Monthly Archives: February 2012

Welcome to my office.

I walked into work this morning to discover a broom holding a sign onto the pile of boxes just inside the door:


But some of my coworkers were there, so I greeted them before proceeding to more pressing questions.
“Er, is there a snake?”
“Yes, somewhere in those boxes.”
I eyed the boxes warily and continued my progress into the room (and away from the boxes). “What kind of snake? Do we know?”
“Yes, a very small cobra.”

This is kind of how life goes here. But I’m glad that there’s a well-fitting door between me and the boxes and the snake.



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Good Morning, Mapanza

First: the final of the Africa Cup of Nations. That was one of the most exciting sports events I have ever watched, on par with some excellent fencing and that one field hockey final back when I was in high school. It was definitely the most exciting football/soccer match I have ever watched. It’s certainly the only match I’ve ever stayed up to 1am to see the end of. It was also a sloppy game. I don’t mean to comment on the technical skill of the two teams involved, but rather on the state of the field itself: somewhere early in the second half, there was a close-up of the ball bouncing off the field, and I saw the splash as it hit the grass. It had been raining for over an hour before the game started, and rained for most of normal time, too. By the time Zambia won, after 20 nerve-racking penalty kicks, both penalty spots were more mud than grass. In a way, the weather made it more exciting: while there was some marvelous execution (Especially the keepers. As a soccer player, Kennedy Mweene is probably worth his weight in gold, and Zambia would’ve been toast without him. Soggy toast. I must admit that the Cote d’Ivoire keeper is good, too.) there were also a lot of mistakes and fumbles, not to mention the way the players kept slipping and falling. This meant that the ball moved up and down the field a LOT (I remember one point where it bounced 40 or 50 meters back and forth three times in succession because no one could manage to get control of both themselves and the ball).
And, of course, the game went into overtime. It went into penalties. It went into sudden death penalties. And when Zambia made that last shot, 1am or not, we screamed so loudly that we woke the babies, but no one cared, because Zambia had won. Zambia has NEVER won the Africa Cup of Nations before. We didn’t actually see them lift the cup, because the satellite feed cut out, but we saw the game, which to my mind is the important part.
So. If you like watching soccer, I would recommend this game (even with the ending spoilered). It must be online somewhere.

I fell asleep to the cadences of my neighbors excitedly discussing the game outside my window (tonga tonga tonga tonga penalty kick tonga tonga tonga tonga tonga tonga tonga Drogba tonga tonga tonga tonga Africa Cup of Nations tonga tonga Lusaka International Airport tonga tonga tonga tonga tonga tonga tonga tonga tonga Chris Katonga tonga tonga Mayuba tonga tonga tonga Mweene . . .) and woke to rain and voices singing ‘Doncha kubeba’ with a definite lilt that suggested the singers were half-dancing.

I stuck a basin under the largest of the eaves-drips, fortified my sleep-deprived self with a cup of Earl Grey tea and trudged through the mud, only a little bit late for my 8am class. There was no one there besides my (LITA) boss. At 8:20 I declared to my handful of students that we were starting at 8:30, regardless of whether anyone else showed up, and at 8:28 another few trickled in, enough to make me feel that I’d reached some sort of quorum, although not as many as I would’ve liked for the first day of the module where we actually start using the computers. Earl Grey must’ve helped, because class went really well, considering that I was operating on something between five and six hours of sleep.

After I’d finished teaching, but before I hung around for an hour afterwards to answer questions and mark answers to the reflection questions, I decided to make my way over to the office to see if I could acquire a new voucher, mine having run out the day before. To my surprise, I found all of the vaguely boss-people, including the ones I haven’t seen for weeks.
“Miriam! Good morning!”
“Good morning. How are you?”
“I am fine. How are you?”
“I am fine, although a bit tired.
[Obligatory brief chat about football, the Chipolopolo, and the Africa Cup of Nations.]
And also my voucher has expired.”
“Ah. We should do something about that.” Two vouchers are produced, one for now and one for later. “We are going to Mapanza. Have you ever been to Mapanza?”
“I don’t think so.” Mapanza being one of those places that I’d never really figured out where they are. Someone told me once, but I had forgotten what they’d said. “No.”
“You should come with us.”
“Well, I have not yet finished with the class; I should go back and answer questions.”
“When will you be done?”
“Within an hour.”
“It is ten hours — that would be eleven . . . we will leave at eleven hours.” And they went back to talking to the guy I didn’t recognize, who they seemed to be interviewing, or getting a report from, or something of that nature.

