Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Visiting Nachibanga

I traveled seventeen hours from Chipata to Lusaka to Choma.  On my bus ride from Lusaka to Choma (to which I ran through traffic for thirty minutes with three bags strapped to me in order to reach in time), we were stuck in more traffic and took back streets through the capital city.  At first I felt frustrated at the bus driver and his diversions, but I decided to take a deep breath and look out the window and people-watch.  It was actually a beautiful perspective, a glimpse into the night-time lives of the urban poor.  Candle-lit shacks, men drinking shake-shake (cheap Zambian alcohol) and dancing their day away, occasionally glancing at women walking by and pondering whether or not to call their attention.  Women selling vegetables and evening snacks, children holding hands running down the streets.

Upon arriving in Southern Province, I visited Nachibanga village after seven months of living in Chipata.  The trip was not meant to be a prolonged goodbye; rather, I wanted to solidify for my village and host family the reality that I really am thinking about them and missing them constantly.  I spent a few days in Choma and appreciated time at the Peace Corps provincial house with volunteer friends, a house which acted as somewhat of a refuge away from the stresses of life in rural Zambia during my two years of service.  The ladies selling vegetables in the market in Choma remembered me, as did the guys working at Spar (the one grocery store in town) and the mini-bus drivers.  They even passed me while running and yelled out the window, "Muzoka?" which was my bus stop on my journeys back to the village.

The morning I returned to Nachibanga I left Choma at six in the morning and hitched to Muzoka.  In Muzoka I was greeted by the women selling vegetables on the side of the road as they shouted, "Chipego (actually an enunciated 'CHIIPEEGOOO')! Where have you been?! We missed you!"  It was like old times, because they used to ask me the same question each time I left my village for two days to go to town throughout my service.  I said hello to my favorite tuck shop owners and bought lollipops for the kids before walking towards Nachibanga.

The first stop on my walk down the dusty road from Muzoka to Nachibanga was to visit Viness, the head of our HIV support group in Hambala village.  She was so surprised to see me, and her huge, kind smile was absolutely priceless.  We chatted for a while, and she proudly showed me the work she was doing with my replacement volunteer and the PEPFAR training she attended for Peace Corps.  Viness understood that I needed to visit other people, so after some time we gave each other hugs and I continued walking.

I had just left Viness' house and began sweating from the mid-morning heat when I saw a woman walking towards me.  I knew it was Ba Judy (well, I was almost positive-- I didn't have my glasses on) and I picked up the pace and ran to give her a huge hug.  It was like nothing had changed.  We walked the remainder of the road until we reached home.

At home I saw Banene (my host grandmother), Ba Erin and her children, Ba Edith and Noah, and Ba Leifson.  We sat and talked about what was new, then quickly fell back into the routine of me listening to (and trying to understand) the village news and gossip of the day.  When I saw Maya, the first baby I named in the village, I smiled wide and went to give her a hug.  But Maya was cautious-- she couldn't believe it was me.  It took her a few hours before she came over to hug me and hold my hand.  She was speaking in full sentences and has so much attitude-- she is going to be a very strong woman when she grows up.

Ba Judy and I walked to the health post and found it painted.  I also found the new block on the school completed and in use.  Ba Judy spoke of plans to build a mother's shelter with the new volunteer, and to build a house for a nurse using government grant funds for which they had already applied.  Progress, slowly but surely!  I ran into two teachers with whom I was very close, and we spoke for a while before I went to see the Headmaster Mr. Musune.  Mr. Musune was a source of strength and support for me, particularly throughout the arduous process of building our health post.  He also supported my efforts with the Anti-AIDS club, and allowed me to speak openly about HIV and condoms (something that is very rare for a headmaster in Zambia).  When I walked onto his compound, his face lit up.  He excitedly asked me how I was doing, what I would be doing when I returned home to America, and how long it would be until I visited again.

