Wednesday, October 28, 2009


That loud crashing noise you hear? That’s the sound of age-old traditions and stereotypes being smashed and broken.

I don’t think it’s a bad sound. Ben and Lily don’t think so either.

Those aren’t their real names, by the way.

But, first, let me tell you what Ben and Lily have to deal with.

About 90% of the population of Zambia is Christian but it’s a Christianity that’s been mixed with centuries-old customs, practices and traditions. The mix goes increasingly in the favor of tradition as you go further into the rural districts.

Cattle ownership is the traditional form of wealth. Men's prestige and the respect they command is related to the number of women they own. Sorry, did I say women? I meant cattle. Anyway, as far as Zambian tradition goes, there doesn’t seem to be much difference.

Women in the rural areas are the ones responsible for working the lands that they are prohibited from owning. Come harvest time, its the men-folk who have absolute power to decide how the crops are used or distributed. When a woman becomes widowed, she loses whatever assets she may have earned in the name of her husband. His relatives come over to take everything, even her children. Even worse, she becomes subject to “sexual healing”, and not the kind that Marvin Gaye had in mind either. An elder male in her dead husband’s family has every right to take her to bed saying he has to cleanse and free her of the dead husband’s spirit. Nice. Some men will say anything to get laid.

That brings us back to Ben and Lily.

Ben works for the Kalomo branch office of a big freight forwarding company (not his real job either but everything else that follows is true). Ben is tall and lanky. You can imagine him as a track and field runner. He's the type who'd be grinning goofily as he crosses the finish line just because he's super happy that he's done it.

Ben helped me sort out some stuff during my first week here. He knew I was new in town and didn’t know a lot of people. He asked where I was staying. He said he would come to visit. So, ok, whatever.

But he did. The following night, he came by. He said he just wanted to check where I was staying and how I was.(Note: I would find out later that this kind of gesture is par for the course for Ben. He’s the kind of person who would get off his car to help a stranger take care of a flat tire). He said he would pick me up the following week-end to show me around the small town and introduce me to his family.

I warmed up to Ben quickly. He sort of reminds me of my Dad. When I was young, my Dad would bring a progression of foreign visitors he had met somewhere to our house (this was of course during much simpler, more innocent times). He thought they were interesting and I guess he wanted to expose us to different cultures since we couldn’t afford to travel ourselves. So, no, I didn’t think it was especially strange that I was being invited to Ben’s house quite so soon.

Last week-end, he came to fetch me at the exact time that we agreed (CRASH! I was warned about how unconscious of time Zambians can be). Ben was wearing a red blazer and a red tie. I have an orange blazer (which hopefully will fit me again when I get back home) so I didn’t think this was strange. It turns out that the red blazer is his Sunday uniform He is an elder in the Church where he worships and he had come straight from some official function.

He was driving his own car, a white Toyota that was several models old but obviously well-kept and maintained. He knows somebody who knows somebody else who helped him get it at a good price from a dealer who imports used cars from Japan.

He showed me around town. It was a short trip. There really isn’t much to see. I had a memory flash of doing the sand dune buggy ride in Dubai. Very few of Kalomo’s roads are paved.

As we approached his neighborhood, he singled out points of interest to me. That neighbor just had his house painted. That hospital is new. That’s the school where his children go.

We stopped in front of his house. It wasn’t a big house. One storey. An outhouse in the front. Clean yard. But with the dust from the unpaved roads and the unpainted outside walls, my impression was that everything seemed brown.

The inside of the house was a totally different story . The sofa was covered in bright, unfaded red slip covers. There was a huge , colourful calendar advertising Ben’s company hanging by a wall. The furniture seemed like it had seen better days but, like the outside, everything was neat and orderly. This was exactly like the kind of house I grew up in. There was a television set and a CD player. There was even what looked liked the casing of a PC CPU. It was just the casing though. Nothing inside.

Oh, did I mention that the entire neighborhood doesn’t have electricity yet? But Ben knows that they will. Very soon. Just wait and see, he says.

There was a jug of juice concentrate , a jar of water and some glasses on the table. Ben said they didn’t have a refrigerator yet but the water was cold He wasn’t apologizing, just stating a fact. Setting aside thoughts of parasites - I mixed myself a drink , said a short prayer to the Patron Saint of Clean Water and Sanitation, took a tentative sip. A couple of days later, I haven’t had the runs and I’m still alive (CRASH!. My briefing documents say that water from unknown sources will kill you!!)

His wife came out to greet me. Lily was very pretty but seemed shy. Like most women I’ve met in Zambia, she had a chitenga wrapped around her waist. Another chitenga wrapped across her upper body supported a 5 month old baby that was slung on her back. Remembering all I had read about women in Zambian culture, I thought – poor girl

Well, not really. Lily is an entrepreneur. She buys and sells “salaula” (very much like the ukay-ukay used clothes sales popular in the Philippines). Ben and Lily have decided that whatever she earns from her business ventures goes to the maintenance of their daily household expenses. As Ben and I spoke, Lily was sorting thru movie and song CDs which I assumed she would sell to diversity her product line.

