Monday, January 31, 2011

Year One

It’s unbelievable to think that I’ve been here in Zambia nearly a year now. I remember last year at this time, my life was an impossible free-fall into the unknown. I think I spent the whole last month subconsciously hyperventilating, watching the last moments of my familiar life fly by my eyes at the speed of light. Weird to think about it all now, all of the things I know, all that I have learned and seen and experienced, and it’s crazy to think that all of it has happened in just a short 365 days (although I’m sure my mother would disagree with my use of adjectives). It’s even stranger to be able to look forward to this time next year, and be able to actually fathom how far I will continue to go. It’s mind-numbing, really.

Thank you to all who have stuck by me in the past year. I appreciate your thoughts and letters and packages more than I could ever tell you. Moreover, I am so happy that you are letting me share my experience with a willing and interested audience. Once again, I encourage you all to drop me a line via my e-mail, facebook, or post a comment here. I have pretty good access to electronic communication (just a short 15k ride through the mud away!), and I’d love to hear from all of you. A good-old fashioned letter would be like Christmas all over again, although I do want to remind you all how sketch the postal system is here (when that post-office person “guarantees” that it will get to me in 6-10 days, you can correct him with good authority that while it might arrive on African soil by then, I most definitely won’t receive it for another three weeks. Sorry sorry.) My dear friends, don’t let this discourage you, because I know that you love me more to risk it, however, if you are looking for a response fast fast, snail-mail is not the way to go. It’s more like sloth-mail, or geological formation-mail. I’m used to it by now, but I know you aren’t, and if you are worried that it’s lost somewhere in the bush equivalent of cyberspace, shoot me a line electronically that you would like to know it’s arrived and I can get back to you as soon as it does…if it does. And please don’t tease me with tantalizing promises of actually being able to fit Eric Bana without his shirt in a flat-rate shipping box, I might suspect you aren’t really serious about sending me goodies.

On this same vein, my faithful fans who have been sending me goodies (thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou!!!) have stocked me well on bar soap and lotion, cross-words and puzzle books, writing utensils, and hearts full of love. I can get plenty of peanut butter and sweets here, and tuna too, so I’m well-stocked on those. Things that I would be over-the-moon to receive:

-Granola bars, fruit snacks (Dinosaurs, trucks and Batman are some of my personal favorites), and those crackers snacks with cheese. Anything you might stick in your average 6th grader’s lunchbox. Sweet snacks are easy to procure here, but savory is harder to find and those are usually what I am craving.

-instant meals, soups, potatoes…it’s like culinary magic. You know that aisle you always avoid in the grocery store unless you’re truly desperate after a long day? Yeah, go there. The beefier or cheesier or herbier it is, the better.

-Face wipes, hand sanitizer, and pepto-tabs.

-smelly candles are my new favorite treat. If you’re worried about perfuming my savory snacks with floral notes (I probably won’t care…beef jerky is beef jerkey), incense would also rock.

-condiments! Single-serving mayo, brown mustard, soy and taco sauce, salsa, katsup, salad dressing, anything….if you get too many in your next fast food order, don’t throw it away! There are flavor-starved Volunteers in Africa who would love to have those extras.

As always, if you aren’t sure, just drop me a quick e-mail. I love hearing from you! Switching gears. Had the most fantastic trip ever this Christmas, it was wonderful. Spent twelve solid days attached at the hip to my sister, I think we spent maybe 40 minutes out of each other’s sight the entire time, including bathroom time. The showers were glorious, and I even took a picture of my bed at the Holiday Inn, leaving it behind made me a bit teary. Despite some last-minute complications with the snow situation and being sick and unable to eat all of that delicious Parisian cuisine I was so looking forward to, we did manage to see a few of the sights and, most importantly, spent some amazing quality time together being goofy, getting lost, making inside jokes, and spending what little money we had. In other words, it was perfect. Also, to my pleasant surprise (while I was sobbing in the Heathrow bathroom after sending Amber on her way), as soon as my feet landed on Zambian soil, I was so happy to be back. It felt like I was actually returning home, and that felt good. I had a shift of perspective that has made me appreciate my time here even more. I still miss my family and friends, but I am truly content here, and it would take wild horses to drag me back before my service is done. Zambia doesn’t have the highest rate of extension volunteers in all of Peace Corps for nothing.

