Sunday, May 29, 2011

spare wheels and side dishes

I just read an excellent article by Jim Wallis (of Sojourner's magazine) about some of the powerful men in America and elsewhere--politicians, sports figures, celebrities, and CEOs--who have been in the news for their disrespectful, abusive and denigrating behavior toward the women in their lives. The revelations have included extramarital relationships, sexual harassment, assault, and more. And yet these men generally maintain their positions in business, politics, and entertainment and seem to suffer few consequences for their actions. Jim Wallis calls for men, as well as women, to speak out forcefully against these abuses. If you are interested in reading his commentary, go to, his blog. It is also on the Sojourners' web site.

Here in southern Africa we hear of "side dishes" and "spare wheels"--the girlfriend a married man may have in addition to his wife. Women bemoan the frequency of this occurrence. They acknowledge that many women stay with their husbands despite these relationships because of economic dependency or religious teachings about divorce.

In addition to these extramarital affairs, another common experience for women is initiation into sexual activity by older men. Teenage girls are frequently seduced, enticed, pressured or forced into sexual encounters, often resulting in pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections.

These patterns of behavior--early initiation into sex and husbands who are unfaithful--contribute substantially to the incidence of HIV/AIDS among women here. In the age group 15-24, the rate of infection is actually higher for women than it is for men.

The point Jim Wallis made in his commentary about disrespect for and abuse of women was that men must speak up and condemn this behavior. Women regularly respond to such problems by complaining, confiding, and expressing their outrage. Sometimes they organize, as in the "take back the night" movement. He points out that men are less likely to do so.

Here in Zambia I have noticed such matter-of-fact and casual references to the prevalence of girlfriends on the side that it almost sounds like expected, even acceptable, behavior. Unless this attitude changes, the practice will not change. Cultural customs are difficult to confront and challenge, but they can and do change with organized movements and persistent effort. We can begin at home with the socialization of our sons and daughters. And we can speak up to condemn behavior that demeans and harms the dignity of women, whoever is the perpetrator and however common it may seem.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Should I be concerned about the ants in my computer?

Maybe I have eaten cookies too close to my laptop's keyboard, and a few crumbs have fallen between the keys. That's the only explanation I can come up with to account for the invasion of the tiny ants into my computer. And without a vacuum cleaner, I'm not sure how to suck up the crumbs, let alone the insects. Fortunately the ants seem to be a seasonal occurrence, so in a few weeks they may disappear. Meantime, I have troops of ants marching around in my computer.

These tiny ants also somehow manage to get into the boiled water while it is cooling. And they are so exceptionally tiny that they are visible, but hard to fish out. So I have told the kids, as I give them drinks, that it is okay to drink a few ants--they add protein to their diet.

This week I have been thinking about my "only in Zambia" experiences. These might happen in other places, but my encounters have been here. I'll share a few.

Some of the women from church told me one day that there is a Bible study every Friday afternoon for our zone. They wanted me to know that I would be welcome to attend, someone would translate from Bemba for me. I told them I would come whenever I could, and wrote it in my calendar. So the next Friday, I walked to church, where a few women were beginning to gather. They greeted me warmly. Then the women who had invited me to come asked if I would like to lead the Bible study. "Today?" I asked. They nodded. I don't know if the intended leader was ill or if they felt asking me to present was a polite thing to do. I thought the best response was yes. Was there a particular Scripture for the study? Apparently not, I could choose. I decided that my strength for a spur-of-the-moment topic was forgiveness, so I chose several passages and led a discussion of its importance, value, and difficulty of in our lives. Various people shared; forgiveness is always a juicy topic.

Similarly, as an "invited guest" at a fundraiser or other festive occasion, I have been asked unexpectedly to make a few remarks or to "give a word of encouragement." Now I try to remember to come prepared.

Few people keep pets here. There are stray cats that wander around the campus, at their own risk. Cats, especially black cats, are seen as symbols of witchcraft or of evil. Children might throw stones at them. A small black cat started coming by my door, and since I spoke kindly to him, he adopted me. I decided not to try to make him a house cat, but just to feed him at the back door. After awhile, I began to try to pet him. As soon as he saw me move my arm, he would run and hide, afraid of being hit. It has taken months to win his confidence, but he will only come to be stroked when no one else is near. The belief in witchcraft persists in Zambia, even among educated urban dwellers, and cats suffer for it. So do widows. Often the relatives of the husband will accuse the widow of killing her husband by poison or witchcraft. Of course, this allegation helps to justify their repossession of all of the late husband's belongings and property. This situation exists in many developing countries, not only in Zambia.

