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.


  1. Great Blog Jamie! I'm so happy for you! I'm really glad to have met and known you in a short amount of time. You inspire me Jaime! ~Sandra

  2. Hey i just came across your blog and it's encouraging to see organizations like yours that are doing so much to help students. I would like to set up a small grassroots operation working with young people but outside academics. because as you may have noticed the zambian education system focuses mostly only education and leave out kids who may never really excell to that level academically but actually have other talents or abilities. I really would appreciate getting some input from a non-zambian who is working in a similar organization in zambia (i.e you)because i'd like to develop something sustainable. hopefully i make sense...and it's ok too if you don't feel like responding to some random stranger but just in case email me n i can offer more meaninful info. thanks a lot