Sunday, January 30, 2011

the sound of music

Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday afternoon, I am serenaded by the Boys Brigade marching band. Not that they are trying to entertain me. But they practice outdoors by the church, and sound carries far on the MEF campus.

The Boys Brigade is an explicitly Christian organization for school-age boys, somewhat like Boy Scouts. However, while Scouts emphasize camping and nature study as well as recreation, the Boys Brigade emphasizes music along with games and other activities.

Boys Brigade began in Scotland and England over 125 years ago, and their troops are generally based in Protestant churches. The motto is "Sure and Steadfast." The story is told that the first President of the Republic of Zambia, Dr. Kenneth Kaunda, was visiting Scotland and was exceptionally impressed by the Boys Brigade brass band that played in his honor. He introduced the organization in Zambia in 1965.

What I find amazing is that the band plays well, and no one can read music! One day in the human behavior class I teach, we were discussing aspects of thinking, learning, and how memory works. I mentioned the concept of mnemonic devices, and used "every good boy does fine" (how I remember the notes for the lines on the treble clef) and discovered that none of my students had ever seen a musical score. Yet they sing beautifully, often with harmony. Clearly, their ear for music has been cultivated from an early age, and they sing a lot, so practice doubtless helps, too.

I think sometimes of the musical The Music Man when I listen to the Boys Brigade brass band. If Harold Hill had tried his con scheme here in Africa, he wouldn't have needed to escape town after selling the instruments and the uniforms. The kids would have been able to play without formal instruction.

And what do they play? Very old-fashioned hymns that date back to the days of the missionaries, like "Blessed Assurance," "Showers of Blessings," and "Shall We Gather by the River." They also play some secular music but mostly hymns.

Last Sunday, someone from the congregation gave the band a pair of cymbals to add to their instruments, and a new decorated baton. They perform at many church celebrations and other social functions. I will miss their music when I return to Arizona.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

School's back in session--almost...

"Tiz, tiz," exclaimed my British neighbor one day recently when I was complaining mildly of losing my whole morning because I went to a "short meeting" scheduled for 9 am that ended up starting at 10 and lasting till 12:30. "Tiz?" I asked. "Yes, tiz, 'This Is Zambia' you see." I did. (Although to be honest, I have had this same meeting issue from time to time in Arizona. It seems to be a universal occurrence.)

What is different in Zambia is the casual attitude toward advance planning and time management. When our MEF students left in December, they were told to report to campus on January 10th to settle into dormitory rooms, pay their fees, and be ready for classes to start on the 17th. I went to work on my course outlines, developing a schedule that started with the week of January 17. (I couldn't be more specific on the dates topics would be covered than "the week of..." since I did not yet know what days of the week each of my classes fell upon.)

Usually the Social Work and Community Development lecturers would have met with our director and agreed on the meeting times and room assignments for our classes in a big meeting at the end of the previous semester. For some reason, that had not happened, and people left for the holiday break. Then the director's wife's illness kept him away until the 14th of January, the last working day before classes were due to begin. But we did meet then and had a plan by the end of the day Friday. We posted it on the bulletin boards for students to see.

Monday January 17th dawned. After chapel I went to the room where my first class was assigned to meet, and found a workshop meeting there. This has happened before, because the Zambezi Room is the most well-equipped classroom with padded chairs, enough tables and both a blackboard and a whiteboard. MEF is a popular venue for workshops, varying in length from one day to two weeks or more. As I was going to find out what other room my class could use, I was met by students telling me they couldn't start classes because the installment plan had been changed and they didn't bring enough of their tuition and had no way to get more. I decided that school would not be starting on Monday the 10th.

Other instructors drew the same conclusion and suggested that we wait until the 17th to begin, foreseeing that there would be a lot of students with tuition issues and that administration would have to see how to modify the policy to meet their needs and student realities. Our loan fund was quickly exhausted, and there is no work-study or other loan possibilities here.

I did go to my assigned rooms at the designated times this week, just in case students appeared, and some did. We used our time together to share information about our holidays and to discuss the challenges of finding funding for tuition and accommodation costs. Many of the students had done some "piece work" during the break or had helped in family farms or businesses. Part of the reason it is so difficult to have the full tuition in January, they told me, is that school fees are due for their younger brothers and sisters in January, and their families are faced with a huge demand, all at one time. (Average family size in Zambia is 7 children.) Many of our students in the social work diploma program (equivalent to community college) are the oldest in their family. Some of them live in smaller families, but then they are usually caring for or supporting orphaned children.

