Thursday, February 4, 2010

We Are Not Mountains

This will be the last entry of this blog. We have enjoyed writing it, and we thank you for reading.

We left Lusaka at 7:25pm on February 1, 2010. In the days preceding our departure, we said a lot of goodbyes and gave and received a lot of remembrances. Remembrances are things (anything) that you give to someone when you part to remember you by. People always ask for these, and, while we hesitate to give things to people so as not to give the impression of unfairness, we did have quite a lot of things we were not bringing back to the States, so we distributed them as fairly and equitably as possible. This mostly involved splitting up our clothes among the students and our staff and their families. In turn, we received a couple shirts and a necklace. People also like to send greetings, so our family and friends in Zambia send greetings to you, our family and friends in America, even if they don’t know you.

All of the goodbyes culminated in the goodbyes we said to the eight FEF-U students who we have lived with for the past eighteen months. These are the people who we have been closest to. We have become family, so it was incredibly difficult to part. We had a farewell dinner at the house the day before we left and everyone exchanged kind words. A few students even thanked our families for allowing us to come, recognizing how difficult it must have been. In the end, we all agreed that this was not goodbye, but see you later.

In dealing with all these partings, we keep coming back to a sentiment that one of the Sudanese students expressed upon the departure of one of the other students who was resettled to America over a year ago. He brought it up again in the past week in relation to us because he said it helps him deal with goodbyes. The sentiment is that people are not mountains. We move. If there are two mountains separated by some distance, they will never meet, no matter how many decades pass, but people can meet. So, as we leave Africa, we leave with the knowledge that we are not mountains.

What I Learned

I have had more experiences over the past eighteen months than ever before where I have thought, “People are really good”. I have also had more experiences over this period of time than ever before where I have thought “People are absolutely terrible”. Sometimes those experiences happen in the same day or even almost simultaneously. Never before have I lived that close to the edge where the highs are so high and the lows are so low and they can change in an instant. I think constantly hearing about and witnessing incredibly bad things and incredibly good things makes you think about this question of whether people are inherently good or bad.

For the past eighteen months, I have known some of the best people in the world. They have every reason to be bitter, cynical, distrustful, pessimistic and fearful. They have every right to feel owed something, to bemoan the fact that life has dealt them a bad hand. But they are not these things. They are positive, unselfish, good humored, incredibly caring, bold and understanding. This always leads me to believe that deep down, people are inherently good. But then I think about why they are in the position they are in, why I know them in the first place. It is because people have done unspeakably horrible and evil things. This leads me to think that deep down people are evil because how else do you explain landmines that look like toys, killing your neighbor with a machete, slow roasting people over a fire, raping a child?

Though I know amazing, honest and forgiving refugees, I also have met conniving, dishonest and small refugees. For every refugee who tries to promote peace and harmony in the face of what is undoubtedly a bad situation, there is another who sews division and clings to old hatreds. For every official who really cares and tries to do right, there is at least one who is corrupt and selfish. For every person who treats people well, there is someone who treats others poorly. The human capacity to love seems equaled by the capacity to hate, and the capacity to forgive seems equaled by the capacity to hold a grudge. I don't know which comes out ahead. The scale seems balanced.

Here is what I do know. I know a young man who, when he was eight years old, walked across Angola fleeing a seemingly endless war. He grew up in a refugee camp. Now he is a year away from completing a university degree and has the prospect of returning to a peaceful and increasingly prosperous country. I know a young woman who was disowned by her parents when she refused to marry the man they had selected for her because she wanted to finish high school first. She was cast out, but she managed to get a scholarship to school. Between terms, when all boarders were sent home, she lived on the floor of a church. A few months ago she completed high school. Now she teaches preschool and is in the position to influence other girls to follow her path. I know a young man who knows twenty languages because every time he hears his parents might be in a certain country, he goes there and picks up the languages on the way. Despite being insecure in his community, manifested by several instances where he was targeted for death or threatened with the same, he serves as the deputy headmaster at his community school and recently reported his superior for stealing. When asked if this is going to make his position even more difficult, he says, “Yes, definitely.” I know another young man who returned to Angola after fleeing as a child. He lost his mother in the refugee camp to a medical condition, leaving him alone and with the responsibility to help support a young half brother. Back in Angola, he was able to find a job with an organization that removes landmines. He is well paid and is helping to reclaim his country. I know a whole community who took a chance on their country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and, to the mantra “Home is home”, returned to the place they fled with the intention to rebuild what was destroyed.

