The sound of music

I live in a community of fewer than 2,000 people in rural Zambia, spread over a section of land about 5 miles long and a mile wide. The predominant occupation in my area is farming. There is one road and no stoplights, and no restaurants, bars, stores, or parks. I can count on one hand the number of households that have electricity. So it should be a pretty quiet place, right?

Not by any stretch of the imagination.

A movie still from the 1965 musical The Sound of Music

A still from the 1965 film The Sound of Music

Most mornings I wake up at 5am to the sound of a rooster crowing. Right. Outside. My. Window. My life is a stereotype, I think to myself. Except the sun hasn’t even risen yet. And to add insult to injury, the damn roosters also crow at every other hour of the day, too.

Around 6am, the village officially begins to wake up. In America, you might walk out to your driveway to pick up the morning newspaper and exchange a few quiet words of greeting with your neighbor across your white picket fence. Here there are no fences, no driveways, and definitely no quiet words of greeting. Calls of “Mwashibukeni!” ring out as people begin emerging from their huts, sweeping the dirt in their compounds, or heading out to their fields. It’s not uncommon for the person you are greeting to be standing the length of a football field away from you. And for that person to then proceed to carry on a five-minute conversation with you without moving one step closer. You can hear them, and so can everyone else in the village.

Later in the morning, children disentangle from their respective family compounds and prowl the village in packs loosely organized by gender, size, and ability to be annoying. A popular rendezvous point is Matt’s house. Persistent demands fill the air for ceswa (brush, to sweep my yard), pepa (plastic bag, the standard going rate right now for yard-sweeping), ulupia (money, because who doesn’t want money?), and icibululushi (my Frisbee, because Frisbees are just fun). Some of the younger kids are tenacious in their belief that the louder the request, the more likely I am to acquiesce.

The neighborhood kids like to create an impromptu conga line, banging on my buckets vigorously, every time I go to fetch water

Another fun thing the neighborhood kids like to do is bang on my buckets vigorously as they accompany me to go fetch water

Eventually some of the little angels are summoned back home by their respective mothers to eat, or sweep, or wash dishes, or stop pulling Matt’s leg hairs. It basically sounds like this:

“Chungu, iwe!”
[A shout, with an undertone of warning]

[Silence]

“Chungu, iWE!”
[Louder now, emphasis on the “you”]

“Eeeyy?”
[A screech, not loud enough for Mom to hear]

“CHUNGU, IWEEE!!
[A full roar, loud enough that it is heard in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo]

“EEEEEEEEYYYY?”
[At a decibel and pitch that jams the navigational instruments of jets passing overhead]

“ISA KUNO!” (Come here!)

“NA ISA!” (I’m coming!)

Sometimes when I’m feeling playful, I respond to Mom by bellowing, “NA ISA!” myself and the kids around me erupt in peals of delighted laughter. Their mothers appreciate my lively sense of humor, I’m sure.

Occasionally a vehicle zooms past on the tarmac, invariably accompanied by liberal honking. My house is only a couple hundred feet from the road, so I have the singular privilege and pleasure of hearing every bus and truck that barrels past doing 80 miles per hour, the driver leaning on the horn as chickens, goats, and children scatter ahead of it. Traffic is light enough that a passing car is occasion to look up and see if you recognize the driver or the ministry department/non-governmental organization name on the side, but my village isn’t a major destination so 95% of buses, taxis, and trucks are simply passing through. As quickly and loudly as possible.

And at all times of day there is music.

Nope, not this kind of music

Nope, not this kind of music

During the full moon, troops of children march throughout the village singing and chanting until well past their — and my — bedtime. On Sunday mornings, determined hymns float over from the flotilla of churches anchored near the school (and on Wednesday afternoons, and on Thursday evenings, and on Saturday mornings; they practice a lot). And whenever a boy in the 17-to-25 age demographic slouches by, a tinny voice trilling from a cell phone or small handheld radio invariably drifts languidly behind him.

But the most pervasive music of all come from my neighbors’ homes. Each afternoon, every compound that has a solar panel hooked up to a car battery begins playing their radio with speakers — a home stereo system, rural Zambia style. The sun is high and men have returned from working in the fields, so there’s little else to do than sprawl in the shade in nshima-induced food comas, drinking viscous, sour village beer and listening to one of seemingly only three genres of music ever played in Zambia: bass-thumping hip-hop, choral hymns, and twangy country. As loud as it will go, for as long as it will go. (Noise pollution restrictions would be entirely unenforceable in this otherwise peaceful community.)

And now that we’re no longer in rainy season, the solar panels can capture a full day’s charge of sunlight. So the sound of music fills the air, toggling like a mad deejay back and forth through a jarringly dichotomous musical playlist and continuing tenaciously until 5 o’clock.

The next morning.

My kids are (mostly) quiet as I show them pictures --  but ten minutes later: "Bring out the guitar! Bring out the guitar!"

My kids are (mostly) quiet when I show them pictures, but ten minutes later they begin to clamor for me to bring out the guitar

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3 thoughts on “The sound of music

  1. Yes perfect Matt!! In the Cook Islands I finally got so upset with the rooster who would (purposely) post himself right outside my bedroom window and start crowing at the first crack of dawn that twice I ran outside sans cloths to throw rocks at him (the second time did the job – for at least a few days). And then, while living on Isla de Ometepe in Nicaragua for six months, I had to get use to the near constant radio play of Nicraguan djs who screamed constantly – interrupting the music of course – which, in actuality was just a loop of the Korean pop sensation Gangnam Style, which the Nicos singing along never actually got a single word pronounced right, playing for weeks, months, years…..?

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