Saturday, October 17, 2009


I realize it’s been months since I’ve written; several of you reminded me of that when I was back home recently. I would attribute my silence to writer’s block if I were an actual writer, but perhaps it’s just a case of sheer laziness; in any event, in an attempt to make up for it I have written my longest post ever, in hopes it will compensate for three or four posts.
I’m currently in Dadaab, which is in the Northeastern part of Kenya, for the second time. It's a semi-arid area, from the air once can see that it's flat with red earth; the only vegetation is clumps of thick, bushy shrubs armed with some truly vicious looking thorns. The weather, as usual, is extremely hot (the “wrath of Dadaab,” one Caseworker calls it) though it’s not even hot season yet; my hair has started to get long again, so in the middle of the day with the sun beating down it feels like someone wrapped my head in a wool blanket, and then set the blanket on fire.
Dadaab is the largest UNHCR operation in the world, as it encompasses the three refugee camps of Hagedera, Dagahaley, and Ifo (Dagahaley means "rocks" and Ifo means "dust" in Somali, some of the most apt names I've ever encountered). All told there are about 300,000 refugees, mostly Somali, living in the camps; it’s estimated that about 6,000 more a month are arriving from Somalia as the fighting has intensified in the south, with no end in sight. Unfortunately, we are not allowed to visit any of the camps as the security situation has been deemed too unstable, but I'm hoping that the next time I come up here things will be better and we'll be able to leave the compound we are staying in.
The UNHCR compound that has been built up here is strange, to say the least. Smack dab in the middle of a part of the country that is mostly barren and populated with refugees is a chain-linked, razor-wired compound that has small houses, sandy paths lit with ground lamps and delineated with white bricks stuck into the earth, a tennis and basketball court, several restaurants and bars, scores of new Land Cruisers and heavy trucks, and air-conditioning in all of the accommodation rooms. It seems entirely out of place, as I guess it is, though no doubt the long-term workers who are stationed up there are extremely grateful for every one of the amenities. The compound houses about 155 UNHCR workers doing 2-year stints, and any number of other workers from different organizations, all of whom would probably gladly maim you for a cheeseburger. We are restricted to the compound, so whatever entertainment there is to be had has to be found inside--lots of book-reading, movie-watching, and long email-writing.
On this trip I am serving in a different capacity as the first time I stayed up here. I am now the Field Team Leader (FTL), which means I essentially handle a lot of the logistics for the trip, provide guidance to the rest of the team on JVA policy, and liaise with implementing partners, among other things. The new position is a challenge but I’ve enjoyed it so far--there are (brief) times when I miss interviewing, however, as there are the occasional humorous or interesting moments that can occur in interviews. For instance, I was once interviewing an Eritrean refugee in Shire up in northern Ethiopia. We always ask about any medical problems the refugee might have, and this particular man reported that he had a “hemmorhage.” I glanced up quickly from the form I was filling in as this was obviously a very serious problem, although the refugee didn’t show any immediate signs of being about to keel over. I asked where the hemmorhage was, exactly, both so I could accurately fill in the form and also provide precise information for any doctor we might need to bring rushing in to save the man’s life. My interpreter paused long enough to give me a slightly surprised glance but began interpreting nonetheless, while in my mind I cycled confusedly through the possible physical areas in which the refugee could be experiencing such a serious medical event and not be dead. My confusion only began to grow as the man’s explanation seemed to last much longer than what was necessary for simply naming a body region--further, the reply was becoming animated and, to my deepening concern, quite graphic as he began pointing to his crotch area. Things were bordering on the obscene as he lifted himself slightly out of the chair and began grabbing at his groin and butt area before a light went on in my head: not “hemmorhage,” but “hemmorhoid.” I threw my hands up and cut off what was threatening to become a strip-show: “I got it, thanks, let’s move on.”