As my one year anniversary in country approaches, I find myself looking forward to my second year of service. I think I’ll be better at it. I have so many things I want to work on now, plus my own personal New Year’s goal. Feel free to call me crazy, but I have decided to run the half-marathon at Victoria Falls in Livingstone at the end of August. In fact, I call myself crazy every day I go out for my run, but I am looking forward to the challenge. How often would you get the chance to run a race at one of the most beautiful natural wonders of the world?

Hope all is well in the throes of winter over there. I got a bit more tan yesterday, teehee. :D Love you all...


Monday, December 13, 2010

"...if only in my dreams."

Never has a song seemed so appropriate to my life. I'm dreaming these days of a place I love, even more than I usally do. And although I know it's a 30 hour flight back, I promise you that I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams. Cheesy? Who cares... more on that later. For now, I have something else to say first.

It’s official. I’m a terrible person. When I first set out on this venture, I (desperate for any scrap of detail about this experience) promised myself that I wouldn’t be like so many of those other volunteers who start off strong and then three posts later they are finishing their service and going home. It was so frustrating to me and I couldn’t fathom why it was so difficult to just keep people undated on your excitingly exotic life. Seriously, guys, how hard can it be?

Well, I’m not above admitting how naïve I was (about so many things, but we don’t have to go there today). You see, the challenge is not in finding the time to write, it’s finding things to write about. For any of you who really know me, you are well aware that very rarely do I not have something to say about anything and/or everything. Communication isn’t a weakness of mine. I’m sure you are puzzled, then, as to why I can look you metaphorically in the eye and say “I don’t know what to say.” I’m a bit surprised myself.

Here’s the thing. When you first arrive in your new foreign home, everything is dazzling and new and so easily describable. The differences are so stark in your mind because your point of reference is fresh. You begin to adjust, settle down, fit in, get a handle on things, and before long you realize that nearly a year has passed and this has become your life. No longer are you uncomfortably aware of how dissimilar everything is, these things are essentially just another day in the neighborhood. You become used to the strangeness and, before long, the strange is normal, and you forget what normal was before. A moment will come when you look around yourself and (whether you are giggling at the absurdity of it or reverent with awe and appreciation) you pause and think to yourself “How can I possibly describe this to someone back home?” And so it becomes easier not to try knowing that there is no way you can capture the moment and relate it back properly to those who have no frame of reference.

I feel guilty. It’s part of my job, the Third Goal of Peace Corps, and I should be doing my best to give everyone back home a glimpse of what life is like over here. The fact of the matter is that it’s a totally different world, and sometimes my life is so outrageous that it feels like my 15 hour flight was actually a warp through the space-time continuum and I’m really on a planet a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (being stared at like an alien every day only adds to this illusion, surprisingly). I can try; I can describe what we eat, the clothes we wear, the nuances of the language and culture, but no matter what, I will never be able to capture the essence of Zambia accurately for you all. The problem is now that I love my new home so much, I am loath to do or say anything that might misrepresent it. When boiled down, the issue is that the more Zambian I become, the harder it is to remember what it was like to be American. I don’t necessarily mind, as it makes my day-to-day living here easier, but it does make the translation back to you more difficult.

So, to conclude what is probably the longest excuse/apology ever, I have a request. I appreciate so very much all of the support from home, and I want to know that I love each and every one of you who is cheering/praying/rooting for me, even the ones that I don’t hear from. So ask me questions! Preferably specific ones, not stuff like “What’s it like over there…” I’ll try to describe anything you want to know, but I just don’t know how to encapsulate ‘what it’s like’ anymore. Life and death taxi rides, mouse extermination battles, graphic descriptions of my illnesses, ratio of clean skin to dirty at any given moment, you name it, and I’ll do my best to fill you in.