Meanwhile, all the young children from around MEF and nearby who come to visit me for sandwiches and to borrow games and books have started back to school, so I only see them in the afternoons and weekends now. The two orphans in this group who passed their 7th grade exams and were faced with huge school fees as they entered secondary education are settled. One found a sponsor through another missionary and I sponsored one. The government provided her school uniform and shoes, but she had to find a sponsor for her tuition. Her sister had to stop schooling at grade 9 for lack of resources. She brings me her homework to look over. I encourage her to read and ask questions.

Back at the Social Work diploma program at MEF, our courses will finally start tomorrow, January 24, for sure. Tiz!.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Reflections from South Africa

At the end of Cathy's visit, we spent three days in Johannesburg. Although our time was brief and what we saw was limited, I thought I'd comment both on the contrast with Zambia and the U.S., and also on Nelson Mandela.

Being in Johannesburg was almost like being back in the U.S.--freeways, traffic, tall buildings, stores full of familiar products not available in Zambia, a more diverse mix of people. We didn't stand out as much. Everything was far more expensive than in Zambia.

One interesting contrast between what we saw in South Africa and what I experience in Zambia had to do with garbage. When we were touring Soweto, our local guide took us to all parts of the community, including a shanty-town with rickety tin-roofed shacks like in our compounds near Kitwe. However, we noticed there the city was providing both toilet facilities and garbage collection to this settlement. Here in Zambia, garbage is strewn everywhere. If there is enough room in your yard, you dig a pit and throw in your trash until it is full, bury it, and plant something on top. Otherwise, you just leave it on communal trash piles which dot the area.

We packed a lot into our few days there. High points included a full-day tour of Soweto and visits to the Apartheid Museum and Constitution Hill. I have continued to reflect on three things from the visit: the South African Constitution, lessons from the transition period, and of course, Nelson Mandela.

The Constitution of South Africa contains all the pronouncements and commitments needed to create an ideal society, respectful of the needs and conditions of all its people. Of course, the reality of life there is far from the potential and the promise of the constitution, but I was impressed with the democratic and humanistic tone of the document. There is a monument to the constitution in Freedom Square in Soweto, and the text of the constitution is inscribed on the doors to the beautiful Constitution Court building. Core declarations like constitutions, bills of rights, and covenants such as the UN Convention on Human Rights put into words all that we aspire toward, our ideals. In the real world, these documents are like beacons of light to guide us, standards against which we can judge our progress. I liked the simplicity and inclusiveness of the South African Constitution.

I never expected to see the end of apartheid in my lifetime. It seemed so deeply entrenched in the society of South Africa that it would endure, evil as it was, for many years into the future. And yet it changed after nonviolent and violent resistance, persistent confrontation, and mobilization of global pressure for change. I recall Alan Paton's fear that when the oppression of the black population stopped and they had power, they would do to the whites what had been done to them. And yet this massive revenge has not materialized. Instead, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission gave some people a chance to tell their stories and be heard, some a chance to learn what had happened to their loved ones in the struggle, some a chance to accept responsibility for their actions, some a possibility to extend forgiveness. It was a powerful healing process invented to facilitate a transition from one social structure to another. It can be criticized for its limitations and difficulties, but it represents a creative example of public conflict transformation and peace building.

Finally, it was inspiring to see various monuments and displays related to the life and message of Nelson Mandela. One of the aspects that most impressed me was how he was not overcome by the punitive treatment he endured, but found ways to use struggles as opportunities for learning and growth. There was commentary that when Nelson Mandela arrived at Robben Island, he was volatile and headstrong. When he left, he had developed self-discipline and an interior sense of calm. He had studied his jailers to learn their language, their worldview, what motivated them, their values. This would allow him to find a basis for dialogue and negotiation. He was guided by a vision of an inclusive democracy and supported by many friends in the journey. What an example he provides of the resilience of the human spirit!

Now I'm back in Zambia, with a new semester about to begin, happy to be with friends and students again. Life is quieter and poorer in Kitwe than Johannesburg, but it feels like home.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Tucson Troubles

My response to the news this past weekend confirmed a bit of acquired wisdom: While we each must grieve alone, in times of sorrow there is comfort in mourning together with others who share a connection to the loss.

It has been hard to be so far away this week, wanting to be in Arizona. I tried to write a blog about Zambia, but my heart was back home. So my reflection will be on the tragic events of January 8 in Tucson.

