Friday, November 20, 2009

Flotsam from the Debris of my Mind

1) Once upon a time, there lived a couple in a small village. Let’s call them Jerry and Ana (as usual, not their real names). Jerry’s job took him to far-away places. Ana stayed at home. Thru hard-work and perseverance they were able to build a house. Unfortunately, whenever Jerry was away, he was not faithful to Ana. Unknown to him, he had become HIV+. He came home and infected Ana. Ana become pregnant. The baby was born infected , as well. By the time, their disease had escalated to AIDS, the entire village knew.

The villagers were scared. They wanted this family out. Jerry and Ana knew no other home. They couldn’t leave. The villagers took matters in their own hands. One night, they came and torched the house that Jerry and Ana built. The couple escaped with their baby. They never came back to the village. This is not one of my stories from Zambia. This actually happened in a small village in Southern Philippines, a few years ago, as recounted to me by a fellow Filipino volunteer when we met for training last September.

Cruelty borne out of ignorance happens anywhere. It should stop.

2) The power outages are happening more frequently here in Kalomo. Last night, the lights went out at 7 pm and didn’t come back until the morning. There’s not much to do here even when the power is on, much less when it’s pitch darkness. At around 8 pm, I was sitting by my window staring at the moon. Suddenly, out of nowhere, I found myself singing….”Somewhere out there, beneath the pale moonlight, someone’s waiting for you…” in a trembling voice. I would have finished the song too if the dogs didn’t start barking.

3) The rains have come. Unfortunately, the downpours usually happen in the morning and early evening. It becomes really cold. I brought only one jacket so there are days when I wear it at night and then to work in the morning. I also brought one suit for just-in-case occasions so I’ve taken to wearing the suit jacket with my denims and rubber shoes on some days. What’s difficult is walking through the mud to/from work. One of these days, I’m going to fall flat on my butt (law of karma: there was this girl in the office back in the Philippines who used that excuse one day to explain why she had to go back home and couldn’t report back to work and I didn’t believe her).

4) And oh let me tell you about the locusts (I think that’s what they’re called. The lady who cleans tells me they come out during rainy weather and they can be made into some kind of local dish, I wonder if this is similar to the camaru we have back home. As I write, they’re swarming around the room . But they seem to have a pretty short life-span because I have dead ones all over my floor. I can also hear rats scurrying on the ceiling right now. From the sound, I'm guessing they're as big as toddlers. God bless all the little critters. But I still want to poison all of them with the strongest insecticide or repellants available and kick their furry filthy little carcasses as far away from me as possible.

5) I continue to be an object of fascination for the children here. When I walk to and from work, they run towards me shouting, “Hello. How are you”. I think it’s sweet so I don’t mind. What’s mildly disconcerting is that they gather outside the gate of the Drive Inn Guest House every Saturday morning to watch me do my laundry. It’s difficult to be friendly when your knuckles are red from scrubbing dried mud from your pants. If I charge money to let people watch me shower, maybe I can afford to spend more time on Internet surfing.

6) After 20+ years in the IT Industry, I can finally call myself an IT Specialist. I’ve been running computer tutorials, creating databases and doing minor hardware troubleshooting. Who knew?

7) In my 5 weeks here in Kalomo, these are among the things I’ve accomplished so far: a) revised the District Strategic Plan ; stakeholder consultations are now ongoing; b) helped draft the District Workplace Policy on HIV, AIDS and other Life-Threatening Diseases – I’m really proud of this, I think it’s a really good document; c) participated in workshops for gender-equality in the workplace, the output of which will eventually be used for another workplace policy; d) participated in monitoring meetings for the Constituency Development Funds where we spent a good amount of time talking about the health of the goats that were purchased in one village; and e) celebrated World Toilet Day today, November 19. We had a parade, a program and everything. World Toilet Day promotes proper hygiene and sanitation, especially in the rural villages.

