Wednesday, July 15, 2009


“The Earth is round, we shall meet.” This was one of Roy Kazanda’s favorite lines. Roy worked for FORGE as our PM Assistant (AKA: right hand man, savior, translator, bike mechanic, veterinarian, chef, etc.) and he was also our neighbor and a great friend. He repatriated to Angola in April, to live in a country without stipulation to his movement, employment or education.

Two hours after Michael Jackson died, we knew. Globalization and interdependency may not play as visible a role in Meheba on a macro level as it would in other more glamorous parts of the world, but there are plenty of indications that even in this isolated place, we are closer to each other and to the rest of the world than even eight months ago. That was when cell phone reception came to the settlement, we all (international staff and refugees) now speak to our families and friends in our home countries all over the world with a regularity that we never had and its assurance not only brings us closer to the familiar relationships from our past, but links our privilege with the experience of the refugees who never had this kind of access to knowledge, or dare I say power, in their country of asylum.

Every time we demolish the invisible barriers that break the continuity of our existence, I am reminded of the reciprocal and spherical shape that our lives can take. Or so I tell myself. The inevitability of leaving a place that in all likelihood you will never return to is heartbreaking. The concept is amorphous, yet terminal, simple and terrifying. Until I discover small but remarkable symbols of the modernity that is redeeming an otherwise impenetrable fear of finality.

Our FEF-U students in Lusaka are on facebook after all.


This show is one of the most important contributing factors (besides our cats) to our survival here. We often joke that whatever our work was in the day time was irrelevant, and that our real lives were in LOST, what we came home to watch every night. Yeah, reintegration therapy, anyone?

Creating a Meheba edition of Lostpedia was a nightly activity that one year later, still hasn’t gotten old. Some of the most front running analogies from our hundreds of hours of analysis are listed bellows.

The Island = Meheba. Duh. It’s healing/destroying powers are particularly applicable to laptops and other high tech gadgets. Also, time passes on the island in strange ways, sometimes not moving at all, and other times we find time is behind us before we our minds have time to catch up.

The Others = The Mission. They live in Meheba, yet somehow have satellite internet, television, gas stoves, refrigerators, 24/7 electricity, two brand new and sparkling clean SUVs, hot showers, and a sculpture garden for the Mother Mary.

The Dharma Initiative = AAR. AAR was a Japanese NGO that worked in Meheba for a decade doing all sorts of high budget development activities that we think were actually experiments. Autoshop, carpentry, building wells and bridges, photography (there is a dark room for photo development in Sherie’s room, with thousands of pictures of random Japanese people from the 80s).

There are also random refugees who still wear clothes with Japanese writing and bow when they greet you and once in a while you will come across a strange diagram in some nook or cranny of the compound with Japanese writing captioning a foreign looking contraption from the future. They also pimped out our compound with flood lights, big scary dogs, running hot water, and other luxuries.

The Button = Solar battery alarm. Every night when our battery runs out of power it starts beeping, and we immediately run to turn it off. We have no idea what will happen if we don’t press the button.

Jack’s Dad = Atlantic (name changed for protection reasons). This refugee pops up everywhere he shouldn’t be. Sherie will see him in Block A the same day I will see him in Block G the same day Nick will see him in Lusaka. He might be a figment of our imagination??

Friday, July 3, 2009

Blog is Back!

Africa and technical difficulties are pretty much synonomous. No idea how or why all my blog posts and comments disappeared, and of course I haven't had the prolongued internet time to recover them :(, but I just dug them up on my external (because my computer died for the umpteenth time this year) and will work another new one soon!

What's been happening? Cliff notes: vacation in Botswana and Namibia for the past couple weeks.
today, picking up the new PMs who will be replacing us when we leave- in THREE WEEKS! WHAT!?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


In the past 6 months, I have found myself stranded in Solwezi for a total of 10 days on three different occasions due to car trouble. Our Toyota Landcruiser Prado is an impressive automobile, but despite being one of the strongest and most popular SUVs in 4x4 country, we have had to replace the shocks, ball joints, tie rod ends, and all four tires, and the wheel alignment and balancing are pretty much shot after just a few drives in and out of town. And then there’s that one time our brakes completely gave out on the way to Solwezi. And that time our mechanic persuaded us into buying parts all the way in Lusaka that were always on their way “just now,” or “now now,” but didn’t arrive until 6 days later, and were not even genuine parts.

