Thursday, October 20, 2011

Releasing Energy

I know…a new blog post has been a long time coming. My reasons, well, I’ve been wanting to post an honest, frank discussion about the challenges I face here in Zambia…from a cultural perspective that includes the stress of living amongst Zambian people and the unhealthy aspects of PCV culture (which are coping mechanisms for dealing with cross-cultural stress). However, I want to keep this blog positive and for sometime, I’ve been struggling with how to present this without it being an all out bitchfest.

Let me start by saying that living and working in a completely foreign culture is difficult beyond explanation. If you’ve never tried, you likely won’t really get it. Still, let me attempt to explain. First…imagine being the only person of your race within a 20-mile radius. Not only are you a different race, but the contrast of skin color is night and day, literally. You cannot hide. When you walk down the street everyone stares, everyone wants to talk to you and you are always being judged.

To illustrate, I often find myself on my bike cruising from Chiparamba back to Kasosa and waving like Miss America to every man, woman and child that I pass. “Jenifa, Jenifa, How are you?, Bwanji?” rings in chorus from every angle, or so it seems. In these moments, I imagine myself as Jennifer Anniston (Yes, Jennifer Anniston, Screw you! Ok!) riding her bike down some ordinary American street. Harangued from all sides by admirers or people that just  want the satisfaction of her acknowledgement. And, instantly, I understand the life of celebraties…and why sometimes they snap, punching the cameraman or morbidly commit suicide by overdosing on prescription drugs. Here, in Africa, I am a celebrity. A B-lister, mind you, but when I get my radio show (more to come on this), I’ll shoot right up to the A-list. Bam!

Now, imagine, that your color represents a culture that conquered and stole people and resources from the native residents…or at least their ancestors. And, imagine that the reformed colonialists tried to compensate for it by giving money and resources but little training on how to cope in this hybrid African/Western culture. When people see me, they see money and privelege.

One of the more bizarre requests for a gift came from Gabriel, the headman of Majuku. After talking at me for 30 minutes about keeping my promise to help his village, he suddenly pronounced, “I want jeans. Tell your father to send me jeans.” I blinked, confused. “I’m sorry, what? You want my father to send you jeans?” I said this very slowly so as to not add to the confusion. “Yes, jeans. They have very nice jeans in America.” Ummmm…ok. My response was to blubber about maybe if he visits me or I visit home…blah, blah, blah. What I was really thinking was, “WTF?!? I traveled 24 hours by plane, am living in a mud hut, and you want jeans from me!?”

More commonly, people ask for money. Just yesterday a grown man sighted me and immediately said, “Patsa ndalama” or “Give me money.” I despise this request beyond any other…and the worst part, even though most people don’t ask, they’re thinking it. I feel resentment and guilt all at once, because these people are struggling with their identities, their confidence and to feed their families. I want to fix it, but really, I can only show the ones with the proper motivation that all they need is in their hearts, minds, hands and land. The resources are here; it’s only a matter of seeing their land and people as valuable and taking the risk to try something new.

And, lastly, imagine you live in a mud brick house in the middle of a village. Everyone knows everyone. Nothing is truly secret. And, as I said before, without a doubt, all eyes are constantly on you. Lucky for me, I enjoy the physical labor of drawing water and carrying it home, the romantic aura of candlelight and the adventure of learning how to cook over fire with limited ingredients. But, for some, this primitive lifestyle only adds to the stress of being on display. The villagers love to watch the “muzungu” (foreigner) struggle to manage, and they laugh at us in a completely different language.

Recently, I was at a friend’s house for a visit and, more specifically, to learn the fine art of cooking telele (a traditional okra dish). Telele is one of those dishes that every man I meet wants to know if I know how to cook. At first, I thought this was some strange sort of sexual innuendo, but I quickly surmised that these men were sizing up my suitability as a wife. Well, GDit, I thought, if I ever want to get married, I must learn to cook telele! During my lesson, I was asked to imitate certain tasks. One of which was to crush raw peanuts into a paste using a beer bottle as a rolling pin and a large flat rock as the crushing surface. My friend deftly and quickly demolished the peanuts. I, on the other hand, awkwardly held the bottle, rolling it across the surface making something more like ice cream sprinkles instead of a smooth paste. My attempts elicited a cacophony of squeals, cackles, hoots and hollers followed by a barrage of unintelligible Nyanja. With a big, shit-eating grin, I continued until my host graciously offered to finish the job. She was done in what I imagined to be a record 5 minutes.

