Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Photos of Village life

This is the village church before it filled up. The sunroof in not intentional.

Mr & Mrs. Simbotchwe standing proudly infront of their home.

The hut where I stayed, before we took the antenna to the neighbors. (sorry I don't know how to rotate it)

The village watering hole, and fishing pond.

This was the scenery that greeted us every morning!

Perceptions of Poverty

I recently spent a weekend living with a family in rural southern Zambia, getting to experience real village life. From one angle their lifestyle was beautiful and should be sustained at any cost. From another angle I saw poverty, dependency and vulnerability, and a lifestyle that can’t last with economic development. So I decided to write two accounts of the same weekend from slightly different perspectives. Enjoy..

Poverty is Vulnerability
As I went to the village for my first weekend stay, I felt the awe of people being able to live off the land and fend for themselves. There is a certain romantic fantasy about being completely independent, simply relying on your own hard work, year after year for your own wealth.

However after spending some more time in the village I came to realize how vulnerable people living in the village really are. They are no longer distant from the problems of the cites. Hunger, disease, and abject poverty are rampant.

I spent my time staying with Mr. Simbotchwe and his family. He was the headman of his village and the father of one of the better off families. Mr. Simbotchwe spent a number of years working with Zambian Railways in the cities, and has decided to retire in the village where his grandfather lived.

When asked how his farm is doing he replied “I’m struggling to find help”. Mr.Simbotchwe employed one man to help herding the cattle. “My children have all left to the cities to look for jobs and gain an education”. Of their 12 children, they were left with only the youngest boy, Willy is 3 years old and certainly not fit to help. There are also a number of their grandchildren living with them, all too young to make a serious contribution on the farm. Since Mr. Simbotchwe himself was educated, he sees the value in allowing his children to seek an education, but the direct result is that Mr. and Mrs. Simbotchwe along with one hired help have to manage the entire farm.

As we grabbed our rods and headed to the local fishing hole, I came to realize that we weren’t there just to fish. We brought along 6, 40L jugs that we would fill with the stagnant pond water. We used this pond water for everything, drinking, cooking, bathing etc. I was fortunate enough as a foreigner that I could add my clorine mixture to the water before I drank it. But when I asked Mr.Simbotchwe “We have run out of clorine and I have not been able to get more”, after taking a sip of the water he added “It is just a risk we have to take everytime we drink this water”. Diarrhea is one of the biggest killers in Zambia, and drinking water from an open stagnant source like this pond, is one of the biggest causes. This is something that is totally preventable, but its not happening.

This year Mr. Simbotchwe will not harvest any sorghum. His plants were decimated by bollworms and birds. Since he has a limited amount of labor on the farm he was forced to hold off on planting his Sorghum until he was done planting his maize. As a result of this late planting Mr. Simbotchwe’s Sorghum field has gone to waste, he can’t even use it for cattle fodder since the ruined sorghum would be poisonous to the cattle. If Mr. Simbotchwe would be a farmer in the west he could have used a tractor to cultivate his field at the proper time. He could have used pesticides to kill the bollworm before they destroyed his crop, and he could have used bird bangers to keep the birds off his Sorghum. But the reality now is that Mr. Simbotchwe will have no income this year, and he will be eating only Maize for the next 11 months, with the hope that next years harvest will be better.

One very positive thing on Mr. Simbotchwe’s farm is that he was recently blessed with four new cattle. For most farmers this would be a typical yearly event, but a cattle disease has recently struck Sikaunzwe and they’ve lost 95% of their cattle. Where there was once over 1000 cattle, there are now just a few. The impact of this will really be felt next December when people want to plow their fields and have nothing to pull their plows.

The project that I’m here working with is trying to introduce a grain which grows much easier in the high drought prone climates of Southern Zambia. We’re giving them seeds, and teaching them how to grow these improved varieties, then providing them with a market if they choose to sell it back to us. In theory it is a simple project that should have been done years ago, but even now there are huge barriers that are preventing this project from being an immediate success.

