Letters From An Island Son, Far From Home
Letter Seven: Muzungu TV
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.
I have officially touched down on the dark star. A Landcrusier full of first-world possessions has been offloaded into my three-room hut, and I have begun to attract the first few curious Mwanachama locals brave enough to come knocking on my door and introduce themselves. I have already witnessed how their eyes spark to life when I speak a few rough words of Bemba: "Ndelanda icibemba panono" ("I speak little Bemba), "ishina llyandi nine Stefan" ("my name is Stefan"), "ine ndi wa ku America" (I am an American), "ndi kaipela mu Peace Corps" ("I am a Peace Corps volunteer").
The children in Mwanachama basically spend their days roaming freely through "the ville," untethered to any sort of parental oversight or scrutiny. Far and away I interact with "the iwes" (children) more than any other villagers considering their parents embark at sunrise to work in the fields until after noon. I must admit that the constant crying, screaming and incessant "Steeveeeni, Steeveeeni!" tests my patience by the end of the day, but the children are adorable in their own ragamuffin sort of way. Like American children, they are innocent and naive. Whatever financial or health-related hardships their parents or grandparents may be going through, their brows are clear of any distress or worry. They do not realize how poor they are because all the people they have ever known live like they do. They have no television to sow the seeds of discontent through Power Rangers commercials and two-for-one cookies 'n' cream sundaes at Dairy Queen. There are no X-Boxes to buy new games for or an inexhaustible supply of Hot Pockets. They eat cassava nshima every day just like their parents and friends and everyone else in what they conceive to be the outside world. They play with toy cars made from anthill clay and empty plastic bottles. To them, a toy is a toy, regardless of whether it comes wrapped in plastic from a colorful aisle of K-Mart. A few days ago I watched a parade of iwes marching up the road, two of the older kids in the middle carrying a big, rough ball of clay on a plastic-bag-turned-stretcher. They plopped the ball down in the shade of a mango tree outside my ing'anda (hut), formed a circle and began molding what I assumed would eventually be dolls. An hour later, the lumps began to resemble human figures, and one girl busied herself adding to her lump a matted black nest of hair, the origin of which I dared not take a guess.
On the mornings when I sleep in late, I sometimes open my door and stumble out onto my concrete porch to find small mounds of guava peels littering the red earth below. Though I grumble as I sweep the morning's debris out of my yard, I cannot help but swell with pride a little knowing that of all the porches in this village to pass the morning hours, these kids choose mine. And perhaps in time they will learn to clean up after themselves.
These iwes have no shame in pulling my beard hair or trying to sit in my lap, though for hygiene's sake I almost always politely decline. The degree to which some of the village parents "let their children go" - to put it nicely - is hard to comprehend coming from the land of washing machines, Lysol and doting suburban moms. Not only do the kids sport faded clothes often torn to ribbons, but they are absolutely inundated with dirt, dust and grime from eyebrows to toenails. Even their faces are not washed on a regular basis, considering that for the handful of days I have been here thus far I have seen the same spattering of mud on the same children's cheeks day after day after day. To many stifled American children, this must sound like heaven: no supervision, plenty of space to run freely and absolutely no baths. To many overprotective American parents, this must sound like one of the deeper circles of hell.
One of the only behaviors I have seen from the children so far that has really gotten under my skin is the constant pleading for handouts. They ask for crayons, cups, "sweeties" (a generic English word for candy, I assume) paper, pens and anything I am touching, eating or working with. Sometimes they ask me for water with real desperation in their eyes, completely disregarding the fact that with less energy they could lower a bucket into the well less than 20 meters from my doorstep. On several occasions I have opened my door and greeted a half-dozen or so older boys with embarrassed looks on their faces always standing in a semicircle looking straight at me but saying nothing for a minute or two. Finally one of them musters up the courage to ask what I know is coming: "Mpeleniko condom," he says. "Give me a condom."
"Awe, nshakwata condoms," I reply. "No, I do not have condoms."
After a few more increasingly awkward seconds the boys turn and depart with defeated looks on their faces. I guessed what they were after because the volunteer who lived here before me kept a supply on hand for the older children as part of her HIV/AIDS outreach efforts. Though this is in my opinion a great service to the community - whose youth are going to have sex with or without protection - her legacy has left me in a strange dilemma. I have not yet made the connection with local health clinics in the area to begin the prophylactic supply chain again, yet I feel like I am losing ground turning these kids away. On the one hand, they have become dependent on the village muzungu (white person) to give them what they would otherwise have to go to a health clinic to attain. On the other hand, a braver volunteer than myself at this point would turn this dependency into a teaching moment about a disease which a vast majority of these teenagers will come face to face with in their burgeoning adult lives. I feel your pain with this one, Yossarian.
