August 27, 2011


Lake Banguela, Samfya, Luapula Province, on Holiday
Journal entries from this year.

Staging. Staging is very much like a busride to camp if it were to take several days to reach the destination. Twenty-nine wide-eyed, optimistic, speculative American youths (and those young in spirit). The nervousness of some has not subsided: their blinking is tight and controlled. Our wheeled and strapped luggage makes a mountain that dwarfs even the tallest of us. (Staging is the process of collecting volunteers from around the country, hosting them in a budget hotel, doing a workshop or two, and packaging them onto a plane to their final destination. It is a strange and exciting period of days, particularly if one's staging is in snowy Philadelphia, a poor preparation for arrival in sub-Saharan Africa.)

Flying. Arriving at a city at night, the next morning it wakes you up and grows around you, budding from the dark abyss. Lights seen from above and the droll of airport kiosks and immigration seems like just a dream after an expansive sunrise, replete with waking livestock and the tonic of human machines.

First Week. The people are utterly friendly, inviting me into their community while at the same time reveling in my confusion over the simplest things. The colonizer narrative is reversed; perhaps this is the unstated goal of Peace Corps: to make Americans the anti-colonizers, the fools turned international, only politely hinting at their own agenda. No wonder many think we are spies; we are, to the casual observer, agenda-less. We have nothing to give and what we get out of this appears to be very little. We are foolish, seemingly, to leave the advancements of civilization to be here, yet we are the chosen few of many.
A conversation I had recently:

Public Official: Why did you come here to Zambia?
Myself: In America we don't have nshima.
Public Official: I like your spirit.

Charcoal. Today I met with Luke. I told him his name reminded me of Star Wars but he didn't get the reference. He saw me bicycling to my school, twice, and decided to meet me at my home, to see this white man in the middle of the African landscape. Luke is a charcoal dealer, he works on pieces of land converting the forest into dark sooty pieces of energy and drives them, bundled, to Lusaka. He invited me to see the process and offered me a bag of charcoal, as I was beginning to question the nature of deforestation and burning fresh logs in my cooking shelter, splayed to resemble an asterisk, with bricks situated to hold cooking pots. Whether I am doing the forest justice, or romantically reducing my distance to nature, or saving myself the inconvenience of locating a dealer with charcoal and carrying the load on my bicycle, I do not know. But I do know, and am discovering, is that if you reduce daily life to its essentials: water, food, energy, cohabitation - you find both a phenomenon and a story.

{ The tactile nature of nshima - it is molded, shaped, as it is eaten; it occupies the hand as it fills the stomach. }

Icikwakwa (The sickle). Matthias speaks English with a distinct British-Zambian accent. He slashed my yard and left before I could pay him, and offered to buy my iPod for 200,000 Kwatcha (40 USD). He is in 8th Grade. We made maps of our own worlds (his the Serenje Boma or town, mine the Pacific Coast) and I rode with him to town, a car battery strapped to the back of his bicycle to be charged. He built a toy helicopter out of wood with an electric motor which spun the rotors, slowly and methodically, around in infinite circles. My two youngest host siblings climbed onto it and left for America, and I watched until they were a dot in the night sky.

{ As I crushed the mosquito and saw the blood it shed was mine, I realized nature is thick with irony. }

Bureaucracy. The colluded colonial past provides the structure for a present of strange idiosyncrasies and contrasts, i.e. tribal structure and office bureaucracy. The ultimate symbol of the bureau is the official stamp, both a verification of authenticity and a guarantee that reality itself has an order, a structure which can be managed, catalogue, and shuffled from inbox to outbox, office to office. The stamp is not a tool, but an extension of the office worker, an extra limb. The loudest voice the Headmaster utters is the virulent pound of his stamp, manufactured twice as if an echo: once onto the inky pad, and once onto a paper, its force reverberating onto the desk below. In what is surely the highlight of my week, I watch him brand his mark on every pupil report which wait in stacks around his office. Every book at the school receives a stamp on its first page, a sign which declares this is ours, we are here, and we have, with the brute force of our hand, made an indelible and unerasable mark on history.

Eating. "It is good to eat with one's family." Or, Nshatemwa ukulya neka (I don't like to eat alone). The sharing of nshima; even broken into lumps its comes from the same pot. Eating with my host family, especially after sunset when the darkness has chased everyone to their homes and to the fires of their insakas, is something I look forward to all day. I arrive as the sun exits, leaving its trace brilliantly on the horizon. It is a routine, almost a ritual. Whatever food is not eaten lives on as breakfast.

Sweeping. Hunched over, I am the broomstick. I sweep every week, sometimes twice, because I am that obsessive person. It is cyclical, rubbish appears from nowhere, as if from the ground itself, and once again I am pushing it away, because once it reaches the periphery of my yard, it ceases to exist. Futility sets in as I realize I am removing dirt from dirt.

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