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.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Where Beef Is King

Clanking.  The bells around the necks of the cows moving past are clanking together and behind them are what?  More cows.  Clank, clank, clank.  I'm now in Southern Province for my last year and this is a common sound: the clanking of cow bells.
The gray cow is a good example of the Tonga breed of cow.  Often found throughout Southern Province it provides better resistance to disease and pests as compared to other outside breeds.
Like much of the semi-arid and arid ranges across our planet livestock production reigns as the predominate way of making a living.  The land is too nutrient poor and scarce of water for crop production to take off in any meaningful way, so people have adapted and taken to lifestyles which promote goats and cows.  This is where the Tonga tribe lives - in Southern Province: a dry, dusty place.

Southern Province is largely made up and populated by the Tonga tribe.  A fairly proud people that historically didn't take a lot of crap from the other tribes.  For them the cow is life.  It's a way of judging a man's worth, deciding your own sense of pride, and even a way of storing money.  Cows - and livestock in general throughout the developing world - act as village banks and insurance policies for villagers.  Need money for your kids' school fees?  A sudden illness?  Have that itch to put a lot on red?  Well, it's easy enough sell a cow or two and get that much needed cash.
Southern Province for much of the year is dry place.  Typically cows have to be given water twice a day if there aren't any open sources of water nearby.
Through my very rough and primitive research I've found that a cow is worth about $800 a head (although sometimes much more), and when most families have a few cows (it isn't unheard of to come across a family with over 100) that can add up to a lot of money for a rainy day.

With the cows come cow pies, flies, the previously mentioned bells, and a tradition of herding these beasts.

The local variety is simply called the Tonga cow.  Original, eh?  The breed has been raised to provide increased resistance to the region's hardships: occasional droughts, pests, children constantly throwing rocks.  Tonga cows are good, but if you want a good quality cow in Zambia's Southern Province then you should go for the Tonga-Brahman hybrid.

Brahman cows hail from the United States, but began with original stock from India.  This cow has thicker skin which helps to prevent disease transmission from insects and the meat is a superior quality - a top dollar kind of thing.
With its roots hailing from India, Brahman cattle were brought to the United States, Brazil, Australia, and numerous other countries for meat production.
The Tonga-Brahman hybrid costs more money to initially buy, but the payoff in it's ease of maintenance and better price per pound of meat makes it the envy of ever Tonga herder's eye. 

Tongas are so attached to their cows that it actually acts as an Achilles heal in that so much of their livelihoods are wrapped up in one thing that any shock or stress to their cow herds can have a lasting ripple effect.
It's not an uncommon sight to see cows wandering near or even through a family's compound, like the photo here shows.  You would expect a dog or a cat to be a part of a family, but here the Tongas' cows are like members as well.
For example, in 2009 Zambia's Southern and Western Provinces were drenched in rainfall causing massive flooding throughout the region.  Fearing for their cows lives the Tongas pushed their cows into massive herds and located them atop the higher regions of the area to escape the flooding.  Little did they know some of their cows were infected with a devastating lung disease called contagious bovine pleuropneumonia (CBP).  Once CBP started to spread it went like fire through tinder.  In a matter of months 90% of the region's cows were killed by the disease or by a government supported culling.  The Tongas livelihoods had been reduced by 90% and now that village insurance policy was nearly negligible.  A truly sad story, but an important one to keep in mind as extreme weather events are taking hold and becoming more and more common.
This picture is from my old village in North-Western Province.  These two cows were two of about 20 that we had in the area.  Access to cows coupled with the price of buying a cow didn't allow many of my community members to have animals.
For now the cow herds have recovered, partially if not fully, and the cow will remain Southern Province's most prized possession.  
Me trying to run the plow.  It was incredibly hard.  I did not enjoy.