Friday, May 23, 2008

ET Phone Home

So since my last update, I decided this whole Peace Corps thing wasn’t worth it and decided to ET. No, it has nothing to do with the super-creepy alien movie, ET in Peace Corps talk is Early Termination: resigning/quitting. There were several reasons why I made this decision, and so I would like to explain it all as well as I can in this update, mostly because I’m tired of explaining it all over and over again to everybody. We in the USA tend to have this romantic vision of Africa: the landscape, the animals, the tribal culture, etc. However, during my 3 months in Zambia, I came to realize the reality there. Some people might be mad or disappointed, and that’s ok with me, because I know I made the right decision. Hopefully this long explanation will help them at least see where I’m coming from. Oh and do keep in mind that the disclaimer up at the top right, hehehe.

Animal Cruelty
One of the major reasons that caused me to ET was animal cruelty. Upon arriving, it was an almost immediate realization by myself and all the other volunteers in my intake group that Zambia is full of starving dogs. I’d been to 3rd world countries before, Mexico and Costa Rica, and have seen plenty of mangly-looking stray dogs in each. It’s also understandable that the dogs in Zambia would have the appearance of a fur-covered skeleton: if people can hardly feed themselves and their kids, how could they feed their dogs? After a few weeks, however, I was subjected to hearing, and seeing, these starving dogs being beaten, often with sticks or rocks. This would happen about once each week, nothing too excessive, but it still bothered me. Upon arriving in the village, however, the dog beatings became an every day and every night thing; every day I saw a villager either peg a dog with a rock or crack a dog over the back with a stick. One morning, just after waking up, I was chatting with one of the guys that always seemed to be around me. While chatting, a dog walked by us, about 10 feet away. Without pausing his sentence, he picks up a stick (and a pretty big one at that) and hurls it at the dog, striking it in the ribs and causing it to yelp loudly several times as it sprinted away. I immediately shot the man the most intense and angry look I think I could possibly get my face to appear, which I didn’t really do consciously, because for awhile I thought about pouncing on the guy and beating him with the same stick, repeatedly. On my last night in the village I had another altercation with one of my neighbors, a 23 year old guy who was an over-the-top religious Jehovah’s Witness whose conversation topics were 90% religious. He’s actually very successful in school as far as tests are concerned, speaks good English, and is in grade 11, which is further than the vast majority of Zambians ever get in their education (keep in mind that age in Zambia has nothing to do with what grade you’re in). He’s also one of the people I’d seen throw rocks at a dog. While I was cooking soup for my dinner, he and another young guy were chatting with me, when the (arguably) mangiest dog in Zambia walks up to the circle to check out what we were doing. Luckily it wasn’t beaten, instead it was shooed away by the other guy, who said, "That dog is still alive?" to which my Jehovah-Boy replied, "That dog deserves to die." I snapped back, "How could you say that? How dare you? You call yourself a Christian, and yet you say something horrible like that. It’s a living thing, and God created it. How could you call yourself a Christian and say something like that?" At first, he and his buddy giggled, but they stopped after I said, "You are laughing, but I am not; I’m very serious." He tried to make an excuse for himself by telling a story when he was a boy and was chased by a few dogs. I pointed out that, just as everyone else in this world, at some point in his life he must have been done wrong by another person, and he admitted he had, so I asked if he now hated all people. After he replied, "No," I pointed out that therefore he shouldn’t hate all dogs either. I started going off about how the entire country of Zambia prides itself as a "Christian nation" yet they treat animals horribly and with absolutely no respect. More excuses were made by Jehovah-Boy, and each time I had a great counterpoint to it; I felt like a lawyer, or some great debater, however I was probably too harsh in my criticism of him, because I pretty much called him a bad Christian. This notion sunk in after his buddy said, "Ah, Mr. Phiri, I think he has heard your point" (Phiri means Hill in Chinsenga and Chichewa languages, and happens to be one of the most popular names in Eastern Province, so that’s what they called me). Luckily the next morning I left with my bike to ride 68 km to visit my girlfriend, Kerry.

White Guy in Africa
Though I was prepared for it, being a white person in Zambia is tough. Unlike some of the other countries in Africa that get more attention from tourists (ie. Tanzania) or that have higher populations of white people living there (ie. South Africa), most Zambians, especially those that don’t live in Lusaka, very rarely see white people. They not only are fascinated by the color of our skin, but also in everything we do. Consequently, they stare. People walking down the street, as I would pass them, would stop whatever they were doing to watch me walk by. Peace Corps said that the best way to avoid the uncomfortable feeling of being stared at is to greet them in the local language, but sometimes even this wouldn’t work, and they wouldn’t even reply, just continue to stare. The kids had a similar approach, though more enthusiastic. Apparently the first thing Zambians learn to say in English is "How are you?" though the vast majority of Zambian children have no idea what it means, they just know to say it to say to white people. As you’re walking by or riding by on a bike, once you are spotted by children they start screaming so that everyone can hear: "MUZUNGU! MUZUNGU!" (translates to "White person! White person!"). Then they all sprint over to stare, sometimes with jaws dropped, and to say "How are you?" Replying to this is futile though, because they don’t really know what they are saying. A typical dialogue goes like this:
ZamKid: "How are you?"
Me: "I’m good how are you?"
ZamKid: "How are you?"
Me: "Bwino, muli bwanji?" (translation: "Good, how are you?")
ZamKid: "How are you?"
You get the point.