8) This Monday, I’m conducting a workshop on resource mobilization, the first of a series, where I did the lesson plan and training materials all by myself about a subject I had previously no knowledge about. On Friday , we’re visiting Lusaka, the big city, to meet with some people whom the Council hopes to convince to invest in Kalomo so that new jobs can be created, etc. I will look for opportunities to apply what I’m learning here back home in da Pilipins

9) The big challenge has been trying to adjust to the way that things are done here and my role as a volunteer. Sometimes, things are just soooooo slow, that I just want to take over and do everything myself. But I keep reminding myself that this would defeat the purpose of my being here. At the end of the day, you want the people with whom you work to own the process and develop the skills to be able to sustain the projects on their own. It should do me good to learn to be less of a control freak.

10) The period from late November to the approach of Christmas usually is a bad time for me – too many death anniversaries and all the baggage that goes with the upcoming holidays. The rainy season and all the excess time for introspection isn’t going to help me here. On the other hand, I’m keeping busy and doing new things so – let’s see.

11) The week-end after next, I’m planning a big trip to the other end of Zambia (14 hours travel time) to meet up with some volunteer friends . And there’s the trip to Livingstone (home of Victoria Falls, supposedly one of the wonders of the natural world) which is only two hours away from Kalomo

12) Zambia being a predominantly Christian nation, I think I've found an effective way to bargain when I suspect I'm not being given the local rate. I look the vendor in the eye and say - "Are you sure you're giving me the right price? Are you sure?? God is watching us. If you're cheating me, he will punish you!" Works all the time.

13) November 17 marks Wyatt Ammon’s 4th death anniversary. His story was among those that inspired me when I was considering volunteering. May his soul rest in peace and may God continue to give comfort to his family, Amen.

There. Those are thirttene items that could have been full-blown blog entries. If you don’t hear from me for awhile, its because I’ve run out of ideas. Or maybe the locusts flew me away cause I’m so thin already (haha, not really, not yet anyway).

P.S. The section on Italy in Eat, Pray, Love is so the wrong thing to read when you have limited food options.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Tale of Two Nations

I am so not going to be the guy who sits at the bar buying rounds of drinks for people.

I said this to myself as soon as I saw the open-spaced Drive-Inn Outdoor Bar. It is attached to the Drive-Inn Guest House where I am currently staying. I imagined having to go through the opening scene of Miss Saigon every time I went home after work or waking up to some drunken argument outside my window in the middle of the night.

As it turns out, the Drive Inn Outdoor Bar is pretty lame. And the customers? A wild bunch. They don’t stop partying until 8 pm. Woo-hoo, fun times in Kalomo.!

This bar has no music, no bright lights, no mirror ball, no dancing, no displays of flesh. From what I’ve seen, the soft-drinks (Fanta Orange is big in this part of the world) seem to go as fast as the beers (Mosi and Castle – South African brands, which are pretty good ).

Getting in and out of here is an event by itself. As it is way off the town center, it involves driving thru rough roads for those who have motorcycles or cars and for those who don’t - walking thru unlighted, unmarked roads after sundown.

The thing is: the Drive-Inn Outdoor Bar attracts a steady clientele. I suspect that its most attractive quality is simply this: in a town with limited entertainment options, it is a place to go. For the price of a drink or two, one can have some private time, take a break from his or her daily toil and dream or talk about better things, better times.

And so, people come. Alone, in pairs or in small mixed groups. They stay for a couple of drinks but keep to themselves or their small groups Everyone is gone by 8 pm and the Drive-Inn closes shop.

As for me – I get home from work at around 5:30 pm (or 1730 hours as they say around here). I dump my stuff in my room, take out a bottle of water and a couple of sticks from my precious (and dwindling!) supply of Marlboro Lights and then I stake out my space at the far end of the bar. I come for the nightly show. From where I choose to sit, I have a great view of the setting Kalomo sun. Unmarred by pollution or the obstruction of tall buildings, it is always magnificent.