Many of the certified seeds that were purchased for the farmers turned out to be bad seeds that produced a mixed variety of plants with very little yield. Unfortunately these farmers have gotten nothing to make up for their losses. There is no insurance company for farmers like there is in Canada that will pay them to ensure that they don’t starve this year.

There is no doubt that these villagers have a tough life and that they deserve better. It is hard to believe that in a world so wealthy that some can be so poor. The solutions are know, but implementing them appears to be the problem. Sometimes it is challenging to be here and wonder how this can exist. But I just think for a minute how challenging it was back in Canada to try to talk about these issues at a public outreach event, and no one cares to listen to you, and I realize why this poverty still exists.

Development is killing traditional lifestyles
I had been in Zambia for three weeks before I finally made it out for my first village stay. Various things came up that continually got in the way and delayed my trip, but somehow I had a feeling of relief after every delay. I was really nervous about staying in the village, I was worried about all the things that I was going to have to give up during my time there. Where would I get my water, what would I have to eat, where will I sleep, what about wild animals and insects, and how will I make conversation with someone who has experienced such a vastly different life than I have. But I knew that I should stay there, I’m working with and for these farmers, and I need to better understand their lifestyles and values, so I finally made it to the village for a two night weekend stay.

During the hour long drive from Livingstone out to Sikaunzwe, I was informed that I did not yet have a place to stay, there was no one expecting me. We arrived to the milk co-op and we met Mr. Simbotchwe there, when we asked if I could stay for the weekend, he just said yes. He didn’t seemed too concerned about thinking about whether of not his place was clean enough, or if the t.v. was working, or if he or his wife had to work over the weekend, he just said yes without thinking about it. I’m not sure what his plans for the weekend were, but he definitely shifted them to accommodate me. Still being completely unaware of what happens during a village weekend I decided to just ask outright. Mr. Simbotchwe responded with “Well we can go for a stroll around the farm to find the dairy cow, once we get some worms we can go fishing at the dam, then we can have some chicken for dinner.” I quickly realized that this was going to be a pretty fun weekend.

It turned out that the dam was actually just a big pond which was dug when they built the road. This by-product of the road construction now provides water for all the nearby villages, fish for their dinners and beautiful scenery for their enjoyment. A local man actually approached me as I was fishing and inquired if I could “ask my people to dig the dam deeper” I had to explain to him that I didn’t have any connections with any digging companies, and he seemed satisfied with my answer.

As we sat down to dinner I enjoyed the best and freshest meal in Zambia. We had Sorghum Nshima made from the recent harvest, with one of their many chickens and some fresh vegetables on the side, along with some of the fish we caught, I caught a couple one inchers and they tasted great. To follow it up we had some tea with milk fresh from that morning and enjoyed it under the brilliant moonlight.

Just before going for the village stay I was having a big debate with myself about commercial farming being the solution to many of Zambia’s problems, so many of my questions for Mr. Simbotchwe were along the lines of following my hypothesis. I can’t say that I was surprised by his answers, I think most people share the same dreams. “I like being in charge of my fate” he would tell me. Everything that he ate was a direct result of what he’d planted a few months earlier. Mr. Simbotchwe was the epitomy of sustainable living, and he was loving it.

Shortly after dinner I went into my hut and under candlelight tucked into what would be one of the greatest sleeps I’d yet had in Zambia my bed was really comfortable and warm.

The next day we went to church, or at least what was left of the church after the long rainy season had done some damage to the building. It turned out that Mr.Simbotchwe was also a minister and the lack of a complete building did not slow him or anyone else down. Like most Zambian churches this one was full of people singing and enjoying the gospels.

The collection this week was about 7000, which they were really happy about. They have started a collection fund to build a cement block building and eliminate the need of rebuilding the mud and thatch church every year. After about 2 years the fund has collected enough for them to build 400 blocks, and they just purchased 8 more bags of cement. Personally, I am somewhat skeptical that the church will ever be built, the 7000 kwacha collected that week is worth about $2 Canadian but never the less they were quite positive. I kind of hope that they don’t collect enough for the building, just imagine what a great community building exercise if would be when they all come together for a week and re-build their church with nothing but mud, stick, thatching and their bare hands.

