Tag Archives: food

The Lilies of the Field

I’m not in Zambia anymore. Now I can talk about the things that I didn’t talk about while I was there, the things that I didn’t want to people at home to worry about. The things that I didn’t want me to worry about.

The prospect of drought was the scariest thing in Zambia.

Don’t get me wrong; there were lots of scary things in Zambia. Snakes were scary. (And I like snakes.) There was a snake killed in what was essentially my back yard whose poison is so lethal that you die within five days, and there is no antidote. Because it is non-agressive, this snake is not particularly high on the list of snakes people worry about.

AIDS was scary. (AIDS is still scary, in a more immediate way than snakes, whose ability to terrify has faded with distance. But then, AIDS is here, too.) I think that few service workers would argue with the assertion that AIDS is the biggest social problem facing Zambia today, and it really deserves to be the topic of its own post (come to think of it, snakes may, as well). Twenty-five percent of the Zambia population is HIV positive. One in four. A full-but-not-completely-overloaded minibus holds 18 or 20 people; I remember a piece of art at the National Museum, part of an AIDS awareness campaign, highlighting the fact that four or five people on the average minibus are HIV positive. It was Alison, commuting about two hours a day on minibuses, who came up with the idea that if that minibus got into an accident, even someone who walked away relatively unscathed would probably be exposed to the virus. And getting into a motorized vehicle in Zambia was terrifying enough even without that. Traffic in third-world countries is probably the greatest serious threat to physical well-being faced by most SALTers. One of the Zambia MCC workers was involved in a bad road accident while I was there, and considering what happened to her vehicle, it is miraculous that scrapes and cuts and broken bones are all that anyone received.

Drought was scarier. This isn’t to say that I spent more time thinking about drought than I did about any of these things, because I didn’t. Drought is only a seasonal threat, and normal weather in Zambia would look an awful lot like drought to most Americans. And I can’t say that drought was terrifying in quite the same personally-relevant way as snakes or AIDS (oddly enough, aside from AIDS statistics, it was much easier to not think about traffic. Quite possibly I couldn’t think about the risk and still be able to function, so I didn’t think about it. We don’t think about the risks of getting in a car here, either). But the worst thing that a snake or traffic accident could do would be to kill me or someone I cared about. And AIDS is a sweeping societal problem, but it’s a sweeping societal problem that people live and cope with, and will continue to do so as long as rich countries are willing to continue subsidizing anti-retroviral treatment.

Drought is bigger than that. Southern Province, of which Macha is a part, is the breadbasket (nshima pot?) of Zambia. And if the rains don’t come, or they come too late, or they come and then they stop for a bit, there is a bad harvest. (One of the fellows who worked in food security told me that maize is a terrible staple crop for Zambia, because it’s not sufficiently drought-resistant. Millet would be better, or I think sorghum (which is eaten some in the northern part of Zambia), because they do not require the same steady water input, but most Zambians want maize, and so maize is the crop upon which farming in Zambia rests, much like the US and corn.) And then people die. Lots of people. (More than usual.) Many of them children. And that’s just the way it would be.

This isn’t just a thought experiment. While Zambia has had some exceptionally good harvests in recent years, there have also been years when the rains have not come just so, and the crop has failed. One of MCC’s responsibilities in Zambia is that if there is a drought, they are responsible for the distribution of the government’s maize reserve in Southern Province. (The government of Zambia, to its credit, is working really hard to buy surplus grain to put aside. But even in an optimal scenario, Zambia is just so sprawling, and so very, very rural over large portions of it, that I simply cannot imagine how food would be distributed to everyone who needed it. During dry season, it takes an hour and a half to drive from Macha to Chikanta, forty kilometers away. In rainy season longer. And Chikanta is close and the roads are pretty good. Transport becomes more and more difficult the further you get from numbered routes and paved roads.) I don’t know if I would have been pulled into that responsibility or not. And I was not concerned that drought would mean that I was without food, though it would doubtless make stretching my food budget a more interesting proposition. But somehow it is scarier than death or injury or illness to think that neighbors would be starving while I had plenty — but not enough to be able to share with everyone. (And yet this happens every day in America, too. We’re just very good at not looking.)

