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Tears and Volunteers

It’s late morning, mid May. I’m frustrated. I sit in my house. I feel like I’m going to cry. I’m so sick of feeling like I can’t get anything done, like it is impossible to get things right, like I am alone in my village with nowhere to go. It’s just one of those mornings. One of those mornings that later on, when something goes really well, I will think back to, and think about how I spent so long thinking that nothing would ever go well. Thinking in hyperboles about how time was going to slow down to a thickly slowing standstill.

Things here come in hyperboles. Things are wonderful, until all of a sudden you feel like you are going to break. I count down the days until I have something exciting to look forward to, and all of a sudden, a month later, I don’t know where the time went. These spots come in waves, and sometimes it’s hard to realize that they always get better; they really always do.

And its hard to admit those tough days. Tough weeks. When things feel like they’re never going to be right again. When things feel like they are never going to work. No matter what you do. Sometimes we feel like we can’t talk about them. Like we shouldn’t talk about them, like we shouldn’t admit to them. Like once we do, everyone will know we’re a failure. We’re not strong enough. When really, these tough times are what make the experience out here real. They make it more than just a dream, an idealistic image of what we want to accomplish. They make it something tangible that we learn and grow from. That changes us in ways we never thought it would.

One of the tough things here is that volunteers tend to shy away from talking openly about their tougher experiences. We put a bright face on it all, show off the wins, hide the losses. And so we think that we are the only ones having a tough time. We think that we are the only ones going through a slump. I talk about it with a friend or two, they remind me to just wait, that it always gets better, just wait for the day where I will get that win again.

A day that I get excited because I can finally have a meeting, that I can finally get something done.

And then no one comes. I sit on the ground in the shelter outside, reading my book, greeting the people as they come by and they don’t stop. I know they are not going to stop, to sit down, to be part of the program today. Because today will be written off as a failure. And I am upset for that failure.

Kids playing by the borehole

But I also know that that failure is okay. That failing every day for a month is okay. I don’t think I knew that in the same way before coming here. I don’t think I realized, too, how even though I know it is okay I am profoundly upset by it. By the idea that I can’t seem to get through to the people how much I want to work with them, if they will only find the ability within themselves to come and ask me for help.

But then, when I have given up, there is that one meeting that works. Where the mothers come two and a half hours late, but I am still sitting there with my Zambian counterpart, and we have written off anyone coming, but all of a sudden three mothers show up and sit down beside me and pull my diagram that I have drawn over to them and start listening to what I have to say. And they start coming up with their own ideas.

We want them to start collecting eggs from the chickens running around in their yard. And they ask how to build a home for the chickens and I show them the sketch. And they ask how many eggs, and I tell them. And they start talking: if they sell some and save the money, they can buy more chickens. If they sell some fritters they can use that money, too. They can pair up and work as a team. They can make this idea that they came up with just a few weeks ago into a reality.

“You can form a women’s group,” I say. They look at me. “You can start an official group to do this, too. Make it a real thing, not just a few of you keeping chickens.”

They make plans. They tell me they are going to start collecting supplies in two days. They can’t understand how excited I am, how this is the first time I have had people motivated to work on something, how even just the three of them starting this project is more than any other village has accomplished.

How they have not only learned what their kids need to eat, but they have realized that they like feeding their kids eggs, they can’t always buy eggs, so they want to lay their own, and all of a sudden we have a project that may fail in a few months as so many do, but the important thing is that we have made the first steps towards trying. And it is because of them that we are doing so, not because of me. They are the ones who can make this work, and they may just be starting to understand that. And I walk away, grinning, cheeks hurt so bad. And I know that moments like this are what make all the tougher ones worth it. That this is what I was waiting for. And this is what I am here for.

minyanya

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On the Cold

The mornings are cold. The air bites your cheeks as you wake up and see it’s light out. You roll over, pull the covers over your head, curl your legs up to your chest. You yank the covers down again, impatiently. It’s still cold. It’s still early. You go through the options in your mind. You could read in bed, but that requires your arms to be outside the covers, and then they’ll be cold. You could try to go back to sleep, but you already know that’s not going to happen.

You pull the covers up again, burrowing into the corner of the bed, toes touching the end of the short mattress, fingers clutching at both the blanket and the open sleeping bag on top of you, making sure they are doing their jobs, pulling them up and around your head, cocooning.

