Drinking with the paramount chief

Mutomboko is an annual festival held in Kazembe, a town about 40 kilometers south of my village in Luapula Province. It commemorates the anniversary of the installment of Mwata Kazembe (Paramount Chief) XVII Paul Kanyembo Lutaba in 1961 and now features Mwata Kazembe XIX Paul Mpemba Kanyembo Kapale Mpalume.

So basically this chap is the head honcho. For perspective, my village’s headman is under the sub-chief, who is under the senior chief, who is under the Mwata. The structure is kind of like a town mayor reporting to a county commisioner who reports to a state governor who then reports to the president. Mwata would be the president.

If you picture Inauguration Day crossed with the Fourth of July, you’ll have a rough idea of what an equivalent American festival would look like. Mutomboko is the second largest festival of its kind in Zambia and draws a crowd of up to 20,000 people from around the country and the world. The event also draws a small menagerie of Peace Corps volunteers from around the province who descend upon Kazembe for the ceremony, the Mardi Gras-like atmosphere, and the mouth-watering food at the Kazembe Orphanage run by Tom and Amy Morrow.

On Friday morning Emi picked me up at my house and we rode down to Kazembe together, covering the 40 kilometers in just a few hours because we’re really good at biking. Also because we were tailgated by a couple of persistent men who tried gamely to keep up with us before eventually dropping off our pace. Although we were swept up in the sea of people as soon as we entered the boma, we found other muzungus easily enough and soon had met up with about a dozen other Peace Corps volunteers at a bar called Josie’s.

We hung out there for the rest of the day, eating Josie’s nshima and drinking Congolese beers. The DRC doesn’t have as reliable regulatory agencies as Zambia does, so beers brewed in the Congo stand a good chance of having a much higher than advertised alcohol content. Plus Simba is like twice the size of a normal beer bottle and has a picture of a lion on it. Both strong selling points.


At one point a small marching band from the Congo paraded down Kazembe’s equivalent of Main Street, entertaining the throngs of boisterous revelers. And all the while, impossibly talented 10-year-old girls with impossibly double-jointed hips thrusted frenetically to the beat of hip-hop pumping from the backs of parked trucks-turned-block-party-stages. Each truck was painted red or yellow or green and emblazoned with the logos of Airtel or MTN or Zamtel, the three cellular service providers in Zambia and the three most ubiquitous brand names in the country.


The next morning Ryeon and Hannah and I went down to the river to wait for Mwata to make a ceremonial appearance. We were early and the Mwata was late, so we spent most of the time admiring women’s chitenges and entertaining the kids who surrounded us for two hours.


Where’s Waldo, Zambia style. How quickly can you spot the muzungu? Each of us volunteers are about as inconspicuous in a crowd as this particular fellow.


The Mwata finally arrived. I couldn’t see him amidst the wave of people surging forward to get a glimpse, but I held my camera phone high and clicked anyway because it was what all the cool kids were doing.


Stefan watching the proceedings. Yeah, we stand out just a little bit. Stefan more so than most of us, because Zambians think he looks like Jesus. He does look kind of like Jesus.


Outside the palace, we chatted with a few of the attendants and learned more about the rest of the day’s program. The festivities would conclude with a huge assembly at the arena where the Mwata would dance, which we had heard would be the highlight of the festival.


A group of us thought it’d be a good idea to get there early to make sure we got seats. Not quite. Hannah, Ryeon, Chantel, and I ended up sitting on the ground for two hours in full sunlight with little kids’ knobby knees digging into our backs for two hours, waiting for the Mwata to arrive. And by the time the ceremony finally started, it opened with another hour of unrelated announcements. We were a little less than enthused.


We ultimately broke and bailed at the 3-hour mark after exchanging meaningful glances with Mickeve and Sarah Leonard, who were sitting across from us and looked about as uncomfortable as we felt. Later we found out that we had left right before the announcements ended and the dancing had begun. Oh well. I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to see the Mwata’s dance, but we did stay long enough to watch him make his circle around the arena like a victorious gladiator.


We returned to the orphanage for a delicious dinner, after which Sarah Perry gave me my second haircut of the week – she cut my hair on Monday and it looked great, but then I made an ill-advised attempt to trim the back of my head sans mirrors and it ended up looking like I got into a fight with a rat and lost. After Sarah worked her magic and made me look pretty again, a group of us trekked back into town for some dancing.