The reason behind the breakdowns is singular and simple, the road conditions. The level of disrepair of the dirt stretch that is Meheba’s main road is severe, 40km an hour is the fastest you could possibly go while dipping up and down and swerving side to side to avoid the giant potholes that are over a foot deep and easily 6-8 feet wide. Sometimes you have to stop, get out of the car, lay down some tree branches in an impassible ditch, get back in the car, drive, and then do it again. And during rainy season, you can’t even see the road, because it turns into a river, so the treacherous terrain is invisible, forcing you to crawl at the pace of 20km an hour. One time, a pot hole became so large and filled with water that it was essentially a pond, in the middle of the road, and even ministry and UNHCR vehicles were unable to drive to their offices.

In Zambia, taking the road less traveled (literally) isn’t for the unadventurous or unprepared. And neither is it metaphorically. Under normal circumstances I am a remarkable flexible person, able to withstand wild fluctuations in a variety of external factors that shape my relationships with society, individual people, institutions, work, nature, money, food, and the list goes on. But here, those external reference points are so foreign, and often times so unfair, that the strain it puts on a person who is normally capable of adapting to tough surroundings can be acutely taxing.

From issues pertaining to living wages for refugees, to the stock of medical supplies in the clinics, to the cost of secondary education, the framework within which we operate needs to be reconstructed. Service delivery suffers when the infrastructure we take for granted in our plans doesn’t exist. But we aren’t here to build roads. We just hope to learn to navigate them as best we can to help get ourselves and those we are trying to impact to where we all want to be.

When we see unavoidable mud in our path, the best vehicular maneuver is to keep driving, fast, without hesitation. But even the most experienced drivers find themselves stuck in “black cotton” (very fine soil that acts like quicksand) from time to time. Reflexively, I rev the engine and spin the wheels, which only digs me deeper into the bog. Getting frustrated about things you can’t change is probably the most common novice development worker’s downfall, and dwelling on them only submerges you further. Instead, try standing still for a moment, relax, and reassess the situation. Look out the window, there’s a whole village of people willing to help push or pull you out. And once you’re moving again, keep up the momentum: if you pause, you will sink and stop.

Friday, April 24, 2009


So I like to spend a lot of time on my blogs, and when I am unsatisfied with them, they never get published, which defeats the purpose of this whole endeavor. So from now on, I am going to post whatever drafts I have if I have not completed them after two weeks of starting. So here are three that I haven’t been able to commit to, flashes of what’s going on in my head.

Zambia Real Africa

Zambia has an informal slogan that is somewhat nonsensical. “Zambia Real Africa.” Everyone has a t-shirt that proclaims it. Over Easter weekend, Sherie and I went to Kafue National Park, about three hours east of Lusaka. We stayed at this great lodge called Mukambi, where Basel the Hippo walks up the verandah in the evenings and every evening meal is three courses. On a game drive we saw herds of zebra, four lions, several elephants, a spotted hyena eating a hippo carcass, and tons of impala and other deer like creatures. Afterward we took hot showers and roasted marshmallows to make smores. And for a few days, Zambia really did feel like the “Real Africa.” Gorgeous, serene, and teeming with life and promise.

The work we do is usually fraught with the opposite stereotypes about Africa—exploitation, hunger, unemployment, squalor, poverty, etc. Sometimes it is just nice to be on the other side again, although it’s also disorienting to experience abundance in such close proximity to scarcity. And it’s definitely hard not to feel guilty, knowing that in just a few short months my life will return to whatever I want it to be, but there will be thousands of refugees left in the dusty confines of their current lives for decades to come.


Maybe more than shoes, or French toast, all the women in my family have a proclivity for loving maps. The way they fold up (properly, do not bend against the crease), for one thing. Or show you vista points, or shortcuts. And make you feel so small and knowledgeable at the same time. But more than that, maps tell you where you are, where you’re going, and where you’ve been. The geography inextricable from the aspect of time associated with place- the very two components of life itself.

But maps are not static pieces of paper that are eternally reliable. Borders, especially in Africa, are porous and shifting. And where there might be a mass of grayish green color with no other demarcation on a two dimensional plane, on top of it in the real world there may in fact be a 500 square mile refugee camp, as forgotten as the cartographer who chose not to label the area.

Character Study

Some quirky notes and anecdotes about the non-refugee people who surround us.
Father Kim/Father Young- Two youngish Korean missionaries and Catholic priests who live in Block B with awesome facilities (as in satellite television and a gas stove). They treat us to refrigerated cokes whenever we visit and I am always sure to use their toilet just for the sake being able to flush it. They also make weird funny jokes about eating dogs. They are also trying to learn English, so sometimes you catch them repeating words to their computer screen for their English lesson software. Last time was “Fornication.” “Fornication.” “Fornication.” I kept trying not to laugh…

The Italians- A beekeeping couple from north of Milan who lived in Zone G for almost four years (holy cow). They have a pizza oven in their beautiful kitchen that they built themselves. They are teaching the community how to make honey and sell it to generate income.