The strange thing is while the other patrons don’t socialize with each other, they don’t seem to have any qualms about approaching me to start a conversation. I am , after all, one of the town curiosities. Everyone knows English since it is the official language although, much like the Philippines, everyone also knows at least one local dialect.

I’ve met some interesting people in this way. Let me tell you about one of them.

Aaron (not his real name) works for a freight forwarding company (not his real job, you know the drill, haha).

I don’t ask people for their ages but I’m guessing he is in his early 20’s. He was born in the northern region of Zambia. His father died when he was 1 and as is the local custom, he was taken away from his mother by his father’s relatives. He never saw her again.

When he was 11, he heard that she died. At 14, he decided to quit school, leave his relatives and fend for himself. He has been taking odd jobs since then. The last one has taken him to Kalomo, which is in the far southern part of the country. He has been here for three years. He doesn’t want to stay for a fourth. He is saving up to go to carpentry school. He wants to have a trade so he can set himself up and go on business on his own.

He was curious about the Philippines. What kind of lives we have. What kind of government leads us. Although he struggled a bit with the English, it was obvious that he is pretty smart. His questions and line of thinking reminded me of my friends back in my University days.

Seeing an opportunity to share something about my country, I told him that the Philippines also has its share of problems but Filipinos , in general, are smart, resourceful and hard-working. We would always find a way to survive and help each other along the way. Like any other country, I told him, we had good leaders and bad leaders but we held the bad ones accountable and we were free to express our opinions against them.

He wanted to know if we had poor people too. I said yes.

He told me about life in Zambia. According to him, an average worker earns about 500 thousand Zambian Kwacha a month (about 5 thousand pesos or 100 US dollars). With expenses for rent and food, that is hardly enough for a single person to survive , let alone a family. But, the workers are still the lucky ones. At least, they get steady income. Most of the people fall below the poverty line, relying on subsistence agriculture to survive, with a good number classified as critically poor (note: I am providing the link to substantiate the info that Aaron shared) .

In the meantime, Aaron continued, the politicians who are supposed to help the people, have no idea what it is to be poor. They live in their big houses, drive their fancy cars and sit down to lavish dinners while the rest of the country struggles.

This was getting too familiar to me. Since I wanted to keep the conversation on an upbeat note, I reminded him that everyone has a choice. Quickly doing a mental inventory of my arsenal of feel-good stories, I chose to tell him about the People Power Revolution.

I said, “Look at the Philippines. We had a president who was not serving the interest of the people. We took to the streets. Without any blood being shed, we were able to get him out and replace him with a new President”.

Just to drive home the point, I added, “And we did this not once but twice”.

It took a while for Aaron to digest this story. In the meantime, “‘Your Man in Zambia is in da haus” went like a banner ad thru my head.

I was too early with my self-congratulations.

Aaron spoke up again. He said he was amazed that something like that could happen. But he said he was almost certain that this was not possible in his country “Why not?", I asked almost peevishly. I always hate it when people don’t get the point of my feel-good stories.

Even in the fading afternoon light, I could see the effort in his face and expression to articulate his thoughts clearly to me. He said – the politicians would mess it all up. Even if the people currently running the government would be booted out, there would be too much in-fighting and self-interests from among those wanting to replace them. They will all make similar promises and then the leaders might change but the problems of the country would remain the same. He ended by saying that someday, he hopes that politics and government in Zambia could be like what it is in the Philippines

He looked at me as if to check whether I could understand this – I, who in his thoughts, come from a country so much more advanced and ahead In progress and good governance.

I could have continued the conversation. I could have told him how far-off from reality his ideal was. I could have…

But when all a man has is a dream, why take that away from him? So, I kept my mouth shut, took a deep breath and recalled this line from A Tale of Two Cities, one of my favorite stories: “It is a far better thing that I will do than I have ever done; it t is a far better place where I will go than I have ever been”

And that, my friends is, how I decided to break the promise I made to myself on my first day here at the Drive-Inn Guest House.

I bought us a couple of beers.