I am living now in a country where I have seen much bad driving but no "road rage"; much frustration, but little shouting or swearing; and I have heard of no gun violence in the news or around the poor neighborhoods here in Kitwe. It must exist, but it is rare. Then I wonder, why do so many in America so often resort to violence to solve problems? Here where different tribes and language groups seem to coexist fairly peaceably, why do we in America have such divisive thinking and speaking? Zambia is no paradise, and there are many ways that America is more accepting of certain kinds of diversity. But in the areas of violence and dichotomous (we/they) thinking, America exhibits far more negativity than Zambia.

Along with the community, I am praying for Gabby's recovery and wondering what impairment she will suffer. She and Andy served together in the Arizona State Legislature. She was a classmate of Cathy in high school, and Cathy has carried significant roles in her campaigns. Gabby has worked hard to listen to the people she serves and to represent them well. She has earned the respect and affection of our community.

I am deeply saddened by the six deaths. The one that touched me most was her aide, Gabe Zimmerman. I taught Gabe at the School of Social Work and helped arrange his field placement at Gabby's office, which later led to his being offered a position there. Gabe was one of the brightest and kindest men I have known. He reminded me a lot of some of Andy's qualities and gifts. What a great loss to his family, friends, and the community!

My heart goes out to the parents of the shooter. We are quick to condemn the family of offenders. They must be suffering and possibly even blaming themselves for not having prevented their son's rampage. I hope they are receiving some support and care.

A friend sent me the comments of a scholar who maintains a blog on Beliefnet. Her essay captured my thoughts well. Here is a small excerpt:

"Right now, we need some sustained spiritual reflection on how badly we have behaved in recent years as Americans--how much we've allowed fear to motivate our politics, how cruel we've allowed our discourse to become, how little we've listened, how much we've dehumanized public servants, how much we hate." (Diana Butler Bass)

May we find a way to use this terrible assault to open up dialogue and reflection on how to rebuild a community of compassion and mutual respect.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Customs and Controversy

We Muzungus (white people) are accustomed to standing out in a crowd and sometimes attracting comments as we walk in the market or the bus station. But mostly these are stares of curiosity or attempts to get our attention so we will purchase something. Today was different. Clearly we were causing a commotion by our behavior. I soon realized it was the baby.

My daughter Cathy and her three children were with me in the open market. El'ad is 7 and Noa 4 years old. They were walking beside us. Cathy carried a heavy backpack. The baby, Matan, 7 months old, was in my arms, held in front of me, facing forward. This was causing distress among the Zambian women. Finally, one came up to me and turned the baby so he was facing me. She also pointed to all the Zambian babies being carried on their mothers' backs, tied on by a chitenga (colorful traditional multi-purpose cloth used as a baby sling, a sarong-style skirt, or a cloth to spread on the ground and sit on.)

A few days later, Cathy was in the market again, in the company of a Zambian friend, Violet. This time, she had Matan in a sling, but positioned so he was in front of her. Violet spoke Bemba and understood the comments being made by the women and comprehended their distress. She took a chitenga out of her bag and used it to tie the baby on her back. This satisfied the market sellers, and Cathy and Violet proceeded in peace.

When we went to Livingstone to visit Victoria Falls and a game park, we had the same driver for several days. After observing us with the baby, he told the following story: There are two kinds of rhinos in Zambia, he said, the white rhino and the black rhino. Both are fairly rare. Both form families. In these family groups, the adult white rhino walks behind its young, while the black rhino adult walks in front of its young. The white rhino is vigilant, protecting them from attack from behind and seeing what problem or opportunity might be ahead for the little ones. The black rhino, on the other hand, goes ahead of its young, watching for danger in front of them and keeping them close behind for safety and security. Interesting to consider differences in world view about how to accomplish the same goal in different settings....

We had a conversation a few days earlier with three African friends we had invited to share lunch with us. They commented on the way that we would listen to the children and converse with them when we were together. They didn't think this was typical of families here. Children are largely left to themselves. Expecting children to be seen but not heard carries over into education, as well. Schools in Zambia have huge classes (often 45-50, or more, with one teacher) and no individual textbooks, so students learn by memorization. Children are seldom asked for their ideas or opinions. The guests were speculating that this difference in child rearing and schooling had an impact on development.

Cathy has been practicing putting Matan on her back with a chitenga. He finds it soothing, and when he is comfortably settled she can work or shop with both hands free. There is a soft fabric carrier in America that fastens the baby in front to accomplish the same goal, but the baby faces out--and here that would not be familiar, or acceptable. When in Rome, as the saying goes, do as the Romans do. And it works!