Jimmy the Donkey

Practically all of the animals in Zambia are free-range, which seems to lead to an unending parade of strange, irritating, or comic encounters. I’m constantly chasing chickens, goats, and cows away from my dishes or laundry or simmering dinner. Most of the young boys in the village seem to have a full-time job keeping livestock out of maize fields and gardens, and more than once I’ve seen people chasing a goat which has swiped something vaguely edible, like a pair of trousers. We often have to run the cows out of our compound, where they come to eat any mangoes that are within tongue’s reach. It always seems vaguely out of place to me to see an 80lb child running after a full grown bull shouting ‘eway!’ (Bemba for ‘you’, somewhat disrespectful). It makes me think of the old joke about calling a 1000lb gorilla ‘sir’.

While I’ve gotten hours of entertainment and frustration out of all these others, my favorite of the roving animals is Jimmy the donkey. I have to admit that Jimmy holds a special place in my heart partly because of his name. My name is ‘Jaime’, which is apparently a difficult one for Zambians to say. So frequently I’ll cause confusion when I introduce myself, and they think I’ve said ‘Jimmy’. “But that’s a man’s name!” is the most common response. So I’ve taken to introducing myself as “Jaime. Almost like Jimmy the donkey, but not quite.” Everybody seems to know Jimmy the donkey. Technically he belongs to my family, but he’ll wander miles around, braying mournfully and looking for other donkeys. There is nothing more pathetic-sounding than a lonely donkey; the braying is almost like uncontrollable sobbing. Occasionally my family will try to restrain him by tying him to a tree. This usually stops him from wandering, but makes him cry even more. And eventually he gets tired of standing and walks off. Still tied to the tree. Today he was meandering with about 10 foot of tree branch dragging behind him on a rope.

So Jimmy is my favorite because he makes me laugh and he doesn’t try to eat my laundry. And if he’s tried to walk through my front door a few times, who’s to blame him? I should learn to keep my door closed.

Chicken Run

I have had a busy, exciting week, and it is a relief to put up my feet and tell you about it.

I helped two farmers to stake, or lay out, ponds, and two others to select sites for new ponds. In all cases, I got a lunch of nishima and relish for my troubles. Nishima, the staple food here, is a thick corn pudding about the consistency of mashed potatoes. You eat with your hands, and use small lumps of nishima to pick up morsels of other food, called relish. Relishes can be sauteed vegetables, like cabbage or rape, or meat, usually cooked with tomatoes. I was served fish, goat, and chicken, and they were all delicious. It is very gratifying that people think my help is valuable enough to deserve a meal as thanks.

Though starting my fish work was exciting, my biggest accomplishment this week was to get the chickens in my area vaccinated against Newcastle’s disease. Newcastle’s is a big problem here, and can wipe out over half of the chickens in a village each year.  This is a big deal when people ‘store’ wealth in their chickens. A family’s chickens are like a bank account- if they ever need cash, they can always sell a bird, and the hens hatching chicks acts as a sort of interest. So losing a flock to disease can be disastrous. Knowing this, I had been in contact with Loveness Muntemba, a field agent for the Department of Veterinarians, to organize a vaccination day. Everyone was interested in getting their birds vaccinated, so we spent all of Friday biking from house to house, vaccinating birds. We managed to do about half of the households in three villages, with a promise to return and complete the ones we missed. It was a very productive day, and we were both very pleased.

My favorite part of the whole process was the catching of the chickens. Each family has anywhere from five to thirty birds, all free range and pretty wild. The Zam-proven method for catching a chicken is with a thundering herd of children. We would sit, amused, watching two or three kids sprinting after a single bird. They would corner it, one would make a swipe, which the chicken would usually manage to evade, and they were all off again. Eventually they would manage to snag it, and the triumphant child would swagger over to us, holding his or her prey. The other children would at that point be after the next unfortunate bird. We had one very proud little boy, maybe 5 years old, present us with an armful as big as he was; he must have been carrying six chickens.

After watching the kids yammering up and down after every single bird, it was almost a shame that all we needed to do was drip one drop of vaccine in an eye, and the chicken was free again. But the children were having a ball, the adults were enjoying the entertainment, and the chickens were no worse for the wear. What more could you ask from a day’s work?

