Friday, August 8, 2014

What I Do Now

I've left Makiya Village - my home of two years - for a new job, a new region, but the same Peace Corps.  Although I decided to not extend for a third year in the village as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was not quite so ready to leave my beloved Peace Corps and my home of the last few years - Zambia, so I applied for and was accepted to stay for a third year while working with an organization in Southern Zambia.
Most of the work I do at my new job is done in meetings with community members, whereas during the past two years my work was done largely one-on-one or in small groups and out in the field.

Now I work with a US-based organization called Project Concern International (PCI).  I have an entirely new job (no longer am I a forestry extension agent) and a new job title: Disaster Risk Reduction Specialist (DRR Specialist).  As a DRR Specialist I work with local communities in Southern Zambia on a project entitled Sustainable Health and Agriculture for Resilient Populations (SHARP).  This project, like my work two years previously, focuses on food security throughout these rural communities.  The project has three aspects: agriculture and food security, water and sanitation, and disaster risk reduction.

The agriculture and food security part deals with about 1,000 local farmers from Choma and Kazangula Districts in Zambia's Southern Province.  This part teaches farmers better agricultural practices and methods in the hopes of increasing their agricultural productivity.

The water and sanitation part deals with just shy of 10,000 community members from the same districts in Southern Province.  Water and sanitation is focused on reducing water-borne illnesses that stem from poor sanitation and hygiene.  The program focuses on building toilets, hand washing stations, and other structures that can help a community to stay healthy and happy.
Issues with water and sanitation, like seen here where the well is open and unprotected (this allows easier access to pollutants - animals), are a main focus of the project I now work on.

This husband and wife took the training they gained and quickly built a hand-washing station and a pit latrine (seen in the background with the door open.

Now comes my program: DRR.  This is important throughout Zambia, but especially in Southern Zambia due to the region's drought and flood prone environment.  These kinds of natural disasters happen frequently in the region, but due to climate change and its impact they're more likely to occur in the area.  Where traditionally there may be a drought in one year and then no other drought for 7 to 10 years, climate change reduces that reprieve to maybe only 2 to 4 years.  So, communities don't have time to rebuild before the next disaster strikes.  My job, as DRR specialist, is to work with the communities on coming up with plans and management strategies for their communities to follow in case of a natural disaster like a flood or drought, or even disease outbreaks in cattle or humans.

I work with communities and their residents (over 2,000 individuals) to create these plans for their benefits.  Everything is derived by the residents themselves, with myself merely acting as a facilitator.  The job isn't without it's difficulties though.  It can be very hard to get people to create plans for an unknown future, and even harder to get so many people to agree on one plan of action.
Some of the women from our group in a community called Kabuyu as they wait for a meeting to start.

The job is interesting though and I think it's implications go much further than two small districts in Southern Zambia.  Climate change as a global problem affects not only countries and regions, but also individuals and their families.  Projects like the SHARP program have potential to really benefit people at an individual level, as well as at the community level.
Another large community meeting that we held in an area near Livingstone, Zambia.

Plus, taking on this job gives me the opportunity to stay on with the Peace Corps in Zambia for one more year, which I'm very thankful for.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Leaving the Village After 2 Years


After two years of living in Makiya Village as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer, it was time to leave.

It couldn’t last forever, and even though I was given the option of staying for a third year, I decided that two years — more than 700 days — was enough. I had done my share.

I started preparing for my village exit a week before I was to hit the road by going through all of my things and deciding what to keep and what to lose. It was at this time that all sorts of strange and never-before-seen people start­ed showing up.
The only village photo we ever took.  I tried for 6 months to get this photo taken, but it wasn't until my goodbye meal that everyone was around long enough to take it. 

Like a dearly departed fam­ily member’s sudden death sparks distant cousins to climb out of the woodwork, I started having people I had never seen show up at my hut’s door ask­ing for a “remembrance” — a little something for them to remember me by.

They kept saying how much I meant to them, acting like for the past two years we were the best of friends. I gave them nothing, and instead asked, “How many other Americans have lived in this village? None — you’ll remember me; I’m sure of it.”

Most of my things went to my nearest neighbors, the people I did know well and had helped me the most. My ax was the only item I had trouble parting with. I considered lugging it around with me to keep as a souvenir, but decided to give it to someone in the village that may get actual use out of it.
Mrs. Fubisha and some of the other women from the village preparing my goodbye meal in the village. 

In the end, I left the village with a duffel bag and perhaps half the items worth keeping. Two years and all I had worth keeping were some old, rag­gedy clothes; a couple of jour­nals full of my poor handwrit­ing and semi-insightful thoughts; and about 50 newly acquired best friends within the last week.

I naively thought my actual leaving the village wouldn’t be difficult. I thought I would say my goodbyes, have a final meal with everyone and early in the morning I would catch the first bus that drove by. I was wrong.
This is a picture of me enjoying one of my last meals in the village: grilled goat, nshima, sweet potato leaves, and lepu.
It’s a strange feeling to leave a place that for two years was nearly everything to me. I slept there. I worked there. But I also laughed there. I even occasionally cried there. To be honest, there wasn’t really anything else in my life but my Peace Corps Service and even that revolved al­most completely around this one village: Makiya.

And for nearly two years of my villagers’ lives, I was a main com­ponent of their daily gossip. It was hard to explain to them, as I was leaving, what they meant to me and that I was proud to have stayed there and honored that they so openly took me in, as most of them don’t speak English.