While at church I had the privilege of meeting Mrs. Simbotchwe’s mother and grandmother, and since we were living with some of her grand daughters, this meant that I got to meet 5 generations of Simbotchwe’s! Not something you’ll see too often in developed countries, but pretty beautiful to see so many generations all living within a short walk of each other.

Mr. Simbotchwe and his family (wife, son and a few grand children) really displayed to me how brilliant life can be, even when you have so little. He seemed to feel bad that his battery was dead and we had to take his ariel to his neighbors hut to watch the world cup game. But his dead battery allowed me experience of watching a match with 20 other vilagers on a 13” fuzzy black and white screen where you really couldn’t see a thing. I don’t think many people actually knew who was playing, as I was one of the few who could understand the English commentary but everyone enjoyed it none the less. As the commercials came on and advertised fridges and home theatres, I was reminded of some of the contrasts with Canada. Even though we have a fridge and a home theatre, among other gadgets when was the last time I could gather 20 people to enjoy using those gadgets with me?

I left the village thinking about all of the things that I was going to have to give up as I went back to town. The Simbotchwe’s really showed me an amazing side of life, living off the land and being completely one with nature. I left wondering what I was doing in Zambia, did I really want rural villages in Zambia to become more like Livingstone or Lusaka or Canada. There are so many people who give up the village lifestyle to head for the cities, and most end up selling vegetables or cellphone airtime on the streets just struggling to get food on the table.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Sorghum collection and shipping Photos

A pile of unthrashed Sorghum at Mr. Simbotchwe's farm, being saved for home consumption.

A delivery of Sorghum to the co-op.

Loading the Sorghum onto the 10 ton truck before carting it off to Livingstone.

Taking Food from the Starving

Much can be said about the differences about Development and Aid. Simply put, some might say that development is better, it’s long term, it reduces dependency, it’s a hand up and not a hand out. But in the case of the Sorghum commercialization project that I’m working on with EWB and CARE international, the main difference is the direction of the truck.

This project is becoming very popular, we’ve had visitors coming every week, at first I thought it was just because Livingstone is a great destination for a visit, but the truth is that CARE, one of the worlds largest NGO’s is trying a really different style project.

When Mike and I first entered the CARE warehouse we were amazed with the amount of food awaiting a destination. One of the most shocking things was that the quality of Sorghum which was “Donated by the people of the United States of America” (as each bag proclaimed in large letters) didn’t even compare to the quality that the farmers were producing with extremely limited technology in Rural Zambia.

It was interesting to see all the different flags adorning the 50kg sacs of grains, oils, beans and energy supplements. Sweden and the U.S. appeared to be the most generous. It was really frustrating to see the lack of bags that were labeled from as coming from Africa, even though many African countries have huge food surpluses. 70% of Zambia is unused fertile land just waiting and beckoning farmers. There is NO reason that Zambia can not be able to feed itself. But there are many reasons why it is not feeding itself. As anyone here loves to point out the government is to blame, not just for the vast unemployment, but the government actually promotes Maize as the national crop. It was a scheme to focus on one crop, get it right, and move towards food security. The result today, (other than eating corn porridge for breakfast, thicker corn porridge for lunch and dinner, as well as the corn powered energy drinks, and the popcorn we have as a snack before dinner) is that everyone loves Maize the country relies on one crop. This leaves the country being extremely prone to pest and disease which could take the crop of the entire country. Maize also fairs poorly in droughts, which have occurred in 7 of the last 10 years. So hopefully we can all agree that it makes a lot of sense to try growing other crops such as Sorghum which is one of the few native African grains, and is drought resistant.

CARE’s new ground breaking project is extremely simple. Find a group of farmers give them the inputs to grow Sorghum, some lessons on the proper procedures, a market where they can sell it, and give them a hammer mill so they can easily process it for their own consumption. But this project is so different from anything CARE has done in the past. CARE is one of the best when is comes to food aid, which is crucially important and certainly has its place; if people are starving, they need food. But when free food from the US is being given out just after the country has had a bumper harvest it’s hard to believe that it is helping people climb out of poverty and not just destroying the market.

