Monday, March 3, 2008

An unabashed 10!

Sharing happiness (scores).

Despite the somber tone of the previous post, I can assure you that the fun wheel is still a’turnin’ for me in Zambia. Life here continues to make me smile on a daily basis. And the reason I’m still smiling (borderline dopey grinning!) is because of my deep appreciation of the things that are keeping me emotionally healthy and happy. When the project gets me down, it’s my home community that brings me back up.

Every quarter, all the EWB volunteers in Zambia and Malawi get together for retreats where we reconnect, share experiences, work on a number of exciting development challenges, and of course, have a ridiculous amount of fun. These retreats give us an opportunity to step back from the day-to-day of our placements and take a broader more objective look at our work and our lives. Last weekend, we met in Zambia, along the Lower Zambezi.

We begin each retreat with a round of updates: Each volunteer stands in front of the group and describes their current situation with respect to their 1) Project, 2) Partner Organization, 3) Home Life, 4) Impact, and 5) Overall Self. After describing them, we’re asked attach a happiness score (on a scale of 1 to 10) to each. Obviously there is no standard scale with which to measure “happiness”, but simply asking someone how happy something is making them is a surprisingly great way gauge it.

For the most part, volunteers are very happy. It’s rare to see happiness scores below 5, but it’s equally rare to see a happiness scores higher than an 8. When considering my own scores, I didn’t have to think twice about what I’d rate my Home Life. Without any hesitation, I threw down a big ole 10! This post is all about why I love my home life oh so much.

Life on a farm.

The advantages of living on a farm are many: the fresh air, the quiet serenity, the big family community feel, the simplicity. But one of the things people like most about living on a farm is that food is plentiful, if the season is favorable and you’re lucky, of course! And we’ve been pretty lucky (so far) this year (fingers crossed!)

We have a massive mango orchard here at the farm, planted back when white farmers ruled this roost. Mango season has ended (something I’m still mourning), but back when all the mangoes were just ripening on the branch, it became urgently apparent that we must raid the orchard. We ran amongst the trees and scrambled up their excessively climbable branches (is it possible that evolution has naturally selected for mango trees with excessively climbable branches?)

While one hand was throwing mangoes in a sack, the other was greedily feeding them straight off the tree and into my mouth. We gorged on what can only be described as succulent gifts from god. We couldn’t help ourselves. It was wonderful…until that night, of course, when our tum-tums suffered from the gluttony that was the raid. But it was worth it. Everyone needs to raid a mango orchard at least once in their lives. Mmmmm, I can’t wait for the oranges to be ready!

Me in a mango tree

We started harvesting fresh maize from the garden in early January. There are two ways to enjoy these hearty cobs – either roasting them or boiling them. And boil and roast we did! For the whole month, I would come home from work to find a cob (or four!) waiting for me. I came to enjoy chewing on these not for their yum factor (they are not as sweet or soft as corn on the cob back in Canada) but for the social factor.

We would huddle around an open fire, roasting the maize beside the hot coals, preparing tea in a pot on top, and laughing about something or other. This family loves to laugh. And to this day, my favorite moments at the farm happen under a clear star filled sky, beside a warm fire, as the lightening of distant storms flash all around us, and we sit, smiling and chewing.

Cob on the coals

About one hundred days after we planted them in mid November, the Irish potatoes are now ready to be harvested. There are piles of potatoes everywhere I turn in the house! We sell the big ones to the local market where they fetch a pretty penny. The rest are for the family, for home consumption. We have chips for breakfast, we have boiled potatoes for lunch, we even have potatoes with nshima and relish for supper.

I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so many potatoes on a daily basis, nor have I appreciated them as much. Potatoes are a treat for most Zambians, and I think this family’s potato gorge fest is driven by the fact that we’re incredibly lucky to have so many around.

Pile o' potatoes!

Nyarai cools one down

Friends I can count on (and laugh with!)

Sylvia is my closest friend here in Zambia. Unlike other friendships I’ve made here, ours is not one of convenience but one of substance. I can speak to her just as I would with any of my close friends in Canada. No filters. No tip-toeing. No holds bar. She is my sounding board, and I’ve become hers. It’s wonderful.

