Banene

I think that spunky little old ladies are a universal constant. Even here, where women wake up early to cook for their families, carry over a hundred of liters of water each day, labor all day in the gardens, help their husbands work in the fields, and work past dark preparing nshima for dinner, old women still manage to be spunky.

One of my favorite people in my village is my host grandmother, or “banene” in Tonga. She is agelessly ancient– she looks old and delicate, but I’ve seen her carrying 20 Liters of water and hoeing in the fields like it is the easiest thing in the world. And she will probably look the same, and be doing the same, physically demanding chores for years to come.

Banene speaks no English, so we never actually communicate with words, but she’s still one of my best friends. Whenever she comes by, we hug and greet each other profusely. She spends the next 5 minutes jabbering away at me in deep Lenje, with me nodding and trying desperately to follow the conversation, then we say goodbye. She follows the old customs of clapping and kneeling to greet people, and I find myself doing the same. The Lenje she speaks is different, probably less corrupted, than what I hear normally– she is a sort of glimpse for me into what my area used to be like, and it is fascinating.

Like most people here, banene does little side projects to help generate a little income. I remember when I first met her she was going through my trash pit, looking for discarded chip bags or other wrappers that are colorful on one side and silver on the other. I didn’t know what she wanted them for, but I helped her to sort through my trash. A few weeks later, she showed up to my door with the finished product: a decorative wall-hanging. People make rugs here by weaving 4-inch long strips of chitenge through an old mealie meal sack: down, up, and then knotted, leaving the two loose ends up. It makes a fluffy, colorful, functional rug. Well, banene does the same, but uses strips of chip bags, and the finished result is a “colorful and sparkly accent to any candlelit room.” At least it would be if she was advertising on Etsy.

Recently, PLAN international, an NGO working in my area, held a meeting for the entire community about building preschools. There were at least 60 community members there, and the discussions went on for hours. We had to talk about why preschools are important. Where we could put them. What children should learn. How they could fit in to the school curriculum. It was a long meeting. The upside of PLAN meetings, though, is that afterwards we all get fed. They arrange for boxes of biscuits and sodas, and for local ladies to cook chicken, nshima, and cabbage for the horde. So, after the meeting, banene and I were sitting, getting our biscuits and soda, and waiting for food. Feeling pretty smart, I saved my biscuit wrapper to use as a plate, ready for the forthcoming meal. Then I looked over and banene, grinning, reached into her bag and pulled out a plate, fork, and cup. Someday I hope that I can be as cool, and as prepared, as this little African lady…

The real trick is…

People here find Americans unfriendly, which really isn’t too surprising. We tend to mind our own business, to not impose on strangers by forcing them into a conversation. It’s just polite. Here in Zambia, though, saying hi to people is the norm. In Tonga, the morning greeting is, “How have you woken?”, in the afternoon, it’s “How’s the afternoon?”, after dark it’s “How is your evening?”. The response is usually “Fine”, though sometimes you’ll get the regal, “We have woken.” or, “Our afternoon is good.” In English, you get the ubiquitous, “How are you?”, to which the expected answer is “Fine.” When my family was here, my parents took a certain amount of (slightly) evil enjoyment out of responding with things like, “It is a fantastic day, and this is a phenomenal trip, so we are wonderful.” Cue blank stares.

In my village it makes sense to pass greetings out right and left: I know just about everybody and am happy to say hi and to chat a bit about our families. I’m never in a hurry to get anywhere, so it’s nice to pause in the shade and briefly catch up. However, when I go to Chibombo, my nearest town, or one of the big cities, the greeting thing can feel a little silly. I can’t count the number of extended conversations I’ve had in the middle of the street with complete strangers. If I’m in a good mood, and not in a hurry, it’s fine, but some days a 10 minute dialogue is just beyond me for one reason or another. Walking down a crowded sidewalk can be exhausting, having to greet everyone you pass, and people are always eager to greet me. Zambians can walk past each other with simple eye contact or a slight nod, but everyone wants to actually talk to a muzungu. So much for enjoying the life of a minor celebrity.