And current predictions for global climate change indicate that Zambia — that much of sub-Saharan Africa — will become unfarmably arid within my lifetime.

Recently I’ve been thinking about drought, and about rain and harvests, because I just got back from Iowa, where we stayed with farmers, friends of my maternal grandmother. In case you pay even less attention to the news than I do, the midwestern United States is currently experiencing a drought, and the harvest is suffering. One of the farmers involved in Constance’s CSA* told her that Virginia is the only state in the US not suffering from drought. I don’t know if that’s true. When I visited the farm Emily works on in Massachusetts, they did not seem particularly troubled by drought.

Onions at Simple Gifts Farm, Amherst, Massachusetts

Onions at Simple Gifts Farm, Amherst, Massachusetts

In fact, a number of the tomatoes were suffering from blight, a problem that I had always understood to be related to wet years. But perhaps it is just the nature of things for tomato plants in Massachusetts to be sorry-looking by the end of September. What I do know is that when I came back to Pennsylvania after eleven months in Zambia, even as I was struck by how wonderfully GREEN everything looked (recall that dry season started at the beginning of April, and will not end until November or perhaps December), I was also struck by how brown the grass was, and the funny dried-out way the corn looked, and how many fields were not nearly as tall as they ought to be.

Soybeans in Illinois

Soybeans in Illinois

And when I took the train south to Virginia, the land around me got greener, in a shift as obvious as the transition from Zambia in dry season to Zambia in rainy season.

Iowa is pretty brown right now. Hay is still green, if it hasn’t been cut recently, but soybeans are gray-brown and corn is yellow-brown, or the crop has already been harvested, leaving a wilderness of husks and broken stalks. I’m not really sure what Iowa is supposed to look like right now. Corn does die and get yellow in the fall. But the plants seem thinner and more bleached-looking, and everything is completely bone dry in a way that I do not remember from autumn in Pennsylvania.

Harvested cornfield near Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge, Illinois

Harvested cornfield near Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge, Illinois

Our hostess told us that corn should be less than 16 percent moisture, but that they want it to be at least 14 percent. Right now it’s at ten, and not only do they have a smaller-than-usual crop, they’re losing out again because the corn is so dry that it’s not as heavy (and it’s sold by weight). She said that their farm’s usual yield is upwards of 140 bushels an acre, but that this year they’re expecting closer to 50 bushels an acre. I didn’t get the sense that farmers are skirting starvation, as would be true in Zambia, but that doesn’t mean things are easy, either.

Maize storage in an elevated "silo" in Mboole, Southern Province, Zambia

Maize storage in an elevated “silo” in Mboole, Southern Province, Zambia

*Community Supported Agriculture, a system in which members of the community buy shares of the year’s harvest, and receive a portion of whatever bounty the farm produces that year


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True Adventures on 1st April

Friday night it rained. And rained. And rained. We’re nearly at the end of the rainy season, and things have been slacking off, but Friday night was like walking into a shower.

I spent the evening with the pilot’s family, Gemmeke (one of the Dutch students working at the hospital) and Marvin (German guy teaching at Macha Girls for a year), playing The Construction Game. There were tasty treats, as per usual, and the half-expected power outage didn’t last any longer than fifteen minutes. And then it started raining. It didn’t rain continually, but by golly it rained, and before too long we realized that a small army of inswa were battling their way through the mosquito net curtains so that they could fly all over the house.

(Probably at this point you can tell where this post is going. If that somewhere is a place that distresses you, you might want to stop reading right now.)

We closed the windows, but there were already a lot of inswa milling around in a confused sort of fashion. Once inswa are inside, really the only thing to do with them is catch them. (Possibly you could lure them outside again by turning off inside lights, turning on outside lights, and waiting. But that would let mosquitoes in, and usually one doesn’t feel like sitting in the dark until all the inswa have bumbled their way outside.) Luckily, inswa are slow, and, so far as I can tell, stupid, and they have large wings that are easy to grab, especially if they’ve gotten tired of flying and are crawling around on the floor. I’m told that they are capable of biting, but I’ve never been bitten by one, and I’ve caught lots. (My theory is that so many portions of the Zambian landscape, flora, and fauna are harsh, prickly, poisonous, ferocious, or some combination thereof, that there needs to be something that’s slow, loaded with nutrients, and easy to catch.)