Are you getting the picture? I’m not sure the word stress adequately describes the insane anxiety and mood swings that are a part of my daily life. Well, okay, I was always a bit moody, but now, I just have a good excuse to be bipolar. The weird thing is, most of the time, I don’t even realize I’m stressed until I walk out of someone’s yard and start bawling uncontrollably without an apparent cause.

In this particular incidence, I held the pooled water in my eyes just long enough to pass two leering children, after which, rivers began streaming down my cheeks. I needed to hide, fast. I stumbled blindly across an empty maize field and parked myself under a mango tree…I hoped hidden from prying eyes. Not two minutes afer starting the real sobbing, I heard my name and a woman locating me to my friend, Vi. She came, hurriedly, not knowing what she was falling into…I could not control the hysterics. “Go, please, go! Nifuna ndheka (I want to be alone).” Vi, “Don’t cry. Stop crying. What’s wrong?” Through the fit, I hiccupped that “I didn’t know and I just need to cry right now. Please, don’t tell anyone. I don’t want them to worry. I’m not mad at you. I’m going home now.” And, exit stage right, leaving a bewildered 18-year old Zambian woman wondering if the muzungu had lost her damn mind.

The majority of PCVs cope in three ways, smoking, drinking and eating. Some use all three. Some focus on one or two. Regardless of the chosen crutch, there are two aspects to these activities that I see as universal. One, we gorge. We smoke a lot; we drink a lot; we eat a lot. Period. For me, I don’t smoke, but boy oh boy! can I guzzle some booze. Sometimes, I’m amazed at how much I fit into this tiny body without losing complete control. I might get sloppy, but I always hold it together. However, I still get the self-loathing hangover that follows the day after and the unhealthy marshmallow puff weight gain that follows the week after. I DO NOT LIKE, but it’s so easy to let myself enjoy the moment with the few people that understand my frustrations and loneliness. As for the second aspect, we take up activities we never did at home. Some start smoking. Others eat foods they rarely consumed in America, but now, they crave them. For instance, peanut butter. Of course, I ate peanut butter, but I’d buy a jar and it would last for six months. Here, I can go through one in less than a week. I’ve even watched a PCV eat an entire jar in one day!

I remember one night at the Peace Corps provincial house when I partook in a shameful double-whammy gorge. We have a slew of talented bakers in our PCV community and for someone’s birthday, one of the top bakers created a delicious carrot cake topped with a butter-cream icing. My gorge buddy kindly brought me a piece of cake which I sucked down in about 30 seconds, after which he let me pick at the crumbs of his second helping. But, that’s nothing! Later in the evening, oh, say 2AM, I found myself alone in the kitchen, pre-bedtime, cramming cake straight from the pan into my cookie monster possessed mouth. “NOM, NOM, NOM!” I even found myself sticking my finger in the pan to scrap stray icing from the side of the pan. So not like me! Oh God, and the self-hatred that followed the next day…you see, it’s not that I think eating cake is bad. It’s not, but the lack of self-control and moderation is clearly out of character, at least, for me.

I’m fascinated by this phenomenon. Why? Why do we partake in these clearly unhealthy coping mechanisms? Honestly, I believe a lot is peer pressure…not in the sense that someone’s looming over me cackling and crooning, “Drink…Eat that peanut butter/cake…yesssss…you deserve it!” No, I mean in the sense that we are lonely in this new world and looking for connection. I guarantee I’m not the only sad PCV that scooped cake straight from that pan. These are quick, easy ways to make connections and introduce commonalities into a group of people that would NEVER have crossed paths outside of Peace Corps. So, we smoke and bond; drink and bond; eat and bond. And, I’ve decided I'm OK with it. This is the Paddle being completely open and honest. Life is tough here, and there are bad days. When we are in our villages, we are deprived of the comfortable, easy social interaction we share with fellow Americans, people of our own cultural background. If when we get together, we want to enjoy life and release some energy, then so be it. For me, the goal is to find a good balance, and I’m slowly on my way.

