Letters From An Island Son, Far From Home
Letter Four: Mwanachama
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.
He said his name was “Ali.” I did not get far enough past the language barrier to ask if this was his given name or his surname. As for a biography, all I know is that he hailed from Tanzania where he spoke Swahili and occasionally leapfrogged over the border to drive petrol trucks along the winding, poorly paved roads of Zambia's Luapula Province.
He came off as a late-30s father of half a dozen children, his eyes riddled with wrinkles from what had likely been a lifetime of squinting through dirty windshields out along lonely stretches of African highway. On the dashboard: empty food wrappers, an unopened value pack of condoms, incense and an assortment of what must have been religious icons amidst miscellaneous rubbish. His truck was painted with what looked like Rasta stripes and did not hide its conductor's faith.
In fact, the first of my many mental images of this peculiar trucker and his colorful rig was the view of the back bumper as it came to a lumbering halt 30 meters up the road from where I had flagged it down.
“Praise Allah,” the truck's hand-painted bumper sticker read, right in the place where a similar American trucker might sport the insignia “Makes Wide Turns” or “Honk If You Love Jesus.” With my heart in my throat, I walked up to the passenger door of my first Zambian hitch.
As it turns out, Ali was a kind and unassuming man. He did not speak a word of Bemba and wielded the most basic English, but I was able to elicit terse sentences about his nationality, marital status and religion. Many minutes of the 50-plus kilometer trip from Mufuma Village outside of Mansa to the road leading to Samfya were spent without conversation, my back pressed up against the pounding subwoofer blasting out American gangster rap bass beats.
Hearing music recorded by rich African-American rappers rhyming about how hard their lives are, all the while seeing real Africans on the side of the road living the lives that their arguably more fortunate descendants across the pond are pretending to lead, brought a smirk to my face. Odds are if you were to give a microphone to one of these sunken-eyed villagers standing on the highway shoulder waving dead chickens at passing cars, they would not wax poetically about how hard their lives are. If there is one trait of rural Africans that has come through the most clearly in my two months spent in this place, it is their reticence to talk about life's struggles.
Ali seemed indifferent to the symphony, the only indication of his break in complete concentration on the road ahead being his left foot tapping away the beat that I felt tenfold in my spinal cord. When the singers touched on some particularly graphic vulgar description of their supposedly hard lives, the trucker loosened his tight lips into a sly, almost embarrassed grin revealing strikingly straight, white teeth. They looked like two rows of ivory chewing gum pieces, their luster amplified by his ebony skin and dark red gums. I imagined how if he was to stand dark clothed and smiling in a pitch-black room, his entire broad-shouldered being would be reduced to two floating eyes and those same two columns of flawless pearly whites.
My hitching partner – another Peace Corps agriculture volunteer named Matt – and I were dropped off at the juncture making up the terminus of the road coming from Serenje in Central Province, where the Great North Road splits off to the northwest leading to Luapula. To our backs was Mansa, the provincial capital and the closest thing I will have to civilization once I am posted. North of Mansa where lies a spiderweb of washed-out roads and hole-in-the-wall towns, becoming smaller, dirtier and more desolate the farther north one goes. Then, in some cases with little more than driving over an imaginary line on a map, the winding roads become those of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
I made the 12-hour Landcruiser journey from Chipembi to Mansa as part of what Peace Corps Zambia calls “Second Site Visit.” While on the trip, I visited Matt at his messy, four-room hut set back a stone's throw from the tarmac road outside of Mansa – where we landed the hitch with Ali. After meeting some of the farmers in his area and drinking room-temperature whiskey out of the bottle by the light of the moon, I was taken to my own site and left alone for a day.
My home-to-be is the village of Mwanachama located roughly 20 kilometers north of Mansa, ten of which is a dirt bush path peppered with deep ruts and potholes. The path is a sand trap in the dry season and a mud pit when the rains come. Halfway to the village off the tarmac, the route is bisected by a small stream that quadruples in size during the rainy season.
I am to live at what Peace Corps lingo affords as a “second generation” site, taking over for a previous agriculture volunteer who two years ago was probably the only white person some of the villagers had ever come across. On the night of my arrival, I sat on my cement porch with the departing volunteer as the sun was slowly setting, picking her brain about what the next two years may have in store for me. As many veteran volunteers likely do, Ashley had her own bevy of horror stories from working in the village. She told me about having to discipline the gaggle of young, dirty children who hang around her hut with a stick across their backs, and about the wanna-be burglars breaking into her room while she was away and stealing her Ipod and speakers. Also, she recounted armies of imposhi (biting ants), being forced to eat cassava nshima (imagine poisonous, bland, speckled Jell-o) and wading through waist-deep river water during rainy season to reach town.
