Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ebola in Zambia

Ebola does scare Zambians tremendously.  Although some Zambians claim it couldn't spread throughout Zambia due to certain climatic conditions – I think this is based more on national pride than actual science or even public health theory – it is a particularly common topic of discussion.  About once or twice per year there are reports of Ebola popping up in Congo, our neighbor to the North, and I have a hard time believing the climate between Congo and Zambia could be that different, so I'm not sure I feel reassured with that logic.

As mentioned, Ebola isn’t found here now, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ties to the disease within Zambia.  Three interesting stories about Ebola:

1) It was suggested to me this past weekend that when the 2013 movie World War Z was released last summer it was released by the Western world, specifically the United States, as a warning to the rest of the world that we had developed something in our labs – something deadly – that we were going to openly release.  That something was Ebola and World War Z was the warning we chose to send and the guide provided for world to follow.

Naturally I'm left to assume that Brad Pitt was in on the whole thing.
2) My job has a technical boss in Washington DC, and we used to talk about once per week or so just to bounce ideas back and forth and so on; however, since the outbreak I've received just one 2-line email message from him saying - in summary - "Sorry, I haven't talked to you in a while.  Ebola is killing us now."  About 95% of his job is being split between DC and Liberia.  So, even though my job is in no relation tied to Ebola, it's still being affected.  In addition, a lot of the foreign aid for public health things that would go towards HIV, malaria, or other illnesses is being funneled to West Africa.  It's truly a global issue now, isn't it?

3) My job’s focus deals with strengthening the resiliency of rural community members to respond to future natural disasters.  Some of this strengthening is done by the community members themselves via action plan creation (coming up with action plans to follow in the case of a drought, flood, etc.), and recently one of the groups said they were going to address the Ebola concerns of their community by creating an action plan focused entirely on preventing the spread of Ebola throughout their community.

Posters like this can be found all over Zambia.  Knowledge is power, eh?  Some of the pictures seem a little too suggestive - but that's just my opinion.

I'm probably in as good of a place as I could be to avoid Ebola.  Yes, it is on this continent, but when the continent is massive that’s reassuring.   Plus, I deal mainly with villagers who are unlikely to get sick, I would assume, because they would never travel to West Africa, whereas if I worked in a bank or for a business with people traveling a lot then it seems my risk would inherently increase.  But, needless to say, I work with folks that can't even afford the taxi ride to the airport. 

Anyway, I'm very glad it isn't here.  Zambia, and nearly the entire rest of Africa, still has malaria, auto accidents, HIV/Aids and all of those are significantly more deadly – on a numbers basis – than Ebola.  Let’s continue hoping Ebola is never added to that list.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Magical Mochipapa at Mochipapa

North-Western Province where I was stationed for Peace Corps during my first two years was rich in cultural traditions and beliefs.  It’s not that Southern Province (where I’m now placed) isn’t, but it doesn’t seem as rich.  North-Western had all sorts of strange beliefs and ideas – some ridiculous and some just fun.  I miss that a lot, because you never knew if one day would be a regular, normal day or if someone would be accused of being a witch and dragged to the chief's court for trial.  Strangely, that was enjoyable and interesting to me.

Recently I was told a story about a particular tree called the mochipapa tree located within the grounds of the Mochipapa Agricultural Research Center.  I was told that it had special magical properties to it.  This was the kind of thing I was used to hearing about in North-Western - my interest was peaked immediately.

The story had everything a good story about magic should have: angry white people, black people pouring alcohol on the ground for their dead relatives and the ever abounding spirits, and a good strong tree.

Mochipapa Agricultural Research Station is home to one of Southern Province's most magical features: the mochipapa tree.
The story I was told was this:

For years before white farmers came to the area the locals would worship at this particular tree.  They would pray to their gods or spirits, pour the locally brewed beer (more like moonshine) onto the ground for their dead relatives and to appease the previously mentioned spirits and gods, while always paying homage to the tree that reportedly held such magical power.  

Well, the white farmers (no doubt of the racist variety) came to the area.  The white farmers bought the land and began clearing it for farms.  In one area stood this mochipapa tree that the locals revered so heavily.  The farmer wanted it and all of the other trees around it to be cleared and cleaned.  The farm hands began chopping away all of the trees.  Eventually they came to the magical mochipapa tree.  And into it they drove their axes.  The farm hands cut the tree down, called it a day and went home.  When they awoke the next morning, standing just as strong as the day before and years before that stood the mochipapa tree.  

