Friday, January 4, 2013

A Week in the Life: Pre-Christmas Edition

Gina's Post:

Thursday, December 20th: Drama Camp
Today was the last full day of a camp that has been in the making since last April when the idea of an HIV project involving youth and drama surfaced after meeting some Lusaka drama facilitators at a boys’ football camp.  I had put in a lot of time and effort up to this point, including writing a grant, coordinating with district ministry officials and contacting local drama groups.  It was nice to see results of my labor pay off on World AIDS Day (December 1st) when eight local groups from the Mwinilunga area competed for a spot in this week-long camp focusing on HIV education and drama skills.  Five teams brought six members each (men and women between 15-35 years old) to a youth center in the bush with no running water, electricity, or phone network.  It has truly been a “camp” experience.  Monday and Tuesday focused on HIV facts and education, while yesterday the drama training began, and has continued until today where the actors will give a community performance to this rural village about HIV facts and prevention.

The week itself has been exhausting but exhilarating to see the energy of the youth pour out into something that can tangibly benefit their villages.  Another volunteer, Adam, helped with food logistics for the first few days, and Scott has offered unwavering support with answering questions and basically being “behind-the-scenes” while I’ve been busy coordinating each days’ events.  I woke at 4:30 with thoughts whirling through my head about today’s program and words of wisdom I could leave with the youth.  Mostly I wanted to tell them how much I appreciated my husband Scott for helping out with this program, because in typical Zambian culture, it is the man that coordinates things and the woman who is behind the scenes. 

Around 5:00am, I went into our makeshift office (a closet in one of the classrooms of the youth center) and started creating record books for the drama groups to take home so they could document further educational performances, make action plans, and keep financial records.  As I sat drawing lines in 5 different exercise books with a ruler and pen, I couldn’t help but think to myself how much easier this would have been with computer/printer access.  Wishful thinking!  When in the bush, you have to work with what you have.  I heard signs of the participants up and sweeping and cleaning around 6am . . . they knew their teams would gain valuable “points” for various prizes if seen helping out.  I handed out sticker points to these mostly full-grown adults and realized the power of positive reinforcement to all ages.

Breakfast consisted of bread rolls Scott had bought during a BOMA run yesterday (a major treat for most of these villagers) with margarine, mashed avocadoes, and ketchup as topping options as well as tea.  Scott and I had leftover rice as we didn’t want to deny the participants of their bread treat.  Scott had also bought 12 broiler chickens, and they were miraculously all still alive and corralled in the corner of one of the classrooms waiting for today’s lunch—we had already butchered a goat and pig for meals the last two days. 

After breakfast, the groups went to rehearse their sketches, which focused on three different HIV related topics: the ABC’s of prevention (abstinence, being faithful, and condom use), HIV facts vs. myths, and encouraging people to go for testing.  They were excited to use their new skills to perform in front of the village as well as the Chief and some officials from Mwinilunga.  The Lusaka facilitators were busy critiquing their performance skills, while local Lunda-speaking facilitators made sure they got the correct message across during rehearsals.  When the groups weren’t rehearsing in front of the facilitators, some relaxed and played pool while others worked on their action plans.  I kept busy answering people’s questions—mostly related to how they would get home tomorrow and how much money the various facilitators would get.  The Peace Corps cruiser with two staff even stopped by briefly before taking a SUV bush path to check out a future volunteer’s site.  The staff said they would come by later in the afternoon to watch the final performances. 

Lunch consisted of chicken, (definitely still alive this morning), cabbage and nshima.  The chicken was a treat for the villagers and I could tell they were happy to have it.  The dramatists were encouraged to hurry and get their “costumes” (crazy thrift store clothes) and meet at the school so the performances could start on time.  I surprised them by collecting their notebooks for extra points.  Only 9 out of 30 participants thought their notes from the week of learning were good enough to turn in, but at least a few took notes for points. 

Around 2:30pm, some of the actors started drumming around a tree.  I looked on while I graded notebooks for points, and several people from Mwinilunga came to watch all the commotion, as well as the chief’s mother as the honored guest.   Peace Corps staff rolled in from a distant site visit  to complete the honored guests in the audience. Rain clouds started gathering around the tree, and we were thinking of moving the performance to an indoor venue, but the dramatists insisted on performing outside until it actually started to rain.  The professional actors/facilitators started, and even though their skit was in Bemba, they drew tremendous laughter from the crowd. 

