Thursday, February 19, 2009

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...'

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