Our next stop was Ba Stanley's house.  Ba Stanley built my new hut when my old one flooded, and completed the job with only the help of one other person-- Ba Judy.  Nobody else wanted to build the house, and if it weren't for him, I would not have been able to go back to Nachibanga.  I found Ba Stanley mending a shoe for a friend.  It was really a metaphor for how things work in Zambia: anything broken can be fixed and continue to be used, and if you don't have the tools to mend it yourself, you ask your neighbor for help.  Ba Stanley is a very quiet and humble man, and my time with him always feels meaningful and filled with genuine intention behind our exchange of words.

After a quick stop back at Ba Judy's house (in which she told me she needed to bath so she could look as clean as I did-- though I was certainly much dirtier and caked in a layer of dust), the visit was almost over.  I said goodbye to Banene, Ba Erin and her kids, Ba Edith and Noah, and as I walked away Maya started to cry.  I turned around to wave, and then continued walking and speaking with Ba Judy about secret things only Tonga women can know (secrets that had been shared with me as I became incredibly close with the women in my family).  We had been walking the entire day and felt exhausted, but continued walking and talking.  I said one final goodbye to Viness, and was able to see another member of our support group (a tiny older women with only one front tooth and a huge gaping smile) who always cracked me up with her feisty attitude.  When we reached the roadside, we met Ba Judy's new husband Ba Glanson, and the two of them waited until a hitch stopped for me.  Alas, my first visit back to Nachibanga had ended, and it filled me up with happiness and love to last for a long time.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015


I recently returned from two weeks on the island of Zanzibar.  It was magical.  Spice tours where we picked the spices and tasted them right off trees, snorkeling adventures involving huge waves and a tiny tipping sailboat.  Cobblestone streets lined with old historical buildings.  Mosques adorned with beautiful, intricately crafted windows and doors.  Markets filled with cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, vanilla and coriander, and colorful prints on Zanzibari chitenge and harem pants.  People selling Maasai anklets and bracelets, chai tea brewing on street corners, and incense wafting from the clothes of Zanzibari women.  My senses were overwhelmed in the best way possible.

We flew into Dar Es Salaam and took a ferry to Stone Town, which used to be a center of the spice and slave trades.  We took public transportation from Stone Town north to Nungwi, and then south to Bwejuu.  Riding the daladalas, or open but relatively comfortable trucks with cushioned benches, was the perfect way to see the trees and farms along the one main road.  I felt a bit like a nomad with my life in a backpack riding in the back of a truck, but I am now used to this.  The highlight of the trip for me was staying at Mustapha's Place in Bwejuu, a small backpacker's paradise which was designed by the owner Alessandra, an Italian artist/architect.  Hammocks and flowers were scattered about, an eclectic mixture of soul, reggae, and funk played at the main hang-out, and bonfires happened each night.

One night an older man with John Lennon-style glasses and an elegant older woman, who I presume were both from England, invited us all to join them around the fire.  The man lead us in singing songs from all over Africa, and the woman told fables about animals, the sun and the moon.  It was one of the most moving nights I have ever had, people of all ages sitting around a fire under the stars with white sand under our feet.  I almost didn't leave Zanzibar.

Now I am back in Zambia with a renewed perspective.  I do not know what the next few months will look like, but I feel empowered and energized to make decisions about work and about life that will make me happy and fulfilled.  Life is too short to wait for these things; you have to take them and own them.

Monday, December 8, 2014


It has been challenging to write since saying goodbye to my village a number of months ago.  The day I left Nachibanga is still clear in my mind; waking up before sunrise to pack remaining items into zambags, loading my belongings onto an oxcart to be taken to the big dirt road with my host nieces and nephews tagging along for the ride.  Being picked up by my friend in a canter truck, with Ba Judy and her husband Gladson traveling with me to Choma.  And of course in typical TIA (This Is Africa) fashion, getting stopped by road police for over an hour while all transport was halted for a reason I will never understand.  We did eventually make it to Choma.  Ba Judy had not been to town in over two years, so I decided to give her a little bit of spending money to have a nice meal with her husband before heading back to the village without me.  I gave my hugs, and watched them walk into town.  I felt sad, but I knew the feeling would settle in the months to come when I did not have my village in my daily life to provide me with companionship, challenges, and hilarious experiences that were too numerous to write down.

