Monday, August 27, 2007

Home in Kalomo

After a long wait...I’m finally here!

Here I am, in my new home, the town of Kalomo. After 3 weeks of in-country training in Lusaka and project overlap with the outgoing EWB volunteer in Livingstone, I was left in Kalomo, all by my lonesome. Truth be told, I had been eagerly awaiting this moment – being dropped in the middle of nowhere and left to fend for myself – and even complained a little about all the hand-holding we were got upon arrival. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciated the guidance, but honestly, I’m ready to just get at it!

I am going to be based out of CARE Zambia’s Kalomo Field Office for at least the next few months, and last Wednesday, I met my new co-workers. There are 22 people in the office. CARE, being the mega-ngo (non-governmental organization) that it is, works on a wide variety of projects. While its bread and butter has been emergency/relief type work, they are slowly changing direction towards development work. The sorghum project I’m working on is part of this new direction.

Step 1: Find a place to live.

My first and foremost objective was to find a place to live. Nothing fancy, something shared, preferably with a family, something within my $14/day living budget. I thought this would be a little difficult, but it was actually sorted out before I even arrived! Celestina, a co-worker at the office, was already looking for a roommate. So I promptly moved into her 2 bedroom house, equipped with electricity, running water, a stove and sink, and a self-contained flush toilet. Not too shabby. But while life with Celestina is wonderful, I would prefer to live with a Tongan family so that I can learn the local culture and language. Plus, I love having kids around :) So I’m going to stay with her for a couple of months while I search out another place to stay.

Step 2: Make friends.

For the last couple days, I’ve been tagging along with my co-workers as they go about their normal routines – work, shopping in Choma (one town to the east), cooking, socializing. They’ve taken me under their wing, which is very nice of them. But I was eager to get out into the community and explore for myself. My opportunity came on Saturday, when Celestina went to Livingstone for the weekend, and I had pretty much nothing to do.

I was finally free to jump out of my comfort zone and get to know Kalomo. So I gathered up my nerve (nerve is required, even for an extrovert like me) and walked out to the market. Kalomo is located on the rail line and major highway between Lusaka and Livingstone, but it’s a very small town, the kind of town you’d miss if you blinked, kind of like Innisfail, Alberta. So it didn’t take me long to reach the Kalomo Dairy Cooperative, one of our partners in the sorghum project. I was greeted by a friendly face, Hilda, the manager of the coop’s milk business. I had met Hilda earlier in the week when Whyson (field facilitator extraordinaire for the sorghum project), Sylvester (wonder-driver), and I did our sensitization rounds with the new coops in the project. I was immediately put at ease by her warm welcome. We chatted for awhile, then she invited me to a “small celebration” out at a nearby village that afternoon. I responded with an enthusiastic “Yes, absolutely!”

I was told to meet her at the coop at 1pm, even though time means almost nothing here. While I waited for her, I chatted with a Bangladeshi abattoir owner, and he remarked that, “time, value-less.” Interesting contrast to Western notions of time is money. Soon enough, Hilda arrived. “Hey you, let’s go!”, she roared. I jumped into the car, her friend Fred in the driver’s seat, she handed me a lollipop and we drove off into the countryside blaring the tunes of Don Williams. Hilda and Fred? More like Bonnie and Clyde..I knew immediately that we would be good friends.

Hilda and Fred

Step 3. Have fun.

I had no idea what to expect from this “small celebration”, but it didn’t matter, I was up for an adventure. And if you haven’t heard already, any time you travel in Africa, there’s a big chance you’re in for unexpected happenings. The vehicles, even the good ones at CARE, are touch and go. I have taken to completely ignoring the strange noises and smells that come from under the hood, the broken speed/odometers, and fuel gauges that are always at “E” (like Kramer, I’d like to see how far past the slash we can go!) The roads are notoriously bad, so rocky and pot-holed that they torture any vehicle’s alignment, that is, when you’re not sinking in sand or water. It being the dry season now, we happened upon some sand. Fred not-so-skillfully tried to maneuver around it while Hilda giggled away.

Stuck in the sand

We drove past a sign that said, “Zunga Zunga Palace. The Home of HRH Chief Supitunyana”. “Is this where we’re going?!” I blurted out. Yup, we were going to the chief’s post-harvest celebration. We were, of course, late, so we sat anonymously at the back. This didn’t last long. After the speeches, we were motioned to the front to eat a meal with the “important” people. Fred and I declined, feeling we weren’t nearly important enough to warrant special treatment, but Hilda urged me forward. She and I joined about 20 men for a meal of nshima with village chicken and goat, which were just slaughtered. This was the first of many instances where I will be given privileges over others just because I’m a muzungu – or Westerner. I’ve accepted the fact that I’m a novelty wherever I go, and if it doesn’t harm anyone or compromise my values, I’m ok with playing along.