After seeing how the wealth of some of his relatives were completely wiped out when disease struck their cattle , Ben promised himself that, if he had the opportunity, he would invest in property instead.

Ben’s salary goes to what he calls their “projects”. They are building a much bigger house right next door. The house will be under Lily’s name so that should anything happen to Ben, none of his relatives can claim any right over it. The second house still needs a lot of work to be completed. Ben said that, as money becomes available, he’ll have work on the house continued little by little. Once done, they are going to have this house rented out. There are a lot of people from all over coming into Kalomo. He believes that any one of them would willing to pay a good price to rent a nice house like this. The good times are just around the corner.

Ben also has a second car. That one is used as a taxi service. The earnings are invested on the completion of the second house and “other projects”. These will keep his family secure and protected. Healing, schmealing.

Higher education is expensive in Zambia. But Ben is confident that his children would have the opportunity to study. If for whatever reason, he could not send them thru school, he knows that they would find a way themselves. He’s been there. His father could support his studies only up to a point. Ben took care of the rest by working and studying at the same time.

I asked Ben how he and Lily decide how their money should be spent and which projects to invest in. He said they always discuss it carefully between the two of them, weighing the pros and cons. I asked him whether that kind of relationship was unique in Zambian culture. He said that he thought this was the norm among his circle of friends (CRASH. CRASH)

I asked him if he had any plans of seeking better opportunities outside of Zambia. He seemed surprised at the question. He did not. He said there were enough opportunities in Zambia for someone who works hard.

Lily didn’t seem comfortable speaking in English and didn’t talk much. But as I was saying goodbye – in easy confident tones - she told Ben something which Ben translated for me. I was invited to a meal sometime soon and Lily wanted to know what kind of food I like.

Ben dropped me off at the guest house. He had to go back home to attend a neighbourhood council meeting. We made plans to meet again. I waved goodbye from the gate as he drove his trusty, white car into the horizon of the fading afternoon.

I stood there a bit longer gazing at the slow descent of the red-orange sun.


I have met many intelligent, strong women in positions of leadership not only in Lusaka but also here in Kalomo. And of the Zambian brothers, I’ve met - My brother is not a chauvinist pig! My brother is not a chauvinist pig! (For the last sentence to be even mildly amusing to you, you have to be Filipino and of a certain age). However, while great strides seem to have been taken by the Zambians in the areas of gender equality and women’s rights, this is not to negate the fact that a lot of the traditions are still very much prevalent in other parts of the country.

That other loud sound you’re hearing? That’s my tummy grumbling. Subject of another blog post.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


T.I.A. This is Africa.

I am told that this is a line from Blood Diamond (the Leonardo diCaprio move) and the line is often used by expat volunteers here in Zambia as a catch-all explanation for a situation or experience that defies the muzungu (foreigner) logic or paradigm .

Lusaka is the capital city where my intake of volunteers (all from Western Europe except me) spent one week on training. Its sights and sounds were not totally unfamiliar. I have been to Africa before. This was the Africa I knew.

Yes, we had to walk 30 minutes to get there, but there was a strip mall 30 minutes away from the dormitory where we were housed. This temple of commerce, although smaller than what I am used to back home, was familiar and comforting. How could anything go wrong if you have access to a money exchange center , a Subway outlet and a supermarket selling aromatherapy candles?

That Africa seems so far away today.

I am on my second day in Kalomo, 400 kilometers away from Lusaka. I am living in a guest house while my permanent residence is being readied. The guest house is clean and safe and the people working here have been very helpful. I shouldn’t ask for more. I don’t have to report for work until tomorrow.

This morning, I walked the dusty footpath from the guest house to the town market to familiarize myself with the place that will be home for the next six months.

As soon as the market was in sight, my senses went immeidately on overload. The heat of the late -morning sun was merciless. I could almost feel the oil on my scalp and face sizzle. The chitengas wrapped around the women’s bodies and heads were wildly vibrant and unapologetic in their mix of patterns and colors.

My nostrils were engulfed with so many new smells, not all unpleasant but each one with an in-your-face aggressiveness to demand attention . A cacophony of noises (words I do not understand, roosters crowing, trucks honking, drums playing on a loudspeaker, children shouting) surrounded me.

I had to stop to get my bearings. For a few seconds, time seemed to stand still as I reminded myself where I was and why I was even here.

I looked around and realized I was lost. I didn’t know where I was or how I could get back to where I started my walk.

People were looking at me. I relaxed when I sensed no hostility. Their faces and eyes were friendly. I greeted them with the few words in the local Tongan than I have managed to learn since arriving…… Mwaboka Buti, Muliwutsi, Kabotu (Good morning, How are you? I’m fine)

A woman passed by running after a passel of young children. One young girl of about four – skin dark as ebony, pigtails tied with a red ribbon and with big round eyes - stopped in her tracks, turned around, stared and then made a sign towards me. I did not understand. The woman laughed and explained to me in English - She is blessing you. She is saying welcome.

I felt my heart tighten and my eyes sting. What else could I say but - Twalumba (thank you). The little girl laughed and ran away with the woman chasing after her.

