Americans eat butterflies?

It’s inyense season right now, which explains the little holes all over my front yard and the children scurrying everywhere with eyes peeled to the ground.

Let me back up. Inyense are big-ass crickets, about which I have surmised three things:

1. They appear to only be active for a short window of time

2. They must taste good, because the under-12 set treats them like the Holy Grail of foods, hunting them with the intensity and focus of chanterelle foragers or Black Friday shoppers

3. They look about like any typical garden-variety bug that has been magnified by five — that is to say, really creepy

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Because the first thing I think when I see one of these guys staring back at me is that I want to munch on its mandibles

Yesterday morning a group of excited kids showed me how to catch and eat these crickets. First they locate a tunnel opening in the soft soil, then they dig a hole until they catch a glimpse of their prey inside its lair. Next a skinny arm with eagerly scrabbling fingers is thrust into the tunnel, rooting out the prehistoric-looking creature while trying to avoid its formidable jaws. Finally, they squeeze out the guts and roast the rest, legs and all, atop coals with a liberal sprinkling of salt.

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Modrick, Mwape, and Chungu showing off their prized catches

Not to be outdone, and in a sudden burst of inspiration lapse of better judgment, I told them that people in America eat butterflies.

Okay, so I may have taken some creative liberties with that one. Not exactly my finest cultural exchange moment. Tack this on to the growing count of little white lies I’ve told my kids in the interest of entertainment (both theirs and mine — top on the list is “Matt knows karate”). But at least now they think they know why I run around in the bush waving my homemade butterfly net in the air, trying to catch colorful ichipempele.

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Why yes, that is a butterfly net on top of my bike

Blame it on the malaria

I have some weird habits. I sequester myself inside my hut as soon as the sun sets. I put on thick wool socks with jeans after I bathe on evenings so hot and humid I could cut the air with a butter knife and slather it all over my body. (Oh wait, that’s sweat. On the other hand, my skin where not pockmarked by mosquito bites is looking fabulous.) And I crawl into bed at a ridiculously early hour to seek refuge under my mosquito net from flying harbingers of death. As if my neighbors needed more reason to think that their resident muzungu is an odd duck. All in the name of trying to avoid getting malaria.

The other day I met Sebastian at his ponds and my counterpart raised an eyebrow as he appraised my Chacos with calf-length socks. This is a very fashionable look in America, I told him. We joke that white people are more susceptible to getting bit by mosquitoes than Zambians because our light skin makes us easier for them to spot, like a giant illuminated landing strip with flashing lights that spell out “bite me.” The truth though is that malaria is an equal-opportunity disease, and Zambia is right smack in the middle of the region with the highest percentage of malaria deaths in the world.

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Malaria is so ubiquitous here that in my village it’s used pretty much interchangeably with being sick in general. 15-year-old Emily stopped by this morning to take my daily produce order and when I asked her,“Ku ngangda kuli shani?” (how is your household?), she told me that her 2-year-old sister Frida was sick (Frida balalwala). I asked, “Balalwala nshi?” (What kind of sickness does she have?) Sure enough, Emily replied, “Malaria.” Little Frida toddled up a few seconds later with an impressively runny nose and toothy grin, waving a sticky paw at me; she may have had a cold, but it definitely wasn’t malaria.

Emily’s diagnosis was a slight exaggeration, but the pervasive prevalence of malaria in daily life here isn’t. An incredible four million people in Zambia are afflicted by malaria each year, with nearly 8,000 of them dying from this disease. Over half of these deaths are children under five years of age and many of the rest are pregnant mothers (20% of maternal mortality is attributed to malaria). In the United States, we simply don’t have anything remotely comparable in scale or parameters of devastation. This would be roughly equivalent to 100 million Americans contracting malaria every year with 200,000 deaths, 100,000 of the malaria victims being children under five. That would be more than sixty times the number of people who died on September 11, 2001. That would be five thousand times as many children as were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Now, I’m not comparing dying from malaria to being killed by terrorists. (For one thing, malaria deaths are largely preventable.) I’m just trying to illustrate the sheer scope of malaria’s influence in Zambia. If this large of a percentage of the United States’ population was dying from anything remotely fixable, you better believe we’d be doing everything we could to fix it.

