Monday, February 11, 2013

The Missed Details

(written 9 Feb. 2013 as an update to students in South Dakota and Florida)
I’m sitting in a mango tree before 7 am, with less than 9 weeks remaining before I leave my village.    What can I say in the way of an update?  How to discern what is relevant to you?  My blog entries have given little insights, I hope, but they are written when the spirit moves me and I take the time to sit down, reflect, and write, then later to type and post online.
I imagine I’ve skipped masses of daily details so normal to me now that they’re almost mundane:
The way my family eats dinner outside on the ground, around a collective pot and side dishes, using our fingers. 
The energy-efficient way of heating bath water in the sun (on days it doesn’t rain), in a large tub covered in plastic sheeting—mine was cut from my mattress packaging—held securely by a long strip of rubber commonly used to tie parcels to bicycle racks. 
The rhythm of pumping clean water from a borehole, or of hauling it up, hand over hand, from a well, carefully winding the rope in a coil on the ground without ever losing hold of the 10-liter bucket of water making its ascent.
 Gathering stems of long, wheat-like grass from the soccer pitch, and weaving the strands together to make a handheld broom.
Sometimes people write me letters and say it’s interesting to hear about how different life is here.  This always takes me by surprise, because I don’t feel that it is so different.  The threads of common humanity are stronger than we imagine.  I suppose it’s like wearing a pair of tinted glasses—at first, after you put them on, everything has a new shade and looks exciting, if perhaps disorienting.  After a while, however, the colorful tinting becomes natural, and what you see remains the same as it always has.  You’re mindful of the new hue, of course, but it no longer distracts you from the shapes and forms you see. 
If this is true, though, then will going back to the States be akin to removing the glasses?  And will I be disoriented there?  Perhaps, and a bit of anxiety about this has been popping up in the last few days.  Nervousness not just about the U.S., exactly, but about the things I want to do here, the ways I want to take advantage of the two remaining months.  I’m so very privileged to live here.  As a U.S. citizen, I had the good fortune to be caught up in the Peace Corps tornado and dropped down like Dorothy in a different place.  Moreover, I have more than adequate support—financial and otherwise—to live comfortably in that place, more comfortably than many of its own citizens.  My two-year-journey is to an Emerald City called “COS,” or “Close-of-Service,” and while it will be exciting to go home once I reach that destination, it will also mean leaving behind this enchanting Oz.
But Oz has its threats, too, and I’ve not been immune to its witches.  (I mean this, of course, in a purely metaphorical sense, though many Zambians believe that witchcraft is real, practiced, and powerful.)  I see things that make me, in turns, agitated, furious, and apathetic.  When a young man starts beating another, accused of theft, and people gather around to watch, including a mother with her second-grade son.  When a teacher is away from school for three full weeks in a term, leaving no lesson plans or even an attendance register behind, and the administration makes no plan whatsoever for how those pupils will be taught the curriculum, other than occasionally instructing another teacher (busy with a room of 100 pupils of his or her own) to “keep the unattended class busy.”  When grown men ask me for money—equivalent to 40 US cents—to buy alcohol.
There are days when I can’t wait to get back to the U.S., where [insert any particular problem bothering me that day here] just won’t exist.
Then I think back to the months prior to Peace Corps, when I couldn’t wait to leave my American frustrations behind.  Students who make sexually inappropriate comments to their teachers, in class, and don’t even see it as wrong; freezing cold weather; hectic schedules; church services people attend not out of any desire to praise or worship but to make sure they’ve been seen as a “good churchgoing person.”  Every one of these things was like a heavy coat in November and December of 2010 and January of 2011, a coat I looked forward to shedding once I hit African soil.  (I spent the summer of 2004 in Cameroon, so I had an idea of what I might find here in Zambia and was looking forward to certain elements of African cultures.)
I did shed those vestments, but found others to dress in.  No place is without troubles.  But the converse is also true: No place is without beauty.  Zambia is utterly filled with it, despite what is seen at surface level, what Westerners want to label “poverty” and aid by writing a check so they can go right on with their day.  There are birds here, and wildflowers, an airy cloak of nature enfolding us, and much of what is used in daily life is gleaned from the living world all around.  There are family bonds that make one’s aunt akin to one’s mother.  There is an understanding of real, physical labor, evident in the toned muscles and lack of excess fat in so many Zambians, bodies that look like sculptures, that reveal what human anatomy should look like, though the concept of dieting is completely foreign.  (In two years, I’ve had only one, naturally rotund Zambian woman tell me she’d like to slim down and ask for advice on how.  For most, the idea of reducing weight-gain-causing food intake is bizarre.  Imagine having so much money to buy sweets and fatty foods that you must conscious limit yourself—the notion is preposterous.) 
And Zambians have a sense of happiness and hope that seems only penetrable by the present, if unintended, message by Western countries that they need us.  My own presence is, in a way, part of this message, though I hope I’ve been more a symbol of cooperation and mutual learning than one of aid—that we, the USA, need Zambia as much as it needs us, that we’re all in a vast web that should be woven out of mutual respect and understanding.  That we’re all vital to the global effort for our shared development and progression toward a more equitable, prosperous, peaceful future.

So in the way of an update…that’s what I’ve got.  I’m still figuring it all out, and I’m afraid I’ve done an inadequate job of providing the rich details that fill my senses each day, but ultimately I’m happy to enjoy the remaining nine weeks in  my village, soaking in the African sun and all that Zambia has to teach me.

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