I took a deep breath and let my senses take everything back in. I found my way back to the guest house. My clothes, shoes and face were covered with a layer of red dust.

Six months seems like such a long time. But, today, the people of Kalomo see me. They acknowledge and seem not to mind my presence, this stranger among them. I see them too, these people who will become my neighbors, friends and protectors.

For now, that is enough.

This is Africa. This is my Africa.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Your Man in Zambia

In 4 days, I am finally leaving for my VSO volunteer assignment in rural Zambia. While I am excited and remain very much committed to the endeavor, I will admit to some last minute jitters.

I have no experience in grass-roots social development work. I have never lived in a rural community. While I sympathize with those suffering, I have never actively advocated for gender equality, poverty-alleviation and the rights of victims of HIV and AIDS – important issues I have to deal with in my area of placement.

I have been reassuring myself that I have my good intentions and 20 years of experience in a high-stress industry to back me up . On top of that, I have been doing a lot of studying and have been actively soliciting inputs and tips from different people.

VSO’s pre-departure trainings and expectation-setting sessions have been very helpful for my psychological and emotional conditioning. And I can’t discount all the positive juju from all the good wishes I’ve received.

But, recent events have made me realize that my best preparation is having been born and raised in the Philippines I come from a strong, resilient and generous people.

Many of the people with whom I will be working and living may not yet know of the Philippines. They will. This is what I would like to tell them :

• I left for Zambia during a difficult time for my country but I am confident that the Filipinos will overcome – even if only thru the power of sheer will and faith.

• When the system and the government fail us, we have our resourcefulness and strong sense of community and family to fall back on.

• Filipinos will find something to laugh about even under the most adverse of conditions. We laugh because we are thankful for having survived; we laugh because it is one thing we can still share when everything else has been taken from us. We laugh because life will go on.

• Filipinos are unfortunately only too familiar with the issues of crime, plunder and corruption . However, it is the heroic acts of ordinary people which tell me there is hope for my country. I will tell them about Efren Penaflorida whose organization provides basic reading and writing tutorials to street children. I will tell them about Muelmar Magallanes who saved more than 30 people from floodwaters in the Philippines before sacrificing his life while rescuing a baby girl and her mother. I will tell them about my friend Gisela Santos, who with a group of other young people, immediately harnessed and mobilized the power of technology to assist in the rescue efforts for the victims of typhoon Ondoy.I will share stories about my family and friends, whether in the Philippines or abroad, who sacrifice for those they love and who, on a daily basis, try to make a positive difference in the community around them.

• The Filipinos have shown the world that a peaceful revolution is possible if you have group of unarmed civilians united and strengthened by shared ideals, a desire to do what is right and a shared faith.

I am praying that by sharing the best of what I know from the Philippines , I can show the people in my community that great changes can come from ordinary people; that there is strength in unity and that there is always hope even in the face of adversity.

In the process of sharing what I know, I also look forward to learning a few things from my community myself. I will be open to new things. I will listen. I will ask questions. I will be humble. I will participate.

I know that this experience will be a test and a challenge. I hope to be able to come off it with a clear sense of what I can and cannot do and how I can make a longer-term contribution to society.

The Philippines will always be home. I would like to be able to make that contribution here.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Test Post (Slide Show)

This is a test post on the inclusion of a slide show in a blog post. The pictures below are all from my flickr accout as of today. If this works, I hope to be able to use this feature on subsequent posts.

It works!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Gisela Santos is so cool and there's more like her where she comes from

So ok, everybody's probably heard of that Filipina working in the UAE who posted disparaging comments about the flood victims on her FB page . She, or someone, has since posted a disclaimer saying that somebody else was responsible. Too much negativity, so enough on that already.

Let me tell you instead about another Filipina working in the UAE. Her name is Gisela Santos. I'm proud to be her friend.

Shortly after the extent of Ondoy's devastation become apparent - Gise - together with her friends - Serge Gregorio, Franklin Naval, Thomas Pestaño, Kaye Domingo, Jun Verzola, Eric Pestaño Smith, Vince Yamat and Jordana Calit - realized that so much information was being shared, but that it wasn’t being collated in one place.

Wanting to do something to help their countrymen even while based outside the Philppines, they established a Google “Ondoy situation map for Metro Manila”.

Realizing the urgency of the situation, the group acted immediately. Conceptualization, mobilization and execution took only a matter of hours. The site became a critical reference point for rescue workers, relief organizations and volunteers by pinpointing reports from all over the metropolis, so that , the media and officials could have a reference point to figure out what, exactly, was happening —and where help was most needed.

Theirs is not an isolated story. We've heard countless reports of other Filipinos - from all walks of life - rising to the ocassion and doing whatever they can to help. You might even be one of them.

Manuel Quezon writes about the Filipino sense of community and volunteerism in his regular Inquirer column.

These stories are so humbling but also inspiring. I am so proud of my countrymen.

There are of course other people from whom we had expected more but then again - they will have their time of reckoning. Maybe the next typhoon will wash them away.