IN and OUT of AFRICA
As I write this, I’m sitting in a hotel room in Lusaka, Africa for one last night before flying back to the states tomorrow. Our experiences in the remote village of Mpungu left a deep impression on both Mike and me. We were struck by the simple life of villagers who were living happily without electricity or running water, but were profoundly moved by the hospitality that they extended to us.
Every other evening that we were in Mpungu, a family invited us into their home for a meal consisting of “nshima” (a white maize brazier bread), greens, and bush meat or chicken. Most Kaonde villagers can’t afford to eat much protein, but still killed their prized chickens for us. It was humbling to receive this extreme, radical form of hospitality (for us, at least), especially knowing that their children might be eating our leftovers. Madeline said that there is no expectation of returning the favor, only that it’s an honor for Kaonde to welcome guests into their homes.
The first thing that we learned upon arrival in the village was that the Kaonde have several different greetings, depending on the person and occasion. Elders and children alike are greeted with the prefix “Ba” before their first names, which is a traditional sign of respect. Villagers would never make the mistake of calling someone by their first names without attaching the respectful “Ba” in their addresses. Handshakes are also important. The older the person you are greeting, the lower you bend your knees. All variations of greeting include a clapping of the hands with the common “mwane sankyo mwane” (thank you very much) – an expression of gratitude with each encounter.
There are seventy-two tribes in the country of Zambia; the Kaonde (which is the tribe of Mpungu) occupy a smallish stretch in the northwest province. Several of the wealthier Kaonde live in the larger towns of Kasempa and Solwezi, but most live in rural villages that are supported by agriculture, fish farming, and bee-keeping. Their families tend to be quite large, so the meager income from their work barely feeds them. The Luweleke’s, our daughter Madeline’s host family, live in a house that is about 500 square feet. They have eight of their own children and adopted two “cousins” whose parents couldn’t provide shelter, food, and clothing. (Evidently, it’s common for children to move from one home to another; Zambian village culture always makes room for need, despite the lack of space.) The Luweleke’s spend most of their days outside and sleep on floor mats each night; they greeted us cheerfully each morning!
SING WHILE YOU WORK
The Kaonde women are remarkably strong. They carry water (and other things) on their heads, cook over an open fire (each day), and do laundry in the river with a small baby strapped on their backs. Madeline’s host mother Ba Gladys would do all that and sing while she worked! During our stay, she decided to make a traditional maize dish that required pounding the corn with a metal pole in a big pedestal. I could barely lift the thing, while she heaved it effortlessly…over and over again…until all the hulls had been released from the corn kernels. She then separated the chaff by tossing the mixture in the air. The whole process took hours and when the dish was finished, she brought over enough for an evening meal.
RESOURCEFUL CHILDREN are JOYFUL CHILDREN
Ba Alex, the director and principle medic at Mpungu Village Clinic, said the highest mortality rate among in the village is the “one to fives” group. Mothers take pride in their fat babies because they know that they’ll have a better chance when cooler weather and rains come. Families raise chickens and goats, but not enough to eat that kind of meat every week. Protein is supplemented with small animals or birds (bush meat) that are either caught in homemade traps or with sling-shots.
One of the last days that we were in the village, Ba Gladys came over to show me the mouse that Reowes caught in a trap he made out of a soup can, sticks, wire, and a piece of plastic. Mothers in America would have screamed, but Ba Gladys was brimming with pride. Her kids play outside every day; the village is their playground. Trison (11), Reowes (9), Bierne (8), and Tortoy (3) entertained themselves from dawn to dusk with toys they made out of discarded stuff, games with sticks and balls, bike rides throughout the village. They laughed and played together, had their fights, but didn’t have anything that was hoarded as their own. We didn’t see the inside of their home, but Madeline said that they probably slept on floor mats (without complaint).
The older girls had plenty of work in the compound, but also found time to dress nicely and do their hair. Friends would come over to the house to sit under the kinzanza (like a thatched-roof gazebo) and spend hours braiding each other’s hair. Florence and Luweednis were fond of dressing up and going to the market, while thirteen-year-old Majo assumed the lion’s share of work. She seemed to spend most of her days baby-sitting while her parents worked in the village, at home, or in the fields. It was common to see her baby brother Reneija slung on her back or side; Madeline and Chaz said that she was always the one they counted on to feed their dog, Kibinda, when they were away.
