas and a happy new year.