I want to give all of these kids what they ask for because they deserve it. They were born into this desperation, yet they take it in stride and still love their lives. However, I feel that part of the reason I am here is to break the cycle of white people giving black people material goods. If I cave in and become the village philanthropist, I fear that this will condition these youth into thinking that volunteers, aid workers, missionaries and the rest of the boatloads of "agents of virtue" working all over this continent - most of them white-skinned westerners - will always be there to solve their problems. It makes me sick to think that I would be paving the way for a coming generation of aid-dependent Africans who sit in their huts as their country's infrastructure falls apart, waiting for the next agent of virtue to dole out solutions with a big cheesy do-gooder grin. I am not here to give anyone anything. I am here to teach these people to give themselves what they need, and thankfully I am given only a modest stipend to cover living expenses in case my bleeding liberal heart gets the best of me.
However, whether I like it or not, I cannot keep these kids from gaining materially from my presence here. A few days ago I woke up early, found that the three-day old chunk of leftover gouda cheese on my cutting board was crawling with ants and decided it was not worth the salvage operation. I peeked through a cracked door and saw only one child in my yard playing by himself. He saw me cross the threshold but quickly turned back to his imaginary game. With the force of a half-asleep muzungu, I threw the cheese - still covered in plastic and ants - into the rubbish pit and figured that was that. I came back outside a few minutes later after getting breakfast started and, to my absolute horror, saw the little boy walking back from the pit with slimy yellow gouda residue smeared all over his cheeks and a dopey, satisfied smile on his face. I gagged, chased him out of the yard and prayed that his bulletproof immune system which he had been developing since birth wouldn't fail him this time.
Every time I throw anything away - even something as insipid as onion peels - there is the rush of small, dirty black bare feet to the edge of my garbage pile and then the slow, somber retreat as they find nothing of interest to be had. Their vigilance has made me all the more motivated to get to work on my compost piles. Hopefully covering my food scraps with dirt and dry leaves will make them less desirable for these little gold diggers.
All of this boils down to a phenomenon which was articulated so eloquently by a volunteer with whom I had the pleasure to share an enlightening conversation a while ago.
"It's not like they have anything better to do than watch you clean your dishes," he said. "You are their entertainment. To them, you are television."
And there you have it. I may be the great white hope to some villagers, just another lazy volunteer to others, but to these children I am "Muzungu TV."
One of my first acts of "community entry" was to go on a bike ride with my counterpart - a short, one-eyed middle-aged man named Ba Benedict - to meet the movers and shakers of Mwanachama and its sister villages farther up the road. I met headmen and other community notables, including an old man who spoke no English and wore a pinstripe smoker's jacket that looked like it had fallen off the back of a speeding truck. In an earlier conversation I had told Ba Benedict that I was interested in vegetable gardening, so we took a detour to meet a man who cultivates a large plot of land growing "umusalu." In parting, both parties made loose promises to meet up in the near future and take a tour of the gardens, and my counterpart and I again took off to see what he called "the little falls."
I had no idea what I was in for. We rode for about one kilometer over what felt like a dried-up stream bed; me on my shiny new Trek mountain bike following Ba Benedict on his beat-up road bike which he managed to weave around corners and charge through sand-filled trenches. For a man who probably sees in two dimensions, I was impressed to say the least.
I heard it long before I saw it, but I held on to my doubts until the bitter end. The trail finally opened and we coasted down onto a smooth, rocky outcrop in front of a rushing stream and - you guessed it - a waterfall. If you would have told me a year ago that my decision to join Peace Corps was going to land me in a village 20 kilometers from a municipality larger than my hometown and 1k from a goddamned waterfall, I would have told you to take a hike. The fall - little more than a 3-meter drop but nonetheless majestic - is located on the Chofoshi steam upriver from where it bisects the road running from Mwanachama to the outskirts of Mansa. The pool leading up to it is shoulder-deep and has a sandy bottom. Below the fall, villagers have built a complex network of fences and nets to catch any wayward fish which decide to take the plunge. I bathed in the pool the day after learning of its existence, and promptly swore off using my indoor shower for the time being. Bathing in cool, rushing green-blue water with the sun's heat on my back just doesn't measure up to standing in a small plastic tub pouring dishfuls of well water over my naked body by candlelight. I have arrived.
Friday, May 11th, 2012
I laced up my boots today. The size 15 leather gunboats had been sitting at the very bottom of my enormous hiking backpack ever since I managed to cram them in there more than three months ago. They have been loyal companions for years now, leaving tracks on the wood-chip walkways of community gardens in Eugene, Oregon, skirting down muddy switchbacks beside giant coastal redwoods in the California springtime, and helping me dodge falling trees along the gravel driveway of my island homestead. Their leather is cracked and stained with the lurid smells of chainsaw gasoline and sawdust and must. They have kept by me on many hung over Saturday in Eugene morning bike rides with shovel in hand out to repent in the community garden for the sins I committed the night before. They have seen me through my hours of darkness and light. They have toiled with me through rain and snow and mud. And now they face Africa's oppressive sun.
