Wednesday, June 28, 2006

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.


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