The dawn breaks and I can look out of the foggy airplane window at one of the best sights in the world: the African sunrise. As the plane touches down, I don’t quite know what the next few weeks have in store, but I do know that I am back in Zambia and that is all that really matters. The fact that I don’t know where I will be living, where I will be working, and that I only have 200$ in my pocket thanks to my ATM card being shut off, doesn’t really throw me off as much as it would have a few months ago. My calmness tells me that I have moved into that veteran travelers club – meaning that you know everything will work itself out, just go with the flow and have some fun.
Within 5 minutes of getting into the taxi from the airport, I hear a conversation on the radio about how priests are telling people that they should stop taking their ARV’s (HIV/AIDS assistance drugs) because God will protect them. Besides the fact that I thought that the argument was just about the most rediculous thing I have ever heard, I couldn’t believe how people were calling in to say that it was against God’s will to take ARV’s and you were more likely to die if you did. As I tried to calm my frustration I realised that I was in fact in a whole new world. It was a stark reminder of life here in Sub-Sahara Africa, a life I had forgotten since my time here in 2009. Life where disease, death, controversy, culture, modernization and happiness are all sort of woven together in a very particular manner. For the rest of the day I try to get settled into my hostel and catch up on some much needed rest after a long travel schedule from Tel Aviv to Lusaka.
The next day I get a response about my inquirery on renting a room and meet the landlord to see the house. Virginia is a Zambian woman with a 2 year old girl who has a rather large house in a great part of town. I go to check it out and meet some of the house mates as well as get a tour of the house. Along with Virginia and her little girl, there is Alastair the Kiwi documentary film maker, Steve from Scotland distributing solar panels, Harry from the US working in health with Boston University, Casey from the US, and two Chinese people who are quite reclusive (I think one of their names is Albert). When I walk in to introduce myself, they are all spead out on the grass tasting different hot sauces and giving extremely detailed reviews, “Oh I like this one, it has a nice sweet flavor. Oh yep here comes the kick. Wow only the tip of my tounge is on fire, but the other half is good. I love it.” I quickly introduce myself and learn that Steve and Alastair have just started their own hot sauce making business and they have their first sale the next day at the market. I love it already and tell Virginia that it will work great and move on to my next meeting for the day, with Susan from a non-profit called World Vision.
My collegues at World Bicycle Relief were kind enough to pass some references about me along to some of their friends and Susan had responded that she and her team could use some help. So I met her and two other members, Zambians named Patience and Edward, for lunch and began to talk about what I was looking for with my time in Zambia. They were super enthusiastic about helping me realize my dream and by the end of lunch it seemed like things were going to work out. Susan and her team, STEPS OVC, are working on a 3 year project to assist vulnerable children with economic strengthening programs and HIV/AIDS assistance. Although they have lots of opportunities throughout Zambia, their current focus is on a small village community in the Northwestern Province where a few mines are moving in an destroying everything in their path. Besides the fact that this is generally not acceptable, Susan and team decided to get involved because of the notoriously high AIDS rates in mining communities. They wanted to see if they could stop the terror before it even began. Because of this, they told me that they were headed up for a week of workshops and that I should come along to get a feel for the program and see if I could find a place to initiate some work for my project. This lunch meeting was on Friday afternoon, I had arrived Thursday morning, I was moving into my new place on Saturday, and they were leaving for the Northwest on Sunday – it was quite a whirlwind.
[Although I didn’t know it at the time, I quickly found out that Susan is one of the top HIV/AIDS experts in all of Africa and Patience is Rhodes Scholar. I couldn’t have better guides for my work here]
Sunday morning arrived and I was at the World Vision headquarters at 8am for the 9 hour drive up to Solwezi. When Susan arrives she jokingly mentions to me that they really don’t know me at all, I could be some mass murderer and they would have no idea, but they invited me for this week long trip all the same. I laugh and tell her that if I end up going off the reservation and lose my mind, it will be a surprise for all of us. For the next 9 hours we discuss everything from African politics to favorite types of music. We also find ourselves increasingly terrified of the driving along the highways. Because there are only a handful of paved roads that criss-cross the countryside, they are absolutely tretcherous with enormous tractor-trailers passing each other and food stands bustling with traders a few meters from the pavement. In the 9 hours of driving, we pass 7 or 8 of the worst wrecks I have ever seen. There will be a burnt out truck on one side of the road and a heap of metal that used to be a car on the other side. Almost every bridge that you cross has the skeleton of a car or truck gathering debris in the river below. Some of the wrecks are years old and one of the wrecks is fresh, only occuring 20 minutes ahead of us. I think to myself that the most dangerous thing I do in Africa will probably be merely getting myself from one place to another on these freaking roads.
The next morning brings the first day of a four day workshop with the Musele Task Force. The workshop is the third of the year facilitated by World Vision in an effort to assist the local villages in the area with the advent of a new copper
mine in the area. In short, Zambia’s life-blood is copper. Because of this, the road to ‘modernization’ is extremely difficult, which has lead Zambia to where it is today. It was often said that “copper is the absolute best and most devastating thing that has ever happened to Zambia.” As is the case for many villages in the northern regions of Zambia as well as the Musele chiefdom, a new mine will scam the local chief for the land rights, usually offering a truck or livestock for 7 or 8 million dollars of mining profit, and then move into the area. Once the mine is in, it practically destroys everything in its path. This pretty much leaves the local villagers, many who are uneducated but not dumb, with nothing but a few hundred dollars to build a new house and no real way to adapt to their new life.
