Saturday, September 20, 2008

Constants and Change (and Eid Mubarak!)

My life here is drastically different in almost every way possible from life in San Francisco. The polarity is stark. In most cases the observations are obvious: rich and poor, urban and rural, cold and hot, white and black. In other cases, the contra-positional nature of what you have and don’t in one place or the other doesn’t hit you for a while, and the significance of the juxtaposition is only realized after a bit time.

In SF, you have refrigeration. In Meheba you have three day old cheese that still tastes delicious because it’s cheese, and you spent four dollars on it in Solwezi (the same amount you spend on food for the whole week in the camp). In SF you have MUNI. Never thought I would tout the glory of public transport in that city, but here you have one hour bike rides, uphill, both ways, in the heat (can’t wait to tell my kids about it). In SF you have organic, free-trade, non-fat, extra hot, sugar-free vanilla skim lattes. In Meheba, you have powdered instant hazelnut flavored “Ricoffy,” and “SupaMilk”- it’s “Supa” because it somehow doesn’t need to be refrigerated (yeah, don’t know how that works). In SF you have carpeting. In Meheba you don’t take your shoes off, ever. And speaking of shoes, I miss my stilettos. Surprisingly, the things I miss less than expected are the things I initially thought would be the hardest to adjust to—lack of cell phone reception, television, internet, H&M, and hamburgers.

But one thing that never changes is the constant comfort that lies in the universally identical practice of being Muslim. The month of Ramadan is one I look forward to every year, and it has just ended- Eid Mubarak! Even here, it offers the gifts of mental clarity, a sense of purpose, peace, and this year, more than ever, a connection to the global suffering of the billions of people who simply just have less. This is a feeling that universally arises wherever I am when fasting. It is a thread that connects my existence here, or anywhere, to my own being, and at the same time, to the world at large.

Living in the very population that American Muslims are presumably trying to remember during this month is extraordinarily moving. Being hungry and thirsty while living in a hungry and thirsty community and praying together through that discomfort with miners from Arab countries, refugees from Buruni, Rwanda, Congo, Somalia, Sudan, and Angola, and a UNHCR Program Officer from Bangladesh highlighted for me that my work here exposes me to far more than the differences that exist between us, which are many, but to the more profuse commonalities that range from the mundane to the profound.

Parents walk their kids to school and hope education will improve their lives, young adults would do anything for love, sharing stories around dinner and a bonfire is always fun, whatever line you pick at the grocery store will be the slowest, everybody enjoys watching and playing soccer, more people will attend your meeting if you serve biscuits, babies smell like Vaseline and talcum powder, bureaucrats can’t really help you, girls like braiding each others hair, whoever you sit next to on the bus will be the smelliest, music makes people happy, everyone puts off doing laundry until Sunday, old people are wise, and we all brush our teeth in the morning and start everyday hoping to do the best we can.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

TOP 5!

5 things I took most for granted before Meheba:
1) Having citizenship.
2) Knowing where my family is.
3) Access to information.
4) Friendship.
5) Duct tape.

5 crazy quotes from Meheba*:
1) “The whites have an invisible airplane that runs on human blood.”
2) “Mobutu Sese Seko (former dictator of Zaire, now Democratic Republic of Congo) had x-ray vision glasses and his wife used to kill people with her deadly back flips.”
3) “There is a black mamba snake in block B that is actually white, and it kills you by flying into your head and piercing you with a venomous claw on its tail.”
4) “There is a lady in block A who can reach block G in less than 20 minutes, the only explanation is that she flies.”
5) “FORGE may have access to that building when the suspected Wizards vacate its premises.”- An officer from the Zambian Ministry of Community Development and Social Services.

Runners Up (2 stories and a quote):
1) Seeing a young boy kill a rat, befriend and keep the dead animal as a pet in the morning, and eat it for dinner in the evening (witnessed this one myself).
2) Having dozens of unknown refugees ask to take a picture with you at church the first week you arrive, then finding pictures of yourself in the homes of refugees you don’t know 6 weeks later.
3) “I can’t come for dinner that late because there will be demons on my way back.”

*Really, you can’t make this stuff up, magic is very serious business in Meheba.

5 most unexpected forms of entertainment:
1) Watching insects knock themselves unconscious by repeatedly flying into the ceiling/walls.
2) Watching cats sleep. Or play, or cuddle, or hunt, or clean each other, or…
3) The game “SET.”
4) Killing ants.
5) Listening to refugees make fun of American accents.

5 of the most delicious foods in Meheba:
1) Pineapples (rarely available).
2) Fresh garlic (rarely available).
3) Avocados (rarely available).
4) Fried sweet potatoes.
5) Fanta.

5 least delicious foods in Meheba:
1) Caterpillars (haven’t actually tried them, but they don’t look appetizing).
2) Dried minnows (tiny little fish that smell very fishy).
3) Milk Maheyu (a really sweet, yet sour, grainy cornmeal drink).
4) Nshima (boiled cornmeal dough, eaten daily by Angolans, not a big fan of it myself).
5) Cassava (a bitter potato like starchy vegetable).

Commonly found foods in Meheba:
1) Beans (eaten daily)
2) Rice (eaten daily)
3) Cabbage (2-3 times per week)
4) Onion (daily, usually mixed with rice, or beans, or cabbage)
5) Tomato (daily, usually mixed with rice, or beans, or cabbage)
6) Rape (a dark leafy green, 2-3 times a week)
7) Chinese (like Bok Choi, 1-2 times a week)
8) Peanuts (usually for lunch)
9) Bananas (also for lunch)
10) Popcorn (the only snack food)
11) Potatoes (sweet, and regular, 1-2 times a week)
12) Bread (breakfast, thank God!)
12 things may sound like a lot, but that’s ALL there is. When rotating them everyday, there’s really not much variety, trust me.

5 favorite new slang terms:
1) “To Hammer.” An all purpose word that has many practical uses. To hit, to be hit, to be overcome, to overcome…
In a sentence that was actually used by one of our employees, “I saw a black mamba coming down the path! First Bartho screamed and hammered himself into the bush. Then I screamed too and the bike hammered me when I swerved into the bush. Then we got up and started throwing stones at the snake, just hammering it!”
2) “Peddle Down.” To bike fast.
In a sentence, “I am so exhausted, I was peddling down all day, from A to D and back home.”
3) “That Side.” A term used to refer to anywhere but wherever you are when the term is used, similar to “over there.”
In a sentence, “And how are things that side?” “I’ve just come from that side” “Where is everyone that side?”
4) Chimbo. A term in Luvale (local African language) that means cheap, backwards, a simpleton, or ignorant.
In a sentence, “My bike is so chimbo, it’s going to fall apart any day now.”
5) Eeway. Another Luvale term. A combination of “hey you” and “get lost.”
In a sentence, To the neighborhood kids, “Eeway! Stop clicking the gears on my bike.” To our cat, who is also named Eeway (he really lives up to his namesake), “Eeway, get out of there, that was going to be MY dinner.”