I have begun work on what will eventually be a modest garden; basically, half a dozen beds of washed-out soil along the bank of the Chofoshi Stream upriver from the "little falls." It will be a peripheral plot to what is a community garden for Mwanachama locals and some villagers from the surrounding area. I took the initial tour several days ago and, though it seems strange to say, felt proud of those who work the land there. The beds of varying lengths are orderly and free of weeds, and the soil quality inside the furrows is noticeably superior to that of the walkways; a good sign, however rudimentary. Gardeners there are growing Chinese Cabbage and a leafy, kale-like vegetable called "rape" - a name which, I must say, gets less alarming as it becomes a part of village vernacular. The wife of the gentleman who introduced me to the plot sells part of what she grows at the local open-air market on one of Mansa's busy street corners. With the help of a translator, I asked him what the going rate for cabbage was and how they weighed it, and he cupped his hand into a circle as if to hold a baseball bat, saying that a stalky handful of the leafy greens goes for 500 kwacha - about 10 cents. My heart sank a bit at hearing this because I couldn't keep from wondering how I was going to help these people increase their income if their labor and products are measured in dimes. But then again, this is a matter of economies of scale. The cabbage is basically a staple vegetable for these people, and if on any given day one hundred Mansa roadside shoppers want to eat the stewed greens as part of their dinner that night, then this lady is in business. But the cultivated area needs to be expanded, and the products need to be diversified. I left the garden that day with my muzungu capitalist brain grinding its gears, concocting wild ideas for how this garden could become a more lucrative enterprise. My sophomore macroeconomics professor would no doubt be proud of my scheming.
The ride out to the garden is breathtaking, snaking along a ridge and cutting through a floodplain to come out the other side. In the distance are verdant rolling hills of small, spindly shrubs and elephant grass. Sometimes on the commute I lose myself in thinking about how not long ago this landscape would have been crawling with lions and monkeys and gazelle. This is the sort of expansive, lush gold and green terrain advertised on the rotating, repetitive postcard racks in windows of Lusaka or Johannesburg airport tourist traps. This image will permanently be burned into my memory because it is what Africa is to people who have never seen Africa; whose impressions of this wildly diverse continent come from the National Geographic Channel or bad safari movies. It is the meandering horizon and deep blue sky and puffy, uniform clouds of an idea - an abstraction - and I see it through my own eyes every day during a commute without cars or concrete or billboards or buildings. It's just another beautiful day in the bush.
A box buried under a heap of unsorted rubbish in the corner of my hut houses my vegetable seed stock. I plan to blow these gardeners' mono-crop minds with sweet peppers, peas, onions, garlic, carrots, kale and other varieties. Aside from Peace Corps Zambia's LIFE program goals of improving food security and fostering micro-enterprises, I think part of my mission for this village will be to simply make vegetables fun to eat. Though choking down cassava nshima and stewed, gritty greens every day is sure to reduce the breadth of one's palate a bit, I am hopeful that I can open even some of the more recalcitrant villagers' minds up to more nutritious - and inarguably more delicious - ways of maintaining a balanced diet. If I can champion dry-season garden production, then the availability of vegetables will no longer be tied to the rains, and there will no longer be a period of the year when people survive solely on boiled tuber meal. I realize that this is quite a tall order for a newbie, bwana muzungu gardener, but if I can introduce even a few people here to some new foods and sources of nutrients then I will be happy with my small victories.
All in all, I have no complaints. I have no rent checks to forget to pay, no roommates to butt heads with, no squawking televisions or poisonous microwaves to shy away from, no paper-jammed printers to throw off cliffs, no green lights to wait on, no vices to compromise my conscience, no sunken-eyed transients living under overpasses, no fast-food-shopping-malls and no oppressive drumbeats at night except for those coming from real drums. I have no set schedule. I do not need to be in class or at my desk or driving half asleep trying to make good time on the interstate. My lunch break is whenever I decide to eat lunch, and bedtime is an hour or two after the crickets start singing. I spend at least half of my waking hours cooking, sweeping, washing dishes, hauling water, pinning up clothes to dry - all things done in America by machines, giving everyone enough free time to sit around and worry that they’re not doing enough with all of their free time.
