Saturday, July 24, 2010

Let Me Off the Bus!

Zambians tend to be easy-going, soft-spoken, respectful, and friendly. They raise their voices in song and sometimes in worship, but not often in argument. People greet you as you walk. They frequently will stop to chat if they know you. Drivers may speed, but I have seen no evidence of road rage. It's a pretty mellow place. So this experience was exceptional.

I was going to town on an errand and got on a minibus. It had a spiderweb crack in the front windshield, indicating that at some time something or someone had bounced against it, but I didn't notice that detail until later. We started off, and I saw that we were going to go by the back road route, passing by the entrances to several compounds before reaching the heart of town. That was fine with me, as I was in no particular hurry.

After several stops to pick up passengers along the road, the driver made a stop which must have been improper in some way--not far enough from the traffic lane, or in the wrong area--and the police pulled up. They asked the driver to come out. He locked his door, opened his window just a crack, and instructed his "conductor" (the young man who collects fares) to keep his door locked. He then tried to placate the police officer. "Sorry, Boss, Sorry, Sorry, Sorry" he kept saying. Then when the insistent officer walked a slight distance to consult with his partner, the bus driver took off. The police got in their car and followed us.

The other passengers were commenting, but it was in Bemba, so I couldn't understand what they were saying. From the tone, I thought they were on the driver's side in this confrontation. (Sometimes police here are interested in getting a quick payment of a fine on the spot, or possibly a bribe.) So we drove on, at a fairly fast speed. When we stopped to add more passengers, however, the police again stopped. They positioned their police car right in front of the minibus and spoke to the driver again. After a heated discussion, I believe they instructed the driver to turn the bus around and come to the police station.

He did turn the bus around, but then he took off like a shot and sped along the road. As soon as there was a dirt road into the nearest compound, we went barrelling down that road, scattering chickens and people right and left. The bus rocked and jolted and skidded around curves. (These roads were full of people--school children with their backpacks, mothers with babies on their backs, people carrying sacks to the little market stands.) All the passengers were holding on for dear life as we drove through these crowded roads, barely a lane wide, full of ruts and holes and rocks, as well as the pedestrians. We kept turning sharply over and over again at corner after corner, leaving huge clouds of dust behind us. Now the bus passengers appeared to be telling the driver to please slow down, take it easy, as we bounced and shook and were scared that we would crash into something or run down someone. I think we all genuinely feared for our lives.

Finally we saw the main road ahead again and the driver pulled up to it. He looked both ways for signs of the police and didn't see them. He pulled out cautiously and stopped someone to ask if they had seen any police. When the answer was no, he proceeded to continue on quickly into town, making no more stops.

By the time we arrived, we had all caught our breath and calmed our hearts and were just grateful to have survived the trip. I know that one person, at least, had prayed aloud during the ordeal, and the rest of us probably prayed silently.

On my return trip, I found a clean minibus, no cracks in the windshield, with a quiet, polite driver. It had a sticker on the front window in the corner proclaiming that the bus was protected by the blood of Jesus, and I took that as a good sign portending a safe return trip--and it was.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Four bottle caps, a milk carton, and a stick

There is an old saying that necessity is the mother of invention. Here in Zambia, I have observed that scarcity--and creativity--also lead to invention. This is especially true with kids.

Play is universal, and children everywhere find, are given, or make playthings. What do four bottle caps, a milk carton, and a stick make? A truck, of course! Bottle caps are wheels, the milk carton is the body, and the stick, stuck in the middle of the body, is used to push it along. This is usually a toddler or little boy toy. Sometimes they cut out windows and add bottle cap headlghts to make it look more realistic.

Older boys want wheels that actually roll, so another version of a vehicle is made of coat hanger wire, two or four recycled wheels from an old wagon or a now-defunct plastic truck, and a stick or rod for the axle. If two kids both have vehicles, they will race them, running and pushing the "car" ahead of them.

Two sticks from bushes or trees can be bound together to make the frame for a home-made kite. The string comes from patiently unraveling a burlap maize sack and twisting the pieces of heavy thread together. A plastic bag, opened into a diamond shape, becomes the body of the kite. The windiest month is about to come, and I expect to see kids flying kites all over the grassy field where the education students were practicing traditional dancing all last month.

Of course, such universal pastimes as rolling tires, playing tag and climbing trees is always fun--especially if the tree has guavas in it. The most developed art I have observed, however, is the construction of a ball from discarded plastic bags. This involves stuffing as many crumpled or rolled up bags as possible into one bag, massaging it to make it round. Then it is wrapped in strings gotten from unraveling a burlap bag that maize meal came in. Once the plastic bag is completely covered with string, they take it to a charcoal cooking fire and hold it near the heat to bind it all together. A well made ball will actually bounce.

And what do they do with the ball? Play soccer, of course!

What about girls? Their play seems to imitate their mothers, using empty cans and sticks to play at mixing nshima (corn meal porridge), making dolls from scraps of fabric and carrying them on their backs, modeling dirt/clay figures, and holding tea parties. Girls don't seem to have as much time to play as boys, since they are often helping their mothers with household chores. They can be seen freely and happily singing and dancing whenever there is music.

I have enjoyed getting to know a group of children who come to show me their school work as they enjoy a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or some homemade cookies. It makes me miss my grandchildren less to have some Zambian children in my life.

Friday, July 9, 2010

A Zambian Kitchen Party

American bridal showers pale by comparison with a Zambian “kitchen party.”

I was invited by a friend here to go to Mufulira for the kitchen party of her niece. We took a bus and a taxi to get there, about an hour away from MEF. Vivienne told me that friends and family form a planning committee a couple of months before the event, to pool their resources and plan the food and other details. The kitchen party is almost as important as the wedding, and I would come to see why.

