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

Transformations

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.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

On the Nature of Humans...

Hello hello!  I am writing as I visit the provincial house after a few weeks back in the village.  Things have been busy, both positive and challenging in nature.  Our Nachibanga Health Post is being built quickly, which is wonderful to see.  However, I have learned through talking with many villagers about who is working hard and who is not.  One of our builders, the quiet younger builder, has been working nearly every day from sunrise to sunset.  The other builder (the one who was supposed to be "leading" the project) has barely been working at all, and makes constant excuses as to why he cannot show up for work.  He speaks down to people (and if we were in America the way in which he speaks to women would not be tolerated) and is incredibly negative.  We are running low on funds for the project (we are nearly out of cement), and we don't have enough to waste on paying a builder who is doing nothing.  I decided yesterday with some committee members that this builder needs to be fired.

But in Zambia, firing someone is not a clear-cut process.  Everyone is connected and related in some way, and I need to be careful.  I will have a meeting with the headmen and project committee to discuss the issue, which is going to be difficult as many underlying feelings will come up in the process.  At the end of the meeting, I will tell the headmen and committee that they need to call the builder and let him go, as this project is theirs.  I know that I am a very sensitive person, and I need to try my best to not get caught up in the feelings that will inevitably ensue.  This will be a big test of strength and personal growth, but I know that it is the right thing to do.  I cannot allow someone to take money from this project, which is going to benefit thousands of rural villagers. I also cannot pay two builders equally if only one is doing the work.

I have realized some important things in this process.  To trust people is a scary thing, but we do it because we need to.  We are all connected and need to rely on others to survive.  I personally trust because I believe that at our core, we as humans are inherently good.  However, everyone has different motivations for their actions.  Whether it is for survival, for love, for ego, for greed, we make choices in how we relate with others.  Some form mostly negative relationships, and many form positive ones.  As we get older, we hone our abilities to connect with like-minded people, people with similar spirits and motivations, but sometimes we must interact with people who we do not like.  We must find a way to maintain our stability, our sense of self, and our sense of purpose amidst these challenging interactions.

On a positive note, I made home-made peanut butter with my host sisters!  I bought a dollar worth of groundnuts (peanuts), roasted them, and then called Ba Judith and Ba Erin over to help me pound them with our wooden mortar and pestle.  It took about ten minutes of pounding, and the peanuts became peanut butter!  We didn't even need to add anything (just a bit of salt, and I also added a bit of honey) because the peanuts produced their own oil.  The kids came around to watch and taste, and my sisters told me they hadn't done this since their grandfather was alive.  It was a really meaningful passing-down of knowledge, and we also realized that we could sell peanut butter in the village once my family's groundnuts come up in April.  The 5kg of sunflower seeds I bought for my sister to plant are beginning to burst open into huge sunflowers, and next month we will press and sell home-made sunflower oil.  The fields of sunflowers we have in the village make me smile every time I pass them.

Love and light!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

On Success and Failure...

I recently arrived back in Zambia for my final 6 months of service.  I had trepidation about returning as my family in America is going through challenges, and your thoughts and prayers for my mom's quick recovery mean the world.  I arrived at my clinic and met with the builder of our health post (my second grant project) to find that very little work has been done on our project.  I left absolutely everything in place for my village to complete the building, running around a month in advance to purchase all materials, appoint villagers and committees to oversee the work. I made typed lists and schedules for all 11 villages to contribute small amounts of work.  Though I understand that building takes a lot of time in Africa, I did not expect so little to be accomplished in my absence.  Our builder even vocalized the feeling of hurt he saw materializing on my face after hearing this news.