Friday, May 18
I have been having the same dream for weeks now. It starts in some familiar setting in America; my stomping ground, my college town of Eugene. Everything seems so familiar and routine, it is as if I never left. The scenes are nothing especially magnificent; usually some banal conversation with an old friend or a sidelong glance from a former boss as I walk through the newsroom at the Register-Guard. In my dream state I make plans for the near future; to see my parents or visit some memorably serene spot. Just as I am trying to accept that this last fleeting memory of my former life is indeed reality, my eyes jolt open. For that split second between worlds - one reverie and one real - I cannot for the life of me figure out where I am. More than once my gaze has wandered up the length of my mosquito net in disbelief, innocently wondering why I’m sleeping under such a thing. Then my vision focuses, and I see the bricks and the white-washed walls in the soft morning dim and remember. My reaction is always the same as the past three months' events come flooding back into my brain like a levee breaking. For some reason I close my eyes again and let out a long, defeated sigh. And I don't really know exactly why.
I am not unhappy here by any means. Living in this village beats the hell out of trying to stay alert in a stuffy university classroom full of drooling freshmen and a professor who should have retired years ago. It is also a significant improvement from feeding the giant, tireless threshing machine gone haywire that is small-town journalism. Perhaps I sigh because I know that here I must live up to some expectation; one that I have set on myself. Maybe for the first time in my short life I am living in the real world where I need to make real decisions. I am no longer standing in a slow-moving lunch line waiting for some authority figure to slap onto my plate another helping of responsibility. There are no term papers to regurgitate double-spaced on recycled paper or feature stories to numbly punch away at in my cubicle. Here I have to make decisions - real decisions - for myself. Every day must be a new installment in a two-year plan. People are watching me here. They are counting on me to help them, but at the same time they will not chastise me if I choose to do nothing. I think that perfunctory break-of-day sigh comes from waking up every morning with an expectation that is for once in my life internal. Here I know I need to give my most heartfelt performance - with more passion than all of my previous efforts - in a game where no one is keeping score. At least not on paper.
I started a compost pile today beside my garden which is slowly taking shape along the riverbank. The other day I asked my counterpart, Ba Benedict, if he had any extra chicken manure from the more than 100 laying hens that make up his egg cooperative. By evening, an iwe was shuffling up the path to my hut with a mealie meal sack full of the pungent stuff slung over his shoulder. I was delighted to see - well, as delighted as one can be with a bag full of shit - that the dusty brown clumps were several months old and appropriately "aged" as our vegetable gardening trainer in Chipembi put it. This led me to believe that Benedict has a supply of the same garden gold on hand, and that its volatility has decreased to a point where I can spade it directly into the beds when it comes time to plant in a few weeks. Good thing, too, because there is nothing like burning veggie starts to death with nitrogen-rich manure to build up my reputation as a crackpot muzungu gardener with a black thumb.
Following the recipe that I learned in training, I cleared the shady ground, criss-crossed small sticks at the base for aeration and began mounding dead grass and green leaves from the small shrubs I had felled a few days before. Then came the manure, some ash and anthill clay. All of this was mixed together as best I could and then doused with river water to jump-start the microbes. Just as I was finishing and feeling somewhat smug with my first small accomplishment, I was approached by the man who originally introduced me to the garden and allocated to me my new plot. After talking about future plans for my quadrant of sandy soil, Ba Ernest left me to water his own beds. I noticed the sun setting in the sky, guessed it must be around 5 p.m. and started packing away tools on the makeshift bike rack I had fashioned the week before from a fallen tree branch. As I was saying goodbye, Ernest said something that made my heart sink.
"You are not working very hard, Ba Steve," he said in garbled English.
I froze up at this and turned by gaze to the ground in shame. His words stung like an admonishment from my father. I looked up at him again through hurt eyes, grasping for words.
"You only work for an hour or two every day. Why? We Zambians work for 4 or 5 hours before we go home," he said.
"I…I don't really know. I'm new and I want to start off slow, I guess," I said, or some equally squeamish variation.
On the ride home I couldn't shake his voice out of my head. I know he meant no offense; it was simply a result of the communication barrier. I did not have the courage to tell him that I am not even supposed to be working at all for the first three months after posting. Peace Corps mandates this because it does not want volunteers to get ahead of themselves, and to give them ample time to integrate into their communities and network for future projects. It is true that I have not spent a full day at the garden yet, but I must reassure myself that I cannot simply jump headfirst into a project like this. If I am never at my house for this critical time for first encounters, then the people in Mwanachama might assume that I have picked where I want to work and am no longer available. Relaying this rationale in simple English or anguished Bemba would be nearly impossible, but I suppose I should offer Ba Ernest some sort of explanation for my perceived lack of commitment. It is simply too much too early.