Greeting is also a bit awkward when I’m biking to town. It’s difficuly to get, “Mwalibiha buti” out while zipping past someone, and even harder to catch their response and returned greeting. Waving sometimes works, but frequently people want to wave AND verbally greet, so I usually just start off using my words. There are several little veggie stands between me and town, and the women selling there recognize me and call out greetings as I bike past. Sometimes we’ll even have brief, shouted, Tonga conversations, along the lines of “Back already?” “Yes: I just had to go to the post office.”

I also make a point of greeting everybody biking or walking up the opposite side of the road, yelling or waving across two lanes of traffic. I’ve been here long enough that some people recognize me, but some are still surpised when they hear me speaking Tonga. One day I almost made a man fall off his bicycle, he was so startled to hear me greet. I have to admit, seeing the surprise, wonder, or excitement on people’s faces when they hear me talk is one of my favorite parts of being able to speak even a little Tonga. I love greeting little old ladies, who break into huge, gummy grins when they hear me talk. I love greeting little kids, who shriek with excitement. I love greeting bamaas on their way to market, who smile and wave, balancing huge baskets of vegetables on their heads.

I have found that there is a downside to indiscriminantly greeting as I bike past, though: it can be difficult to tell what people are doing, especially if they’re across the road from me. So the last time I biked to town, I greeted a man standing by his bicycle, facing away from the road. He turned his head, nodded, and I just kept going. A minute later I realized what had happened: you see, the real trick is to not greet someone while they’re peeing…

Kulamba Kubwalo

There are not very many traditional ceremonies here in Zambia. Surprising? To me it was: this is a country with many tribes, each with it’s own rich, unique heritage, and surely every tribe at some time had many ceremonies. Now, though, there are only 2 or 3 listed in tourbooks or covered during our training. So you can imagine how surprised I was when I found out that Chibombo has it’s very own traditional ceremony.

Last year, 2 days after I’d been posted to my village, I woke up and realized that nearly everyone was gone. I ran into one of my friends later that day, and asked him what was going on. “Ah, everyone has gone to the traditional ceremony.” I asked him what it was a ceremony for. “It is to bring the rain. But I don’t like that: only the Lord God can send the rain. So I have stayed here.” It rained the next day.

This year I was determined to make it to the ceremony and experience some traditional culture for myself. I didn’t know when it would be held until a week before, and I didn’t know quite where, but the morning of the ceremony I hopped on my bike and headed off. I had asked for directions, so I was heading down the road ‘near the one past the post office’ and the ceremony would be ‘where the road turns right (with a gesture left), a bit off the road.’ I found the right road, and luckily there were enough people going to the ceremony that it was easy to tell which right turn in the road was the one I wanted.

When I arrived, I locked my bike to a tree and started wandering around. There were rows and rows of food stalls, each selling the usual nshima, chicken, and cabbage. There were women walking around selling fritters out of buckets carried on their heads without a steadying hand. There were people selling everything from hairpieces to shirts to carved walking sticks. There was a ring-toss game set up, made from bottles set in concentric circles. And there were more people than I have seen in one place since coming to this country.

I eventually made my way through this maze, following the sound of music to an enclosed lawn with a large pavilion on one side and a stage in the center. Here, finally, was where the ceremony would be.

The festivities were set to begin at 9, but I have lived here long enough to know that, when I showed up at noon, they would just be getting started.

First, there were 3 chiefs in attendance, and each proceeded with due pomp to his place under the pavilion. Each one came in separately, in a parade of singing women, shouting men, and twirling guards. The chiefs were dressed in full regalia, with togas of brightly colored cloth, ceremonial swords or switches, and animal-skin headdresses. The guards wore leopard skins and carried spears.

When the chiefs had all settled into place, troupes of dancers took turns on the stage. They were accompanied by drummers and singers, and sometime audience members. There seemed to be no rule against just jumping on the stage if the spirit moved you.

Eventually the dancing was over, and then the modern portion of the ceremony, the endless speech-making, began. We heard speeches from several district officials as well as the guest of honor, each given in English and translated to Lenje. It turns out that the ceremony has nothing to do with rain, instead it’s a celebration of history.