This batch of inswa was small, bigger than some I’ve seen, but nothing like the zepplin-sized ones at the beginning of rainy season. Still, I figured, I definitely won’t get a chance again this year . . . so I filled a bowl with water so we could collect the ones we caught. (If their wings get wet, they can’t fly.) By the time we’d caught all (unless it was most) of the inswa inside, my bowl was so full that new additions needed to be poked with a finger to make sure that they actually got wet, and didn’t just land on top of the wings of their kinfolk.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this with white people,” commented Gemmeke. Clearly she hasn’t spent enough time with me.

After some excellent die rolls ensured my victory, I packed up my collection of damp insects in a Parmalat Salted Choice Butter container and walked waded home. After brief consideration, I stuck them in the fridge, because I wasn’t sure how well they would last outside it, and I didn’t want my last chance to eat inswa spoiled by spoilage.

Yesterday we didn’t have power for most of the day, so early afternoon, after I’d finished a number of other puttering tasks, I fished out my inswa and spread them out to dry on a washcloth, before heading over to measure Gemmeke’s windows (long story, not particularly interesting). ZESCO came back, and there was cake, and what with one thing and another, I stayed until bedtime.

Before brushing my teeth and climbing into bed, I checked the washcloth to see if the drowned insects were drying out, and discovered that they were — but they weren’t. Drowned, that is. Several of them were wiggling feebly, and a few had even wiggled themselves off of the washcloth and onto the floor. This was an ISSUE. They didn’t look terribly lively, but most of them still had all of their wings, and I didn’t feel like catching the lot of them again if they decided to perk up enough to start flying around. Especially since I’d probably never get the disembodied wings out of the carpet, not to mention the ones that might crawl off under things.

Having just dried them, I didn’t want to put them back in water. Some of them were stuck to the washcloth, too. So I de-winged them, a task that needed to happen presently, but which I’d hoped would occur to a greater extent naturally, just from the soaking and drying. (Possibly if I’d used a bigger bowl, they would’ve been dead the first time and fewer of them would have retained their wings. Or maybe the big ones aren’t as firmly attached to their wings.)

I have to say that of food preparation tasks I have participated in, pulling wings off of small insects that are wiggling feebly is only surpassed in unpleasantness by accidentally pulling said insects in half while attempting to de-wing them. Definitely worse than killing the chicken, which at least, after I’d killed it, was then dead, and stopped thrashing relatively quickly. The inswa remained alive, and I was suspicious that having your wings pulled off probably hurt.

But I finished the lot and stuck them back in the fridge. It seemed the kindest thing to do.

At any rate, they weren’t wiggling when I took them out this evening to fry them up.

I’ve been told that inswa taste like groundnuts, and the first few I tried (the well-done ones) did taste a great deal like fresh-roasted groundnuts. Also like fried food. After I tried a few more, I decided that no, it wasn’t exactly groundnuts: they tasted like the little crispy bits of scrambled egg along the edge of the skillet, the ones that are very thin and soaked in oil. Mostly, yes, they tasted like oil. There wasn’t much to them, really: one crunch and they were gone, though you might find yourself fishing a bit of exoskeleton out from between your teeth later. Possibly the bigger ones have a little more substance, but maybe not.

I ate several, but didn’t finish them: they were SO oily that I didn’t want very many, even though they tasted nice. But Martha et al. are Nyanja, not Tonga, and were happy to eat the rest.

I did take pictures, but not on my camera (which unfortunately seems to have gone entirely kaput). Check back later.


On the subject of eating insects, on last weekend’s excursion to Livingstone (the one that killed my camera), I had the occasion to eat mopane worms (caterpillars). I’ve seen them in the market in Choma, but was always leery of buying them, because how do you prepare caterpillars? but none of the Tongas I’ve talked to eat them.

