Monthly Archives: December 2011

Happy Holidays

I believe I mentioned that one of the things I’m learning in Zambia is to deal with nothing ever starting on time. I intended to post this on Christmas, since it seemed seasonally appropriate. Clearly, I didn’t. I could make excuses about 23-hour power outages starting Christmas Eve evening, but that doesn’t account for not posting yesterday. (I was reading, okay?) Instead, I’ll claim that I’m just adapting to the laid-back pace of just about everything in Zambian life.

The only Advent wreath I've seen in Zambia.  Yes, that is a canoe.  And paddles.

The only Advent wreath I've seen in Zambia. Yes, that is a canoe. And paddles.

Merry Christmas, or whatever else you celebrate, from warm, rainy (finally! Though not as rainy as I’d like it to be. I think the farmers would like it rainier, too) Zambia!

People have asked me if I miss being home for the holidays. The answer is: not really. In fact, I don’t feel like I’m missing holidays. Holidays? There are no holidays in August. It’s felt like August for a long time. Besides the weather, there are none of the other usual cues. The only time I’ve heard bad Christmas music piped over store loudspeakers was back at the Shoprite in Livingstone in mid-November. I haven’t heard good Christmas/Advent music in Church. We sang carols on MCC retreat, where the above picture was taken, and Sunday at church. (I hiked to Church in POURING rain that made several portions of path into muddy, shallow rivers. A far cry from Christmas services at home.) No one here plays Christmas music, either, except for expatriates. (And one really annoying toy that baby K has that plays “Jingle Bells.” The irony of this song in this location is not sufficient to get me past more than ten or fifteen listens.)

All of which made it very nice to actually sing Christmas carols at church, even if they were in Tonga. Due to the rain, attendance was low, but the kids put on a very nice sketch (skit). It was all in Tonga, of course, but there’s a cadence to the Gospel of Luke, so that even in Tonga, I could tell what book Luundu was narrating from, and more-or-less follow along, even on the less familiar stories. And there were less familiar stories. It was a small epiphany for me, actually. The Christmas readings are so familiar, but I’m only barely acquainted with the birth of John the Baptist: I can’t ever recall hearing Luke 1 used in a Christmas service, and certainly not in a pageant. And I spent the rest of the day at a board games get-together that the pilot’s family was hosting for people who didn’t have family to be with.

Not Christmas like I’m used to. But it was nice. (And who knew that basil, tomato, and mozzarella salad with added avocado is Christmas-colored?)

You won’t hear from me at New Year’s, either: I’ll be in Namibia. German pastry and five-story sand dunes, here I come! Assuming I survive a 24-hour plus bus ride.


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Not a post for the squeamish

I killed a chicken this morning.

I was lying awake in bed, looking at the amount of light filtering in through the little window and the big curtain, and wondering if it was time to get up. I had, in fact, decided that it probably was, but had not yet extracted a hand from the mosquito net to check my phone and verify this.
There was a loud squawking from somewhere outside my room, and the sound of Moses having a discussion with some people whose identities I could not quite ascertain.
Me? I can’t kill a chicken!”

I figured that this was as good a time to get up as any, so I did, but by the time I emerged from my room, there was no sign of a chicken, or, in fact, of anyone but Moses. I figured that whatever show had been going, I’d missed it, so I proceeded to boil a guineafowl egg to supplement the banana scone and peanut butter I was having for breakfast, and lamented the fact that I had not bothered to walk to the market yesterday to acquire more mangoes.

As I was finishing my breakfast, Beauty showed up, and then Luyando joined her as I was washing the dishes, and the subject of the chicken resurfaced.
“I can’t kill a chicken!”
“Why not?” I asked.
“I just can’t!”
“Where is it?” asked Beauty.
“There, in that room.” (the storage room)
“You kill it, and I’ll do the rest.” Motion to indicate pulling out feathers.
“Moses, do you want me to kill your chicken for you?” I participated in chicken butchery at Mboole, but the chicken had been dead and plucked when we got there. I’ve felt for several months that I ought to buy a live chicken and kill, prepare and eat it while I’m here, since it’s the most readily available form of chicken, and while I’m an unrepentant omnivore, I’ve never killed anything larger than a mouse. But I haven’t seen any for sale at a point that I needed a chicken, and it’s a lot of meat for just one person, and the feathers are somewhat intimidating, as is the whole concept of acquiring a live chicken in general.
You? You want to?”
“I’ve never done it before, but there’s a first time for everything.” I will admit that I take a great deal of pleasure in breaking people’s expectations of what I can and will do.
Luyando broke in, “Where?”
“There, where Beauty is.”
“On the shelf?”
There was a great deal of squawking and struggling as the chicken was found and removed from the storage room, but as the its feet were tied together, it didn’t have much chance. Luyando took it outside, Moses went in his room, and Beauty got the best of the bad lot of knives from the kitchen of the wooden house.

