Wednesday, February 2, 2011

When It Rains It Pours

My new year's resolution is to write more. Journal entries, letters, blog posts. I am about to celebrate my one year anniversary of living in Zambia, so I think it's time I start sharing more tales from the bush before time flies and I'm on my way back to the States.

It is officially rainy season. Let me translate. Maria is officially stressed out. While rain has never bothered me in America, I also had a solid roof and a gutter system to work with. Things are a little different here. I had heard the horror stories of leaky roofs and flooded bike paths, but nothing could prepare me for what was coming. I not only found myself splashing in puddles inside my hut, but I found myself in my first real Peace Corps rut. They call it the "mid-service crisis". You start to wonder exactly what you're doing here, or better yet, what you're not doing? The month of January seemed to bring a slew of its own problems, but let me assure you, the sun always shines after a heavy rain and now I'm feeling motivated and excited for the next 15 months here.

I'm sitting here at the provincial house with my feet propped and a cup of tea. I don't plan on going anywhere for the rest of the afternoon. A nasty foot infection has kept me out of my village for the past week while I've been hobbling about Lusaka and Chipata, our provincial capital, visiting with the Peace Corps medical staff. I've had a lot of time to think, and like always, the happenings of the past few weeks are much funnier in retrospect. So I've decided I'll share a story with you that at the time made me cry, and now just makes me laugh. Isn't that typically how life works?

So it was the first Tuesday of 2011. I had an early start to the day and boarded a bus from Lusaka to Petauke (my nearest "town") at 7AM. I had just traveled to Livingstone to visit Victoria Falls for the holidays, and was ready to return to the village swing of things. After a five hour bus drive I was in Petuake. Easy peezy. No stress. I call one of the taxi drivers that goes back and forth to my village each day and he says he's taking off at 2 o'clock. I typically bike to and from town, but due to the rains (see, all my problems starts with the rain), I've been biking less because of the muddy bush paths and sporadic thunder storms. Let me explain Zambian transport to you. First of all, the vehicles themselves would be in junk yards in America. They are dilapidated modes of transportation, but are regarded as a sign of status and have saved me from long bikes in the past so I can't completely knock them. Still, they're far from luxurious. Next, they pile in as many bodies that can fit. More passengers means more money. Of course. So there are usually five or six people sitting on each other on the back bench, and they usually let me have the front seat to myself. I know, I know, that sounds horrible and unfair. But they always insist, and while I love having Zambian babies sit on me for hours, they don't use diapers here. Catch my drift? So the car is loaded with people and products to sell in the village tuck shops, and we take off for home.

About thirty minutes into the ride, you guessed it, we get a flat tire. Not a major problem, right? Put the spare on and off we go. Well, life in Africa is never that simple. So two of the seven passengers jump on their bicycle and desert the scene. They had the right idea. I'm left with the driver, Mr. Phiri, and three Zambian women. Three Zambian divas. One of them is a teacher at a community school a few miles down the road from my house, and teachers have a stable salary, so they're regarded as a higher class than your average villager. They have no problem making you well aware of this fact. The teacher was with her two sisters. Two of them had faux fur coats on. Floor length coats. Do you know how much fake fur that is? Keep in mind they live in the village. Super practical. So they are strutting around the car, their high heels sinking into the muddy road, clearly unhappy with the situation. I'm in the front seat, the one place in the car where there is no door handle (remember the state of the cars here). I'm trapped.

Some strangers passing by stop and help with the tire -- God bless Zambian friendliness -- and off we go in the rains. Well, we don't make it very far. Not very far at all. Maybe a mile down the road we pull over. We're in a village now, a village full of men excited to help and children excited to stare at the white girl in the car. I watched from my perch in the front seat as the storm clouds crawled overhead, the sun set, and nighttime fell. The numbers on the digital clock danced as the hours passed. Seven o'clock. Eight o'clock. My fellow passengers paced around the car, battling the soft ground with their stilettos, arm extended into the air searching for cell phone network. Their only concern was talking to their father. My only concern was getting to my warm and safe bed. To each their own, I suppose. Still, it was quite a sight. The tired muzungu ("white person") fully equipped in her quick-dry camping gear, and my new friends, in skin tight dresses adorned with fancy belts and again, the coats. While some would say I look more prepared to take on the village, these women are actually from the village and know much more about it than me. Obviously their laundry skills far outweigh my own, or else they wouldn't be brave enough to have a fashion show in the bush.