However, Chris and I went to Zambezi Cafe our last night in Livingstone, after everyone else had left, and it served caterpillars. I was strongly tempted to order some, but was also trying not to entirely exhaust the funds Alison had brought me from Lusaka, and fifteen pin seemed like a lot to try one and decide that they were interesting, and Chris had already spent enough that he didn’t want to split an order. So I didn’t order them, but kind of regretted the decision even as I made it.

BUT, after we finished our meal and before we left, a woman came around with a plate of them that she’d ordered and wasn’t going to finish. So Chris and I each had a chance to try one. They were interesting, and, I have to say, only marginally more attractive cooked and arranged artfully on lettuce than they are in the market.

“How do caterpillars taste?” I’d asked my roommate Nobubele, back in orientation.
“Like . . . like . . . like caterpillars.”

And I have to say that she’s right. They didn’t taste quite like anything else I’ve eaten. The closest thing I can think of is kalamari, but that’s texture, not taste: the mopane worms are rubbery in a similar sort of way, only they’re a little bit more substantial/chewy. Chris said the taste would be pretty good, if not for the texture. Me, I didn’t find them objectionable, per se, but I wouldn’t have felt the need for a second one even if the texture hadn’t been weird. But I could eat them again to be polite, if necessary.

And you find yourself picking bits of leg or shell or something out of your teeth as you walk home afterwards.


Also on the topic of insects, but not on the topic of eating them, this morning’s excitement was the swarm of bees that descended on The Wooden House 3 today. I first noticed them while ironing clothes before church, when there was a collection of them buzzing angrily at the closed windows, and a swirling cloud of them next to the house/on the roof. By the time I came back from church, they’d settled down a bit, which was good, only they seemed to have settled into the hole right next to the front door, and were furthermore scattered across the floor inside.

Things did calm down enough that I was willing to make bread this afternoon, and by this evening I didn’t see them flying around anymore, but I still spent most of the day either away from the house or hiding in my room with the door shut. And I’m not sure if they’ve left, or just chill out in the evenings. I guess we’ll find out tomorrow.

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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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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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Let me tell you a story

On the way to expat American Thanksgiving in Choma last Friday, my ride picked up two of my sort-of neighbors, Vita and Fanny. (I found this enlightening, because it explained why they’re my sort-of neighbors, and also what they actually do, neither of which I’d managed to figure out on my own. Also, Fanny’s name. They both live in Choma, but stay here in Macha during the week. Fanny is a co-headmistress, or assistant headmistress, or something to that effect, at the MICS school, and Vita is an assistant teacher (explaining why she seems to be a teacher, but doesn’t keep teacher hours). Since Vita stays with Clare while she’s here, she’s a very close sort-of neighbor, and it’s nice to have a better understanding of the situation.

Also, Fanny told us a story.

Why the cow does not get out of the road

There was a cow, a goat, and a dog who were traveling. To get to where they were going, they hiked*. When the cow got to where it was going, it paid in full, which is why it is not afraid of the vehicles that pass. When the goat got to where it was going, it just jumped off and ran away, so it always runs. The dog paid, and there was change due, but the driver did not provide it, which is why the dog always chases after cars.

*That is, hitch-hiked. Walking is ‘footing it,’ or sometimes just walking.


Expat American Thanksgiving was very nice. Everyone seemed very excited about “meeting fellow Americans,” which prospect did not particularly excite me; I could meet Americans in the US without coming all the way to Zambia, and in general there is a much better selection over there (not that I’m complaining about the expats I’ve met here; they’re all very nice). This is just as well, as it turns out that I was the only person present who had met all of the attendees before that evening. And I always like holidays that involve hanging out and eating good food, especially since we stayed the night and I had the opportunity to take a hot bath.

There was no turkey, but there was pretty much everything else that one thinks of at Thanksgiving — the only staples I might have included were green bean casserole, sweetcorn, and Grandma H’s cranberry relish. AND we had chicken, duck, guineafowl, and bushpig. The guineafowl was very nice: good flavor, moist, more substantive than chicken at home, but not as much as village chicken here. Bushpig is rather generically pork-ish and somewhat dry. I don’t feel any need to have bushpig again. But I would eat more guineafowl.