Dadaab is known among the field team for a number of things, but it’s most notorious for being home to a lot of scorpions and snakes--a field team member was once evacuated from here after getting bitten by an unknown creature. When we walk around at night, then, we’re often scanning the ground for any suspicious activity, nerves at a slightly elevated level. Twice already on this trip I have stopped dead in my tracks, heart jumping about in my chest, and stood for a few moments with eyes bulging at what turned out to be a curved stick lying on the path. Similarly, a friend of mine once launched herself several yards down the path we were walking on after a tree flower, blown by the wind, tumbled across her feet.
So it was in this context that several days ago I was walking alone at night to the cafeteria when I felt something clamp onto the back of my ankle, right around my Achilles Tendon. I unleashed a hybrid goose step/karate kick straight out in front of me and then shook my suspended foot in the air while taking a few small crow hops on my planted leg, all while resisting the urge to send aloft a warbling cry of panic. In retrospect, this entire sequence was one of the finer athletic achievements of my life, as not only did I not collapse in a heap in the sand during these frantic gyrations, but I felt whatever it was on my ankle shake off. I spun about, already determined that anything more hostile than a snail was going to send me careening through the darkness, only to be confronted by a thorny branch lying there benignly. After a few deep breaths and taking a moment to collect my scattered nerves, I continued on towards supper.
Our worksite is the small International Organization for Migration (IOM) compound within the larger UNHCR compound. The worksite is laid out in a rough square of cinder blocked buildings topped with tin roofs; the middle of the square is a bare, sandy area for vehicles and such. Unfortunately, our offices are in two buildings on opposite sides of the square, so in order to get to the other side one has to slog across about 40 yards of sand in the burning heat, a stretch that has unaffectionately been nicknamed “the desert.” Now, normally I incline more to the “lead-by-example” school of managing, but when the desert is involved I like to take the opportunity to empower my team members to build their personal capacity through increased responsibility--in other words, I delegate, as in “Stop your whining and get across the desert to ask Fundi where those paperclips are. And bring me back a Coke as well.” Normally these trips across the desert end with the trekker standing in my office in front of the a.c. unit that is going full blast and mumbling things like “come on, give it to me” while I yell at them to stop blocking the air flow to my desk.
Every evening an IOM bus takes the refugees back to the camps after we’ve finished interviewing them (a brief aside: like most organizations, JVA has its own unique lexicon that is primarily acronyms, with a few, mostly irreverent, abbreviations and nick-names thrown in as well. So, for instance, refugees are often referred to as “fugees,” interpreters as “‘terps,” and Somali women wearing the hijab with an additional veil across their face so only their eyes are visible as “ninjas.” But back to my story) The IOM bus driver is a cheerful old Somali guy with a longish, silver goatee, the tip of which has been dyed orange with henna, and which immediately became something I aspire to have one day. Mohamed, as he is named, is friendly and gregarious and strolls about the compound while waiting for the refugees to finish and chats up any JVA staff members he comes across. The very first time I met him his face lit into a friendly smile and he gave me a big wave and called to me “Yes, my brother Ibrahim, how are you?” I had to wonder if perhaps Mohamed might be bordering on senility after this greeting as he called to me as if he knew me, as if I really were his brother Ibrahim. When I ventured that my name was actually not Ibrahim but something else entirely he gave a dismissive wave of his hand as if this were mere foolishness on my part. “Ibrahim, inshallah, this time next year you will be a Muslim, and will be called ‘Ibrahim’.” It hasn’t been uncommon, then, for the rest of the trip to hear Mohamed bellowing a greeting to “Ibrahim,” a white boy from Maine, whenever I emerge from my office into the desert.
