All the king’s men

I’ve been measuring progress lately in social interactions. During Community Entry, the first three months of living at site, a volunteer’s work consists primarily of integrating into his or her village. Or in other words, getting to know the neighbors. So every day I set goals for myself to leave the physical and mental security of my castle and go out into the fishbowl to mingle with the people. I take regular walks around the village, stopping in at various households to chat and butcher my Bemba. I go for frequent bike rides, with nominal reasons ranging from buying some tomatoes to visiting my counterpart’s ponds in hopes of catching a glimpse of a water monitor to checking if my favorite shop in Kampampi has any new chitenges. And when I’m home, I try to spend some time each morning sitting on my porch, greeting people passing by.

So community integration is happening, one interaction at a time. Even if my cat is the only living thing within a six-kilometer radius who I can speak to in Bemba without it laughing in my face. (I’ve been reassured many times that Zambians laugh because they’re happy and surprised to hear a foreigner speaking their language, but this still isn’t enough to instantly reverse 25 years of social conditioning that when someone laughs at something you say or do, you’re saying or doing it wrong.)

Last Saturday I headed over to the school to watch Nshinda play Kampampi. It’s interesting to compare football games here with Sanger Soccer Saturdays back home, because although they are overwhelmingly the same – football is, after all, a universal language – there are a few striking differences. For one, most of the kids here don’t have shoes, with matching uniforms being more of a suggestion than a rule and shin guards representing a completely foreign concept. And when a goal is scored, a flood of wildly cheering women and girls and small children rush the field from all directions and take up a victory lap around the perimeter, singing and running in a big, exuberant, colorful, noisy mass. It’s kind of incredible.

And for the icing on the cake, there was a celebrity on the sidelines of this inter-district primary school match that day. No fewer than fifty kids (I stopped counting at thirty, and didn’t make it halfway around the group) all gathered around me in a semicircle during halftime after word spread that a muzungu had made an appearance. I told them my name, announced that I live in Nshinda, and asked them to guess my age. It took about ten minutes of suggesting ages like 8 and 56 with a straight face and eliciting serious nods of agreement before one small boy toward the back piped up with the correct number. I roared, “Cishinka!” (truth) and the crowd dissolved into peals of laughter. I could have predicted that.

The kids were transfixed by their reflections in my big aviator sunglasses and kept jostling for better vantage points. Some of the smaller ones have probably never seen their own reflection before, as mirrors aren’t nearly as ubiquitous here as they are in America. I’m surprised now to see myself and my pitiful excuse for a goatee in a mirror, so I can’t imagine the sheer wonder a little kid must experience at seeing herself for literally the first time in her life. It boggles the mind. Also a huge hit is taking pictures (snaps) of kids and then showing them the images of themselves on the display screen. So far I’ve only taken out my camera to photograph one gang of about eight small boys that I know better, feel more comfortable around, and frankly like more than the rest. They’re not yet big enough to do household chores, so they have more free time than the other kids to hang out in my insaka and ask how I am approximately 23 times per day. In fact, their entire days are free time. Something we have in common. They’re also cute. Cute always helps.

Labor is ridiculously cheap, especially when the laborers are football-crazed little boys. A couple of weeks ago I stood under the shade of a mango tree, watching my favorite crew of iwes play a spirited game of ibola, content with my end of the deal that swapped an hour’s worth of playing with my tattered old soccer ball for eight enthusiastic but vertically challenged weeders hacking away at the grass around the outside of the house. As they happily reaped the rewards of their labor, four more boys arrived and were told they had to pay their dues before they could join in the game. They furiously attacked a patch of ground behind my house with hoes, laying the groundwork for Matt’s future garden and casting eager glances in the direction of the game, their minds already lost in visions of bicycle kicks and goals and victory dances.

Most mornings I sit on my porch writing in my journal, greeting the bamayos who walk past and holding court with the kids who congregate in front of my hut. The smaller ones arrive in waves and sit in my insaka, or spill out onto the shaded dirt, and the bravest inch onto my patio. There I grill them on their names and where they’re going and what they studied in school this morning and what my cat’s name is. It seems that my language training has given me exactly the right level of comprehension and vocabulary to have an animated conversation with a bold 5-year-old.

I joke with people in the village that I do the work of both the man and the woman in the house because I am not married and live alone, and there’s always some excited chattering when I trot my two 10-liter buckets over to the well to get water. For one thing, it’s literally the village water cooler where the bamayos come to gossip as they work. For another, the well is pretty much exclusively the domain of women and children. However, although it’s weird to see a man at the well, it’s really weird to have a muzungu living in the village. So me drawing my own water is relatively not that big of a deal. Kind of like it wouldn’t be that big of a deal if you saw President Obama shopping for Brussels sprouts in your neighborhood Safeway, because it’s a much bigger deal that he just moved into the big house next door and you watch him walk outside to his chimbusu every day and you know what kind of toilet paper he buys and you know it’s the cheapest kind because the cheapest kind is the only one that’s pink.

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10 thoughts on “All the king’s men

  1. Aviators? Goatee? Matt, I demand pictures of your handome mug adorned with said goatee and aviators. But seriously, props for making such an effort to get to know the local community and put yourself into uncomfortable situations; that takes real courage and it seems like you’re handling it all with exceptional grace and humor. And more seriously still: pictures, Matt. We need to see the goatee and aviators.

  2. I’m amazed that your Bemba is good enough to negotiate use of your soccer ball for yard service!

    You’ve been there about a month. Are you still a big novelty?

    • Oh, my Bemba is definitely not good enough to negotiate anything except the price of knock-off jerseys. 🙂 My counterpart had the idea, suggested the terms, and prodded the kids into working.

      And yeap, still a novelty. Will be for the next two years, too. No TV in this town. 😉

  3. Thank you so much for your blog; I enjoy reading it so much! You have a wonderful way of painting a picture and a “feeling” with your words 🙂

  4. Are water monitors a serious predator of aquacultured fish? Looking forward to seeing a photo of one and great job on the community immersion. The soccer ball exchange is great and its spirit to be replicated.

    • I don’t think so, only because they’re big enough to be noticed pretty easily and thus caught/killed. There’s at least one that lives near the ponds though and I aim to photograph it!

  5. Oh, and why did you choose All the King’s Men for the title? Too lazy to google and I’m sure you have a thoughtful explanation!

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