We played a game that I thought was a nice acknowledgement of the origins of the holiday. Everyone was given an illustrated nametag incorporating their initials to create a “Native American style” name, and we were informed that this was the name out parents had given us when we were small, and that by dessert we should share with the group the story we had been told as children about how we got out name. Mine was Rising Moon, so of course I told the tale of how, when I was born, I was given one of those stupid names that babies get, like Ichabod or something, but that it was quickly changed when my parents realized that my sleep schedule was lunar, rather than solar. We also heard how Matt played with mountain lions when he was two or three years old; how Erma was discovered on a small hill covered in elk; how grownup-Chris’s mother had to slaughter a cow all by herself; how SALT-Chris’s parents drove the car into a ditch so that he was born in a canyon; the story of the nasty Shetland pony that Greg’s family had when he was a kid, which made his first date with his future wife a complete failure; and a few others. I thought it was lots of fun.

And I already mentioned the hot bath. I was really decadent this morning and heated water to add to my bathwater, so I washed my hair in hot water this morning, too, although out of a bucket.


I’ve been tutoring a woman in computer science material I was never taught, which is interesting. I read the (really poorly designed in all sorts of ways) book and then explain it to her. cmoore calls it “knowledge translation.” In addition to meaning that I spend more evenings away from home than I do at home, I’m getting chances to eat more Zambian food, and also to experience a little bit of the daily household interactions that I miss out on through not living with a host family. I like Monica and her family a lot, and hanging out with them is definitely worth tromping over to the hospital-area several evenings a week. I’m learning things too, which is always fun, and her husband and two youngest kids and I had a hymn sing Saturday night while we waited for supper to be ready, which was absolutely marvelous. I like the music here, and people in general sing really well, but hymns in Tonga aren’t quite the same as hymns in English, and half the music is praise songs in Tonga, which is much harder, because then I haven’t got written words (though it’s really exciting when, on the second or third pass, I can figure out not only what the words are but what they mean, which is happening more and more frequently). So it was very nice to sit down and sing Amazing Grace and gobs of old familiar hymns, and a few new-to-me old hymns. Yesterday Monica and I were talking about binary numbers, and decimal-to-binary conversion, and binary-to-octal conversion, and I could see that she was getting it, which was really marvelous, especially since I knew that she would not have understood it from just reading the book.

I’m also doing some tutoring with the boarding kids at MICS, due to not having enough work to do at work, which is fun, but also challenging, because I never know from day to day which kids I’ll be working with (and I have yet to see any of them twice, although I think that will change if I keep doing tutoring through next year), or whether they’ll have homework or I’m just supposed to come up with something on my own, or even what grade they’ll be in. 24 is my favorite game right now, although it takes a good bit of work to create cards easy enough for their maths skills that are still challenging.


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This is an interesting place to live.

The power was out this afternoon when I got home from church. I did not immediately notice this fact for two reasons: one, at 13 hours the natural sunlight is perfectly sufficient for lighting needs, and two, my neighbor Moses was watching a medical drama on his computer, so the building was hardly devoid of mechanical noises. It came back again before I had to lunch on sunlight-thawed frozen leftovers (I wasn’t trying to freeze the rice, but I did want to make sure that the sausage stayed frozen while I was in Choma last week, with the result that I accidentally froze just about everything in the fridge), which I was quite pleased about. The power went out again while I was showering, or possibly before that, while I was doing my laundry (I didn’t notice for much the same reasons as the first time), and I think it was very decent of it to allow me to make lunch. Here’s hoping for supper.

I spent four days in Choma last week learning Tonga. I have decided that the most difficult thing about Tonga (at least initially), aside from a total lack of cognates and commonality to English or Germanic or Romance languages, is that the consonants are not the same. They may look the same when written down, but it seems to me to be a convention generally agreed upon that sounds that are not really present in the English language will be represented by certain letters. K, for example, is rather more like G than like K, although softer than actual G (which is also present), so that the word kwena (nothing) is said more like ‘gwena’ than like ‘kwena,’ though not as forcefully as the name Gwen. Except for the occasions when it isn’t; I’m pretty sure that ndakuta (I am full/satisfied) is ‘dakuta,’ not ‘daguta.’ There’s also the sound that I’ve been calling ‘nyah’ in my head. No one seems to agree on how to spell this one, though the book we’ve been using most seems to use ng’, as in ng’anda, home. One of the other books says that it’s like the first N in ‘onion,’ which is sort-of is, but it’s more nasal than that, and it hangs longer.

