Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Before the Rains

Synopsis: It’s the season of bush fires. Bashi Mutale sired – in the village another Nikki has been acquired.

In late August and September, fierce morning winds batter grass roofs, snatching handfuls of dried thatch and strewing it on the sand. Dead leaves snarl and circle angrily in the gusts. Ash from neighbors’ cooking fires is thrown on our freshly washed dishes. The afternoon brings the peak of a glaring sun and stifling heat. Panting dogs laze under shelter of skeletal guava trees, ribcages jutting from under a dull coat with each shallow inhalation. Women sigh and sink under the overhang of their grass roof before placing a baby to their breasts. Only evenings, with a blood red sun sagging wearily and bleeding into the surrounding sky, bring relief.

On the heels of this heat the rains will creep in, replenishing the parched yellow land. But before this happens, the stretches of overgrown dried grasses are scorched.

Campfires are mesmerizing in the way flames flitter about, changing the composition of wood and trapping your eyes in its primordial beauty. Fire can be devastating and dangerous, and part of its appeal is being able to control a force of nature. Bush fires hold the same appeal, but on a much larger scale. Entire fields of dried grasses, shrubbery, and small trees are burnt, the flames spreading ravenously. In theory, it is controlled by creating fire breaks, burning a small strip of land first so that the fire doesn’t have fuel to spread beyond the confines of where you want it to. But wind is a variable, and I’ve seen a defiant fire set at the school devour a teacher’s grass bathing shelter and fence. If fire breaks fail, teenage boys grab leafy branches and begin furiously beating the flames.

Bush fires start with a crackling as loud as a thunderclap, which can be heard for as far as a kilometer away. The black smoke billows out into the sky, drawing birds of prey that circle overhead, dining on the emerging exodus of grasshoppers and song birds.

I don’t know why the bush is burnt. Bush fires are often spoken about in relation to kapanga, the rats that burrow in the bush that people eat. But you can find bush rats without burning an area first. Chief Munkonge decreed that the bush should be burnt early to avoid damaging the rainy season sprouts that caterpillars, another bush food, eat, thus diminishing the caterpillar population. In the end, burning the bush might be as pointless as chitimene, or the slash and burn agriculture that’s also practiced. It might be done because the ancestors practiced it, with no regard for its effect on the environment.

I’m kind of a big deal among the under-five crowd. Malama, Juliet, Charity, and Purity, particularly, the toddlers that live closest to us, openly adore me. If we’re returning home after a short absence from the village, they shout “Ba Nikki! Muli shani?” (How are you?) then enthusiastically cheer “Ba bwela!” (She’s returned) for the next five minutes. If they acknowledge Chris at all, they also call him Ba Nikki.

So in late August when Bana Mutale gave birth at home to a tiny and perfect little girl, older sister Charity immediately declared her name to be Nikki. Her amused parents asked for my approval. So now ka (small) Nikki joins ka Chris and Shaq as a legacy of Peace Corps in our village (The previous volunteer, a basketball enthusiast, was asked to name a newborn boy).

Pre-School Updates

  • From September 13 -18, three volunteer teachers from the village were trained in early childhood education. The workshop was funded locally by the Kasama Pre-School Teacher Training College and also by a USAID grant. Topics included the history of pre-school education, its importance on a child’s development, making teaching aids using locally available materials, first aid, creating lesson plans, sample syllabus, songs and dances, and child developmental stages and development. The teachers seem like they learned a lot and are excited to implement this new knowledge.

Ba Allan Mwango, Ba Catherine Chisha, Ba John Bwalya Kandeke, and I after their graduation.
  • $921 has been donated towards the pre-school construction in just a few weeks. We still need $2872. Pleas e, please spread the word of this project. If you’ve already done so, please continue to do it. It’s pretty difficult raising publicity for what I’m doing when I’m in the village without access to any form of modern communication, so I need help. (Special thanks to Sue and Tim, Rick, Kate, and Sarah). Again the link is https://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=611-061

1 comment:

  1. I am an Endicott, NY resident who just read your story in today's Press and Sun Bulletin. I too grew up in Broome county, got involved in volunteer trips at college (SUNY Oswego), and am now headed to Zambia in January of 2011 with the Peace Corps-- I just recieved my invitation only three days before your story was featured. How ironic! I have only read a little bit of your blog so far but am already so excited and inspired! My position is a community education specialist. Keep up the good work and dedication! Any insight you might be able to pass along before I leave the states would be truly appreciated ( slinehan7@gmail.com )