Not a day goes by when I don’t think about Makiya Village and all of the people who live there. I can honestly say that I miss it. I loved my time in Makiya and was even given that chance to stay a third year.

The final choice as to whether I stay or leave wasn’t made until four days before I was going to leave. I wrestled with the idea for weeks of staying one more year, but ultimately decided it was time to go and try something else.
Many of my village's kids are in this photo.  After two years I can only name about half of them, but they were an entertaining bunch - even if I didn't know their names.

I came in not knowing what to expect during the two years of my Peace Corps service and I left feeling a sense of satisfaction knowing that I learned some things along the way — like eating exclusively with my hands, where to find the best mangoes and even eradicating rats without chemicals.

More importantly, I learned the importance of community and actu­ally knowing your neigh­bor, not just where your neighbor lives: knowing about their family, their struggles and joys, their beliefs.

Years down the road I’m sure I’ll look back on my time as a volunteer not in the context of the projects that I worked on, but rather on the people I worked on those projects with.

As for my projects, there were a couple of solid successes but far more failures, But I was 100 percent successful at creating some great rela­tionships and memories.
I took this picture at 5 AM on my last morning in the village.  For all of Africa's issues, which we so often see in the news, the sunsets and sunrises are second to nothing I've ever seen before.

I couldn’t be more thankful to the villagers of Makiya for that oppor­tunity.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Makiya Village, My Village


Makiya Village, my village and home, is a tiny place made up of eleven huts in the shape of a Q. And since my compound is set just outside the main village, my hut acts like the Q’s tail.
It isn’t likely to be on any map except Google Maps where I finally found, after 10 minutes of searching, what I’m almost certain is my hut and the huts of Makiya Village.
It isn’t much to see in person — just a few grass thatched huts — but it’s home just the same and those who live here are about as close to a Zambian family as I will ever get.
About 65 men, women and children — all of them related in some manner as cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers, etc. — live in my village’s 11 huts. In this one village there are four generations of the Baboon clan.
This is about 2/3s of the people I lived with during the past two years.  The villagers of Makiya Village were wonderful to me.  I wanted to take a picture like this for about 6 months but could never get everyone together... until my last week in the village.  Please notice Grandma on the left-side throwing up the double hand wave and Nshimbi in the blue shirt.  Makes me smile every time.
Of the 65 people in the village, the majority are children. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and with so many kids scurrying around, over, and under everything, it’s good they’re all related because no one mother could keep an eye on them all. I once saw a woman give a pretty serious spanking to her niece after she had pushed down a cousin that belonged to another sister.
In the village hierarchy there is Mr. Fred Fubisha, the village headman. Formerly one of the best bush hunters in the area, his body is now wracked by rheumatoid arthritis and his mobility has been greatly reduced. But his mind remains as sharp as ever.
The headman, Mr. Fubisha (on the right side of the photo) in his arm-powered wheel chair. 

This is a much better picture of Mr. F (he's not in the middle of eating at least).  Back in his prime he was a very well known hunter in the area.  His specialty... elephants.  The man has some amazing stories.
He’s not the oldest person in Makiya Village, though. That designation belongs to his mother, Nelo, who seems to play the role of stern, respected, wizened matriarch to perfection at 80-plus years of age. She’s no pushover.
Grandma Nelo with the newest addition to our village, baby Jordan.  She's a tough old lady: stern but fair.
After the headman comes the head of each household, and for my village, those are mainly the mothers. For whatever reason there are only four huts with men always present. Sometimes due to employment opportunities elsewhere, death, divorce or other issues, the women largely dominate the social landscape in this village.
And that’s a good thing for me because it means that I basically have nine mothers and one stern, but fair, grandmother keeping an eye out for me.
My brightly painted home.  To be honest it was a dumpy hut, but that's mainly my fault.  I didn't take much initiative to keep it in tip-top condition.  Nonetheless it was home.
For example, last year I got really sick from an especially bad case of food poisoning. Throughout the day, all of them would stop by to check on me and see if I needed anything, even going so far as to empty my bedside bucket.
They think that I’m something more than just a helpless volunteer that’s been implanted into their community.
Recently, one woman claimed that she considered me to be her first-born child (an honor in Zambia) in front of her actual first born and a gathering of villagers. Kind of awkward, I know, but he later told me he took no offense to her comment.
Smiles everyday... that's what Makiya Village offered.
For all the female involvement, there is absolutely preferential treatment among the children. Due to typically large families (six children on average) and limited funding, boys are sent to school before girls and there is a discrepancy between how long they’re sent (the older children go for much longer).
There’s one man in Makiya who can speak English incredibly well because of a decent education, while a younger brother speaks only the local languages due to less educational opportunities.
This overall scenario of my village’s makeup is similar throughout rural Zambia where the Zambian nuclear family greatly outnumbers the American version by at least 2 to 1.
Even the proximity of family members to one another is like this throughout the country. There may be a cousin, sibling or child who acts as the outlier and has moved away to a better job somewhere else, but mostly they live in large familial clusters.
Some villages may have huts numbering more than 100, but I’m thankful for my small village. I know everyone, they know me, and we get along perfectly.
It’s an ideal setting that allows me to have a safe community, local friends and experience firsthand the happenings of an African village and its nuclear family.