Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Change the World

Well as most of you know, my time in Zambia has drawn to a close and I have now returned to the United States. It has been a crazy last few months in the Peace Corps, but I will try to sum it up the best I can.

After Kevin moved to live with me in my village in March we had a great last few months working on projects together and wrapping up my work. We met with all of the groups that I had collaborated with in order to talk about their action plans and long term visions for how they will continue their work without me. I am so proud of all of the different groups that I worked with: the youth peer health educators, the HIV/AIDS support group, the malaria control groups, the girls empowerment club, the neighborhood health committees, the community volunteers, safe water groups, and more. They accomplished great things and as much as I might have helped them along the way, they truly taught me a lot. I would be remiss, however, if I didn't mention that it was never, ever easy. And I am quite confident that my community counterparts and friends would agree with me. All of the work that we accomplished was slow, tedious, and often frustrating. There were unpredictable obstacles, minimal resources, and often an overwhelming lack of morale.

But because of the obstacles that we faced, we had to learn how to be creative, to adjust, and to push for the things that were important to us. I, in particular, had to learn how to let go of my western notions that change happens quickly and that with a few to-do lists and delegated tasks group work was easy. In Zambia I had to learn how to be more flexible, to recognize that we might have to start over, reschedule, or cancel (again and again). But as I have returned to the land of to-do lists and electronic calendars I am incredibly grateful for the work experience and ethic that Zambia instilled in me in this way. I feel confident that I can work in a resource poor setting and get creative when challenges are thrown at me. And I can give a great pep talk to boot; half my time there I felt like my primary job was to be a public health cheerleader, encouraging the team to keep their spirits high and please please please show up for the next meeting. No pompoms necessary.

Leaving Mwasemphangwe was emotional and at the same time exciting. It was exciting in that during all of my wrap up meetings and going away parties people really made me feel as though what I had done mattered. They told me that it mattered that I wanted to come and live with them in the first place, it mattered that I had become their friend and their neighbor, and it mattered that I had tried to partner with them on improving their community's health. They recounted changes that had occurred in their lives as a result of my 2 years of work and it made me feel inspired for my future public health career. But the goodbye was also extremely emotional and upsetting. I said goodbye to friends that it will be impossible to keep in touch with. I said goodbye to friends who were sick with terminal illnesses and to children who will grow up and move away. I said goodbye to the first house I ever lived in by myself. I said goodbye to a village that made me more self aware and simultaneously more self confident than I ever imagined possible. I said goodbye to a unique, non-replicable experience that changed my life.

The village held a great farewell party my last night where we killed a goat, a pig, and my remaining chickens. We took pictures, made speeches, and reminisced about when I showed up two years earlier, naive and "less red" people said as they looked at my too many times sun burned skin. My best friend in the village asked what I would miss the most and the question has been repeated to me numerous times since I returned to the U.S. I will miss the freedom of each day to accomplish, explore, adventure, or relax at will. I will miss the sweet- strong scents of earth, animals, and human activity. I will miss the noises of bird calls, animals, children, singing, and drumming as I fall asleep at night. I will miss eating nsima and the sense of belonging that accompanies communal meals, everyone washing one another's hands before and after the meal and scooping nsima and relish from the same pots. I will miss feeling physically exhausted by household chores (believe it or not) because it feels good for hard work to be rewarded by the fruits of your labor: food, water, and other necessities. I will even miss the loneliness and the self-awareness that I gained from having so much time to myself. Most of all I will miss my Zambian friends, Chewa Tribe culture, and the people in general with their inclinations towards laughter and generosity.

As most of you know, Kevin and I will be moving to Seattle where we will both be starting school at the University of Washington. He will be starting medical school and I will be starting a global epidemiology master of public health program. We are excited to be close to family and friends again and feel ready to re-enter academia (though ask us in 3 years and see what we say then). We feel lucky to have had such a warm welcome home from so many family members and friends.