As a global society, we have advanced technologically to the point where we now have prevention prophylaxis and treatment medicine which reduces the risk of dying from malaria to virtually nil. If it gets into the hands of the people who need it. Or, perhaps more accurately, if it gets into the hands of people who have the money to afford it and the education to understand its importance. Case in point: deaths caused by malaria have already been all but eliminated in developed nations. And right now, the grim fact is that whether or not a child will die from malaria largely hinges on the random lottery of where in the world she happens to be born and the color of her mother’s skin.

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Everyone from the Zambian government to the U.S. government to NGOs to fellow Peace Corps volunteers are working to ensure that medicine is available in clinics, that communities are sensitized to what malaria really is and how to avoid getting it, and that people are educated on the importance of seeking appropriate treatment if they do contract it. March is Malaria Month in Peace Corps, and all across the world volunteers are working on malaria sensitization and education. Many are trying to educate people in their host countries; some are trying to educate people back home in their own country. Simply telling people about malaria may not sound like it would do much, but if the result of promoting this awareness is that one fewer Zambian thinks that you can get malaria from proximity to animals, drinking dirty water, or witchcraft, then it won’t have been for naught.

I’ve been learning a lot about malaria over the past year. Not only about the disease itself, but also about what its prevalence in the poorest countries on Earth means within the framework of our increasingly interconnected world. And simply by reading this and understanding that having been born in suburban America instead of in sub-Saharan Africa gives you the equivalent of a winning lottery ticket with a potential value as high as your life, now you are too.

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Photo credit: stompoutmalaria.org

A day in town

05:59 – I wake up. No alarm clock. I’ve got this shiz down to a science.

06:45 – Out of bed and making coffee while bantering with the neighbor kids. This mostly involves them asking for coffee and me telling them it’ll stunt their growth.

07:52 – Sebastian comes by and we chat for about fifteen minutes. We’re biking into Nchelenge today. He tells me to give him twenty minutes so he can eat breakfast before we leave. Sebastian’s always late; I give him forty.

08:34 – Just as we begin to leave it starts to rain. Hard. We both quickly agree to wait until the rain stops, and I return to my hut to wait out the showers.

09:10 – The rain tapers off, and I’ve collected 15 liters in the past half hour. We’re good to go.

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09:42 – Halfway to Nchelenge boma, Sebastian says he has to drop off money for a guy and we make a small detour. It’s not as shady as it sounds. The guy turns out to be the head teacher of Kambwali School, who is, I learn from a chart above his desk, the school’s 16th head teacher dating back to 1924. Before we leave, he insists that I greet the Grade 8 and Grade 9 classes next door. He enthusiastically ushers me into first one room and then the next, immediately stopping both classes in the middle of whatever they were doing. After I make each of my introductions, dozens of laughing and cheering teenagers rush up to shake my hand. So this is what it feels like to be a celebrity.

10:22 – We arrive in the boma and stop by the District Commissioner’s office. Our goal: to learn about opportunities to collaborate with district government programs on HIV/AIDS and malaria prevention. The DC isn’t in, so we end up speaking with the guy standing in for him. He talks for 15 minutes and says nothing helpful whatsoever.

10:50 – Two staffers are closing up the NZP+ office as we arrive, but when they see us coming they promptly unlock the door they just locked. They cheerfully explain that this HIV-positive living NGO organizes several support groups within rural communities. We exchange contact information, but when I tell them my name, I receive blank looks. I try again: “It’s Matt, short for Matthew, like Matthew in the Bible and Young, like young brother.” Ah, there are the relieved smiles and nods of comprehension. Works every time.

