Sunday, August 22, 2010

Zambia...always surprsing me

I’ve had another busy week…checking in with employers, finishing reading 150 + applications for new scholarships, meeting with school administrators and NGO representatives to reevaluate our testing system for new applicants, and continuing to get to know the students, especially the one’s I’ve been bringing to work. Sometimes it’s really interesting just sitting back and listening to them talk about Zambia, about the old fashioned politics and infuriating lack of initiative in the government. The students here are so much more aware of current events on the whole than students in the States, and when they talk about the future of this very young, poverty-stricken country, I can’t help but wonder what role these kids will play in it. It would be easy and completely understandable for them to study abroad, settled down, and make better lives for themselves outside of Zambia. Nobody would blame them for that—there is a reason why so many Zambians who have the means to do so establish themselves away from their home country. But the truth is that this generation of young people has the ability to permanently change these old-fashioned and failing institutions. That’s the benefit of Zambia being such a young country…there is the very real possibility that the younger generations will take over once the older and generally more corrupt leadership fades away.

On Wednesday I had dinner at an American family’s house. Patti works for the embassy as an educational advisor, and her husband works in public health for the State Department. We were talking about ways to combine KF with the programs she administers, and decided that we would try and hold some talks on expanding the way Zambian students think about careers (almost every student I’ve talked to wants to be one of four things…a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or accountant). We’ve also planned a discussion on the philosophy of the liberal arts for next w eek, which means I get to be an advocate for Bowdoin all the way in the heart of Southern Africa. The only schools people know here in the States are Harvard, Yale, and MIT, and I’d love to change that in any way I can. I think talking about Bowdoin and the type of educational philosophy it subscribes to with a small group of students is a start.

Zambia has a way of leaving you terribly frustrated one minute and the next like you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. On Friday I was driving home after another busy day. The drive from my office back to my house takes me all the way through town, which means I drive past areas of sprawling first-worldesque development, compounds with wide, dusty roads, carpenters building furniture late into the night, kids running around pushing tires, playing soccer with raggedy balls, woman walking home from work, and small makeshift vegetable markets. The sun is almost always setting at this time, painting the entire city in a soft blue-orange glow. The Lusakan air often smells like burning rubbish and exhaust, and I almost always have the radio on so I can listen to the DJ ramble on after playing a song about how much the lyrics relate to his life. On this particular Friday I think everything really fell into place for me. People were waving to me as I drove by and I had the windows down so I could breath in that distinct scent that will always remind me of this city. I drove past embassies, fast food joints, streets of fenced-in homes, street vendors, bikers, and palm trees, and for the first time I think I really saw and appreciated Lusaka for what it was…a sprawling, crowded, random, dusty, often illogical and contradictory yet energized and pulsing city. I can see why outsiders describe this place as addicting. There is just something about it that keeps people coming back for more. And it has a way of surprising you when you least expect it.

That night I went to a braii with the grassroots people where I met tons of locals and expats, ate delicious grilled chicken and sausages, and just had an all around awesome time. On Saturday I went to Kalimba Farm with my coworker Harrison, a reptile park way out past the airport. The farm has all sort of dangerous snakes (pythons, cobras, and the infamous black mamba, for example) and a ridiculous number of nile crocodiles (babies, adolescents, and adults). I had never been this close to a crocodile, and I was amazed at how gigantic they can get. One of them was lying right next to the fence that surrounds their enormous pen, and I stood their captivated by this dinosaur-like beast for a half hour, with it’s leathery skin, huge, spiky tail, and yellow-green eyes.. Crocs actually spend most of their day lying still at the edge of the water baking in the sun. They take short dips in the water to control their body temperature, but otherwise they lounge out for hours sitting dead still. At first I didn’t even believe that these were real animals. Some of them even sit with their mouths wide open, which means you get a great view of their rows and rows of razor-sharp teeth. Harrison and I attempted to fish, and despite the fact that almost everyone fishing on the pond caught fish, all we managed to hook was a frog. However, I did try a croc burger, which was delicious and tasted like a spicy turkey burger. There was a moment toward late afternoon when a group of teenagers started singing and dancing out on the grass (probably practicing for church the next day). I looked to my left and saw dozens of enormous crocodiles lounging by the water as I listened to the songs, half dozing as I sat under the hot Zambian sun next to Harrison as we waited for the sinker to start moving. At that moment I couldn’t have cared less about our failed fishing attempts. I was just happy to be there, as bizarre and surreal as it was.