Despite the woe-is-me dialogue above, things are actually going quite well. I’m doing my best to stay busy in the village and enjoy my PC life. My first garden and nursery was an epic failure (apparently during dry season, plants don’t grow if you aren’t around to water them all the time…preposterous, I know), so I am in the process of repairing my fence and starting again. The rains have started, making that whole watering issue a moot point, so I confident that I will have vegetables as soon as I get my rear in gear and plant…again. The change in weather has been lovely. I thoroughly enjoyed hot season, despite all of the dire warnings of misery, but in some ways I’m glad to have moisture again (Emphasis on ‘some.’ Laundry is now a huge pain in my tusheni).

SO. Christmas. To say that I am looking forward to the holidays this year is a gross understatement. In 10 days, I will fly to London to meet my sister for what is, I’m quite positive, the BEST Christmas present EVER. Twelve days in London and Paris together, I am over the moon about it. It’s hard to believe it’s actually Christmas already, I’ve been anticipating it for so long, I almost don’t know what to do with myself now that I’ve made it this far. Moreover, the complete lack of commercialization of the holidays has been refreshing. Add that to the 80 degree tropical weather, and you have a perfect recipe for “Holy molars, it’s the WHAT of DECEMBER!?!?!” It’s the best holiday season I could ask for, no pushy commercials, none of those annoying bell-ringers in front of every store, no sales, no music, no lights…Blissful. The best part is, now that I am ready to be festive and cheery, it will be even more magical when I do arrive in Heathrow airport. Jolly good, wot. The way the holidays are supposed to be, in my opinion; like, actually a treat.

Anyway, I hope you all have a wonderful season of giving. Thank you to all who sent me Christmas cards and packages, especially the lovely ladies of Beta Sigma Phi in Vancouver! I love you all and appreciate your support and well wishes so very much. (Tanya, I promise your letter is coming :D) Enjoy the blessing of being with your loved ones (I know I will, even if it’s only one of them), and remember those who can’t be home for Christmas this year, for whatever reason. We’re certainly thinking of you.

Peace and cheers to a wonderful New Year!
Xo ash

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Olfactory Obsession

I have become aware of something quite recently. I mean, when you have lots of time to meditate on the power of the universe, you begin to uncover truths about yourself, humanity, and life in general, and it's a scientific fact that while in the village, musungus think. Among the many curious and startling revelations I have had is the knowledge that I, Ashley, have become obsessively fixated on smells.

This awareness has been taking shape in my head for a while now, but it was only just confirmed upon the arrival of one of my best packages yet, the contents of which included not only delicious Jerky Hut Spicy Teriyaki Jerky and dried blueberries, but a small selection of Yankee candles. I could smell them through the packaging at the post office and my heart nearly stopped. Returning to my modest mud-brick hut, I promptly lit one of my favorites, laid on my bed, closed my eyes and just smelled, breathing deeply the scent of home. Aside from being very yogic and zen (all that inhaling and exhaling, you understand), it gave me pause to think about why this silly $1.99 candle was sending me into emotional transports of delight.

You see, you don't realize it now, but in America, you are constantly surrounded by nice smelling things. Everywhere you go, your nose is in a perpetual state of comfort, and unless you happen to walk too close to that lovely hobo on the street or have the misfortune to be downwind of the Mill on a bad day, you pretty much are never in need of crinkling your nostrils in distaste. Think about it: Everyone you meet has cleansed and styled his or her self with an average of about twenty different products, houses are littered with potpourri, wall sconces and Glade Plug-ins, buildings are constructed with a variety of manufactured materials and washed with industrial cleaning agents, stores are filled with new clothes, shoes, and furniture, and at any given moment there is a restaurant grilling, frying, sautéing, brewing, or baking delicious things within sniffing distance. America is a fragrance utopia.

Now, it’s not like I don’t get an abundance of fresh air here, and it is really nice. Refreshing, even. I had just forgotten how good things smell. You can’t tell me that it’s not weird to sniff wistfully after the snappily-dressed lady in Shoprite and think “Wow! She smells fantastic,” because it is. She’s only wearing cheap, drug-store perfume, and yet I feel like I just walked by a Calvin Klein model. It’s just that deodorant is a luxury in the village. Heck, fragranced soap is a luxury, and when you’ve been laboring in your fields all day in 90 degree heat only to come home and rinse off with manky dambo water, you begin to acquire that age-old musk I like to refer to as “Human Being.” A coarser individual might call it “B.O.” I do my best to smell good on any given day, but for the most part, delightful odors are few and far between here.

