Friday, July 10, 2009

Letting go

Listen, Learn, Let go.

11 months ago I let go of my life in the US and arrived in Zambia. In one week I will let go of my life in Zambia, and arrive in Philadelphia.

In the beginning I learned to let go of family and friends, culture, food, efficiency. Somehow that was all ok.

Then I let go of my identity as I thought I knew it, and my sense of place in the world. Harder.

I was forced to let go of expectations, of what I knew to be "normal", "trustworthy", "respectful", "helpful". I've let go of my previous understanding of "poverty", "development", "aid", "love". I let go of ideals, to try to sort through the reals. Frustrating.

Let it go.

It took a while, but finally I feel as though I've let go of the frustrations which clouded me with cynicism and doubt. I've let go of loneliness overwhelming and stunting my sense of self-worth and purpose. I've let go of despair. And most importantly, I've let go of anger.

And here I am. One week remaining. And only now do I feel as though I have let go of enough baggage to introduce a place for Zambia in my heart. Only now can I see the meaning in relationships and experiences. Only now do I see how letting go was an integral part of listening and learning, for myself and others.

And now I'm forced to let go once again. To the things and people I've listened to and learned from. They will forever penetrate who I am.

I say goodbye. Goodbye to students, and friends. Goodbye to guinea fowl and groundnuts, to pounding and peeling. Goodbye to bucket baths and squat peeing, skirts and chitengis. Goodbye to ironic misspellings and strange zanglish terminology. Goodbye to sharing nshima, ofals, sour milk. Goodbye to traditional weddings, funerals, kitchen parties. Goodbye to fetching firewood and water. Goodbye to teaching maths and science. Goodbye to learning tonga. Goodbye to my host dad's firm hand and soft heart. Goodbye to my host mom's laughter. Goodbye to spoons and crazy 8s with my host brothers and sisters. Goodbye to the precious, crusty old men and women. Goodbye to the babies carrying babies. Goodbye to my "home" in Nakeempa, my home in other people's homes, my home in Zambia.

I let go of my life here, so that I can continue to listen and learn from the past, the present, and what is to come.

Nearly a year has passed. I've learned a lot. But mostly, I've learned to let go.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


The majority of the Zambian population (who actually work in the formal sector) work under the government…the Ministry of this or that. Privatization is much needed, seeing as corruption is blatant and obvious. The president, Rupiah Banda, recently decided to do something about the average mortality rate (39 yrs) by purchasing 100 beautiful hearses to take the bodies away in style…logic a bit reversed you might say. But what do you do? Zambia is always spoken of as a “peaceful” country, which is true in certain senses. So how do you fight for rights of the masses who are barely scraping by as subsistence farmers, much less those who are earning scanty salaries? I completely understand the desire to strike against that and those who rob you of adequate allowances, food for your family, education, health. However, the long term effects may not be so positive in all respects (then again I remind myself that forward planning is not a cultural value, contrary to my impulses). Most schools have had no teachers in the last 2 weeks since the strikes began, and a few in Nakeempa have joined the efforts…or lack of effort. Sitting at home awaiting Banda’s reply to their inactivity. The nurses have now joined as well, and the domino effect continues as the staff of most institutions drops daily, refusing to be of service to their fellow Zambians. Students aren’t learning, so they’re running the streets. ¾ of Choma hospital was given the boot, and those expecting to be operated on were handed a panado (Tylenol) and politely told to return next month. Of course the police force isn’t allowed to strike, so their own brand of corruption is now more likely. Yesterday I was asked if I was going to join a union, and I had to remind them that I don’t get paid by the government J Rather, I’m trying to make up for those who don’t work. I guess it’s a welcome change to invite busyness into my life. I’ll not refuse the clusters of students coming to me after school asking for extra help. It’s just a shame that as behind as they already are, they fall further and futher away from sufficient education. I have no answers, only more questions about the results of this movement against the Movement…for Multiparty Democracy (MMD). Ah the contradictions we humans hold so dear.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


