Monthly Archives: May 2012

On the Road, as it were

Part two of the Women’s Conference Adventure.

Somewhere about the time that E—- and the other woman left, the bus did in fact arrive. This may have been about 11:30; I’m not sure. Recall that this was supposed to be the 10 hours bus. There were a number of people and a significant amount of luggage already on the bus, and even more people huddled around the door of the bus having Tonga discussions with various organizer-ladies, but no one seemed in any hurry to actually get on the bus, so Natasha and I didn’t either, and just hung out next to the church and watched. I made vague attempts to keep track of my phone, which Grama was now carrying around.

(I have become incredibly blasé about my belongings here. I’ll give my backpack to someone and not even pay attention to be sure that it gets put under the bus or in the boot of the vehicle or on top of the minibus. Part of this is that I don’t put anything of real value in that backpack, but most of it is just the fact that my belongings always manage to travel with me. (Well, aside from the six tomatoes I accidentally left on the minibus yesterday, but that was a different matter.) It eventually occurred to me that quite aside from the shame one would face for losing a mukuwa‘s belongings, no one will use your minibus if you have a reputation for losing things. This matter of reputation extends so far that people will give the minibus driver or conductor money on their way out of Macha in the morning, and the minibus will deliver goods purchased in town on the return trip in the afternoon.)

Lisa figured out that what was going on was a debate about whether there was room on the bus for the people who had not purchased their seats in advance, and for how many of them, and which ones. We stood about for a while longer. I knit. Presently we were told to get on the minibus, which we did, so as to sit and wait more conveniently. I think we were waiting for latecomers, though I am not entirely sure.

(It’s frequently unclear what one is waiting for here. Alison shared a story with me: one time her host family was sitting around and waiting after church, and she asked them what they were waiting for, and none of them knew. In fact, it became clear that they were not actually waiting for anything at all — but this did not stop them from spending several hours doing so.)

While we were waiting, we realized that no one had paid for our (Lisa’s and Natasha’s and mine) food at this conference, so we did that. I knit some more and wondered what budget category food for a conference belongs in. Grama’s bag (with my phone resting on top) made it inside the vehicle, so I figured that that was all right.

Grama and the woman with the clipboard (whose name I never did catch) began discussing the 13 hours bus, which at this point appeared to have only four people on it. It was agreed that running an entire bus for only four people was an unnecessary expense. I began to wonder if we were going to wait another two or three hours for the 13 hours people, and to dubiously consider my supply of snacks, which was not in the least adequate for being lunch. After some texting and more phone calls, Grama returned my phone (I checked my balance, which was only lower by 1,000 kwacha, the cost of an egg, despite that flurry of phone activity), and presently the bus departed.

Only to stop again 300 meters away to pick up the pastor’s wife, wiping damp hands on her chitenge. She had gone home to finish up some housework. We moved again, only to stop while one woman ran over to her house to get a pillow and a scarf. While we were waiting, Grama and the woman sitting next to/underneath a rather large suitcase investigated options for keeping the suitcase from crashing into the unfortunate woman. I offered my ever-present hank of rope (“You’ll want it, if you haven’t got it!”), but there wasn’t really anything to tie the rope to.

We stopped again at the market and tied the suitcase to the doorframe. Possibly there was some other purpose to that stop, but I didn’t figure out or don’t remember what it was. We may have acquired another passenger.

We bounced our way out of what I consider “Macha proper,” stopping for a long while by the shops by the radio station to pick up another woman. I knit some more. The woman next to me purchased a handful of “ma bubble,” bubblegum, and gave me a piece. I’m still completely unable to blow gum bubbles, just like the last time I tried.

As we pulled away from the radio station, I checked my phone: it was just after 13 hours. We stopped again at the T with the dust road and acquired another woman and a young man.

At Miyobe, the turnoff to the tarmac road, we picked up another woman and some parcels, rendering the minibus overloaded, even for Zambia. About 500 meters later we stopped, dropped off that woman, the parcels, the young man, and the woman we’d picked up at the radio station, along with strict instructions in Tonga, something about 18 hours. I never did figure out what the deal was with that last woman.

Did I mention the singing? It’s not at all unusual, here in Zambia, to be passed by a vehicle, usually a canter truck, with the back crammed full of people, all singing at the top of their lungs. It’s a unique auditory experience that I have often enjoyed from the sidewalk, but this was the first time I’ve been inside the vehicle. Someone, probably Grama, started the singing shortly after the radio station, and most of us sang the whole way to Choma. I even led a song: Ambani Jesu (Talk about Jesus), only that backfired a little because, it turned out, most of the bus didn’t know it, so I really did have to lead it, and I’m not actually quick enough on my feet in Tonga to sing leader role for stanza after stanza after stanza. It’s a song that could hypothetically be led in English just as well, only the bit of music for that part of the song lends itself much better to Tonga.

It’s a good thing we were singing, because bubble gum is not food, and by the time we reached Mbabala, I was beginning to think longingly of lunch, even with the distraction of music. Only we didn’t stop at Mbabala, just slowed down a little and cruised right on through. I resigned myself to no lunch until goodness-knows-when, and settled in to enjoy the singing. (I wrote down the Tonga words for “We Are Marching in the Light of God,” which I’ll share with you after I double-check spellings and meanings.)

It was 2:15 by the time we rolled to a stop in the middle of Choma. We were stopping for half an hour so people could shop. Of course, I thought, a trip to town is a luxury. They want to make the most of it. And Thank goodness; I can get some lunch.

