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 say...no 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.