11:24 – The next door down is the deputy for the MP (Member of Parliament), who spots us leaving NZP+ and invites us in. He’s friends with Sebastian, so we oblige. We explain that we’re trying to get a new borehole drilled in our community because there is only one pump at the school and the wells have long gone dry, leaving many families without consistent access to clean water. It’s immediately clear that we are not using the proper channels for this type of grievance, but he enthusiastically writes us a handwritten note to give to the District Council anyway, the people who can actually help us. The note says, and I’m paraphrasing, but not by much, “Listen to these people.” The deputy MP flashes me a warm smile of gratitude as he tells me that he had a teacher from Cincinnati when he was a boy and “I loved that man.”

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11:52 – Next stop: the Department of Fisheries (DoF) building. We greet the staff, then head into the regional PLARD coordinator’s office where Sebastian proceeds to jokingly but insistently cajole the man for various things for the next twenty minutes. PLARD is an NGO sponsored by Finland in partnership with DoF, and we’re told that a contingent of sponsors from Finland will be visiting soon. The coordinator tells us to keep our schedules open next Tuesday. Sebastian makes a crack about giving him advance warning to make sure that he’s in Nshinda, and not at his first wife’s home ten kilometers away. The PLARD guy is confused: you have two wives? Yep, Sebastian responds, grinning widely. But only one fish farm, I add helpfully. Sebastian cocks an eyebrow at me in mock protest. The PLARD guy sighs.

12:42 – We ride the three kilometers to Kashikishi, where Sebastian meets with the NatSafe bank manager to ask about the status of his CEEC loan. We had submitted a request two weeks ago to the director’s office in Lusaka for an exemption so that Sebastian can work on the new fish ponds without going through a contractor, but nothing has changed. He’s at an impasse: none of the contractors have adequate training or tools to properly facilitate fish pond construction, but the bank isn’t willing to release funds without the security of working through a licensed contractor. Sebastian absorbs this news calmly. Not for the first time, I find myself admiring his determination and persistency.

13:17 – I coast down to Old Market in order to buy onions, tomatoes, and a cabbage from the feisty bamayos at the vegetable stand. I tease them about their prices and they cackle, obligingly tossing in a few more mbasela (free) onions. I search for buns, but can’t find them anywhere.

14:12 – Still haven’t seen any buns as we arrive at the Development Aid Project for the People (DAPP) offices. We are mildly surprised to find looking back at us from across the desk only the third non-Peace Corps muzungu I’ve seen in Nchelenge in the past year. We chat a bit and it turns out that he’s on a short-term stint in Zambia from Europe, updating the NGO’s database systems in regional offices throughout the country. Sebastian and I explain that we’re advocating for a new borehole in our community, and we learn that DAPP is overseeing the drilling and installation of several new pumps in the district over the next few years. A possibility. The European man tells us the steps to take in order to fill out an application for the community requesting a borehole.

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15:07 – We go to the District Council and again ask about boreholes. We’re directed to an office at the corner of the building. The man there consults a list on the bulletin board behind his desk and informs us that our village of Nalukoshi is 27th on the list of communities that will be receiving boreholes in the next phase of a project funded by JICA (a Japanese NGO). He reassures us that drilling will begin “any time after April.” I’m tempted to quip that this really narrows down the timeframe, but I hold my tongue. Finally we’ve hit pay dirt with some solid information. Now I just need to find some buns.

15:48 – We arrive at the Nchelenge World Vision office in order to wrap up some loose ends from a fish farming workshop last month. The food security coordinator we want to talk to isn’t there. We continue on.

16:17 – I finally find my buns at a small market near the barrier which marks the end (or beginning) of Nchelenge boma. They’re the good kind: soft and chewy and a little bit sweet. I haven’t eaten since breakfast, and I’m salivating. We start the journey home.

16:53 – Sebastian, laboring up the hill ahead of me, pulls over next to a couple of girls. He doesn’t know them, but one is holding a small turtle and he wants to ask them about it. We talk to the girls for a bit and find out that they’re not going to eat the fulwe, but instead are bringing it to a witch doctor who will use it for juju. Hmm.