The wind picked up during the second performance, and on impulse, the actors, 150+ townspeople and VIP’s shuffled into a small classroom in the school.  They hurried to bring the two couches before the VIP’s actually sat down.  People crammed on desks and sat on the floor to watch the remaining performances, and the actors had their full attention (even rolling with laughter at times) by the end of the show.  Even with my rudimentary Lunda comprehension, I could tell that the HIV messages were coming across. 

After all of the groups performed, the rains picked up to the size of small marbles, and all 150+ in the small classroom knew that they weren’t going anywhere.  So . . . both male and female actors took turns accentuating their hips with various types of fabrics and did their typical hip-shaking dances to drum rhythms.  The audience was still thoroughly amused, and didn’t seem to mind being stuck in the stuffy classroom one bit.  After the dances, the chief’s mother gave an appreciation speech in Lunda.  The Lusaka facilitators, who had been at the palace saying farewell to the chief, drove away in an SUV as 200 people waved farewell just in time to watch the SUV get completely stuck in the mud.  No problem, they just helped push it out. 

The rains finally let up as dusk approached, and the participants took the window of opportunity to run back to the camp.  Of course the evening meal was nowhere near done as the cooks were busy watching the skits and couldn’t get to the outdoor cooking shelter in the pouring rain.  The group waited in the dark and rain for one hour and finally got a meal of kapenta (small dried fish), cabbage.  We did have a little meeting after dinner where I gave encouragement and praise as well as the long awaited points for the day.  I openly thanked Scott for all of his physical and emotional support during the course of the camp.  A few watched a drama DVD, but most of the dramatists went to bed, satisfied with their performances. 

Friday, December 21st: The Longest Day of the Year
Since we’re somewhat close to the equator, you can hardly notice a difference between the longest and shortest day of the year.  But . . . this was definitely the longest day, especially for some of the drama camp participants.  Scott and I woke around 2am to loud singing, wailing, and drumming coming from the dorms below the office where we were sleeping.  It sounded slightly like funeral singing, but I wasn’t alarmed because no one had come to wake us up.  I figured the youth were just energized from the previous days’ performances and wanted to spend their last night celebrating together.  So, I walked in the moonlit night to the outhouse and then went back to bed.

I woke around 6am and went to the office to do paperwork for the final day and was very surprised to find no campers up sweeping and doing chores in the hopes of getting more points for their teams.  Several people finally came to help, and one was a young man with a serious look on his face: “Gina, we have a problem.  Did you hear all the noises last night?”

At that point, I got a little worried, thinking one of the participants was seriously injured or had died.  “Yes,” I said. 

“Well we had a big problem last night.  One of the female participants . . . the one with the baby . . . had a dream last night and she went off into the forest by herself and she refused to come back.  Another woman went too.  They took the baby.”

My heart raced.  Who took the baby?”

“The spirits.”

“Okay . . . “

“But then we all awoke and we got down on our hands and knees and we prayed and prayed to God to save this child.  We were up all night just praying and begging to God.”

“So was it people who took the baby?”

“There are bad things in that forest, I tell you.  Graves.  It is very dangerous.  But we prayed to God and the woman came back and the baby is safe.”

I was mentally putting the pieces together in my head and finally it clicked that it was the woman’s shenanigan using witchcraft as an excuse to gain her peers’ attention.  “So now is everyone safe?”

“Yes, but the woman is not well, and the participants, they are very tired.  Some men, they have gone to the network spot to call the cantor truck to come and make sure everyone leaves on time.”

I breathed a sigh of relief, realizing it was not a true emergency, and said, “well, that girl should rest, but we’re not going to five her any extra attention because we don’t want to encourage that kind of behavior in the future.”

“Okay madam.  We shall make sure she gets some rest.”

“In the meantime, we’re still having the last day’s program, and we’ll be meeting for points at 7:30.”

Sure enough, at 7:30 sauntered in half the group, bleary-eyed and tired—a far contrast from earlier in the week when they were eager to help and learn by 6:30.  Even the breakfast cooks were late.  Maybe they were just tired because it was the last day.  While breakfast was cooking, the local drama facilitator gave feedback to the drama groups while I added up final points for prizes.  Some hurried to finish their action plans so they could get reimbursed for transport costs.  Finally we ate breakfast at 8:45 of a corn porridge called sampo, rice, beans, and groundnuts.  Even though it was a hearty breakfast, the campers were already worried that they wouldn’t have their typical nshima (cassava porridge) before transport arrived. 