Hundreds of years ago, the mother of the Lenje chiefs led a group of her people out of the Congo. They traveled for many months, and finally settled here, in Chibombo. This ceremony is celebrating that trip, and the wisdom of remaining in this place. It’s a beautiful sentiment, and I can only imagine how fun the celebration would have been maybe 100 years ago. Then I’m sure everyone would be dancing and singing and ululating, and it would last all night long. As it is now, it is a fun and exciting day: I enjoyed watching the dancing and the chiefs’ processions. And maybe remembering history can help to bring the rain, too, which would definitely be a nice mbasela (bonus).

Note: I have videos and pictures for this one, I promise. I’ll put them up in a few weeks when I get computer access.

Football!

In Zambia, as in most of the world, the game known as “football” is what we call soccer in America, and it is definitely the most popular sport around. Zambia’s national team is “Chipolopolo,” which means ”copper bullet,” and from what I can tell, they usually play decently. Any day that there’s a game, you can be sure that everyone will be wearing their Chipolopolo jerseys and sporting their Chipolopolo scarves and knit caps, even when it’s almost 100 degrees out. Team spirit is much more important than personal comfort. In town, all of the bars or restaurants with a television will be packed, and here in the rural villages everyone gathers at households with a radio. Stores will close, people will pack up their market tables, and cows and goats will be left unattended. Everything just takes a bit of a break during the game.

As you might expect, though, the real fun comes from actually playing football. There are official league games between schools, there are organized games between the villages in my area, there are pick-up games that all the young men play in a nearby maize field, and there are the endless skirmishes in our yard between all the village kids. Many days I’ll be sitting in my house, and I’ll hear a kid, who speaks hardly any English, triumphantly shout “Four to Zero! I win!” Then of course a new game starts right up.

Several of the kids, the older boys especially, seem to do nothing with their spare time except playing football. They get home from school, rush through their chores, then spend the next several, very hot, hours playing, until it eventually gets too dark to see.

What fascinates me, though, is what they play with. The more official, organized games use a raggedy old ball, which is pretty much what I expected. The kids, though, will make a ball out of nearly anything. They will stuff a plastic bag full of trash and play with that. They will wad old cloth scraps together. They will tie a holey mealie-meal sack (think woven plastic feed bag) into a ball using bark-fiber twine. I am constantly amazed at the ingenuity that goes into making a ball out of trash, though I must admit that my favorite part is watching emergency in-game ball repairs. Everyone crowds around and tries to help re-stuff or re-tie whatever had come undone, then there’s a scuffle for who gets the ball, and the game’s back on. I’ve seen some pretty sneaky goals get scored when half the kids didn’t realize the ball was back in play already.

In the last month, though, all that has changed. My mother found online something called “One World Futbol Project,” which has developed a puncture-proof soccerball. With a donation to their project, they will send one superball to you, and one to a village where they are based, somewhere in South America. So, a few weeks ago I got a care package from home, and inside was a superball.

This ball is regulation size and weight, but it is made out of thick, rubbery plastic that is rigid enough to hold its shape and act inflated (e.g. bounce), even though the ball isn’t airtight. I guess it’s not truly puncture-proof, but punctures just don’t make a bit of difference. As was well tested on the first day I brought it out, when one of the kids accidentally kicked it into a pile of very thorny acacia branches. We had to pick the spikes out, but the ball was unharmed.

Now, instead of using trash balls, the kids will spend hours each day playing with the “big ball.” At this point, I estimate that the ball has seen over 100 hours of rough playing time. It is starting to show some signs of wear, but it still works just as well as when I first brought it out. Eventually I think the kids will have to go back to their more creative balls, but they have sure gotten a lot of enjoyment out of playing with a real ball. I just hope that when it finally does wear out they haven’t forgotten how to tie knots in bark-fiber twine!

Wasp Wars

I am not scared of wasps. I just want to put that right out in the open, so you don’t get the wrong idea about me. In fact, I mostly think that wasps are pretty spiffy insects. There are several species of wasp that live in my hut, and they are welcome.

There are the yellow and black ones with looong stripey legs. They like to chew small tunnels in my walls and lay their eggs there. I have wasps that are mostly shiny black, but the back third of their abdomen is bright orange, as if they were carefully dipped in paint. They also lay their eggs in tunnels they chew in my walls. There are small metallic green wasps that bore into the wooden rafters on my roof to make their nests. There are dark wasps with orangy-red wings and orange eyes that build little mud tubes for their eggs on my walls and furniture. All these wasps and I live pretty happily together, and they are all very mellow individuals.

