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...'