There’s no distinction in Tonga between the letters L and R. It’s all written L, but in speech it may range anywhere between the two, and won’t necessarily be the same for two instances of the same word. (This carries over into English, too, so that Chris is as likely to be ‘Chlis’ as ‘Chris.’ No one’s tried to call me Miliam, though.) And B is a much softer sound than in English; like a Spanish B, it’s very close to V. At least for this one, I have practice in softening my Bs. And then there’s C, which is pronounced more like J, or perhaps Y, except for certain situations in which it’s CH, which possibly happens when it follows N? So the word cuuno, stool, I want to spell ‘juno,’ but with a soft j.

The other thing that’s difficult about Tonga is that there are different classes (‘modes’?) of nouns. I haven’t even been able to figure out if we’re declining them, or if they’re like gendered nouns, only there are too many genders, or what. But things change based on what noun you’re using, and I never know how. Luckily for me, I understand this so incompletely that it is not yet troubling me at all.

In good news, so far as I can tell, Tonga doesn’t conjugate verbs at all, just sticks extra little words in to indicate past or future, and adds a pronoun-prefix to indicate the subject (ndalumba is ‘I am thankful,’ and twalumba is ‘We are thankful’). And I don’t have to learn numbers, because Tonga only has numbers up to five, so everyone just uses English numbers.

Our lessons included cultural content in addition to just language.

Maureen, our teacher, showed us how to make two relishes, one cabbage and one bean-and-meat

Maureen, our teacher, showed us how to make two relishes, one cabbage and one bean-and-meat

Including the terrifying way to chop cabbage without a cutting board.

Including the terrifying way to chop cabbage without a cutting board.

We also made nsima (‘shima’), cornmeal dough. It’s white, and thicker than cornmeal mush (though also smoother), and the flavor is similar, but not as pronounced.

Chris isn't quite as tall as he looks in this picture.  But I do only come up to his shoulder.

Chris isn't quite as tall as he looks in this picture. But I do only come up to his shoulder.

All in all, we had a good time, and I look forward to more lessons with Maureen over the next few months. I had minor adventures on the minibus getting back to Macha (seventeen people in a van with five rows of seats!), but there is not a permanent ridge in my legs, the mysterious greasy smear wore off, and the utter destruction of my new canvas recycled plastic bottle bag was not more than a minor inconvenience, the milk did not leak too badly, and was not sour when I got home.

In culinary adventures, I made yogurt last night, and I have five avocados that I saw on the tree.


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Recipes from the experimental kitchen

Upon arriving in Macha, I discovered that I am not, in fact, living in The Ark. I’m living in The Wooden House, which has a similar set-up, but is broken into smaller apartment-type units, has bigger rooms, and is closer to where I’ll be working. I share my unit with a guy from Zimbabwe named Moses and a woman named Claire, whose existance I have not personally verified. There are a number of boxes adorning the common area that are aparently Claire’s, and Moses says she’s around. She’s also possibly moving to Lusaka sometime in the near future, but since I haven’t yet seen her, this would have little direct impact on my life. Moses is very nice, and this morning he and Maritt (a dutch gal doing research at the ART clinic) showed me the market so I could get my bike tire fixed. I also managed to persuade him to tell me, after some prevarication, that yes, it would be a terrible thing to brush my teeth in the kitchen sink, and I should go out to the washhouse to do so. (There are flush toilets. There are not toilet seats.) My life would be easier if I could wash my teeth in the kitchen sink instead of trudging out in the dark to the washhouse, where the light isn’t working, but I don’t recall making my life easier to be one of the things motivating me to come to Zambia.