Things do change. Wars do end. Wounds do heal. The human spirit is impossibly resilient. For me, that tips the scale. That, and maybe that alone, is why there is hope for the future.


Theory and Practice

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.
– attributed to a bunch of different people including Yogi Berra

I can understand now why most jobs in international development require some experience “in the field”. The past eighteen months have taught me a lot about how things really play out with projects designed using the best or newest development theories. Basically, things rarely go as they are supposed to, and often you realize that your brilliant ideas aren’t so brilliant. Trying to force things to work out the way you want them to or the way they are “supposed to” doesn’t really work. If you don’t take into account that the people who are supposed to benefit from a particular project are people and that people are complex things, you run into trouble. That is why you have to involve them in the planning and implementation of a project. Of course, that itself is a theory in development that is well regarded and popular. It is also really hard to do. (How is that for a bunch of scatter shot ideas on the topic?)

I had an experience recently which made me think about this issue. We were at the remote location of the Mwangaza Learning Centres, one of FORGE’s preschools. I have written about this project before, but the location of this preschool is about as remote as you can get in Meheba. Unfortunately, the structure in which the school is house, a mud brick church, fell down due to the rains. We were meeting with the community to discuss how to proceed. There are two villages, villages 74 and 75, that feed into the school, and there was some talk about moving the school. It is currently located in village 74, but more students actually come from village 75. Since the school at 74 fell down, this seemed like an ideal time to put forward the idea of possibly moving the school. Village 75 was supposedly willing to construct a new structure in their village, and village 74 was already reconstructing the damaged structure in their village. There was much discussion back and forth, and while it proceeded in Luvale, I had an excellent idea. Why not switch the location of the school every term or every month or even every week? Then the burden of walking to school could be more evenly distributed between the students of 74 and 75. The teacher is from a different part of the camp, so he could just as easily go to 74 as he could to 75. You could just set up a rotation. This week class is held at 74, next week at 75. I was assured by the coordinator of the project and the teacher that this was, indeed, an excellent idea. They pitched it to those gathered at the meeting. It was met with unanimous laughter from parents of both villages. It would never work, apparently. The school remained at 74. And that is why we ask people before implementing anything.

One of my favorite illustrations of the theory/practice question came from one of our colleagues. She was talking to an intern who spent some time working at one of the field offices for one of the camps. He was a Westerner and was enrolled in graduate school at an American university. She asked him how he liked his academic program and he replied that he loved it. She asked him how he was enjoying his time in Zambia. He said he felt like he was wasting his time. When she asked him why, he replied that he should be in Geneva (where UNHCR, the UN refugee agency is located) making policy. His reasoning was, “I know all these theories, but they don’t apply here.”



One thing that surprised me over the course of our time here is how big of a role witchcraft plays in the way people view the world. It’s something I feel like I should have been prepared for and probably would have been if I had thought about it, but we pay so little serious attention to this topic and find it so silly that I never thought much about it when preparing to leave for Zambia. As the months progressed, though, the issue kept coming up. Here are just a few examples:

• Back when I was managing the Refugee Advocacy Initiative (RAI) in Meheba, I had one of my staff relay a story to me. A man died suddenly (I believe I was told something along the lines of “He died too quickly”) and the unanimous conclusion of the village was that witchcraft was involved. In order to find out who had committed said witchcraft, a traditional healer sprinkled herbs on the coffin and then the pallbearers lifted the coffin and everyone gathered round and the coffin guided them all to a house where they found three people who they accused of being the witches. The three people agreed to pay for the funeral. One paid “two goats, five chickens, 250 money …”. As I sat there trying to wrap my mind around this (these three people essentially said “Yep, you caught us”), the staff member paused and said “Maybe you want to write this down? Two goats, five chickens…”. I found out later that the three witches went to the police afterward and explained they felt intimidated by the mob. The police did arrest the accusers. It is illegal to accuse someone of being a witch in Zambia. There is actually a full set of witchcraft laws in Zambia.