So I finished with my class, went home and dumped my textbook and The Penguin Complete Novels of Jane Austen, changed into something more suited for scrambling into and out of cars and around mud, grabbed some fruit just in case, and we set off for Mapanza.

It took us a while to get out of Macha, because we needed to stop at Abraham’s place and do je ne sais quoi and stop at Assenic’s place to drop off a ladder and discuss the importance of primer.

As we rocked off into the badly rutted dirt road, Abraham chided Assenic, “These things are not toys.” He indicated the seatbelt. “We overturned in this very vehicle, and if it were not for that, Mr. M would’ve been 90 KGs right on my face.”
Thanks, Abraham. Thanks. That inspires so much confidence.

We made it to Mapanza without incident, though, and I discovered that Mapanza is ten or fifteen kilometers up the paved road from Miyobe — ten or fifteen kilometers towards Namwala, through scenery I’d never seen before. (It looked much like the scenery I’ve seen before, but the concept of novelty was exciting.)

We bounced along typical, wet-season-poor roads, past a variety of house-like buildings, through the local market (they had LEMONS. The Macha market does not reliably have lemons, and I would have bought some if only I hadn’t gotten Kathy to bring me some when they came to Macha a few days before), past a very interesting church, and pulled to a stop in front of the container.

My coworkers climbing the container.

My coworkers climbing the container.

I don’t believe that I’ve talked about the containers.

There are a great many shipping containers in this part of Africa, because goods of all kinds arrive in them, there are not enough products being exported in shipping containers to even the numbers, and it’s not cost effective to send empty shipping containers back. So shipping containers are put to all sorts of purposes. The Parmalat office in Mazabuka is (at least partly) located in a shipping container. Aside from a hanger that’s still under construction, the only building-infrastructure that the Macha airport has consists of two shipping containers. People use shipping containers for back sheds. I would not be surprised to find people living in shipping containers.

This, you see, is what LinkNet does, aside from computer classes and maintaining the Macha networks: it makes shipping containers into computer labs. The container gets a door and some furniture, perhaps half a dozen computers, and we train a community representative to use and maintain the computers (and, ideally, teach others, but I’m not sure how well that works in practice). Internet usually comes through the cell phone towers, and if the village isn’t on the electric grid, the container will have a solar panel, too. I think this is really cool.

We took inventory of the container, chatted with Macdonald, who was one of my ICDL students last year, and considered the state of internet and power at the container (internet: none yet, power: there, but the wires are rather more entangled with tree branches than any of us are comfortable with). While the others climbed towers to examine the lay of the land from the top of the container (I spent about half a second considering joining them before deciding that the fact that I was wearing a skirt was a perfectly acceptable reason for not pushing my uneasiness with heights), I walked down the road a bit to take pictures of the church.

I really like the way the rust from the roof colored the mortar. The other side was even cooler -- rounded, with buttresses -- but I had to walk back to rejoin the others.

I really like the way the rust from the roof colored the mortar. The other side was even cooler -- rounded, with buttresses -- but I had to walk back to rejoin the others.

We stopped by the hospital to look at the offices and shared computer so the guys could consider possibilities for joining it to the eventual Mapanza network. After some discussion of why no one in Mapanza seemed to be sick (the ward we were looking at is the maternity ward, and they have the pregnant women come in on Tuesdays for checkups), we, plus Macdonald, piled back into the vehicle and bounced off down more dust roads to St. Mark’s School.

This sort of vehicle made out of plastic drink cartons, some sort of lid, and twig axles is very common here.  Yesterday I saw three children pushing tractor trailer trucks with five or six segments.  Children riding bicycles that are almost taller than they are is pretty common, too.

This sort of vehicle made out of plastic drink cartons, some sort of lid, and twig axles is very common here. Yesterday I saw three children pushing tractor trailer trucks with five or six segments. Children riding bicycles that are almost taller than they are is pretty common, too.

At the school, we waited around for a while because the Headmaster was out, the Deputy Headmaster was busy, and the Assistant Secretary didn’t seem to have the authority to let us see the computer lab. Abraham, my LinkNet boss, gave us a discourse on how everyone always had to do everything according to the proper formalities and protocols, and we weren’t the formality and protocol people, we were the doing-things people. He reminded me a bit of my mother, actually, though mom doesn’t give discourses of that sort. After a while it became clear that we were waiting because the department head was elsewhere, and he was the one with the keys. We tromped over to look at the lab anyway, and I managed to feel useful by finding a window that people shorter than 5’9″ could look through. (I must say that it was a very impressive lab. I could only half-see it, but there were probably 40 computers in that room, more than I’ve seen in any room in Zambia to date. I was not, of course, in a position to judge the age of the computers. The monitors would’ve been old for the US, but about par for the course here.)