You can hear the construction workers not so far away blasting their music already, getting ready to work. The bass translates through to your hut. You can’t ignore it. You can hear the kids next door. The bell rings at the school for the beginning of classes, in the distance you can hear kids running around the schoolyard. Sleep is not going to come again: you know that.

You abandon your bed. You throw the covers back on top clumsily, you promise yourself you’ll make the bed as soon as you’re warm. You go outside to use the bathroom, you come back in and curl up on your couch under another sleeping bag. From one bed to another, essentially, but this one has music access.

You think about breakfast. You know that, logically, the sooner you make yourself get up and light your brasier, the sooner you’ll be warm. You ponder that thought for a while until, used up, it thins out and slips out of place and disappears. You forget what you were thinking about, thoughts wearing out and fading away again before they bother to become fully formed.

It’s still cold. That thought sticks.

Cold season has hit fast. It stops raining, the storms fade away. One last storm comes in the afternoon, crashing in in a matter of minutes and fading out within the hour. The last storm of the season would like to announce its presence. It would like to make a statement: we’re done for now, but we will be back. Back with a vengeance.

The clouds spent a week coming in early in the morning before burning off with the heat of the day, and then one night you go to bed and it is cold. And you wake up in the morning and it is cold. There are no clouds, just the cold biting your feet as you step into the air outside. And you close your window before going to bed to keep your space a little warmer at night. And you anticipate the cold coming on as the sun falls below the horizon, and the sky opens up and there is nothing to block your view of a hundred million stars lighting up your breath in the air that swiftly drops away the heat it maintained for so long during the day.

So after you get up and after you warm up and the sun is up a bit, enough to start warming the day, but it is still cold, you go out to the clinic in your leggings and with a cardigan on top of your dress. Bundled up. You think about wearing a scarf, but realize that you don’t need it. Yet. And you get to the clinic, and the sun has come out, and the sun is scorching down, and the heat permeates everything. And suddenly it is too hot for your cardigan. It is too hot for the long leggings. And you think about this morning when you were lying, shivering in bed. And you smile.

And in the afternoon you go to sit outside, but it is too hot in the midday sun, and you go to sit inside, but it is too cold with the cool of the brick hut. And you sweat and the sweat cools too fast once you go inside. And cold season cannot make up its mind. But it is still the beginning. Still just the start.

And when you drive along the roads in your bus you watch the sun rising over the trees and over the fields of grass. And the grass is drying out, getting brown. And the trees aren’t quite as bright as they used to be. And you recognize this. You know what this is. You know these colors and these winds and this sun warming the middle of the afternoon and blowing away the biting cold of the mornings. And the sun comes up, and it is day, and the cold wind blows in through a crack in the window next to you and you pull up your hood and curl a bit closer to yourself in your seat and you realize: it feels like fall.

Kids joining me on a late afternoon run down the tarmac.
Kids joining me on a late afternoon run down the tarmac.

Episode 5: On the Kids Here

Color coming tomorrow!

Theres been a bit of a lag lately, in terms of life and in terms of me posting blogs–I was at Peace Corps workshops/trainings and then on vacation for December and the New Years, and since then there hasn’t been much going on at site due to a combination of people being away for our presidential elections and people not working due to the rainy season!

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Sedentary Funk

The world spinning.

This is not real life.

I feel twitchy, sitting here. Twitchy. But I can’t move. There’s nothing for me to do. This is not real life, I say. I’m in a funk. I have nothing to do. And I have nothing I want to do.

Nothing to do. There’s nothing to do and no way to change this. It takes so long for anything to happen here.

Schedule a meeting. Meeting is canceled. Go to the boma. Come back again. Everyone is leaving. Everyone is somewhere else. There is nothing to do. Nothing at all to do.

After elections, there will be things to do. Just then. Just okay. Its all just okay.

Go home. Cook some food. Finish your book. The sun comes out, the sun goes away. Fetch water. Wash the dishes. Sweep the floor. Sweep again. Eat your food. Go for a run. Read your book.

Look at the calendar. One week and elections will be over. Make plans to make plans. Plans to start programs. When the rains end. When the teachers return. When people finally have time to work. When life will still be this slow.

