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.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Three Kinds of Hunger... and They All Suck

There are three kinds of food insecurity seen around the world: chronic, seasonal, and transitory.  Each feels the same around mealtime; yet each is caused by different conditions, different difficulties, and lasts for different amounts of time.  And, in short, they all suck.

Chronic food insecurity is defined as extended periods of poverty, asset scarcity, and inadequate access to productive or financial resources. 

Over a long duration of time if people don't have access to food, money to buy food, or assets to trade for food then they fall within the realm of chronic food insecurity.  I think of this as people living in Somalia or Ethiopia (I always remember seeing TIME magazines from the 90s with these places on the cover) or some place where people have been suffering and starving for a long time.  Although, chronic food insecurity can certainly be found in the Western world as well.

Seasonal food insecurity is defined as falling between chronic and transitory food insecurity.  It's similar to chronic food insecurity in that it is predictable and follows known sequences of events and is recurrent.  It's similar to transitory food insecurity because of its limited duration.

A local market in Mongu, Zambia, where many people will go to buy seasonal fruits and vegetables.  In times of hunger having extra spending money can make an enormous difference between going hungry and getting a good meal or two in each day.

Seasonal food insecurity is huge in Zambia.  There's an entire time of the year dedicated to it... the hunger season (clever name, eh?).  This time of the year is typically from November to February - the same time of year when the crops (maize, beans, etc.) are just being planted, but the gardens have finished producing much of their harvest for the year.  During this time 3 meals a day recedes to 2, then down to 1 and sometimes none.  It's a really hard, crappy, sucky time of year for the food insecure.

Water shortages brought on during the driest times of the year (September and October, just before the hunger season) also can limit food production and create hunger.

Transitory food insecurity is described as being relatively unpredictable and can emerge suddenly; without warning.

Think "act of God" in regards to this one.  Transitory food insecurity is often the result of a massive shakeup from something like a natural disaster.  Boom!  Storm hits and food reserves drop off.  People are forced to flee their homes, crops, and known surroundings.  Right now, this is a huge issue in the Middle East with food insecurity being brought on by wars in Syria, Iraq, and other conflict zones.

In short, all three types of food insecurity are terrible, with chronic taking the cake.  It's awful to be hungry but to be chronically hungry leads to malnutrition and a wealth of other destabilizing issues for a community.

Little dudes like this aren't too often seen in the village.  He's good sized, maybe even a bit chubby, but incredibly healthy.