Wednesday, August 19, 2015

How is it being back? Three months of being home.

How is it being back?  It seems like an innocuous question, but it's a question that I'm not entirely sure I know how to answer... more likely can answer.  It's good, of course.  But, it's also some other things: confusing, exciting, fast-paced, less dusty, and a lot more.  And comparing how I feel after three months back to being back for only one month I feel no closer to a concrete answer. 

When I first came home from being gone for nearly three and a half years I was overwhelmed with the United States.  We've got ease, efficiency, order, uniformity, and a lack of recklessness.  I had come from a place where nothing works, everything is bargained for and the apathetic shrug of a person's set of shoulders is sometimes enough of an explanation for any number of situational let downs, but here in America there didn't need to be any explanation... everything was functioning.  And functioning at a high level.

We have ice in our drinks, the air when too warm is quickly supplemented with machine-cooled currents, my internet has never once failed, and all of this is built upon an electric grid that rarely, if ever, leaves users in the dark.  That's a point for America.

Whereas Zambia... well, they've had some electrical problems since my departure (of course, not because of me): Zambia Dries Up.

Yet, I'm drawn back in memory to Zambia.  Because America is, as my friend Joey describes it, a theme park.  "America Land: the exceedingly safe, borderline unfriendly amusement park with freaking amazing concessions" is his exact description.  Neat and tidy - the reality of Americans, but not the reality of the world.   

Chaos is shenanigans like this: people in a boat that's being towed, a kid stepping into the photo that I'm trying to take, and dust being kicked up ALL DAY LONG.  I miss that.  Who would've guessed?

I'm drawn to the chaos and recklessness and the ease at which I could chalk up missteps and mistakes to "the way it is."  I miss the unwanted heat, the certainty that at some point in the day something (or more likely someone) will fail you, and even the odors I have a nostalgic fondness for.  That all sounds crazy, but I'd become accustomed to these things and suddenly they're gone.  Replaced with efficiency, sterilization, and... cleanliness.

Nice and neat is fine in the confines of perfection, but the world's not perfect and being in a place that is readily accepting of that is comforting.  I miss that.  I suppose in how it is being back I could simply say, "I miss it."

Hypothetically, I could live in Zambia for the rest of my life and not understand what was happening there (no one does).  I miss the Zambians' way of understanding that things will happen (good, bad, in-between), while Americans constantly try to skew life's equilibrium in their favor with a minimal amount of bad and a large serving of good.  When that equilibrium snaps back in the States it is frightening to most.  In Zambia, and probably Africa as a whole, it is a part of life.  That's how life goes sometimes.  People are accepting of that.  They have to be.

I've become accepting of that.  John Steinbeck once wrote what good is sweetness without bitterness?  Likewise, how would we know true success if we've not failed; happiness if we've not known despair; and richness without seeing poverty?  I accept all of this.  But, I've accepted more.

That Steinbeck quote is from Travels with Charley.  Steinbeck got it.  He saw that life is a combination of ups and down, and not always a collection of good days.

A colleague I'll be working with at Indiana said this about my recognition of life in Zambia.  "It won't last forever, over time your memory and knowledge of what's happening on the ground will atrophy."  That scares me to death.  I take that to mean if I can't remember how it is / know how it is in Zambia then that knowledge has been replaced with something else.  And maybe that "something else" is more American - more safe and not so disordered and confusing.  But I don't want that.

I needed to leave Zambia when I did - I was tired of justifications and the governmental apathy - however I don't want to come back full circle by shaking off what it was I learned there, what I took in, and what it was that kept me there for over three years.  Zambia really is an incredible place for service, and one that taught me plenty.

Being back has been great - don't get me wrong.  I've gotten to settle in comfortably enough, my drinks are filled to the brim with readily available ice, and as I write this it's humid outside but perfectly cool in my apartment.  Life's good.  That equilibrium of life is definitely favoring me right now, but I somehow still believe I'd be slightly more content (not happy! but content) with some dust, strange smells, and imperfection in the air. 

In my version of the American Theme Park there is only Rhubarb Oolong iced tea to drink.  And it's always icy cold... maybe too cold, in fact.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

What Africa Isn't (As I Now Know)

One of the woman I worked with once asked, "Before you came to Africa what did you expect?"  I had to think back to over seven years ago, but these points pretty much sum up my initial thoughts and expectations.