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
This place is starting to feel like home. Perhaps it is because with each passing day I inch closer to accepting the fact that I am actually living in an African village. I am actually here. Some of the outright culture shock has worn off at this point, and I find myself not batting an eye in situations which three months ago would have stopped me dead in my tracks. This evening as night fell I watched a small village boy who could not have been more than six years old piling dead grass onto a brushfire on the outskirts of my yard. In the firelight I could see that he was beaming, entranced by the dancing flames and flying embers. And he was all alone in his own little pyromaniac fantasy world. He was not under the watchful eye of village mothers or carrying out the bidding of some family elder. He was simply burning a pile of rubbish on the side of a pathway because it was his idea of fun. The entire scene did not even seem peculiar to me until I really thought about it. I come from a country where children are spanked and sent to "time out" for playing with matches or burning ants with magnifying glasses. And their parents try to legitimize the punishment with blanket statements about safety and horror stories of playtime gone wrong.
But here I am, 8,000 miles away, in a place where a young boy can feed a pyre taller than he is during dry season with no supervision, in a community where every building has a grass-thatch roof, and not warrant a second thought by anyone but the token muzungu who doesn't know anything about anything.
I am presently engaged in a holy war with the rats living in my roof. They begin their onslaught with the coming dusk as they are able to move safely under the cover of darkness. I hear them rummaging around on their journey from my hut's outer walls to the kitchen, moving in the crawlspace between the thatch and the black plastic sheeting stapled to the rafters from below. I do not want to even think about what life would be like in this place without that plastic protecting me from falling termites, spiders, rats - the list goes on and on. My only weapon in this brain-battering fight is a formidable rat trap that I fished out of the volunteer free bin at the Peace Corps office in Lusaka. If Cadillac made a mousetrap, I would imagine it would look something like this one. With a centimeter-thick steel bar powered by two springs and an assortment of locking hardware and a trapdoor, this marvel of rodent-killing engineering is a far cry from a sliver of wood with some wire nailed to it. This trap was made for Zambia. Early on in my efforts to exterminate the scampering scourge, I supplemented the use of the trap with attempts to deal death blows with my own hands. On more occasions than I care to admit, I found myself half naked standing beneath a section of my slanted, plastic-wrapped ceiling holding my breath with both eyes fixed on some promising bulge where I had last seen the movement of four furry paws. With my headlamp clamped to my forehead and its beam reflecting back into my sleepy eyes, I would wait with a slasher (called an "icikwakwa" in Bemba - a curved-blade tool used for cutting grass) at the ready.
When the wretched quadruped moved again I was on him, wildly slashing away at my roof like I was chopping down a tree, making the plastic look like Swiss cheese and missing the rat entirely with every swing. And behold: a bright-eyed American white-collar young man with a bachelor's degree and "potential" jumping around in his underwear inside a dark mud hut with the gleam of the kill in his eyes swinging Africa's idea of a lawnmower at his cohabiting rodents. Boy would the Snowden judges be proud. Once I even resorted to gassing the rats out with a brand of bug spray called "DOOM" by poking a hole in the plastic lining and laying on the nozzle. All of these attempts, of course, were foolish and did me more harm than my prey. Eventually I would give up, crawl back into bed, tuck in my mosquito net once more and stuff a pillow over my head to block out the sounds of the critters scurrying and chewing and defecating and fornicating and whatever else rats do.
I have killed three of the furry bastards thus far, each one claiming their respective notch cut in the side of the trap's plastic housing like a pirate's cutlass. It brings me some strange brand of sick pleasure to wake up suddenly to the satisfying snap of the device claiming another victim. I am sure some criminally insane inmate in some locked-down psychiatric ward would understand the feeling. Perhaps it is a result of my living in the middle of the bush or of simply being deprived of virtually all stimulation, but if I wake up in the morning to a dead rat and intact food bins, I know in my heart of hearts that it is going to be a good day.
Besides the rodent war, I have kept busy of late putting the finishing touches on an outdoor washing station and drying rack to make doing dishes every day slightly less tedious. Poles for the waist-high table came from a woodlot along the bush path leading from my beloved waterfall to my garden plot further upstream. I did not dare venture into the woods and start chopping down trees without the blessings of a local, so I enlisted Ba Ernest to help. Being that I am currently in the process of buying a village axe ("akasemba" in Bemba), we used his to cut four one-and-a-half meter poles and strip off their bark. Ernest also showed me which tree's bark to use as rope, and we harvested a bucket full of the sinewy fiber to hold the structure together. We also cut shorter straight pieces for joists and crossbars, hauling everything back to my hut strapped to our bike racks. Ernest biked with the longer poles, and at one point we turned down a narrow path with rows of dried maize stocks on either side. My partner in crime got about 5 meters down the road before he realized that his cargo was plowing down plants left and right. At that point we both knew we could not turn around, so, quickly glancing back at me with the desperate, guilty look of someone who knows they are doing wrong but has no recourse, he continued on making a mess of the field. In the days following our operation, I would ride along that same path and smile to myself seeing the fallen golden-brown stalks. It is more than likely that no repercussions ever came of our destruction. That is simply how Zambia works. Sure it was somebody's sweat and toil lying there fallen over in the dirt, but making a fuss over it is, well, just too much work.