The white farmer was none to happy (because he believed the farm hands had been lying about cutting it down in the first place), so he demanded them to cut it down again.  They did so and for the next few days the tree continued coming back - like nothing had happened.  

Finally, the white farmer was so enraged that he took the ax to the tree himself .  As soon as he struck the tree he keeled over - - dead!  The mochipapa had killed the mean old farmer. 

Later, when his wife heard the tale she marched out, ax in hand, and tried clearing the tree herself.  Same end result: a dead person.   The tree was never cleared and there it has stood ever since.

The magical tree is in there somewhere, I promise you.  It's behind the red flowers near the lower third of the photo. 
I have no idea if the story is true or not, and I'm inclined to not believe it, but really that doesn't matter.  A good story is a good story whether it is true or not, and to hear a local tell this story is pretty convincing.  There were other strange stories that I heard during my trip to see this tree, but the dead farmer tale was my favorite.  

Most stories contend that if you take a photograph of the tree and have it developed it will show the scene as the photographer saw it, minus the tree.  Somehow the tree magically dissolves from the picture.
I added some arrows using Microsoft Paint (this took me entirely too long to do), so that you can see the trunk and one of the mystical tree's main branches.
It sounds far-fetched but I openly admit that before I took these photos the thought passed through my mind that maybe its powers would break my camera.  Luckily they didn't break my camera, but who knows maybe there is something to the story.  And in the end, it's an entertaining story - especially when watching Zambians ape an angry, racist white guy.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Under Weight and Malnourished

In the United States we’re constantly worried about getting fat.  No doubt, America has an issue with obesity, but in much of Zambia it’s a different concern all together: being underweight.

Children's diets throughout Zambia often suffer from malnutrition.
Malnutrition and hunger are very serious and real issues in the rural communities of Zambia.  Much of Zambia’s estimated 14 million people are subsistence farmers that make their livelihoods from farming only a few acres of crops each year.  That crop has to nourish themselves and their families for the entire year.  When crops fail or the production was less than anticipated then hunger often comes knocking on the door. 

Step into a village and the tell tale signs of hunger and malnourishment leap right into sight: big, bloated bellies; small arms with little in the way of muscle mass; a red tint to the eyes.  Without even seeing what is being eaten it is possible to know that not much is on the nightly dinner plates.

Locally harvested fish provide great sources of protein.
Specifically, protein and Vitamin A are lacking in villagers’ diets.  Protein as we know helps with muscle growth and , while Vitamin A helps both adults and children to have stronger immune systems and keep organs working properly. 

Protein should be coming from meat, but when meat is a rarity and a luxury in most meals then protein consumption is often non-existent.  There are crops like beans and peanuts that can provide needed protein, but they tend to not be on the menu due to limited production – not only is corn the staple food here, but it's also the main cash crop.  Far more effort is put into growing corn than any other crop, even when malnutrition and hunger are results.

Being fat is thought of as something to strive for as it indicates that a person doesn’t have to do the physical labor that most engage in.  They don’t have to work in the fields; instead they’re at home eating “bwana” meals of chicken and beef and not doing much else.  Sometimes even carrying a toothpick is used as an indicator of wealth, as it shows that someone needs to pick the sinews and gristle of meat out of their teeth.
A rural corn depot where local farmers bring their corn to sell.

It was hard to get used to villagers always telling me how fat I looked when I would come back from the village after being gone for some time, but the truth is I had gained weight – going to Zambia’s capital was about the only place I could gorge myself on pizza, pasta, and other more Western dishes.  There comments weren’t meant as criticism but rather as a way of saying I looked healthy. 

There are increasing amounts of data that are pointing to malnutrition during the first three years as having lifelong physical and mental consequences for children - meaning even if malnutrition is reigned in and reduced today the effects may last a lifetime.  Many of the issues that deal with malnutrition could be eased through diverse diets and probably even less reliance on corn as the main food, but that isn't an easy switch to make.  That would require changing mass amounts of people's behavior, current government policies that promote the growing of corn on massive scales, and even access to different crop seeds, which is a serious issue for farmers and their families here.  Sadly, it seems malnutrition in Zambia is going to continue being a part of life for some time longer.
Small upper arms and bloated bellies constantly identify the victims of malnutrition.