When Squeak was a kitten, he loved to bat a passing wasp out of the air and play with it for a while before eating it. He will still take a swipe at any wasp that flies too close. Despite all of that, I’ve never seen one of my house wasps try to sting him. One day I accidentally bumped into a wasp’s mud tube while she was inside. She flew out, buzzed around a bit, then settled back down, all without even threatening to sting me. So I’m happy to let all of these friendly wasps share my living space.

Sometimes living with wasps can be a little strange. I can actually hear them munching away at my walls, which was disconcerting until I figured out what was doing the munching: wasps are fine, mice or rats are not. Every day I have to sweep out little piles of chewed wall that collect under the tunnels. Sometimes I find mud tubes built in strange and inconvenient places, like in my hollow pot handles.

Funniest, though, is when the wasps start laying their eggs and bringing in food for their eventual offspring. What they do is dig a tunnel (or build a tube), lay an egg in it, then go and sting a caterpillar to stun it and seal it into the tunnel with their egg. The caterpillar stays alive long enough fo

r the egg to hatch and the wasp larva to have a delicious, fresh meal. That’s the plan, anyhow. When Squeak comes into the picture, things change.

Mamma wasp still digs her tunnel and lays her egg, but sometimes she gets intercepted by my fierce hunter on her way back into the hut with her caterpillar. Mostly she’ll get away, but often the caterpillar gets dropped and forgotten. Then eventually it starts to wake up; it is not uncommon for me to find groggy caterpillars trying to make their way across the floor. You wouldn’t think it was possible for a caterpillar to weave drunkenly, but they do.

So, mostly I don’t mind living with wasps, since the ones that choose my hut share my live-and-let-live attitude.

I have had some run-ins with an aggressive type of wasp recently. Unfortunately, this particular type of wasp seems to like to build its nest under the eaves of my chimbuzi, or toilet. There’s never a good time to get attacked by a wasp, but right as you’re ducking into the bathroom is definitely a bad time. Aggressive wasps call for aggressive measures, so I have made good use of my spray can of Doom. I have gassed 3 mean wasps, pulling down their paper nests each time. The first one managed to sting me, since I didn’t even know to look for it when ducking under the eaves. The score currently stands at
Jaime: 3, Mean Wasps: 1
I just hope that they give up and start building somewhere else. Or maybe they can learn from my house wasps and we can all live together happily. Is universal peace and tranquility really too much to ask?

Unrelated to wasps, but this is how my world looks this week.

Adventureous Alphabetting

Every morning I go out to a yard full of children. This has been happening for the last month or so, and is because a nursery school, what we would call a preschool, has opened in my insaka. Eventually there will be an actual school building, but for now I’ve volunteered the shade of my kitchen, and that means that I get to experience nursery school each day along with all of the kids.

The school is open to all children in the area who haven’t started basic school so the group is about 30 kids between the ages of 3 and 7. And, boy, are they excited to learn! As they’re gathering in the hour before class starts they sing the days of the week at the top of their lungs, to the tune of “Oh, my darlin’ Clementine,” which, of course, gets it firmly stuck in my head for the rest of the day.

When 8 o’clock finally comes around, it’s
Teacher: Good morning class!
Chorus of small voices, nearly in unison: Good morning sir!
T: How are you?
Half the Chorus: I’m fine and how are you?
at the same time, Other half of the Chorus: We are fine and how are you?
T: We
Chorus: We
T: We are fine and how are you?
Chorus: We are fine and how are you? (of course there are still a few “I’m fine’s” in there, too)
And that just gets the morning started. Everything is taught in English, by listening and repeating. They did the colors last week
T: This is pink. Say “Pink”
Chorus: Pink
T: What color is this?
C: Pink
T: What color is this?
C: Pink
T: What color is this?
C: Pink
T: This is blue. Say “Blue”
C: Blue
T: What color is this?
C: Blue
T: What color is this?
C: Blue
T: What color is this?
C: Blue
T: What color is this?
C: Pink
T: What color is this?
C: Blue
and so on, for two hours.