Zambia will always be important to me. I know that it has moved me, changed me, kicked my butt, nursed me back, and rewarded me for my efforts time and time again. During the first year of my service my counterpart and I held trainings for all of the community's ten Neighborhood Health Committees. During the trainings, I took a quote from Margaret Mead and translated it into Nyanja for everyone to understand: Never doubt the ability for a group of committed citizens to change the world. In fact it is the only thing that ever has. A year and a half later I was at the clinic saying goodbye to community volunteers and a man caught my attention and said to me, "Madam.... I am still trying my upmost to change the world."

And with that he reminded me of why I first decided to come to Zambia, not to cavalierly "change the world" but to inspire and motivate others to take ownership over their community's health and work together to improve their lives. In the process I learned an incredible amount about myself, found my husband, made amazing friends, and established what my future career patch in public health and community service might look like.

I said farewell to Zambia for now but Zambia has indelibly imprinted itself within me. And everything I do from here on out, changing the world and letting the world change me, will be in some way because of Zambia.

This is the end of the Arianna In Zambia blog. Thank you for reading over the past 2 years and encouraging me throughout this adventure. Please stay in touch. A whole new kind of adventure is now beginning.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Things we have learned in Zambia: Part 1

by Kevin and Arianna

In no particular order...

1. You cannot say "hello" to a group of people. You need to greet each person individually even if there are 3o people. We've tried many a time to say "hello everyone" when we meet a group of people. They look embarrassed for us and then each individually come up to say hello and ask about our day. Every single one of them.

2. You can indeed sweep a dirt yard and make it a "cleaner dirt" but it's still dirt. Likewise, a house made of mud, is inherently dirty. But dirt can get dirty. And dirty dirt is the worst.

3. Thunder and lightning don't necessarily mean rain. At times there can be deafening thunder and no rain. At other times there are blue skies above and then it starts pouring. It's always when you don't bring your raincoat with you (after toting it about on your bike everyday for months) that is really starts to rain. It's always when you say, "well looks like rainy season is over!"

4. Always bring toilet paper with you. Everywhere.

5. "Now Now" or "Very Soon" really means "in the next couple of hours." But "Anytime from now" means possibly today....or in the next few months. As in, " I will have the report ready for you anytime from now." It always keeps us pleasantly surprised when things actually happen on time.

6. Humility. We've learned to ask for help on the simple day-to-day actions of how to keep house, how to communicate, and how to navigate a culture very different from out own. We've made mistakes, we've been embarrassed, we've been humbled by kindness, nature, and human compassion. We've been at our sickest, our very most disgusting state and we've been challenged in physical and mental ways we never before imagined.

7. Bravery. After every humility instilling experience (and there have been so many) we have had to bounce back. We've tried again. Speaking Nyanja publicly, washing sheets wet with malaria fever, trying the new skills we were taught the day before, catching ourselves before making the same mistakes...we've learned to try again and again. Thank goodness for humility because it leads to good-humored bravery. And with bravery we've learned that in the face of something scary or daunting, the hardest thing to do is just to START doing, to take the first step towards something difficult or challenging. But once you do, the rewards can be great and the cycle starts again.

8. Bugs taste GOOD. But fried in enough cooking oil we suppose almost anything can taste good...

9. There is really nothing more amazing then living with the person you love. After almost a year and a half of hitchhiking across Eastern Province to see eachother, living together has been the greatest reward. And you certainly save on prepaid talk time.

10. We really are limited with our creativity on baby naming in America. In Zambia, one of the most common boys name's is "Bornface" (no joke). Other favorites we've come across include "SimCard," "Cloudy Skies on a Breezy Day," and "Mavuto" which literally means "Trouble"

11. We've learned about sadness and we've learned about acceptance. We've become close to many people living with HIV/AIDS and we've seen friends and neighbors pass away from the disease. We've seen children weak with malnutrition and we've seen countless families mourning the loss of a child to malaria. And, as community members, we've experienced so much sadness, so consistently and so personally. We've learned alot about the human ability to cope and the power of a community to support its' members. We've dealt with our own feelings of guilt and frustration at having so much (medicine, food, mobility, etc.) while so many people that we care about don't. We've learned about cultural impacts on sadness and acceptance and our experiences in these areas will affect us for the rest of our lives, undoubtedly impacting our future careers as health professionals.