Law #11: When necessary, enjoy life and release some energy.

I will be featuring some pictures and descriptions of Mshawa Basic School in some of the next posts. I'm working with them and want to raise some money to buy more standard school books for the children. Stay tuned...

Monday, June 27, 2011

Goats Are Evil

I was planning to write a piece describing my daily routine or the semblance of a routine that I keep, but I decided this post would be much more entertaining and cathartic for me. I want to relate to you in great detail my intense dislike…no, pure hatred (I hate the word “hate,” but in this case, it is the only appropriate word)…for GOATS.

Oddly, when I first moved to Zambia, the idea of living in a village with goats seemed rather quaint. I mean, who doesn’t think baby goats are adorable? They hop, skip and jump their teeny bodies through the air with pure joy, climbing anything and everything. Like I said, adorable. I once held love for these little buds of evil. During my first week in Zambia at my first site visit, my heart almost burst for love over a newborn goat. I cuddled it, cooed over it. Our group gave it so much attention and love that it settled down on the doorstep to sleep like a loyal dog.

Oh, but how time changes feelings…inconstant love. If I believed in Satan, I would be truly convinced that goats are devil’s spawn. What has brought on the sunset of my adoration? Ah, well, I actually live in a village with goats now. It’s no daydream or fantasy or distant future. It is here and now. As I write, I’m serenaded with a constant cacophony of goat song…mixed with a few pig honks and the “bah” of a sheep. Always, always, they are there, in my yard, peaking in my door, drinking my dishwater and generally wreaking havoc in my world.

My first day in the village, I walked back to my chimbudzi to relieve my aching bladder. I dropped trow, took a squat and let loose a powerful stream. I admired the size of my budzi hole…as I didn’t need to work hard at perfecting my aim. Then, I heard it. A faint mewling…where was it coming from? I could hear the louder call of a bigger goat outside the budzi door. A mother calling its baby, clearly distressed. In mid-stream, it dawned on me that my budzi hole was big enough for a baby goat to make the wrong step and fall, splash!, into the hole. Oh god, I was pissing on a baby goat…and oh god, what would I do if the call to nature was a bit more urgent? I’d just have to hold it until the goat died, which could take days! weeks! How long do baby goats live without food and water? These were my split second morbid thoughts. I walked directly back to my front stoop where my Zambian sister, Martha, sat waiting for me and urgently explained the situation. Her eyes got large and then, she laughed out loud…which brought on a fit of giggles from me. But, still, how would I use the toilet? Funny or not, this was a problem. After darkness fell, and Martha was back on my stoop. A friend, Axon, came to rescue the stranded child. His rescue tool was a long pole outfitted at the end with a sling. Using a flashlight and after a half hour of work, he wrangled the baby goat up and out of the hole. I saw that baby yesterday, butting its head aimlessly against the brick wall of a house. It fell down; I laughed.

Next point. There’s this one goat. I don’t know what it looks like or even if it exists during the daytime. I know it only at night when I’m sleeping, as it haunts my dreams with its ghostly, demonic voice. What I’m saying is that it wanders the village in the wee hours of morning crying incessantly. For what, who knows? Normally, this wouldn’t bother me. I’ve become a pro at blocking out regular unwanted animal noises, roosters, sheep, dogs and normal goats. But, this goat is not normal. When it cries, it sounds as if it is exorcising demons from deep within the it coughs, burps and farts, in symphony, as the demons are removing themselves. All of this, just outside my window at 11PM, 2AM and 4AM…or some other equally offensive schedule every night. I’m convinced this ghost only appears to harass me and hides during the day…vampire goat from hell.

