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.]


Ben Salinas said...

I enjoyed reading this.
I think the points you made about technology are very key, and it is one of the reasons I think engineers have a lot to learn by travelling to developing countries. It's hard to really imagine the impact a technology someone is working on would have in the US, but it is easier once we see a culture very different. It reminds us that we need to be careful with our technologies and what we design because they might have a different effect... such as stopping people from laughing.
So sad.

(that and for the amazing ingenuity which i have not seen rivaled anywhere in the US... forget about IDEO, Google, and Apple... we need Africa)

spang said...

I swear, you carry at least part of the ability to laugh at anything back with you. ;) I can only imagine the experience in Zambia.