Gettin’ Down to Business

I’ve been here for a month now, and several of my loyal readers have asked me how the tilapia aquaculture is going. That’s my job here, after all: to promote small-scale, sustainable fish farming in rural Zambia.

Well, the answer is that I haven’t really started yet. The first 3 months spent in your village is a period called ‘Community Entry’, during which Peace Corps encourages you NOT to work on your project much, especially in the beginning.  The idea is that we Americans tend to jump into working right away; that we would start digging ponds just as soon as possible. But in Zambia, people value relationships over productivity (crazy, I know…). Even if I don’t manage to do a single thing in my 2 years here, as long as I am friendly and a good person, my village will be happy to have had me. So Community Entry is a time to start building friendships and working relationships with anyone and everyone. My job for the last month has been to bike around and introduce myself to all of the local headmen and headwomen, to attend cooperative meetings, and to chat with people I pass on the road. Very little in the way of fish.

This week, though, I made a big step in starting my aquaculture work: I held a village meeting. The idea was to introduce myself (again!), talk a bit about Peace Corps, and explain what I hope to do here for the next 2 years. I did my best to speak in Tonga, which always makes people laugh. I have to remind myself that they are not laughing at me, they are laughing because they are surprised to hear a white person speaking Tonga. I managed to explain myself pretty well, but needed help translating when people started asking me questions afterwards. At the end of the meeting I had a list of about 12 people interested in fish farming. Some already have ponds and some are just getting started, but they all seem enthusiastic.

So next week I may have a fish story to share!

Warning: May Contain Watermelons

This week has been pretty momentous: I got 2 marriage proposals during a trip to town, I made a toddler scream with the horror of my pale visage, and I have been having fun with, you guessed it, watermelons.

On Monday, I was biking home from a meeting of the farmer’s cooperatives in the area, and I saw an oxcart coming the other way down the road. Oxcarts are not exactly precision-handling vehicles; they are steered by thumping the ox with a stick to tell it to turn. So, I pulled over to the side of the road and waited for it to pass. It slowed down a little as it got nearer, and I waved to the four people inside. As is passed, a boy jumped out, handed me a watermelon, flashed a thumbs-up, then ran and jumped back into the cart. I barely had time to say ‘Ndalumba’ (thank you). And that was it. I’m still confused about why it happened– I didn’t even know the boy– and where the melon came from. The cart was empty except for the people and (apparently) one watermelon. Has word gotten out that I love watermelon? Had they stopped by my house to give me a melon, and I wasn’t home? Do they keep one watermelon in their cart, just in case of emergencies and muzungus? I may never know. (a muzungu is a ‘stranger’ or ‘white person’)

In honor of the 31st, I tried to explain Halloween to my family. It is a pretty strange holiday, so I wasn’t too surprised when it took several tries to explain. First they thought that kids went to door-to-door passing out candy. Then they thought adults went door-to-door giving kids candy. Finally I managed to clear things up.

They were very interested in my description of jack’o’lanterns, and wanted to see one done. Since pumpkins are not in season now, I decided to try carving my oxcart watermelon. I cut the top in standard pumpkin-carving fashion, then cleaned and ate the insides with a spoon. I used a small kitchen knife to carve a dopey face, and sat it on my porch. It got many strange looks throughout the day, but nobody stopped by to ask about it (though the chickens did keep trying to eat it). When dusk came, I lit the candle and sat out on my porch. The neighborhood kids came crowding around, excited by my ‘face melon.’ One drew a cartoon of it in the dirt. Nobody had ever seen anything like it before, and they thought I was ‘so smart’. I think in a few days, when I have a new watermelon stash, we will all try carving together. Then we can all be so smart.

My last news for this week is that I have a new addition to my menagerie: a kitten! He is a little grey and white tabby, and about as spunky and adorable as anyone could want. He is a fierce hunter of crickets, though I hope he graduates to rodents soon. Right now he is only about as big as a rat, but with time I’m sure he will keep my hut vermin-free. And until then, he can just purr on my lap all he wants…