The unconventional nature of this project really struck me, as we were driving back from Sikaunzwe to Livingstone with 10 tons of grade A Sorghum. At one of the checkpoints we were stopped and after we told them that we were with CARE and carrying a load of Sorghum, the guard responded with “There are people starving and you’re taking food away from them!”. As we got to the CARE warehouse and unloaded the 10 tons of Sorghum in a small corner designated to our project, surrounded by thousands of tons of food aid donated by generous people from around the world we realized we were probably the first people with CARE to bring food the “wrong” direction. I really liked Mike’s suggestion of stamping the bags with a Zambian flag and proclaiming “proudly grown by the farmers of Sikaunzwe”.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Some Photos

Sidney of the Kazungula milk co-op weighs the sorghum heads as part of the Sorghum growing competition.

Some of my Zambian Family, they really enjoy Dancing, which they were doing just before I asked to take this picture. Warren (3) is in the pink coat which was not doubt passed down from all the women in the Family.

The number one stop in Dambwa North for your morning bread fix. I generally eat some buns or bread from this shop for breakfast during my walk to the office. Zambians generally won't smile for a picture, they will be pretty serious, but I can guarantee they were smiling before and after the photo.

Some great Sorghum drying in the sun before being thrashed. 2 weeks ago I'd never seen Sorghum, in a few months I will be advising farmers who've been growing it for years on what the best methods are to improve their yield. Some call this the "Mozungu factor". (Mozungu is what Zambians call whites.)

A nice shot of our House, note the brooms, bars and the well swept porch!

First update and impressions

First and Highly overdue impressions of Zambia

If you don’t want to read a whole lot, the quick synopsis is that everything is really chill here, the people are great, friendly and accommodating, and the weather is perfect- everyday.

I’ve been here for about 3 weeks, and no longer have any excuses for not writing. Initially the powercord for my laptop was “borrowed” at training, then the backpack that it was in got left in a taxi in Toronto and was never returned. But I have a new cord now, and the CARE office has satellite internet, so I figured I better make use of it and record some thoughts. I’ve been really busy since getting here, the 3 weeks has passed really fast and it’s been to easy to brush off writing.

The plan of this post I to let everyone know I’m still alive and kicking as well as give some of my first impressions of this cool and interesting country.

Update of what I’m up to
I’ve spent the first weeks getting accustomed to Zambia, then to my placement at CARE. Once I got accustomed to all that and I was confident that the summer would fly by I decided to start getting sick and injured, so I’m hopefully just getting over that now. The first sickness was a 30hr period of crazy amounts of vomiting, not yet sure of the cause, but I blame the small whole fish (Kapenta) we had for dinner, I think the hundreds of fisheyes on the plate somehow grossed me out, one of my Zambian friends was convinced that I had Malaria and that he cured me with two bottles of tonic water. Just when I was getting better from the vomiting, my coworker and I were doubling on his dirt bike through some sandy back roads when we fell and twisted my foot, which meant I had to take a day off as I limped to recovery. Then just as everything was looking up I appear to be coming down with a cold, but other than that things are going great.

As I mentioned in the last post I was unexpectedly shifted to Livingstone, which turned out to be a pretty sweet switch. Victoria Falls is magnificent and I dare say more so than Niagara Falls which is hard for me to admit. Livingstone is a bit of a tourist town; for me this means that there is ice cream and donuts available which is pretty much all I look for in a town. I’m staying with a family who is friends with the family that the EWB long term volunteer is staying with. They gave me my own room with a bathroom, although I feel pretty guilty because the rest of the family of 9 is sharing one bedroom and a shed as well as one bathroom that another family also uses. We have electricity and cold running water (my bath water is heating up on the two burner stove (which was purchased the day after I gave my rent money- feels good to help out..) heating up right now). We also have a fuzzy black and white T.V. that gets one channel which plays mostly soap operas and bad commercials that everyone in the family sings along to. The family consists of Mamma, 2 of her 5 children then 6 of Mamma’s grandchildren from her 3 other children who don’t live there. There is also a family of 4 living in the back of the house, they were supposed to move out before I got here, but for various reasons I think they’ll be pretty permanent. So overall it’s a great mix of people although slightly noisy at times, there seems to be pretty much constant screaming especially whenever you have a headache. One funny thing that came out of my being here is that I unknowingly let slip that my Zambian sister (housemate) Linda is 8 months pregnant, and the Father Ike is Mike’s (Long term volunteer) Zambian brother. Before I arrived, Mike’s house had no idea about the pregnancy, so I’ve accidentally caused a bit of drama, but on the bright side, now that the parents know Mike and I are going to see a Zambian wedding pretty soon.