Without a doubt, the greatest challenge to my service will be dealing with the village kids. Though I am sure Ashley took a hard line with them during her service, I do not think I have it in me to inflict corporal punishment on someone half my age and one quarter my size. After all, the idea alone seems to contradict the Peace Corps creed. I met many of the 600 kids who are supposedly students at the primary school in my village during my site visit, and they seemed respectful enough, though the unending screaming, crying and arguing in a language which, even when spoken by adults gives me a headache, will undoubtedly get old quickly. I am finding solace in the idea that I could act as an example for these children; to show them that bullying each other and constantly asking for handouts will, in the end, get them nowhere. And I realize that I cannot hold them to too high a standard. After all, they are basically allowed to behave like wild animals in the village, with no one to enforce the tenets of personal hygiene and pacifism and honesty that are hammered into the minds of Clorox bleached, God-fearing “sticks and stones will break my bones” American schoolchildren.
Coming in close behind in terms of my imminent drudgery of village life: the mosquitoes, the village drunks, the bad roads, the hundreds of pairs of confused and suspicious eyes following me from dawn until dusk, the ants, the rats, the lack of privacy and the fact that the novelty of shitting in a hole is quickly wearing off.
Perhaps I am getting stir crazy, but Chipembi seems to be getting smaller and more frustrating as I get closer to swear-in on April 27th. I have caught myself feeling ambivalent toward learning more Bemba, mainly because several reliable sources have told me that the textbook teaching style harping memorization and regurgitation has little application in the village. Learning how to describe in detail the process of cooking nshima or to spout off the “three goals of Peace Corps” in Bemba seems like an exercise in futility, as if the average village family has ever heard of Peace Corps and doesn't cook nshima every single day.
I also fear that my initial appreciation for Zambian ingenuity is being replaced by cynicism. This country seems to be made up of resourceful and hardworking individuals, but somewhere in the formation of groups there is born an overwhelming atmosphere of neglect. It is as if locals see no point in improving anything to where it will function properly beyond today and tomorrow, perhaps because their lives are always in flux; relatives die, crops dry up, boreholes break, money runs out. As a whole, Zambians lack the American obsession with building a better mousetrap which, to their credit, seems to have saved them from many of the unseen evils that come with America's overbuilt infrastructure. But, at the same time, lacking any kind of foundation on which to lay the floor joists of improvement and progress is hardly an alternative. Spending the money to place high-end, western-world designed solar hot water panels on top of tin-roof shacks is pointless if the town lacks a reliable electrical grid to power the water pumps to be able to actually get the water to the collectors. So much of what I see as “development” comes off as just polishing brass on the Titanic.
A few evenings ago I saw a decanter truck stopped along a side road in Mulungushi, idling as two of its operators took turns swinging a sledgehammer in the glow of the truck's headlights to break apart boulders sunken into the sandy road so that the vehicle could pass without piercing its bald tires. At this moment, it dawned on me that I live in a place where roads are allowed to degrade to the point of becoming impassible, and then are only repaired when absolutely necessary. And the repair work is no concerted effort drafted by public works employees, approved by budget committees, rubber stamped by civil engineers and boasted about in campaign speeches by politicians. Rather, it is simply done by two shabby, exhausted-looking young men sharing one sledgehammer in the glare of headlights. But who knows, perhaps it is better this way.
Unless you have already purchased the shoes, I would say forget about them. What I really need more are size 15 rain boots. I understand that it costs a lot to send packages here, and I will have some spending money once we swear in on the 27th (Peace Corps is giving me $300 for basically nothing). I will be sure to take plenty of photos of swear-in, and I will make sure you guys get one of me cleaned up with the gang on stage with the Zambian president, or something like that.
Training is going well, more or less, but I am ready to get out in the village. Mansa is beautiful; lakes, rivers, mountains, lots of fish, monkeys. A while ago I visited a lake in Samfya, down the road from Mansa, named Lake Bengwelu. It was so big that the horizon was just a line of water, which reminded me of Puget Sound. I lucked out in that I am being sent to the province with the largest bodies of water - pretty good for a landlocked country, ehh? I going to be 20k outside of Mansa - easy biking distance - and the people in the village greeted me with open arms.
There is a lot of work to be done there, though. The maize in Mwanachama looks pretty wilted, and there are many children who look very malnourished. I am going to try to introduce year-round vegetable gardening, so these people will not be so tied to the rainy season or maize for their principal food intake. Any fruit and vegetable seeds that you can send would be greatly appreciated.
Anyway, thank you guys for everything you have sent me, and I will keep you updated. Expect a call this weekend. I love you and miss you very much. I have a feeling that many of the things that you taught me (how to work with my hands and the like) are going to be critical in this country. Once I get to my house I am going to need to do some cement work, and luckily I know how to do that from mixing wheelbarrows-full back when we built your house.
I hope you guys are healthy and happy,