Then, the last couple of nights, I didn’t hear the demon/vampire/ghost goat. I slept like a log. Cool weather, quiet. Perfect. Alas, my reprise from restless sleep did not last. Last night was the coldest it’s been since my arrival in country. Down into the mid-50s. I bundled up deep in my bed but unfortunately I wasn’t the only one looking for shelter. The goats, too, were searching for warmth. I awoke multiple times in the night to their scratching and snuffling as they huddled against the warm house. And, then, around 2:30AM, my front door began to rattle. Startled out of a dream, I thought, “Holy shit, someone’s trying to break into my house!” That’s when I heard the distinctive goat “Bah!” “Oh goddamn, the goat's breaking down my front door!” Or, just rubbing up against it...for the second time that night, I rose from my bed and chased the goats from my house. When I woke this morning to light the coals of my mbaula for coffee, I found piles of goat shit in my nsaka…everywhere, forcing me to sweep before I’d had a chance to rub the sleep from my eyes. I found the door cover for my chimbudzi ripped down and more turds inside. Honestly, the goats left me presents everywhere in my yard…it’s like they had a party and forgot to ask my permission or clean up after themselves. Not cool.

And, so, concludes my 3 point essay on why I fiercely hate the goats. I did have some pictures to include in the post but long story, I don't have them. Sorry. I'll try to make the next post more colorful, picture-wise, that is. Sending out love to all those not of the goat species (or rat species, but that's a topic for another time).

Law #10: Goats are evil.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

My Zambian Home

Greetings to all from the Eastern Province of Zambia! I was posted to my site on May 11 after swearing in at the Ambassador's house on May 6. I will post pictures from swear-in on Facebook within the month, but I left my larger camera at home.

So, home. I'm sure you're curious to know where I now call home. The picture to the left is my yard...big mango tree right there up front. I'll be rolling in mangos in November. I live in the middle of Kasosa Village, Chiparamba Sub-District, Chipata District, Eastern Province. Look up a map via Google, find the cities of Chipata and Mfuwe. I am about 25-30 km from Chipata toward Mfuwe. My village is about 5-10 km off the paved road. My preferred form of transport is bike, because it gives me freedom; it's free; and it helps to keep me in shape. 35 km up and down big hills to town is a good 2 hour workout. The ride home is a breeze, though, even with pounds of fresh, local produce loaded in my saddle bags.
My house is constructed of mud bricks with a concrete floor and thatch roof. It's divided into two small rooms. The entry room is a combo kitchen, office and living room. The back room is my bedroom/storage area. From the front door, a little brick walkway leads to my nsaka where I do most of my cooking.
The nsaka is the Zambian village form of an entertainment room. I sit over my mbaula (the little metal thing in the center of the nsaka), coals blazing and cook all manner of tasty foods. Mexican flavored soya and banana/sweet potato curry...for example. Around the back of my house, I've got a bafa, bathing hut, and a chimbudzi, outhouse.
Bafa to the right, chimbudzi to the left. The bafa was constructed with live poles, so it's starting to stretch green towards the sky...a quaint way to bath. My chimbuzi isn't much more than a baby sized house with a hole in the dirt floor. So far, I've rescued a baby goat from the hole (well, a villager physically did the resue work) and been rudely greeted in the evening by a bat flying into my face. The hole is now covered to prevent anymore unfortunate animal activity in the poop dungeon.

So, that is just a brief introduction to my new home and where I'm staying right now. I've got so many more pictures to share but right now, this is the best I can do. I have another blog post planned to introduce everyone to my daily routine. Something to look forward to...

And, since you haven't seen me in so long, here's a picture of me helping with the maize harvest.

Law #9: The heart needs a home...even a mud brick home in Zambia.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

I'm alive!

I'm alive! I'm in Zambia! I didn't drop off the face of the Earth! That's the good news. The bad news is my lack of connectivity. I've so many things to say and so little time to say them. I won't be able to give any good detailed updates until after training. I wrote a long post last night, but now have only 10 minutes before I head back to my host family. Long story, but I'll save the post for later and for now give you my mailing information.

Please write me! I'll make all efforts to get back with you. Any and all mail is welcome. Packages, letters, postcards and fanmail. I don't care if you know me or not...all Peace Corps volunteers love receiving mail. And, it's downright embarassing when some whipper-snapper gets 6 letters to my none. Isn't that the advantage of 10 extra years? 10 more years of friends and connections. Write me, people. The Paddle has spoken.