As I lay on my bed saturating my blood with sweet-smelling oxygen, I began to think about all of the good memories associated with this particular candle scent, and I was smiling. Then, I started to think about the smells from home that I really miss the most, not just the frou-frou candle that’s always burning on the stove. I’m not sure about the target market, but I would pay millions of kwatcha for Yankee candles to make scents like Grain Sack, Hay Loft, Daddy’s Sweatshirt, Freshly Printed Checks, Warm Goat Flank While Milking, and SID Breath (Well, maybe not so much SID breath...). I mean, the other day I got a whiff of what I’m sure was a particularly rank cassava fart, but it smelled vaguely like skunk cabbage and for an instant I was transported to Camas. Sad, huh?

I know that as soon as I leave, I’ll be dreaming about the virtural Yankee Candle Zambia line: Frying Isabi in the Evening, Mango Blossom, Fresh Rain on the Dambo, Fresh Guavas, Cooking Fire, and Tute Drying in the Sun (Well, maybe not so much Tute Drying in the Sun…). But the point is that I have become a very smell-oriented person. And when you have such a crazy wild adventure like this one, you become more sensitive to the little things you never noticed before. They connect you to memories of people and places, and when you’re far away, that’s what you need most. Songs are great, pictures are great, but for some reason, I have come to realize that smells are the most powerful memory trigger for me. I suppose I always had an inkling, it just took me moving 7,000 miles away to fully understand.

Thanks for the candles, Mom and Dad. :D


*To the family and friends of Thomas Maresco and other Lesotho volunteers, all of PC Africa mourns with you. Mwaculeni mukwai.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Fresh from Lu-town

So, another fantastic month has passed, and I have just returned from my IST in Lusaka. It was FANTASTIC!!! So fantastic that it warrented two fantastics in a row. It was so wonderful to be able to spend a couple weeks with some of the coolest people in the whole world (whom I have missed very much since April), and we all had a great time. I ate lots of delicious food, even watched a movie (Inception was awesome, btw) and was able to really re-adjust my focus and gather my thoughts from the past few months. I learned tons of great stuff and am ready to head back to begin working on projects. It really was like a vacation full of learning. And Education Vacation, in fact.

Once I really get some stuff going, I’ll fill you all in on what exactly I’m doing here. It’s easy to say that I’m in Peace Corps as an environment/agriculture extension volunteer. I can even say that my program focuses on food security and sustainable development in these areas, but when it comes to the actual nitty-gritty of what I’m doing here, it can be a bit confusing to understand, and even to explain. So, here are some ideas on what I have planned for the next few weeks…. I’m going to try to work with one of my local co-ops on improving the management of their 230 layer hens, teaching break-even analysis, improved record keeping, more efficient feeding programs and facility structure. I’m really stoked about this one, obviously, as this sort of thing is really my deal. :D I also hope to start a tree nursery so I can get all of my agro-forestry seeds started and turned into thriving seedlings by the time planting season rolls around in December. I am going to be working with one of the local missions on developing their fish pond (improve the structure, stock the pond, raise the wee fishies into delicious bream dinners, ect.). I want to start a garden at a OVC (orphans/vulnerable children) school near town so they can start earning their own money for toilets, a deeper well, books, etc, with the longer term goal of raising rabbits for income. My counterpart and I are also making plans to start a PLWHA support group (people living with hiv/aids) in our area, but this one may take a while. It may take some time before folks are really comfortable about coming forward about their status, there’s still a TON if stigma and prejudice surrounding the disease where I live. (I would never call Luapula “back-woods,” but I do seem to be drawn to the most rural areas no matter what part of the world I end up living in. Even in another country, I’m in the country… I wouldn’t have it any other way, really.) I have so many more ideas, and really because the realm of possibility is so vast, I’ll probably just play my cards as they come, and keep you all updated. It was brought to my attention that many of you have been asking how you can help, which is great, and I really appreciate it. If I need anything at all (aside from moral support in the form of letters, *winkwinknudgenudge*), I will most certainly ask. Well, I’ll probably still ask for letters too, to be completely honest…. Just stay posted :D

