June 12, 2011

There are some moments that, when they happen, you just know you’ll remember them for the rest of your life.

That’s how church was today for me.

Anne and I met Leena in Chunga, a community in Matero, to go to Anglican church with her. The entire city was also up and around us, dressed in their Sunday best and clutching their battered bibles. It felt incredible to know that even if our literal destinations differed, everyone around us was going to the same place.

Church isn’t just a place and Christianity isn’t just a religion in Zambia. Faith is all that matters.

The church was no more than a large room – cinder blocks cemented and a simply assembled wooden cross hung on the wall – but everything about it was beautiful. The choir sang passionate hymns in Nyanja and English to God and of hope. When they’d take a break between songs, the voices from all the neighboring church choirs would fill the room.

The minister was so angry, so funny, so happy, so devout that I could have listened to him speak all day (despite how little I understood of the sermon).

I felt more love and more devotion in that small room than I ever have anywhere else. It was surrender to God without abandon; it was the purest form of release. I get chills thinking about it now.

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Chobe National Park

Here are some photos from Chobe National Park in Botswana, taken on June 5. So. Many. Elephants. I was in heaven.We also saw giraffes, hippos (go Colonials!), alligators, warthogs, rhinos, guinea fowl, buffalo, baboons, antelope, impala, monitor lizards, fish eagle…

elephants + hippos = greatest moment of my life

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Sense vs. Sensitivity

June 12, 2011

A few days ago, a group of high school boys from Ireland arrived at the hostel. Their school annually chooses fifteenish boys to help build and repair schools in villages around Lusaka. Before arriving in Zambia, the boys raised around $100,000 for their cause. When they wander around the hostel, they’re just boys; they jump in the pool and play billiards, they strum their guitars and drink an absurd amount of cokes.

We don’t interact much (except for when I taught them bananagrams!), but when we do I am floored by their passion.

These teenagers come back every day from their work in the field completely changed. After working for one day, the boys were so struck by their experiences that they staged a minor mutiny: they refused to go to Lusaka’s only indoor mall to grocery shop after visiting the villages because the two locations were such stark departures from one another.

They each keep journals that they write in for hours. Every night, they have reflection. Some boys cry. They’ve all been affected.

Every time one of them comes to talk to me I am so inspired by the way they are drowning in their experiences. When they go into the field, all this poverty and disease and lack rains down and drenches them. Their shirts get soaked in it and the suffering gets between their toes. They might be able to dry it off if given enough of a break from it, but by the time the squelch has finally gotten out of their shoes, they’re back painting a school or helping revive a dilapidated playground. You can see it in their eyes: they jumped both feet first into this service trip and are moved by it beyond words.

I, on the other hand, have walked through this whole monsoon with an open umbrella.

Just a few years ago I was those boys. I used to become consumed by the cause. I used to feel guilty for wanting things while others lacked.

When I was a freshman in high school I watched Invisible Children in school. That day, I came home and sat with my dad and cried for hours, getting angry at everything from myself for being powerless to God for allowing such things to happen.

When I’d go to India, I’d lose sleep just thinking about the lives led by the children in the Sahara slum school where my sister taught. I would close my eyes at the sight of handicapped beggars but be haunted hours later by the memory.

Today, while Hugh told me about his guilt I couldn’t help but think about how despite this trip I still wanted the new Chloe perfume. I feel decades older and a thousand times less human.

My sensitivity to others’ suffering and my readiness to sympathize are two characteristics I’ve actually always prided myself on. But I guess I developed a hard outer shell at some point before this trip because I just don’t operate that way any more. I’ve learned so much, and I’d be lying if I said I’m not changed in more than a few ways, but I’m not that girl.

I still want to do development work, but I’m a bit embarrassed by how pragmatic I’m being about it. Throughout my time here, I’ve been all about getting the message out and brainstorming ways to make the organization work more efficiently. These boys have reminded me of the visceral side of development work, though; the illogical hemisphere that is so passionate that it obscures rationale, the simultaneous bright-eyed optimism and debilitating worry that makes service a bipolar disposition.

I think that it’s too late for me to be transformed back into that mindset on this trip at least, but I genuinely hope that these sixteen year-old boys from Ireland whose hearts are so big that they hurt never lose their desire to retaliate against a trip to the grocery store or cry after a day of doing good work.

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Adieu (but not really).

I’m typing this post from Boston.

These last three weeks have been some of the best of my life, and I really can’t believe it’s over. I miss Zambia already and hope to return as soon as possible! (Thanksgiving break?)

That said, I dealt with about three simultaneous technhology breakdowns during the last week, rendering any Internet usage I once had impossible. As a result, I haven’t been posting and I miss your feedback! I have at least ten entries in my journal that are yet to be posted, so if you’ll pardon how anachronistic this blog will be, I’m going to start posting all those entries I wasn’t able to before. I’ll get more photos on here, too.