I visited America for a month, and then moved to Chipata to begin my third-year Peace Corps extension position with USAID/Feed the Future as the program's Field Coordinator.  Chipata is in the Eastern Province, nine hours from Lusaka (due to road construction) and a short distance from the border between Zambia and Malawi.  Chipata acts as a center of trade, commerce, and agricultural activity.  This large town, which is surrounded by mountains that I have hiked on Sunday mornings with new friends, is growing quickly.  My experiences in Chipata have been eye-opening thus far, as this is my first time understanding development issues from an agricultural standpoint.  Deforestation and soil degradation are critical issues impacting farmers across the country, and I am able to go out into the field with the numerous implementing partner organizations to evaluate new practices being promoted to hopefully mitigate the impacts of global climate change.  The increasingly dramatic delays in the onset of the rains (it is already December and the rains have not begun in Eastern and Southern Provinces) in addition to the rapid reduction in forest-cover across the country lend clear evidence to the potentially devastating effects of climate change in many developing countries like Zambia.

As Feed the Future's Field Coordinator, I have been given big and broad responsibilities with little direction on how to achieve results.  I am the only member of USAID's Feed the Future Economic Development team based in Chipata, and I work with partner organizations receiving funding from USAID.  There is a great deal of energy behind changing farming methods and adopting new technologies, and it is quite exciting to be a part of this movement.  It is challenging to be the only staff member of this type based in Chipata, and I make my own schedule based on the activities happening each week.  Some weeks I am out in the field almost every day, traveling along neglected dirt roads to villages and monitoring farmer fields and trainings.  Some weeks I am in meetings and compiling research or updates for the Feed the Future partners.  I am getting into the swing of things, and also realizing that being part of a close-knit team on a day-to-day basis is something I am ready for in the near future.

I will say that it is strange to be a visitor when I am out in the field because my life was based in the village for over two years.  I arrive and leave from field visits in a shiny vehicle, returning to my home with electricity (most of the time) and running water.  I can't make villagers see me in the same way my village saw me, and at times I find myself wanting to say, "Hey, I lived in the village for two years! I don't need a special chair, I can sit on the ground and I will be fine! In fact, I want to sit in the dirt and have your kids play with my hair!"  On one visit, a few young girls sat next to me while their parents were learning about improved farming techniques, and I couldn't resist teaching them the alphabet by writing in the sand.  I miss these little things, and it is difficult to come and go in this way.  All I can do is appreciate the time I had in Nachibanga and know that my values and passions have been more clearly defined during my time in Zambia.  I am learning about the type of work and life I crave, and I feel stronger in my convictions.  

Monday, September 1, 2014

Love and Celebration

My village knows how to celebrate.  Three-hundred people dancing and smiling, Bamaamas cooking for their villages around orange fires, making barrels of chibwantu (traditional maize drink) to sustain everyone from evening to morning to the next sunset.  Words of genuine gratitude were spoken.  There were tears and goodbyes.  There was a moment, after hours of speeches, songs and skits, when all eleven headmen with whom I worked to build our community health post lined up to face me.  They each thanked me individually, touching their hearts with one hand and shaking mine with the other.  I knew every one of them well, and I realized what these two years were for.  If nothing else, it was about the meaningful connections I made with people in my village and the moments of community collaboration that happened when we were working together.