As is to be expected, I guess, we have a lot of IT problems on these trips. We’re all linked via wireless access points to the server laptop we carry with us and to the printers; when the link goes down, something that can happen for any one of approximately a billion reasons, work grinds to a halt. The FTL’s (me, in this case) number one priority is then to fix the problem at any cost so everyone can get working again. Since I am almost entirely IT illiterate these episodes are really trying and involve a lot of frantic phone calls to our Nairobi IT people, or me speed-walking across the desert to plead with the IOM IT guy to come take a look. It seems we have gotten most of the IT problems on this trip straightened out after having laptops, a replacement printer and wireless access point and cables sent up from Nairobi, though the replacement printer regularly emits an ominous grinding noise and will periodically simply stop printing. This is our last option for a printer, so it going down will be catastrophic for the circuit ride, so much so that every time the grinding noise starts my blood pressure jumps 15 notches. I’ve forbidden people from saying words like “uh oh” within a five foot radius of the printer, or even grimacing when they’re around it. I now have an entire routine I go through with the machine to get it running again, which consists of dismantling as much of it as I know I can put back together (which keeps the operation fairly limited), lots of sweating, heavy breathing and mumbled comments like “Come on, you piece of garbage; wait, I didn’t mean that.”
The last time I was in Dadaab I was doing interviews the whole time, and one in particular sticks out. It was a middle-aged Somali lady with three or four teenaged children; she was dressed in a slightly worn hijab and had a tired face that was just starting to show the beginnings of wrinkles. At the beginning of the interview she anxiously asked if she could talk to me without the children around; she then told me that one of them, a boy, wasn’t actually her child but he didn’t know that as she had kept it from him. These secret foster relationships aren’t all that uncommon among Somali refugees as it is exceedingly shameful to be an orphan or a bastard in Somali culture--I once had the foster father of a teenage girl tell me that he had never disclosed that she wasn’t his biological child as he was concerned she would become distraught to the point of suicide, thinking that she was a bastard or an orphan. So, oftentimes to protect the children from societal scorn parents will pretend foster children are their own, and will never tell the children.
The woman told me that she had decided to tell her son that he wasn’t her biological child as he was now old enough to know. Then, during the interview, she told me the story of how she had come to raise him. She was from Kismayo, a port town in the southern part of Somalia that has been wracked with fighting for going on 20 years now. A particularly vicious round broke out while the woman still lived there as two clans fired artillery shells and RPGs at each other from opposite sides of the town; after the shelling, the militias moved in. The woman, shattered from a vicious assault, fled with her three small children, having to leave her husband and several other family members dead and unburied behind her in their destroyed home. They joined a terrified mass of people streaming away from the burning city as the fighting raged behind them, and then, on the edge of town, she came across a little boy just old enough to walk. He was alone with no relatives in sight, and none of the other people fleeing knew the boy or where he came from. The woman grabbed him and continued her flight, now with four young children and without money, food, a family or husband or even a country, across Somalia and into Kenya, finally arriving in Dadaab. Seventeen years later she told her son about where he came from.
I sat stunned while I listened to the story. Unfortunately, I’ve heard far worse as far as violence and suffering are concerned, but the idea that she could spare a thought for an abandoned child just shortly after her world had collapsed around her was staggering. I stared at her for a moment; she looked ordinary, weary, not heroic or superhuman at all, yet she had performed one of the greatest feats of unequivocal heroism I had ever personally heard of.

