Monday, March 23, 2015

Into the West - Mysterious Mongu and the Mighty Zambezi

I’ve finally made it to Western Province.  It’s the last of Zambia’s ten provinces for me to visit, and I really wasn’t sure that the day would ever come when I’d finally get here.  You see, Western Province is kind of an enigma.  It’s mysterious in that people don’t just end up here.  No, you go to Western Province for a reason, not because you just happen to end up there.  
The Zambezi River is Western Province's greatest resource and its lifeline.  Forming the Western boundary of Zambia (separating Angola), the Zambezi River provides fish, fertile plains, and transportation routes on its waters.
It’s completely out of the way otherwise.  Western Province lies to the west of the main rail line that divides the country.  Basically, anything to the left of the line on a map is underdeveloped and… out of the way.
My first impression of Western Province was the exact same as everyone that has visited before me: this place is sandy!  Like a beach, the ground of Western is fine sand, which makes it a pain to walk in.  In fact, during the day it was hard for me to take photographs because the sand would reflect the sun's light so brightly.  The photographs shone too brightly.
Western Province is widely regarded as the least developed region of Zambia - for a number of reasons.  However, in recent years the government has put some emphasis on developing the area through the Rural Electrification Project.
The second impression I had of Western is that this place is immensely fascinating.  The Lozi people (a grouping of smaller ethnic groups) largely make up Western and they’re immensely proud.  For a long time they rejected most attempts at investments that weren’t initiated by Lozi people; like multinational grocery stores, businesses owned by Zambians from other provinces, and even adoption of English is a main language of use (I liked this particular aspect - keeping one's mother tongue is a great way to keep one's culture and way of life).
The Lozis are ruled by a King (the rest of Zambia's ethnic groups use chiefs) and each year (except for this year and last year) he holds a ceremony called Kuomboka, which celebrates the Lozi King's movement from the flood plain to his palace on high ground.  This event is celebrated near the end of March / start of April because at this time the Zambezi River will begin to flood - as much as 40 feet in depth - and swell with the rain brought on by the seasonal rains.
Like the Nile River of Northern Africa, the flooding river brings silts that naturally fertilize the soils and create excellent agricultural production in the area.  This is definitely worth celebrating.
This picture, from the internet, shows the Lozi King's barge and it's 100+ paddlers during the Kuomboka Ceremony.
One day, when my work was through for the afternoon, I went to Mongu Harbor.  Fascinating place.  The harbor is really just a canal built into part of the city by way of a dredging machine.  There, long canoes (mainly made of metal) were pulled ashore and loaded up with supplies: Coca-cola, corn flour, clothes, buckets, and other amenities to be taken up-river.  The reason these supplies aren't simply driven in like the method used throughout the rest of Zambia is that the flooded Zambezi makes the dry season roads completely impassable.  Boats and their crews will have to do.
Many of the communities upstream are resupplied through boats like these.  They're long, somehow held together by multi-year old welds, and loaded down with tons and tons of supplies.  Carrying everything from cooking oil to Coca Cola and boots, these transports and the river itself keep people functioning in otherwise far flung communities.
The harbor smelled badly, but was alive with activity.  People from up-river were using smaller wooden canoes to bring in reeds for selling and trading, while people from the harbor were packing boats to reach far out communities with goods.  
Local paddlemen provide a valuable service for goods and for people alike.  Moving swiftly with the current and slowly against it, transportees sometimes make multi-day trips in this manner.
Because of how sandy Western Province is the villagers near to the mighty river are not able to make compressed mud bricks for their homes - like those in the rest of the country do, so those near to the river use reeds to form their huts.  The Zambezi's shores provide these reeds freely and abundantly. 
In many ways the Zambezi River seemed to act not only as Western Province's main lifeline, but also as its bank, its highway, and its chief problem maker. 
Here, a man paddles his wife and baby down the Zambezi River from, I assume, their village into the nearest town of Senanga.  In the background are two other canoes making a similar trip.
In some areas, HIV rates exceed 20%.  One reason for this (as explained to me by a woman I interviewed for my job) is that local fisherman for a long time were trading freshly caught fish  for sex.  A woman looking to buy her family's nightly dinner was told her money was no good and the only way to get those fish was through trading sex.  What the Zambezi River was giving by way of food was not coming freely - disease was increasing as well.   The woman concluded her explanation of this to me by saying that this practice is not as common anymore, but in some areas it is unfortunately hanging on.  
(She said the HIV education group she works in was able to reduce this practice of trading sex for fish through informing the wives of the fishermen about what their husbands were doing.  Clever women, eh?)
Western Province is full of slowly rusting, yet incredibly reliable Land Rovers.  It was like going to Cuba and seeing all of those old 1950s vehicles is like: a trip back in time.
Western Province is rich in culture and strong in pride.  It was worth the trip to visit and the effort to do some exploring.  I can honestly say that I've been to many of the furthest corners of Zambia and I have never found a place quite like Western Province.  Seeing the Zambezi River is beautiful enough, but at least getting a glimpse of all it gives and rewards its nearby inhabitants was immensely interesting.  It gives, it takes, and it keeps flowing.  