A week later when it was almost time to leave Nachibanga, there were a few important people to whom I wanted to give gifts and sit down with for just a few more moments.  One of these people was the 72-year-old headman of Chinene village, who worked tirelessly day after day to build our health post, sometimes with only my sister Ba Judy and our builder to help.  There was a funeral in his village right before my departure, and though I spread the word to my friends in the village that I would love to see him if he had time, I accepted that I would not see Basibbuku (headman) Chinene before I left.  As the sun was going down on my second to last night, I saw a small older man walking up the hill towards my house being lead by my host sister.  It was Ba Chinene, and I unconsciously yelled out loud, "You're here!!! I'm so happy!"

This kind of thing tends to happen in Zambia, when you want to see someone and just when you accept that it may not happen, you pass them while biking, see them on a bush path, or find them walking to your home.  I offered him a chair, and we sat down.  I gave him the collaged card I created, the photo I printed of him holding a shovel mixing cement in front of our half-completed health post, and the solar flash light I decided to give to him as a small token of my appreciation.  He read the card silently, and spoke words of gratitude in Tonga. He reflected on our hard work together, and on his initial surprise at how a tiny woman could work like a strong man.  He then paused, looked at me with his blue eyes affected by cataracts, took my hands in his and said in English, "I will never forget you. Never."  My heart felt like it broke into a thousand pieces at having to say goodbye to Basibbuku Chinene, and simultaneously felt full of love. Love for this whole experience, for the people and places that have served as my home and my life for the past two years.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Letting Go

The process of letting go is almost always painful, particularly because it involves great amounts of change.  When this letting go is of connections to people or places, most of us become fearful.  We build communities, and when we leave their protective walls we feel raw and lonely for a time.  We may feel a loss of familiarity and our sense of belonging.  Simply put, letting go can be terrifying.

Although we can eventually transform feelings of loss into realizations of maturation, freedom, and growth, we have to sit with the scary and unknown consequences of change for a time.  I will admit that I am currently in the throws of this process.  How in the world do I move on from these two indescribable years in my tiny village in rural Zambia?  How will I say goodbye to an entire community of people whom I consider my brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, and my best friends?  How will I thank them all?

I hope that I sufficiently express the love I have for my niece Maya, the first baby I ever named whose smiling face has made even the hardest days worth it.  When she comes running up the hill to my hut from playing with the goats and eating dirt just to give me a hug, I wonder if she feels me melt.  I do not know how to fully appreciate my sister Ba Judith for pushing our clinic building project day after day for the past seven months, through illness and family obligations and an infinite number of village funerals.  I do not know how to thank my sister Ba Erin for taking me into her hut during thunderstorms, or for killing five of the six poisonous snakes I have encountered either in my hut or hiding in my bag of charcoal.  I do not know how to show the 72-year-old headmen of Chinene village how much it warms my heart to see him building our health post with his tired back and over-worked, calloused hands.  It feels like there are too many people to thank, and not enough ways to thank them.

I recently had a Peace Corps friend who is at the beginning of his service visit my village.  I showed him our building projects, our new preschool, and introduced him to my HIV support group.  He met my Baneene, my host sisters, and my little nieces and nephews.  He witnessed the heartfelt connections I have with my village, and his visit made me realize something important.  My village and I have been thanking each other every day for the past two years.  We have done this through working tirelessly together building a health post and a mother's shelter.  We have lent each other cooking oil and candles, and we have spent afternoons sitting and talking out our problems under mango trees while shelling beans and cobs of maize.  We have planted and harvested vegetables in the same garden, and we have waited out powerful storms under the same grass-thatched roofs.  We have made each other laugh, and we have danced to the same music with chitenge around our hips.  Some days we have annoyed each other, yelling too loudly under the mid-day hot season sun, and some days we have disappointed one another.  But all-in-all, we have shared our lives, inspiring and loving one another unconditionally for 27 months.