I am terrible at goodbyes. Giving this blog an indefinite end date makes that a non-issue. Read on, dear followers!

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Support Group

I’ve come to see how untouched childhood can be here in Zambia. Children like Richard smile at me so wide that when I try to return the gesture my cheeks start to hurt. Kids like Lofta hug their stuffed animals so tightly that you know they treasure it til the stuffing falls out. Siblings share their meager packs of chips with each other so well that it’s like Mr. Rogers himself is their puppet master.

That pure form of youth was alive and well at today’s support group at the Power of Love care center in Matero.

This morning Anne and I woke up extra early and bought out the grocery store and a very fortunate street vendor’s stock of biscuits, lollipops and (our favorite) Eet-Sum-Mor tea cookies for the event.

I expected something like “life support” from RENT: people talking about their feelings and then hugging at the end.

But this is Zambia, so that was obviously not the case. And thank goodness for it.

Nelly and Leena, both compelling group directors, led the 55ish children in exercises that helped them identify their own strengths, the need for help when they are weak and how to go about seeking advice or counsel. The whole event was so moving – they taught lessons in the “Say and Play” method, where the children were presented scenarios that they would solve while still having fun.

“I’m strong in my muscles!” They’d shout. “I’m strong in my muscles and I’m strong in my heart!”

Mothers and grandmothers, called family caregivers in POL speak, accompanied some of the children. These women played a pivotal role in the progression of the support group, and even participated a bit, as they were trained on how to encourage their children to speak up and speak out about their problems.

My favorite part of the program was when a number of caregivers stood before the group, holding signs that read, “mother,” “ambuya (grandparent),” “friend” and “teacher.” The kids were posed with different problems, from missing a schoolbook to being abused, and were asked to walk toward the person they would seek help for in order to solve that problem. Then they’d explain why they went where they dd. At the end, the children stood in the center of the room and the women holding the signs formed a circled them, while Nelly explained that these people are always there for the children, surrounding them with care and concern.

On a more selfish note, Anne and I had the best time ever because we were reunited with many of the kids who we had come to love during our interviews. We must have hugged Richard, Ephram, Prudence and Blessed dozens of times.

I had the best day at the support group today and I learned so much from the children there. But the rest of the memories will be stored for a longer story. There were so many awesome photos from the event that we couldn’t just pick a few, so below is a little gallery of pictures from it. Also, check the photostream for tons of new pictures! The profile of Daubti is one of my favorites.

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I know that this has nothing to do with Africa

And that I’ve been terrible about updating the blog (I haven’t had wifi!). But in the meantime, why is this song so awesome?

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Part III: Black Sheep

There’s more than one way to make a family. In the US, that’s a motto often touted by social liberals who seek marriage equality. In Zambia, its form is a bit different.

Huts no bigger than a college dorm room will host ten family members. Uncles and aunts adopt orphaned nieces and nephews. HIV-positive single mothers move back in with their parents, leaving the grandparents to care for the child if the mother dies. Cousins call each other brothers and sisters. Some orphans do not know that their grandparents aren’t their biological parents.

And most notably, a combination of ARVs, family planning and sheer chance have led several sets of biological siblings to have different HIV statuses. Oldest and youngest siblings are positive, while the middle five children might be negative. Twins might be HIV-positive, but the cousins they live with aren’t.

Usually, it’s the HIV-positive orphans taken in by HIV-negative relatives. Their status, disconnected from the other family members, renders them black sheep in the family.

Positive or not, HIV/AIDS is a virus that infects the whole family, but aid is not distributed as evenly.

Nonprofit organizations focused on AIDS relief provide extra rations or food stamps to families with the express purpose of providing for the HIV-positive child. But no family works that way. Instead, the increased rations are distributed throughout the family and the sick child suffers.

In impoverished families, everyone is hungry. In impoverished families, everyone is struggling to get to school. It’d be insulting to the whole unit to provide just one of the children with specific care.

Today we met with Lofta, a 13-year-old girl in the Arm’s Reach Care program. Behind their hut is a small enclosure made of twigs and tattered cloth. That is where they shower and use the bathroom. Her relatives, who are poor indeed and still care for her, looked onto the examination with peculiar curiosity. To them, Lofta is no different from the rest of the family, and yet she receives extra outside attention and care.

Nonprofit aid can’t do everything, and it definitely can’t sustain whole families. But whole families, and not just a lone or few sick children, need help.

Selfless caregivers take in black sheep family members, and then do not benefit from it. It’s a system with no winners. It’s a conundrum that leaves development workers baffled.

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