We had a quick lesson on mosquito nets and discussed all the ways people misuse them, such as fishing or straining honey.  We also discussed how and why people should use the nets correctly.  Each team had to do a 5-minute skit on the main message: “it is very important to use a mosquito net correctly because it can save your life.”  The chief’s mother and some of the cooks came again to watch the skits, which were surprisingly entertaining considering they had such little time to prepare.  Two of the head teachers were selected as judges and awarded first prize to those who best conveyed the message. 

The groups presented their action plans for further drama education and I gave one last pep talk before the campers were released, as well as distributed the long-awaited prizes of school supplies and cookies to the teams who had the most points.  I had also to do one of the least fun parts of any grant: handing out money because no one is ever satisfied or thinks the distribution is fair.  The campers got a small amount to cover transportation costs, then posed for pictures.  The cantor truck they had booked never came, so they waited around and some played football.   They made their own lunch over the fire logs as they waited.  In the meantime, I had three separate meetings with the cooks, the facilitator, and the organizers to explain transparently why each was getting the money, as I didn’t want any individuals coming to me to ask why they didn’t get the money that was stated in the facility contract. 

Scott and I loaded our bikes with our personal belongings as well as drama camp supplies . . . it was a very good thing that Peace Corps helped us take some supplies back to the camp the previous day.  The organizers didn’t want us to leave until we ate ourselves, so we went to the youth center manager’s house where he cooked us cabbage and eggs.  The storm clouds were gathering over Angola, just 8 kilometers to the west, where the storms usually come from.  We wanted to say an official goodbye to the chief, but because we wanted to get home before the rain and also because the chief himself would be driving some of the campers home, we decided just to waive, and his officials said that was okay considering the circumstances.  We lucked out on the 25 kilometer bike ride home.  Although there were some wet and muddy spots, we just got sprinkled on a few times.  Scott had fixed my back brake during the camp, so luckily there was no fishtailing on the sandy road like the way up.  The chief’s truck and another van passed us and all the campers cheered.  I breathed a sigh of relief that all the transport worked out okay. 

On the way home, we caught up with one participant from our village who was also on a bicycle.  He was very excited from the drama camp, put also kept talking about the witchcraft event from last night, saying there should be no more events a the youth center because it’s a haunted place.  I mentioned how it was strange that there were no witchcraft events when the Lusaka facilitators were staying in the dorms, but the night there were only Lundas was when the “spirits” came.  I also re-iterated that the girl who started the whole thing was just trying to get attention.

Scott and I finally rode into our village and it was refreshing to be greeted by all of our villagers.  Ryvus was busily slashing the grass in front of the house.  I could have gone to sleep right then and there, but we still had to unpack our bikes and give the neighbors the usual greetings after several days away.  I went to the garden to pick dinner: lettuce, cucumber and one sorry tomato (they stopped growing well once the rains came) for a salad.  The seedlings Scott had planted just before the camp were doing well, as were the carrots and basil I had planted several weeks ago.  It was just getting dark and starting to rain as we took the salad veggies in.  We topped the salads with pistachios sent by Aunt Joan—such a treat to have fresh produce after a week of nshima and cooked vegetables.   

We had another treat a bit later that evening: Ryford brought us two large pieces of smoked guinea fowl he had caught during a recent hunting trip to Angola.  Unfortunately three men were sharing a musket, which broke in the middle of the trip, so they had to come back early.  They slept under Scott’s tarp during the heavy rains.  But their rewards included a baboon, a dika (deerlike creature), and a small monkey.  Luckily the monkey had already been eaten by the villagers, so we didn’t have to taste that.  The guinea fowly tasted like richly intense smoked turkey—definitely one of the best meats I’ve eaten in all of Zambia.  We both fell into bed, not even thinking about unpacking from camp.  Summer solstice or not, it was definitely a long day!

Saturday, December 22nd:  A Sigh of Relief
We both breathed a huge sigh of relief and slept in for the first time in over a week.  Scott fed the chickens while I swept chicken and goat poop from paths surrounding our house.  I chopped some care package almonds as well as dried cherries for a treat to go over our porridge for breakfast. 

Scott and I were pleasantly refreshed by the lack of Christmas anticipation in our village.  Here, it’s a 1-day event where the villagers dance and roast a pig.  I was feeling just a bit nostalgic, so I made a batch of  caramel corn with fresh honey that I had to manually separate from the comb and then wrote a few Christmas cards to selected villagers.  Scott emptied half a barrel of rainwater and started hand washing our dirty clothes from the previous week while we listened to BBC on the shortwave radio.  It was nice to feel “in the loop” about unemployment, youth in Egypt, and John Kerry being appointed as Secretary of State.  I picked some chili peppers from the garden to supplement the carmel corn for Christmas gifts and was about to take a delivery run to the clinic on my bicycle when those ominous clouds formed and it started pouring rain. 