My placement so far seems really great, I’ve spent my first 2 weeks at work just following around the Long Term volunteer Mike Quinn. We’ve been going to the field nearly everyday doing a whole plethora of things from training people how to use a brick making machine that CARE bought them 4 years ago, to judging fields in the Sorghum growing competition, to getting deliveries of Sorghum. I’ve actually been doing a surprisingly large amount of labour; helping load 50kg bags of Sorghum onto the delivery truck, and collecting stones and gravel for the Sorghum processing building. At one point due to some confusion in timing Mike and I and about 4 women from the neighbouring village had to load about 6 tonnes of rocks onto a truck by hand, one or two rocks at a time. It was really amazing to see how hard working some of these women are, one even had a baby on her back as she was helping, then when it started crying she swung it to the front and continued loading stones as the baby breast fed. My specific role in the placement is going to be a research project using positive deviance methods. Positive deviance is pretty cool, it assumes that the answers already exist, the positive deviants (really successful farmers) just need to be identified and displayed to everyone else. I’m going to be partnered with a Zambian agronomist who just graduated and should be joining me next week. We are going to look at a handful of the best and worst Sorghum farmers and try to identify what specific things were done to make some successful and some not. Then develop a training program to make sure that everyone is successful next year. It’s actually a bit trickier than it seems since there are a ridiculous number of factors that play into whether of not someone gets a good yield.

If anyone is interested in mailing me anything, or maybe sending some gifts for my Zambian Family you can reach me at
CARE International Zambia
P.O.Box 60256
Elaine Burtel
Livingstone, Zambia

Also I’ll be checking my e-mail regularly to fire some messages over.

First Impressions
No infrastructure- The lack of infrastructure became very apparent as I was scared of running out of runway as the plane landed in Lusaka. Zambia’s biggest airport had one runway and the terminal was no bigger than a big Canadian grocery store. Most big cities have power and water and that’s about it. Land line phones are very rare, calls to Canada are about $4 per minute. There is pretty limited transportation, Lusaka has “minibuses” which are extended vans that fit about 16 people and blow a lot of smoke, Livingstone just has taxi’s, and walking. I’ve yet to see an oven, the better off people have 2 electric burners and everyone else uses charcoal.

No spice- Food here is really ordinary. On our first day here we went on a scavenger hunt, one of the items that I was supposed to get was spice, so I tried to clarify but there was no point. The only spices you’ll find in Zambia are salt, and if you look hard you can find curry powder, as well as a red powder which seemed to have no flavour. For breakfast people eat plain white bread or buns and drink tea. For lunch and dinner people have nshima (corn meal porridge) and one of about 4 side dishes. In my house it is almost always the same side dish which is rape leaves, tomatoes, a bit of onion, and a lot of salt. It gets pretty boring, but I am starting to like it!

Weather- You never have to make plans around the weather here, weather forecasts would be useless because everyday is the same, sunny, warm and dry. The nights actually get pretty cold, there was frost one night, and I’ve been wearing my toque more than expected. The stars are brilliant every day, which is a pretty sweet bonus. Of my three weeks here, there have been 3 days with any sort of clouds; I am told that there is no chance of it raining all winter.

No takeout- It is difficult to find food, not as bad in Livingstone because there are lots of hungry tourists around, but generally if you want food and it is late at night or early in the morning, the only option is cooking it yourself, and with Nshima that can be quite a process.

