21 December 2008


A purely hypothetical perfect day:

I wake up in Jungle Boy's arms and we're out the door by seven grinning foolishly and striding through the cobblestone streets of Antigua. We dash to catch a chicken bus trundling around the corner with SAN ANDRES ITZAPA emblazed on its side and bound up the steps to find a place among the crowded school bus seats. The bus rumbles off, bumping along narrow twisty roads, and we gape at the mountains and valleys as they unfold. I look past Jungle Boy to the fields roaring past us and I can't think of any other place on earth I would rather be.

In Itzapa, (where the streets are paved with concrete) we hike up the steep calles to reach Maya Pedal—home of bicibomba, bicimolina, and bicilicuadora—nestled on a hill between other narrow cinder block buildings. The gates are wide open and we take a whirlwind tour around through the workshop. On the top floor are piles of bikes from Bikes Not Bombs, and I reflexively scan them, on the chance I'll recognize a bike I loaded in a container or flattened at a bike drive. Nothing, nothing, nothi-woah! Turquoise handlebars! Nah, couldn't be…wait…a red frame…and…yes! It's missing its rear brake cable! It's the same bike Ste used for IDDS in Boston and then donated when he left. I took care of this bike for a few days before Gwyn came with his pick-up to take it to BNB. Great blazing whales, of all the places that bike could have ended up…

At 9 am, we scramble back down the hill to see my good friend Carlos, bicycle machine master extraordinaire. We jump in his pick up and he takes us further down the winding roads to Technologia Para Salud to meet Julio Cesar, another Guatemalan mastermind. He takes us on a tour, explaining their improved stoves, latrines, recycling program, dehydrating system, waste water treatment, and crazy enough I understand everything he's saying, or at least enough to ask him to clarify words I've never heard. My Spanish is finally becoming functional, a huge victory for my "things to do before I die" list.

Carlos drops us off at the side of the road and we flag down another chicken bus. We make it back to Antigua just in time to catch my brother leaving the house, eat lunch with my host family, say goodbye, and I race off to my last Spanish lesson. After, I meet my dad and my brother in the hall of the Spanish school (they've just finished up their last Spanish lessons, too) and we make our way to the other side of town to meet our guides.

A few hours later we're all hiking up Pacaya, an active volcano. The first part is easy and peaceful, and my dad tells stories about his life that I've never heard before. We set up camp and watch Fuego erupt in the distance and eat curry for dinner that we've carried up the mountain. Night falls and Pacaya begins to glow and stain the darkening sky red. A few steps from our campsite and we can see lava pouring down the mountain before it cools enough for great glowing boulders of molten rock to break off the flow and tumble down the slope. We leave our bags behind and begin the harder part of the hike, scrambling up a steep slope of sharp black volcanic rock that slides out from under our feet every step we take. Soon it's dark and the only light is the pale white of our head lamps on the dark rock and the glowing blood red clouds sweeping overhead, reflecting the light from the lava now hidden behind the dark razor silhouette of the ridge that looms above. The wind is blowing cold and it's more of a struggle than I want to admit to progress up the sliding slope. I marvel at how strong my dad must be to have made it this far—he's a polio survivor who was told he would never walk again. If only his childhood doctors could see him now, I'm overcome with respect and pride for everything he's done with his life.

It seems like the peak never comes closer, no matter how many sliding steps we carve up the mountain, but suddenly the air feels much warmer, I look up and see the top of the lava flow. The ground is now solid-old rolling lava flows that radiate heat as we walk over them. The new lava flow throws off enough light to paint the entire scene neon red. I begin to believe the stories of Prometheus when my brother braves the blistering heat to get close enough to shove his walking stick in the lava. It instantly catches on fire. It's easy to picture him smuggling the flame down the mountain to bequeath it to the poor shivering fireless mortals below, minus the liver-eating vultures part. Time is suspended. We relax, trade more stories, watch the blood red clouds race by, lose ourselves in the mesmerizing glow from the lava , roast marshmallows (of course) and throw in whatever we can find into the flow to watch it burst into flames. I can't imagine any other place I would rather be. Finally, when we descend, and it feels like we're skiing as the black volcanic rock continuously slides from under our feet. We arrive at our campsite, crawl into the tent, and call it a night.

I wish my mom could have come.

