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.