Letters From An Island Son, Far From Home
Letter Two: Training In Chipembi
Stefan Verbano grew up on Guemes Island, the son of Chris Damarjian and Larry Verbano. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Jornalism from the University of Oregon and is currently serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia, Africa.
His home base is a small rural village near Mansa, Zambia where he is working with the local population to establish rural aquaculture and agricultural sufficiency. Through his writings you get a sense of the joy and frustration at trying to make a difference. Stefan has agreed to share his letters with his home community.
Everything is broken but their spirits. Never in my life have I seen so many smiling faces amidst so much derelict debris. Zambians seem to be constantly playing a shell game with their infrastructure, pushing complex arrangements of western ingenuity like motorcars and water towers to their limits and, upon breaking, rearranging the parts into a lower level of technological strata.
When a rusting Toyota pickup truck finally emits its last wheezing gasps of life and rolls to a stop, locals make quick work out of its disassembly. Leaf springs are sawn off, tempered and become blades for “Chaka Hoes” – a farm tool resembling a caveman’s club with a shard of dull metal stuck into it. Tire rims become impromptu cook stoves. More than once while riding through Lusaka I spotted a group of ghetto-dwellers huddled around a smoking hub with a rusted grill perched atop. They were roasting corn cobs. Entire axles are taken as is and fixed to ox carts, while seats become lawn furniture. In a country where there is essentially no industrial capacity, these resourceful vultures spare nothing.
In the town of Chipembi – an hour north of Lusaka on what villagers manage to pass off as a two-lane road – a decrepit water tower stands high above the town’s tallest buildings. Every day as I ride along the rocky red-earth road on my way to Chipembi’s College of Agriculture for training, I pass by this particular landmark and bid “muli shani” to the half-dozen or so children laughing and frolicking under its steady leak.
I deduce that somewhere in the tower’s torn sheet metal belly there is a sump pump which flicks on every morning and fills the reservoir full, only to have the water slowly drain out again to the delight of the neighborhood kids. By the time I embark on the 7-mile return bike ride to the village of Mulungushi outside of Chipembi in the evening, the leak has stopped and the tower is presumably empty. When asked, a local tells me that the tower is not even in operation anymore, which I guess adds to the hilarious madness of it all. So, this forgotten water tower standing in a forgotten quarter of a dead-end town has come to represent a common thread that I have witnessed thus far in Africa: things fall apart.
And I guess what doesn’t fall apart instead just keeps working against itself due to neglect and ambivalence until either that well-designed water pump quits or the entire structure for that matter rusts to the point where the rivets give out and the tower comes crashing toward the earth, hopefully not burying a gaggle of children in the process.
But even if it does come full circle in a crumple of steel, those same crafty locals will undoubtedly once again come out of the woodwork to salvage and reconstruct every piece of that monolithic piling into other forms. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust I suppose. I am living in Mulungushi with Mr. and Mrs. Daka, a quiet, kind enough pair of 60-somethings who live in a small compound of mud brick “ing’angas” (thatched-roof huts). I need two hands to count their progeny and their toddler grandchildren come and go from day to day. I have not learned their names yet.
Mr. Daka is missing his top front row of teeth all the way to his canines, and when I come home at night and hug him he feels very frail. For the past few days he has been wrestling with violent coughing fits that show his age and the toll that village life takes on the body.
What worries me is that his convulsions are not the dry, throaty hacking that comes with the common cold or particulate irritants. He coughs in deep, wheezing spurts that leave him breathless, as if his rattling lungs were filled with gravel. I think he has pneumonia.
The roof of our kitchen building (called an “insaka”) is stained soot-black from two decades of open cook fires burning uncured wood. Perhaps this is the source of his ailment; the half an hour or so a day he spends in this smoky din while eating meals or processing maize.
Mr. Daka is a poor farmer. He grows maize, cotton, ground nuts (peanuts) and some garden vegetables on his hilltop plot. He is also a tailor, and has agreed to fashion some clothes for me and my friends back home if I bring him measurements and materials. Sometimes when I decide to sleep late in the morning I can make out the rocking squeaks ? of the ancient pedal-powered Singer sewing machine which he hauls out to the shade of a tree on days when his fields do not demand his attention.
He is a quiet and pious man. Between his faith, his crops and his handiwork he has no time for alcohol or vice, and his wife Vero is a loyal and caring woman. Mornings are punctuated with her soft rapping on the door of my hut and her perfunctory request: “Mwafwaya ukusamba” – “I want you to wash.”
I eat nshima (prounounced “shee-maah”) at least twice a day, usually with ifisashi comprised of stewed pumpkin leaves, onions, tomatoes, ground nuts powder and salt. With no refrigeration or any real methods of food preservation, protein in the form of animal flesh is hard to come by. I often eat nshima with ifisashi and beans, sometimes with baked squash that boasts the consistency of drying glue. The cuisine is repetitive, yes, but it is also packed with carbohydrates and starch, and I seldom feel hungry throughout my 14-hour days. The Dakas find it absurd that I do not drink tea, and my ba taata (father) takes at least two cups of the amber liquid every day, each complete with two heaping soup-spoonfuls of sugar. Perhaps that explains his lack of teeth.
My body has been cleansed from almost all toxins due to a regimen of exercise, sweat and unprocessed foods. I have not had a drop of alcohol since I left Lusaka and my mind is feeling lucid and alert. Though there are a shocking number of drunks in Mulungushi, I am physically and mentally stimulated to the point where I do not need the crutch of chemicals. Sobriety really is a beautiful thing.
I am losing weight but not rapidly. The sections of my skin regularly exposed to the sun have turned several shades darker, and my muscles are becoming toned and tight. Our training group met with the training director on Friday and there is a good chance that I will be posted to Luapula Province in the northern part of the country, near the town of Mansa.
While tracing my route from Lusaka to my prospective home on a map of Zambia yesterday I noticed that the road runs through the shallow isthmus of the Democratic Republic of the Congo connecting Lusaka to Mansa. It is this isthmus border that gives Zambia its saddlebag shape. I asked a trainer about the viability of using the road to nearly halve my travel time to and from the capital, and she said Zambian drivers use the shortcut all the time when travelling to Northern or Luapula Provinces. Though the idea of travelling through a country still in the fallout of civil war makes my stomach churn, I think the exploits gained along that shallow bypass could make for a great story. We shall see.