On a more somber note, I must be the bringer of woeful tidings. True to the ironic form of my life, the day after I posted the beginnings of the Eggs of Our Lives saga, tragedy struck. I returned to my village to find that poor Ozmodius has disappeared without a trace. Gone. I had become so fond of his bedraggled presence, and I immediately began investigating as to the circumstances of his demise. I refuse to believe that he ended his days in the respectable yet boring manner of accompanying my neighbors’ nshima and umusalu. That would be absurdly logical. Instead, I noted the sudden appearance of the Miguel Twins in the neighborhood. Dark and mysterious, Jose and Ricardo randomly showed up, lurking around suspiciously at the scene of the crime. Something about those two….I’m thinking that it is entirely possible that Arthur Jackson hired them as hit men to finish off Oz once and for all. Or it could be the jaded Barbie, disgraced and vengeful, but this is all merely speculation. The third theory is that Oz faked his own death, hired the Jose and Carlos as a front, and will someday re-emerge as a famous Zam-pop star, complete with convertible Mercedes and tons of hot chicks, and return to his old scratching grounds with the sole intent of making Arthur Jackson look like an utter fool. It might work, although some of his royalties will defiantly need to go to a feather transplant, complete make-over style. I shall keep a hopeful ear to the shortwave, just in case…

Hope the summer has been treating you all well. Cold season is just ending here and the days are getting hotter and hotter. While I am really loving it right now, I know that soon it will be too hot to work and bike during the day, and then too hot to even sleep at night, and the dust will stick to my sweat, and the wind will feel like an oven furnace. I have been warned….I can’t wait. Time to get serious about my sweet Zam-tan (don’t worry, I’ll wear plenty of sunscreen). Happy almost Labor Day to all, and to all those sorry souls going back to school….Godspeed…And HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!! Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Love you all.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A certain kind of crazy...

Well, my friends, I’m afraid I’ve been remiss for too long, and for all you readers out there anxiously awaiting my next update (and, again, I’m sure there are just legions of you…), I apologize. I promise it won’t happen again. For realz. And I mean it this time. You see, PC Zam had just blessed the provincial houses with Wi-Fi! *cue trumpets and fanfare* Real, speedy, American-style internet. It’s AMAZING! It’s the little things that you learn to live without, and kinda even appreciate not having sometimes, but then when you get them back, it’s mind-blowing. For instance, yahoo mail and Makes me afraid to go back to Americaland, almost.

So, the latest news is that I have successful completed my Community Entry period. And by successful completing, I mean I survived. That’s right, three months alone in my village, learning how to function on my own in a completely crazy new world. There were ups and downs, highs and lows, some blood, lots of sweat, and, I won’t lie, one or two tears (But really, only a couple. Honestly. No major meltdowns yet, unless you count chasing the village iwe with a giant stick when the little brats wouldn’t listen to me when I told them to get out of my insaka…kids these days…). It’s a wild time, let me tell you. The funny things about it though is you do make it, and when you look back on the past three months, you don’t know how it could have gone so fast when you are sure that every day is about 43 hours long. It’s incredible, I felt that this weekend was bigger than my birthday AND Christmas combined, just because I feel like I’ve aged (/grown/changed/improved/become so totally hardcore…) three years in the last 90 days. You don’t know how it happens, but somehow while your life seems to be caught in this otherworldly stasis of a foreign world, you’re catapulted forward into a whole new stage of your life. It feels…like sunshine and rain and a hurricane all at once. Then you finally have a moment to pause and reflect, and in that deep breath, you realize you’re so very different than when you began it’s hard to even remember what your life was like before. Somewhere along the way, that very wild, crazy, outrageous way, you’ve become comfortable and made this strange new world your home. Or maybe that’s just my life these days…

But anyway, enough of that mushy stuff. I want to welcome the newest intake that arrived this weekend. Even though you missed the last flight to Lusaka (ahahahahaha, too funny), you still made it, and hey, at least the PC staff didn’t forget you were coming. If I could I would make the Transformers transformation sound right now, because that’s what’s happening to us all. “PCV’s: Super-cool people in disguise”. Can’t wait to meet you all, especially the divinely blessed people who will be coming up to Luapula, unarguably the Greatest Province In Zambia. Welcome home, kids.