Then she turned and offered it, handle-first, to me, and drew her other hand across her throat. “You will do it?”
“Er, okay.”

I took the knife and went outside, where Luyando had the chicken restrained, one foot on its wings and the other on its feet. I grasped the head and commenced sawing the blade across the chicken’s neck.

It made absolutely no impression, and the chicken lay there calmly, looking at us. I went inside and traded the knife for one of the good knives I got for my birthday. It still didn’t do much.
“Close,” Luyando said, indicating the hollow where the neck met the head.
I readjusted my hold and moved the knife there. It still took a surprising amount of work, although I’m not sure why it should be surprising, given how tough village chicken are to chew, but the knife sliced cleanly. The chicken lay quiet as the blood began to splatter, only cawing and struggling when I had cut a good way through the neck, when the knife was blood-soaked, just before I severed the spine. The head suddenly swung loose, connected only by a bit of tissue, and I let it go to flop next to the body.
“Like that?”
We watched as the muscles twitched aimlessly, and I bent to wipe the blade of my knife on the thick grass.

I took my knife back inside and added it to the pile of dishes. As I finished rinsing, Luyando took the limp, feathery body inside and deposited it in a bowl under the sink to wait for the water to finish boiling.

Later, I watched Moses flop the body about in the bowl of water, pulling off feathers.
“I’ve never seen this done before,” I commented.
We talked a bit about chicken in the States, how meat comes in the grocery store, frequently unrecognizable. How there are kids who grow up without ever seeing the animals their food comes from.
“I can’t even imagine that.”
“What do people do with the feathers? Just throw them out?”
Moses nodded and turned his attention to yanking out tailfeathers, and the conversation languished for a bit. Then, “I have never done this before. It will make me not want to eat chicken.”
“Then what was the point of me killing it?”
“I can’t make it alive again!”
“Why have you never done it? Is it a woman’s job?”
He nodded. “If a woman were doing this, it would be done already, and it would look nicer.” He indicated the stray feathers he had missed, lone and sopping, like some sort of bizarre goosepimpled combover.

He butchered it as I wrote this. I think it’s in the fridge now; all traces are gone except for the small bit of blood among the plants under the trees, and three black feathers on the rocks next to the house.

It was both easier and harder than I expected. Physically harder, and I can see how the Dutch kids might have had a traumatizing experience while attempting to slaughter their chicken, and needed to resort to breaking its neck. But emotionally, psychologically, easier. My hands were completely steady holding the chicken’s head, and as I washed my knife afterwards, and at no point did I feel shaky the way I did after (badly) bludgeoning the mouse to death with a broom handle.

I think it’s a good thing to know where your food comes from, the meat as well as the plants, and to participate, at least occasionally, in that process.


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A Room of One’s Own

And you thought that I didn’t have any roommates.

I was out of town for a week and a half for MCC retreat, and when I got back, I discovered that the geckos and spiders had taken over my room. I figured that this was a relatively small price to pay for the general absence of flies, wasps, mosquitoes, and rats.

I’ve always been fond of spiders, and the Wall Crab Spiders that are most prevalent here are harmless to humans, and presumably eat insects, though I’ve never seen one of them doing so. They’re about as big as a half-dollar and lie almost perfectly flat on the wall when not moving. They don’t spin webs. I’ve had a handful of them in my room since I got here. As I have a low startle factor for spiders, I like these just as long as they don’t die and plummet abruptly off the ceiling, which has happened a few times.

I don’t know that there are more spiders in my room now than when I left two weeks ago. What is true is that a particularly fine specimen has taken to hanging out either on my window or on the curtain.

The fellows that have really moved in are the geckos. When I first got here, I would see them occasionally, darting out of sight through the crack to the common area, or running in and out of the window before I got a screen up. I found them fascinating, but they were small and fast and camera-shy.

Not so anymore. They’re still small and fast, but since I’ve been gone, at least three of them seem to have decided that this is their room and than I am but a visitor. I’m sure they’d scramble if I made an attempt to actually catch one, but I got about fifteen inches away while taking this picture, and the fellow just looked at me.

I like to watch them. They stalk bugs, or each other, or wander around for no reason I can determine, and their feet make little whirring sounds as they cross the drawing S gave me that I have hanging up on my wall. Sometimes they jump from vertical surface to vertical surface, which I think is about the coolest thing ever, or they’ll do little dances around each other. I wonder if those odd circling skitters mean
“Get out of here, you upstart!” or
“Are you a boy gecko or a girl gecko?” or
“Hot, isn’t it?” or
“You are one good-looking piece of lizardflesh! Are you doing anything later?”
or something else that hasn’t even occurred to me.