05 November 2008

09 October 2008

Rao gin tao rao

Rough summer.

I think I'm more or less recuperated now. At least I find myself smiling pretty often again, instead of spontaneously combusting in tears when someone asks me if I'm okay. (Embarrassing, no?)

I think I spent a lot of the summer trying to convince myself that I was happy. I mean, I had every reason to be having a good time. For goodness sake, I was working on a dream project with one of my heroes, why shouldn't I be happy?

I really hate admitting it, but the part of summer after couch boat tore my soul out of my chest and staple gunned it to a bed of rusty nails. My jaded level has tripled.

Imagine a purely hypothetical situation: You have a friend from Zambia. A really good person whom you trust. You invite him to apply for IDDS and he's accepted, mostly because you championed him and his skills when the committee was going through applications. Needless to say, you feel pretty responsible for his well being.

Now you're standing in his room, half communicating because his English isn't that great and your Nyanja is worse. He tells you he needs help, that his job has stopped paying him back home because they've run out of money (you know it's true) that he can't support his family and he doesn't know what will happen when he goes back. "Maybe I die," he says, "Maybe I die." He asks you for money, and all you can do is stare at the shoddy laptop he bought at Swapfest. He's worrying about his family starving and he bought a laptop at Swapfest.

Do you give him money? Does he mean it? Is he using you? Do you give him money as a friend (you have before), or twist the system to extend the scholarship you gave him as an IDDS organizer? Then again, why did he spend his original scholarship money on a laptop? (It was for food expenses.) A frickin lousy laptop, does he even know how bad it is? Who in bloody hell sold him that festering pile of electronics, anyway? Who buys a laptop when he's worried about his family?

What a twisted system to be caught in, money for electronics instead of food, instead of family. Flaming cows.

Multiply that situation by 3 individuals, add 3 hospital visits, smear on some tough decisions, and lather with 18 hour working days.

Huh. I cracked.

I think there were only a few days where it was pretty obvious, but I've seriously felt very off-kilter for a few months now.

After a few very awkward conversations where my parents innocently asked how my summer had gone and heard only stony silence as I choked back tears on the other line, my mom half-jokingly sent me a book about depression. My immortal brother sent me a care package: a black wifebeater with a ghost ranch white cow skull silk screened on a triangle of recycling arrows: "RECICLE O MUERTE." I wore it for three days straight.

Haha, oh man, I never would have expected to be so scarred after this event.
Now I think I'm gently drifting back into status quo, instead of trying to shake free of the feeling that all my vitals were torn apart and only my skin was holding me together.

A lesson re-learned for the 567th time:
People are great -- Sean and Jona kept me in one piece.
As much as I want to picture myself as a loner, it's other people who pull me out of my darkest places.

A lesson I've always been learning for the first time:
It great to be in love. Even though my life is as up-and-down-and-struggle-against-apathy as it ever was, it's pure bliss to wake up and fall asleep with the same person. And hey, now I can do chin-ups, pull-ups, and write with my left hand.
As much as I want to picture myself as a loner, it's other people who push me to soaring heights.

09 July 2008


I present you with one of the proudest moments of my life:

Yes, that is a couch floating royally on the Charles. What a magnificent way to watch the fireworks.

Jona, Sean, Becky, and I worked like dogs to pull it off. Completely worth it for the looks people gave us when we carried it to the water (think about 6 people trundling down the street with this beauty), and for all the cheeky comments from other people in canoes, rafts, rowboats, and kayaks.

I can die happy now, I captained a floating coach, I can't ask for much more than that.

03 July 2008

Sunny Days

There's a man in my life. Tall...dark...handsome...47...married...with kids...and did I mention he lives in the Republic of Guinea? I've never met him face to face, but I can spot his voice in a heartbeat because we yell at each other on the phone every day.

Cellphone rings at 6 am, there's a long string of numbers on the display
[groggy, wiping sleep from eyes]
{crackle crackle hiss crackle}
"Hallo, Miss Lo-rah?"
"MISS LO-RAH? I NEED {crackle FIZZ FIZZcrackle crackle} EMBASSY {crackle} PAS{hiss} PLEASE, MISS LO-RAH."
"IT IS VERY BAD HERE. I AM SUFFERING. THE EMBASSY {fizzyhisshiss} VISA WON'T{cracklefizz}...."
"PLEASE, MS. LO-RAH, {hissycracklefizz}..." and so forth.