Jenny Haddle, PCV
c/o Peace Corps
PO Box 50707
Lusaka, Zambia

If you have a hankering to hear my sweet voice, please dial 011-26-097-332-0966. Call anytime. I only keep my phone on when I want to take phone calls. Remember that I'm 7 hours ahead of you Eastern coasters. Also, if you want to send a package, here are some suggestions: good coffee (ground local brands and/or instant Starbucks), good dark chocolate, wet wipes (travel packs), books, flashdrives with music (keep me up-to-date), movies, tv shows, Marie Sharps fiery hot sauce, magazines (no beauty crap though, only 'zines with substance), Bath & Body works lotions, shampoo, conditioner (my fav. scent is Moonlight Path). Ok, enough for now. I have to jet. Packages not required but anyone that sends one is in my debt forever.

I'll check in again as soon as possible. Maybe with pictures. Sending love out into the universe!!

Law #8 (Commandment #1): Thou shalt send an abundance of mail to the Paddle in order for her harvest of home love to exceed the bounty of other trainees/volunteers.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Time to Indulge

Tomorrow morning, I board a plane for Zambia. I'm keep telling myself that I'm not nervous, but truthfully, I am. I should be. It's a healthy nervous. An excitement to discover the unknown. I've spent the last day and a half getting to know some of the amazing people who will be serving with me in Zambia. It's a good group, and I'm fortunate to get the chance to expand my family once again. I can't help but look around the room of 32 new trainees and wonder what path lies ahead for each. Who's path will parallel closest to mine? So many possibilities.

I've also spent the last couple of days indulging in favorites. Here's my first and most extravagant indulgence. I'll give you three guesses as to what's in that glass...

If you guessed a $21 mega shot of aged tequila, you are correct! You know the Paddle! I sipped on that fabulous, fiery golden liquid for an hour. Perfection. Oh, and in that gigantic bowl is goat cheese, sun-dried tomato, pistachio topped guacamole. Does life get better? I ate a gigantic veggie pizza for lunch today and superb sushi for dinner. The management even provided us with complimentary sake! What?!?! Does that actually happen in real life? And, to end the evening, we stopped at a corner grocery to pick up pints of Haagen Dazs and Ben & Jerry's. Yes, I think I've stuffed in most of my favorite things. I'm ready for the newness of Zambian food and the lack of refrigeration. 

Also, I'd like to publicly thank, Brett, my companion in the above picture. He was kind enough to pick me up at the airport and give me a ride to the hotel. Brett was a fellow volunteer in Morocco. I haven't seen him in 10 years, but I was thrilled to get the chance to catch up with him. I credit Brett with my initial introduction to the blogosphere. I mean, what would I do without the chance to vent all my woes and joys? Thanks, Brett!  

I'll be boarding the bus to JFK international airport in a couple hours. I think perhaps it's time to catch a bit of shut eye. 

Law #7 - Indulge mindfully and with awareness. 

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Buddhist Boot Camp

A week ago, I emerged from the middle of nowhere Jesup, Georgia after practicing 10 days of the extreme sports version of meditation. A 10-day Vipassana course as taught by S.N. Goenka and his assistant teachers. I've put off writing this post because I'm unsure how much or what I want to share. Even now, I don't know where to start. Mostly, I don't want my experience to color anyone's ideas or notions of meditation and this particular course. Meditation, in my opinion, is a very personal activity, and an intense introduction such as this course is even more personal.

But, perhaps the best place to start is the beginning. I decided to take this course at an interesting time in my life. In that, I packed my car full to the brim with my unstored possessions and left my home in Gainesville permanently to drive to Dhamma Phatapa (the Southeast Vipassana Center). What better time to practice the art of equanimity and detachment? Jesup is about a 2.5 hour drive from Gainesville, all back roads lined with blank faced cattle and horses of every hue. The center is set back off the main road in an isolated pine forest, cell service was nonexistent. We were required to turn our phones in at registration but didn't seem to really matter as I lost service the moment I turned down the dirt drive. No lie, it was a bit nerve-wracking  knowing that I'd be out of touch for 10 days and completely in the hands of the volunteers running the course.