However, after we got to the bar we ran into a friend we had made the day before who turned out to be a friend of the Mwata. He was heading to the reception at the palace and asked if we wanted to come meet the paramount chief. We didn’t need to be asked twice. This was a golden ticket, the Mutomboko equivalent of bringing a quartet of tall, leggy blondes to a frat party.

We high-tailed it over to the palace and were quickly ushered into a heavily guarded compound surrounding a large, modern house. Once inside, we were led directly over to the porch where the Mwata was holding court with a handful of his subjects. We kneeled and clapped slowly three times in the traditional greeting of respect, then received the okay to sit. He invited us to ask him questions, flicking his hand casually for a couple of his attendants to come scurrying over with cases of Castle and Mosi. I hadn’t been planning to drink that night, but when the most recognizable and heavily-guarded man in the province offers you a beer, you’re not really in a position to refuse.

With the Mwata’s encouragement, we plied the paramount chief with questions about his favorite book (Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart), what he wishes he could do that he can’t because he’s Mwata (be alone), and which he likes more, nshima made from cassava or nshima made from maize (cassava). Finally we begged our leave as the hour drew near to midnight, each of us drunker than we had been before arriving.

We stumbled back up the hill to the orphana

Sh*t my counterpart says

On technology
“I need a radio like yours. I need your radio. When you go back to visit America, tell your father you lost your radio and need a new one. Then this one will be for Sebastian.”

On white hair
Sebastian: “Zambians believe that white hair has magical properties. If you go to the barber here, he might save the hair clippings and use them for witchcraft.”
Me: “…My hair’s the same color as yours.”
Sebastian: “You are a white person. You have white hair.”

On pithy old Bemba aphorisms
Sebastian, struggling to choose the right words: “The tail of the goat sweeps the place where it ends.”
Me: “I think something might have gotten lost in translation.”

On alternative pest management
“Do you know why goats run away when you say, ‘Tea’? There was once a man who made a cup of hot tea. When a goat came over and tried to drink the tea, it burnt its tongue and ran away. So now once you tell them ‘Tea!’ the goats will be scared and start running.”

The man is serious about his goats.

On small business expansion
Sebastian: “So these farmers have a very nice place. This is why I am telling them that I will come and marry their sister so that I can make fish ponds here.”
Me, with a straight face: “A third wife?”
Sebastian, not skipping a beat: “A third wife!”


A muzungu goes to church


07:04 – Ba Cecilia Malenga, deacon of the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Nshinda, knocks on my door. On Monday morning she had corralled me on my front porch and didn’t leave until I agreed to attend this Saturday’s service. Today is Saturday.

I’m in bed in my birthday suit, checking the score of the Mariners game. I panic briefly, thinking that I’m late. I check the time. I’m not late; church starts at 8. She’s early. We have a brief conversation of which I understand little, she standing outside the door, me lying in bed sans clothing. I manage to catch “Nalaisa” (I will come) amidst Cecilia’s rapid-fire string of Bemba and gratefully respond, “Cawama.” (It is good.)

08:00 – I have been ready for fifteen minutes, dressed in my Sunday Saturday best: green chinos, Allen Edmonds dark wine wingtips, pinstriped white button-down shirt. This scruffy, poorly-dressed Peace Corps volunteer is only poorly-dressed by choice, dammit.

08:15 – No sign of Cecilia. I figured with the personal wake-up call earlier in the morning she’d be the one Zambian I could count on to be on time.

08:22 – Still nothing. I start reading.

08:35 – I drag my wicker chair outside to my front porch and resume reading.

09:05 – Cecilia ambles up and we head off to church.

09:07 – We greet a teenaged boy along the way who falls into step beside us. With Cecilia’s prodding, the boy reluctantly relinquishes his English copy of The New Testament to me.

09:08 – Outside the church, three more well-dressed teens mill around. We enter an empty building of mud brick walls and thatched roof; a table near the head of the room is draped with an embroidered white cloth. What appears to be a pulpit can be seen at the very front of the room, obscured by a hanging curtain. The teens troop up to the first bench on the right-hand side of the room and Cecilia and I take seats on the left, on the very last of the ten rows of benches.

09:10 – Two of the male teens get up and begin singing a slightly off-key duet at the front of the room. Their voices are shaky but their resolves are strong. Cecilia and I are nine pews and about thirty feet away. We are, along with the two other sitting teens, the entire congregation. I am nonplussed. Has this entire church service been staged for me?

09:15 – Cecilia asks me the time. I tell her. She makes a tsking noise and complains that people are late. I do not remind her that service was supposed to start at 8 and we didn’t arrive until 9. She pays no attention to the two boys at the front of the room doggedly grinding their vocal cords through almost impossibly high and low notes in tandem.