12. If you really want to gross Zambians out, describe American food. If you want to totally shock them, show them pictures of what Americans wear: " Americans wear their underwear out in the streets?!?!"

13. You can stuff yourself with sweet potato, pumpkin, fresh maize, and boiled groundnuts but you haven't eaten, and you can't possibly be "satisfied", until you've eaten nsima.

14. How to kill and prepare a chicken. (And, inherently, how to stop naming your chickens and their chicks. It's just too weird to say "oh Clucky Lucky tastes way better than Mr. Feathers doesn't he...")

15. It takes at least a good 6"-10" layer of grass to thatch a roof well. Any less and you will be wet. This was NOT a fun lesson to learn.

16. Butchering a cow is a political act: ribs for the headmen, a leg for the chief, bowels for the other VIPs. Your cut of meat depends on your role in the community. Food is not just about nourishment here, there are strict hierarchies and etiquette that have to be respected in every realm of food, from washing hands to salting food.

17. "Cold Season" is relative.

18. Hot Season is NOT.

19. Protein is important. Children burn acres of bush just to catch a few field mice for supper.

20. There is always room for one more person in transport. Nine passengers can fit in a small sedan. It's not comfortable and it certainly doesn't smell great but it is possible. You usually just end up holding someone's chicken or baby (or both).

21. People always talk about the "key to development" but there is no quick fix or easy answer to development. The BEST kind of development though is development focused on justice: health justice, economic justice, academic justice, gender justice, and so forth. Development is complicated and messy. And ensuring equitable development is tricky and time-consuming. But it IS possible.

More coming soon

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The home stretch...

We recently took a vacation on Lake Malawi (a quick trip from where we live in Zambia). This was the view from our chalet on the beach.

One of the members of Tikondane teaching a crowd about HIV/AIDS and why we need to fight stigma in the community.

One of my best friends and counterparts after a meeting at a school.

Kevin and I head back to the village after a trip, luggage strapped to the back of the bike and trying to negotiate the deep sand.

The Community Based Distributors celebrate the end of their training before heading back to their communities where they will sell birth control, condoms, and chlorine to rural and isolated villages at discounted prices.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Tikondane, Love Eachother

A lot of you have been asking me about some of the details of my work and how I organize and stay in touch with the people that I partner with in such a rural area. I’ve realized that in my descriptions of my work here I’ve failed to describe my main tool for grassroots public health organizing: the bush note.

To communicate with people in a rural area, dozens of kilometers away, one must simply write a note, fold it, write a date, a name, and a village, and hand it off to someone walking in the right direction. The note gets handed from person to person until it (usually) ends up in the right place. In order to invite people to trainings, meetings, or remind work partners about projects I often end up writing dozens of bush notes a week. It’s amazing how far they can travel. I’ve even experimented in sending bush notes to Peace Corps Volunteers in different districts across Eastern Province by handing them to people in cars or buses and asking them to drop them off and start the process again in rural places far away. They’ve all been successful (though one ended up at another PCVs house one month after I initially sent it…who knows how many hands and eyes passed over that note). Mobile phones were introduced in Zambia a few years ago and have become prevalent even in rural areas but still the importance and functionality of bush notes has persisted.