Craziness. Pure madness.

I tried to mail him some important papers from MIT for his visa application through DHL. Then the troops in Guinea decided to riot because they weren't being paid, and DHL stopped delivering to Guinea. Lamine had to travel 800 km from his home to Conakry where violence was the worst, and he was stuck there in limbo, waiting for my stupid papers that DHL was holding.

Man, I nearly went to bits. I couldn't talk to him on the phone. I couldn't tell if he was reading my emails with all the power outages. None of my text messages were reaching him, although his flowed in every day--"ms laura the solders catch the son of the president", "laura i wait for you .lamine diakite".

And you know what? After 3 months of shuddering with frustration and guilt at the sound of my phone, LAMINE GOT HIS VISA!!!!!! The guy is clearly brilliant. I knew before that he speaks 22 languages, but anyone who can navigate the bureaucracy at an American Embassy and wrestle out a US visa in those conditions is a bloody magician.

It's true, I can finally say he's coming to IDDS now, I booked his ticket. I feel very strangely entangled for a person I've never met. It seems like I've thought about him constantly for weeks on end, even in my dreams I can't escape him. So I figure we're either going to be best friends or worst enemies. I can't help wondering if he's a complete charlatan who conned his way into a free ticket to the US.

Meanwhile, the first of the international organizers have arrived and IDDS kicks off full blast ummm...1.5 weeks from now!!!

And finally, a few more lingering thoughts on consumption. An MIT class calculated that even homeless people in US have carbon footprints that are twice the global average. (They divided the footprint of the infrastructure in the US --roads, schools, military, libraries--equally among everyone.) So, hey, even if you make no money and spend no money, you're still wrecking the environment.

Woon showed me the Happy Planet Index, which calculates the countries that have the happiest people with the lowest footprints. Apparently, island nations win this game, with Vanuatu at the top of the pile (7.4 happiness rating, 68.6 years life expectancy, and if everyone lived by their standards, we would need 1.1 Earths worth of resources. In comparison, the US and Germany have similar ratings but the US needs 9.5 friggin planets, while Germany needs 4.8 planets--half of the US impact.)

So maybe all the eco-puritans should flee to Vanuatu?

In the mean time, I still cling to my belief that individuals make a difference, whether it's through choosing to live lightly on no funds, fund your favorite world-changing charities, create/run your favorite world-changing business, or enjoy your own life heartily.

07 June 2008

Light Killing Ducks

Dear World,

You are a strange place.

Today, Muhammad Yunus shook my hand. And reached out and grabbed my shoulders in a friendly, chummy way. Twice.

I've now got a severe case of happiness-zinging-through-veins.

Wouldn't it be awesome to be able to make people happy just by touching them?

Yunus is a Nobel Peace Prize winner who founded Grameen Bank, which lends small amounts of money to impoverished people (mostly women) with no collateral. Microcredit. What a simple, revolutionary idea. Grameen has loaned over 6 billion dollars to over 7 million people since its inception and inspired numerous similar institutions such as Kiva.org.

In other words, he is a god. And he also happens to be friendly and charming and warm and...he shook my hand.

But really, he's just a person. And it's stunning to think that any hero is just a person who tried hard until they broke through.

Which brings us back to the impact that an individual can have.

Thanks a ton for the comments to my last post --I read them all immediately, and I've been rolling your thoughts around in my head for the past couple of months.

I wrestle a ton with the individual-vs-societal good and the impact-vs-pain questions. I have very scientifically concluded that INDIVIDUALS MAKE A DIFFERENCE. Change happens when individuals are audacious enough to think they can make a dent. Yunus started with the goal of trying to assist one poor person every day, and it was through talking to poor people that he came up with the idea for Grameen bank.

That being said, I also fervently believe in a high quality of life, and it's pretty hard to enjoy life when I'm fretting over every friggin detail. For example, it doesn't make sense to cry over every paper plate I throw away. Paper plates are not going to destroy the world. Their overall impact is rather low. Choose your battles, right? I'd much rather think of clever ways to cut out cars from my life than drag along my own dishware everywhere I go. Actually...umm...that doesn't sound like such a bad idea after all...