• In Meheba, one of our staff members was having a dispute with an old man over a loan. Another of our staff members, who is one of the most level headed people we work with and a pastor on top of that, told me that this was very serious. He very delicately and diplomatically explained why in the self-aware way everyone who knows our views on witchcraft approaches the topic. “I know sometimes you guys don’t believe in juju,” he started. He said this in the way you might start an awkward conversation that starts, “I know sometimes you guys don’t believe in bathing…”. He went on to explain that this man is well known to be powerful in “that area”, meaning witchcraft or juju.

• I wrote in an earlier post about how some people blamed witchcraft for the death of someone we knew and respected.

• We know someone in Lusaka who beat his wife because she had bought some potions that were supposed to make him love her more. He was shouting that she goes to church on Sunday and then comes home and tries to use magic.

The first example involved Angolans, the second Congolese, the third Rwandese and the fourth Zambians. My favorite quote regarding witchcraft came from one of our former staff members in Meheba, a trained and certified nurse. When we were discussing the topic, he said “I don’t believe in witchcraft. But sometimes it’s true.”

While these folkloric anecdotes are the kind of thing that might fall under the “Crazy Stories From Africa That I Tell Family And Friends” category, I think there is an important issue here that deserves attention. I rarely see much written seriously about witchcraft in development literature or news. There have been a few things here and there, even with regards to refugee situations, but it’s not much. Maybe I am not looking hard enough, but I suspect this is not seen as a topic that serious people spend their time on. It’s too bad because it figures more prominently into people’s lives and the actions they take than we like to admit, and if development seeks to improve lives, it seems detrimental to the goal to leave this aspect out of the calculations.

Finishing Up

We said we would write some posts reflecting on our time in Zambia, but when we returned from Zanzibar we had three days left in Lusaka and so much to do. Those days were very busy, hectic and draining, both physically and emotionally. They were also largely internet-less, powerless and waterless. Fortunately or unfortunately, our flight was delayed coming out of Lusaka, so we missed our connection in Johannesburg. We were put up in a hotel and well fed, but we wound up losing exactly one day. The upside is that this gave us time to finish up the posts we wanted to write, so we are putting them all up right now in quick succession. Thanks for reading!

Friday, January 29, 2010

At the Beach

We left Stone Town on Monday for the northern beaches. We wound up in Kendwa at a place called Kendwa Rocks, which is where some of our colleagues had stayed a few weeks prior. Zanzibar has phenomenal beaches. Words can’t really do them justice, but we have never seen some of the shades of blue we saw there. Also, our camera can’t really do them justice, but here is an attempt.

In addition to relaxing and swimming near the hotel, we decided to go on a snorkeling trip to Mwemba reef on our second day. In our group were also some first time scuba divers. The open water between the shore and the reef was pretty rough that day, so Audrey was a little worried about sea sickness. That worry proved unfounded. There were, however, other problems…

We jumped into the water while the scuba divers were getting briefed. There were a lot of boats around and it was choppy, and Audrey immediately did not like it. During that first dive she spent a lot of the time in an orange doughnut lifesaver tied to the waist of the Tanzanian guide who spoke no English (not her proudest moment). Unfortunately, this meant that her face was not in the water most of the time but rather right above it where it absorbed all of the reflected sunlight. Despite having on SPF 70, she got pretty burned. Then Nick swam through a jellyfish. First his ankle felt pain so his hand darted down to see what the problem was and the thing got him on the forearm. He caught a glimpse of the tiny blob that had a hint of blue in it. He thought he was free, but a few seconds later he felt a stinging sensation on the side of his face and down his jaw line. A tentacle was tangled in his mask and around his snorkel. First Audrey tried to get it off but it started stinging her hand and she couldn’t get it off. Finally Nick ripped off the mask/jellyfish and gave them to the guide. A few minutes later the guide got stung and then Audrey got stung a few times by a different jellyfish. We headed back to the boat where we found one of the scuba divers who had been stung the minute he entered the water and got out just to be safe. It was not the greatest experience.

During lunch on the boat, we saw in the water this guy from our hotel who we had previously dubbed “The Lurker”. He had long hair and apparently only one pair of clothes, a white linen tunic and white linen pants. We kept seeing him around the beach and the grounds of the hotel with his camera in hand. He was never doing anything. Just lurking. There he would be standing next to a tree. There he would be in the restaurant, not eating anything. There he would be just standing on the beach. Acting weird. Lurking. That’s exactly what he was doing in the water, too. The captain of our boat even asked him if he was okay, at one point. He had a mask and snorkel on, but he didn’t have his head in the water. He was just kind of floating there, lurking. He will probably get really sunburned too.