09:18 – A well-fed man arrives, shakes my hand, and plops down on the bench beside me. He surveys the empty room and complains that Zambians have a problem with not acknowledging time. The singers, unperturbed, sing on.

09:20 – A teacher I recognize from the school arrives, greets me, and squeezes onto our suddenly-popular back bench. The rest of the room sans the four teenagers remains empty. He, too, bemoans the lack of punctuality. I’m beginning to think they’re all in on an elaborate practical joke being played on the muzungu. And the singers sing on.

09:55 – Finally people begin trickling in. Cecilia slowly makes her way up and down the rows of sparsely populated benches, proffering a collection bowl. By the time she makes her way back to me, I can plainly see that it is empty. I fish a two-kwacha note from my wallet and place it in the bowl. Cecilia drifts back up to the front and waves the bowl perfunctorily under the noses of the two singers who gamely ignore her before she returns it to its place on the table.

10:04 – I don’t know whether to be relieved that we’re actually going to start, or deflated that we haven’t even started yet. And with more people comes…

10:05 – Bingo. The staring begins, mostly from smaller kids who swivel on their benches to soak me in. On cue, a baby chitenge’d to her mother’s back spots me and starts wailing. The singers sing on.

10:15 – The church is approximately half full now. Even though most of the women are on the right side and only men and children are on the left, there doesn’t seem to have been any conscious segregation by gender. Unless I smell much, much worse than I think.

10:18 – At last the singers stop. With a clatter of scraping benches, the children all rise and exit, noisily dragging their benches with them. I watch in mild alarm as one wobbly bench nearly careens into an old woman as it levitates out the door. Presently a chorus of small, clear voices begins to waft back through the building. We begin our own hymn.

10:21 – The heavyset man next to me has exited out the back door as well and reemerged at the front. We stand for one more hymn, then kneel for a prayer.

10:24 – My former pewmate stands at the front of the room and begins to address the congregation, quoting from various passages of scripture. I didn’t realize he was the pastor. I follow along with my English translation, trying to convert his Bemba to English in my head. I am not successful.

10:40 – I admire the chitenge worn by the elderly woman in front of me. It features toucan-like birds stenciled onto a sparse reed/bamboo-patterned background. I contemplate approaching her after the service ends and trying to work out a deal. Then I remember that my Bemba is not nearly strong enough to be absolutely certain that I’m not offering an entirely different kind of proposition altogether. I give up this idea.

11:09 – The sermon ends and another set of hymns begins. The singing is energetic and thus pleasant, even if most of the congregation, contrary to popular stereotype, cannot sing very well. Another collection bowl makes the rounds. When it reaches me, I see that it contains a few coins, maybe 1.5Kr total. About $0.30.

11:31 – The actual sermon starts. I thought it had ended half an hour ago. A different man is now animatedly orating and gesticulating from the pulpit, appearing to preach fire and brimstone. I can still only understand one out of every five words.

11:44 – I definitely hear the preacher say “Muzungu” a couple of times.

12:38 – He stops. A hymn, a prayer, and then another hymn. I wonder how many more of these there are going to be. Wait! People are leaving! But why are they still singing?

12:40 – I confirm that church is indeed over. But Cecilia is telling me something that I mostly don’t understand. I catch the words “food” and “come.” Food? I come.

12:55 – I finish eating a communal meal of cassava nshima and Chinese cabbage in groundnut sauce with all of the church leaders. It is the first time I’ve had nshima made from cassava; it’s much stickier than maizeflour nshima and smells a bit like unwashed feet, but it tastes good and I’m honored that they invited me to join them.

13:10 – I return home, greeting my neighbors, “Mwashibukeni mukwai” or “Mwabombeni mukwai.” They return the greeting, “Ee mukwai, mwapepeni.” Greetings in Zambia, while ubiquitous, don’t exactly translate directly to standard English turns of phrase like “Good afternoon.” Instead, they are usually acknowledgments of actions: Mwashibukeni literally translates to “You have awoken,” Mwabombeni to “You have worked.” And the typical response, Ee mukwai, means, basically, “Yes.”

Mwapepeni, heretofore unknown to me, is a statement of fact meaning “you have gone to church.”

Yes. Yes, I have.

What do fish ponds and snowflakes have in common?

They’re both made of water.

Juuust kidding. No two are alike!