Chief addressing the crowd

After the meal, Hilda and I walked around and socialized with the villagers that had gathered from around the area to participate in the celebration. I felt a little out of place, having come late, unwarrantably eaten with the important people, and foolishly forgotten my chitenge (the local cloth that women wrap around their waists). But to my surprise, I knew quite a few of the people from the sensitization meetings of the week before. So many familiar faces, all I could do was smile and repeat, “Mwalibiya buti?” (How are you? in Tonga) over and over again. They love hearing the greeting, and it seemed enough to be forgiven all trespasses.

Women preparing lunch

But Clyde/Fred was getting restless and Bonnie/Hilda bored, so like any good dine-n-dash-post-harvest-celebration-crasher, we left early, before everyone could notice. I’d like to say that I was innocent, just following their lead, but I pretty much became their backseat accomplice as soon as I jumped in the car. We had a laugh that afternoon.

Step 4. Culture Shock

To continue the roller-coaster analogy, I feel like I’m being pulled up that initial climb, slowly but surely anticipating the inevitable plummet. See, I’m very much aware that I’m still in the honeymoon phase of my placement. I’m loving every minute of it – all the differences I encounter make me smile, I’m reveling in the wonder of it all. But I know this won’t last forever. Soon everyone in Kalomo will be used to me, the novelty of both them and me will wear off, and I will be faced with the reality of the situation. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad reality, it’s all about perception. Since I realize this now and am anticipating it, I’m sure I’ll be able to mitigate the downsides of culture shock. But if all else fails, I can always jump on the adventure wagon with Hilda and Fred and be assured of a good time :)

If you ever feel inclined, you can call or text me at:


I would love to hear from you!


Wednesday, August 1, 2007

I'm off!

Why is my heart beating so quickly?

It’s difficult to describe the tumult of emotion I’ve been feeling for the last few weeks. I spastically alternate between giddy excitement and nail-biting apprehension (for those who know me well, don’t worry, it’s the former that tends to dominate), with moments of calm, clarity speckled in between. I’m feeling anxious in a good way, because despite my apprehension, I’m comforted by the fact that I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. In T-minus 10 hours, I will be boarding a plane on-route to Zambia to begin my 13 month placement with Engineers Without Borders.

The details…well, as much as I know.

The details of my placement are still being figured out, but I will share the general gist with you. I have been placed on the EWB / CARE Zambia “Sorghum Market Enterprise Project.” Sorghum, eh? Well I’m glad you asked.

The staple food crop in Zambia is maize, which is prepared and eaten as a thick porridge called nshima. Everyone loves nshima. No meal is complete without nshima. But all is not well in the world of maize. It requires consistent rainfall to thrive, and the Southern Province of Zambia has been hit by increasingly frequent droughts over the past two decades. As a result, the area is suffering from chronic food insecurity, so in 2005, EWB partnered with CARE Zambia to address this in a sustainable manner.

Sorghum is a drought and heat tolerant cereal crop native to the region that appears to have real market potential in Zambia. This project aims to promote sorghum as a viable alternative crop in drought prone areas. The idea is to establish a sustainable, market-driven “value-chain” whereby farmers can grow and sell sorghum as a cash crop. And in years where their maize crop fails, the surplus sorghum can be used to supplement their food supply, thereby improving food security. This is the ultimate goal.

The project has fared well in its first two years, and Nina Lothian (fellow EWB volunteer) and I will be coming in to help with scale-up and expansion. But while all this seems like a great idea and I’m very excited about it, I’m also very aware of the many challenges still ahead on the long road to food security and sustainability.

Who, what, where, when...why???

Me. Sorghum. Zambia. 13 months. And the big why…

There are many reasons why I decided to take this next step, and I don’t think I can fully articulate them, except to say it just seemed like the right thing to do. This probably sounds like a cop-out answer, a not-so-clever way of avoiding a hard question. But it’s the best way for me to describe it – the right thing to do.

During our pre-departure learning session, we were asked to pick 3 things from an enormous list that describe what we value most. My 3 things were: Do the right thing, fun and laughter, and of course, love. And if you look at it this way, it becomes obvious why I’ve chosen to take this path.

I have an incredible appreciation for community, for it is fun and laughter and love all made manifest. But I also feel very strongly about the injustices facing humanity. And so it is my belief in this common humanity, this global community that has compelled me to be a part of the solution, to do the right thing.

I expect this placement to be the funnest time ever. I also expect it to be one of the hardest. But that’s why I signed up…I’m ready for the challenges, and I’m open to the good times. I’m looking forward to getting to know the people of Zambia and letting them get to know me. And hopefully, I’ll have some impact along the way. It will be a roller-coaster year of awesomeness, and I’d like to invite you to join me on the ride.

Lots of love,