I do not know if I will see my village in a year or in ten years, but I do know that we will always feel gratitude for the time we have shared and hope to share in the future.  I can't make false promises that I will be able to call my host family every month or visit every few years.  The beautiful thing about letting go, however, is that it doesn't have to be a black-and-white, permanent kind of change.  It may be letting go of a certain type of relationship, allowing it to grow into something different and new.  It may be taking a step back for a time, from a community or even from family, not to leave forever but to explore a more expansive sense of home.  I trust that as long as I bring a positive perspective to the process of change, I will always be ok.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Ba Stanley

Ba Stanley, the man who built my new hut almost single-handedly after my first hut flooded, visited me the other day.  I welcomed him to sit with me on my veranda, and we spoke about this year's harvest, about his garden, about his plans for re-building his home with iron sheets instead of grass in the coming months.  We spoke about his neighbour who fell ill, he thinks most likely because of witchcraft (yes, this is still a strong belief in my village, and I try to work with this aspect of traditional culture instead of fighting against it).  Then, he began speaking about the end of August...

Ba Stanley is one of the most hard-working, humble, honest men I have ever met.  Each of his words, spoken slowly, softly yet deliberately, seem to hold strong meaning.  He turned to me and said, "Ba Ashley, the day you leave, I will cry.  The whole village will cry.  You have really done something with us here.  We are now moving and developing."  My heart dropped.  I explained that I would cry too.  I explained that I would stay in touch, though I do not know how easy this will be (my family rarely has their phones charged, as electricity is far away).  I told him that it was now time for the village, along with the next volunteer, to continue pushing the work I started with them.

I know that I will be forced to cope with some difficult realities when I leave Nachibanga.  I will have little control over the development of my village, over whether it continues or slows.  I cannot dictate what type of relationship the next volunteer with form with my family.  And I have no idea when I will see my village again.  All I can do is soak in every minute of these final months: continue laughing with Ba Erin when her sixteen-month-old Maya runs after me with two different oversized shoes on her feet; press sunflower oil from the seeds I planted with my family five months ago; and burn the images of mud huts scattered between dusty rolling hills that I see each time I go for a run or a bike ride into my memory.  I did not know that I could feel this much love for a place and for a community. I had no idea that a family could extend beyond blood, beyond the borders of the place and culture into which I was born.  All I can do is feel grateful for it all.

Thursday, April 24, 2014


The sun decided to sleep for five days.  April is supposed to be dry and full of sunshine in order to dry and harvest the maize; instead, the Earth decided to rain and freeze.  In Zambia, I have acquired the perspective that if one day is difficult, the next day, a new day, will balance out the previous one.  But we had to wait, shivering under covers and huddled around fires.  I read Kerouac, went through weeks of thought in just a few days, and then sweated out yet another fever.  But mostly, I felt the weight and transformation of these last months in Zambia take root in my body.

For the first time in my life, I do not know exactly what is coming next, and I am actually at peace with that reality.  In fact, it feels quite freeing.  There's no reason to be scared-- I am twenty four years old with the whole world to continue exploring and experiencing.  I have a new-found trust that my spirit and the beautiful, supportive people around me will lead me well.  As long as I continue feeling passion, love, gratitude, and curiosity, all will be ok.

In Zambia, I have learned when to push through a hard day, biking around from clinic to village meetings from sun-up to sun-down.  I have also learned when to just take it easy, stay in bed an extra hour, take time to go for a run or simply weed sweet potato fields with my family.  I have learned how to be sick by myself, how to be lonely and even scared in my mud hut by myself.  I have learned to laugh at the men who try and harass me in town.  I have learned that my village will do absolutely anything to protect me.  It is all really indescribable, the things I have come to understand about myself and the world while living in this little village across the globe.

Our health post challenges are slowly working themselves out.  Our project committee is finally taking more ownership of the building process, and it makes me happy to feel a bit of weight taken off my shoulders.  Our pre-school plans are coming together, our HIV support group is strong and so enjoyable to work with (I even went to a meeting last week with a fever just because I knew the group would brighten my day).  All in all, I am doing my best and letting go of the things I cannot change or carry alone.  Development takes the strength of an entire community.