Over the past few weeks I’ve been visiting a lot of fish farmers and prospective fish farmers. It’s exciting; they’re all so different from one other and each pond reflects the cumulative effect of widely varying motivations, resources, and physical landscapes from farm to farm and from farmer to farmer.


Last Wednesday Sebastian and I biked to the boma to meet with officials at the Department of Fisheries and World Vision district offices regarding ongoing initiatives to develop small-scale fish farming in Nchelenge. On our way back home, we stopped near Kambwali to visit one of the other lead fish farmers in the district. Benjamin Mpundu “is strong, very strong,” Sebastian muttered to me, no slouch himself. One look at the collection of fish ponds this lean, wiry man has single-handedly carved into the hillside like terraces proved evidence to this observation.


“But he has little knowledge of pond construction,” my counterpart added confidently. “We can help him.”

We spent the next hour dispensing advice for the new ponds that Ba Benjamin is digging, jumping in and getting our hands dirty (Sebastian), and taking pictures of the delighted kids who gawked at the muzungu the entire time (me).



A few weeks ago I visited members of a fish farming group in Shabo Market, a community about 8 kilometers to the south of Nshinda. As I took an extended tour of their farms, checking out various ponds, I offered advice on maintenance and construction and took important technical notes in my notebook such as “pond is hidden behind banana trees and shaped kind of like a triangle. It looks like LOST up in here.”


The youngest fish farmer in the group, Samson (tallest kid, center right), can’t be more than 15 years old, a number which is approximately thirteen more fish than the maximum this little swimming hole can support based on standard stocking ratios. I emphasized that he has a great start and gently suggested that his next step might be to make the pond a bit bigger.


Ba Mulenga is a farmer who doesn’t yet have any fish ponds, but he’s prepared a great pond site on his oasis-like farm tucked away at the end of a long, winding bush path. I visited the site and found that it’s ideally situated for easy future expansion into digging more ponds, has a stream with year-round water flowing nearby, and is situated directly adjacent to the garden so the pond effluent can easily be used to irrigate his crops. It’s the RAP site selection equivalent of a home run.


Two days later I arrived at our scheduled meeting place and time to help stake his pond and Ba Mulenga was nowhere to be found. I waited an hour to make sure he wasn’t on Zamtime, then biked another half hour to his farm to see if he was already there. He wasn’t. I finally took off, a bit disgruntled. I remembered that you need to come to the plate before you can hit it over the fence. Oh well. We’ll try again next week.

Ba Enock is one of the more relatively well-established fish farmers in the area on the simple basis that he has fish. It’s a tenuous distinction; the two large ponds on the edge of his Chinese cabbage garden aren’t maintained and are thus in various states of disrepair. However, he tossed in some cabbage leaves and sure enough, fish started feeding on the surface.


Ba Enock is either a closet optimist underneath his ever-present scowl or he must have the world’s dryest sense of humor, because he dragged me through hectares of tall, scratchy grass so that I could inspect several puddles which he called ponds without a trace of irony. “Take a picture of the pond,” he said expansively. So I did.


Ba Davis wins the award for being my most industrious fish farmer at the moment. On a Tuesday afternoon he showed me two freshly dug small ponds, side by side. He had just completed them the week before and they were tiny, measuring 2×3 and 2×6 meters each. With a typical stocking rate of 1 fish per square meter, the smaller pond wouldn’t be able to hold more than six fish.

6-8 months is a long time to wait for six fish to reach harvestable size, I told him. If you combine the ponds into one larger pond and start making it wider, you’ll increase the maximum potential fish yield. Ba Davis nodded knowingly. You’ll be able to grow more fish and make more money, I added helpfully. His eyes lit up. Bingo.


I returned to visit that Friday and he showed me with no small amount of pride an entirely new pond he had dug right next to the other two. It measured 2×4. That’s eight more fish.

In my notebook I jotted down, “Making progress, panono panono (little by little).”


A Peace Corps legacy

I’ve always thought it was cool that my dad was in the Peace Corps, but being a volunteer now myself gives me an even greater appreciation for having an RPCV father. Everything I see here sheds light on some aspect of my dad’s character and personality. Everything I do reminds me in some small way of the influence that his service has had in his life, and in mine.

Happy birthday, Pops. Thanks for being my fishing buddy, backpacking partner, role model, mentor, and friend. Your open-minded, service-oriented, can-do spirit embodies the best part of the Peace Corps and has left an indelible impression on me ever since I was a little kid running around the house wearing nothing but an authentic, ornately carved Papua New Guinean penis gourd.