I wish I could take a snapshot of what my new life is like here for you all. It would undoubtedly be full of sweeping vistas, rusty single-gear bicycles, tons of children, and hard-working maayos (Plus lots of sand. Seriously, if I had known there would be this much sand in my new home, I would have never begged my parents to take me to the coast before I left. It’s ridiculous. I’m investigating dune tires for my bicycle at dry season gets closer and the Sand Trap moat surrounding my community expands daily). You see, as a Volunteer, every day is an adventure. You are constantly surprised by your own strength, and at the same time, have moments where you begin to question your sanity. It is an awkward time, a trying time, a time that you can only describe as “crazy.” And indeed, it is a well-known fact among PCV’s that you really have to be a certain kind of crazy to do this.

Let me illustrate. There is a sordid drama currently happening in my village, a scandalous soap opera of passion, jealousy, and revenge. There are secret affairs, back-stabbing lovers, illegitimate offspring, and vicious rivalries, and I have observed it all from the comfort of my porch. It’s taken me a while to get caught up on all the details, but, as I’m sure you will soon agree with me, on the whole it is riveting entertainment for me. I call it….Eggs of Our Lives.

Ozmodius is the scrawny scruffy rooster that sleeps in the tree above my hut. He is the sorry Water-Boy type, with about fourteen feathers, a bare neck, no spurs, and a sad wheeze in his crow. He tries so hard, and yet he is, in every sense of the word, a reject. I mean, he’s moved in with the village musungu, so what does that tell you? Poor Ozmodious, he has pretty much nothing going for him. Now, there is another rooster that stays across the road. Glossy, huge, perfectly feathered, and fierce, Arthur Jackson is every hen’s dream and the neighborhood pimp. AJ, as we shall call him, is Mr. Joe Quarterback of Mwanachama, and his favorite sport is chasing Oz and beating the drumsticks outta him. He rockets around the village with this ridiculously determined swagger and I’m pretty sure that Cheap Trick’s “Mighty Wings” is constantly playing in his head. They are bitter rivals.

So Ozmodius is madly in love with Barbie, the sweet strawberry-blonde chick that has a distinct girl-next-door vibe. The problem is, Barbie is currently with AJ, as they are usually spotted together strutting around the village scratching in the dust. In my opinion, he totally uses her, and obviously Oz agrees with me, because a couple of weeks ago I watched him make a pass on Barbie. He carefully shadowed her for a few laps around my garbage pit, then, he made his move, jumping in and sharing a piece of my old tomato butt with her. It was subtle, innocent, and filled with danger. I knew that they were seeing each other secretly; I would catch a few longing side glances as the days went on.

The time finally came when I witnessed the big showdown. Oz and Barbie had stolen a few minutes together, chatting and giggling and pecking about beneath my mango trees. Then Oz couldn’t stand it anymore and just HAD to jump on her. I watched as they consummated their illicit love with bated breath, fearing the worst, and I wasn’t disappointed. Out of seemingly nowhere, Arthur Jackson barrels into the yard, all feathers and fury. He soundly trounced Ozmodius, who had to escape into my bathing shelter, and then confronted his cheating mistress with cruel pecks and reprimands. I was literally on the edge of my seat.

I thought that was the end of it. Barbie and AJ broke up, and a couple days later I saw the cocky cock with a new bleach-blonde, barely legal tramp, obviously a trophy rebound to shame Barbie. I was so thrilled; finally, Oz and Barbie can be together, because they are sooooo meant for each other. Oh, how wrong I was. Ozmodius was spotted not but five days later with AJ’s new squeeze, the tramp, and poor Barbie was seen morosely picking through some weeds, alone and disgraced in the eyes of the other hens. This tells me that Ozmodius isn’t really in this for love, he was just using Barbie to make AJ’s life as miserable as he possibly can. Why, you ask? I was wondering the same thing, so I did some investigating, and observed them both hanging around this old grey hen. I think…they’re step-brothers. It’s plausible, you know, the odd adopted egg, the bitter resentment, the constant competition…. I will most certainly keep you updated on the new happenings, because Aurthur Jackson will most certainly find out about this new betrayal.
I think, over all, the saddest thing is that this has really taken on a life of its own. We are genuinely entertained by stuff like this. Which leaves the more critical question: Will we ever be able to fit into normal society again? It remains yet to be seen…

Thanks to everyone who is keeping up with me and thinking about me. If you haven’t yet, just trot on down to your post office and jot me a post card or something, I love hearing from anyone and everyone, even just a little bit, and a stamp is the most efficient investment you could make when it comes to buying my affection. :D Just kidding. Well, only a little.