In my short time here, it has become increasingly clear to me that there is a line somewhere between being extremely profitable and taking unrightful advantage of others. After being practically bred for capitalism at the Ross School of Business, it is a much needed dose of reality and an important lesson to learn. There is no reason for anybody to overtly ruin lives and within a few hours of the workshop I find myself engulfed in the fight that these passionate people are fighting.
The Musele Task Force was facilitated by World Vision in an effor to empower the community and help the leaders of the Musele Chiefdom understand their own rights and power. By this third workshop, these people are fired-up and extremely educated about what they can do when they put their minds to it. Over the 4 days I witness everything from detailed descriptions of the intangible qualities of each
village that is not being compensated by the mine to a formal presentation in front of a roaming committee from the national parliament. I see people who have practically nothing, by western standards, stand and fight for their rights and the rights of their brothers and sisters. I see ideas form about potential farming tactics and I see solutions generate from terrible potential situations, such as the inevidable river pollution. I even witness the subtle, yet firm, threatening of a person’s life if they continue to talk in a demeaning manner towards the group. It is quite possible the most inspiring 4 days I have experienced in some time and it gets my gears moving about what I want to do with my time here.
For the following few days we continue further into the Northwestern Province and meet more governmental representatives in an effort to spread the word about the success of the Musele Task Force and encourage other potential mining areas to create similar groups before it is too late. We are even blessed with the opportunity to meet local, tribal Chiefs. The first was Chief Musele with the task force, but the second came at our hotel in Mwanilunga. We arrive and see a man with a smile from ear to ear absolutely charming everyone in his path. He has an elaborate head piece sitting low on his head as well as a whip of animal hairs that he swishes around while he laughes. This is Senior Chief Kanongesha and he immediately welcomes us to his chiefdom, wishing us well. He even slips away from his conference the next morning to converse with me, alone, over my morning tea. We talk of his extensive trip through the United States, his Congressional award for outstanding community service, the three books that he has written about his tribe, and Disney World [he loved ‘It’s a Small World’]. Although I didn’t quite know at the time, these one-on-one experiences with the Chief are extremely rare because of the way he is treated by his subjects and other Zambians. The proper protocal for greeting a Chief is to kneel on the ground about 10ft. away and clap 3 times, then approach and kneel again to clap. Once you have bowed, following your kneeling, you are free to converse with a chief, but Kanongesha was the one approaching me. I must admit, I felt pretty cool sitting in his presence and having a casual conversation. Its not every day that you meet a Chief!
As part of Chief Kanongesha’s welcome to his chiefdom, he recommends that we see one of his most cherished sights: the source of the Zambezi River. Having bungee jumped over it, white water rafted through it, and canoed on it, I agreed that it was time for me to go to the source of one of the largest rivers in Africa. So we drive north out of town, leading us to the sliver of land that is still Zambia,
wedged in between Angola and Congo. We finally turn off the road, which has deteriorated into a dirt path with 8inch potholes, and make our way to the ‘Source’ park – at this point, the Congo is walking distance, literally 20ft through the trees on the right side of the road. We meet our guide and begin to walk through the forest. Besides the rediculous amount of the most frightening spiders I have ever seen, the forest is teeming with life. As we walk deeper, we can feel the climate change from the airid, dry and dusty air of the outside, to the damp, humid, heavy air of the source. Finally after doing our best to avoid any and all snakes, spiders, etc., our guide exclaims that we have arrived. I look down at the tree stump in the middle of the boardwalk and realize that there is a small puddle beneath it. That is it. That is the source. This small little thing is the original source of the river that creates the largest water-fall on earth, Victoria Falls, as well as a water table the size of Texas from the middle of Sub-Saharan Africa to the Indian Ocean. It is a humbling sight, but very cool regardless. I take some handfulls to wash my face and then take a drink “to be truly Zambian.” I also subtly pray that I don’t get sick from the water.
The next day brings another village meeting and an audience with a chief. Chief Nyakasaya is quite different from Senior Chief Kanongesha and the we can immediately tell that we are going to get different reception with this community. It is 10am and Chief Nyakasaya smells like stale beer and uses words like “we
need” and “can you,” which is not really what our team wants to hear right off the bat. Doing our best to understand the Chief’s slurred words, we discuss the lessons that the Musele area has learned and what his chiefdom should do in order to prepare for any mines in the area. His response is that he thinks we should provide relief before we tell him how to handle the mines. He is quite excited about the supposed platnum that sits deep below his territory and we are a bit weary about the wellfare of his community. Out of respect we sit for a meeting with his villagers, which is far more uplifting that the meeting with the Chief. His people are determined to make positive changes in their lives and form a task force, as the people of Musele did. As we leave, we find ourselves in thinking about the future of Chief Nyakasaya and his people. It is a rediculously bumpy ride back to Lusaka, 13 hours at this point, but we can’t help but think that Nyakasaya’s people deserve better than a drunk Chief.
We finally arrive in Lusaka as the sun sets and I reflect on the past week. I have seen a lot of things that made me really upset and a fair amount of things that inspired me. Besides being a crashcourse in corporate social responsibility, I think that there is something really meaningful in the events taking place in Musele. There are real opportunities in the community and I am trying to figure out how I can work myself into them. I still have yet to figure out what I will exactly do with my time here in Zambia, but I think I have found a direction. People are being unrightly taken advantage of and I think that I might be just the guy to help. If anything, I will love being the stone in the big corporation’s perverbial shoe. This is going to be exciting.
Current City: Lusaka, Zambia