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Celebrating Three Years in Chirundu

"Welcome to Chirundu," the sign read.  Then we passed over a bridge with a sign attached that said, "Welcome to Zimbabwe."  Confused, I stated as obviously as anything could be stated, "Um, I think we were supposed to get off back there, right?  This seems strange."

Yes, we were supposed to get off before we crossed into Zimbabwe.  And no, we did not do that, so the starting point of our celebrating three years in Zambia was all messed - like things sometimes get here in Africa - by us going to the wrong Chirundu... the one in Zimbabwe.

A few weeks back I traveled with four other volunteers (Caleb, Megan, Lauren, and Hannah) that came into Zambia over three years ago at the same time that I did: February 9th, 2012.  We had discussed doing something special for our third and final anniversary in-country and after some discussion we decided to head to the Lower Zambezi River and spend a long weekend watching the river carry everything past us. 

Myself, Lauren, Megan, Caleb and Hannah our first evening in Chirundu.  The Zambezi is just behind us.  Also, Zimbabwe is behind us (thank God).

The nice thing about our group (the ones that have stayed on for a third year of Peace Corps) is that we've all managed to remain close, remain friends, and even grown together even more.  I think it's probably uncommon for a group of volunteers to stay close and want to take a trip like this.  I got lucky in that regard... it's good to have friends in a foreign country.

Chirundu by itself wouldn't really be anything worth visiting, especially when visiting for a celebration / anniversary.  It would be akin to taking your husband or wife to Wendy's when celebrating five years together.  Chirundu (meaning "people following one another in a line" in Shona) is a small, dusty border town along the boundary of Zimbabwe and Zambia that's plagued with broken down overland trucks, open-air bars, and crappy roads.  But, travel just outside the town's limits and Mother Nature holds some surprises.

Lying close to the Lower Zambezi National Park, the area outside Chirundu is chalked full of hippos, elephants, crocodiles, and birds-a-plenty.  

During early February elephants are often hard to spot along the Lower Zambezi because they take off for the hills where there are pools of water and less people, yet we managed to see over 14 during our weekend stay.

It's also home to wide open space and tranquility, which is exactly the point of going to the Zambezi River.  Probably the best part of the trip, to me, was getting to meet the parents of one of my favorite writers.  I had read in a previous book of this woman's that her parents lived in Zambia, and then within an hour of arriving at the campsite I'm introduced to a man named Tim - her father.

As it turns out, Tim and his wife are farmers next to the campsite we stayed at.  We talked and swapped stories for a while (more so him doing the swapping as he's an excellent story teller) and then he asked if we'd be interested in going on a tour of their farm the next day.  "Of course," I replied. 

My favorite writer's mother walking with Hannah and Megan.  Meeting this woman and her husband was the highlight of my trip.  I'd read about them a lot in varying books, but they were far more charming and kind to all of us then I ever would have expected or deserved.  Very classy.

The next morning he picked us up and took us on a tour of his banana plantation and fish farm.  He had sixteen ponds (30 meters by 10 meters) and a banana plantation spanning over 30 acres.  Tim's fish farm didn't only contain ponds - no, it also contained a hatchery, brood ponds, and harvesting ponds.  He had the full set-up from start to finish.  It was a very impressive set-up.

Rows and rows of bananas blanket the farm near where we camped in Chirundu.

It was highly appropriate that in celebrating our three years in Zambia the five of us toured a farm as we're all environmental / agricultural volunteers.  I think the thing I enjoyed the most about meeting these two people was to get their perspective on what it's like for small-scale farmers in the area.  Unfortunately, it's often a negative outlook when talking to some white Africans about this topic, but these two had nothing but positive and reassuring comments to pass on to us.  At one point I commented that the fish ponds he was showing us were far advanced from the ponds we had constructed in Mufumbwe District and he responded, "But at least they're trying... it's not an easy thing and it's important to at least try." 

That afternoon we celebrated our three years officially by going on a sunset cruise along the Zambezi River.  Fantastic.  That's the word I'd use to describe those three hours on the river.  There were elephants next to the water, pods of hippos around nearly every river bend, beautiful light, and countless birds.  I think it was a pretty ideal way to enjoy three years near the heart of Africa.

And, as I mentioned we saw elephants.  Plenty of elephants...

This bull elephant was in reeds right next to our boat as we cruised along the Zambezi.

Bare chested and showing his manliness in all its glory, Caleb appears to be completely unimpressed by the bull elephant just 10 meters behind him.

Looking back (which we did a lot of during our celebration), we all agreed that Zambia has been a special place to spend three years in the Peace Corps.  I couldn't imagine a better placement by Uncle Sam and his minions.  It's been full of highs and lows.  It's been challenging beyond anything I ever expected - but more rewarding than I would have ever imagined.  I got lucky - that's what I'll say about all of that.  At this point I'm ready for what's next, but I will surely miss a lot of what this country has offered me over the past 1,000+ days and what it's brought to my life; except the mosquitoes, which were especially aggressive along the river (that was the only real downside to the experience).

