Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Somewhere over the moonbow...

A pixie named Leroy.

A friend of mine and I went on one of those post-high-school backpacking-around-Europe misadventures back in 2001. In Munich, we befriended a bunch of Irish folk who were squatting at the Big Tent hostel…which is exactly as its name suggests. After a night of campfire sing-a-longs and indulging in bevies as the Irish are wont to do, our new friend Connor claimed to have seen a pixie in the bushes. “I saw a pixie named Leroy,” he boasted, stating this without a hint of sarcasm but as a clear, conscious, and absolute truth.

A pixie named Leroy, eh?

Maybe it was the moonlight. Maybe it was the Irish. Maybe it was the Jager.

Or maybe…

I never did meet the pixie named Leroy. I often derided myself for not being able to suspend my disbelief…why is it that I allow myself to automatically deny the inexplicable? Have I completely lost my sense of imagination?

Last month, however, I saw something that reawakened my imagination. I saw a moonbow – yes, a moonbow – over the Victoria Falls during the last full moon. Lunar rainbows are a spectacular phenomenon to behold. All you need is a big waterfall. Check. A big moon. Check. And a big night sky. Check.

Viewing it with a few close friends certainly helps, as does an irreverent attitude towards getting drenched.

We ran through the spray of the Falls in darkness, chasing moonbows as if they were pixies, trying to touch them with our fingers and toes (one of us claimed to do so…she said it felt like crystals). We screamed at the top of our lungs, giddy from enchantment (but also ridiculously cold from the Fall’s spray). We marveled at the beautiful circle in the sky as its light fractured into a spectrum of colour, made sparkles of the billowing mist, and all the while, lifted our spirits.

“Why Bother?”

I must admit, I’ve had a pretty rough last couple of months. I lost a lot of my gusto. Pffft. Gone. A few of my previous posts have alluded to the frustrations I’ve been feeling with development work. My oh my is it hard. It tests your faith, faith being a word with laden meaning in these parts. My faith in the realization of a better world has certainly been tested. In fact, it was almost broken.

In low moments like that, one hesitantly allows the big question to creep in, “Why bother?” A recent article in the NY Times with that exact title articulated this feeling of hopelessness quite well. In the context of the ever-mounting environmental challenges our world is facing, the author observed this of Al Gore’s suggestion that we all change our light bulbs:

The immense disproportion between the magnitude of the problem Gore had described and the puniness of what he was asking us to do about it was enough to sink your heart.

Sink your heart indeed.

But that’s just in the first paragraph. The author goes on to provide a compelling argument as to why, exactly, we should bother. Now, I’m personally not one to be motivated by big, empty statements like, “Every little bit counts” and was worried the article would go down that same, worn, futile path. I’m also not one to respond positively to the militant shouts of activists that pass judgment on and make unreasonable demands of us lay folk. Thankfully, he did neither.

What I appreciated about his thesis, which is for us all to start gardening, is not the technical merits of the act itself – such as reducing your carbon footprint, saving money on food, reducing household waste through composting, or losing weight by exercising – but his emphasis on the “habits of mind” that come from a “solution that begets other solutions”.

At least in this one corner of your yard and life, you will have begun to heal the split between what you think and what you do, to commingle your identities as consumer and producer and citizen… The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world.

When in doubt, go to the village.

Ndatebula mapopwe, ndagama inhombe, ndapanga garden…

(I harvested maize, I milked the cows, I made a garden…)


(You are lying!)



Coincidentally, (or perhaps not, as I tend to lead myself around in self-referential circles) I found myself in a garden shortly after reading this article.

I was down and out and in desperate need of a pick-me-up, and there’s no better place for that than in the village. In the village, you say? Yes, in the village.

Whyson, my co-worker, says that when outsiders see images of village life or drive through in roaring white land-cruisers, they say, “Oh, these people are suffering.” Yes, one cannot deny that there is a fair bit of suffering in rural Zambia. But what visitors fail to see, Whyson says, “is that these people are living.”

There are a lot of lessons to be learned in the village, many of which fall into those “habits of mind” the author described in the Times article. Waking when the sun rose, sweeping the ground, harvesting the maize crop, milking the cows (and making tea with it 5 minutes later), watering the garden, bicycling to see the relatives, greeting everyone we passed, heating water for a bath, and sleeping when the sun set.

I worked very hard alongside my hosts, trying my best to keep up and realizing all along that not only have my muscles atrophied from under-use but so has my mind. The abundant world in which I was raised has actually limited my ability to conceive of what is possible, of what my body is capable of, of the elegance in simplicity.

There is so much we can do.

At the end of the moonbow…

Romanticizing life in the village is clearly not going to move any of us any further ahead.

I didn’t fail to notice the queue at the doctor-less clinic; the bare foot children walking over 7 km to go to school; the piles of dead trees used for fuel; and, the fields and fields and fields of maize and sorghum destroyed by a season that saw a drought follow a flood.

I could’ve easily let these things turn my bad mood into a more worrisome cynicism, but luckily, my cathartic release at seeing a moonbow (!!) did much to heal my soul, assuage my doubts, and spark my imagination.

It allowed me to open my eyes to more than the obvious…to the amazing community network that has been built up around the clinic; the earnestness of the school children to get that oh so valuable education; the sparing and careful use of fire wood because of its high costs (time and energy to collect it); and, the delicateness that is our relationship with the earth.

Sometimes you have to act as if acting will make a difference, even when you can’t prove that it will.

I still don’t know if Connor really saw a pixie. I’m also not quite sure I can explain what kind of spell I was under when I felt what can only be described as Joy at Victoria Falls. But I do know that in all the complexities of this world, there is a lot of room for the inexplicable. And if I’m ok with that, I can also hope to one day discover a pot of good things at the end of the moonbow.

T :)

(Note: I purposefully omitted photos from this post to spark your imagination. "What does a moonbow look like?" That's the same as asking, "What does a better world look like?"...just close your eyes...)