Some days they do numbers from one to ten, sometimes colors, and sometimes days of the week. Yesterday they did basic English nouns, like “bowl,” “cup,” and “spoon.” My favorite, though, is when they practice the alphabet.

First of all, it’s to a different tune than ours. No more Baa Baa Black Sheep or Twinkle Twinkle Little star. Second, a few of the letters have different names. Z, for example, is “Zed,” and F is “Efoo.” Third, though, is that the alphabet is hard and there are a lot of letters to remember in the right order. So this is what I hear on alphabet days.

Everyone can agree on the first bit: “Aee, Bee, CeeDee. Eee, EFooGee. AicH, Eye, JayKay.”
Then things get a little more creative. If all the kids are singing together, this section is a jumbled hodgepodge of letters, and you can’t really make out what anyone’s saying. If it is just one, child singing, though, you may hear something like:
“El, Dee, Emm, Oh. Que, Cee, Pee, DoubleU.”
Then, finally, in roaring unison, you get:
“Ex, Why, and Zed!” With “Zed” shouted loudly and triumphantly. So alphabet days make me laugh, and I enjoy them immensely. I actually think I’ll be a little sad when they finally learn the standard alphabet: this free-form version is just so much more creative and entertaining.

Nothing but lettuce

 My garden looks fantastic. It’s my pride and joy here, so I’ll allow myself to brag a little. My veggies are all thriving, and really my two 1m x 18m garden beds look more like strips of jungle than neat, orderly cultivation. I have all the summer crops, like tomatoes, zucchini, and beans, as well as onions, celery, and several kinds of lettuce. I also have what might be the world’s largest parsley plant, a monster almost 3ft in diameter and 2ft high. There are a smattering of other veggies, like cabbage, cucumbers, broccoli, pumpkins, rutabagas, garlic, radishes, and green peppers, as well as a selection of flowers including nasturtiums, poppies, sunflowers, marigolds, and lupine. So I have quite a variety of plants, and I spend a lot of my time slathered with sunscreen and weeding, harvesting, or watering.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Right now we are moving out of cold season and into our hot, dry season, so the weather has been warm and sunny. Perfect growing weather, if you can keep everything moist enough. I spend about two hours every day watering my garden by hand, making innumerable trips from a nearby well and toting what seems like an infinite number of buckets full of water. My neighbors are all very impressed, as they are any time I do anything resembling physical labor. Many of them water their gardens using gas-powered pumps, but many also use buckets, so I have to laugh when someone comes up to me and says, ‘Ah, you. You work very hard.’ While I’m watering 36 square meters by hand, they are carrying enough water for acres of onions, tomatoes, rape, and watermelon; there’s really no question in my mind about who is working hard. At least I’m getting a good reputation, however little I think I deserve it.

If I’ve spent a lot of time in my garden this last month, then so has everyone else: apparently this is the right time of year for growing everything. All of the gardens are clustered together in a ‘dambo’ area, or a low-lying area where the water table stays within ~2m of ground level. While in months past my garden was a place of solitude, now it has become the center of my social life. Absolutely every man, woman, and child spends at least a few hours in their garden each day, and we all greet and chat with each other while we’re working.

Many times I’ll be working away and a group of kids will come over and want a short tour of my garden. They want to see, and sample, everything that I am growing. My cherry tomatoes are especially popular, though everybody is shocked that ‘they do not grow’, and I always spend a lot of time explaining that you don’t exactly eat basil, parsley, mint, or cilantro, that you use just a small amount for flavor. It’s a strange concept to people who don’t use any spices other than salt.

Prudence, my 6 year old host sister, loves to come over when the family and I are out at the same time. Today we all walked out to the gardens together, laughing and skipping the whole way. When we got there, Prudence and I started playing her favorite garden game: she points to plants and asks what they are. We usually start with the easy ones that she knows, like onions and tomatoes, but then she’ll start asking about ones she hasn’t seen before. So today we worked our way through radishes, rutabagas, basil, and parsley, and then she pointed to a head of lettuce. ‘It’s lettuce’ I said. She pointed to a tuft of wrinkly leaf lettuce. ‘That’s lettuce, too.’ She pointed to some romaine. ‘That’s also lettuce.’ Finally she pointed out a bunch of red oak-leaf lettuce. ‘I know, but it’s lettuce, Prudence.’