I hope you are all well.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Nairobi and Plane Fires

Hello All,

The below is an email I wrote about three weeks ago but have only now gotten around to sending.

I am sitting in my hotel in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, writing this at the moment, myself and two other people from JVA flew in this morning from Nairobi.  We’re on our way to Shire (pronounced sheer-ay), a town in northern Ethiopia near Shimelba refugee camp, we should arrive there tomorrow after a short flight from Addis.

So, obviously I’ve been thrown right into the mix here as I was only in Nairobi for about a week and a half before this trip.  I will be in Shire for three weeks before I go back to Kenya for a little while before heading out again.  This is generally how the schedule goes for caseworkers, on average we spend close to three weeks out of each month traveling—hectic, but also a great opportunity to see a lot of interesting places.

I hope to write a little bit about Shimelba, which will be my first camp experience with JVA when I return, so in this email I’m going to make some random observations about Nairobi.  It’s a huge city, much larger than Lusaka and better developed, but also much louder, crowded, and dirtier.  The hurrying crowds and mobs of vehicles piloted by drivers I suspect to be slightly deranged gives the city an exciting, bustling feel to it—apparently the roads were not designed to handle the amount of traffic they now carry as there is almost a perpetual traffic jam throughout the city.  My very first experience with this utter chaos that is driving in Nairobi came on my trip back from the airport.  A friend had arranged for a taxi driver named George to pick me up.  I walked out of the terminal to see a smiling Kenyan holding a sign with my name on it; I was a little strung out from more than 30 hours of traveling from the U.S. but was relieved to see him.  He is a friendly, talkative guide who hustled my bags into the cab, hopped behind the wheel and gunned us out into traffic.

It only took me a few minutes to realize that this indeed was a far different place than Lusaka.  Traffic isn’t all that bad and is fairly orderly there, but after only a few kilometers of driving in Nairobi I had already made the decision to pull my elbow that had been hanging out of the car back inside to keep it from getting clipped.  There were no lines in the road, which meant it at times fluctuated from two to three lanes and then back again, depending on how many vehicles could possibly squeeze into the available space.  It is a motley collection of automobiles ranging in size from large 18-wheelers (called lorries here--as a former British colony Kenya insists on using improper English) to small motorcycles, all blaring their horns and trying to cut one another off at every opportunity.  There is a constant game of chicken being played out on the roads, with the driver with the most nerve usually winning a desired spot and a tongue-lashing from whichever other driver he had to almost run over to get there.  I commented on the seeming anarchy of the situation to George who had been rattling on about Kenya and Nairobi, pointing out interesting features along the road, glancing over at me to see if I was properly engrossed, all while steering us through the swirls and eddies of the traffic while I stared resolutely ahead refusing to make eye contact with George, hoping thereby to encourage him to concentrate fully on the tangle of cars all around us.  George nodded vigorously in agreement at my observation, and flapped his hand unconcernedly at the mess currently in front of us: “Like right now, I don’t even know where the lane is,” and then launched happily into another explication on the state of tribal relations in Kenya while I eyeballed a matatu (minibus) and lorry that were both converging on the spot we currently occupied.

Yet George is a bit of a magician as he managed to get us to our destination alive, which is all I was asking for at that point, while also providing a brief tutorial on Kenyan history and politics.  That was my introduction to Nairobi traffic and my awe of it has only increased since then, especially as I’ve since been a pedestrian trying to navigate a road crossing.  There doesn’t appear to be any standard procedure for pedestrians in the city; they don’t have the right of way, but I’m assuming it’s illegal to run them over as well.  Usually what happens is a large group of walkers will gather on the edge of the road that needs to be crossed.  Finally, at the slightest hint of a break in traffic, one intrepid soul will plunge into the gap followed hurriedly by the rest; my theory so far is that the larger the group, the less willing a driver will be to hit them all as it will mean more damage to his vehicle.  Hence, in these situations I try to get on the edge of the group furthest away from oncoming traffic in order to provide as much of a human buffer between me and the vehicles as possible.

I was delighted to find that Nairobi has a lot of second clothing markets, like in Zambia.  There are always gems to be found in these places as it is all cast-offs from the West; what makes it particularly interesting is that oftentimes the clothing will be quite old, from the 80’s and early 90’s, which means one can easily find a t-shirt with a slogan from those eras (I saw a t-shirt in Zambia that said “You’re beautiful…NOT”).  On my first full day here I and some friends went to one of these markets, stall after stall stuffed with old clothing.  The hawkers here are slightly more advanced in their attempt to cheat you than in Zambia; most of them have removed the size tags from the trousers, so when you tell them your size they randomly pick out a pair of trousers and declare them to be the right ones.  In order to prove it, they will produce a plastic measuring tape and run it around the waist and down the inseam to prove their point.  What is delightful about this entire process is that if the pants are indeed too long, they will position the tape right at the crotch and show you so you’re assured they are starting in the right place, then distract you with their other hand that is bringing the tape down the pant leg while sliding the tape back a few inches up at the crotch.  So, when the tape reaches the cuff, they will have slid the tape on the other end far enough back that it shows the measurement you told them earlier.  The merchant will then declare “exact,” while random other hawkers who have gathered around to watch the muzungu get fleeced will nod solemnly and, in chorus, declare “exact.”  The merchants are slick enough about the bogus measuring that it took me a few seconds to figure out exactly what they were doing; if I didn’t have a preconceived opinion of merchants at these markets as hybrid con artists and entertainers, I probably wouldn’t have caught the fudging at all.  Fortunately I did though, otherwise my feelings would have been hurt when one hawker told me I had a 38 inch waist and then “proved” it—he was able to chop off about 6 inches with some fraudulent measuring of the shorts’ waistband, then by measuring over the shorts and shirt I was wearing managed to add several inches to my waist despite me sucking it in.  I could only laugh at the sheer brazenness of the display, and left with my self-esteem intact.