I expected...

More desert and grasslands.  I imagined the entire continent to be more like what I saw in countless wildlife documentaries where deserts and savannahs are predominately featured.  In fact, there are enormous river systems, forests and jungles, and while deserts do make up much of some countries' landscape, it is a minority.  I love geography... how could I have been so naive?  I'm embarrassed.

I thought I'd see more open plains like what is shown here.  Nope, there are huge forests and the entire continent is not one large waterless place.

Animals!  Like I said, I had watched a lot of wildlife documentaries and those never showed cities - just animals on the plains.  Certainly there are a lot of things that Africa is, then there are a lot of things that Africa is not.  Africa is not a single country or one large landscape full of game animals.  It is not lions chasing impalas, zebras meandering through the grasslands at a leisurely pace, or elephants wallowing in a mud hole.  It's pretty far from that.  Africa, like everywhere else man has deemed suitable for a blessed life, is divided up into tracts of land.

The wide open expanses that I expected to see filled with animals are a small percentage of actual land usage.

I know, it makes me sad too.  I prefer the animal-laden version of what Africa is as compared to the reality of its reduced herds and sparse animal populations.

Due to poaching, lax regulations and enforcement, and the need for space people have reduced the animal populations (of all species) greatly throughout the entire continent - especially in Zambia.

Bad roads all over.  In some areas that I've been this is definitely true.  I won't deny that, but in other areas the roads are nicer than what we have here in the Midwest.  South Africa and Namibia have great roads.  Botswana too.  I imagined them being pock marked and shattered, but that's not always the case.

Big cities and villages.  I never expected so many small towns all over the place (Kalomo, Pemba, Zimba, Mufumbwe, Mbala to name just a few).  Yes, I knew of Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Cape Town and other big cities, but I thought the rest would largely be villages.  In fact, there are a ton of small and medium-sized towns spread all over.  That was sheer ignorance on my part, but I've learned and I've stopped in as many of these towns as I could.

This photo of a mother and her child was taken near the town of Mbabala.  It's on a map and although it isn't as large as Lusaka it certainly isn't a village either.

I did not expect...

How Westernized Africa already is.  (Yes, this is sheer ignorance.  I first came to the continent in 2008 - well over a century after the explorers of Livingstone-lore has already taken survey of much of the continent).  Lusaka has a couple of KFCs, a new Pizza Hut - with pizza that tastes just like the American chain, three movie theaters, and the rumor mill says that Dominoes is on its way to Zambia's capital.

Africa is booming and Westernization is one of its most effective methods.  I, honestly, expected a more traditional feel in the cities than what is actually there.  It's far from an absolute American feel in the cities, but with the hustle and bustle some cities like Ndola, Kitwe and Lusaka are strikingly similar in many aspects.

The type of agriculture here.  I knew there would be agriculture - I wasn't that stupid, but I didn't realize how expansive it would be.  This is the place where during my childhood famines and droughts were about the only news we received from Africa (I remember the covers of TIME and Newsweek portraying hungry Somali and Ethiopian children).  I thought it would be more meager types of agricultural systems because of the droughts - where people are mainly growing their food with none remaining to sell - but instead there are farmers stepping up into new socioeconomic classes and improving their lives, and African agriculture looks to be an important area in which the world will produce its food during the next few decades.

Here, local farmers - mainly women - listen to a talk by one of the government's extension officers.  African agriculture covers a wide-array of sizes: small-scale to large commercial/industrial farms.

How happy people are.  Ignorance, AGAIN!  It's called the Dark Continent (incorrectly, I'd now happily point out), so I wasn't expecting so much hope, happiness, and hospitality.  I was completely wrong and over seven years later I'm still sometimes taken aback by how open and inviting most people are here.  In the US I'd go to Walmart if I was having a bad day, take a look at those around me and think, "My day's not so bad, at least I'm not him, her, them" and so on.  Here, I simply say hello to a passerby on the street, receive a reply, and that often does the trick.  It's surprising the power that a smile and a hello have.

Norman, with two of my friends (Caleb and Hannah), was one of my favorite Zambian pals.  Caleb and Hannah made him a certificate that certified him (according to them) as the best taxi-driver in all of Lusaka.

