Sunday, March 2, 2014

Food Security in the Time of Hunger Season

While eating locally grown food in the United States is a trendy idea, it’s strictly of necessity in Zambia.
Typically, there are no grocery stores with aisles of food. Instead people eat what they grow themselves or what can be bought or bartered for from neighbors.
Here is one of the farmers I work with, Eston, posing in his tomato field.  
As part of a personal challenge I took it upon myself to go on a strictly village diet for the month of November. I decided that I would only eat foods found in the local community and only foods that a local would have access to. That means no cookies and treats that the local shops sometimes carry — due to the price.
Also, no food bought in one of the provincial capital’s markets and, certainly, no food — mainly candy — that had been sent to me from friends and family in the U.S. I’d spend the month eating as they do and staring every single night at the popcorn on my counter.
Unfortunately, I didn’t consider what the month of November is like.
Not only is it incredibly hot (it’s the end of the hottest, driest time of the year and just before the seasonal rains), but November is also at the heart of “the hunger season,” which will last until February. This is the time when a community’s preparedness to fight hunger is put to the test.
Another farmer I work with, Langston, posing with some of his maize.  He was incredibly proud of this season's yields.
Having enough food to meet a person’s dietary needs is called food security. And when a community’s food supplies are pressed it can be problematic because droughts, poor management, and even worse luck can cause widespread food shortages in Africa.
While in the hunger season people’s gardens are just finishing up and their field crops have not grown enough to harvest, so they rely on dwindling family food reserves. These sometimes run out and when that happens there are few options remaining.
During my experiment, my main sources of food consisted of beans, rice, tomatoes, onions, cabbage, some greens, peanuts, mangoes and the occasional bites of fish or chicken.
It didn’t seem too bad for the first few days, but after eating rice and beans for five straight days, I started to get a little wary of it.
Here I am trying to lend a hang using oxen to cultivate a family's field, where they'll hopefully grow enough food for the entire year.
Midway through the challenge I started to simply skip meals because I didn’t feel like eating. I’ve always been a person who loves eating, but eating the same thing didn’t keep me interested.
My experiment wasn’t without its limitations.
All the people that live in my village make their living from growing field crops and tending gardens. I don’t do either. I had to buy all my food and for me it wasn’t a problem to spend a dollar on five onions and another on tomatoes.
But a local mother may not be able to afford nearly an entire day’s earning on a few onions, let alone tomatoes. So she relies on her garden and field to produce. If it doesn’t, then the family goes hungry.
Throughout Zambia children like these scour mango trees looking for an afternoon snack during hunger season.
One thing I discovered during my month-long trial was that the mango tree plays a vital role in my community’s food security. With home food reserves failing, mangoes are a main source of food and nutrition in bridging the gap between meals. Kids come home from school and immediately climb into the trees to fetch mangoes.
After some time they come down, collect the mangoes they’ve dropped, and set out to eat them. Without the mango tree and its fruit, hunger season would be infinitely more difficult and I wouldn’t have recognized this as clearly if I wasn’t trying this experiment.
In the end, like many aspects of my Peace Corps service, I never fully experienced hunger season and all that this time of year brings.
My good friend, Mr. Nshimbi, in his peanut field last year.
Only a few times was I really hungry and I only ran out of food completely in the last week, when locally available foods became scarce (then I went to the mango trees).
I experienced the lack of dietary options that many go through, but how can I really say that counts for anything like true hunger? I can’t.
9-year old Nida Fubisha helps her family to dry peanuts that were grown for family consumption.  The peanuts are harvested, sorted, then dried on their metal roof.  She's doing all of this work on top of her house.
It was a good experience not only in that I tested my ability to say no to eating that popcorn, but also that I tried to walk a mile in the locals’ shoes — even if only for a month. 

My Zambian Nuclear Family

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.
My village via Google Maps.
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.
Kasongo, the one on the right that isn't engulfed in his phone, is one of my favorite members of my Zambian Nuclear Family.  He is my brother from a different mother.
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.
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.
Mr. Fubisha - Headman of Makiya Village
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.
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.
Grandma Nelo - The Stern But Fair Grandmother of Makiya 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.
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.
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).
Although both in their early 20's these two women already have two children apiece.
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.
The newest addition to Makiya Village, my neighbor Anna's baby.

Health In The Peace Corps

I argue that health in the Peace Corps starts with general cleanliness, which is something that is strictly on a volunteer’s shoulders. And I swear that I can’t keep from looking anything other than dirty when I’m at home in Makiya Village.
Every day I wake up, go out, work on my projects and when I finish for the day I’m just filthy — easily a few shades darker by the end of the day.
The dirt and grime isn’t found only behind my ears like a grandmother might warn, but also in my elbow joints, behind my knees and at least an eighth of an inch of dust covers my ankles every night.
As if I’m Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, I wash my face, arms and legs while muttering, “Out damn spot, out.” But it’s to no avail because as quickly as I finish with my bucket bath, I dry off and instantly notice that I’ve missed a spot or didn’t scrub nearly hard enough.
When that happens I don’t even go back and try to fix it. I think, “What’s the point? I’ll get it tomorrow.”
For the more severe health issues, not involving general hygiene, Peace Corps Medical Officers are there for the beckoning.
And while Peace Corps could be better at some things, it’s really good at things like tropical diseases and infections. They’re also good at something else — giving shots and making people like me take a whole lot of pills (but only when needed, of course).
Before coming to Zambia and in the year and half that I’ve been here, I’ve received dozens of shots in the form of boosters and vaccinations.
One vaccination had an insanely long name and seemed really painful if I was to be infected with it. I desperately wanted to avoid getting it, so I let them jab away at me.
Zambia is a country at the heart of the world’s HIV/AIDS and malaria epidemics; but also home to typhoid fever, hepatitis, schistosomiasis, measles, dysentery, an assortment of bacterial and protozoan diseases, as well as other nasty sicknesses that the common man has never heard of.
So, I’m more than happy to take what they say, let them inject where they want and follow their do’s and don’ts for staying healthy.
My hat is off to the Peace Corps medical staff because it deals with more than 250 volunteers in Zambia, and there are only three of them on staff.
Some volunteers are stoic and never complain, while others are wimpy and whiny to the extreme. But no matter the volunteer the medical staff never ceases to answer our silly questions, which are usually based on unfounded fears and speculation.
At the end of the day, I probably feel healthier than I have in years and I really don't worry too much about what kinds of illnesses I may possibly develop, because, in my opinion, the Peace Corps does a pretty good job at taking care of volunteers.
For instance, should I get really sick, they’ll fly me out of my site if the situation is deemed necessary. And if it’s bad enough, they’ll airlift me to South Africa or even the United States for the proper medical care required.
About the only thing I’ve really had to contend with in Zambia is a bout of Mr. D. (diarrhea) as they call it. That one easily knocks me out for a few days, and unfortunately, there is no shot or pill for that.
So bring on the nasty, tropical, stomach-twisting diseases that Central Africa has to offer. I think I'm ready.
At least I have enough puncture marks in my left shoulder to prove I have had the vaccinations to combat any of these microbial minions that call Zambia home.