My only complaint is that they sometimes leave little droppings (“poos,” as the safari guides would say) on whatever happens to be underneath them. But even the best roommate has some annoying behavior.

Roald Dahl named the lizards on his ceiling, or possibly one of his friends did. I think my three deserve something nicer than Hitler and Mussolini, though. There’s a little one and two bigger ones, the grayer of which is pictured above. Let me know if you have any brilliant ideas.

It’s always skinks at the office, but only geckos in my room.


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Things I am learning in Zambia

In no particular order:

Tonga, slowly. I expect that I would make better progress if I had more ability to faithfully study my flash cards, but I find it very difficult because no one is checking up on me regularly. I’ve discovered that there are Tonga classes at the MICS school, and hope to sit in on them when school starts again next year. Perhaps sitting with a bunch of (for the most part) native speakers learning grammar, or whatever they’re doing, is not the best plan, but what I’m doing right now isn’t working terribly well, and Craig Davis always says that “social adrenaline is the key to linguistic form,” (that is, people learn language to keep from looking stupid in front of other people), so perhaps the prospect of looking foolish in front of third graders will provide the goad that infrequent visits to Mboole do not.

I’m getting very good at greetings, though. And I can sometimes see other ways that I’m making progress, but it goes slowly.

Zambian English
When I first got here, I frequently had the experience I would be talking to someone, and both of us spoke English, but neither of us could understand the other. It happens much less frequently, and I’m aware that I’m acquiring a Zambian accent, at least while talking to Zambians. (Sometimes in mixed groups of Zambians and expats, the Dutch kids won’t understand something a Zambian says, I repeat it with slightly more explanation, but in my Zambian accent, so they still don’t get it until I say it again in an American accent.)
I don’t really know how much of it is British English and how much is particularly Zambian, although it is clearly a mixture. It’s not just the stuff I was warned about, like pants and napkins, or things that I knew if I thought about it, like zed instead of zee. It’s ‘grade three,’ ‘bath’ instead of ‘bathe,’ and ‘just a minute’ means ‘can you come here for a minute?’ and ‘feel free’ means ‘make yourself at home’ and ‘Sorry! Sorry!’ is not an apology but instead sympathy, a reaction as automatic as ‘bless you’ after a sneeze is at home. (I’ve learned to not say bless you — or gesundheit, which is worse — but I still feel like I ought to.) And even educated people will say he when they mean she, and the other way around. ‘Footing’ instead of ‘walking,’ ‘pick me’ or ‘drop me’ for ‘pick me up’ and ‘drop me off,’ and the answer to ‘How are you?’ is ‘I am fine.’ ‘She said no’ is more frequently ‘she is refusing me,’ although I think that applying this to inanimate objects, for example, ‘It is refusing me!’ when the remote is not working, is particular to Monica’s son Junior.

(He is SO CUTE. The other night he’d gotten ahold of a pair of black rain boots/gum boots/gumbos that fit him like waders and was clomping around in them before supper, but had to take them off to get into the chair to eat with us. After supper,
“Don’t put the gumbos on.”
“They like me!” As he climbs back into them.
Luckily his parents think that he’s as hilarious as I do, so it’s acceptable to laugh out loud at his antics and I’m not in danger of keeling over from an excess of smothered laughter.
It’s also very nice that Monica is a nurse and has enough education that if I comment on the sort of thing that frazzles my nerves around young children (“Are you bouncing around like that with masuku in your mouth?”) she is on him like that. (“Junior, spit it out so you don’t choke!”))

Mind you, what was very peculiar was the Learn Maths At Home! tv show that I caught the tail end of the other day, where the (implied Zambian) sample student had an accent exactly like Hermione Granger’s in the Harry Potter movies. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that the posh accent here is British, but it was weird. Zambians don’t talk like that, at least not the ones I know. And it made it even more difficult for me to believe that she was honestly asking questions from her heart about regression analysis and lines of best fit.

Water Conservation
I don’t know that I’m learning water conservation from Zambians, who don’t practice it, at least not the way all(?) American children are taught when they are small. We don’t pay for the water coming out of our tap (when so many taps are outdoor communal, it would be nearly impossible to set up a system), and I would guess that most of my neighbors grew up with bore holes that needed to be pumped by hand, not taps that keep running until you turn them off, so DON’T LEAVE THE WATER RUNNING is not necessarily the same instinctive reaction that it is for me (especially not with a slow tap and a big bucket, where it can take a very long time to fill up and people may wander off. Usually there’s someone around to see if it’s overflowing), and Zambia is not one of those places you were told about as a child where they bathe in half a cup of water. At the same time, I have yet to meet a Zambian with a washing machine (Zambian women wash impressive amounts of clothing to impressive states of whiteness in incredibly dirty water), have not seen a dishwashing machine in the entire country, and bucket bathing does use less water than showering, pit latrines use less water than flush toilets, and flush toilets don’t use that much water if there’s no water to flush them with.