That night I drove with Mwape (a friend of James’s) to James’s brother’s wedding reception. Mwape is another just out of college guy, and it was awesome talking to him about adjusting to post-grad life. The wedding was in McKinney, a little ways outside of Lusaka. When we got there I felt like we could have easily been at a wedding in America. People were dressed up in dresses and tuxedos, drinking beers and chatting under the lights outside. There were tables set up, a huge wedding cake, and tables and tables of food. All of a sudden, the DJ announced that it was time for the bridal party to make their appearance. He then blasted a traditional Zambian song, and the whole group waltzed out in two lines performing a choreographed dance. People laughed, clapped, and danced in the crowd as the group made their way to the center of the reception. I had heard James talk about how he helps choreograph wedding dances and had had no idea what he was talking about. Now it all made sense. After this, the bride and groom came out and danced to the beat, and the crowd continued to cheer them on. It was so awesome to see how the people had added their own traditional twist to an otherwise modern wedding reception. After people made speeches, Mwape and I were talking about the bride price, a longstanding tradition in Zambia and many other African countries. When a man wants to marry a woman, he generally has to negotiate a bride price with the woman’s family. This can come in the form of money, cows, or other valuable items. Sometimes a potential groom pays it all at once, and other times he simply pays in installments. This tradition is not as taken as seriously as it once was, but it is still an important part of most Zambian marriages. After the bridal party performed a final dance the dance floor was opened. I joined in, looking like a complete idiot I’m sure trying to mimic the dancing I saw around me. Luckily, nobody seemed to care. Everyone was just overjoyed, dancing and clapping and enjoying the cool night. Although I was the only non-Zambian there, I never felt unwelcome or like an outsider. It was an incredible night, a perfect ending to a very interesting day. Now it’s time to rest up for a very busy week.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


So it’s been a busy couple weeks…I think I underestimated how much time coordinating, preparing, and implementing our work experience program would be. Luckily I’ve finally settled into a new place, and it’s surprised me how much of a difference this has made. Oliver (a friend of a friend from my hometown area) and I were forced to do some scrambling a couple weeks ago because our original landlord more or less went behind our backs and signed the house in Roma to someone else. So we spent the last week or so doing last-minute flat searches. It’s funny…after all the work I put into looking for housing before I got here, all it took was a simple question at Oliver’s office and we were set up with a really nice place in Woodlands, a suburb of the city that is in a perfect location (near the people I know and the schools I work with). It’s a two bedroom cottage out behind an older couple’s house, has great security, and came more or less completely furnished (aside from the fact that the water in t he shower doesn’t work). It’s going to be great to have a quiet place to come back to after busy days. So a couple weekends ago I said goodbye to my host family, which was surprisingly hard. Mrs. Mwenya has been like a mother to be here, and I couldn’t be more grateful to have had such a warm, welcoming family to live with during these first unsettling weeks. I gave her a little piece of my hometown as a gift…a Johnny Appleseed apple carving (yes, they actually make and sell these) because Leominster, MA’s claim to fame is the fact that the legendary apple-planter was born there. I think this was the first time that I started to really pick up on certain subtle cultural differences between me and my host mom and the other Zambians I’ve gotten to know. There is the fact that Zambians almost always eat with their right hands, the muted, sometimes frustrating way people say “ok, ok” instead of thank you or goodbye, the way people will always take the time to stop and ask you how your day was. People can move slowly sometimes and can be relaxed to the point of ridiculousness, especially when you are coming from a society that is permanently on the go. But there is also something refreshing about being forced to slow down a bit.

Oliver and I moved into our new house on a Sunday, and Mrs. Mwenya came over the next day to check in on us and make sure we were in a proper house. She even let me borrow her sheets so I don’t have to buy them! Sadly I didn’t have much time to unpack the first week because the KF staff had to transport the grade 9s to holiday tutoring and the grade 10s to work experience. This meant that I was getting up at 5:30 everything single day to drive across the town to pick up three kids and drop them off at their respective destinations. One girl lives all the way out in Chongwe (not even technically Lusaka) on a beautiful farm out past the airport. I did get a fresh bag of beans and tomatoes out of it (a very kind gesture from the girl’s Aunt), but this also meant that I had to fight Lusaka rush hour traffic on one of it’s main roads at the worst time of day. And the same went for the way home, which means I was getting home at 7:30 e very night. It was absolutely exhausting, and very difficult because I found myself spending half my day driving and not catching up on the work I was already behind on. KF is a small organization, which means the director, finance officer, and programs officers also need to double as shuttle d rivers.

