November 4, 2010

Up In Smoke

Life in Africa is hard. From my very limited experience here I can tell you that. I can tell you that the people here in Zambia specifically work very hard for everything that they have. Waking up at 4am to bust their ass before it gets too hot to do anything. I can also tell you that Village life is hard...and it is fragile. More fragile than I could have ever known before entering this country. Due to things like poor health care systems, and having to travel for kilometers upon kilometers on a bike, ox cart or by foot to reach a clinic that may or may not have medicine to treat you takes its toll on a person. Working hard as soon as your can pretty much walk takes its toll on a person.

One in every seven people suffers from HIV. In 2009 alone nearly 83,000 people were newly diagnosed. Even in my limited experience here I know that number is skewed. Clinics do not report everything they are supposed to because either the man power or the motivation is not there. Many people never even go to get tested for many reasons. Perhaps traveling to a clinic would take a day alone just to get there. They could already be too sick to travel the distance to a clinic. Perhaps they don't want to be told that they have the disease so they don't even bother to get tested. The availability of VRTs is limited so for some people, even though they know they have HIV they do not have the option to take the medicine that would help them.

The current life expectancy of the average person in Zambia is 39 years old. I encourage you, no matter your current age, to stop and think about where you want to be at 39 , or where you were at 39, then think about stopping right there and being done.

There is also the malaria situation. Almost no one in my village sleeps with a mosquito net. They can't afford them. This can quite literally mean sleeping with mice and rats crawling all over you while you sleep, while getting ate up by malaria carrying mosquitos. Not exactly healthy.

Poverty is also an everyday part of life in Zambia. I see people every day who walk all over without shoes because they can't afford to have shoes and feed their children. (Flip flops here cost about $1 US Dollar.) They live in houses with grass roofs and mud walls. With no roof, in a bad downpour their houses could literally melt. Even with the grass roof the odds of it leaking are about 100% (Rainy season is coming, I am sure I will post about when it is leaking in my hut...) This means that the air in your hut can become unsafe to breath due to mold that will not go away. Poverty also means that food is also not available year round. Malnutrition takes its toll on a body as well.

Funerals are a very natural occurrence for me now in the Village. There are months where they happen once a week. No one is phased by this. Not like American funeral culture at all.

Recently I had small peak and brief peak into how fragile your world as a villager can be. Get excited this story involves the neighbor Patricia. I love this woman more than words can say so this experience was a tearful and terrifying one for me. God bless her though because without her as my neighbor, what the hell would I write about for all of you????

I had just gotten home from a trip to the boma. I had a fellow PCV with me who had come to visit. As soon as we arrive we do the polite thing and go and greet my family hello. Atate is an instant hit with Tabatha. (In fact, my Atate is pretty famous in Peace Corps circles because he is such a sweet adorable and funny old man.) After that we immediately head to the borehole to get water for bathing that night. After we get back into my compound I am just trying to get organized for the night and I notice that my Atate is yelling something in the direction of Patricia's house. Taken off guard I continue to look at my Atate trying to figure out what he is saying in Chewa, he repeats it and still I do not understand. Atate is yelling whatever it is that he is saying and clearly in a state of panic. (While it was happening this moment in time seems like it took hours, but looking back on it now I know that was maybe not even a full second.) Finally I turn to see what he is look at and yelling at and to my complete horror, the bundles of grass that Patricia's has leaning up against the structure that holds all of their food for the year are up in flames. Huge flames! Now everyone in the village has seen it and women are starting to scream.

According to Tabatha, I start yelling "Oh my God, Oh my God! What do I do? What do I do? Oh my God, Water! I just got water." At this moment she still has no idea what is going on, she has no idea what I am panicking about as I grab my two 10 liter jerry cans and sprint out of my compound onto Patricia's. I come back to get my 20 liter and a bucket to help pour water and Tabatha has finally figured it all out also and is now frantically asking "what do I do?" "A bucket," I yell, "get a bucket!" Together we sprint over and start pouring water out of jerry cans into the buckets of the men who are pouring it onto what I will call "the grain bin".

This "grain bin" is not the tin roofed dream you all imagine when you hear the words grain bin. It is made out of sticks, dirt and a dried grass thatch roof just waiting to have spark hit it just right. Contained within the bin is a years worth of dried corn that will also go up in flames faster than a beauty queen's hair.

