Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Worlds Collide, Part Two (Squeeze)

We (Me, Zack, Jess, Maxime, and Mike) left for Livingstone the next day, and aside from some minor incidents (as often happens on Zambian roads) we made it there in good time. I was very excited for Zack and Jess to see a bit more of the country, considering that Lusaka isn’t exactly a fully accurate representation of Zambia as a whole. After arriving at the backpacker, we met my fellow Princeton in Africa friend Hannah (Midd grad, working for Mothers2Mothers in Cape Town) and some other people. It was amazing to see Hannah again…the last time I had seen her was at orientation at Princeton about 10 months previously, and it was refreshing and reassuring to share experiences, successes and disappointments with her. The PiAf network is absolutely wonderful…everyone has had a shared (and typically similarly life-changing experience), and I feel lucky to know that I will be part of this network for the rest of my life. We almost immediately drove out to see the falls; and since it was April (when the waters of the Falls are at their highest volume), we could already see the streams of mist spraying up over the river’s end from a distance. This was my third time seeing the falls, but sharing them with my friends was a special experience. This is Zambia’s natural wonder, it’s source of pride and admiration, and it always lives up to its reputation. The Falls numbed the senses with their thunderous roar and ceaseless and often violent mist. As we walked throughout the park we were soaked within minutes. I remember standing on the famously narrow bridge over the canyon, which during April is pounded 24 hours a day by the spray, and taking in, once again, the incomprehensible and sublime power of Victoria Falls. Nothing I will ever see will compete with this sight. And this time I was fortunate enough to share it with two of my best friends.

The next day Zack, Jess, and I got up early for a small safari at Mosi-au-Tunya national park, a small reserve that happens to boast Zambia’s entire population of (7) white rhinos. We got up early in the morning, hopped on the open-safari truck, and headed out into the bush. We saw some of the usual sights…hippos, zebras, monkeys, warthogs wildebeest, and more, and were thoroughly entertained by our guide, Crispin, whose favorite animal was the “gilaffee” simply because “it’s just so funny.” We had heard that it’s possible to track down the rhinos if you push the guides a bit, so we asked Crispin, who promptly called the rhino trackers on his cell phone. From there, we sped off into the bush in search of them, finally pulling up next to a group of 4-5 Zambian park rangers armed with enormous shotguns. We hopped off the truck and followed them into the tall grass, and after five minutes stumbled upon the most massive bull rhinoceros (the only dominant male in the entire country) I had ever seen. Somehow Jess got coaxed into taking a picture in front of it (dangerously close to it, I might add). After 10 minutes of rhino viewing we stumbled back onto the truck and headed back to the park entrance. We didn’t get to see elephants or “gilaffees,” but hiking into the bush with a group of Zambian park rangers to track down a rare rhinoceros was absolutely worth it.

Back at the lodge Alice joined us, and we spend the day relaxing by the pool. That night we went for sun-downer drinks at the Royal Livingstone, a classic, and watched another spectacular sunset over the river. After a delicious Italian meal at Olgas and a night full of mirror dancing at a local club (Zambian’s LOVE dancing in front of mirrors) we packed up our stuff to continue on the next leg of our journey.
This part of the trip was fairly uncertain…I had got some advice from a friend to check out a small town called Sinazongwe, which is a peaceful way to check out Lake Kariba, the huge manmade lack in southern Zambia. After we pulled off the main road from Livingstone we sank down into the Zambezi Valley, enjoying one of the most spectacular views of the Zambian countryside I had ever seen—rolling hills, clay huts dotting the landscape, fields of sunflowers, and everything painted in the dull orange-yellow glow of the afternoon African sun. And we also took turns playing dj, rocking five ipods at once. After stopping on the side of the road to buy charcoal from a group of Tonga children (it took us about 20 minutes to get what we wanted across to them…), we turned onto a typically atrocious Zambian side road and continued for another hour or so until we finally saw glimpses of the lake through the trees. SInzaongwe barely merits the term “town.” The downtown consisted of a few tiny shops, a deserted clinic, and a local men herding along cows and goats. Jess and I had somehow managed to find us a campsite right on the lake (the lodge owners, one of two in the entire town) offered to let us stay there for free. So they led us down to the campsite, which was a beautiful deserted stretch of grass right on the lakeside. There were bathrooms (no water though, and we were advised to be on the lookout for crocs when we filled the bucket from the lake), a bouldered-in area for a fire pit, and a braii. Pretty much everything we needed. We spent the afternoon setting up tends, relaxing on the water, and preparing dinner. The quiet and solitude of the place was addicting. It was our own little spot. Nobody disturbed us the entire night. Alice made a fire as some of us attempted to light the braii, and we enjoyed a delicious dinner of sausages and fresh grilled vegetables. We spent the rest of the night sitting by the fire, playing music softly from my car, and gazing at the stunningly clear night sky, the stars putting on a show for us.