Recently, in preparation for a large community event held last week I wrote over 50 bush notes (this time with the assistance of carbon paper)in order to make sure that people from all areas of my catchment area were mobilized and informed of the event. We held the first annual Tikondane Day. Tikondane is the new community based organization that one of my counterparts and I helped form for People Living With HIV/AIDS (PLWHA). In Nyanja Tikondane means love eachother. There were numerous nonfunctioning support groups when I arrived in Mwasemphangwe and it has taken my entire service here so far for Tikondane to fully emerge into the productive and solid group that it is today. The members are all PLWHA who want to support one another, reach out to other PLWHA, care for the sick, fight stigma in the community through education, and encourage people to go for VCT (Voluntary Counseling and Testing of HIV). We raised enough money for the group to register as a community based organization with the government and now they have started a beekeeping business to help them sustain their efforts in the community. In order to raise awareness of the new organization we held Tikondane Day 2011. The goal of the day was to introduce to the community a cohesive support group full of people who are strong, healthy, active, and HIV positive. It was a total success. Over 300 people arrived to celebrate Tikondane Day and 107 of them were HIV tested at the event. There were drama performances, poem recitations, dancing, music, and a big football match.

My counterpart with whom I helped form the group, the chairman of Tikondane, announced in a speech at the end of the day, “thank you for teaching all of Mwasemphangwe that a friend with HIV is- most importantly- still a friend.”

Friday, March 18, 2011

Happy Women's Day!

We had a great women's day celebration at Kevin's village in Petauke. It got started with a women's day march 300 women strong!

Who will dig your hole for you?

Well I am long overdue in my next blog post but I’ve been away from the internet for quite awhile. Zambia is lovely right now. We are in the midst of rainy season and the land is bright green and healthy. It’s hard to describe what rainy season is like here in Zambia but it is a hugely important part of the year and as a result greatly impacts my life and work here. (And vice versa my Zambian friends find it hard to believe that we don’t have a solid rainy time period in America, that depending on where you are in the U.S. it might rain on any given day).

It’s like the land just woke up after a desiccating 6 month nap. In January all growing things that bloom broke into flowers, blossoms, pods, and seeds that grow by the hour. Sometimes I will accompany my neighbors into their fields and mark the visible changes that happen to the maize plans or to the pumpkins literally overnight. Seeing things grow in such an intimate way is something that I never really experienced nor was involved in so personally before coming to Zambia. The rainy season is all about cultivating and farming. If the rains are unfavorable or the labor interrupted then people’s entire food security for the rest of the year can be dangerously jeopardized. It is an important time for Zambia, affecting everything from the nation’s economy to the family household’s wellbeing.

During rainy season grass grows everywhere that there is a spare space of dirt and it can grow HIGH. Once the rains are over and the grass has dried a bit people will cut it and bundle it, saving it for the future thatching of a building. But in the midst of rainy season when the grass still waives green and tall the landscape looks drastically different than it did 6 months ago. Another volunteer recently came to visit me in my village and as we turned a corner down the 2k dirt path that leads to my village she was incredulous as to what exact path we were planning on taking. At this point in the rainy season, everything is so overgrown with grasses that many foot paths, including the one that I travel most, is hidden or obscured by the tall plants. Not only are tall grasses a favorite hideout for the mosquitos that carry malaria but they are also considered ugly and unsightly if they are allowed to grow on the dirt yard compounds surrounding houses in the village….And Zambian women in the village are not afraid to tell you if you are slacking off in keeping up village aesthetics . I am yet to perfect the masterful art of cutting grass with a hoe. Ideally you just scrape the surface of the dirt so that you bring up the grass from the roots but not much of the dirt surrounding it. Despite my new hoe skills I’ve gained in country I always seems to dig too deep when cutting grass (must be my big muscles). As soon as I start to cut my grass my yard soon looks like I’ve gone digging for buried treasure in hundreds of little messy holes around my house. Needles to say my neighbors love it when I decide to cut my grass and it always tends to draw a crowd of laughing and well entertained villagers. Turns out making people laugh (….at me…) is a pretty big part of my work here.( And I’m good at it.) Usually I give the kids in the village “sweeties” which are actually kids vitamins that I have tricked them into thinking are candy to help me clean up the embarrassing grass cutting (hole digging) mess that I make in my yard during the rains.