I guess you could say that it’s the environment that’s teaching me water conservation. The rains have not improved the water situation – there hasn’t been running water in the house in over a month, and for most of that time we haven’t had running water out back, either. Possibly we haven’t gotten enough rain. It only rained one day last week, and not that much, either. There were a few days when none of the taps had running water at all for a couple of hours. But it did rain last night, and this morning there was water at the tap next to Zambezi House, which there hasn’t been in a long time. And when all the water has to be hauled from some distance away, one is naturally more careful with it.

I’ve started measuring dishwashing water by the mug-full: my personal record is one (fairly dirty) plastic container, one (fairly dirty) pan, a plate, utensils, and a cup washed and rinsed in half a mug of water (of course, then I used the other half trying to rinse out the scrubbing pad), although two dirty pans, two plates, a cup and assorted utensils in two and a half mugs of water is also pretty good.

I’ve become an avid graywater collector, because no way am I going to use some of our limited supply of clean water, fetched from some distance away, to make the toilet flush, but it really does get gross. I collect rainwater and now see it as a free gift from the sky. I’ve learned to skim the dead bugs off the top of my bathwater and be glad that it fell off of the roof and I didn’t have to carry it, same for water for washing clothes. Yesterday I got soaked, walking home in the rain, so that I would get home before it stopped raining to collect water to bath with. I can wash hair and self in the small blue basin (six liters? eight liters? I don’t really know).

To Carry Water
The first time I tried to carry a basin of water on my head, it splashed all over my skirt and the ground, and I found it very difficult. I used a smaller basin to water my garden, which I could lift easily, but still sometimes spilled while lifting onto or off of my head. Since we haven’t had water, I’ve been using a 20-liter bucket (which I can’t fill too full or I can’t manage it, but luckily there’s usually someone around at the house to help the foolish muguwa who doesn’t know how much water she can lift get it back off her head again, but I estimate that I can manage 15 or 17 liters without too much trouble) at least twice a week, and I was very pleased to discover, while fetching water in the blue basin, that it was not only manageable, but easy. I could probably handle the red basin I had so much trouble with the first time, too, but I haven’t tried. (I should note that this is not hands-free water carrying; I don’t have a suitable piece of chitenge cloth to make the pad that helps to balance a bucket or basin, and I’m certainly not skilled enough to try even the blue basin without, but the balance and muscles are similar, so by the time I go home, I ought to be able to co-opt my mother’s parlor trick of balancing a cup of water on her head.)

To Eat Nshima
I’ll admit that I never found eating nshima to be particularly difficult. I don’t mind eating with my hands, and I’ve done enough work with clay that ‘roll it into a ball with one hand and then flatten it with a thumb-imprint’ is not a particularly difficult instruction to follow, and the flavor is somewhere between cornmeal mush and cream of wheat, which is to say, entirely unobjectionable. I had been puzzled as to how most Zambians seem to wind up with less nshima-residue on their hands at the end of a meal, but I’ve learned that the trick is to not dry your hands after washing them, and then it sticks much less. Still somewhat, but less, and while the feeling is somewhat unpleasant, it’s not that difficult to wash off.

When I’d been here for perhaps a month, N, who is perhaps four or five, showed up outside my room one day and announced, “White people don’t eat nshima.”
“I eat nshima,” I told her. “And I’m white.”
She was not convinced, and we had variations on this discussion several times in the weeks that followed. I came to the conclusion that the only solution would be to eat nshima in front of her, if that, and more or less gave up.
Last week I went to the Christmas pageant put on by the MICS school (where I guess she’s in daycare, or kindergarten, or something to that effect), and I passed N and some of her classmates in the yard. She pointed me out to her peers, and then to the teacher.
“Teacher, Teacher! You know this one? She eats nshima!

Cooking nshima
Eating nshima is easy (though I don’t eat it like a Zambian; I can only manage one or perhaps one and a half lumps, whereas a Zambian might eat between four and seven). Cooking nshima, though, that’s hard. By the time I leave, I hope to have attained sufficient skill that I do not inspire every woman in sight with a desire to grab the stick out of my hand and stir it properly. I console myself with the thought that none of them know how to stir batter.


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