Local fishermen calling it a day on the Zambezi River between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

By far and away the best part of Peace Corps and being in Zambia has been the friendships with other volunteers and locals that I've had.  Not everyone gets to meet people like Peter Mukuma, Laban Nshimbi, or Mrs. Fubisha (Zambians I've written about before) in their lives.  And it seems especially rare to meet volunteers that you really, genuinely enjoy spending time with - especially after three years worth of trips on bad roads.  Not only are they good people to be around (energetic, highly entertaining, and approachable), but they're willing to go to Zimbabwe by accident with me.  That's a special group, I think.

Myself and the rest of the crew our last night on the Lower Zambezi (Right to Left: Megan, Hannah, Caleb, Lauren, Pippen / Me).

Zambian "Cousinships"

One Zambian government publication that I saw stated that the country has a “rich di­verse cultural heritage.”

There are absolutely some cultural gems here like Zam­bia’s claim to Musi-oi-Tunya (Lozi for “the smoke that thun­ders” — Victoria Falls), the traditional ceremonies that are spread across the country, as well as the clothing, endem­ic languages, the use of “Zam” as a prefix for companies (like Zambeef and Zambikes), and the notion of “cousinship” to name a few.

The man on the right is a Chokwe, while the man at center and woman on the left are from the Kaonde tribe.  Tribalism exists in Zambia, but the idea and use of "cousinship" has greatly reduced its effects, which has allowed Zambia to remain a very peaceful nation.

Some of those cultural as­pects we know about in the Western Hemisphere, but maybe you’re wondering what cousinship is?  It’s strictly Zambian and it’s an institution unto itself.

Cousinship is a practice in which Zambians from differ­ent tribes basically make fun of each other every chance they get. And yet, it’s all com­pletely out of fun — no offense is taken.

  When I first arrived in Zambia and witnessed the Zambians that work for Peace Corps practicing cousinship, I was completely taken back.

The things said were the kinds of statements that would get a fist to the face in the Unit­ed States, but after (and dur­ing) the back and forth, teeth were shown to be the result of huge smiles and deep laughs, not because of a snarl of anger.

A Kaonde man and a Chokwe man hold a photo of the former President of Zambia, Michael Sata, whom they both loved.  Sata was a Bemba.
Every Zambian belongs to a tribe (often they’re from a mixed tribal background) and each tribe has at least one cousinship tie with another tribe. Some of the cousinship jabs are based on food, like those from the North eating monkeys, while from the East, they eat mice.

  Some are based on intelli­gence: “The wise men came from the East…and never went back.” Others are based on perceived motivation, or lack there of, like with the La La tribe.  It’s said they sleep too much.

Occasionally they’re seed­ed in the average height of a tribe — the Lunda tribe — and others still are more subtle as is the case with the tribe that I stay with, the Kaondes, and one of their traditional cous­ins, the Lozis of Western Prov­ince.

Mrs. Fubisha (foreground) and her mother separating maize from the cob.  She's of the Lamba tribe, but married a Kaonde man.  Inter-tribal marriages have also greatly helped Zambia's peacefulness. 

Once, a long time ago, the Lozis came north to Kaonde­land looking for land to graze their cattle, and as often oc­curred back then, a fight erupted between those look­ing for land and those holding the land.

The Lozis were fighting hard to take this new land and were beating the Kaondes badly.  The Kaondes were los­ing so badly that the remain­ing warriors were forced to re­treat up a steep hill with the Lozis in full pursuit.

With no hope, the Kaondes began rolling rocks down the hill and killing the Lozis.  Even­tually, they killed enough that the tide of the battle turned and the Lozis were pushed back.  The Kaondes had won.

Now, it is enough for a Kaonde to give a Lozi a hand­ful of rocks as a reminder of the battle so long ago. Instead of punches, laughs will break out.  That’s cousinship.

  All these cousinships have their roots based in past bat­tles and wars. At some point the tribes battled one another and at the end of this a cousin­ship formed between the two. These cousinships allowed the tribes a way of making peace and forming tribal bonds be­tween one another.

Traditional drummers and a xylophone player at a Kaonde Traditional Ceremony (Ntongo) in North-Western Province, Zambia.  A sense of place within a tribe is a powerful thing to many throughout Zambia, but it's not a limiting factor for most.

This might seem like a strange and bloody way to get some laughs, but Zambia has had a very peaceful history (something that some African countries can only dream of) and it’s largely due to cousin­ship.

Instead of having to side­step certain issues, having to become overly politically cor­rect or letting anger build up, this is an opportunity to poke fun at one another and lighten the mood.

I don’t know how well cous­inships would work in the United States. I imagine Tex­ans would undoubtedly be up­set, those from New Jersey would continually feel picked on, Southerners would turn re­bellious (again) and Midwest­erners would go from being Midwest nice to Midwest mean in seconds.

Maybe it would work though, and just maybe it would relieve some of our na­tion’s tensions and anxiety.