Finally the rain slowed a bit and I took the Christmas deliveries in a very light drizzle.  At the clinic, there was only the in-charge nurse (yes, we finally got one after over a year without one) and three unfamiliar men chatting in the front porch lobby.  They had just finished a morning of male circumcisions, and I was happy to see this traditional practice being promoted under sanitary conditions in the clinic rather than in the bush where it was traditionally carried out.  The nurse said he sent two of our main clinic volunteers to a workshop earlier in the week , so it was just him manning the clinic for the entire week.  When he saw that I had a card and some chilis for him, he pulled me into the office so the others wouldn’t be jealous.  He sat down and told me all of his frustrations: how he had been at this clinic for 5 years prior to midwifery school and was hoping to get a clinical job at the district hospital.  How he feels overqualified and unrecognized by district officials.  How traditional practices and witchcraft get in the way of disease prevention and treatment all the time.  He was tired of giving routine painkillers and wound dressings and was unsure of how much longer he could stay at our clinic.

“Oh great.”  I thought, knowing that if he left, it would probably be another year without a nurse before the district could find someone willing to replace him.  We made up a plan so the in-charge could utilize the skills he learned in midwifery school by developing a curriculum for other nurses at the rural health centers to teach them about safe birthing practices.  That way, he could use his knowledge and also let his talents shine for district officials and NGO’s.  He seemed very agreeable to the idea.  Well . . . crisis averted for now.  If we can work together to keep him challenged, maybe our health center can keep a nurse for another year.

I walked across the road to Hilda, one of the clinic’s birth attendant’s house.  She and a bunch of women and children were huddled around a cooking fire cooking a scant amount of cassava nshima and fresh mushrooms.  She insisted that I eat with the family, and it took all I could to explain that I was full and I really couldn’t eat as I looked at the hungry eyes and bellies of the women and children around me.  As discreetly as I could, I gave her the card and caramel corn with all hungry eyes watching me.  Although she tried to put it in a corner without much of a fuss, I could tell it would be devoured within about one minute of my leaving the cooking shelter.  Hilda tried to send me home with some raw cassava, but I had to remind her three times that she had given us one yesterday that we still hadn’t eaten, and we were leaving town tomorrow.  So difficult to refuse food in this culture, but with Hilda’s family in particular, I knew anything I refused would be put to good use by one of the many women or orphans she has taken in.

I cycled over the river and up the hill a bit to deliver two more cards and then hurried home to take a bath since Scott had left the water on the charcoal brazier.  I rolled out some tortillas made of leftover porridge from breakfast and wheat flour.  Scott was busy frying onions and making fresh guacamole with avocados from nearby and fresh cilantro from the garden.  So nice to have some “American” food and a break from cassava nshima!  I took an amazing hot water bucket bath as I scrubbed the dirt from my feet after a week at camp. 

We had several visitors as we were cooking the tortillas, including our host brother Allen, who we hadn’t seen in months since he had been staying and working at a faraway field.  He wasn’t with his wife and one-year-old son, so we asked him about his family and how they were.  He said his wife “shifted to another village because she had a problem.”  When we tried to get him to elaborate, he said, “she has evil spirits, so we are no longer married.”  Scott asked about the child, and he stated, “she is a bad mother because she is not producing any milk, so I am fighting to take the child back to this village.”  It was an interesting observation in seeing how domestic disputes are portrayed in this culture, many times using “evil spirits” as a euphemism for not getting along.  Scott and I then walked next door to share some hot tortillas with our host family and give them our Christmas card, for which they were very appreciative. 

Our neighbors Ryvus and Ryford came over and he helped them with some English lessons.  I gave them some caramel corn and their card and asked how their milking goat was producing.  They said it had only been 200mL per day for the last few days, so I asked if I could get up early in the morning to watch.  Before going to bed early (had to be up for goat milking at 6am!) Scott and I watched the ¾ moon with clouds passing over it and listened to crickets chirping with the faint sound of Zambian pop music playing from a radio in the distance.  Although we would be leaving tomorrow for Christmas on the farm and then back to Solwezi, it was nice to be “home” in our little village.

Follow-up: 2-days of cycling in the drizzle, we cycled to Mujila Falls farm where we enjoyed Christmas American-style.  We then bused to Solwezi for New Year’s where we were spontaneously invited to a bollywood hotel party hosted by Indian shopkeepers.  All in all not a bad holiday!  It was great to catch up with friends and family via internet and Skype over the New Year’s break.


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