It's nine o'clock. I haven't been in my hut for weeks -- I have a pit in my stomach about what I'm going to find there in the dark. You never know. Finally the men emerge from their work station with what looks like a salvageable tire. We start rolling, inching along, but at least we're moving. Relief floods through every part of me. Progress! Let's just say, what we saw by the glow of the headlight (only one worked, naturally), confirmed my reasoning for tucking into my mosquito net as the sun is setting. We saw more field mice than I could count, three black snakes, and one harmless toad cross our path. Zambia has made me afraid of the dark. Now you know why. We pull up to my hut after what feels like eternity to find that I have left my home with zero source of light awaiting me. Probably because I usually arrive home while it's still light out. Probably because it does not usually take eight hours to travel the 20 miles home!

With trembling hands I replace the batteries in the headlamp my mother sent me. I kid you not, I look like I'm ready to go cave mining when I wear this thing. (REI is a new concept for us Ohioans.) I secure this piece of equipment on my head, flip the switch, and I decide in a matter of moments I should probably head back to America in the morning. Termites have devoured my bookshelf. Half eaten books sit there, pathetically. The PEPFAR bag from my AIDS training is half gone. All that remains is the wooden male reproductive part that's for condom demonstrations. Thank goodness they varnished that guy! The plastic shielding my roof from the rats and other visitors in the thatch is down and my floor is a maze of puddles. Yes, when it rains outside my house it also rains inside. I cry for about five minutes, crawl into my bed, shut my eyes, and assume that I can deal with all of these problems in the morning.

Exams and traffic jams used to stress me out. Now it's termite mounds and thatched roofs. Who would have thought? I've learned a lot though. Don't keep anything made of paper or cardboard near your walls. Rain coats and chacos are indeed more practical, regardless of fashion. And just be ready for when the rains come, because when it rains it pours.

(Since this tragedy occurred, I have cemented my walls and found a way to laugh at the roller coaster ride that is Zambia. What's next? Only the weather can tell.)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Girls Just Want to Have Fun

I've managed to procrastinate updating this blog for a solid six months now. I'm embarrassed. I'm settling in with a cold coke and a new collection of music, with hopes that I can ignore my itchy mosquito bites long enough to regale you with tales from the bush.

I could offer a lengthy list of tedious excuses for my lack of posts here on Green Eggs and Zam, but I won't waste anyone's time. I may exist in an electricity-less world in my village, but that lends to even more time to contemplate what I could write. I think it comes down to two conflicting thoughts. Every time I have started an entry, one of two things happen. I become incredibly overwhelmed and have no idea where I should begin trying to explain my lifestyle, in a mud hut, in rural Africa. Words, pictures, nothing does justice. Imagine me carrying water on my head from the bore hole, battling rodents and termites for ownership of my thatched roof, teaching 60 first graders who know maybe a dozen English words. Slightly baffling, right? If I don't find myself in this state of stress, than I am at the opposite end of the spectrum and am boggled as to what to write about at all. This has become my life, and most things don't faze me anymore. This culture, these people, this is my reality and at times I wonder about who I was in America. I can't remember what life was like without the challenges and the beauty of Zambia. I forget that this is an extraordinarily unique circumstance. I suppose this is the point of Peace Corps, to become fully engaged in your community, so much so that you forget what life was like before you were a part of it. I absolutely still stand out (something about the color of my skin helps the cause), but the lines dividing who I am in and out of my village are quickly blurring. Life is crazy at times, yes, but it's all I know now. What would I ever have to say about it.