Her skin wrinkles up more when she smiles. Deep grooves creating cravasses which meander down the valley towards the corners of her river mouth. Her eyes are big blue sky sitting up above sharp cheek bones, high hills drawing down toward her clean marbled smile. Dentures. The only thing fake about her. Squared perfectly at her parting lips. If only gravity weren't so cruel to keep pulling them from her gums with each word. She grabs my hand with her sandpaper grip and pulls me to look inside deeply. "Where's my suga" she sternly enquires and only cracks the hills of laughter after my accumulating tonga wit. I submit to gifting 1kg and see the sparkle of a woman who's eyes show gratitude only suffering can bring. 80 plus years of life gives her a clarity that I see but rarely. She knows things I have only splashed through in a shallow puddle. Her path has taken her across oceans of understanding, save having ever stepped out of the village. She encompasses Zambian women to me, and experiences I don't know how to talk about. Walking barefoot with a confident, yet broken gait. She is mostly silent, yet has a firm depth in which I sense anger, pain, fear, loss, betrayal, apathy, courage, confusion, understanding, strength, compassion, love. She is solitude, playing with solidarity, and mere words don't encapsulate her existence. She is the essense of why I can't write recently, because condensing an inarticulate summary doesn't work. I don't know what to say really, and don't feel as though I have a whole lot to contribute. Honesty isn't all that pretty most days, and I don't like being insincere. To romanticize flashes of my experience seems like a cover up for the majority of days which leave me cynical. Timing is seeing me through an encounter, one which I have yet to gain distance and perspective on. So sitting in the thick of it brings me a range of unsorted emotions. I am ready to go, yet I'm not. I will continue to learn, and I am already aware of what I will miss. It's women like her, who's unforgiving persona penetrates the core of me, and overwhelmes me with both clarity and questions. She has strength to overcome things I never will need to, and she articulates without a word. She is a mother, she is profoundly complex, she is Zambia, she is the world.

Notes from a Funeral

Biking for a few kilometers, flat tire, heavy heat, sun
flies everywhere, the body and me in a concrete hut
handshakes around the room, women everywhere
sand, water
a burlap sac, the body on top, banana leaves covering the little boy
vibrant colors, chitengis, and dirty feet, life in the midst of death
mothers and women, friends and family
the men hammering outside, building a coffin out of a broken chair
bring it inside and women leave
wailing, fog horns
no tears, just shouts
she cries out into the horizon, yelling, hands verticle, lungs emptying with each shrill
little boy asks grandma "who lies under there?"
he crosses his dusty legs like an old man, pondering life as the choir sings outside
we sit for 20 minutes, men chase us out. hammering, the body nailed inside
"the prophet" strolls through the crown in a bright red robe
seeking money and a following
we walk, wailing to the burial plot
small hole for a small coffin
2 large sticks across, 2 piles of dirt
song, prayer, preaching
jump into the hole, lower the box down
cover it quickly, shoveling violently
pounding, sticks flailing
mother and father place flowers, turn and leave their son
Ashley called to participate
father speaks, and cries out at the end

Munsaka Cileleko ("Blessing" was his name)
September 16 2005 - May 16 2009

3 1/2 years of life. Death, once again unnecessary.

An Educational Tour

Chickens and mealie meal, dry beans, cold drinks, cabbage, a suitable semi-reliable transport truck, instructions on behavior, note-taking, packing lists and laundry, crayons, plans.

So many things to keep track of, so many people to put trust in. Fingers crossed. The result unseen, unknown, even still, maybe forever. Educational tours are no small endeavor in this setting. In fact, it's quite possible that it will be the greatest adventure of their lives.

28 students ages 14-21 piled into the blue truck. Limbs which were not squelched by bags or other people, protruding through the ripped canopy. I pulled myself up to scan for my spot only to meet questioning eyes who weren't ready to answer my enquiry. There's always room for one more, except when there's not. My legs went numb, but the blood not spent circulating through my lower extremeties was sure pumping through the questions in my heart and mind. Firstly, will we actually make it across this bridge? And if so, will we make up the time lost on earlier police predicaments and chicken issues? Will the schedule actually go as we had planned, and will we really see the whole hospital, all the school, the research center, and the airstrip? Will they keep their food in at both ends when they find out they're taking flight? Will they understand enough english to be appropriately shocked by what they see and hear, yet not so overwhelmed by the electricity, hot showers, and buzz of hospital activity that they become completley immobilized?

They listened, they learned, they saw, they touched, they questioned, they ate, they slept. They experienced things they never had before. Their own bed and blankets, not a dirt floor shared by other family members. They ate first, priority theirs, not secunded to their elders. They got x rays of their bones. They played on a jungle gym. They took flight. They smiled more than I've ever seen them smile, and they hugged me individually, for once without fear. They now want to become doctors, accountants, nurses, pilots. They want to see more outside of Nakeempa's limits.

They are happy in a way I've never seen before, and this makes me happy. If that's all I accomplish in one year, I'll somehow feel I had purpose. And for those of you who contributed toward this incredible journey, you will soon see the impact you had. Thank you again : )

Saturday, May 16, 2009

uli kuli?

You may be wondering where I've been.
So have I.
A month of movement to masticate.
I'll spit out the abridged version for myself and others to digest in due time.
For now, the photos can speak the words I'm still trying to retrieve.

Matthew and I can be found here...that is, in South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, and Zambia...

I'd advocate for this to win as our most ambitous, and most successful trip yet. Epic.


Thursday, March 12, 2009