Close the calendar. Ten minutes have passed. Open your book. Close it again. Go outside. It’s too cold.

The rains will come back again, or so the clouds say. It is still so cold, that is what the winds say. Step inside. Put on another jacket. Open your book.

Make a list in your head: all the things you could do today. Think of what you want to do. The winds come in. Bundle up a bit more. Go back to your book. Stare at the page.

This week you have read 1700 pages worth of books. 1700 pages. You close your book again. Not bored as much as appalled by that thought.

Ten more minutes have passed. Its still the long afternoon. Stare out the window. Pray for some rain. Let your eyes fall on the puffy clouds instead.

Get up. Light the brazier. Happy for a bit of warmth. Happy for a bit of work. Make your muscles move. Think of something new. Listen to some music. Get out of this sedentary funk.

truck
Get bored, take a truck somewhere new.

 

To the Rain

On rainy days we don’t go anywhere. We don’t go anywhere because there’s nowhere to go. Sit in the corner, watch the water fall, the whole world is in my head. Listen to the sound of the drops on the thatch. Listen to the sound of the drops coming in through the holes, land in the bowls and the pots and the pans lining the floor to catch the strays as they come into the hut. Block everything else in the world out and just listen.

On rainy days the ground is happy, the heat slinks away. The dust finally settles and the green returns to the earth. The ferns start to unfold and rise slowly up, up towards the sky. The dry earth turns to puddles, the paths turn to mud. The stream levels rise, the banks slink away.

On rainy days we watch the storms come in. We look up at the clear blue skies and spot the dark cloud moving towards us and guess about whether it will hit us soon or pass us by. We go for walks. We wash our clothes. We fetch water and take a shower and get caught in the storm as it comes in. We head back inside. The clothes get slowly damper on the lines as the storm washes off those bits of soap that never come off while bucket washing my laundry.

We walk slowly inside, enjoying the drops, we dry off and bundle up and leave the door to the hut wide open to allow the breeze to cool the inside of the room. We move the candles out of the way of the wind, we sweep the dust from the corners where it continually collects. The wind blows it back inside and we finally get the larger pieces out the door or into the puddle on the stoop. We move back inside. We dry off our hands.

On rainy days we take the brazier inside to cook on, we let the fumes fill the room with smoke. We pile on extra small pieces of charcoal so that the fire will catch without needing to be swung. We wait for it to heat up, we let it warm the room. We make soup or stew and sit on the bed eating and watching a movie. We make popcorn with the extra hot coals. We put on music, we take turns putting on songs. We find the perfect songs. We stop taking turns and listen to the perfect songs one right after another. We sit on the concrete floor, hands around our knees. We sit on the floor and listen to the music and the glow of the candles lights the hut with long shadows and soft hisses. We turn off the sound. We listen to the rain.

The rain stops and we wish for it to keep going. We wish for the soothing soundtrack to the day. The excuse to be as slow as possible. The calm way in which everything stops in deference. We fall asleep and it starts raining again.

The rain continues through the night, and slows to a stop sometime in the early morning. The storm has come and gone, come and gone again, and it is dry. The leaves shake off the drops and drops of dew and it is a new day, bright and blue skies once more.

The rain has stopped and the sun has returned and we go outside, blinking into the sun, the clouds burning off again, the world returning to what it was before. The sky turns from dark to grey to blue and we wait. We wait for the rains to return. We wait for the rains to return to the skies once more.

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The storm cloud coming in towards Samuteba, blue skies on the ridge in Mundwidji.

 

Thanksgiving Day

The turkey is running around in the yard, the warthog is frozen in the freezer downstairs. We have sign ups for who is going to help with the various food items, all the ones that we know from home. And we know who is going to end up doing the majority of the cooking, the volunteers who will spend the next two days in the kitchen taking charge and making sure that the food all gets cooked in time. That it all gets done in time for the meal.

The turkey’s name is Hilary, the warthog’s name was Bill. The turkey was bought from a farm run by a white missionary in one of the districts, the warthog was killed from a game reserve nearby. This is Thanksgiving in a new country.

There are nearly forty people in my province, who will be at the main Peace Corps house for the holiday. This is Thanksgiving in a new country. This is Thanksgiving with new friends.