Luckily, after lunch we went out snorkeling again and both decided to give it another go. We had a great time and saw lots of fish.

The upshot of all this is that Audrey’s face hurts, but it actually doesn’t look that bad. The part that looks funny is her bottom lip, which has swelled up every morning since getting the burn making it look like she got collagen injections during the night.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Bashir, Ghost King Of Stone Town

The ferry from Dar Es Salaam to Zanzibar docks in Stone Town, a labyrinthine tangle of narrow streets and alleys dotted with old forts and former sultans’ palaces. It is really old and still maintains an aura of mystery and the exotic. Upon arriving, we took a taxi to a guest house, secured our stuff and went out exploring. In trying to find our way to the sea, we were approached by an Indian man who started a conversation with us and asked us where we were staying. Having spent so long in Zambia, we have our guard up in these types of situations, but we had already noticed in Dar that people are different in Tanzania. At the market in Dar, shopkeepers very easily let us leave their shops without buying anything. They would just mumble “Hakuna Matata” and let us go, unlike the desperation a lot of merchants show in Zambia where by glancing at their products you have entered into a contract that obligates you to buy. So we humored this Indian man as he told us how he was going to the sea to swim because he was having trouble with his eyes. He told us some Swahili phrases and directed us to our guesthouse. We told him we weren’t going there and he shrugged and walked off in another direction.

We decided to spend an extra day in Stone Town to do a spice tour, a popular tourist thing to do. We were taken in a group to a demonstration spice plantation in the interior of the island and shown all these spices and fruit growing. We got to smell and taste them. Then we were taken to the ruins of some sultan’s wife’s Persian baths near the plantation. We had lunch and were then taken to the coast. We had the option to go down in a cave where they used to hide slaves after the trade was abolished on the island. Zanzibar was the transit point for much of the slave trade from east and southern Africa. It was also the departure point for much of the European exploration of the continent, including Stanley’s voyage down the Congo. After seeing the cave, we went to the beach, our first experience with Zanzibar’s incredible beaches and our first time swimming in the Indian Ocean.

When we got back to Stone Town, we went looking for inhalers for Audrey. The ones she brought were getting low. We found one of the types she uses at the first pharmacy we went to and were told to try Fahoud’s Pharmacy for the other one. Unfortunately, Fahoud only had expired inhalers of the type we needed, so they recommended another pharmacy that was in walking distance but was better to reach by taxi. We decided to walk. Shortly after we started walking, who should appear next to us but the same Indian guy we had talked to the previous day. He asked us where we were going and we told him the story. Then he made it his personal mission to find the correct inhaler. So for the next hour and a half we followed him to every pharmacy and clinic in and just outside of Stone Town looking for the inhaler. We made quite a spectacle. He had asked for the sample inhaler we carried, so he marched along with the inhaler in one hand, a cigarette in the other and Audrey and me trailing behind him. He walked quite fast but languidly, which I didn’t think was possible but apparently is. It was Sunday and getting late, so things were closing. He would set his cigarette on the stoop outside the pharmacy or clinic, barge in, be told they didn’t have the correct inhaler, and we would walk on to the next one. He even found one pharmacist in the street because the shop was closed. He seemed to know everyone. In our ramblings, he greeted his “sister”, who may have been his niece if I understood correctly, pointed out the hospital where he was born, and almost got into a fight when he slapped a speeding car tearing through the narrow streets. We ultimately wound up back at Fahoud’s where Audrey planned on begging them to give her the expired inhaler, something they were absolutely not inclined to do the first time we went there. Our Indian friend went into the pharmacy and somehow came out with an unexpired inhaler of the right variety. We paid him some money for his efforts, though less than the inhaler would have cost. He told us his name is Bashir and to ask for him if we are ever back in Stone Town. He would be easy to find since everyone knows him. We don’t doubt that at all, but he will probably find us first.

Dazed, we went to a rooftop restaurant where we had reservations. We spent most of the dinner listening to half of a lesbian couple recount to the other half the entire plot of a sci-fi/new age book or movie. It involved earth worship, many different planets, a character named Quinn Dexter, who is a Satan worshiper, and something about people morphing into hippopotamuses. Again dazed, we called it a night.