I led Lisa into the maze of stalls that is Choma market, in pursuit of bush bananas and raw groundnuts. That accomplished with time to spare, we went to Spar, and I dealt with my grocery store shopping list. While there, Kathy called to say that her bus was leaving Monze, an hour and a half away, and could we pick up some food at Spar? We did, and returned to the bus at 2:44. As I expected, it was mostly empty and not remotely ready to leave, so I acquired tomatoes and green onions from one of the ladies on the street, the better to flesh out our food supplies. After that, I could settle down to a belated semi-lunch of bananas and groundnuts, and then to the business of shelling groundnuts for later roasting.

Fourty-five minutes or an hour later, when the bus actually left, my 1l jar was 1/4 full of groundnuts. We reached the school without incident, and Grama told us to stay on the bus, and that we’d be dropped off at the guesthouse on the driver’s way back into town. We tried to call the woman in charge of the guesthouse, but she wasn’t answering her phone.

When we reached the guesthouse sometime after four, Kathy was there ahead of us, sitting on the porch waiting for the keys, which arrived not too long after. But that was, without a doubt, the longest trip from Macha to Choma that I have ever taken.


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A fraction of my recent adventures

I wrote this last week and thought I posted it (the power went out right after), but upon checking realized that it hadn’t.

I’ve been busy lately and haven’t had much time for my usual lengthy blog posts. At this point I’m so far behind on things I intended to say that if I’m going to get around to posting any of them, I need to just start typing somewhere. So:

A few weekends ago I went to a church National Women’s Conference. Conveniently enough, it was held in Choma. Something like 1,300 women attended. The conference was over a term break, so many of the women stayed in the dorm of a school. I, along with three other MCC women, stayed at a nearby guesthouse (which was very convenient, because we wound up cooking a large portion of our own food).

The conference started on Thursday, and those of us coming from Macha were taking local transport, catching a ride on the (large) minibus that the other Macha women were taking. There was a 10 hours bus and a 13 hours bus — we opted for the 10 hrs bus.

I did not expect the bus to leave on time. However, I’d never taken churchwomen transport before, and on the bare possibility that it *might* leave on time, I felt that I ought to be timely. We showed up to the meeting place, the church, at about 9:59, and no one was there.

Okay, I thought, usual Zambian transport.

Before Natasha could get worried, a Zambian woman in the church chitenge showed up and introduced herself as E—-. We introduced ourselves, and before we finished the greeting process, another woman showed up, carrying E—-‘s suitcase on her head. We greeted with her, too, and before we finished that round of greeting, Lisa appeared from around the building; she’d been taking pictures. Cue more greeting.

One of the next women to arrive was Grama, who I’d met before, when I went to the women’s Saturday afternoon bible study, and whose name, I have since discovered, is, in fact, Glamour.

Over the next hour or so, people arrived in a slow but steady trickle, bringing with them an ever-widening round of greetings — in Zambian society, you don’t greet the group as a whole, you greet each member of the group individually. While westerners may find it a bit odd to go “How are you — I’m fine” along a whole line of people (especially when you arrive in a group, so there are two lines moving in opposite directions, like optimal heat exchange between parallel pipes), Zambians consider it not only normal, but eminently proper.

There was still no sign of the bus.

One, or perhaps some, of the women had arrived with popwe, boiled maize, which was broken into chunks and shared out among the group. I attacked mine with the incisor-bite I’ve worked out for things like boiled maize that are harder than my front teeth are up to handling, and managed to decimate my four centimeters of cob with a minimum of mess.

On my way back from the trash pit to dispose of my empty cob, I realized that there was some great commotion going on back at the group of women, and arrived to find E—- wailing. While bits of her lament were in English, most of it was trial by fire for my fledgeling Tonga. I followed enough to figure out that her father had just died, and after a bit someone gave us a proper summary of the situation, in English.

Lisa knew E—- a little bit from work, but I had only met her that day, and stood around feeling an awkward intruder, but at the same time fascinated by the chance to observe cultural differences in the expression of grief. I have no word but ‘wail’ to describe E—-‘s outpouring of sound, heartfelt anguish vocalized in words.

Picture us there, a cluster of women in front of the church, E—- wandering and wailing, Lisa and some of the others drifting close in an attempt to offer sympathy or condolences, Natasha and I farther, but still trying to stand in solidarity. They were trying to get in touch with E—-‘s mother, but in typical Zambian fashion, no one had any talk time, and while Lisa wanted to lend her phone, the screen had broken a few days before, leaving it in that annoying place just this side of unusable, which is worse than true uselessness. Since I never use my talk time anyway, I persuaded them that Grama should use my phone, rather than fighting with Lisa’s, so she was bustling about, texting and calling and giving the phone back to me and then someone would call it and I’d hand it back to her and another three people arrived so we did subdued greetings around the edges of the wailing . . .

Presently a car showed up and discharged another wailing woman, who came and curled up in the dirt by where E—- had been persuaded to sit on the church steps. They made, sang — I can only describe it as the grief song. A particular sort of keening melody, high and sad and minorly off-key. It’s eerie and discommoding. And the new woman, who may or may not have been the mother, smeared dirt on her chitenge. Grief is much rawer here, and it made me realize that we’re terribly repressed, we Americans. All we know how to do is cry.

About this time the minibus arrived, and E—- and the other woman were helped back into the car to be driven home. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to bury a man, too.

To be continued. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

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