I got here yesterday morning, but we had lunch yesterday at the one restaurant, there was a sort of neighborhood potluck last night, and I concocted breakfast and lunch today from things that required little preparation, so tonight was my first night actually cooking for myself. I wore myself out this morning with the trip to the market, which involved some walking, a lot of sunlight (there are trees here, but no shade), and hellos to everyone — I mean EVERYONE. You greet people who bike past you as you’re walking to the market. It did help me learn more Tonga (“Mabuka botin” is “good day”, and then they say something vaguely like “Kabut mabuka botin,” and you say something that might be “kabut”), but also meant that it was late in the afternoon before I got around to one of my other chores for today: wiping out my dresser so that I can feel reasonably comfortable putting my clothes into it (and the water was FILTHY afterwards. I’m sure some of that was just dust from driving, but some of it was traces of previous inhabitants). So the sun had gone down, a great glowing red globe in a watercolor washed gradient of sky, by the time I got around to making my supper.

I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to make for supper, but I knew that it needed to be in one pan, that it should use sausage and greens and tomatoes, because those are the perishables I have that should be eaten most pressingly, but not ALL of the sausage, greens, and tomatoes, because I won’t have much in the way of meat or vegetables after they’re gone. I also wanted it to be fairly easy, because as you might have guessed from the fact that I was only cleaning out my dresser this afternoon/evening, I am not remotely unpacked (I might be more unpacked, but I wanted to clean the dresser, and my shelf is infested with roaches and is currently sitting outside waiting to be sprayed on Monday, and there’s only so much unpacking one can do with a bed, a refrigerator, a desk, two chairs, two suitcases, and several boxes).

I had located rice, lentils, tomatoes, greens (maybe kale. If it’s not kale, it’s related), tumeric, sausage, and a pan, and was in the process of deciding how much water and how much time each of these things required when the electricity cut out. I fished out a candle and box of matches (two of the few things that I very intentionally unpacked to somewhere that I could find them) and made a makeshift candle holder out of a mug. So, I present:

No ZESCO Rice, Lentils, and Sausage

After you have finished fiddling with the candle, read your package of lentils and decide that the lentils and the rice probably need about the same amount of time.
(The electricity just cut out again, but only for a second or two before it came back, and now it’s properly back and the lights are no longer flickering, which is reassuring.)
Add one part rice, one part lentils, and four parts of water to your pan. Collect the other ingredients and go out to the kitchen, where you may light the second candle if desired.

Decide that the gas stove does not appear to work at all and wonder how you’re going to cook your supper, and how long it would take a fire to get from one candle and no wood to something capable of cooking your supper. As you are pondering this, notice that the light on the outlet on one wall is on, and wonder if the outlets are secretly attached to the generators when the lights clearly aren’t. When the lights start flickering, decide that the power is coming back and hurridly put your pan on the stove. Add about one part sausage, sliced open, and cover.

Wash greens and begin chopping the stems, then realize that you’ve neglected to flip the switch on the wall that powers the stove. Turn the stove on and finish chopping stems. The water should be coming to a boil. Add stems and poke at your supper with a wooden stirring stick that you found in the communal kitchen. Cover pan again and finish chopping the greens. Dump the greens into the pan, along with some turmeric. Chop two small tomatoes and add them too. Consider stirring again, decide that this is more like paella than like plain rice, and do so. Cook a few minutes more, salt, and serve.

For something I just made up, it was pretty good. It might have benefited from more spices, and the lentils either needed more water or more time or both, but I enjoyed it.

While I was waiting for the rice to cook, I installed a hook and a string to keep my door closed (it locks, but it doesn’t latch). I was going to just deal with it and maybe pick up some hardware in Choma next week, but after I saw the rat today, I decided that as long as the rats aren’t currently in my room, I would like to take available steps to keep it that way. I think the string bothers Moses, though; he says he’ll try to fix my door tomorrow. Probably I could have just asked him to fix the door, but that didn’t occur to me. I could fix it myself if I had some tools, and I didn’t know that anyone else has tools and is handy with such things, so I didn’t think to ask. Possibly thinking to ask is one of the cultural differences that I’m here to learn.


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