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.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Technology and Zambia: They're Evolving Together

Technology is crazy. It’s constantly improving, changing, shifting and doing things for us that we wouldn’t have imagined 10 or 20 years ago — maybe even five years ago.
I’m constantly at a loss when trying to understand why things are getting smaller, what a hash tag is doing in front of a person’s name or how people manage to keep up with any of this. It took me a week just to understand what a “selfie” was.
Teaching Nshimbi how to use a computer.  He was so excited and incredibly nervous to even touch the keyboard.  He picked up typing surprisingly fast.  He know has an email... although no computer with which to check his inbox.
It doesn’t matter what I can’t keep up with, especially when I’m trying to keep up with it while living in a Zambian village, because even my village is changing.
With more than one billion people, Africa represents a large portion of the market available to technology manufacturers and companies like Samsung and General Electric.
It’s in this area of cell phones that I notice the largest growth in technology adoption. Nearly every person has a cell phone and nearly every street corner is staffed with peddlers trying to sell a newer, better model.
These phones often provide villagers with Internet access, and although the uptake of this crazy notion called the World Wide Web is slow, it is gaining. It’s only a matter of time until my villagers start asking for my email address and we’ll be able to stay in touch long after I’ve left for the U.S.
Though the phones here aren’t as nice as those back home, some aid groups are trying to use phones to improve people’s lives.
My neighbor Willie setting up his Facebook account with his cell phone.   
For instance, there’s a texting service that rural, small-scale farmers can use to find the price of certain commodity crops like soybeans, corn and beans on the world market. The service will even identify companies that are buying these crops and provide the company’s contact information.
The Peace Corps in Zambia is also getting into the technology game through its partnership with a local technology hub called the Bongo Hive.
Last year this partnership created a cell phone application called Bantu Babel, which helps translate many of the local languages into English.
Twice a year, volunteers team up with local tech enthusiasts during a “hackathon” to brainstorm and create new development-focused applications and programs. Next up from the Bongo Hive group is a transportation-inspired application.

Some of the Bongo Hive attendees.  I took this photo off of Google Images.  Don't be made... I'm promoting you all.
There has also been startling growth in the use of solar panels throughout my community’s villages. Where there were no lights nearly two years ago, and only the occasional candle, there are now families using solar panels to charge not only their cell phones but to power light bulbs in their huts.
As an American abroad, the growth of technology in Africa has been great. I have a cell phone that let’s me text and call the United States — for a small fortune — check my email and Facebook accounts daily and I’ve even started a Twitter account from my hut based on all the things my favorite villager, Mr. Nshimbi, has said to me throughout my service. These newspaper articles are products of Zambia’s growing connectivity.
A fellow volunteer, Caleb Rudow, has greatly surpassed my own use of technology to stay connected by creating something that I affectionately call the “war room” in his hut.

Caleb's "war room" where throughout his two years of service he was more connected than any individual in a village had ever been connected before.
He has an entire solar system for his computer to use and through that he can Skype with his family in the United States — right from his hut. I always know when Caleb is in the war room because I’ll get email after email from him in regard to projects I’m connected to, projects that may interest me or just friendly emails to check in.
In the future I see technology’s use only growing throughout rural communities, especially in the area of public health.
Mobile health clinics are becoming more popular in the rural areas because technology has allowed these clinics to feature smaller, more easily transportable machines for checking a person’s vital health (HIV status, blood tests, respiratory, etc.) in the less accessible areas of Zambia
Text messaging services will play a greater role, for example a mother could receive a text reminder for when her child is due for a vaccination or what dietary needs the mother should meet while cooking dinner.
Ultimately, the spread of technology to villagers will only increase their connectivity and access to news, knowledge and information.
What slowed them before, inability to access information, is slowly being chipped away at, allowing those wanting the information to have access to the world’s databases — essentially connecting us all and making life a little easier.