To further paint the picture, the whole community has come over to help save this families food. The neighboring women are running with what water they can spare. The men are running buckets back and forth that are being filled by Tabatha, myself and my Amai and one or two other women. The rest of them are watching in wonder simply because they want to stay out of the way. The men are frantically getting water from the 4 or 5 of us or taking axes and cutting into the side of the bin and pulling out all of the corn. The corn at this moment in time is all that matter....just like most impoverished whatever you need to do, but save the food. My Atate is one of the men with an ax while others have garden hoes and buckets that they are scooping the corn into to get it as far away from the flame as possible.

It is all happening so fast, the water is doing pretty much nothing to calm the fire and I can't tell how much corn is getting burnt and how much is getting saved. Christina, Patricia's daughter, is screaming crying and can't be calmed down. Women are yelling directions to the men. The men are yelling at each other frantic to all be understood, everyone men and women alike are just yelling. I keep looking for Patricia, my best Village friend, to see how she is reacting to this whole thing. I can hear Tabatha yelling go commands to the men as their buckets get filled up with our water. Still, it hasn't been probably 4 minutes since I first heard my Atate yelling.

Now I hear all of the women start screaming "ALFRED!!" I quick look at my Atate, who sometimes goes by Alfred and he is fine, I look again searching hard to see who they are yelling at. Their screams sound as if someone is on fire...or about to be. Then I see it, my brother (named after his Atate) has climbed completely into the bin and is preparing to push the flaming roof off with his hands. The men have now started yelling at him as well. If he can't push it off and gets stuck in there he is a dead man. The flames will be too much and it is getting to the point where it could all go soon. I will never know if this act of heroism was just a high school boy thinking "this is going to be awesome," or if he just knew that getting that flaming roof off of the bin is the only way to save the corn. The only way! If the corn does not get saved it means that Patricia and her family of 6 will not have food until harvest in 2011. So in this moment of Superman-ness Alfred pushes the roof off himself with his bare hands.

The water has now run out and Tabatha are desperatly trying to figure out what we do next to help. All we can tell is that people keep saying madzi, which means water. We keep trying to decide if we need more water. By the time we run to the borehole, pump the water and run back it will be too late. During our contemplation I have time to think finally. If only for a second, but it is just enough time to bring tears to my eyes. "All of their food," is all I can think. I still had not really even stopped to ask myself how this fire started. The food was all that mattered. They have to eat.

So because we hated feeling helpless we run to the borehole about 600 meters away and pump out 40 more slow liters of water and run back. We were correct, by the time we got back everything was done. People had started walking away and my Atate was looking for me.
"You have done very well, Maggie, you worked so fast." Turning to Tabatha, "Both of you thought very fast. The people are very happy, thank you both." Zambians are always so polite, and my Atate is the most polite. :)
"How much corn did they loose?"
"It has all been saved. You should not worry."
"Thank goodness, Atate, how did it happen?"
"That little boy that you call mbvuto has started this." Patricia's son Joanie is just an ornery little thing. Mbvuto means problems and just that past week I had lovingly replaced his name Joanie with the name Mbvuto because he was always causing problems. As Tabatha later put it, Joanie is the kid that lights cherry bombs and throws them down the toilet. He is only 4.
"Yes, that one."
"He had matches and he lit one and threw it onto the grass that they were saving."
"OH MY GOD. Mbvuto miningi." (Problems...many) With this comment people all around start laughing. And just like that all of the stress of that past few minutes is over. The food is fine, we can build a new bin before the rains come, no problems. There is humor in the world again. The villagers and obsessed with staring and Tabatha and I as we process this whole thing. Laughing the whole time. We are totally blown away by how okay it all is now.

Even the next day Joanie is the talk of the village. As people greet me on my morning chores, "good morning, Joanie problems!" Yeah no shit! Patricia finally comes over and I ask her who saw Joanie light the match. She tells me it was her that saw. He stole them from the kitchen hut and was playing with them. Having never used them before he was not sure what he is doing. But being the incredibly observant 4 year old that he is he figured out how to light them. He lit the first one and was so excited that he yelled to get Patricia's attention. When she finally looked over he had lit a second one. Her yelling NO at him scared him so he threw the match in hopes that it would keep him out of trouble, however he threw it right onto the dried grass. And just like a wheat field on the 4th of July, it went up in smoke.

"Appreciation is a wonderful thing. It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well." ~Voltaire

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