....because the second part is to reframe what "high quality life" means. Okay, this will sound super dorky, but I've been reframing annoying painful things as challenges. For example, I'm now an avid trashcan fisher for recyclables. I'm shameless about reaching into trashcans to rescue aluminum cans. I used to be slightly uncomfortable about it (won't people think I'm weird?) but then somehow it became twisted into a little challenge to prove to myself how brave I am about bucking social norms. (Hahaha, oh man, I'm such a rebel...I warned you it was dorky!)

Is pulling cans from the trash going to save the world? Um, no. But maybe one or two other people will see me do it and be inspired pull a can out of the next trashcan they walk by...and then we'll all be beaten to shreds by the homeless people who make an income from collecting recyclables in shopping carts.

Ahem. In any case, my rules are 1) Choose your battles and 2) Make your battles fun, which brings us to: 3) Vote with your money.

Every cent I spend, I'm telling corporations, businesses, NGOs, non-profits, etc. how I think the world should be run. (**beep**beep** Warning: extreme eco-puritan chatter follows.) I refuse to eat chocolate that isn't fair trade because of the rampant child slave labor involved in harvesting chocolate. It's hard to turn down chocolate, I'll admit, and at first I wasn't enthused about spending an extra couple of bucks on fair trade chocolate bars. But now I think of it as voting. If I buy a cheap chocolate bar, it's like someone bribing me to agree that child slave labor is okay. If I buy a fair trade one, that's $2 of voting for chocolate companies that I think are doing the right thing. Not only does the extra $2 buy chocolate and a vote, it also buys an ego-trip and a sense of self-righteousness. That's $2 well spent.

Consequently, I've also started giving more of my money away. Little bits at a time, maybe $25 a go when I get pleas from Amnesty International, Avaaz.org, or the Obama campaign. I'm a penny-pinching curmudgeon, so this is a huge step for me. It makes me feel like an awesome person to reach for my debit card instead of the delete button. Maybe they'll spend my entire donation on sodas and paper plates for an office party where all the cans end up in the trash. Regardless, I really think these groups are working to make fundamental change in the world, and I like believing that I'm part of an expansive network of people who also chip in little bits to create a roaring vortex of cash.

Individuals make a difference. Sometimes making bold change is about one little change at a time. And being obscenely stubborn.

01 April 2008

Cannon Fodder

Okay. Fine. I'll admit it--I'm a friggin eco-puritan. The worst kind. The kind that snarls at Hummers while her fingers freeze off because she's biking. The kind that silently screams in frustration when her housemates take 25 minute hot showers, and the kind that's utterly disgusted by the sheer amount of mass-produced meat that Americans consume.

I typically squelch these outbursts and channel them towards pedaling faster, finding ways to shorten my own showers, or cooking another batch of lentils for lunch. I firmly believe people have a right to pursue enjoyment and more importantly, throwing a tantrum or stepping up on a eco-soapbox isn't going to convince other people that I'm right and they're wrong. No one likes being lectured (or screamed at). Besides, who am I to talk? I'm taking 2-3 international flights a year now, plenty enough to obliterate all my other minuscule attempts to cut waste out of my life.

I'm not an angry person. I rarely get into arguments, and I can't remember the last time I yelled at someone. Usually, things just slide off my back, so I'm fairly puzzled by this boiling eco-rage that's bursting out more and more frequently.

Why do these things bother me so much?

I attended the down:2:earth convention in Boston this weekend, where I was completely inundated by eco-propaganda. It was eco-puritan heaven--chatting with the folks at Equal Exchange (the fair trade coffee/chocolate/etc company), tasting water beetles and cicadas at a bug cooking demo, learning about Sol Solution and Mass Bike, watching an expert carve up a locally farm-raised pig carcass, and re-discovering The Food Project.

During a presentation on climate change by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the speaker was talking about floods and droughts and she said, "Basically we're going to have less water when we need it and more water when we don't." And I burst out laughing. When she started talking about the effects on fish populations and tree diversity, I rolled my eyes. I didn't care. I've been swimming in don'tpollutesavetheenvironment since first grade, and I'm glad it's receiving much more popular attention, but frankly by now I've grown dead sick of hearing "global warming" bleated everywhere.

So why the eco-rage?