I purposefully aimed to use only local materials to make the washing rack because I did not want other villagers to think its construction came down to an issue of funding. Anyone in Mwanachama could have built this thing without even one kwacha bill coming out of their flower pots or mealie meal sacks or wherever they keep their money. Where I did deviate from the standard blueprint, however, was my adding of a fifth pole to the structure; a taller, skinnier one with a fork at the top. This is where I hang the solar shower left here by the previous volunteer and made obsolete by the waterfall. Combined with the rectangular hole made by skipping several cross pieces in the top of the shelf in which I can drop a washtub, this little tidbit of innovation gives me the closest thing to a kitchen sink that one could ever hope to have in the village. I still have to work some of the kinks out, but this system is still a tenfold improvement from scrubbing pans hunched over and rinsing them with an uneven stream of water poured from precariously balanced jerry cans.
And now, a poem:
Where the Tarmac Ends
I live where nature's curves abound
Where the steady hand of man draws no straight lines
Where teeth grind grit from the road kicked up by the breeze
Where the weary traveler can set his own pace
For there is no one ahead and no one behind
I live where nothing is bolted down
Where there is no glinting of glass or steel
Where bicycle tracks dodge jutting rocks along roads where cars dare not tread
Where houses are just clever rearrangements of grass and mud
Slowly being recycled by the wind; the rain; the sun
I live where hands are empty but hearts are full
Where "haw ahhh yuuu"s become "mwaikaleni mukwai"s
Where men with broken teeth still smile all the same
Where strangers still acknowledge the existence
Of other strangers in passing
I live where the colors change with the seasons
Where the land can still breathe
Where the rivers carry only water
Where the fruits of the earth belong to everyone
And the earth itself to no one
I live where the tarmac ends
Friday, May 25, 2012
"Now you have my ugly face in your camera," said the man as he paused shaving the piece of wood that would soon become my new "ulukasu" (garden hoe) handle to look up at me.
Zambians' version of sarcasm is of a much milder brew than what Americans serve up in generous portions. I could not tell if the man was just grasping for something to say to the muzungu holding the camera or if his self-deprecation runs deeper than that. As in most situations where villagers say something to me for which I have no response, I laughed awkwardly at his comment and then uttered some empty words of solace that trailed off into more awkward silence.
The craftsman, who has apparently made a name for himself in Mwanachama as the man who fashions handles for tools, sat in the shaded front of his hut hiding from the afternoon sun. He was wearing red Converse sneakers. More than once I wanted to offer him my knife to carve the handle instead of the dull axe blade he was using, but I did not want to come off as pretentious. This man has obviously been refining his craft for many years, and if this was his methodology, I was not going to try to teach an old dog new tricks.
A few meters away was my ulukasu blade, the narrow, square end lying in the center of a glowing pile of coals. On the tip of the blade was secured a stubby dowel so that the craftsman could safely pick up the glowing metal shard. I knew what was coming next as the man, taking one final slice at the handle and looking satisfied, put down the wooden pole and walked over to the fire, giving it a poke.
In broken Bemba I asked him if he could wait a minute or two while I ran home to grab my camera. Actually, what I said was far more rudimentary, complete with one or two mimed gestures. When I came back he already had the glowing blade poised over the handle. I began firing off shots, and he did not seem to notice. In the absence of quality adhesive, fiberglass, welding equipment or any other industrial luxuries, Zambian villagers build their tools by heating the blades of axes and hoes and burning out holes in their respective handles. The finished products are actually surprisingly durable, the blades set in the wood with a perfect fit every time. The backs of the blades taper to a point so that when the tool is being used, the force of impact does not dislodge the blade.
As the man wrestled with the hoe, now complete with a smoking blade, he told me to come back in half an hour to pick it up. The cost: 10,000 kwacha, or roughly two dollars. I thanked him and left with the sensation of someone who knows they have just received more than they paid for.
I found myself at his doorstep in the first place because two days ago I was turning ground for new beds in my garden and, on one particular swing, followed through with a little too much force. The top of the handle split where the blade attaches. It didn't even last a month. Admittedly, the hoe was left here for me by the previous volunteer - a girl one head shorter than me and presumably more delicate with her tools. I must admit that when I first saw the hoe handle I did not have high expectations, and my accident in the garden was probably just the playing out of some self-fulfilling prophecy. And as if breaking my most important gardening implement wasn't bad enough - and to add insult to injury - both Ba Ernest and another resident gardener were observing my form at the time, and shied away with guilty smiles on their faces when they heard the snap.