My guilt over these empty posts has brought me to you on this sleepy Thursday afternoon. I am in the provincial capital, bingeing on cold food and hot showers, and soaking up my connection to the internet. Wireless internet. Pure bliss.
* * *

It's a Monday afternoon, high noon has passed and the sun is no longer directly overhead, beating down with its fiery rays. It's October, officially "hot season", and the oppressive heat leaves me paralyzed most afternoons to do little more than to sit and sweat and sew. Mondays are different, because this is when the Chimphangala Women's Club meets in my front yard. I have freshly bathed to find some relief from the heat and to wash off the day's layer of dust, though in a matter of minutes my feet will be dirty and I'll be dripping in sweat...yet again. It's 3:00PM, the time we are scheduled to meet, which means that the members will start arriving in about an hour. Zambia functions on polychromatic time, unlike America's monochromatic culture, and have no real concept of time. They don't see time as wasted or lost, quite different from our linear and strict understanding of time back home. Meetings start on average two hours late. Especially school meetings. I go no where without a snack and a book. I'll have to relearn punctuality when I head back to the States. This is coming from the girl who showed up to every class in college 20 minutes early. See, I'm already Zambian.

Before I get ahead of myself, let me rewind and explain to you how this club came about. When I was initially posted at my site, six months ago, the women in the village immediately became my support system. They accepted me into their circle regardless of my novelty, the language barrier, or the color of my skin. They would sit with me for hours, keeping me company so loneliness wouldn't pay a visit. We shared cultures and lots of laughter with our broken English and Nyanja exchanges. I wanted to do something to thank them for welcoming me, and that's how this club started. I hosted a meeting for women who would potentially be interested in starting a club, and after 30 women showed up, I decided to pursue it. Jacob Village is tiny in comparison to most of the communities around me, so there are no clubs of any kind. This would be a space just for females, the women who became my best friends, a club all their own.

So Mondays have become our weekly meeting day. It's starting to cool off even more, and the ladies start moseying over to my hut one by one, with babies in tow. My yard quickly becomes an estrogen haven sprinkled with their toddlers and newborns. When you reproduce at the pace of a Zambian, it's no surprise the meetings function doubly as a day care. They sprawl on reed mats, braiding each other's hair, chit chatting like they're out to lunch at a Panera Bread in Columbus, Ohio. This is what is so special about this club for me. It gives these women a chance to just "be" together -- no families to feed, no fields to harvest, no water to fetch. They are constantly doing chores from 5AM to 8PM, taking care of everyone who lives on their compound. This means a dozen children, a husband, maybe even more than one husband. But come Monday afternoon, they are given an hour or two to just be girls, with each other, where no one asks anything of them.

Sarah begins with a prayer, typical in such a Christian nation, while her little girl, Greta, sits in her lap sucking her thumb. With that, the meeting is officially open. Margaret, my very best friend in the village and the sole reason I can survive the hardest of days, is the Chair Person and leads the conversation. She's fierce, confident, and means serious business. She is also the only English speaker in my village. Glorious. We begin with the debate over our first project. As mentioned above, Zambians move at a slow pace, so it's taken a long time to organize our thoughts and move in the direction of starting a project. On this particular day, we are debating who to give the money to once we make a profit from sewing and selling school uniforms. Charity wants the money to pay school fees for the orphaned children who live in Jacob. AIDS makes that number higher than I wish it was. She has only stopped by because she must go finish baking her bread to sell in the market tomorrow. She's tall and lean and her strong yet graceful presence sways the women to agree with her idea. Margaret, who cares for her grandparents, suggests giving money to the elderly, as well. Age is important here, and respect is a big part of that. The older you are, the more respect you deserve. The 70 year old woman in the club is greeted in a special way, I even bow to her, but her callused feet and hands are evidence of her hard work that merits days of rest. Again, this cultural norm leads the women to nod their heads in agreement.