Then I heard Bill McKibben speak, and it suddenly hit me that it's not the pollution or the carbon footprints that bother me, it's the blatant disregard for other people. That's right, drive that bloody Hummer while soldiers die in Iraq to satisfy our oil habit, go ahead, burn a few more gallons so the rising temperatures can encourage the spread of dengue fever and fill stretchedtothelimit crumbling clinics in Bangladesh. Don't worry, it won't harm you. Just turn the air conditioning up. Yeah, maybe Boston will flood, but hey, they'll build dams to keep the ocean at bay. You really shouldn't trouble yourself about all the farmers in Mali that will lose their crops to the flooding rainwaters and their children will die because they won't have the nutrition to fend off disease.

I do believe everyone has the right to pursue enjoyment. Life is short. We don't all have to shave our heads, wear burlap sacks, and retire to caves to meditate. Maybe Hummer drivers really enjoy their Hummers. But fuck it, couldn't you have chosen a slick little sports car instead?

America has 4% of the world's population. And we use 25% of the world's resources. That's disgusting.

Hahahaha...and here's the sick part, I'm willing to bet Hummers don't contribute much to the enjoyment of their owners. Despite tripling affluence in the developing world since the 1950s, overall happiness has declined. McKibben argues that as we grow richer, we become more isolated from one another in our nice suburban homes, and our communities are withering. Humans are social animals. They like interacting. Hummers are big metal boxes that separate you from the rest of the world. Go ahead, pop some more prozac.

Yes, I'm simplistic. It's part of being an eco-puritan. Disagree with me? Disagree with anything I've said? Please post a comment!!! I would really really like to hear another viewpoint on this that isn't the groupthink I've been wallowing in. Know someone who will violently disagree? Please send them here or have them drop me a line.

P.S. Dear housemates, even though your showers sometimes drive me crazy, I still love you. At least you don't take 2-3 international flights every year...

04 March 2008

Of shoes and ships

These rock my socks. Especially the old man with the bike/boat. I want to be like him when I grow up.

Pedal-Powered Washing Machine
Coconut Tree Climber
Modified Scooter
Amphibious Bike

26 February 2008

Mud, it's what's for dinner.

There's a fine line between rock star and monkey. Everywhere I walk in Linda Compound, kids call out, "Muzungu! Muzungu! Muzungu!" ("White person!") or "Bazungu! Bazungu!" when there's more than one of us. Of course, it's never shouted quite the same way...

There's the football chant: Mu-zun-gu! Mu-zun-gu!
Suprise/concern: Muzungu? Muzungu? MUZUNGU!
and I've even seen kids run around in panicked circles and yell it frantically like they were yelling "FIRE! HELP! FIRE!"
Kids have also been known to spontaneously start laughing or crying. (More than one mother has told me, "You're scaring my baby.")

I have instant celebrity here. Just add water. And lots of mud. If I'm walking with a Zambian friend, everyone stops us to greet me, ask who I am, shake my hand. Everyone wants to meet the muzungu. If I'm alone, I walk faster, trying to outrun the shouts of strangers. Everyone wants a muzungu to live at their house, it's unfair that some people are hosting two muzungus. Forget learning mad guitar skills and taking the nation by storm: all I need to become a full fledged rock star is move to a small African village.

[Enter monkey.]
Zambian stranger: Good afternoon!
Zambian friend: No, no. Greet her in Nyanja!
ZS: Oh? Mwachoma bwanji?
Monkey: Bwino. Bwanji?
ZS: [Laughs] You speak Nyanja?
Monkey: Nipunzira chinyanja. (I'm learning Nyanja)
ZS: [Laughs] That is good. It is good you learn the local language!
ZF: [in Nyanja] Wait, wait, it gets better. Ask her what she eats here.
ZS: What are you eating here?
Monkey: Nsima, of course.
ZS: [Laughs] Oh really?
ZF: [In Nyanja] Go on, ask her what she eats it with.
ZS: What do you eat with nsima?
Monkey: [suppresses eye roll at ZF] derare (okra), kapenta (small fish), kalembla (sweet potato leaves), vinkubala (caterpillars), chiwawa (pumpkin leaves)...
ZS: [Laughs] That is good. You are eating real Zambian food. I thought they were feeding you rice or bread. [Laughs] Where are you staying?
Monkey: In Linda Compound.
ZS: Here?! Are you serious? You are living like us?
Monkey: Ummm...yes.
ZS: [Laughs for a long time] You are crazy.