Another challenge of rainy season is mold. My roof was removed and rebuilt/thatched after last year’s rainy season and it takes at least a year for the grass to settle into a condensed sealant from the rain. So this year my house is a lot leakier than it was this time last year. Most PCVs stretch black plastic under the grass thatch inside the house inorder to catch falling dust or dirt from the grass and help with any stray leaks. With the assistance of some American garbage bags and ductape I’ve managed to control the leaks in the plastic cieling but everything that originally got soaked in December hasn’t quite managed to dry in the humid wet air of January and February. I am constantly surprised by the items that have managed to grow mold here. I’ve now battled mold on my nalgene, notebook paper, bed sheets, and shoes. With the aid of a lot of strategically placed plastic I’ve managed to keep my mosquito net- encased bed dry, which is important as it is my sanctuary from bugs and critters.( PCVs learn to protect their beds early: tuck in the mosquito net at all times so nothing can crawl in and ALWAYS keep your mattress dry.)

There are few things that I love more than traveling through Zambia right now while the fields and plants are so vibrant. I love it especially when I hitch a ride in the back of a pick up trick and I can lay back with the wind blowing as we travel through the green gently rolling hills with Celine Dion blaring from the stereo (Celine Dion is hugely popular here as is a lot of 90s pop in general). Maize grows tall, reaching far above my head and they’re interspersed with fields of sunflowers that nod gently, 4 feet tall and blooming brilliantly. The groundnut (peanut) plants are bright green and bushy right now. Although food is still scarce (indeed this time of year is still called “starvation season”) we are beginning to have some fresh foods available such as dhove. My absolute favorite food in Zambia, dhove is fresh maize that is plucked from the fields early and put right next to the fire to grill for a few minutes. My other favorite food in Zambia, fresh pumpkins, are also starting to be harvested right now. People break the pumpkin into large pieces and put them in a pot with a bit of water and steam them lightly for a few minutes. You eat the whole piece, skin and seeds in all. (Pumpkin seeds actually help fight intestinal worms in kids). Although food is still scarce and many families are down to one meal a day, the return of dhove and pumpkins to the fire means the hardest days of the year have passed and the harvest season is just around the corner.

Work is going well in the village. I am partnering with a local NGO and together we are organizing 30 villages to construct protected wells and access safe water. These villages will be digging the wells, molding the bricks, and forming safe water committees in order to create invested ownership in the wells’ creation and maintenance. I’m also organizing a community based distributor program where 40 people are being trained on how to disseminate family planning and health materials such as birth control, condoms, and chlorine. These community based distributors will get to charge a little money for the items they are selling and use their profit to continue buying the supplies on a discounted basis from a mass distributor of health materials. The result (hopefully) is that these items will end up in geographically diverse and isolated areas and the Community Based Distributors will end up making a little income for their families as well.

With only a few months left in my service I am really trying to put my experience into some kind of manageable perspective. One of my friends here summed it up well when he said, “Who will dig your hole for you in America?” I pondered his statement for awhile before I asked, “what hole?”. He explained that it is a Tumbuka tribe expression that basically means, what will you do with your lessons learned? During the past 22 months I’ve experienced so much, learned so much, and been extensively challenged physically, mentally, and emotionally. I’ve been given really spectacular tools and insights and my last few months in Zambia are not necessarily the end of something great but more so the beginning of something enduringly important. I need not only appreciate everything that has happened, but DO something with it and based on it. It’s a good perspective to keep in mind as I approach my last few months in Zambia.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Our Village Wedding - November 20, 2010

The major part of a wedding in the Chewa Tribe is the wedding procession. Over 400 people attended the wedding and took part in the mini parade to the wedding shelter.

The singing and music were the best parts. Three choirs and a ton of guitars and drums showed up and played together. The video can't do it justice. The song they are singing talks about Arianna meeting KO (the name Kevin's village calls him) and when they saw each other, they loved each other, and thus came to marry.