Peace Corps- One volunteer lives just outside of Meheba and comes to keep us company when we are overwhelmingly bored (usually once every week or two). He recently ate a whole frog, alive, on a dare. They do nice things for us, like let us stay at their communal house in Solwezi when our car breaks down, or invite us for Thanksgiving meals.

Pharmaking- Sam, Raj and Vinod are three Indian guys who started a pharmacy in Solwezi, and hook us up with whatever meds we want because they are awesome, in the past they donated medicines to our health service centers, allowing us to treat over 1000 patients.

The Royal- Anthony and Corne are two young South African guys who work at the Royal Solwezi Hotel and ceaselessly make fun of us for being “dirty tree huggers,” and people who just want to “save the whales.” Corne lives on a chicken farm called Flamingo Farm.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Here and There

Here: If you find yourself at the end of a rainbow, you must bleat like a goat, or else you will turn into an albino

There: At the end of the rainbow there is a short green man with red hair, big ears, a top hat and buckles on his shoes. Next to him, you will find a pot of gold.

Sometimes our crazies collide.

Voacb Lesson

Humanitarian jargon—what does it mean? Sometimes I use these words when I am talking to you guys, and realize that they might not make sense outside of the context of work.

Refugee Camp vs. Refugee Settlement: Meheba is a refugee settlement. That means that after two years of living here, refugees are no longer eligible for most relief type services (namely, food rations) and are given a two acre plot of land to cultivate for subsistence farming (Meheba is 750square kilometers). A camp is thus much smaller geographically and its residents tend to live there for a shorter period of time, during which refugees are assisted with food, education, healthcare and other services.

Protection: This word is used incessantly, by UNHCR, NGOs, and refugees alike. It actually encompasses anything and everything that safeguard’s a refugee’s security. It can range from food safety to physical safety to educational and employment rights. UNHCR’s responsibility is to “protect,” refugees, in this sense of the word, so if you can prove that you are “insecure” in the camp and are unable to return to your home county because you would be insecure there too, you may qualify for resettlement.

Insecurity: lacking in protection. Someone somewhere made the mistake of teaching this word to a refugee, and now every letter written by a refugee in Meheba hides a sentence in it that includes the phrase, “I am insecurity.”

Durable Solution: theoretically, no one should be a refugee forever. Being a refugee is a temporary solution to fleeing conflict. The three durable solutions are:
1) Repatriation- Returning to your country of origin. In Meheba, this is not happening as successfully as it could be. Our three largest demographics by nationality are Angolan, Congolese, and Rwandese.
A) The Angolan population has lived here for more than three decades. Culturally and linguistically they are nearly Zambian. Most young Angolans in Meheba were born here and don’t speak Portuguese, making it impossible to continue school or work in Angola.
B) Eastern DRC is still conflict ridden and too unsafe for the Congolese to return home.
C) The Rwandese living in Meheba are predominantly Hutu and fear being persecuted as genocidaires if they return home.
2) Resettlement- Being adopted by another country (US, Norway, Denmark, Canada...). The process for resettlement is lengthy (up to two years and dozens of interviews and fact checking procedures) and a last resort. It is intended to serve the least secure refugees. Often they are victims of torture both in their home countries and in the camp.
3) Local Integration- Being accepted as a legal immigrant in the host country and living there indefinitely. Zambia is very unlikely to grant Meheba’s refugees this status. They believe that allowing other nationalities to live here would sow seeds for future political and cultural instability. This is what happened in eastern Congo over a hundred years ago. Rwandese were allowed to settle in that country, and ethnic and political tensions slowly built up until war eventually broke out. The Zambian government has told Angolan refugees that they will never be locally integrated.

Cessation Clause- A legal declaration that refugees are no longer welcome in the host country. For example, Zambia has issued the cessation clause on refugees from Sierra Leone. They do not have the right live or work in Zambia unless they have immigration papers, which can be extremely expensive to obtain. A work permit costs around 3 million kwacha ($600). UNHCR mandated wage standards for refugees in Zambia are around $40/month for fulltime work.

Unaccompanied minor or Double Orphan: Children under the age of 18 who have no parents. The word orphan here can mean the death of one parent, not necessarily both.

Vulnerable- The disabled, unaccompanied minors, and unaccompanied elderly.

Participatory development- A development philosophy that prioritizes community input in the creation of development projects. FORGE develops our projects collaboratively, assessing needs through community members themselves and developing proposals through community project facilitators. Great in theory, imperfect in practice.