The music isn't good - - it's great.  Drumbeats late at night are one of my favorite memories from Zambia.  Often the rhythms were paired with singing by the village's women and men.  Without the escape of television late at night, people in the village would sometimes sing in-between bouts of gossip.  The vocals were fantastic, even without knowing what they were crooning about. 

Local women playing drums at a village wedding.

And, as for mainstream music - read that to mean music that Americans may know - Zambia has that too.  I went to a concert once in the capital with a couple of friends where Hugh Masekela and Oliver Mtukudzi (both have toured in the US on numerous occasions) played and I think that must have been one of the best concerts I had ever been to in my life.  Although neither of them are from Zambia, they're both regional talents that have made it big abroad. 

Mtukudzi (left) is from Zimbabwe, just across the border from Zambia.  While Masekela (right) is from South Africa, but used to live in Zambia during the time of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

I'm proud of my time spent here.  In total, I've spent some 44 months (just 4 months shy of 4 years) of my 20's in Kenya, Zambia, South Africa and a few other nations along the way.  Looking back and thinking about what I thought Africa must be like like causes me to shake my head - how could I have been so ignorant?! - but it also makes me glad to think that I've been able to discover it some for myself.  As it turns out, it was wholly different and entirely better.

I will never look at a map of Central Africa, or parts of Eastern and Southern Africa, and be mystified by what's there, or think it is unknown.  I know it a bit and that's been a lesson well worth the time and effort to learn.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Peace Corps Dead

Bring out yer dead, bring out yer dead!
I'm not dead.
'Ere, he says he's not dead.
Yes he is. 

- Monty Python and the Holy Grail

It's not an easy thing making an entirely new set of friends, having that set added to and taken away from - constantly evolving and shifting people in one's life.  After nearly three years of hellos, goodbyes, and the comings and goings of really great people I'm glad my time is soon coming to an end... when I too will be "Peace Corps dead."

I don't know who first coined the term "Peace Corps dead," but it's absolutely perfect.  Here, in Peace Corps, we're all in our own world and all we really know is Peace Corps.  What you're like before Peace Corps or what you'll end up like after Peace Corps is completely irrelevant.  You're judged and accepted by what you've done here, how you acted here, and how others view those actions (sometimes with very little information to go on).  Then one day you're gone... it's like you've died.  And effectively you have, because you're no longer a part of the Peace Corps world, the Peace Corps' sphere of existence.

Ring-out ceremonies are big in the Peace Corps.  It's like a wake.  People come, talk about you and why you were a good volunteer and an even better person.  Then when it's your time you can give a last speech, like a eulogy, and off you go.  It's suddenly over - but having a last ceremony is a really nice way to officially close the whole thing out.

When it comes time to say goodbye to friends made here I've noticed the majority of people say goodbye to one another like they'll see each other again, but I think most know they won't.  In some ways it's like a summer camp mentality - "Yes, of course we'll stay in contact!  What would I do without you?"  You just keep going on, that's what you do.

It gets hard after three years of goodbyes to keep up the appearance of "Oh, yeah, we'll still be friends."  I've learned it is better to quickly say goodbye and be done with it.  Get it over quickly.  Move on to the next thing.

Stephanie and Maeve saying goodbye to their boss, Helen, at their ring-out ceremony.

I have a group of about 10 names of people I'll try to keep in contact with and I'm sure with time that number will shrink to an even smaller group.  The group that I plan on actually seeing (physically traveling to) after Peace Corps is even smaller still - to be honest... maybe five?

I'm realistic and pragmatic.  What I'm going on to next is a new chapter and that chapter is going to have entirely different characters, hopefully some reoccurring from the the chapters before, but largely they'll all be new and entirely different. 

My group (Lauren, Caleb, myself, Hannah, and Tex Loewen) with our supervisors (Sally-Rose, Henry, and Donald) after our ring-out ceremony at the Peace Corps Zambia headquarters in Lusaka.  As a parting gift we bought and planted a small grapefruit tree as a kind of reminder that we are still around... even if we're Peace Corps dead.

While I hope all of those that I've gotten to know and befriend go on to long, productive, and meaningful lives I also know that their life's trajectory is very different than that of my own.  Although they're not necessarily dead, they're moving on and they're Peace Corps dead - same as me - which really isn't a bad thing at all.  It simply means that you came, you did, and you went.  It's from one chapter and on to the next... luckily this last chapter was glorious - even if it leaves us all dead.