Headed down to Lusaka in a couple of weeks for IST, I’m getting so excited to see everyone and learn some cool new tricks of the trade. Hope all is well half a world away.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Hunger Pangs

Let’s talk about the one thing that is constantly on every Volunteer’s mind (besides the opposite sex): food. It is curious how when your life is more basic, so are your needs, although I suppose that this revelation should come as no surprise. After all, we really are simple creatures at heart. Shelter, sustenance, sex, isn’t that how that saying goes? And let me tell you, the subject of food is one that is discussed, lamented, expounded upon and described in every possible way with obscene detail and fondness.

See, here’s the thing. Food in Zambia isn’t bad, per se. It’s just not good either. And when I say not good, I don’t mean that your average fare isn’t entirely palatable or edible or filling, because it is. In fact, village fare can be downright tasty. However, the deliciousness of a fully prepared meal with different food groups and American flavors, and the ease with which this can be acquired…well, that’s something that is a rare treat. I bet you didn’t even know that America had a flavor. I am here to tell you that not only does America have a flavor, but it also has a smell (car exhaust, perfume and new shoes) and a sound (English, lawn mowers and engines). Ah, the things that you don’t realize are there until they’re gone.
But back to the point at hand. The national dish in Zambia, and in variations in many other African countries, is nshima. Take a pot full of cornmeal porridge, boil for 30 minutes, then add more cornmeal until you need a cement mixer to stir the resulting mush, then scoop out in lumps and serve. Shockingly, it is even more tasteless than it sounds, and just as equally devoid of all nutritive value. The good news is it’s full of carbohydrates… Nshima is served with what they call relishes, which usually some type of leafy vegetable that had been boiled into anonymity with tomatoes, onions and a heart-stopping amount of salt and oil. Sometimes, you’ll get the odd beans in oil sauce, or impwa, a small eggplant type thing that is honestly the only food on the face of this earth that I absolutely cannot manage to swallow (I used to think that was bananas, however not only are local bananas delicious, but when you’re hungry and the only snack you have is some ‘naners...) If you’re lucky, you’ll get a meat dish, usually chicken or fish, beef and sausage if your hosts are really bwana.

Now, I won’t lie. I’ve had some delicious dishes here. The cabbage relish is my favorite, and when veggies like rape or sweet potato leaves or pumpkin leaves are mixed with groundnut (peanut) powder, it becomes ifisashi, and it is really only a degree or two less than delectable. Similarly, my host family would fry fish and it was amazing. Also, there are a few foods here that are actually better than their American (or Chilean/Mexican/Canadian) counterparts: the aforementioned bananas, fresh guavas and avocados, canned butterbeans, and sweet potatoes. Moreover, there are some yummy brands of South African cookies and sweets that you can buy at Shoprite. Part of the fun has been trying all of the new and unfamiliar packages to see what they taste like.

However, when it really comes down to it, the subject of food is a sore one among the PCV population. Here the crux of the matter: when you get that inevitable craving for eggrolls and chowmein, or chips and salsa, or pot roast, or pizza, or lasagna, or fresh greek salad, or ice cream, or fried chicken, or pitas and hummus…you are left staring sadly at your unlit brazier with a heavy heart and an empty stomach. Suddenly your plain rice and inferior soy sauce is no longer appetizing. Sure, you can find most of these things in Lusaka. You can get creative and cook some of these things at the house. The point is, however, that you have to bike into town, buy ingredients, improvise ingredients when critical components like kalamata olives or sour cream are nowhere to be found, slave away over tortillas and salsa from scratch, and are rewarded with the result of “just not quite the same.” It’s enough to make even the most apathetic eater depressed.
Thus, we PCV’s have created a game. It’s simple really, with the only rule being not to drool on your neighbor. We sit around in a circle and describe with aching detail what we would eat at that very moment if we were in America. We talk about dishes, sauces, sides and hors d’ourves, and wistfully dream about the appropriate accompanying beverages. It’s almost pornographic, really. The Volunteer’s definition of Hell: you are blessed with television, and the only channel you get is the Food Network.