We buy tickets on turkey roulette, where an area has been divided into squares, and you can bet on which square the turkey will poop on. The two winners split the fifty kwacha pot, getting enough to buy some fried chicken and chips from the fast food place across from the grocery store.

We take turns trying to Skype home, Skype parents and friends, and by the end of the night and the next day you see various people in the yard trying to get in touch with parents with siblings with boyfriends and girlfriends back home. The days here are dry and hot and long. Rainy season hasn’t hit Solwezi with full force yet and the heat has been building on itself for the past few days that we have been here. It is hot, so hot, and the sweat pours into the corners of everything possible.

We spend Thanksgiving morning sitting around and watching movies, getting over being sick and getting ready to eat heavily in the afternoon. And by the afternoon, while food is being cooked, and the electricity is going in and out, we sit outside sweating in the sun, watching the rain cloud approaching, the rain finally come in.

We play outside, we make water balloons, we sit in the rain filling balloons while the rain drenches us to the bone. We wait until the rain stops before arranging a game of capture the flag, four people on each team and two buckets of water balloons in the middle for pelting at anyone carrying the flag.

We win two out of three games before throwing the rest of the balloons before heading inside to finish drinks, shower, and gather for dinner.

Before dinner we circle up as an entire provincial family. We read out loud things that we are thankful for before heading in for dinner. And immediately the power goes out.

But that is what happens, that is sometimes what happens when you are in a city with spotty power. So we sit around the porch, on couches and benches and the floor, eating food piled on our plates in the dark, with candles or flashlights to see our food. And we complain that eating in the village has made us less able to eat as much as we usually would. And we go back at midnight for seconds or thirds or fourths.

And in the morning we don’t have any bread to make traditional Thanksgiving sandwiches, but I pile food into a mug and make a Thanksgiving sundae instead.

And finally Thanksgiving is over, and the people slowly leak out of the house. Bags are packed and food is removed from the refrigerator. You go to your bus or your lodge to stay another night in the city. Or stay around and continue watching movies and reading on the porch and waiting for it all to calm down. And Thanksgiving is over, the first holiday in country is over and done with.

The province all gathered on the porch for Thanksgiving!
The province all gathered on the porch for Thanksgiving!
Some of the kids dancing at the Independence Day celebration in October
Some of the kids dancing at the Independence Day celebration in October

 

 

Dance, Dance

This is Zambia. This is life here in Zambia. This is spending the day walking through the trees on the small footpaths until you make it to where they lead. To the next village, to the farm, to the fields. This is sitting in the sun, grass brushing on your cheeks, imagining what you would do if there were still lions living in these plains. How scared would you be?

This is sitting on the porch while a Zambian ataata tries to teach you a rhythm on the drum. This is you following along on an empty twenty-liter jug rigged as a drum. This is you following along until he stops and the beat seeps out from your fingers and is lost. This is you trying to retain these new rhythms. This is you failing to time and time again.

This is him drumming. This is him singing along over your two drums as the rain beats quickly over your heads. Quickly, quickly loud. This is the leak in the roof by your feet. This is you not caring if you get wet.

This is moving pots and towels around to cover the spots where the roof still leaks. This is not getting all of the spots. This is airing out your wet blanket in the morning when the clouds finally have cleared and the sky is blue and bright like nothing happened at all.

This is the amaama bringing food to the hut. Food that you brought her, food that she prepared. Mushrooms cooked with fish, and cabbage and nshima. This is eating with your hands, scooping up the pieces, mopping up the oils at the bottom, washing your hands while crouched over the dirt, pitcher in your hand. This is being satisfied. This is better than you could have ever made yourself.

This is people showing up. A greeting. A handshake. This is making chairs out of objects. This is everyone joining the circle on the porch.

This is pulling out the drums again. Creating rhythms. Creating music. Create something new. This everyone trying, everyone failing, drums play on. The drums keep playing on.

This is the sight of fallen clear and delicate termite wings covering the ground in the morning. This is stepping delicately at first around them, and then just stepping.

This is the amaama joining the party. Dance she says. Dance.

This is the dragonfly struggling to escape the lit porch. This is it flying into the light time and time again. You grab it. You throw it off of the porch and finally it flies away. This is the drums still playing. This is the rain falling. This is the rain slowing down.

Dance, she says to her husband.
Dance, she says to her son.

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