And then, I changed the subject to something much more undeniably ideal than politics and governance in my country,

“How about that sunset, huh?”.


a) I may be staying at the Guest House for a few more weeks. The house where I am supposed to be transferring still has a huge hole in the ground where the septic tank is supposed to be. They brought me around to inspect it last week. It’s a concrete structure with a big backyard and a mango tree surrounded by a grass fence. When I move-in, I’ll be living by myself until the additional expected volunteers come in next year. The house is kinda isolated so I’m a bit concerned about security. There was a break-in at the Guest House last night. A few of my things were stolen, including my BP monitor. While I was sleeping , the the thief reached thru the open window and grabbed what he could. I have to say though that until last night, I’ve never felt threatened or unsafe since arriving. Even then, I want to think of the break-in as an isolated incident. I'm not taking any changes though. I slept with my pepper spray on the bed side last night.

b) What I am paranoid about is malaria. There was another volunteer who just left, pre-terminating her placement. In the two months that she was in the area, she got malaria twice . Having brought only one set of sheets and one towel, I’m now using the stuff she left behind – and yes I checked, you only get malaria by being bitten. Anyway, I SLATHER myself with insect repellant at night then I put on my socks, jogging pants and hoodie then I make sure the treated mosquito net is tucked-in tightly to keep the critters away. If I could take my daily phrophy-whatever (medicine against malaria) twice for good measure, I would. I don't want to go home early because I got sick. Anyway, when my tummy aches, the first thought that comes to mind is – is this the first sign of malaria? Haha, I’ll get over it and I'll probably be sleeping naked by next month (maybe not, the nights are chilly, but you know what I mean).

c) The views reflected in this blog are entirely my own and do not necessarily reflect VSO’s position on any subject. Heck, they might not even reflect my position 5 minutes after posting the entry. So, chill.

Monday, November 2, 2009

While You Were Sleeping, I Became Big and White

I grew up in a small, quite town in the Northern part of the Philippines. As with many other small Filipino towns at the time, we had our share of white do-gooders - missionaries and Peace Corp Volunteers (and maybe a few CIA agents but we'll never know, will we?) . They had names like Bill, George, or Carol. .

They certainly stood out, these tall pale people. The men wore their crew cuts and short sleeved white shirts like a uniform. The women had short hair, unvarnished nails and faces devoid of cosmetics.

But, whatever they may have lacked in vanity, they certainly made up in zeal. They weren’t shy, that’s for sure. God or Uncle Sam (or maybe even both, you never k now with those Two) had brought them to the Philippine to save the Filipinos from themselves and by God (or by Uncle Sam), they would!

They approached people on the street asking for directions using the local dialect. They knocked on doors to sell bibles. They cried out to God with a megaphone in the middle of the town plaza. They spoke up in town hall meetings to share their expert opinion

When they walked by, a few kids would come up to them and greet them with “Hi Joe!” eager to practice their English or bask in the reflected glory of the local celebrities.

I would run away. It’s not that I was shy or scared. Okay, maybe I may have been a little of both. But we did speak English at home and my parents brought foreign visitors to the house every so often. Looking back now , I realize that – even at that age – it was more about my natural aversion towards people with loud voices who want to tell me what to do (to this day, I have the same reaction towards pushy tele-marketers, aggressive sales men and campaigning politicians ).

Cu to: several years after, a few days ago here in Zambia. The lady who cleans the guest house, where I am staying, was telling me about some Chinese people who had just come to town (a Chinese company had just won the contract to complete the national highway that was going to pass thru our small town of Kalomo).

She said to me, “But they’re not real muzungus, like you”. Taken aback, I asked, “Why, what am I?”. She said, “You’re white”.

I’ve been mulling over the implications of her observation. I already knew that they ‘ve been referring to me as the “Big Man” . Last week, somebody from work was telling me that there were plans to bring the “Big Man” to a field trip to the bush sometime soon. I asked who the Big Man was. It turned out he was talking about me. At the time, I assumed it was in reference to my size (I am taller than most of the Zambian men I’ve met, although – I hasten to add - not necessarily heftier).