We arrived early, so that Vivienne and her daughters could help with preparations. Chairs were set up on opposite sides of the yard. The food table was on the third side, closest to the house, and at the far end was a decorated canopy under which the bride-to-be and her spiritual advisors would sit. In the corner next to the canopy there was a huge display of gifts—pots and pans, dishes, tableware, small appliances, a dish cabinet. These were brought in advance by family and close friends. Other wrapped gifts were brought by guests and stacked inside the house. Popular and traditional music came from a cd player. People bustled around cooking, decorating, and greeting each other with ululations.

Soon I noticed that women were going into bedrooms and changing into traditional dress. The bride came from one region and the groom another, so there were two different styles represented by the two families. At the appointed time, I was taken to a front row seat, and the singing and dancing began. The bride’s family’s regional costume was a very full skirt, mid-calf length, with rows of ribbon above the hem. The top was a flowing tunic, also decorated with ribbons, and a shawl or apron around the waist. Many were made in solid colors with contrasting ribbons—red with black ribbons, blue with white, bright yellow with orange—and others were patterned fabrics, still with ribbon trim, earth tones. They danced and sang. Then friends of the bride in floor-length colorful dresses came and danced another style of traditional dance. They had chitenges folded and wrapped around their hips to emphasize the waist and hip movements. The dance represented a request that the family find a husband for the bride so that she could start a home and family.

Then three women drummers came and set up next to the canopy. All through the singing and dancing, there were ululations, and from time to time guests would join in the dancing on the grass. Then there was a hush, and a path of grass mats was placed from the house to the canopy. A long row of dancers emerged, led by the bride’s closest friends and cousins, The next five people in the line—the bride and her advisors—were covered by a cloth as they danced (reminded me of a Chinese dragon dancing), and they were followed by more friends and family in the line. The bride was danced into the canopy, and the grass mats were removed. She remained covered by the shawl, although her advisors emerged from beneath it. Wrapped gifts were carried from the house and placed near the canopy. Attendants brought a few to be opened, and the giver to be recognized—perhaps honored guests, I’m not sure, but the bride is still covered and the gifts are opened by attendants.

Then the groom’s family came dancing in, waving small leafy branches. They gathered at the canopy, singing and accompanying the groom. He approached the bride, knelt, and after some exchange of greetings, he gently removed the shawl and uncovered her face. She looked down demurely. He presented her with a basket of fruits and vegetables, symbolic of the pledge to see that she always had food. He also presented her with a decorated basket filled with household and cleaning items, symbolic of her responsibility to manage the house. Then he led her out of the canopy and she went with him to meet his parents, kneeling before them and greeting them. She then brought him to her family, and he greeted them. The prospective bride and groom then greeted all the guests, and we were invited to eat. Everyone visited with everyone else, and the party went on. The meal was rice, roasted chicken, beef in gravy, coleslaw, potato salad, and a traditional dish made of ground nuts and some sort of root vegetable. We left after eating, in order to get a bus back in good time, but the party went on for at least another hour, I’m sure.
What a wonderful way for two families to celebrate an upcoming wedding, with ceremony, symbolism and joy!

Friday, July 2, 2010

On the Dignity and Value of Work

The butterflies and bees are playing among my zucchini plants in the garden, which are in full golden-orange bloom. I’ve already harvested carrots and green beans, and by next week I will have spinach and onions. The broccoli, cauliflower, bell peppers, tomatoes, and rape will be coming in after that, and there are herbs, as well.

So when did I develop such a green thumb? I didn’t. It’s all due to Moses. And it has led me to reflect upon the dignity and importance of work.

After settling into my half of the duplex where I live on the MEF campus, I noticed that my neighbor, Jenny, had a worker who came a few hours a week to water and keep her yard neat. My side was quite overgrown, so I figured I should also find someone for a similar arrangement. Jenny told me that after an initial cleanup, about six hours a week would maintain my part of the yard, which was mostly grass, trees and bushes.

The very next day, Moses knocked on my back door, “slasher” in hand, offering to clean up my yard. We negotiated the price, and then he said if I liked his work would I consider keeping him on to maintain the yard. I let him know what I was prepared to pay and how many hours a week he should plan to work and suggested that he could have flexible hours to fit with whatever other work he was doing. He explained that he had been unemployed for some time, just doing “piece work” (day labor) since he had been let go by the mines in a retrenchment.

It took a week of full days to get the yard clean and neat, but I noticed that the next week Moses came in the morning and stayed all day, raking the dirt, chatting with passersby, and preparing a garden bed in one corner. He asked what I would like to plant, noting that he thought there had been sweet potatoes in the past. I reminded him of our agreement, that I was paying for only a few hours a week, and he agreed that he understood. Yet he came every day.

I finally understood that he needed to be working, that it was a source of pride for him to have a job. He guarded my house when I was out, and reported any visitors or children running around. He suggested planting more of the yard in garden beds, pointing out that then I wouldn’t have to buy vegetables in the market. So I gave him money for seeds and chicken manure. He used our compost pile to enrich the soil. He said that he had learned about agriculture in school.

As he prepared the garden, raked leaves, and trimmed the border hedges, people began to comment on what a nice yard I had. Moses glowed.

Unemployment in Zambia is 40%. This is true for all levels of education, so I fear for the future of my social work graduates. The needs are there for human services, for road repair, for environmental cleanup, for health care, for smaller classes and more schools…but the money is not.

Moses and I have come to terms on appropriate compensation, and I have a huge vegetable garden now. I must admit that eating veggies fresh picked is a delight, and soon I will be sharing produce with hungry people who come to my door. And I have a deeper appreciation of the value of work to the human spirit.