Walk 3 meters down street.
Repeat scene 70 times.
Good monkey.
Very good monkey.

All the food left on my plate actually does go to African children. My house grandmother gives it to the kids that hang out in her yard. I don't need to lose weight, but if I did, this is a damned effective way to do it...I may need some caloric therapy when I get back to the states.

Ambuya Theresa (Grandmother Theresa) is awesome. Last weekend she bought me a racy pair of underwear as a gift. She also took me to Catholic Mass. I have Catholicphobia and that was one of the top 3 religious experiences of my life. So much music. It felt like half the church was a choir and it shook me to my bones. I kept almost bursting into tears because it was twisting me in such a magnificently beautiful way and I had to fight to repress the tears so I didn't alarm Ambuya because I wouldn't have been able to explain. If you want cultural experience in Zambia, steer clear of tourist traps and go to church instead. Ha, and she even passed me 500 kwacha during for the offering, just like my mom used to do when I was young enough to be going to church with her.

Oh, and I also happen to be the world's biggest hypocrite. Yes, I love the dirt-bare simplicity of Linda Compound, and yes, I have the option of going back to my cushy life in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I have the choice. And I obviously don't choose to live in Linda. And yes, I still desperately want to explain to people in Linda all the intangible things they have that rich Americans don't, like the ability to laugh at anything, lush social face-to-face contact with so many friends and family members, fresh air, so much time spent outside...and I'm ashamed when they ask how many cars my family has or ask how much it costs to fly from the US to Zambia. But even if I had the power, I would never replant them in a suburban American setting. It would strip the richness from their [snicker] poor lives.

And yes, I hate the word "poor." The developing world isn't full of poor huddled masses. It's full of creative, innovative, hard working, laughing, singing people. And yes, they have problems. But it breaks my heart to see so many people want American lives, and I just wish I could show them that it's empty and show how rich they are already. See? Complete, utter hypocrite.

[Written Jan 27th, while I was still in Zambia Now I'm USAland where I stare at computer screens and get bone-soaked bike riding in the rain.]

16 January 2008

Isn't it?

I feel like I’ve been here my whole life. It’s so hard to remember what the states are like now. Maybe someone I know used to live there.

I have a cold. [snicker] My first thought when I woke up with a sore throat was, “Wait a minute…you can get normal diseases in Africa, too?” Hahahaha…

The whole group is now in Linda Compound, a community outside of Lusaka, the major city. It’s about an hour from Disacare on mini buses. We’re working with Light of Hope, a community center that acts as an ad hoc clinic. Kind of. At any rate, it’s the base of operations for a lot of people who are incredibly motivated and actively trying to improve their community.

Chitenge are the long cloths that Zambian women wrap around and use as skirts, or to carry babies on their backs. They usually have super cool designs, but they’re also used as billboards. I’ve seen plenty with campaign slogans and pictures of Mwanawasa, the current Zambian president, and churches often print and give away chitenges with religious messages.

Right. So, a few nights ago, I found myself wearing a “Jesus Saves” chitenge with pictures of the bleeding Christ, scrubbing at an nsima-encrusted pot with a piece of mealie meal bag and sand, surrounded by a dozen tiny curious children, who giggled/screamed and ran away when I looked up at them. It was the best dishwashing experience of my life.

Most of us are staying with local families in Linda. My “Zambian grandmother” is Theresa, a widow with six children who are grown and married. She lives in a two-room mud/concrete house with a tin roof. I’m super fond of her because she makes me cook and wash as though I was one of her children. We cook one pot at a time over a small charcoal fire, and eat by candlelight. Ha, but wait…the best part is that there’s only one bed in the house. The first night was a little awkward, but the bed is big enough for both of us, so it really doesn’t seem like a big deal now.

It’s incredible. I love her house. I love watching the children play outside at night. The wrestle, jump, cartwheel, circle, sing, joke, push, and even just roll through the grass, laughing and shrieking in delight. No TV, no toys, these children seem so alive. Joyful. Exuberant. Creative. Maybe I don’t spend enough time watching kids, but I’ve never seen anything like it.