As we bounced along dust roads again, Abraham complained some more about how people involved in education are as bad as religious people when it comes to protocol. It did not occur to me until after the conversation had moved on to point out to him that I’m religious and teach three classes a week. (A word about Abraham. When I first got here, he and I had some tensions, because it took me very little time to decide that he was a bit argumentative, liked to tell people what to do, and liked to be in charge of things — me included. But no one in my chain of command had so much as mentioned his existence to me before he introduced himself, so I wasn’t at all sure who he was or where he fit into anything. Six months and several command structure changes later, I’ve figured out that Abraham and I reported to the same boss — but that he’s also nominally in charge of people I consider my peers. At this point, I think that my initial assessment of him was fairly accurate, but I’ve now been here long enough to be ‘one of the guys’ and not ‘the random muguwa’ (at least to some extent), we’ve reached an understanding, and furthermore, he’s now officially my office supervisor (as opposed to my LITA supervisor or my MICS supervisor), and while I don’t know that a bystander would observe any difference in our interactions, we now spar out of habit, and to keep things lively, rather than with any real intent.)

The rest of our trip back was nominally uneventful, but after we picked up a hitchhiking nun (and dropped her off again), I had an incredibly awkward conversation with the three guys about “Why would a woman like that waste herself on being a nun?” with Miriam as resident expert on any and all things female-related. I cannot imagine having a conversation like that with coworkers, during the work day, in a work vehicle in the States, but here no one (but me) even thought anything of it. We also stopped by Mr. S’s place, “So Miriam can see the woman behind this wonderful man,” and stopped the car at the side of the road to chat with his children, who were on their way home from school, because this seemed to be the trip to Show Miriam Everything. (They keep saying that they’ll haul me off to see the distant towns where they have containers. This would be interesting, but considering Abraham’s complaints about the place they’ve been for the past six months, I might be just as glad to skip that one.)

We had lunch at the restaurant, which I did not particularly need because I have plenty of food at home, but I wasn’t about to object to lunch out on the company tab, even if it was just sausage. (I like sausage. But the most prevalent sort of sausage here is not one that I would serve as an unadulterated main course. It’s okay.) After lunch we stopped by the office, and I had a chance to pin down Abraham for a conversation I’ve been meaning to have with him for some months.

“They tell me you’re in charge of me now.”
“Oh. Ah, yes.”
“And I really feel that I ought to inform you, as my boss, that when I’m not teaching or at the school, I don’t have any work to do. I haven’t had any in months.”
“Well. As your boss, I suppose I ought to see if I can do something about that.”

That was a week ago, and so far hasn’t produced any results, but I’m still hopeful.

The others completed whatever we were at the office to do, and I was invited to come see the Airtel tower. By this point it had been a longish day on not enough sleep, and I wasn’t at all sure that I wanted to stand around being useless a while longer while other people did things, but I’ve been mildly interested in seeing the tower (which is in some way related to how we get our internet) for some months now, and goodness knew when I would next get the chance, so I climbed back into the vehicle for another jouncing trip to the tower, with a possible side-trip to Gideon.

The tower.  The guys estimated that it's 50 meters tall, and our internet uses a technology that sort of piggybacks on the satellite connection for the mobile phones, which is both cheaper and faster than having our own satellite connection.

The tower. The guys estimated that it's 50 meters tall, and our internet uses a technology that sort of piggybacks on the satellite connection for the mobile phones, which is both cheaper and faster than having our own satellite connection.

About halfway up, just by that dish on the right, there’s a mesh grating. Just above the mesh grating — between it and the dish, almost — there’s a small white square that you might be able to see if you zoom in a lot (or perhaps not. I had trouble seeing it on the original image, and I know where it is). This square is our transmitter. It beams a radio signal to (I think) the smaller tower on the LITA building. Or possibly somewhere in the hospital complex. But a distance of several kilometers. Wirelessly. I think it is SO COOL. They were playing with a pair of transmitter dishes in ‘my’ office for a while, which was neat, but also annoying, because it emits a loud-ish beep periodically. The airtel tower is enclosed in a gate, and the guard who’s supposed to have the key to that gate wasn’t there, so we left again. On our way, we got a call that the restaurant needed to go to town to get supplies for Valentine’s Day orders, and needed a vehicle, probably the one we were using. We did not go to Gideon, which I was just as glad of by that point, even though the guys wanted to stop to get beef while we were there, and I would have been able to locate the place to purchase the cheapest beef in the Macha area.