With business taken care of, we move on to our next tradition, which is English lessons. Since my knowledge of Nyanja is moving at a Zambian pace, the women decided to meet me half way and try to learn English. I pass out the paper and pencils. The excitement is electrifying. The pencil sharpener now makes its way around the group. You would think I was handing out large sums of money. Their giddiness over a ripped half sheet of paper and #2 pencils makes me smile and tears swell at the corner of my eyes. This is why I'm here. To give 20 women, who have become my family, moments of happiness like this. So I begin the lesson, but quickly Margaret takes over because of my lack of Nyanja and her knack for leadership. They are learning the difference between "Good morning" and Good afternoon" (greetings are an important part of village life) and the verb "to be". I run inside to grab my camera and come back to find both Sarah and Margaret teaching the lesson from the flip chart paper covered in my bubbly handwriting and drawings. A couple high school girls, Susan and Vida, are helping a few of the older women who don't know how to write. Again, the tears come back. This is why I'm here. To help them start a club, give them this boost, and know that they can take care of each other when I pack my bags in two years.

The sun is starting to set, which means it's time for these women to chase down their kids for a bucket bath and to start cooking their second meal of the day. They take their notes from the class which I ended up spectating from the other side of my house where I sang songs with the kids. We close each meeting with singing and dancing, African style, which my American hips just can't manage.

The members of this club have taught me the definition of sisterhood. They have showed me a kind of generosity and friendship that I have never known, especially to someone who is so foreign to them. They give me hope for what we can be to each other in this world.

I look up at that pink sky and the tears come back again, because I remember that one day I will have to leave these women behind. But for now, I'm right here, with them, holding hands and dancing under the African sky.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

I’ve read that when you are in doubt about where you are meant to be, just look down at your feet. Over the course of the past few months, my feet have become well acquainted with the pedals of my bicycle, the dirt roads of rural Africa, and the permanent layer of dust against which the bucket baths have declared defeat. With the completion of my pre-service training, I stood on my two feet and recited the oath as I officially swore in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Now, far from where I began when I initially wrote to you, with Zambian soil in between my toes of my Chacos sun-tanned feet, I know I am exactly where I am supposed to be.

It would be impossible to entirely relay every experience, every emotion, every person, and every place of the past two months in a matter of words, but words could never do justice. Words can’t recreate the strength and bravery in my amayi’s smile, the sunsets over Mwampicanyah village from the football pitch, my mornings spent in Nyanja class where a jumble of letters and sounds finally became my new language, and the way I felt when I visited Jacob Village and people I had never met before showed me the rawest form of love and generosity I have ever witnessed. I can’t promise my stories here will touch upon even a tenth of my life here, but they will be 100% me, totally and uniquely mine.

So I survived pre-service training, the nine-week instruction process that volunteers say is the most tedious time of their service. Our daily schedules were excessively crammed in order to assure time for language class, technical training, medical training, HIV/AIDS training, and cultural training. Though it was exhausting at times, I can confidently say that Peace Corps worked relentlessly to assure that we are well equipped for our new lifestyles in our new environments. When we were not learning Peace Corps related skills like how to co-teach with a Zambian teacher, how to cope with malaria and the inevitable diarrhea, and how to carry on a conversation (an elementary level conversation, that is) in the local language, we were busy immersing ourselves with our home-stay families. I stayed in a village called Mwampikanya with my amayi, my mother, and two of her nine children who lived with her. She is a short and round woman who is energy on wheels; she only rests from her daily chores to eat nsima, to gossip with the other women (usually about me), and occasionally on a blistering hot afternoon, she escapes under one of the few trees on the compound and just sits. Zambians express their hospitality through food, so saying I was well fed would be an understatement. She joined me for lunch and dinner and I will always cherish that time together, mostly because it was the only time that she allowed herself to slow down and I could soak in her stories and her laugh. We talked about everything, though she spent most of the time explaining cultural norms to me so I wouldn’t slip and offend anyone in the village – kneecaps and above are off limits in public, underpants must be hung to dry in your hut, don’t acknowledge a women’s pregnancy until AFTER the baby is actually born, only eat with your right hand, and greet everyone you see, even if you’ve seen them three times already that day and you’re biking up a very steep hill. While Peace Corps handled logistics, she taught me the survival skills for life in the bush. I learned how to sweep the dust out of my hut and the dirt in my compound (it’s a real craft to separate the leaves and sticks from the dirt, seriously), how to wash my clothes (though she’s sincerely concerned I can’t handle any article of clothing that isn’t black), and how to cook nsima (the staple food made out of milimeal that I am not strong enough to stir…yet). I’ll just say overall she has genuine doubt in my domestic abilities, but African women work harder than any American housewife I’ve ever met. Sometimes we wouldn’t talk at all, we would just sit and stare at each other in the most comfortable silence. Just by our conversations, she showed me that despite our wildly different lives we could become family, and we did.

