Friday, January 23, 2015

A Tree for Multiple Generations

If I ever write a book about my time in the Peace Corps I might think to call it Living Among the Mangoes because that’s exactly what I did for my first two years in Zambia.  My small hut was hidden away beneath three mango trees and my village as a whole was the same setting with mango trees looming over us everyday.

My compound's three mango trees.  I loved sitting beneath them where it was infinitely cooler than being in the sunshine.

Mangifera indica.  That’s the botanical name for the Indian Mango, the most commonly found mango tree in the world.  Over 400 varieties of mangos exist in the world, but this one is the most commonly seen in Zambia.

Mango season is the time when the villagers around me were most likely to be without food (November until February) during a time called the "hunger season."  The mango tree’s fruits help to alleviate the impact of hunger everyday, as well as providing a good source of Vitamins A and B - two essential nutrients that children in this area are greatly lacking during hunger season.

I have a theory that villagers hardly ever, I mean nearly never, cut down a tree that provides them with food - especially a tree in which they’ve invested the energy of planting and caring for.  A prime example of this is when crossing the border into Malawi where an enormous population has led to huge amounts of deforestation, but guess which tree is always standing strong throughout the fields and villages – the mango.  

As soon as kids get out of school they head up into the trees to look for mangoes - a delicious, sweet after school snack.

There are other fruit trees grown in Zambia like papaya, orange, lemon, guava, and every once in a while cashews and peaches can be found.  But, mango is by far the most common.  There are two kinds grown largely in Zambia: a small mango, about the size of a fist, and the big mango – two fists.

I had to make a deal with the kids in my village because being the little scavengers that they are they can go through an entire mango tree in two weeks (even the unripe mangoes they’ll destroy), so I told them they could have as much as they could gorge off of two of my mango trees, but I wanted them to leave half of the third one for me – the other half was communal.

With their tiny faces poking out from time to time, I was always assured a few mangoes for myself once the kids went up into the trees.  There they would climb, sing, pick mangoes, and shake the branches until they had more than they could carry.

The mango tree is so great for food security because even in times of drought its deep roots can tap into ground water reservoirs far down into the Earth, and even when there isn’t water near the surface, the mango tree will keep churning out fruits.  A typical tree takes about 7 years to mature and produce fruit, but will live in excess of 30 years, which is long enough for it to feed multiple generations.

Carrying the day's bounty.

There are special varieties of mangoes from Kenya and Tanzania that can be grafted onto local trees and produce all different kinds of mangoes: red, big, yellow, etc., but they’re less commonly found.  Instead we see the previously mentioned Indian mango.

Locally, planting mango trees is tricky because without a strong fence goats will destroy the seedlings.  However, the mango tree’s pits sprout all over the place, with little effort, ensuring that mango trees will continue to feed future generations.

My half of the tree remained with mangoes for much longer than the communal half.  Even green, unripe mangoes will be eaten by the kids.

All of this has led me to my belief that the mango tree is the most important tree in a village, maybe in all of Zambia and the region.

Eating mangoes during the rainy season will always remain as one of my favorite memories of the village.
Fun fact: My personal record for mangos eaten in one day is twenty, and I think if I would’ve started earlier in the day I could’ve managed a good thirty.  

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

World Heritage Sites with the "World's Greatest"

During my trip to Namibia for New Year’s I was informed by Team Chen, a friend of mine on the trip, that he was “The World’s Greatest Explorer.”  I doubted this, as did the other two guys on the trip.  But Team kept on about how he was the Greatest and in the end I have to admit that he did point us in the right direction of a great find when he suggested we visit the petroglyphs of Twyfelfontein.  

Walking from the parking area to where the petroglyphs were carved.  The Twyfelfontein area is barren and arid.  The Skeleton Coast is less than 75 miles from where we were, but that didn't help.  Rain hadn't fallen in the area in over three years at the time of our visit.

Lying some hundred and twenty kilometers or so from Namibia’s infamous skeleton coast is a place called Twyfelfontein, which in Afrikaans means the “Doubtful Fountain.”  It was so named this because the original European settler in this area would always remark that he was doubtful the local spring would produce much water that year.  Sure enough it didn’t and he had a pretty dreadful time making a living there. 

The original white settler's home... or at least what remains of it. 

He wasn’t the first inhabitant of that area - far from it actually.  Long before him, and even now, there are a lot of indigenous groups calling the Doubtful Fountain their home.  While living there they created timeless works of art, which were the reasons for us even wanting to drive out there in the first place.  

A couple of giraffe and a rhino were etched between two to five thousand years ago on this panel.

Led by Team’s notion that this is something worth seeing and fueled by his desire to see “every UNESCO world heritage site on the planet… there’s only a few thousand” we exited the car and hired a guide named Sylvia.  During our hike with Sylvia we saw seven panels of petroglyphs that ranged from two to five thousand years old.  As it turns out the petroglyphs were used as an indicator from one passing hunter to another of what prey had been seen in the area at one time or another.  This caused some confusion for me because I wondered aloud, “Well, if they’re so old how was a hunter able to tell the difference between what was there 1,000 years ago compared to just 10 years ago?”  

Sylvia being a boss and breaking down petroglyphs for the four of us.  One of the best guides I've ever had on a tour - anywhere.