At another stall, as per my normal bargaining routine, I pointed out various flaws I found in the clothes I was interested in purchasing.  The particular gentleman I was dealing with at the time, named Boniface, would immediately dismiss my criticisms and declare that the item’s brand was “nice.”  I pressed him about a stain on a particular set of trousers hard enough that he obviously felt the brush-off couldn’t work any longer, and so turned the trousers inside out and declared that the stain was “on the outside, not inside.”  Unsure why this was supposed to reassure me I then made the observation that I would only be comforted by that knowledge if I planned on wearing the trousers inside-out.  He stared at me for a second and I could see the wheels turning as he cycled through his list of selling tactics.  Finally, he grasped the trousers by the waist, flipped the brand name up for me to see, and declared “Dockers, they are nice.  Nice brand.”  Well, touché, no way to argue with that, so I slapped him on the back and forked over the money.

I have had a lot of people asking me about the plane fire I mentioned on Facebook; it happened when we were trying to make it to Shire, the day after I wrote the above email.  We had flown on a small, two-engine prop plane from Addis Ababa to Mekelle and landed there to allow some passengers to get off.  I was mostly asleep when the plane started down the runway to take off, but still felt it abruptly start slowing down after it had gotten up to take-off speed.  I thought this was strange but couldn't give it much thought in my sleep-addled state until I was hit in the head by a guy grabbing the back of my chair to jump up.  I opened my eyes to see people sprinting down the aisle towards the front of the plane; I then turned around and saw smoke filling the cabin.  Meanwhile a jam of people pushing forward was developing at the front of the plane; a man jumped into the aisle, spread his arms and yelled "Selam, selam" ("peace," in Amharic).  The crowd of people seemed to ease back slightly at the man's commanding tone until a stewardess appeared yelling "Go, go" and flapping her arms wildly towards the exit.  That was the end of Selam-ing and the mad rush began anew with increased fervor.  I decided I should join at this point and moved down the aisle picking up the various baby accessories the woman in front of me with a child was scattering about in her haste to get off.  I finally made it onto the runway and glanced down the length of it to see it a single firetruck with an anemic flashing red light trundling its way towards us, rather pathetically I thought.

I have mentioned more than once in these emails from Africa that I have moments of perspective when I can fully see the absurdity of my situation at the moment--this was one of those times.  I was standing in the bright sunlight of northern Ethiopia with a small plane on fire behind me, surrounded by crowds of Ethiopians chattering excitedly in Amharic and Tigrinya, children wailing, the field next to the runway swarming with Ethiopian soldiers sprinting towards us while I stood dazedly holding a baby-blue bootie and pacifier.  When I was younger and trying to picture what I would be doing at the ripe old age of 27, when I would be operating in that mysterious, hazy but momentous sphere of adulthood, this was not what I envisioned, not even close.  I lacked the imagination for it and could as little picture the details of life in Africa as I could Mars; yet my young heart would have been thrilled though thoroughly perplexed to see me standing on that runway.