Walls- People are super friendly, but for some reason they feel the need to put up big concrete block walls around the houses, often with barbed wire or broken glass on the top, all of the windows have bars as well.

Compounds- All the people live in compounds, which can sometimes be confused with slums. I live in Dambwa North Compound, which is just a big grouping of houses in the north of Livingstone. All the roads to my house are really sandy and difficult to walk unless you follow the path that the cars forge, but then you need to watch out for cars.

Direction of the drain- When I first arrived here I was excited to confirm that draining water spins the opposite way in the southern hemisphere, but I forget which way they go in the northern hemisphere, someone please let me know so I can confirm it!

Used clothes- It is very rare to find a store that sells new clothes in Zambia. The entire clothing market is based on reselling clothes that are donated in the developed world, so everyone here dresses exactly like we would have 15 years ago. Toronto blue jays shirts are quite popular as well as random hockey shirts. There used to be a big textile industry in Livingstone, but it was all shut down when the cheap used clothes flooded the market. This is good because people have nice clothes for cheap and it is an efficient use of resources, but lots of people lots their jobs, Overall Zambia imports way to much stuff.

Beer- Most of the beer is reasonably cheap and quite good, about $1 at a restaurant for a regular beer. There is also the Sorghum beer which is a bit cheaper and still tastes quite nice. On the bottom of the beer scale is the Chibuku or Shake Shake, this is corn mixed with Lactic acid and allowed to ferment, it is about $0.50 for a liter and has a higher alcohol content. The taste is almost like a bad wine mixed with vomit, the reason it is called shake shake is because you need to shake it to disperse the little corn particles throughout the drink. The local brews are a similar mix, but lower quality and much lower price. Lots of people drink too much, and lots of people don’t drink at all, there seems to be a lack of people who drink responsibly, but I suppose that is something to worry about once more people are drinking. I wonder what the correlation is between alcohol consumption and economic development.

No Selection- Unless you want to go to the Shoprite which is like a mini Wal-Mart filled with imported merchandise you selection is very limited. In the markets you can get a few different types of leaves, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, salt, some meats, sugar, corn meal, bread, concentrated juice, chocolate, some random hardware and really not a whole lot else.

Clean streets- All the garbage just goes in piles beside houses and it is burnt. Once in a while you get a nasty whiff of burning garage, but everything is generally really clean. Also sweeping is part of the Women’s livelihood, the sound of the thatch brooms wakes my up in the morning and it’s the last thing I hear before I sleep, they probably sweep the house and the patio about 7 times per day.

Chill- Everyone is really chill, often walking really slow, if you wanted to go somewhere without talking to anyone it is definitely possible, unlike in India. But if you want to talk to someone you can approach anyone and they will most likely be interested in spending some time chatting.

Lack or Stuff going on- There is really not a whole lot going on in Zambia, I’m not sure where they employ so many people. The big one is all the copper mines in the North, everyone else seems to be a teacher, work selling in the market, driving a taxi, farming, or the tourist industry. They could definitely use some investment in some industry to reduce their reliance on imports and create some jobs.

Cars- I was really shocked to see that there are almost no motorcycles in Zambia, 90% of the vehicles are Toyota cars, which doesn’t make sense to me. In Lusaka there was a sign saying that the Japanese government was responsible for lots of the roads here. I wonder if that came with a contract to only buy Japanese cars?

Shaving to the back of a cd- I took me a couple days to realize that there are no mirrors in my house, I think most of the women have small make up mirrors, and I have the back of a cd, which seems to work okay.

Animals- In generally there are only wild animals left in the National parks all the others have been poached out. Fortunately as we drive to the field almost everyday we go through a national park. So I’ve seen a bunch of Giraffes, Buffalo, Baboons, we’ve had to wait for Elephants to cross the road a few times, as well as some impala.

So that is what Zambia seems like to me, most of the posts in the future will be more specific about a particular person or thing.

Also Please let me know if there is anything that you are wondering about, I’m sure I’m missing lots of details so post a response and let me know what you want pictures of and what you want information about. Please let me know what your biggest assumption about Zambia is, and I can try to prove or disprove it.