There is also the fact that since I stood out so much, especially in the village, combined with the fact that I’m from a far-off land, I had almost no privacy. This may have been partially due to my housing situation also, but more on that later. Everywhere I would go, the people in my village and the other villages nearby knew who I was, even if I’d never met them or even seen them before. According to other volunteers, the villagers also know all of your business and gossip about the local volunteer is hot info. And though apparently it only lasts for a few weeks, they love to parade the new volunteers around, like some sort of status symbol: "Look at me, I’m friends with the white guy." It’s like being a celebrity. It wasn’t a very big deal, but it was always a bit weird, and at times very uncomfortable.

Like I said, Peace Corps made sure I was fully prepared for all of this. At the start, and for a good two months afterwards, despite the staring and the fact that I couldn’t help but be noticed by everyone, it didn’t bother me too much, and was kind of funny. However, as things started to pile up and I became more and more unhappy, it became more and more of an issue.

A related topic to being white in Zambia is dealing with begging. Especially after training was over, I was constantly being asked by people to give them money and/or things. On my way to language and tech class, children would ask me to buy them Jiggies (the African version of Cheetohs, which come in many different flavors). I would go to the town, and people would beg me for money. Even on my 68 km bike ride to visit Kerry, I was begged several times. Here’s another typical dialogue that happened to me multiple times:
Zambian: "Muli bwanji?" ("How are you?")
Me: "Ndili bwino, kaya inu?" ("I’m good, how about you?")
Zambian: "Ndili bwino, zicomo. Patsani ndalama." ("I’m good, thanks. Give me money.")
Me: Ayi, ndine wodzipoleka, sindipatsa ndalama." ("No, I’m a volunteer, I don’t give money")
In my village, I wasn’t begged for money. Instead, I made the mistake of needing to set out my solar charger on the roof of my temporary house, because the night before I had to charge my cell phone. All that day, and the days afterwards, I had to deal with people asking me to use it, asking me to borrow it, asking me to give it to them, and eventually there were even a few that demanded that I give it to them.

There is a reason for this begging. All over Africa, missionaries and some non-profit organizations from Europe and the USA arrive and start giving money, food, and/or constructing buildings. Most of these people are white, thus Zambians are used to associating white people (and in a way all Westerners, though whites in particular) with free money. Peace Corps and a few non-profit organizations don’t give money, so when the villages that accept Peace Corps volunteers find out that fact, the people tend to be disappointed.

Zambia’s dependence on foreigners seems to have penetrated all aspects of society. The Zambian government has made laws that cater to what countries like ours want. For instance, due to the United States’ War on Drugs, Zambia has an absurdly strict drug policy, even though alcoholism is rampant there (you can take a morning walk at 9am and you’ll meet people stumbling around drunk, talking to themselves). In Zambia, even the tiniest amount of marijuana will land you in prison for about 20 years, and since they have no legal recognition of "personal use" they’ll get you on charges of drug trafficking. The reason, according to this Canadian guy (I can’t remember his name, but he works in Zambia for some non-profit organization) the US government won’t give money to developing countries that don’t have strict drug laws. Similarly, pornography is also highly illegal in Zambia. However, the Zambian legal definition of "pornography" is very vague, so technically if the cops were to find a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue in your bag, they might call it pornography and haul you off to jail. Though we didn’t have any information as to why, my fellow volunteers and I have a theory that if Zambia didn’t have such laws against "pornography"then Christian organizations wouldn’t give money either.

Because of all this, I came to the conclusion that although it’s done with the best of intentions, the giving and giving that we do for Zambia is keeping them from getting anywhere. Zambia has all the natural resources they need to become a powerful and rich nation, but due to mismanagement by their government and reliance on more powerful countries, they probably will never reach that potential. There is a belief popular amongst the Rastafarians that if white people truly want to help, the best thing we can do for Africa is to never go there and to leave Africa alone, because eventually Africa will fix itself. They see our cameras and Ipods and nice clothes and all of our luxuries, which fuels their inferiority complex (more on that later). I heard of this thought just before going to Zambia, and though it’s not the happiest thought, after living there for 3 months I must admit that I think there is a lot of truth in it.