After watching for 15 minutes small groups of men battle in vain with fire extinguishers and water to put out the fire we were put in a Land Cruiser and taken back to the airport, though not before I had memorized the plane's tail number in case they had any ideas of putting us back on the same contraption.  We waited for about five hours for another plane to be flown up from Addis; it was funny to board the new plane, the same type that had caught on fire, and see 95% of the passengers crammed into the front section with the back almost completely deserted.  We eventually hurtled down the runway and lurched into the sky while the gentleman behind me chanted prayers in Amharic.  Then we were out over the emptiness of northern Ethiopia; from the air it looks incredibly forbidding, all jagged rock and dustland gouged with ravines, sun-blasted and baked into hard edges, lonely roads twisting through on their way to small clusters of browned building with tin roofs flashing at you in the sunlight, little outposts seemingly huddled against the extremity of their surroundings.  It's hard to believe people can survive out there; I spent the entire short plane ride to Shire with my forehead pressed against the window marveling at the landscape and wondering about the people who live there, hopeful that I'll some day get to meet a few of them.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Home Again, Home Again

As most of you probably know, I am back home in Maine now. I ended up leaving Zambia fairly quickly as I was offered a job in Kenya that I decided to take, so in order to have as much time at home as possible I had to rush to finish up with the CDC and Peace Corps and then head to Maine. It was a whirlwind last couple of weeks, so much so that I still feel like I haven't had a chance to entirely process what my experience in Zambia meant to me and what leaving it has meant as well. Hopefully that will come later, though I don't have all that much time as I am leaving for Kenya on the 27th.

I have told some of you that I have seen that I am going to try to write out some stories from my time in the village before I head back to Africa. There were some things I wanted to write about but never managed to get to, so hopefully telling some people will keep me accountable. First though, I wanted to say a little bit about what I was thinking as I left Zambia.

I usually like telling stories to illustrate a point I'm trying to make, as it spares me the difficulty of coming up with an original thought, so I'll do the same here. More than a year ago I was sitting with ba Saya on a lazy, hot Saturday afternoon in the shade of the big Mango Tree in his yard, as was our custom, trying to elude the grip of the intense African heat. His wife, a bubbly, plump, brown-skinned woman, a pure Bemba from Kasama who called me "my son" and made me smile just to look at her, was sitting on the porch shelling Maize slowly into a wide and shallow woven reed basket. Collins was sitting on a short, roughly-carved wooden stool next to ba Simbaya and I who were perched precariously on dilapidated bamboo chairs. Shadrick, the youngest son of about 14, was wandering aimlessly about the yard while the only daughter, Chipo, assisted ba Saya's wife.

We talked occasionally but mostly we sat in companionable silence, which very much counts as doing something in the village. I had spent a lot of time at ba Saya's place but had never really taken the opportunity to examine his house thoroughly; as a government employee, he was one of the wealthiest people in the village and therefore had one of the nicest houses. It was a rectangular, concrete building that once had been painted blue around the base and white higher up, but now the faded paint was peeling off everywhere, leaving ragged, star-shaped patches of bare concrete speckling the walls. The slanted, corrugated tin roof was rusting, the piece of chitenge cloth hanging in one of the doorways was frayed and faded and billowing slowly in a light breeze. The other doors were manned by heavy, chipped and battered slabs of wood, one of which had cracked in the middle allowing the bottom part to swing independently of the top. Around the house, the yard was displaying an entirely typical Zambian village scene: chickens pecking and scraping at the hard-packed dirt of the yard, goats clomping impudently through on their way to make someone's life miserable, piles of shelled groundnuts drying on a reed mat on the ground, a brazier full of sparking charcoal burning to the side. Here, of course, were all the signs of what the West would consider poverty at first glance, but there was something else as well. I leaned back in my chair and looked again: the mother chatting quietly with the daughter who was languidly picking out twigs and small stones from the shelled Maize, the son strolling out of the yard to run an errand for his father, Collins sitting on his small stool to my left playing idly with a piece of bamboo, Saya to my right watching his wife and daughter in between his short spells of dozing off. It was then I felt a stab of an emotion I never expected to feel out in the village: jealousy.