In Zam-speak, “we manage.” And I will say that when you do get the odd pizza or fries or ice cream, (I am looking forward to IST in August with anticipatory delight, Lusaka has some awesome take-away), it makes it that much more wonderful. Which then begs the question, is it really that good, or does desperation numb the palate? Probably a bit of both… You have a lot of time to think about stuff like this in the village, and the only thing I have conclusively come up with is a surefire way to make my millions. In four words, "Iron Chef: Peace Corps." Take note, television producers, and remember that I thought of it first.

peace. xo

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Lexicon of Zam-isms

The internet here in Mansa today is bwangubwangu, so I thought I'd take advantage and catch you all up on my life. Bwangu is Bemba for fast, which is a wonderful lead in to my topic of the day: Zam lingo. My father informs me that I don't, for all my communication, actually say much about Africa, so I will do my best to educate you on the wonderful world of Zambian semantics.

Aside from the fact that most of my life is now conducted in Bemba, English is the official language of the country. In fact, most people have a rudimentary grasp on English in the towns, and you can function exceedingly well without knowing any local language in the big cities like Lusaka and Ndola. In the more rural areas, the best I usually get is "How ah yoo, how ah you!" shouted at me by the kids as I ride by. The most common form of greeting here is directly translated into "How are you?" so that's where they get it. Anyway, this pervasiveness of Engish has led to an emergence of what is commonlly called amoung Volunteers here as Zamlish. There are strange nuances and habits that Zambians have when talking to eachother, and you, and they come out so funny on the English end that I just have to talk about some of my favorite points:

-First of all, Zambians repeat verbs for emphasis like I did at the beginning. Within a few months, us musungus are saying things like "fastfast," "badbad" and "scaryscary", because that's what it comes out as from our counterparts.

-"Iwe" is a pronoun meaning "you". It is used both literally, as well as slang like "Hey you!" or "kid"/"homie". The women will shout for their children (also, shouting in the village is the most common form of communication with your neighbors)to the tune of "Mweewa iwe!!" or "Daniel iwe!" Then you know they're in trouble. You can also say "imwe" with respect, but I am waiting for the day when one of my new friends/neightbors hollers "iwe" to me. Then I know for sure that I'm part of the community and no longer an outsider.

-"Just there": for some reason, the qulaification of "just" is more popular in Bantu languages, so it will pop up in English all the time. This, plus the inherent Zambian vaguness when it comes to directions and distance, many things like houses, markets, shops, and meeting are "just there" *wave hand to the left or right*. It's an actual place here. My favorite is turning it back on Zambians, usually the irritating dudes that whistle and holler and ask me where I live. I smile and wave ambiguiously with a "just there." HA!

-There is no "l" in many Bantu dialects, and the sound that an l will make is kinda fused with the "r" sound. Incidintly, my mother's name is the biggest liguistical challenge for anyone willing to ask me (Lorrie, which comes out closer to Ow-eei). Inasmuch, the suffix -ful is dropped from many adjectives. My friend proudly announced to me upon seeing one of my pictures that "your family is very beautiff!" It's one of my favorites.

-Also, Zambians have a habit of repeating what you just said right back to you. At first I thought this was just because I was making a mistake and they were trying to clarify through my patchy bemba or their patchy English, but no. I've heard Zambians doing it to each other. "I am headed to town today." "Oh, you are headed to town today?" "Yes, I am headed to town today." They are a very patient and thorough people...

These are all I can think of right now. When I get back to America and am talking strangely, now you all know why. Even the English is different here.

Things are going well in my village. Can't wait to actually get some projects going, but that's just me full of zeal and ambition... Had a fantastic birthday with my neighbor. We biked 30k to Mumbalumba Falls, and it was amazing. Hope all is well at home. And keep sending those letters! Love you all...