Although I could have left the next morning and been happy with the trip, we had biggr plans for the next day. I had been communicating with a man named Squeeze (yes, Squeeze), a local B’hai man who had promised to show us around the local village. We met Squeeze, a calm, soft-spoken but warm man dressed in a vibrant yellow shirt, in “town”, then headed down another dirt road which snaked through a small river bed and into Sinzaongwe Village. The ultimate goal of the day was to have lunch at the “chief’s palace” with the chief himself, but until then we were unsure whether or not he would be in town. We arrived at the palace (which turned out to be a simple, green house) and sat outside on rundown wooden benches, chatting with Squeeze about the village and waiting for the chief to appear. When it became clear that he wasn’t home, we decided to stroll around the village. Sinzaongwe village is a fisherman’s town, and gets most of its stock from the lake. The village was moved from its original location when the government decided to construct a manmade lake; although a hassle, the village actually ended up getting running water and electricity as part of the deal. Squeeze told us about the culture of the village, the power structures, his family, the role of the chief. We met a local headman; headmen are the chief’s second hand men, and they are responsible for taking complaints and advice from members of the chiefdom (and eventually reporting to the chief if necessary). We met Squeeze’s family (his daughter, at 14, was pregnant…a common occurrence in Zambian villages), visited the primary school (and met Sinazongwe’s local DJ), and then headed back to the palace. It turned out the chief was in town, and he wanted to have lunch for us. When we arrived back at the palace, we sat outside waiting to be welcomed in. Even having lived in Africa for almost a year, I’ll admit that I was expecting the chief to fit more squarely into my perception of African chiefs. Yet, out walked a perfectly normal looking man dressed in khaki, sporting a cellphone on his belt. He offered us sodas to drink. In Zambia, traditional structures still exist, but it’s also true that things change and adapt to modern times. Nowhere was this more on display for me than on that porch.

We sat on the chief’s porch for about an hour, listening to stories about his family (he had several wives, many children, and dozens of grandchildren), about how he was unexpectedly, due to family linage, selected to be chief, about his chiefdom of 54,000 people, about the relationship between the chiefs and the government. The chief told us all about the culture of the Zambezi Valley, which comes on display every July at an annual festival (the entire village was in the process of preparing for the arrival of thousands of guests). The Valley boasts a special traditional dance that includes dancing, singing, drumming, and a unique form of horn playing that is incorporated into the rituals. The chief and Squeeze showed us how to blow into the horns, which are taken from impala, kudu, cows, and other animals. After a while we were told that lunch was ready, and were led past goats (there were a couple goats that thought they lived in the house) into the living room, where out meal was already waiting for us…nshima (of course), vegetables, village chicken in gravy, rice, and fresh bream from the lake. We sat down and dug in, listening to the chief tell us more about the village, and about B’hai (the chief and his entire family were also of the b’hai faith). Before we set off we were led out back to meet the chief’s wives and check out his collection of elephant skin drums. After a couple pictures, we said our goodbyes and thank yous and were on our way. An absolutely random and incredible experience. And I still have the chief’s number in my phone.

Although we were absolutely exhausted the next day, Jess, Zack, and I still had work to do. Applications to edit, an interview prep to prepare for. We spent most of Tuesday preparing for the meeting, and after a quick trip to the vegetable market, we headed out to pick up our students. It was amazing to see my friends spring into action….Jess handled the case study review, Zack and my friend and mentor Patti handled interview prep (Zack had just completed medical school interviews, so these things were fresh on his mind). And I sat back and watched my friends fall so comfortably into my life and my work. It all seemed so natural. Again, I was reminded that this disconnect that I had previously viewed as permanent was nothing more than an illusion. It was broken the minute my best friends stepped off the plane. The meeting was exhausting and finished at 8:00 (my poor friends…). But on the whole, it was incredibly successful, and it would have been impossible without the help I received. That night, to add to the already exhausting day, I locked my keys in my car (while running) at the Grassroot house, and we worked for two hours trying to pry the door open. Eventually we were saved by my mechanic Bestus , a mechanic-superhero.

The next day I dropped Jess of at FINCA, a local microfinance organization, where she spent the day riding around on minibuses through compounds with Zambian loan officers (and apparently not stopping once for lunch). Zack and I went around to my schools, and then played Frisbee. He was getting to see all aspects of my life in Lusaka, and Frisbee certainly has been an important and possibly vital release for me.

Jess and I spent Thursday together (she was leaving two days later), stopping by the tailor to pick up our items and taking a trip to Mundawanga, a local animal sanctuary. We spent most of the day sitting on the grass under a tree, talking about how ridiculously far both of us had come in such a short amount of time. It was an incredible day, and it was capped an awesome birthday dinner for my friend Chileshe at a Korean restaurant. On Friday, as I had expected, KF hit a snag in its ALA applications. I left Jess and Zack with Maxime, and went to ensure that we had all the require forms for our students. Somehow, we had overlooked collecting grade reports from the schools. After a momentary panic, I sped to our two represented schools, and after some very frustrating conversations with school administrators (the schools don’t keep up-to-date transcripts, so we worked out an unnecessarily complicated system to ensure that the completed reports would be emailed to ALA while I was in Zanzibar. Sometimes things work that way here…you think you cover all of your bases, but at the last minute unexpected circumstances threaten all of your hard work.

On Saturday we went with friends to the monthly Dutch Reformed Church Market for
some last minute shopping and some food. Two weeks had sped by, and I couldn’t believe t hat Jess was leaving already. Zack and I drove her to the airport. It was really difficult…Jess works in Guatemala and I had no idea when I was going to see her again. Yet, somehow I felt like this experience, being able to share my life with her even for a short two weeks, had connected us in a truly unbreakable way. It had been a whirlwind of a trip for her. But it had, in many ways, been an accurate representation of the incredible randomness and unpredictability of my life here. I can’t possible express how much it meant to have her there, to have the opportunity to let her into my little slice of Zambia, to show her how and why Africa had subtly yet permanently found its way into my blood. In the airport I said a teary goodbye to my friend. Again, I was struck with a new sense of appreciation for the perplexing yet strangely rational way my life had somehow taken its course. Thank you, Jess. It meant more to me than you can possibly know.

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