By nearly every conceivable measure, I was far better off than this man who lived in a rusted, peeling paint concrete building in the middle of Africa; I was born and raised in the U.S., that mythical land where most people own cars and go to school and have more than two shirts and live in massive houses with electricity, running water, microwaves, televisions, toasters, DVD players, ovens, etc., etc., etc...even my living allowance of $250 a month put me on an economic level beyond him. And yet here I was envious of him, which seemingly made no sense; there were probably very few people in Zambia who wouldn't leap at the chance to have grown up with the privilege and wealth that I did. But that was the case, I was jealous and feeling the truth of the lessons we're all taught from a young age, about how unimportant material possessions are compared with the importance of home and family. Ba Saya was in a safe place where he well and truly belonged, something I hadn't felt since I had left the U.S. more than a year earlier, and wasn't to feel for another year. Home, and all that it means, was more than 6,000 miles and seeming worlds away from me.

The difficulty of being so far from home is doubtlessly what made the experience as special and meaningful as it was, yet there is also the constant, building pressure, the alienation, of being someone different. It's one of the reasons Volunteers form such strong friendships so quickly--being with another PCV means you're not different, there's someone else like you there and, together, you can face all the people who think you're strange, can joke and commiserate with one another when people laugh at your white skin or your hair or your clothing or your accent. Similarly, it's one of the reasons that PCVs, when they make it to the provincial houses after a stay in the bush, lay on the couches and watch hour after hour of movies, or devour four month old gossip mags, or want to simply sit with other Volunteers and listen to Americans talk--they want to reconnect to the culture where home is, where they feel smart and competent and normal.

So, finally, after two and a half years of feeling consistently out of place, of feeling different and strange no matter what I did to not be so, I am in place and not (as) different and strange. I am home, and don't need to feel jealous of ba Saya any longer.

Ba Saya

I hope this post finds you well and recovered from the holidays. My Christmas and New Years was a lot of fun as I rattled around in South Africa, Swaziland, and Mozambique throughout; I hope to eventually write about my travels there as Mozambique in particular is a beautiful and interesting spot, but I first wanted to write a little bit more about the people who made my time in my village so memorable.

One of my best friends in the village was a man named ba Saya, the agricultural officer for Muyembe and the surrounding areas. He is originally from Northern Province and is a Namwanga by tribe but married a Bemba, moved to Luapula and then eventually to Muyembe with his family. Because most of my work was agriculture-related we necessarily spent a lot of time together, and became fast friends (his son, Collins, who I’ll probably write about some time, was my best friend). Ba Saya is a few inches shorter than me with a receding hairline and a thin moustache struggling for survival on his upper lip; he has a slight gap between his front teeth and a slow smile that creases his face and deepens the wrinkles on his forehead and sets his eyes shining. It was an infectious smile, and I couldn't help but grin back in return every time. There was actually a lot about ba Saya that made me grin regularly; he was genuinely excited to learn, and often after I had explained something about, say, a new agriculture technique his face would light up and he'd let loose with a delighted 'ooooooookay,' shake his head admiringly and give a chuckle. Given that most of the answers I’d provide him with I had usually looked up a few minutes before in a reference book in my hut, he had far too high an opinion of my knowledge and abilities, and was personally insulted when other people didn't have the same ardor for listening to me ramble on as he did. He also took it upon himself to be my protector in the village, arguing with Zambians about prices they were charging me that he thought were too high, heading off drunks who were staggering their way over to talk to me, and once giving an assembled group of villagers a tongue lashing when they complained that Peace Corps never gave them free stuff. At the end of these interventions he would inevitably turn to me with an aggrieved shake of his head and declare, "These Africans..." before launching into a disquisition analyzing the shortcomings of Zambians in general and those specifically of whichever person we happened to be dealing with at the time. I would always assure him that I didn't take it personally, but he would remain unsatisfied at what he perceived to be the lack of respect for the infinite knowledge I was bringing.