17:25 – We crest the last small hill on the tarmac before reaching Nshinda and are treated to a magical view of the valley bathed in light from the sun dipping low on the horizon, with dark storm clouds blanketing the distance. I shout to Sebastian that we live in a beautiful place. He just smiles and shakes his head at me. Silly muzungu.

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Just like netting the ponds back home

Last Friday and Saturday I helped my counterpart Sebastian harvest several of his ponds. Together with four of his sons we seined eight ponds, grading and restocking over 500 fish in order to update existing create new inventory records. (It might not look like it from the pictures, but yes, I did actually go into the water and do work when I wasn’t pulling camera duty.)

It was interesting to observe some of the parallels between this past weekend and childhood memories of working on my dad’s fish farm. “Keep the lead line down!” rang out at regular intervals, referring to the weights that prevent fish from escaping beneath the net. Several times an exasperated father could be heard remonstrating with his sons for not using common sense. I guess it doesn’t matter whether you’re in Central California or Sub-Saharan Africa — some things are just universal.

Different places, same old routine

Different places, same old routine

 

ZamTwitter, Month 10

Random news from my tenth month of Peace Corps service, in 140 characters or less.

February 12 – 9 hours, 3 hitches, and 2 flat tires after Emi and I leave Mansa, we reach Nshinda. Transportation is always an adventure.

February 13 – Finally over the worst of a bad flu. I’ve subsisted on cough drops and Starburst for the past 3 days and have slept through most of them.

February 14 – A man just rode past with a basket of mushrooms. Bought a couple pounds for 40 cents. Not quite chanterelles, but you can’t beat the price.

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February 15 – Paid a guy 10 kwacha to reroute the main village path so it passes farther from my hut. Imagine the hijinks I could get up to with 20 bucks.

February 19 – Biked home from the ponds just minutes ahead of a torrential downpour. My 1.5-square meter tarp netted 20 liters of water in half an hour.

February 20 – Sebastian finally built his first fish pond compost crib this morning. After ten months of me nagging him about it. It’s like we’re married.

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February 23 – I have read six books in the past three days. This is rainy season.

February 24 – They just finished putting the tin roof on my neighbor’s new house. Time to retire the raincatcher.

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February 25 – Biked 40k for a useless meeting, came back to a vandalized window, then got ravaged by skeeters out at the ponds. They ain’t all good days.

February 28 – Made a hand net today out of some wire, an old mesh potato sack, and twine. For fish, I say. Uh huh. Its real purpose: catching butterflies.

March 2 – This morning I enlisted a few eager recruits for our inaugural bug hunting expedition. We caught 9 different species in 2 hours.

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March 4 – Spent an hour this afternoon taking pictures of my kittens roughhousing with each other (post to come). I am officially a crazy cat person.

March 6 – Did a double-take at my pal Chungu’s new shirt. It’s not every day you spot yuppie fly fishing gear outfitters in sub-Saharan Africa.

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March 7 – Helped Sebastian harvest five of his ponds this morning and netted 300 fish. I still smell like mud.

March 9 – A bad transport day turns into a good one: walked along the road for 45 minutes, then got a free hitch and flew to Mansa in under 3 hours.

More about me than you probably ever wanted to know

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I asked a couple of the boys who live near me to show me where they fish. Step 1: Bail out the dugout canoe

I write occasionally for Peace Corps Passport, the official Peace Corps blog, and my latest article was just posted a few days ago. Check it out!

Blogging Off The Grid

Since I’ve also been asked to share part of my Peace Corps story a couple of times recently, I thought I’d put those links up here as well. Just in case you, you know, haven’t had enough of my shtick already.

Fishing Across The Decades: A Family Peace Corps Legacy
February 2, 2014

An article in the Northern California Peace Corps Association newsletter about my dad’s and my parallel (kind of) paths to the Peace Corps.

A Glimpse Into The Life Of A Peace Corps Volunteer
February 21, 2014

An interview with the blog International Relations Online about being a Peace Corps volunteer.

Check out the Press page for more shameless self-publicizing of off-site Peace Corps content by or about yours truly.