Presents of the Present

The New Year has brought with it new hopes, new fears, new trials, and new successes. It’s like the backlog of rain prayers piling up in Zambia has finally been cleared, and the skies have opened. Usually the rain starts in late October, is good for a few storms in November, and comes in full-force in December. 2016 was not kind with rain. Here, people often blame ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’. Elders, more in touch with ancestral explanations, claim that the cutting of trees has reduced rainfall. I often wonder aloud whether the rain has stopped because people have stopped dancing for rain, and ceased praying to their ancestors for its life-giving waters.

A rainy season view from our front door
A rainy season view from our front door

Luckily, most farmers heeded the warnings and waited until early or mid December to plant. Since late December, and especially since the turn of the year, the rain has been steady – every day, often many times. And people are thankful – rain is not just a relief from the relentless sun and heat, it is also the giver of life – to the soil, to the trees, and to the crops which nourish the souls who plant the grain.

The Lukupa River has begun filling, along with our hopes for a good harvest bringing neighbors, friends and family a year of plenty. Although Mother Nature has done her part this season, the Government has failed to provide the money it promised farmers for fertilizer. With each new budding hope comes another challenge. Each year those who produce our food are pushed to the brink. It’s as if the powers that be are testing how far small-scale producers can be stretched before they break. Bashi Mwango laughs nervously when we talk about the situation – he has a hectare of maize awaiting fertilizer – his family’s livelihood awaiting long-ago promised inputs. His chuckle reminds me that sometimes laughter is all that can keep us from crying. How is it that those who produce the food suffer, while we the consumers overeat? How have things become so out of balance, and where do we begin to recalibrate the scales?

Ruined maize in the fore-front, with thriving maize behind

The difference between those who managed to get fertilizer (background), and those who didn’t (foreground)
It’s a difficult question – especially because each community has its own tinkering which is needed. Here, we have the privilege of viewing things from ‘an outside perspective’. Zambia is lucky – it hasn’t poisoned its soil beyond repair, yet. But things are moving rapidly, powered by the brainwashing system that we call ‘advertising’. The move away from expensive and untimely inorganic fertilizer towards organic and naturally-available alternatives is not easy. Soil is a living thing, it takes time to recuperate after being overloaded with nitrogen and pushed out of balance. It takes money, time, coordination, and love to remember time-tested ways of cultivation.

Kapembwa and I are slowly embarking on a path of farming maize without fertilizer. Rather than advise without expertise, as I did in Peace Corps, I find that a better path is to try it ourselves first. If it works for us, it can work for others. Each person can come to view activities on our farm and then ‘transplant’ whatever techniques she/he thinks will fit within her/his individual farming set-up. Along these lines, in June, we are bringing in a Peace Corps Extension Volunteer couple named Liz and Ray to live with us and help us learn and teach organic agriculture. They will be living in the house of Samuel, who has returned to his home in Kansas to be with his family. He will still be visiting us from time-to-time, and is still very much a part of our family.

While we are excited to welcome Liz and Ray to our family, they are not the only new additions we expect in 2017. Claire is about 5 months along, and is proudly showing (she can’ t hide it anymore). We are excited about bringing a new life into this world, to live with us on the farm and teach and learn with us. I think of all of the personal and spiritual growth that a child will bring, and I am filled with happiness. We are sure to face lots of tests – and grow as people – as we invest ourselves so thoroughly in the life of our child. Claire is beaming – it’s like she was born to fulfill this mission of mothering. I am also thankful for the connection we share, and the new link that will further unite us. I look forward to strengthening our relationship even more through the beautiful and spiritual experience of birthing and raising a child.

Claire, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen
Claire’s Baby Belly
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We just hed a wonderful visit from each of Claire’s parents. Her mom came first, and stayed at the farm for 3 weeks, enjoying the rain and the river. It is a rare person who can make the transition into this culture and just relax, laugh with people, and just be. It was nice that Sue stayed long enough to really see how we live, and immerse herself in our daily patterns of outdoor living (cooking over a fire, watching the birds, working in the garden, and swimming in the river being a few of the highlights). We miss her presence, but know she’ll be back soon. The birth of a first grandchild is not an event to be missed…

Just after Sue left, Bill (Claire’s dad) came. His visit was also filled with joy and relaxation. He came first with his older brother George (who stayed 10 days), and then Bill remained for another month afterwards. We chatted, visited with neighbors, traveled to Lake Mpulungu and the local waterfall, and generally just enjoyed each other’s company. It was nice to have Bill here for such a long time – I feel like it is the first opportunity we have had to get to know each other, and of course Claire was happy to spend time with him. Upon leaving, he mentioned that we should make our farm a therapy center for relaxation and reconnection with nature. It dawned on me that we already have – it’s just that our clients are friends and family, and they reciprocate with love and generosity beyond measure. I feel blessed that both of Claire’s parents are such open-hearted, generous and easy-going people. It’s not everyone who enjoys the company of their partners’ parents!