I have a lot of great memories of time spent with ba Saya, but two stand out. The first involved his bike that he struggled to keep together the entire time I lived in Muyembe. He did a lot of cycling to other villages and would often walk back pushing the bicycle after a tire was punctured or the chain broke or a spoke snapped. He was sitting on my porch with me one evening smoking a cigarette; I had started giving him flavored pipe tobacco which he rolled into cigarettes and enjoyed immensely, and it had become a bit of a tradition. He'd had a particularly trying day of struggling with the bike and was bemoaning the fate of being cursed with such a contraption. So, I taught him the word 'cantankerous' to better describe the bike; after obtaining a faint approximation of the correct pronunciation, he was visibly more cheerful. Thereafter whenever he would refer to that bicycle he would always use cantankerous, as in "I was going to Milindu on that cantankerous bicycle," or "the tire on that cantankerous bicycle..." Frankly, it made my day whenever I heard it, although I wasn't aware of how fully he had grasped the nuances of the word until a few weeks later. We were biking back from Kawambwa and he was slightly tipsy after having drank some home-made beer in town and was asking whether I had any more pipe tobacco left, but I had run out recently. He asked if it was possible for me to get any more and I explained it was from the States and so would be difficult to get, especially since my parents didn't approve of smoking and so wouldn't be likely to send it. He urged me to try but I told him I was quite sure they wouldn't budge on the matter. He ruminated on this unpleasant news for a few moments as he wobbled his bike up a hill, then visibly perked up. He glanced over his shoulder as he teetered precariously on the bike, and made his final plea: 'No ba Joshua, you must tell them not to be cantankerous.'

My other favorite memory is when a Programme Against Malnutrition (PAM) project that involved giving away fertilizer came to the area. Naturally a village meeting was held and two PAM representatives explained the project and the proper application of fertilizer...for more than four hours as I went slowly cross-eyed. I would usually attend these meetings even if I wasn't directly involved, and was always placed at the front of the room as a sign of respect for my position. That was very nice and flattering but it also prevented me from falling asleep or pounding my head against a desk which is what I normally wanted to do at these things. I have never met someone who can beat a dead horse like a Zambian can; I think largely it's a result of a culture that didn't have reading and writing until less than 100 years ago and still relies heavily on oral tradition, and the boredom that is rampant in the village; sitting around and discussing something ad nauseam counts as entertainment. Yet as I sat glazed over at the front struggling to maintain my cultural sensitivity I couldn't help but think that Westerners would have finished this meeting in half an hour tops, including a coffee break. It was finally finished though and everyone trooped over to ba Saya's house to receive their fertilizer. I first went back to my hut to get my camera as I knew there would be the strong possibility of a bicycle being loaded to a point that defied belief, and I didn't want to miss a chance for a good photo. By the time I got to ba Saya's house the proverbial wheels had already started to come off; he was standing on his porch and I could tell he was getting excited as he tried to explain the process to the farmers, the same process that had just been discussed for four hours. They were grumbling about the amount of fertilizer and asking for more, while ba Saya tried to maintain his authority and an orderly process, the prospects for which were rapidly slipping away. As the grumbling got louder he in turn got louder and eventually hopped off the porch and into the middle of the group--I knew when he switched from speaking English to rapid-fire Bemba things were getting real. Soon he was shouting excitedly and flapping his arms about while kicking up a small dust storm as he pirouetted about to facilitate his haranguing of first one offending farmer and then another. There wasn't much I could do to help and any moral support I might have lent was badly compromised by my poorly-stifled laughter, so I snapped a picture and beat a hasty retreat. Looking at this picture still makes me laugh more than a year later: there's ba Saya, his shoulders hunched with the force of him chopping down with his hand to accentuate a point, a bedraggled list of recipient farmers clutched in his other hand that he is gesticulating with to further strengthen his case, surrounded by a milling crowd of clearly unimpressed farmers while a little dust lingers in the air.

A few hours after the whole affair I wandered back over to find him sitting in the shade of a Mango Tree; he was the picture of deep contemplation as he sat clad in a pair of shorts in a beat up bamboo chair with his chin sunk nearly to his bare chest. When he saw me approaching he heaved himself out of his chair with a world-weary sigh and shuffled over to greet me. Fighting back a smile at his spent demeanor, I asked him how things had gone; he gave a slow sad shake of his head and said, 'ba Joshua, you know, these Africans...'