Here, it is common for people to drop by for a friendly visit at any time of the day or evening, without advance notice, and sometimes with no particular purpose except to greet you and talk for a few minutes. It reminds me of when I was a child living out in the country, where people might come by on a Sunday afternoon to sit and chat. Only in Zambia, though, have I had visitors at 6 am, even once on a Saturday. Those early birds have generally been students with a request or a purpose. They have morning prayers at 5 am some mornings, so I guess most of them are dressed and ready to go at daybreak.

One of my favorite "only in Zambia" experiences is the spontaneous dancing in church. If the choir is singing a favorite praise song in Bemba, with a strong beat, some of the women, older as well as younger, will spill into the aisles and begin to dance. The spirited movement, and the ululations, are testimony to their openness and their joy. I am aware of how often my inhibitions prevent me from doing something expressive, and I try to learn from these women.

Living in a different culture is a constantly enriching experience. I recommend it to other retirees!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Water Woes--and more

I sensed something was wrong last Tuesday when I wasn't awakened by the sound of the water system coming on. Usually, the pipes sing and the faucet drips and the toilet tank fills starting sometime between 5 and 5:30 am. MEF water then stays on till about 9 am. It comes back from noon-2 pm, and the final period of water service is from 5-8 pm. We all learn to store water in barrels, buckets, and tubs and to plan our bathing and cooking schedules around water availability.

Moses came to tend the garden. He was able to water from the huge metal drum kept by the back door, but it took every drop to cover the vegetable beds. No water came on at noon, so we could not refill the drum. By dinnertime, I had used all the water in the hot water tank for doing dishes. We had to start rationing the drinks of water requested by kids, who were thirsty from playing outdoors after school. All I had left was the bathtub full of water.

When service had not been restored the next day, we learned that the ancient water pump that brings water from the dam had broken down. No one was sure how long it would take to fix it, but every effort was being made. It was working again by the end of the second day. But this week we have had no power for 2 of the last 3 days. (That, however, is the responsibility of the electric company, not MEF.)

The larger context of this little water problem is that many parts of the MEF campus are in dire need of upkeep, repair, and/or replacement. With scarce resources, priority has been given to programs to the detriment of the facility.

On Friday, a meeting of all staff was held. Our new Director, a dynamic, wise, and energetic man, announced that we will engage in a participatory strategic planning process to set directions and action steps for sustainable development for MEF. He was honest about the current financial status and the concerns of donor agencies. He encouraged us to see the hope in our situation and to be creative in our thinking.

Mindolo Ecumenical Foundation was established in 1958 as a Pan African Center for reflection, study, training, and worship. Over the years, MEF has offered training and consultation on community development, gender issues, peace and conflict transformation, leadership development for clergy and laypersons, and responses to the socio-economic and human rights concerns of the continent. When it was founded, it was unique and drew participants and students from all over the region. Today there is more competition from other training centers. MEF has established residential diploma programs in social work, community development, and media studies. These courses could be made available to students from nearby areas, but so far they have been directed exclusively to Zambians. Certainly there are many issues and possibilities to explore in this planning process.

Keep us in your thoughts and prayers as we struggle together to seek a plan for MEF's future--and as we cope with periodic shortages of water and power in our daily lives.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Please Don't Eat the Play Dough!

It didn't happen to occur to us to give that instruction. When no one was looking, a hungry little girl did eat some play dough. And yes, it makes you sick. Immediately!

This happened at the Fun Day in Kamatipa, a compound near Kitwe that Jenny has been working with. She has organized a women's self-help group there. Based on their concern for the many orphans and vulnerable children not in school, they have been working on a project to start a recreation program for community children. It is in the planning and early implementation stage. The Fun Day was an event to celebrate progress and to provide a taste of what will be available when the playground/recreation center is in operation.

