Since early May my entire life has been occupying a space of roughly 2 meters by 3.5 meters. Among the many things sharing my happy place with me, were a double bed, my bike, and all off my food and clothes, not to mention the number of buckets and jerry cans needed to sustain a life in the village.
But a week ago all of this changed…FINALLY! Since June I have been going through all of the tedious rituals one has to complete to get anything done in a Zambian village.
When I first got to my lovely village that I now call home I was told that since my living quarters were going to be a bit smug they were going to build me a little kitchen that could house my bike and food. Thus creating a little bit more wiggle room in my hut and deterring the mice and rats from being roommates with me since they usually reside where the food is. Then after a month into my service Peace Corps came and had a meeting with my village and together they decided that maybe we should just build a bigger hut because it is very likely that my site would be replaced with a new volunteer when my service is up in 2012.
It was after that fateful meeting in June that my life became one big rollercoaster. One day I was being told that I would have my new hut “soon soon” and then another…after reality set in I was telling myself that it might still be months…like maybe 6 more. Keep in mind when we started this journey in June my headman and other important people in my village told me time and time again “if one is serious then a hut can be totally complete in 10 to 14 days…” They key word there is serious. I am not saying that people in my village are not serious, I am just saying that an American sense of serious and a Zambian sense of serious are about as similar as comparing Paris Hilton’s vocabulary with that of say maybe Condoleezza Rice.
So to start it all of I had to have a meeting with my headman. I had to tell him that I needed a new hut and I wanted everything to start ASAP. After leaving that meeting I am told discreetly by my translator/counterpart/best friend that now we are going to the other headman…the one who will actually get shit done. At this point I had been in the village for 2 months and had no idea that we had more than one headman. Thus the start of many double meets simply out of respect for this older headman who is apparently loosing it.
So after many weeks of meetings we finally got the walls for the hut up. This meant that we had to find a carpenter who wouldn’t charge the village too much money to build a house for the white girl. So we find this really cool carpenter who “built” (packed the mud) my walls with village tobacco rolled in newspaper posing as a cigarette the whole time. Oh and he was also wearing a rasta beanie on his head and a Bob Marley shirt…every day. I do not have to speak any more about how badass this dude was.
Getting the walls up also meant that we had to organize groups of women to come and pour water on my hole of mud everyday so that it muddy enough to pack into the shape of a wall. But it can’t be too muddy or then you have to wait a day for it to air out. This process had to start a few days before the actually construction started. The first day it was all little girls that showed up. A convoy of little ladies carrying water on their head that honestly weighs more than they do and then helping each other get it off their heads and pouring it into the hole.
So after the walls were up began the really hard part…the roof. Roofs in Zambia are a complete and total bitch…there is just no other way to say it. You have to get a lot of “poles” (long skinny trees) and then you have to get a lot of big fat trees that will be the outside support beams, or pillars if you like. Finding things like this are not easy in the 2nd most deforested country in the world. It is now September roughly (it all runs together now in my head) and by this time I am over being polite and going to the old headman, as is my Atate (host father) and my translator/counterpart/best friend, Simon. So together we skip him and just go straight to the 2nd headman. He tells us that he will organize the village (approx. 1500 people) and the men will go and cut the poles and harvest the fiber. The day that this is supposed to happen only 9 men show up. For the rest of the time it takes to complete my house and most especially my roof these will be my favorite 9 men in the world.
So they cut the poles and get the fiber and then I wait a week or two…at least…until they go out into the bush and go and pick them all up with an ox cart. After all of the poles are on my compound I have to have another meeting with the headman to schedule a day in which we can put the roof up.
Let me just briefly mention that in most of these cases I am not just having one meeting to get these dates and things done…I am having multiple meetings, multiple days in a row, multiple months in a row.
So on day my 9 knights in shining armor show up and place the big pillars into the ground. 11 in all I think.
Then another day they come back and hang the poles.