I reached my hut to find my bathing shelter completely destroyed by rain and cows, my outdoor "kitchen" knocked over, an infestation of wasps in my latrine hole, and an infestation of jumping flea-like biting bugs all over my hut (even in my bed!)  I spent the night awake getting bitten by these bugs, and was told to return to the provincial house so that my hut can be fumigated.  So I'm here, waiting, again.  It feels frustrating and disappointing.  I am trying to stay positive and find some gems of meaning.  This is what I have come up with:

-When you take big risks, the possibility of failure increases as well.  You need to be prepared for this, but at the end of the day if you give your whole heart, you must learn to accept that this is enough.  The success of my second grant project is really up to my community at this point, but my first project (Ndondi Mother's Shelter) was a complete success!  Mothers are now giving birth in this shelter, and the building has been incorporated into the community in a sustainable way.

-When collaborating with others, you must be vocal about your feelings, both positive and negative.  You need to let them know if they have disappointed you.  You cannot just have this weight on your shoulders alone; it's not healthy.  If everyone is going to share in the outcome, everyone must also share in the process.

- The balance between patience and pushing, particularly when implementing projects in the third world, is important.  You may have to compromise your expectations, but you should not give them up completely.  You're there for cross-cultural exchange, for both learning and teaching.

... And that's what I've got for now.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Good and the Bad

I am visiting America in two weeks.  I do not know what to expect, how I will cope with clothing and grocery stores, lines where people do not push in front of one another, and transport that is reliable.  I do know, however, that a month away from Zambia is much needed for my spirit.  My days have become long and chaotic as I continuously try to motivate my villages to complete our health post, and as I set up all logistics for our projects so that they will hopefully continue in my absence.  I spent ten hours in town yesterday shopping for grant materials, waiting on a dishonest transporter who decided not to tell me that he had a problem with his tire after half of our materials were loaded onto the vehicle.  I fell apart after hour eight, slumped on the sidewalk, feeling completely taken advantage of for being a foreigner.  I felt like a broken china doll, my body shattered into a million tiny pieces.  I thought, "All I am trying to do is help!  Why is this happening?"  I realized that at the end of the day, there are both kind hearted and dishonest people in the world, wherever you go.  The situation was resolved, but I personally felt quite defeated.

I believe in the goodness of humanity, but it is inevitable to go through days when you encounter people who have a very different moral compass than you do.  My family in the village keeps me here, but there are always going to be reminders that I am not from Zambia.  I love this place, and I need to just re-charge my battery.  The hunger, the corruption, the environmental degradation... it all wears on you after a while.  You feel stuck, like you have so much knowledge but no way to change the larger systems that are causing the suffering you are feeling at the village level.  Grassroots development work is incredibly fulfilling because of the human connections and small victories that are possible... and some days it can also break your heart.  Anyway, love to all and I cannot wait to see some of you very soon!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

National HIV Prevention Convention

Greetings! I was invited to rapporteur Zambia's Third National HIV Prevention Convention with four other Peace Corps health volunteers, and it was quite an experience.  The Vice President of Zambia, Guy Scott, and the First Lady, Christine Kaseba-Sata, attended and spoke at the conference, in addition to notable representatives from organizations such as UNAIDS, USAID, CDC, WHO, and many others.  We spent much of the time running around note-keeping, compiling power-points, and helping to summarize presentations for the final resolutions presented by the National AIDS Council.  It was incredibly interesting to hear about all the projects going on in Zambia, what has been successful, and where the gaps in programs and funding exist.  While it was difficult to be reporting and to not have a say in the discussions taking place on behalf of our rural villages, we were able to make connections and see what kinds of discussions are being had at the national level surrounding HIV prevention, treatment, and care.  All in all, the experience was a rich one, and it was an honor to be invited to such a large national event!

Thanks to the most beautiful support system in the world, the funds have been raised for my final large, donation-based Peace Corps project... Nachibanga Health Post!  I am hoping to start the foundation with the builder and community early next week, and get things moving quickly before I head back to America for a few weeks to visit family and friends.  As this much-needed re-energizing time at home approaches, I am both excited and nervous... excited to see all of the loved ones who I have missed tremendously, and nervous only because the reverse culture-shock is going to be intense (with all the electricity, hot showers, movies, air conditioning, and fresh coffee just in front of me!)  Sending love to you all.