I could just see her puzzlement: how can such different-looking plants all be lettuce? This one’s red, even! Then an idea seemed to dawn on her, she grinned in understanding. ‘Ba Jaime,’ she said, gesturing to my whole garden, ‘leonse lettuce!’ (It’s ALL lettuce!)

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Playing Catch-Up (again)

Hello, everybody!

I realize that I have been incredibly bad at keeping you updated on my life here in Zambia, and I appologize. I have made a 13-month resolution to be a better person and update my blog regularly, so hopefully that will actually happen.

In May, my family from America came to visit for a few weeks, which was wonderful. They got a chance to see my village and meet all of my friends and neighbors, as well as just experiencing life in rural Zambia. We fetched water, scrubbed clothes by hand, bathed out of a bucket; everthing that has just become normal living to me. We worked in my garden, colored with the kids, and chatted with everyone we ran into. It was all very relaxed, and good for just sitting around and catching up after a year apart.

After spending those few days in my village, we went on a 3-day safari in South Luangwa National Park, which was absolutely fantastic. We stayed at Flatdogs safari camp, in “Luxury Safari Tents”, which was quite an experience. Each tent was a huge canvas affair, more like a pavillion than anything, and large enough to park 3 or 4 cars in. Each tent was set up on a concrete slab and sheltered by a thatched roof, so it was like having a tent built inside a carport. And, craziest of all, each tent contained its own bathroom, complete with shower, sink, and toilet. Basically, these “tents” were nicer than any hotel room I’ve ener stayed in, and I had to laugh that they had electricity and running water, while my house here has neither.
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Enough about the accomodations, though: the safari was incredible, too. We saw so many amazing animals, and all up much closer than I had ever imagined. There were elephants and hippos, buffalo and zebras, giraffes and warthogs, and more antelope than you can possibly imagine. We saw hyenas, lions and a leopard; and we must have seen a hundred different species of bird. It was amazing.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After our three days there, we headed to Livingstone to see Victoria Falls, which was just incredible. I had gone in January with some friends, and we had gotten soaked from the spray of the falls, and I had thought that was impressive. This time, though, there was substantially more water coming over the falls, and the spray was completely drenching. At one point you get to walk in front of the falls on a bridge over the river, and there was a flood of water comming down the bridge that made it hard to walk without slipping. Victoria Falls is one of the natural wonders of the world, and there is no question why: it really is wonderful and awe-inspiring.

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After a few days in Livingstone, it was time to put my family on an airplane and send them home. I returned to my village, settled back into my regular routine, and have mostly been doing that for the last few months. I have gotten a lot of gardening and coloring done, as well as a little fish farming. I have held a few meetings to teach people how to plan out and construct fishponds, which I think were successful. In the next few months I’m hoping to have several farmers build ponds, so I guess I’ll see how effective my teaching was!

So that’s where I’m at: life continues as usual. I’m making progress in my project, even if it is slow, and I’m enjoying the beautiful weather. We are just turning the corner from cold season to hot season, so I’m appreciating what cool we have while it lasts. I’m also appreciating that all of the trees are blooming right now, and are just beautiful. The tree over my dish rack is covered in blossoms, and more often than not I bring in my dishes full of little white flowers. The mangos are also blooming, and while they don’t have beautiful flowers, seeing the green, bean-sized mangos makes my mouth water in anticipation. So, basically, life is good, and I can’t ask for much more than that.

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I am fatter

There are 2 Peace Corps volunteers in my district: myself and my friend, Amanda. We look nothing alike. I have midlength, wavy, brown hair. Amanda has long, straight, blonde hair. Our faces are completely different. Our clothes are completely different. Just about the only physical characteristic we have in common is that we’re both just over average height, within an inch of each other.

All of that being said, people here cannot tell us apart. One white person is the same as another, I guess. When we go to town, it is hit or miss whether a person knows us, collectively, as ‘Jaime’ or ’Amanda’. It’s almost like being in a Shakespearian comedy, with identical twins confusing themselves, each other, and all the innocent bystanders.

A few weeks ago, I was in my market buying onions. My market is about halfway between my village and town, right on the main road. Many people there know me, and most everyone there recognizes me and greets me as a friend.