Then it takes two days to get the grass up around the poles so that I have a real thatch roof. That I am instantly obsessed with. It is at this point that I start to think that the hard work is done and the rest will be a breeze. I mean all I need to do now is get windows and a door made, get the cement smeared on my walls and floor and then move in. Sounds easy right???
I can’t remember at what point it happened or what steps we were on in the completion of my hut but for some reason in my Atate’s line of logic we could not move on until the windows were in…why I don’t know and can’t really remember. I just remember that it didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. So that meant multiple meetings with my sweet carpenter, January, to hustle him into completing these things.
Then once we got the door from him it was discovered that it was too big and we needed to dig deeper and add another layer of mud to the tops of my walls….
Then the cementing process needed to happen about the time everyone was starting to go to their fields to start clearing them and getting them ready for planting. Food security totally trumps my cement floors…and it should. Sweet January got it all done though. God bless that man. It is at this point in the game that he gets added to the 9…I now have 10 knights sitting around my Peace Corps round table.
Then at some point after the roof is up and running I have to leave the village for a time with meetings. When I come back I discover that I have carpenter ants living in my roof. They are so bad that after just a week they have left a half-inch of very fine white dust all over my hut. It is literally snowing in my hut and you can hear them eating. This means putting off moving in until I can get that problem under control. If I slept in there I would for sure suffocate.
So I buy some spray…totally convinced that would kill them. WRONG! Turns out to make it in Zambia you have to be tough, so fucking tough that 100% poison won’t kill you. So I run to Simon in almost tears asking him what we can do. He calmly tells me we will simply start a series of small fires in my hut and smoke ‘em out. Okay “sweet”, I say lets do that tomorrow. One week later we do it…twice…for 8 hours at a time. There was so much smoke pouring out of my hut it would have for sure killed a human in 30 minutes if they had to breath that. Carpenter ants though are like crab grass…they aren’t going anywhere!
I am reaching my breaking point now. It is January. I was promised to be living in this hut by the beginning of August. If there was ever a point in my life where I have reached my limits…I was getting pretty close a few weeks ago.
So since the ants are not going anywhere and I refuse to live anywhere other than that hut I decided to buy some black plastic that will catch all of their dust and hopefully we can live in some sort of harmony. So I purchase the plastic and run to Simon and ask who will hang it. He, at this point, has also reached his breaking point. He is over the meetings and having to explain to me that something isn’t going to work out and then seeing my heartbreak. So he decides he will take this responsibility on himself and hang it with his uncle and friend. “We’ll do it tomorrow,” he says. Two days later he comes over to hang the plastic. We get half way done and he has to come back the next day to finish. So three days later he comes back and together just the two of us we finish the job.
Then something really amazing happens! I ask my Atate when we can organize people to help me move my bed frame into my new hut. It is Wednesday when I am asking this and in my head I have Friday as moving day. But no, Atate says something so wonderful and so totally beautiful I have to ask him to repeat himself a few times. “Tomorrow, around 16:00 it can be done.” “WHAT!” A day earlier than I had expected….and the funny thing was…I knew he wasn’t kidding. I knew that by Thursday night I would be sleeping in my new hut.
And sure enough…it took 3 hours, 4 men, and 3 women (women were there to help with the logic of it all. Turns out men all over the world are a little short on common sense) When the women showed up they took one look at the whole picture and told one of the kids to go and get them some peanuts…they knew it was going to be a while and that we might need some snacks. ☺
So three hours later a huge trench 3 meters deep and 1 meter wide dug in front of my new hut my bed was finally in. And I was so happy I could have cried. But crying is no acceptable here so I kept it together.
My new hut is beautiful and perfect and lovely. Some people move into their first real house with roommates or husbands/wives or life partners. I moved into mine completely alone in a village in Zambia. I wouldn’t have done it any other way. It is mine…I worked endlessly with the carpenters, headmen and villagers much the way people in America work with contractors, zoning committees and electricians to get everything perfect . This is my first home and I love it.
“A house is not a home.” Luther Vandross
(The song I was humming the entire time we were trying to move the bed ☺ )