ZamTwitter, Month 2

Random news from my second month at site, in 140 characters or less.

June 12 – Matt vs. chicken in chimbusu, Round 2. Unauthorized movement in the demilitarized zone forced my hand, so we grudgingly agreed on a truce.

June 13 – Ran into a trio of kids intently frying a mouse in a skillet. Asked how they caught it and one showed me a crude mouse trap. Oh. Right.

June 14 – Did my business inches away from a glaring hen for the third night in a row. The truce has turned into a mutually loathing joint occupation.

June 17 – It’s like I’m back in college. My roommate steals my food, makes tons of noise while I’m trying to sleep, and sheds hair all over the place.


June 19 – Played with cute kids, met fish farmers, visited a new pond, rode back into the setting sun. Where does he think he is, in the Peace Corps?

June 21 – Note to self: don’t leave rice in the pot overnight. Swarming ants are not the most welcome sight at 6am. Picked them out and ate it anyway.

June 24 – Went to the ponds and met Sebastian who explained matter-of-factly that he had been fighting fire since dawn. Farm saved. Just another day.


June 26 – Some of my favorite kids succeeded in getting their hands on my aviators this afternoon. Meet Febe and Melody:



July 1 – Forced a persistent drunk off my porch this afternoon. What is it about cooking rice that draws the inebriated to me like moths to light?

July 5 – Visited 20 fish ponds in two hours. What this group lacks in polish it makes up for in panache: a few of the ponds measured 20×30. Inches.

July 7 – Was in a funk, found a Nike Dri-Fit Zambia jersey for $7 at the market, got happy real fast. I guess retail therapy works on two continents.

July 9 – That there on my chin is two months’ worth of growth. Ugh. Guess this is the tradeoff for a rapid metabolism and youthful Asian skin.


Things I don’t have to think about in America

Part 1 of a two-part series.

I have swept more times in the past week than in the previous 24 years combined. When you don’t have insulation, sealed walls, or ceilings, you get dust (and critters that follow dust) everywhere.

Getting water
I would go to war with a small country in order to get potable, temperature-controlled water out of a tap. Related: did you know that wells can run dry? I learn something new every day.

Going to the bathroom at night
Think about all of the things that used to scare you at night when you were a little kid. Picture them in great, terrifying detail. Got the mental image in your head? Good. They’re all real here, and they all live in my chimbusu.

Carrying toilet paper
Using someone else’s TP when going to their chimbusu is akin to raiding a person’s fridge and drinking their beer. It can be done, but the person better really like you or there’s going to be grumbling behind your back after you leave. Public restrooms don’t tend to have it, so you quickly learn never to go anywhere in Zambia without toilet paper. Diarrhea strikes hard, without warning, like a black mamba. And flows like the Zambezi. (FiZ rule #47 — never miss an opportunity to use topical similes.)

Paying a thousand times too much for something without realizing it
The Zambian kwacha was recently rebased so that 1,000 of the old kwacha (K) are now equal to 1 new kwacha, or Kr. The head-scratching thing is that the old and new bills look almost exactly alike except for the year of mint. So until all of the old notes have been pulled out of circulation, the new 100 kwacha notes (about $20 USD) are at a cursory glance indistinguishable from the old 100 kwacha notes (roughly $0.02). That’s not confusing at all.

Where my electricity comes from
Peace Corps volunteers must single-handedly keep portable solar panel manufacturers in business. I cart mine around with me everywhere, trying to milk the sun for enough juice to tap out a blog post, read a book on my Kindle, or charge my headlamp so I can spot giant-ass spiders moments before I shriek like a little girl on my way out to the chimbusu after dark.

Making heat
I revisit a lesson from 9th grade physics every day: heat is a direct function of energy, which is a direct function of work. Cooking requires a good amount of heat. Over and over again I design elaborate charcoal pyramids in my brazier like a schizophrenic architect. Then I light it up, swing the brazier or blow on the charcoal furiously to deliver oxygen, and engage in a bit of psychological persuasion to help get the coals glowing. If all works perfectly, I now have a roaring furnace of the perfect temperature for searing the nonstick off my nonstick skillet and blackening everything I cook.

Whether it’s going to rain or not before I do laundry
Botflies are tiny, inconspicuous flies that lay their eggs on wet or damp surfaces like clothes drying outside on a line. If the clothes don’t dry up completely in the sun, the eggs hatch into larva which then burrow into the flesh of the host and literally make your skin crawl. The only way to remove them is to pop them out the same way they came in.