We also make fun of each other quite openly, which is the sign of any healthy friendship! I’ve recently felt free enough to ask her if there’s anything I do that the family thinks is completely ridiculous. I haven’t been able to pry any really good stuff out of her (she’s not a mean person), but apparently I have a strange laugh, so she says the family is often laughing at my laughing, not at my funny stories. Haha! I also tend to go, “Mmm hmm, mmm hmm” a lot when listening to someone speak. I never noticed this before, but the baby did and has fully adopted it in her repertoire of pre-speaking gibberish.

Sylvia would kill me if she knew I posted this one

“Simon!!” “Moto?” Simon, one of my host brothers, should be blamed for causing me to laugh so hard (and apparently strangely). Simon is a proper Zambian comedian. He’s always got a clever little smile on his face and something funny to say. Our love of laughter has made our friendship a fun one. But he’s also a sweetheart who helps me with my Tonga lessons (in exchange for help with his English lessons) and shares with me his precious cobs of roasted maize.

While riding our bicycles home to the farm one day, Simon decided to give me a Tonga name. He named me “Cholwe” (pronounced Jol-way). It means “lucky”. Many people have tried to give me a Tonga name while I’ve been here, but none of them stuck. That’s probably because they didn’t mean as much to me as Simon does.

From left to right: Peter, Sandra, Simon
(of course),
Twaambo, and Benzu

At work, I’ve made an unlikely friendship with our office administrator George. George has become my official story teller. He tells me long, animated, and often hilarious stories all the time. He first started telling me about animals because he loves them so much. And each story begins with a fact.

“FACT: Dogs can smell in a 10km radius.”

“FACT: Hyenas can be domesticated like dogs.”

“FACT: Badgers will attack if provoked despite their inferior size.”

The stories have since become more elaborate and grand in scope but no less amusing.

“FACT: You can have all the qualities in the world, but if you don’t have etiquette, you can’t dine with the Queen.”

“FACT: Tailors, watch repair men, shoe repair men, and the bus stop boys cannot be trusted.”

I nearly die laughing during each of his stories, as I’m genuinely swept away in his wit and wild gesticulation. I’ve always been a sucker for the excessive use of onomatopoeia: “Kakakakakaka! Qua, qua, qua! Chweeeee! Chweeeee!”

The wonderfulness of Kalomo, in general.

Perhaps I’m looking at life through rose-coloured glasses, but I really do like the sleepy small town of Kalomo. There’s not much going on. It has no particular aesthetic appeal. It’s described by some as just being a big village. But I don’t know, there’s something here I just like.

Perhaps it’s the yummy whole wheat buns Mrs. Mainza makes just for me on special order, out of her home and at no charge. Whole wheat bread is hard to find in general and is non-existent in Kalomo. But I pick up whole wheat flour whenever I go to big towns like Livingstone or Lusaka. And she uses it to make me and my host family her famous “John Cena’s”, named so because they’re BIG.

Maybe it’s the Saturdays I spend at my friend Hilda’s place. She doesn’t have much to speak of in terms of material possessions, but she has the biggest, warmest heart, and a zest for life. I spend many a Saturday at her place, sitting under the shade of a tree and drinking her perfect cibwantu, a milky sort of drink made with ground maize. We are rarely alone as friends and family come by to visit. And we are rarely hungry, as Hilda and her sisters generously feed everyone that comes by.

Feast a Hilda’s - note my lumpily made
sorghum nshima on the far left

Or maybe it’s my recent discovery of a commercial farm just outside town that has a small cheese factory that makes gouda. Gouda! In Kalomo! It’s absurd. Zambians don’t really eat a lot of cheese, so it simply can’t be found. If I now see potatoes as a treat, you can only imagine what a treat cheese is…especially gourmet gouda! I procured a 2kg wheel of cheese for the EWB retreat so that my fellow muzungus could share in this most amazing of discoveries.

I guess all these things comprise the great community I’m a part of here. I don’t see community as simply being a group of people who happen to live in the same place. My personal definition of community is that it’s a group of people who live in the same place and are connected together in a particular point in time.

Community is something you can create for yourself if you make it a priority. But community changes as people flow in and out and as the place itself evolves. Therefore it’s not something to pine for (from the past) or hope for (in the future), it is something you must continuously cultivate and make sure to enjoy in this moment, as it will surely change in the next.

So maybe Kalomo isn't the land of milk and honey (gouda and John Cenas, maybe), but right now, it sure is good to me.

Thulasy :)