"There goes that incompetent muzungu. It takes him twice as long as us to do the same amount of work, and he breaks his tools while he's at it," they must have been thinking. Actually they probably weren't because Zambians on the whole are not that critical. But if I can give them a little bit of schadenfreude humor then why not, right? If this whole saving the world thing doesn't work out, at least I will have spent two years making people laugh and feel better about themselves through my ineptitude.
My new ulukasu is more than 30 centimeters taller than the old one and twice its weight. There is power in my swing now, and I can put some leverage behind it with peace of mind. I will need to rely on it, too, because I have half a dozen beds to double dig in the next week or two. Ba Ernest and I planted the nursery today in one of the garden's vacant beds. We broke up the ground, portioned it off and drew perpendicular sowing lines at equal intervals. I forgot how therapeutic gardening can be, like when you focus all of your attention on scooping out perfectly spaced, uniform furrows with cupped hands as if you were carving lines in a Zen garden. In all there were four sections divided by mounds of clumpy, less desirable dirt; one for cabbage, Chinese cabbage, basil and amaranth. Since we are currently delving into winter here in the southern hemisphere, I decided to grow green leafy vegetables hoping they would be hardier if the temperature drops to a frigid 55 degrees (Fahrenheit, of course. Celsius is still Greek to me). Unfortunately, the peppers will have to wait a while.
Saturday, May 26, 2012
I saw the dark side of Africa today. Early in the afternoon, Ba Ernest and I had been talking about what kinds of business ventures we could embark on in order to raise money for a hammer mill to grind maize kernels into flour. At some point in my procession of questions, I asked him what Mwanachama farmers do to grind their maize every year without the machine, and he replied that they pay for canter trucks to drive up our washed-out road and haul the bagged grain to Mansa. Then, they pay the mill operator to process and store the grain and, finally, shell out still more money to transport the flour back home. As he was explaining this process, he mentioned that Mwanachama had a roller mill in operation years ago located in the next village farther up the road. Not knowing what I was getting into, I asked if the mill was still around and why it was not in use anymore. My newfound counterpart said the diesel motor had had some sort of technical failure and a steady stream of mechanics had been coming and going ever since with parts which they claimed would restore the milling operation. Of course, the villagers bought the parts, the mechanics came and tinkered with the motor, but months became years and to this day not one more kernel of maize has been ground.
After hearing this, I asked to see the machine. So, we mounted our bikes and rode to the house of some anonymous local woman who handed Ernest a key on a tattered piece of string. The key opened the door to a mud-brick and tin-roof shed nearby with an exhaust pipe sticking out through the far wall. I followed the two inside and almost cried. Bolted to a steel frame sunk into the cement slab floor, the diesel motor lay in a pool of black, dirty oil and was covered with a thick layer of dust and grime. In two massive piles along the walls of the shed were cast-off tools of every imaginable design. It looked like these people had worked the motor over with everything short of a hammer, and then let the unusable tools lay where they fell.
And this was it. This was the white elephant. I knew it existed in many places all over this country and this continent, but I had yet to see it with my own eyes. I turned to Ernest again and, knowing the answer to my question before it left my lips, asked him where the machine had come from. It was donated to the village by an aid agency several years ago, and had been out of commission for the past two. I turned back to the defunct machine and let my eyes wander. Just then I got the sensation that I was being watched, and I turned around in time to lock eyes with the woman who had handed off the key earlier. She looked at me with hope in her eyes; a hope I knew she felt whenever a new, interested party came to look at and bang on the machine. She looked like she was holding her breath; like I was going to be the one to crack open the face plate, twist some knobs, turn some screws and suddenly the clouds would part and heavenly light would shine down and the broken thing would hum again. And it killed me. It killed me to know that I was powerless to fix this thing. It killed me to admit that Peace Corps should have sent someone here who had gone through trade school working on diesel engines rather than an idealistic, liberal arts-educated journalist-turned-gardener. It killed me to think about the dozens of people from where I grew up - including my own father - who would at least have some idea as to how to go about repairing this decrepit, defeated device, and how I was not one of them.
And then I got angry. I wanted to grab the donors who footed the bill for this thing by their collars and drag them out here and say: "Look! Look at where your high-minded, do-gooder intentions have taken these people! Nowhere! They are no better off now than when you blew in here like the wind and started to solve their problems for them. You did not teach them how to do anything. You did not give any mind to making this aid effort sustainable. You just shelled out some money and brought in some high-tech solution for their low-tech problem and that was that. No follow up, no longevity. And, in the end, who really benefitted from this gift? The villagers here are back to paying out the nose to transport and store their maize just like before. Nothing has changed. To them, besides the 1,000 kilogram paperweight taking up space in a dingy shed, it is as if you never came here at all. But what did you get out of all of this? You can now sit in your easy chairs in your nice, comfy houses and read news stories about famine and disease and death in the Third World, and it is no longer a monkey on your back. You have done your part. You are a good person. Well I am here to tell you that your generosity is false. Things fall apart in this place, and if you do not take steps to ensure the sustainability of what you give, you are guilty of creating a culture where dispossessed people become dependent on aid efforts which in the end leave them poorer and more burdened than before."