There were seven of us that lived in the village of Mwampikanya, a cozy little place about 5 kilometers from the training center surrounded by hills of corn fields. The villagers were so proud to have volunteers staying there and everyone knew us by name. All of our families were related to each other in some way or another, the true test of a small town. We spent our time there visiting the three tuck shops where we befriended the owners and stocked up on lollipops and biscuits, we played Scattegories and cards sprawled on reed mats, we joined the rest of the village every Sunday afternoon for the weekly football game, and we watched the sunset over our new home laughing and pinching ourselves because life was too good to be real. There is this enormous tree that stands as the highest point in of Mwampikanya, which was a beautiful prop for the sky at every point in the day, but sunsets were definitely my favorite. In my new, simpler life, I have come to see sunsets as a staple for the day. I would sacrifice a running toilet for the African sky any day.

About half way through training, we discovered through a piƱata game where we were going to be living for the next two years. Peace Corps likes to play the waiting game, so I was relieved, excited, and slightly terrified for all of this to become real in the name of a tiny village in Africa where I would be serving. I am going to be moving to Jacob Village in Petauke District in the Eastern Province in Zambia, but I can’t promise you google map will locate my mud hut. I traveled there about four weeks ago with my supervisor for my first taste of independence in the African bush. I am first generation, meaning that I am the first Peace Corps Volunteer that has ever lived there, so their enthusiasm was electrifying. I was greeted by a welcome ceremony of roughly 300 people who had traveled from neighboring villages to see me. I was presented with a plethora of gifts, including 20 pumpkins, 4 nsima spoons, and 7 live chickens. I have yet to kill a chicken, but thankfully my new neighbors were happy to do so in the name of meat for dinner. They danced and sang and cheered for me, it was by far one of the most memorable days of my life. I will never forget how I felt when these strangers fed me, spoiled me, and accepted me, because they already considered me a part of them, regardless of my novelty. That sort of raw human emotion is unique. It’s hard to come by that sort of generosity in many places I have visited, but not in Zambia, a place where people don’t even have anything to give.So tomorrow a cruiser will drop me off in the bush, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t scared. I feel like I have spent the last few months at summer camp, and now this is when the real journey begins, the kind of journey that’s both terrifying and exciting because you know it’s worth every risk. One of the greatest lessons I have learned so far in the Peace Corps is self-reliance, realizing that you are just enough. It is easy to get lonely when the sun sets at 6:00 and the lack of electricity paired with the lurking snakes and spiders keeps me inside my hut. It is times like this at night when there’s nothing but the company of your journal and your books that is the true test of being alone. Although I know these experiences are going to be much more intensified when I am alone in my village and I don’t have the security of Americans in neighboring family compounds, I already feel the impact of learning such a lesson. In realizing that you are the one you have been waiting for, you experience an overwhelming sense of contentment. I think that will be both my greatest challenge over the next several months, as well my greatest reward at the completion of my two years.For the next three months I will be in Community Entry, which is the Peace Corps’ terminology for the initial three months of service where the relationships formed will determine my service of the next two years. I am not allowed to leave my village to come to the Provincial House except for a day long meeting, in June, so my internet access will be bare to minimal in the bush. Hand written letters are still highly encouraged, and probably the best way for me to stay in contact with everyone. My new address, which will be my permanent address here is:

Maria Dixon
P.O. Box 560059
Petauke, Zambia

I continue to surprise myself everyday here. They say you should do one thing a day that scares you; try doing 100 things everyday that scare you. Regardless, here I am, with few doubts that this is where I am meant to be. Although, I can confidently write that if I am ever feeling shaky about my decision to be here, I never look down at my feet like the saying goes. I find it much more reassuring to look up at the African sky and then I know I am exactly where I am supposed to be – the clouds and the stars are much more encouraging than my clumsy feet.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Peace Out, America

I have to be honest. I decided that I would officially accept my Peace Corps invitation the day I heard Maria Shriver give the eulogy at her mother, Eunice’s, funeral. I know, I know, my obsession with the entire Shriver family is probably unhealthy and an extremely irrational source for my grown-up life decision-making, but she said something that really resounded with me. Maria said, “If mummy were here today she would pound the podium and ask each of you what you have done today to better the world.” I’ve always looked up to Eunice, someone who showed up in life as herself and worked tirelessly for a cause that was close to her. I thought about what I had done to better the world, and nothing momentous came to me. Sure, we all better the world by being good friends to the people in our lives, by participating in community service, and by the role models we are to the people around us, especially children. But there I was, a recent college graduate, with the world of opportunity at my fingertips, and I was definitely not changing the world as a nanny on Nantucket. I felt that this was my chance to better the world, or at least give it a try. I know I won’t walk away from my Peace Corps experience feeling as though I’ve changed the world or even a country, but I can only hope that I will leave Zambia having helped a few souls.

I take off for Philadelphia today for my staging/pre-orientation, and then on Wednesday, I leave for Zambia. Wednesday also happens to by my birthday…quite a way to start my 23rd year. Nothing like a solid 15 hour flight. My bags are packed, although they are definitely overweight and unmanageably large. I have said my goodbyes to a small portion of the people I would have liked to talk to, but I blame the last minute packing, and hence the overweight issue. I have taken in most of my favorite American dining, although I have a stash of sour patch kids for the plane, clearly. My emotions range from absolute fear to uncontainable excitement, the curse of my sleepless night and knotted stomach. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t doubting my decision, but I think this is the sort of feeling you are supposed to get before you take this sort of leap and dive into something different.

Unfortunately, I am not going to have internet access for the next couple of months because I will be training and staying with a host family. Based on the intensive schedule, I don’t think I’ll have much time for anything except sleep and maybe a bucket shower here and there. So this blog will be lifeless for a little bit of time, but I promise I will update as frequently as I can once I have access to my computer. Until then, here is my address and snail mail is always encouraged, you know how I love a good hand-written letter:

Maria Dixon/PCT

Peace Corps

P.O. Box 50707

Lusaka, Zambia

My mom asked me last night if I was going to be different when I came back. My immediate response, “Absolutely.” Then she said, “Just promise me I’ll be able to recognize you. No dreadlocks.” I’m sure I’ll look the same on the outside, aside for my unwashed hair and sunburns. As for the inside, I can’t promise anything. I hope it changes me, why else would you sacrifice so much and go on this sort of journey?

I’ll leave you with this. The following excerpt is from the book “Nine Hills to Nambonkaha” written by a Peace Corps volunteer, Sarah Erdman, who served in Western Africa. It was an amazing read and I soaked up every word she wrote. This is how she ended her introduction:

People ask me now, “What was Africa like?” I tell them that the place I came to know is laughing yet troubled, strong yet crippled, and dancing. Africa is like nothing I had known before, until I knew it better. But to really explain it, I have to start from the beginning.

So here is to my beginning, let’s hope it’s dancing…