Billy Boy get his hair did
Billy Boy gets his hair did

Things in town are going well. The program is growing, and Claire’s ability to help people and relate with the girls is astounding. Earlier in January, the beginning of the school year here, at least 10 women each day would be lined-up outside the office looking for help. Claire has such a big heart, she would just help everyone if I didn’t put on the ‘accountant’ hat and stop her. It’s a difficult thing to watch – so many hard-working, strong, spiritual women who have little or no means to make money.

Certainly a culture of dependency has been created through years of poorly applied socialist policy, combined with aid systems claiming to ‘help’ but whose end results are often detrimental. When Bana Mulenga comes to the center looking for work because none is available, I remind myself that it’s important to empathize with HERstory, rather than push aside the flood of feelings her struggle unleashes within me by stereotyping her using grandiose theories of social stagnation rooted in HIStory. What would I do, if I were her? Probably pray for rain, and fertilizer, so that I could grow enough food to support my family. And ask those who have to help – since that is our cultural and moral duty.

So we do what little we can, thanks to help from many of you! And each day we are humbled that what seems so little from an American perspective is so significant here in Zambia. Another scale that needs balancing…

Sarah Mwango (a promising Bakashana Grantee) and her family
Sarah Mwango (a promising Bakashana Grantee) and her family

The girls in the program are now 44. Twelve of them are boarding in the office which we rent in town – a five bedroom house which now holds 15 computers and offers free computer classes to women in Kasama. We have also been granted another three years working with MTV (yep, Music Television – they offer grassroots charity support now), to work with traditional female leaders (BanaCimbusa) to integrate HIV/AIDs sensitization and women’s empowerment into their customary ceremonies for young girls.

Computer classes at the resource center
Computer classes at the resource center

Of course, we men need to be sensitized too, and Claire and I have discussed how that might look. For now, time and money won’t allow. I suppose I would try to integrate the trainings with agriculture, because that is the main livelihood for people here, and so people identify with it. Of all the scales, the one which is most out of balance is the patriarchy here (sound familiar?). The decision-makers are almost all men. We, as a sex, tend to be more self-interested, and children and familial concerns are left to women who are often not given the means to resolve them. It is a system which leaves many hard-working women without means to support themselves, without the right to refuse their husbands, only the obligation of “obeying thy husband”.

Yet maybe balance lies in perspective. After all, it’s the women who have continued to save the culture – through their ceremonies, through their songs and togetherness, through their smiles and laughter. I have some great friends here who are men, though they are not as plentiful as I would like. It is hard for me to empathize with men who take what little money their family has and throw it down the bottomless pit of alcohol.

The heart of this place is good. It shows itself every day. Living here is a beautiful lesson in patience. People are close to the land and the lessons of Mother Nature, which we can quickly forget when living in the illusion of control created by modern, technological society. Yesterday I rode my bike to the market to get some rice for a workshop we are having with the Bakashana grantees. On the way, I noticed that most of the stalls had been emptied of wares, but it was still early afternoon. While I am worthless at predicting rain here (it can come from any direction!), locals know – it’s like a sense or understanding I can’t perceive. I bought rice just in time to encounter a torrential downpour. In the market, with winds raging against rickety market stalls and rain pounding on iron sheets, it resembled a kind of battle.

The woman selling me rice quickly ushered me into her storage place, where we would stay dry. She then rushed back out to cover her things – if her rice or maize got wet, it would spoil the grain and her livelihood. We stood huddled in the cramped room for almost an hour – the rain hammering so loudly on the roof we couldn’t even talk. So we sat with our thoughts, watching footpaths turn to streams, and roads turn to rivers. My thoughts flowed along with the water, from near to far, wondering how I ended up in this place, with these people, far from the world I once knew.

As we watched the rain, I found gratitude for the contemplative time that Mother Nature had set aside. Such moments of presence should be every moment, but without her reminders I often forget to be here – as my mind races to and fro. It is through Mother Nature that I am relearning, every moment, to simply be grateful for what is right in front of me.
I think of the agendas of ‘development’ and the global push toward ‘progress’: if this place could just ‘develop’, the paths would all be paved, and all the stalls would be indoor stores. If this place would ‘modernize’, then all the roads would have drainage, and potholes would not slow us down. If Zambia would just ‘westernize’, then people would spend more time making money to buy more things, rather than treating time as if it is a rubber band. Would people be happier then?

And then my mind relents: I sit here, right now, with a woman I don’t know, huddled against the rain, as we share a part of our mutual existence together. The lessons of Mother Nature fall from the sky – presents of the present – not to be lost in the hum of machines and the honking of cars.

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