My Village
Perhaps the deal breaker for me was the village I was posted in. Just before 2nd Site Visit we were all given a packet full of information on the village we’d be posted in. 2nd Site Visit is when we visited our villages for the first time (as opposed to 1st Site Visit when we visited a different volunteer’s village, which took place after being in Zambia for a week). This packet made me very excited because the village seemed perfect: only 6km from the main road (paved!), only 12km from the town of Petauke, a very enthusiastic village that had a huge turnout at the meetings with the Peace Corps people, and as close as could possibly be to Kerry. The only negative stated in the packet was that the house and everything else hadn’t been built yet. As part of the communities’ agreement with Peace Corps to have a volunteer live in their area, they must agree to build the volunteer a house (mud brick with grass thatched roof), a latrine/outhouse/chimbudzi (also mud brick with grass thatched roof, with a hole for... you know what), a bathing shelter (grass woven walls), and a mphala (or insaka, the grass thatched roof and open walled structure, a typical African structure). The information in the packet was typed up in early February, weeks before we even arrived in Zambia, and assured me that everything would be completed by the time I arrived for my site visit, which took place in early April. A couple of days later we were driven out for site visit. I was paired with Eric and hosted by Lashaya, a volunteer near the town of Sinda (the town nearest to Kerry). When we arrived in my village, we hopped out of the Land Cruiser and I wondered which of the houses was mine, but I was a bit concerned because they were all pretty close together and there was a large hole in the ground next to a lone bathing shelter that was surrounded by thorny little shrubs. Just then, Clement, a Zambian who works for Peace Corps in Eastern Province, told me that my house will be built right underneath where the Land Cruiser was parked. I was immediately very disappointed. The villagers helped carry our bags into an empty house that was on the family compound of my neighbor, who coincidentally was caring for his eldest son that was dying of malaria (though never proven, the 3 of us assumed it was his house before he got sick). Over the next few days my disappointment was lightened because the villagers started clearing away the thorny shrubs (we helped), started on the mphala, and did the measurements and layout of the house, and promised me that everything, including a bonus fence around everything, would be finished by the time I would be posted. Just after the house layout was finished, Clement showed up to pick us up, and he said that the village prided itself on being the hardest working village in the area and he was certain that everything would be completed by posting. I left happy, they promised me, after all; however a bit of doubt always remained.

When posting came around, Jeremy, the PCVL (Peace Corps Volunteer Leader) of Eastern Province, told me some bad news at the PC house in Chipata: the village hadn’t finished my house. He said the roof hadn’t even been started and the latrine wasn’t yet finished, and that I’d be staying at the house for an extra week to give them more time. When I finally was posted, I found that they had at least put up the support sticks for the roof, and had tossed bundles of grass on top. The latrine, however, was still merely a hole in the ground, and the mphala looked the exact same as it did when we left the village on 2nd site visit; they hadn’t done any work on either of them. Clement, who dropped me off for posting again, said that, yes, they had slacked off, but since I was there to live they would be "in a panic" to finish it all. The villagers promised that the next day men would arrive to build the latrine and promised that everything would be done in 3 days. Two days later men finally arrived to work on the latrine, but all they did was lay some logs over the big hole and put one level of mud brick around the logs, and then they left, but promised me they’d be back the very next day to finish the foundation, and that it would be finished in 2 days. 2 full days passed, and nobody showed up to do any work, but then a man who works for the school system for all of Petauke District (my main counterpart) decided to arrive and finish the latrine’s foundation. Jehovah-Boy and the guy who always seemed to be around me, along with myself, helped him, and we all finished the foundation and started on the wall. 2 days later the same man who promised me he’d finish the latrine arrived to work on the roof. He turned out to be the most obnoxious man I’d met in Zambia: he spoke in English and was obviously showing off how much English he knew, and WOULD NOT SHUT UP. He talked the entire time he was working on the roof, and though I tried to be polite and humor him, I eventually became very irritated and ignored as much of his babbling as I could. He got about halfway done with the roof before he decided to stop, and the work he did complete was sloppy with a few gaps. I pointed the gaps out and he said, "Ah, it will be ok, I will come before the next rainy season comes and fix them, I promise." The rainy season starts in November, and by this time I realized that a Zambian promise isn’t a promise at all, but total bull. It may be important to note at this time that in Zambian culture, politeness is very important. It’s true, they are extremely polite, which is very pleasant most of the time. The problem is, this politeness means that they will say things just to be polite, not because they mean it. Therefore when a Zambian makes a "promise" you can’t take it seriously, because they’re probably only making that promise to be polite and tell you what you want to hear. Anyways, after the guy decided he was done for the day, he also decided he was done with speaking English for the day, and switched to Chinsenga or Chichewa, I couldn’t tell which one because he was speaking too fast for me to understand anything. At this point I was sick of hearing him so I just looked at him blankly until he finally left. The next day (Sunday) I left to go visit Kerry and returned on Wednesday with my mind 95% sure that I needed to get out of Zambia. I soon became 100% sure as soon as I arrived and saw that NOTHING had been done on the house while I was gone. They obviously didn’t care enough to finish my house, and that’s not very welcoming, despite their politeness.
This was just my village, however. While discussing my frustrations about my housing situation with another volunteer, a girl who had been in Zambia for about a year, I was given a possible reason why. The Nsenga tribe, which is found in Petauke (where I was) and Nyimba Districts, is apparently known for being a bit lazy. Contrast this with the neighboring Chewa tribe, which occupies most of the rest of Eastern Province as well as Malawi and some of Mozambique, that prides itself on hard work. Sinda, the town nearest to Kerry, is on the border of the boundaries of these 2 tribes, and Kerry lives on the Chewa side. When Kerry was posted she already had everything set up, including a fence. I should also mention that, according to the volunteer that was describing the differences between the Chewas and Nsengas, the Chewa tribe looks down on begging, but the Nsengas don’t have a problem with it at all. This, if true, would explain why Kerry has experienced almost no begging whatsoever, yet I was being begged everywhere I went. Then again, it could have been because she’s a woman and I’m a man.