The kids in the village were very curious about us and could hardly contain their stares. The first Saturday in Mpungu, we attended a village soccer match to see the Luweleke’s nephew (Ba Nathan) play. Madeline chose the side of the field with the fewest people, but within minutes of our arrival, about 50 kids migrated across the field to check out the muzungu (white people). Their good fried, Ba Newton (who is deputy of agriculture in the village), came over to shoo them all away! Needless to say, we were quite the attraction during our entire stay in the village!
SUSTAINABLE FOOD PRODUCTION
We were especially impressed by the work that Madeline and Chaz are doing with fish farmers (within a 20 mile radius of the village), their assistance to Ba Alex and the village clinic, the many bread baking workshops that Madeline has done in conjunction with fish farming meetings, and more. Their determination, resilience, humor and good will were evident in everything from building fires for cooking, walking the daily trek for water to and from the boar hole, communication with the villagers (while doing their best to remember names and faces), showering in a bucket and going to the bathroom in a hole, and generally – living the simple, yet incredibly rewarding life of a Peace Corps volunteer.
Peace Corps isn’t new to the villagers in Mpungu. There were volunteers in the late nineties that assisted fish farmers in the region; a small percentage of farmers continued the work, while many abandoned it for agriculture. The possibility for growth in the region was/is evident, so sending two volunteers with experience in sustainability and environmental studies seems a good risk. Madeline and Chaz had a big meeting with all the farmers at the outset of their service, and have continued meeting with smaller groups (by location) each week. They continue to supervise dam building, furrow digging, composting for algae blooms, and general pond management.
One key part of the project is to improve the management of the Fish Cooperative, which contains several ponds dedicated to fingerling production. Most of the farmers in the village are working to improve their ponds, but will need fingerlings for stocking purposes…which can only be provided by a more efficient Fingerling Production Center. It was fascinating/frustrating to hear Madeline and Chaz talk about how challenging it has been to persuade farmers that there might be more effective ways to manage their ponds.
CATHOLIC CHURCH in MPUNGU
As luck would have it, there was a Catholic Church in the village, albeit without a reliable clergy presence. Mass was scheduled to start at 9:30am, but like most Zambian activities, wouldn’t get going until at least 10:00am. So when we arrived at the church (about 10:00am), there were only two other sitting outside. By 10:45am, there were a few other stragglers and no sign of a priest, so two elderish-looking men announced that we would be having a service instead of Mass; they asked that men sit on the right side of the church and women on the left.
The service started at about 11:00am and didn’t get over until almost 1:00pm. The two elders found a couple of albs and assumed responsibility for the readings, preaching, prayers, and intercessions. A couple of times throughout the service, they would duck down behind the altar and whisper (loudly) about what they were going to do next, then pop up and continue. One of them delivered a 30-minute sermon; he would pause, look at Chaz and Madeline to translate what he said, and then continue. During the preparation of the gifts, a woman in the back grabbed a bible and had her young daughter stand up in front with it opened for offerings. The smallest bill that I had was 5K (worth 50 cents), which Madeline said was too much…but I gave it anyway.
The musicians didn’t appear until about noon. They were all in their teens or early twenties; two of them had babies strapped to their backs and one was taking care of a toddler. Once they arrived, the service was more meaningful, less disorganized, and even uplifting. At least half of them used drums for accompaniment to songs that were primarily call and response (for assembly and the rest of the choir). At the end of the service, they asked us to stand in front of the group so that Madeline and Chaz could introduce us. Each and every parishioner came forward to greet us, which was followed by clapping. The sub-chief gave some announcements, but spent most of his time bawling out those who came late. Madeline pointed out that he was one of the last people to arrive.
Impressed by the young music ministers, I was able to convince Madeline that it really wasn’t that weird to ask them if I could record them singing something after Mass, to which they happily agreed. The two “presiders” had taken off their albs, but quickly put them on when they saw the opportunity to be captured on film.
Madeline continues to run each day and will start training this fall for her first marathon in Tanzania (Mt. Kilimanjaro) at the end of February. She is committed to educating young women and getting involved in the Peace Corps sponsored program GLOW, which promotes leadership among young Zambian women. Majo is on her “radar” as a potential candidate for some of their off-site experiences. Chaz downloads favorite movies on the ipad, has about 10,000 books on his Kindle (that he says he’ll probably finish in the next two years), and is interested in writing a book.
Mike doesn’t know if he’ll ever go back, while I’m looking forward to further exploration. I do hope to put the Kaonde lessons of hospitality and gratefulness into practice, while being happy to subsitute “nshima” and bush meat for American food! Thanks for braving your way through this narrative - “Lesa emipeshe mwane” – GOD BLESS YOU!