I had made my purchase and was headed toward my bicycle, when a man greeted me. I didn’t recognize him, but he clearly knew me, so we started talking. I should say here that I have met literally hundreds of people in the last 6 months, so it is not unusual for someone to know me without me immediately remembering them. So, I was chatting with this man I didn’t recognize, and I became more and more sure I didn’t know him. Not that it mattered- he seemed pleasant enough, and I was happy to talk. After about 10 minutes the conversation ran down, and he said, “Go well. You are headed home to 4-ways?”

Finally! Everything made sense: Amanda lives at 4-ways. I live in Chankumba, about 50Km away.

“Ah,” I say, “you have me confused with my friend. There are 2 of us, you see. She lives at 4-ways; I live in Chankumba, just there.”

“Oh, sorrysorry!” He said, “Yes, I can see now I was confused. You and your friend look just alike. Except you, you are fatter.”

Yes, it’s true: Amanda is slimmer than I am. I know I’m not built for skinny jeans. But it’s still surprising to hear it that bluntly. And here’s the thing: that’s a fantastic compliment here. In a country where disease and malnutrition are serious threats, being well-fed is a very good thing. I know exactly what was going on in this man’s head: “Oh, no! I’ve just confused this woman with her friend (bad in any culture). Quick! Say the nicest thing you can to her!”

And here, that’s “You’re fatter.” If this has happened in America, he would have probably said, “But you’re hotter.”

So my hope is, by the end of my 2 years, that I won’t have a visceral, negative reaction to being called fat. Maybe being here will help balance the slimmer-is-better that we get flooded with back home. It is really strange to see your culture from the other direction, to know that you are the ridiculous one, that being well-fed is desirable. It just sucks to be called fat all the time… believe me.

Afternoon Adventures

 I am not an incredibly busy person. Most of my days are filled with, well, day-to-day things, and there is very little that is fish-farming or development related. I spend time cooking, washing, fetching water, sweeping, and working in my garden. This week I spoke a little about fish farming at 2 separate meetings, and I consider that a pretty big week. Like I said: not busy.

Almost every afternoon, though, I have a very important engagement. I’ll be in my hut or sitting on my stoop, writing a letter or sewing a patch, and I’l hear a quiet voice, “Ba Jaime? Tulayanda kupinta…” (Ms Jaime? We would like to color…)

There will be a group of kids smiling and half-hiding behind a tree, shy even though we do this almost every day. The spokesperson for the group is usually Prudence, my 6 year old host sister, though sometimes one of the other kids will get up the courage to ask. So, I go into my hut and bring out coloring books and markers, and we all color together. My group of kids is sometimes only two or three, but some days I have more than ten crowded around, sharing markers and choosing pages to color. We’ll spend an hour or two together, them chattering away in Lenje and me understanding very little. Eventually some unspoken signal passes around and the markers are collected and the books returned, ready for the next day’s coloring committee meeting.

That is how I spend most afternoons. Sometimes, though, I don’t want to color; when the request comes, I’ll say, “Tuyapinta chifumo.” (We’ll color tomorrow). What a terrible person, to refuse these kids their afternoon entertainment, right? But those days I have something even better than coloring. Earlier this month I turned 26, and one of my wonderful friends back home sent me a birthday package which included about 2 dozen balloons. So, on those non-coloring days I can pull out a balloon and set everyone loose playing with that.

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The first day I brought out a balloon, the kids weren’t exactly sure what to make of it. They tried throwing it to each other, until I demonstrated the proper balloon-bopping technique. Then it took a while to figure out that it would mostly go with the breeze, rather than to where you’d hit it. Eventually we all got the hang of it, and played a rousing game of don’t-let-the-balloon touch-the-ground (ok, maybe I need to work on the name some). Every time the someone would hit the balloon there would be shrieks of laughter; if someone missed, even more laughing. It was so much fun. Of course after a while someone walloped the balloon into my thatch one time too many, and the resulting bang left a stunned silence. Followed by gales of laughter.

That was it for that day, but I’ve brought balloons out a few times since, and they’re always a huge hit. So now my afternoons are filled with either coloring or shrieks of joy, and are frequently my favorite part of the day. I can only imagine the fun we’ll have when I first
bring out the Frisbee…

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