On Tuesday the director and I met with the Ministry of Education to learn more about scholarship opportunities for our students. I left flustered and infuriated. We sat in an office for an hour listening to a government official pepper us with questions about our program and our selection processes, all the while not really giving us a chance to offer an appropriate response. He accused us of “abandoning” the students after grade 12, even though KF is developing tertiary plans for each one of these kids. At that point the director fired back a response that hit the nail right on the head: “so let me ask you this,” she said. “What happens after grade seven when the government no longer allows for half of Zambia’s young population to access an education? Isn’t that abandonment?” At that point I realized that the biggest issue they saw with us was that we were sending students to private schools, that we were purposely avoiding the government-run schools because of their overall poor performance. It was infuriating to listen to a government official question our sustainability when there have already been so many failed policies implemented by this government. Still, we came out of the meeting realizing that we also had to find a way to partner with the Ministries…no NGO can completely circumvent the government in which it operates, and the Ministries can actually be a pretty useful partner when we are looking to find scholarships for our students to attend college here in Zambia.

The meeting left me feeling considerably overwhelmed. Again, KF is a small, new organization, and there are a lot of ways that we can improve the program and the services it offers to these students and their families. That is of course something that every nonprofit goes through, but I think my exhaustion coupled with my frustration with the government here left me feeling like we all had too much on our plates. But then I took a step back, thought about the immediate successes KF was already having, and began to push these concerns away. What matters most is that KF is giving students an unbelievable opportunity. Yes, there are ways that we can tone and streamline our programs, and yes, it is important to critically examine how we go about the process of sponsoring students, but at the end of the day what matters most is these 31 students and how KF can continue to help them achieve their goals. The frustrations will inevitable arise…that is something that is inseparable from this sort of work, but it is impossible to argue that Kf isn’t having a monumental impact on the kids’ lives. I know I’ve only been here for a month, but I’ve seen these students’ homes, I’ve met their families and heard about the challenges they face every day. I’ve listened to the hopes and aspirations of these students, I’ve seen their top-ranked grades, learned a about their talents and community involvement. I’ve seen them open up to me, and I’ve seen their confidence, maturity, and unshakable faith they will continue their schooling, succeed, and use what they have learned to help their families and communities. At the end of the day, these are the things that fuel a small organization like KF. The intangible yet potentially more powerful successes.

After a grueling week I was very much ready for the weekend. On Friday Oliver and I met up with our friend Keith who was leaving the next day (the expat community is always shifting here, so it’s easy to get used to saying goodbye). Then we went to a new Mexican restaurant for burritos, where I met a huge group of Peace Corps volunteers. They are having such a different experience (most of the are wayyy out in t the villages with no water or electricity), which made me reevaluate some of the silly things I have been complaining about. It ended up being a late night, typical of the Lusaka club scene. On Saturday we brought all of the KF students to a conference on teen leadership, which most of them seemed to enjoy. This was actually my first time seeing all of the students together in one place, and I could tell that despite the fact that KF has three separate schools, this organization is like family network to them. I looked at the grade 11s and began to envision what their plans might be after secondary school, saw the grade 10s talking a about their various work experiences, the grade 8s trying their best to emulate the older students. At a time when I was feeling drained, here was an image of everything that KF was about: this group of bright, ambitious kids who, with a few pushes here and there, have the opportunity to achieve incredible things.

My friend Maxime from Bowdoin got here last week, and it was awesome meeting the new grassroots volunteers who are going to be working with her. On Sunday we made brunch with Maxime and her friend Alice and went to the market at Arcades. I felt like an expert showing her and her friends around the city, especially since a couple weeks before I was getting in car accidents and getting lost every day. Now here I was pointing out all the various sites of the city and offering all the same advice Libby gave to me earlier. Lusaka forces you to adapt quickly. I’ve fallen in ditches, learned to navigate potholes, negotiated speeding tickets with Zambian police officers, gotten lost and found my way home 20 times, learned to find houses in sprawling neighborhoods without street names, and so much more. And all of it feels completely normal now. A month ago already feels like a completely different reality. That afternoon we watched some premier league soccer at Smugglers, an awesome sports bar, with the grassroots volunteers, the full time Zambian employees, and my buddy James who works as an accountant at one of our schools. Sunday was the first day where I think I truly felt settled. I had an incredible day, and while I was still thinking about my family and friends at home, I began to notice an even more significant change in me. I wasn’t just feeling adjusted anymore, I was feeling comfortable, happy, and interestingly enough, right at home here in Lusaka.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Almost at the One Month Mark....

It’s so amazing when you really start to feel yourself changing. I expected that once things settled down a bit I would start to feel more comfortable here, and I certainly have. But what I wasn’t fully prepared for was the initial excitement of realizing that, despite being aware that challenges will inevitably come, I can and will do well here. There is a certain exhilaration to the realization that you can be ok in a completely foreign city, in a country that you do not yet fully understand, working a job that is relentlessly demanding. There is no doubt that I miss my family and friends so much, but I’m being to understand that one can live with that knowledge and still be successful and happy in a new place. And talking to and hearing from the people I care about back home gives me strength whenever I am feeling overwhelmed or nostalgic.