But what really scares me is how content I am there. Nothing. There’s nothing but shelter, dishes, food, a bed, and a constant stream of neighbors and friends who drop by to talk. (I still don’t understand most of the conversation, but my Nyanja’s improving.) So much time is spent just sitting in silence. And I think a lot about how easy it would be to move here. Nothing. Right. But then I’d get bored. Or I’d be wasting my life. Or my education. Or I’d disrupt the community…or something.

I hate drunk Zambian men. If anyone ever calls me “baby” again after this trip, I’m slamming his face through the back of his skull.

P.S. The hammermill is looking gorgeous.

09 January 2008

kuli mvula lelo

Back in Zambia again. Funny how I forgot it and how it all comes rushing back. The sound of my Zambian cellphone alarm going off instantly evokes the sensation of waking up early under a mosquito net, disoriented and groggy-eyed, and scrambling out of bed to get dressed, jump on a mini-bus and trundle off to meetings with UNZA deans.

We flew through Nairobi. I rolled my eyes when we had to fill in extra MIT travel paperwork months ago because Kenya was “moderately dangerous”…but now it seems kind of eerie that the riots started days before we flew through.

Lots of rain here. The plan was to take a group of students to remote Mwape in Eastern Zambia, but the rains are so bad that Mwape roads are impassable. So, we're joining the other team that's sticking around the Lusaka city area. Mixed feelings. I love Mwape, and they really need help, so I feel like we're abandoning them...

On the other hand, I get to frickin build a screenless hammermill at Disacare! There are few things more thrilling than puttering around Disacare, hacking metal apart, and dodging welding sparks. Plus, once it's built, a hammermill is loud, noisy, violent, and satisfying. Hahaha, not to mention it also saves lots of backbreaking labor for African women, could provide a reliable source of income for Disacare (they would build and sell them) and some income for Light of Hope (a community organization who can run the mill and grind maize for a small fee.)

Disacare builds wheelchairs. Rough, rugged, tough, comfortable wheelchairs, suited for rocky, rutted dirt roads. It's run by disabled Zambians so they really know what makes a good wheelchair because many of them have to use one. One day when I've settled down a little, I'm buying a couple for my apartment, because they're friggin comfortable. They're definitely my favorite chairs to sit in at D-Lab. It's a fantastic idea...provide awesome employment for physically disabled people in a country that's mostly unemployed, and make mobility aids for other physically disabled people, one circle of wholesome goodness...only problem is Disacare's being smothered by cheap, nasty wheelchairs that are imported from China.

In the developing world wheelchair business, the big customers are large NGOs who buy the wheelchairs to donate them to those who need them. And it's really hard to convince a donor to buy a $400 top quality wheelchair instead of six $60 plastic chairs on wheels that fall apart and cause pressure sores. Imagine a cheap, white plastic four legged chair, the type that can be found on many lawns and porches. Imagine sitting in one of those every day for the rest of your life. It would be okay for the first few hours, but then it would quickly turn into a torture chair. Too bad that also sounds like a good idea: make lots of affordable wheelchairs for the developing world and distribute them. Too bad affordable also means low quality in this case, torture chairs not built to last a week in rough dirt road conditions. But what really breaks my heart are the people who think they're really helping out when they contribute to organizations that distribute these torture chairs.

I read an article this summer about a boy who uses crutches to walk and he raised thousands of dollars by scaling Mt. Kilimanjaro...and donated the money to Free Wheelchair Mission, distributor of torture chairs. How frustrating is that? So, the original point is that Disacare needs to diversify their products if they want to stay alive. Thus, they're looking into building and selling hammermills. Amy Smith--my boss, the one who sends me on these magnificent adventures--designed a screenless hammermill years ago, so we're building one with Disacare to see if it's something they want to build and sell themselves. Hammermills are a big deal in Zambia, because everyone eats nshima, which is made from ground maize.

Haha…something else that seems like a good idea. I’m sure it will fall down soon enough, but hey, at least it’s slightly hopeful for the moment.

P.S. Before I left Santa Fe, I tried to spend a night walking. I managed 11pm-5am. Incredible. Felt like a kid again scrambling over the moonlit hills and crunching in the snow. Found some places I’d never been before.

…but the take home lesson is I need to cool it and not overdo things. I was so tired and fried afterwards that I didn’t walk any of the other nights thereafter.