Was I sure this wasn't a mistake? Maybe this really was a cult? And, indeed, I just read a review last night that referred to the Goenka cult. After taking this course, my opinion is that it's all in how one approaches the course. Sure, I could interpret it as a cult-like situation, but at no point did I ever feel like I was being manipulated or handled improperly. I always had the option to leave, even if it was strongly discouraged. The food was fabulous. The dorms were simple but clean and warm. The course was free and my attendance was made possible by the generous donations of students who came before me. In the end, I took what I wanted, left what I didn't and felt like I'd been introduced to a meditation technique that worked well for me, personally.

After arrival, there was very little time to meet fellow students before we received the first teaching and took a vow of noble silence. Noble Silence means silence of body, speech, and mind. Any form of communication with fellow students, whether by gestures, sign language, written notes, etc., was prohibited. After a time, I came to understand that this was not just for me but to benefit all the students around me. There were times when I left the meditation hall so high on vibrations that any loud noise or conversation would have been too much stimulation for my heightened senses. I imagine this was the sentiment of many students. The silence was less a punishment, more a blessing. Still, it was weird to get to know people by their strange ticks. No hiding behind words or smiles or nervous laughter. Instead, it was clear when those around you were agitated, in pain or freaked out. The woman behind me would pick her nails in the meditation hall when she was bored or annoyed at being there. Every pick of the nail was like someone banging a sledgehammer into the ground behind me. A-NNOY-ING. That's the point though, right? Remain equanimous in all situations. Don't react. Just observe without making judgment.

And, this was our meditation. To observe our bodies, the sensations in our bodies and no matter what physical sensations we were feeling, to sit still and observe. Have you ever sat still, completely still without moving a muscle for one hour? Try it. You'll be surprised at the difficulty. You itch? Can't scratch it. Back hurting? No moving. Leg falling asleep? Tough shit, don't change your posture! Of course, you were free to move or change posture at any time. No one was standing behind us with a whip forcing us to take the pain, but if you did move, the point was lost. To really start to feel the subtle sensations that our subconscious mind is constantly aware of but that our conscious mind is too pre-occupied to notice, you MUST sit perfectly still. And, even then, the mind makes up all kinds of crap to distract us from the moment. The other goal was to retrain the subconscious mind to not react; to stay calm and equal in all situations. Definitely a useful skill and one that my mind took to quickly. I would wake up in the middle of the night, having not moved an inch after falling asleep and vibrating vigorously with amazing sensations. Crazy stuff. My dreams were vivid, real and informative. I learned a lot about myself and my limits. Some meditations were full of pain and lasted as if for days. Some meditations were blissfully still and engulfed my body in a subtly pleasant hum. Nine days of silence were long, yet short at the same time. I left the center smiling, full of compassion and goodwill. I've spent the last week letting the realities of the world temper my glow but keeping the possibilities in mind.

All in all, I'm thankful that I made it to the course and that I have a technique to take with me to Zambia. In Peace Corps, especially after training, there's a lot of free time to fill and a lot of time to think. A lot of time to let loneliness and depression seep into the soul. Meditation is a productive way to train the mind to accept each and every moment as it is...a skill that will come in handy as I wade through culture shock, adjust to a new standard of living and miss those who I've left behind. 1 week before I fly people! I won't post another update until I'm in country.

Law #6 - Meditate to vibrate.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A beginning

It's 12:42AM. I'm alone in my bedroom. My furniture has fled to a climate-controlled warehouse, and my man boarded a plane to the other side approximately 11 hours ago. My bed is two comforters laid on the floor to add to the cushioning of the lime-green shag carpet. Really, it's only a layer of protection between me and the mold-ridden floor. I'm leaving my home of 7 years tomorrow morning, and I am sad. But, not only sad, I'm in disbelief. Seriously, this chapter is over? And, what does that even mean?

Tomorrow, I'm headed to Jesup, Georgia for a 10 day Vipassana meditation course. An appropriate beginning to my second tour in Peace Corps. I'm anxious but not scared. I'm awake but not fully comprehending. Life is moving and I am moving with it.

Law #5 - A beginning is an end but it is still a beginning.