Sylvia was on it!  She said the hunters were so experienced that they would’ve been able to tell the difference between the newer carvings versus the older ones.  The carvings themselves were amazing: rhinos, lions, elephants, giraffes, human footprints, and even seals were carved by hunters from long ago.  (Seals can be found on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast some 100+ kilometers away).

Here is a very old giraffe carving with human footprint carvings flanking the two sides of its neck.

As it turns out, during our time in Namibia the four of us visited the only two world heritage sites in the country (the other being the Namib Sand Sea), which puts Team (and the other three of us for that matter) on the right track of visiting all the really important sites that give human existence on this planet some meaning and context.


Team "The World's Greatest Explorer" Chen on the left, Jacob Johnson sitting on the UNESCO Heritage Site Marker, Caleb Rudow looking too cool for school on the right, and myself made up this Namibia expeditionary group.

Additional Pictures of the Petroglyphs at Twyfelfontein:

This petroglyph panel features a lion, multiple giraffe, wildebeest, hartebeest, and other animals found in the area.

Us (Caleb, Jacob, Team, and I) with two German girls that we basically stalked through Namibia.  Everywhere they went we would show up about a day later and camp right next to them (we did not intend for this).  They were good sports about it.  And on this day we bumped into them right there at the petroglyphs.

A blue wildebeest carved into a stone face.

A giraffe carved into the rock.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Zambia: A Christian Nation

I wrote this post on a Sunday: a day when a whole lot of people go to church.  I’ve had more than a few people ask about the religious makeup in Zambia, so this post is for them.

The church that I most often attended while in my village.  Belonging to the Evangelical Church of Zambia (ECZ) denomination it wasn't too far from home and the music was pretty good.

First the Zambian government clearly states its standing on this topic when it openly claims to be a Christian nation.  Seemingly, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for those of other faiths but there are many other options for the interested and inclined; those with religious convictions – even atheists.
I’ll start with the big one: Christianity.  In my area, nearly everyone says they’re Christian.  Typically one of the first questions I’m asked when meeting someone (after they ask my name) is to which church do I belong.  Then come the other questions like am I married, am I from England, and what am I doing in a village in the middle of the Zambian bush?

This embracing of Christianity is seen everywhere and in many, if not most aspects, of life here.  From everyday bus rides where a preacher boards the coach and gives fire and brimstone sermons to the passengers; to the continuous prayers before and after every meeting whether it’s at a national meeting or at the more meager rural meetings for cooperatives, women’s groups, and the like.  

The sermons at the church were nearly always in Kaonde, which offered me a chance to reflect on my life (more often than not I day dreamed).

A fairly large Catholic contingent can be found among the population of Northern Province, while my former province of North-Western has a large evangelical following.  The rest of the country is largely one Christian denomination or another.
My dear friend, Nshimbi, was a proud member of this church.  We would walk into the Sunday morning service and he'd set down his Bible and hat, then walk straight to the front and hop in with the choir (seen here as they enter) to sing his lungs out.

Islam is predominately located in the capital’s province and in Eastern Province of Zambia, but as this faith is following global trends here it is spreading into other parts of Zambia and is expanding beyond these two areas.

Jehovah’s witnesses and their Kingdom Halls are found dotting the entire country.  In fact, one of their churches was located within walking distance down the road from my old hut, and practitioners of this faith do move around from hut to hut, knocking on doors, and talking to the willing.

The man squatted in the front is the head pastor of this church: ECZ Kalambo.  Those surrounding him are deacons and other members of the church's board.

And that example, my hut in relation to houses of worship, is as fine an example as I can come up with to show the ties that Zambians have with religion – within a two (2) mile radius of my hut were seven (7) churches.

I suspect the strong ties to religion are primarily due to the area’s extensive interactions with missionaries.  This is a country where Dr. David Livingstone of “Dr. Livingstone I presume?” fame once marched as he worked his way across Africa as a missionary in the 1800s, and those ties, as well as more contemporary ones, still remain.  Livingstone's commitment to the people of Zambia through the mission field is still easily, and often seen, today in the varying mission hospitals pocking this country and the countless missionaries that have given 10+ years of service to Zambia's poor and in-need (something I have tremendous respect for).

Some of the congregants after a church service.  Nshimbi is second from the right in the blue shirt.

All of this has absolutely affected me and my beliefs, which I won't be stating here, but I will say that I think my beliefs now are stronger than ever in what I believe, but the vastness of what Christianity means among Zambians and the common use of "being a Christian" have caused me frustration over these past three years.

For instance, a man stole something from me once and when I called him on it he said, "You're a Christian and I'm a Christian, so you can't be angry at me."  No, I don't believe that's how it works.  It's that falling back on religion and believing it exempts you from punishment that I have a hard time with and openly question.  However, nothing gives me more pause than when a drunk man is telling me how he's a pastor or a deacon, then goes on to discuss his multiple girlfriends (he's married).  That's difficult to rectify, difficult to look past.

Yes, Americans do the same thing as well, but - to me - it's much more openly accepted here as a part of life / matter of fact, which I'm really uncomfortable with.

And that's a brief overview of Zambia's religious breakdown.  In short, the government declares itself to be a Christian nation, while the population declares the same sentiment, but it seems to me there are more shades of Christianity, rather than a one-size fits all look to it.