Zambian Inferiority Complex
It was heartbreaking to hear Zambians putting themselves down. On 2nd Site Visit, LaShaya and I were hanging out (I think we actually might have been cooking lunch) and my super-religious Jehovah’s Witness neighbor was talking with 2 other young guys under a nearby tree. They were obviously saying something about us, because they would all look over once in a while. After a few minutes, Jehovah-Boy got up and walked over and said, "We have a question for you," as he and his friends pulled up chairs and sat with us. We told him to go ahead and he asked, "How did we Africans become black?" LaShaya (who is black) and I immediately looked at each other, sensing an awkward conversation. "What do you mean?" asked LaShaya. "Well," replied JehovahBoy, "we know that Adam and Eve were white, so how did we Africans become black?" Rather than turning it into a discussion about evolution (which would have been pointless) I instead stayed on topic and asked him how he knew that Adam and Eve were white and he replied ,"Because I have seen the pictures." LaShaya and I tried to explain to him and his friends that the only reason that the drawings of a white Adam and Eve as well as a white Jesus, Moses, and all the rest of the people in the Bible is because they were drawn by white people, and that since all of those people lived in the Middle East that they were brown or perhaps maybe even black. This was absurd to him, he couldn’t and wouldn’t believe it, because in Zambia, anything related to Christianity is seen as absolute truth. Even the little brainwashing magazines that the Jehovah’s Witnesses disperse are regarded as "God’s word," even by people who aren’t Jehovah’s Witnesses.

After being posted, I had a similar conversation with a local 17 year old guy and his 2 friends. He said that he had been told that Africans were black because God turned them that way because they had turned away from Him. I told him that was a terrible lie. We soon talked about the Biblical characters and what color skin they had. I brought up the point that in Ethiopia, the 2nd nation (after Armenia I believe) that declared Christianity as the national religion, their depictions of the Biblical people were black. These boys were much more open-minded and I think I got through to them, or at least made them think differently. Obviously something is horribly wrong in the messages that people are hearing in church, either by Zambian preachers or foreign missionaries. Either way, the fact that they see themselves as inferior to white people gave even more support, in my mind, to the notion that Africa would be best off if left alone so Africa could fix itself.

These reasons are why I decided that living in Zambia was not going to work for me. It’s widely known that there are many Peace Corps volunteers that spend their 2 years in Zambia absolutely miserable, but remain there out of too much pride and/or fear of facing their friends and family and explaining why they didn’t stay for the full 2 years. After a month and a half, I realized I was very unhappy, and suffered another month and a half because of this same reason and also because of Kerry. Though it was extremely difficult to leave her behind as well as the other friends I had made and become very attached to, I didn’t want to be one of those volunteers. Besides, as I mentioned earlier, Zambia would be better off if all foreigners left and Zambia would therefore have to take care of itself. On that note, maybe I did Zambia a favor?


Eric said...

Well said! I need to get my thoughts down soon. I think I am finally ready to explain my return after reading your thoughts. Welcome home anz anga, welcome home.

Beverly Writer said...

Congrats on having the courage to quit. I don't think I could take cruelty to dogs, either. When I lived in Miami I could never get over the street dogs, cats, and chickens, who everyone just seemed to ignore. I foudn your blog via Eric Hastie's, and oddly, my parents live in Vista, where they moved some time ago.