Adrian, our chaplain, several of my students and I went along to help Jenny, her local group of women and her two Zambian social workers connected with this project. We, the food, the drink, the sports equipment and the games all piled into the pickup at 7:30 am for a crowded ride to Kamatipa. Jenny had to make a second trip for the drums and drummers, since there was not enough space the first time around.

Once we arrived, children from toddlers through teens started flocking to the field. They could choose a soccer clinic, a girls' game of dodge-ball, a small kids' circle for "duck, duck, goose' (in Bemba), a game with flying discs, some organized races and tag, group jump rope, drumming and dancing. At least 200 children came. After awhile, we set up a coloring station with African images and designs, a puzzle area with big jigsaw floor puzzles, a play dough center, checkers, bean bag toss, and other games.

The jump ropes were made by tying lengths of rubber belting together into a large circle. Then two of the student helpers would stand a distance apart pulling the rope circle into a double strand held taut at ankle level. As the girls lined up to jump, the rope was moved higher and higher, finally to waist height. The ability of the little girls to jump over and through the stretchy rope was amazing.

The checker boards were painted on panels cut from cardboard boxes, and the "checkers" were two different colors of bottle caps. Recycling was the source of many of the materials used in this Fun Day. Some of the children had brought their own balls made at home from plastic bags. And I was amused by the messages on some of the recycled (used) tee shirts I saw on different kids. One little girl's top said "I love shopping." Another instructed "Recycle my little brother". A shirt commemorating the Band Camp Bean Eating Contest was on another youth. Then there were the usual shirts celebrating locations such as Las Vegas and institutions such as New York University. One local shirt advocated "Know Your HIV Status" with the message "Live Positively" on the back.

At the end of the morning, the kids lined up for a cup of munkoyo (a drink rather like horchata, but made from mealie meal), a fritter, and a candy. The adults had juice drink and banana cake cupcakes I had made for the occasion.

We returned to MEF exhausted but refreshed by the success of the day. No one needed first aid, there was enough food for everyone to be fed, the joy of the kids was palpable, and even the adults seemed to have had a good time at the Fun Day.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Healing Energy

My latest new experience is being sick in Zambia. The care and concern has been overwhelming!

Easter week was a school break. Other than grading three sets of papers, I was planning to read, take walks, and watch a few movies. However, I found myself feeling tired, and I started experiencing sharp pain on the right side when I took a deep breath. As taking even short breaths became uncomfortable and a case of diarrhea hit, I finally decided to go to see a doctor. Jenny took me to the private clinic run by the mining company after Good Friday services.

Unfortunately, Friday was the beginning of a four-day public holiday. We were lucky to find a doctor on call, but they could not do a chest x-ray until Tuesday. The blood test showed an elevated white cell count, so I was given an antibiotic and pain pills and sent home until Tuesday. I spent a miserable few days, tied to the house by the severe diarrhea. However, the natural helping network was already mobilizing, as people stopped by to see how I was feeling, to pray for healing, and to offer help with transportation or anything else I needed. Sister Margaret, the MEF nurse, sent oral rehydration powder.

Long story short, on Tuesday I was diagnosed with giardia and pneumonia. The doctor prescribed a strong antibiotic and another medication, plus a week of rest and nutritious food. Jenny made homemade chicken soup. Students offered to spend the night, as Violet also had. Adrian asked for prayers in chapel, along with a request to let me rest. Violet stayed all day each day to monitor visitors and help in the kitchen. We made signs to alert the kids that I would not be making sandwiches for awhile. Women from church brought communion after services. People phoned to wish me well.

There are several lessons I have drawn from this experience. The first one was that I need to pay better attention to my body. The pneumonia probably started in late January, when I had a productive cough for weeks. I ignored it because everyone was coughing, and besides, my pride got in the way. I never get sick! So I was stoic about the cough, and gradually it subsided. (The doctor here says that the reason I didn't have more pain is because I take an anti-inflammatory, Piroxicam, and that kept the inflammation in my lung down.)

A second lesson is to ask for and accept help when I need it. I tend to try not to bother people and to do things for myself that others would happily do for me out of their caring. Too much self-reliance and self-sufficiency can interfere with reciprocity and support.

Through this experience, the MEF community has shown deep loving care and protection. I'm thankful to be surrounded by so much healing energy as I am recovering.