This week has been busy, as always. I've been hanging out with the kids at all the schools, trying my best to get to know them as much as possible before the August break. They really are wonderful...I actually spent 4 hours at Ibex Hill the other day helping three students with their French and English. A lot of them are so curious about America and how things are there...I have loved seeing them opening up to me. Tuesday was a rough day...I got into my first accident of my life...I was trying to merge onto a main highway, and when I went to join the near lane (there was a guy in the far lane) he randomly switched and I side-swiped him. It was pretty scary at first, but luckily after I calmed him down he ended up being really nice and cooperative. The damage was pretty minimal, and insurance is covering it. We had to get a police report, which meant another couple hours of dealing with Zambia’s infuriating bureaucracy. And I got charged $12 for "careless driving." That night I went to a dinner party with the BU grad students, which was really fun and took my mind off of the rough day. There really are so many interesting people here from all over the world. It certainly is comforting to have a network of people here who are experiencing very similar things, very much in the same way the Princeton in Africa network has already been helping me with adjustment process.

The students at Leopards Hill (there are 12 there) are just amazing. They are really funny and talkative, and it feels so easy and natural hanging out with them. Thursday i was supposed to come by with catch phrase and snacks for a little good luck on exams break, but the head of the school said it wasn't a good day to go because exams were just starting. I still stopped by to drop off a girl’s text book and hang out for a bit. These kids are so great, and each one of them has a story..there is this 10th grader Bwalya who is so sweet and genuine and smart, this sassy 11th grader named Gaella, this smiley little 8th grader named Vivian, and so many more. They are so wonderful, and each one of them is unique. I have so much to learn from these students, and I am so excited to get on a more consistent schedule with them. At LH I was apologizing a lot because I had promised them a party, and Gaella said the simplest thing that made me feel so good: "We're just happy to see you." It made my day.

Then I went to play soccer with a couple of the grassroots people. They play at this nice complex (one of the only nicer soccer fields in Lusaka). I was playing with people that used to be on the Zambian national team, and I was wayyyyyy out of my league. I did score a goal on a header though! I also experienced a bit of the power of the Bowdoin network….not only were we playing with a guy Aaron who graduated in 2009, but there was a kid watching who saw my sweatshirt and exclaimed: “My parents went to Bowdoin! That place is magical!” I was shocked and relieved that the Bowdoin community found its way all the way to Lusaka, Zambia.

Friday was the last day Paulina was here, so I printed her out some pictures of us and the family to take back to the village. I'm really going to miss her….despite the language barrier she’s been like a mother to me, making me delicious food, forcing me to swear a sweatshirt out when it’s cold. Now that our housing is a little up in the air, I’m hoping to live closer to this area so I can stop by from time to time. Harrison and I stopped by Chalo Trust to pick up the students’ grades…incredibly, our students are consistently finishing at the top of their classes. And even the one or two students that were struggling have risen all the way up to the top. This was the first time I was able to see just how much KF is giving these students. And the best part about it is that they are taking advantage of this opportunity in every way that they can.

This weekend is a holiday weekend (Farmer's Day), and they have a huge festival all weekend long with shows, farmers' stands, dances, and more. After stopping by the monthly Dutch market from some rare Mexican food, I went with a couple people to the main show at the Showgrounds downtown. It was incredibly bizarre…the show was ENORMOUS, and there were displays, presentations, and contests surrounding Zambia’s agricultural and industrial sectors. There was everything from chickens, ostriches, and pigs to a competitive bricklaying contest. There were soccer games, boxing matches, random concerts and dances scattered about, a small amusement park with a dangerous looking Ferris wheel and a showing of the famous “flotting boy,” and even a big ceremony featuring members of parliament and the guest of honor, the president of Malawi.

Sunday morning I left for a camping trip to Nsome with about 40 other people. There is a Zambian guy in Lusaka who knows the woman who owns this small game reserve about four hours north of Lusaka, so all we had to pay for was gas. It’s so nice to get outside of the city once in a while…Zambia is a beautiful country, with its lush, diverse vegetation, vast open planes, and small villages and markets dotting the landscape. The reserve was right on a small lake, and I spent the day meeting people from all over the world, hiking around the reserve in search of animals (I saw giraffes, sables, and bushbucks!), playing volleyball, and hanging out by the campfire. Today is Farmer’s Day, so everyone has work off. I am taking the day to relax and catch up on some emails. It’s been an exhausting week, and this week promises to be even bigger. Work experience week is coming up, so I have to travel around the city all week meeting with employers. We also have to collect all of the applications for new KF applicants, which is going to take a lot of time as well. As I said before, it’s exciting to feel like I’m settling in and becoming comfortable here. And I am learning so much everyday just by living here and interacting with people. It’s going to be nice to see some of KF’s planning fall into place in the coming weeks. Thanks for reading!