Speaking of meat, I’m told that I should inform you that Moses has eaten the chicken. When asked, he grinned, gave me a thumbs up, and said that it was good. He also told me that my next task is to kill a goat.


This is something that I find alternately enjoyable and frustrating about life in Zambia: when you wake up in the morning, you can never be entirely sure of how your day will be occupied. You might kill a chicken. You might up and go to Mapanza, or to a cultural ceremony. You might spend several hours sitting in front of a pile of chopped onions, waiting for power to come back so that you can cook them. You may find yourself playing host at a moment’s notice, or teaching the neighbor kids to play the card game War. It does keep life interesting.


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In the Company of Cheerful Ladies, or, The Chipolopolo Boys

I am not much of a sports aficionada. When the Super Bowl rolls around, what enthusiasm I manage to raise generally centers around the prospect of snacks. The rise or fall of the fortunes of Philadelphia teams tend not to inspire me to greater emotion than “Oh, that’s nice,” or “Alas,” depending on the context. However, four seasons of field hockey and one of lacrosse did leave their mark: I can usually manage to enjoy watching sports of the ‘people running up and down a field with a ball’ variety, at least for a while. American football is not included in this category: the ball isn’t round, and gameflow consists more of throw the ball, maybe run a bit, lose the ball under a dogpile, stop gameplay, rinse and repeat. I like more finesse and teamwork/passing.

But this post isn’t about American football; it’s about what the rest of the world calls football. I always considered soccer a decent sort of sport: not as pretty as (women’s) lacrosse or the level of basketball where people still pass to each other, not as sensible as (women’s) field hockey, but enjoyable enough. I wasn’t any good at it even before I spent four years being trained not to kick the ball or ever let it touch my feet, but my brother’s involvement in a local club ensured that I learned at least the rudiments of the rules.

And then I went to Spain. Ivan, Pepi’s younger son, is a diehard fútbol fan who could possibly have played for Barcelona, and we were a Barça household. I cultivated an appreciation for the game, and soon came to prefer televised fútbol to dubbed American movies, even if Ivan’s yells of “GOL” made me jump every single time. Spain did poorly in the World Cup that year, but it was Barça that really mattered, anyway.

Here in Zambia, most people who follow football have an English Premier League team. I’ve never developed a preference, and tend to take my affiliation from whoever I’m watching with. La Liga games are also aired, though, and I sometimes see Barcelona flags and jerseys, though not as often as English teams.

But now we have the Africa Cup of Nations, and of course everyone follows Zambia, myself included. I wasn’t paying much attention, because I don’t generally seek out sports events of any sort, and I only tend to see games if they’re on when I’m at Monica’s, but last week I realized that the Zambian team was doing very well: had in fact made it to the quarter-finals. So of course I watched the game with the other SALTers at our spiritual retreat last weekend. We could hear the sound of horns and vuvuzuelas drifting over the wall from the nearby compounds. (Did you know that distant vuvuzuelas sound disconcertingly like mosquitoes?)

Zambia proceeded to the semi-finals. I made a point of seeking out an opportunity to watch the game, and found myself watching with a number of my neighbor ladies. Let me tell you, football with Zambian ladies is like no other sports audience I have ever participated in. No one screamed GOAL, although there were a few a few shrieks and protestations of ‘I can’t watch!’ at some of the skin-of-the-teeth saves. The real difference, though, made itself apparent when Zambia scored the first goal sixty-some minutes in. We clapped, we whooped, Mercy ululated, Esther did the ‘doncha kubeba’ dance as well as once can while sitting on a couch with a sleeping baby. (When African teams score, it’s not one player showing off and rejoicing; the whole team breaks into a little dance routine. ‘Doncha kubeba’ is one of ours.) Zambian women are very good at showing elation. I hope that one thing I can retain when I return to the States is the ability to just drop all inhibitions and rejoice. We watched with bated breath for the remaining time, and for the extra four minutes (If anyone wants to explain to me WHY there were four minutes added on at the end, feel free), and when the game ended without a Ghanean goal, we just partied all over again.

The final match is Sunday night. Zambia hasn’t had this good a chance at the cup since the famously terrible tragedy in the eighties(?) where most of the team perished in a plane crash, flying to, incidentally, Gabon, where the cup is being held this year. Zambians are loving this. The whole country is excited. And me, I once again understand why people follow sports teams. This is FUN. But I’m very glad that I’m not in Lusaka tonight; I can only imagine that things there must be getting crazy right around now.

Edit at time of posting: This was written on Wednesday.


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