My initial reaction was: I don’t want to be “white”. I don’t want to be the “Big Man”. I don’t want to be an object of curiosity. I’ll learn the language. I’ll eat the food. Just let me live quietly amongst you and give me the opportunity to do good work while I’m here.

And while all this whining was going on in my mind, I remembered the pale-faced strangers of my youth. While many will argue about the negative effects of what can be seen as an extended form of colonialism - we also cannot deny that a lot of good work was done. There are dams and bridges and schools and churches that exist to this day because of the efforts and smarts and sacrifices of these missionaries and volunteers. And, surely, their attempts to cross the cultural divide have helped this generation (and the next ones) of Filipinos in having a relatively balanced world-view and in being open to all sorts of new learnings and experiences.

I would like to think that majority of them had come to my country with the best of intentions. They too must have thought that by trying to learn the language and chatting up the locals, they could fit in and make the work they had come to do easier.

But, who were they kidding? They did not fit in. They could not. They were just too different. In trying to belong, they just called more attention to how different they were. We knew they were from far-away places to which they would eventually return

In the same manner, I accept – that my good intentions and best efforts notwithstanding – I will never totally fit in here either. It’s funny -coming here, I told myself I would play it down and be as inconspicuous as possible. But, I realize now that my idea of “inconspicuous” was just so totally wrong, haha. My tattoos and torn jeans and black tee-shirts (with everything from “Pilyo” to “Gurango Software” printed on them) aren’t exactly the norm here.

But, then again, maybe that’s not such a bad thing either . I hope that by getting to know me, people can come to realize that do-gooders come in various forms and sizes and colors. And while my contributions may be limited, I do hope that I am able to start something that can be continued even after I’ve finished my volunteer placement.

People will read or put meaning to what they see, depending on their own particular needs and points-of-view. Some people will see me as a representative of a big international NGO and would ask up-front for a water pump to be brought to their village (within 5 minutes of being introduced) or drop hints about getting a school sponsorship (in the course of what was supposed to be a social conversation).But that’s fine, because other people will see me as a friend or as a co-worker who may have something valuable to contribute.

Like everything else in life, it all balances out. There are opportunities to give and opportunities to receive; opportunities to teach and opportunities to learn.

All is well. And yes, I think I can live with “Big Man”. Maybe I’ll even have it printed on a tee-shirt. But, just because I can’t dance doesn’t mean I’m white. Hmm, that’ll look good on a tee-shirt too, no?.



I spent the night at my friend Ros’ house, another VSO volunteer, who works as a town planner in the next town. She’s from the UK and is retired. She came to Zambia 6 months ahead of me,. She also happens to be my first Quaker friend – so I’m sure we’ll be having a lot of discussions on spirituality and religion over the next months .

We attended the send-off party for Rosanna and Luke, also from the UK, who had just finished their 1 year placement as VSO volunteers for a youth organization focused on HIV/AIDS awareness. Luke and Rosanna are a couple. They both have longish hair and like walking around barefoot in their house and backyard. They’ve taking three months off to travel around Africa before going back home. From the testimonials during the party, both of them obviously did a lot of good for the organization they worked for. I want to be just like them when I grow up.

Anyway, it was a great party. I spied some boys spiking the drinks and there were party games with questions like “Where did you have your first kiss?”. It could have been a party anywhere in the world except for the Zambian hip-hop music and oh boy, those kids sure know how to dance.

Anyhow, the party ended close to midnight and Ros and I decided to walk back to her place, about 1 hour away. It was one of those clear, starry African nights. The temperature had dropped so it was a bit chilly. We didn’t talk much so there was just the sound of our feet touching the soft, sandy ground and crickets doing cricket sounds and dogs barking in the distance (far distance, I don’t like barking dogs). There were no streetlights, but there was the full moon to show the way. There were no street signs either but there were the big, tall trees to serve as our markers. It was great, one of my perfect memories of Africa