Of course, I have no clue as to whether this was the case in this particular instance, but this phenomenon of "dead aid" had only presented itself to me in shadows until today, and now that I could see it lying there dead in a pool of robot blood, something snapped in my head. But what can I do? This is the feeling that they warned me about before I came here - the feeling of hopelessness. How can I possibly fight this? Where is the light?
"True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the ‘rejects of life,’ to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands - whether of individuals or entire peoples - need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world." -- Paulo Freire, "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" p. 45.
Tuesday, June 12th, 2012
I have been here over one month now. In addition to my humble garden plot quickly taking shape, I have begun to hear the rumblings of other long-term projects slowly taking shape. The other day Ba Ernest and I trudged through the dambo to the north of the village and took a tour of a fish pond construction site. On the far side of a particularly soggy field was one pond already dug and in operation with small fish darting to-and-fro in the hip-deep water. Beside it was another pond in the final stages of being dug, its bottom a moonscape of muddy footprints and strangely colored slime like the hues found in neglected fish tanks. The pond - as big as an empty, square swimming pool - was dug entirely by hand in little over one month, according to Ba Ernest, by a group of locals interested in starting up a fish farming enterprise. The sheer amount of work involved in moving that much dirt with picks and shovels was almost inconceivable to me as I stood on the two-meter tall bank looking down. And they want to dig half a dozen more before the rains come in November.
Very gently, I eased into making the point to Ba Ernest that I do not know the first thing about "growing" fish. Where I come from the ocean dwarfs the land and the proposal to dig a giant hole in the ground and fill it with water to raise fish would do more than raise a few eyebrows with the crusty fishermen occupying barstools at some salty dive up the street from the pier in Anacortes. But here I am in landlocked-yet-still-aqueous northeast Zambia where the prospect of having a reliable source of fish to eat and sell is worth spending a month digging by hand what a backhoe could do in an hour. And so I offered to help.
Though like with most tests of strength and endurance in this place, I will likely be one-upped by a man twice my age and half my weight, I volunteered to lend a hand with the digging, hinging of course on me getting a decent pair of rubber boots in the mail, preferably with high tops. This was actually the recommendation of Ba Ernest, who shook his head and grumbled to himself as he watched me traipse along the bank of the pond kicking clods of dirt and mud out of my sandals. Though we are just now putting the finishing touches on the final bed in my garden, it appears that there will be more digging in store for me yet. Why did I go to college?
The iwes have begun to leave me alone more and more throughout the day. Perhaps the programming on "Muzungu TV" has become monotonous and dull, like the primetime Dish Washing With Ba Steve and Better Hut and Garden, or my personal favorite, It's A Book, But It's Not The Bible. To be honest, it is a welcome relief to have a few hours a day to work around my hut without the screaming, fighting, begging and crying, crying, crying. I have come up with a theory that no matter the time of day or the circumstance, for every hour that the sun is up in this place (and for some of when the sun is down), somewhere there is a young boy or girl crying and wailing with all of their might. Sometimes the shrill whimpers and screams come in tandem, reaching a cacophonous crescendo of anguished youth. There are days when I will be sitting in my hut and the sounds will come from all directions at once as if these tormented toddlers were running laps around my house. It is terrible to say I know, but when I am woken up at the crack of dawn by these screams I often lie in bed with my eyes closed counting down the time it will take for this particular kid to bawl until his or her voice becomes hoarsely exhausted and I can fall back asleep.
Ever since I opened the latest package from home and found the jackpot of sweets, I have broken my vow from time to time of never giving the children anything. On several occasions I have caved and handed out Hershey's Kisses to rapturous yells and visible elation. It makes me happy to know that such a small treat in American terms can make a village kid's day. After I dole out the coveted, foil-wrapped delicacies, I like to sit back and watch how they cherish every bite. One little girl has taken to holding the chocolate in her hand and running a wet finger down the candy, and then sucking the sugary digit clean. She repeats her slow consumption in this fashion until the chocolate has become little more than a brown puddle in her hand, and then carefully brings her palm to her lips and sucks down the liquid chocolate, smearing it all over her contented face without a care in the world. Other kids stash the candy in their pockets for later or run off to brag to their friends about how they were lucky enough to be around when the muzungu decided to become generous all of the sudden.