Thursday, September 30, 2010

Mosi-oa-tunya. The Smoke that Thunders.

On Saturday morning I woke up, packed my backpack and walked out the front gate into my friend Jamie’s car, a red Toyota that would take Max, Jamie, Brandon, and I on an adventure to Victoria Falls. Partnered by an impromptu playlist we drove out of Lusaka and said good-bye at a bright 0730 in the morning. Sang a little Lion King and focused hard on the road ahead because one battle with a pot hole would have left us deserted, hitchhiking back to the closest town, a true African Adventure. All in all we arrived in Livingstone in one piece, checked into a serene hostel, grabbed some food and headed out towards the falls. As you approach the falls from the footpath you can hear them, feel the humidity increase, and sense a mighty force. Currently the dry season is upon us and the geology of the falls is what baffles the eye rather than the influx of water. Little waterfalls descend rapidly from a cliff and create a mist of rainbows and “smoke” that then fades into a raging river. It’s glorious and powerful- erosion at its best. I could have spent all day just looking at the falls, taking photos that hardly match the picture in my head.

We headed back into Livingstone to cool down and relax before hitting up the Royal Livingstone, very royal indeed, for drinks and the sun set. The Royal Livingstone is one of those places that seems timeless and like a timewarp all at the same time. You feel clean and sophisticated when you walk in and I found myself sitting up straight and drinking a drink with Brandy in it (hahaha, when in Africa). Sunset was red as always, but had a coolness to it because of the river-the Zambezi-speckled with flocks of birds overhead, that looked more like swarms, and a hippo breaching in the water. It’s odd to see the animals from the zoo in the wild- they seem tame and it is easy to misjudge their veracity. Baboons lurked on the path we took the next day down to the boiling point- where the falls cauldron themselves into the Zambezi- lots of swimming, watching rafters flip, good times. We hiked along the top of the falls that afternoon, looked over the edge, and more swimming. The water was perfect. After a day in the sun we drove home to Lusaka. A stunning 48 hours.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The virgin VCT

Days and weeks fly by here. They pass so quickly I hardly find chance to process, pause, and breathe them in. There is an awful lot to breath in. Good and bad, carcinogenic and organic, familiar and foreign. I wanted to put the days events down before they escape their raw, fresh, and under-processed purity. Today was a day that can only be characterized by dirt, dance, and over 300 people tested for HIV- a complete success and pure sense of pride for those who organized the event.

Let me just explain what a VCT event is. GRS has created an event that centers around getting people excited about testing for HIV and then actually having them do it and be supported in doing it. In conjunction with providing free, mahala, HIV testing our partners provide family guidance counseling, information on male circumcision, and birth control services to all those that attend. The focus is on providing holistic care to those who seek it, and for GRS getting the youth tested, educated, and treated if deemed necessary. On top of all the noise associated with testing we provide entertainment, activities, and music to all those in attendance. A mad house of smiles, curiosity, greed, generosity, and humility encompass the event and showed me some moments of pure humanity.

Smiles. Hundreds of children came rushing into the event and traveled in a swarm to and from every direction. A rumor would fizzle through the crowd and they would be off. Jumping onto a moving vehicle, surrounding a mzungu (white person) who had a red ribbon that they wanted, mobbing the celebrity, a tv star from a local Zambian soap opera, or fighting-literally fighting- to be part of the circle that would play host to the next GRS activity all were premised by a blob of children ebbing and flowing to the said location-a chaotic norm. I was so surprised to find how quickly children are willing to sit down next to a complete stranger, how they stare at that which is different (namely me), and how no matter if they are falling down, singing, fighting, yelling, dancing, or giving some one a hug throughout the day they were smiling. Smiles that radiate and remind you of something, something different every time but something human and vital. There were points throughout the day where I thought that the mob could erupt into a violent and uncontrollable mess, but it never did. There is order, I just don't quite understand it yet.

Curiosity. We arrived at our site, the Kizito Basic School in George Compound, a few hours late and began setting up. From my initial steps out of the car and onto the school grounds I was aware of how many people were "watching" me all day long. I know I stand out, purely for the color of my skin, but I always just assumed that all me and my skin warranted was a quick glance and comment and then I would fade into an afterthought. How wrong was I, this was absolutely not the case here. Children followed me around all day. I would pause to ask a coach a logistical question and a school of children would quickly form a circle around us and simply stare and watch. It must be like waiting for water to boil, waiting for a mzungu to do something. Honestly I did nothing special today-I walked, I talked, I ate, I danced, and I got tested (I am negative by the way!!!!). Nevertheless anytime I took 2 seconds pause a crowd formed. At one point my hair became the object of desire and at least 50 little hands reached out to touch/grab/trample...I can't blame them for being curious, and I can't blame me for having to be harsh and say "no," but I have to reveal that the irony of their curiosity is that I think I am more curious about what they think I am going to do when they wait for me to do something.

Greed. I say "no" so many times a day I feel like I am a 2 year old trapped in a time-warp of the terrible twos. I was asked over 100 times today for my pen, my t-shirt, and my bracelet and I was not once offered anything for them or in return for them. A strange expectation, which has roots based in many issues and facts of life, that has made me more savvy and aware of how to handle an intense desire for everything I have. Learning to say "NO!" I don't like saying no, and I immediately think that I am being insensitive and selfish but I've heeded quickly that you can't give to everyone and in that case you cannot give to anyone. Turning the question around and posing, "well, what are you going to give me?" has been the most effective phrase of my life. "No" doesn't allow anyone to think about what they are asking for, the question forces more than a "yes" or "no" response and holding your ground...well, that is priceless.

Generosity. I walked into a classroom today and found 2 groups of 10 or so boys huddled around a table with 2 of our GRS coaches. Maintaining my distance I aptly eavesdropped for a moment to find that these coaches had taken it upon themselves to seek out these boys, discuss girls, condoms, condom usage, abstinence, and male circumcision to them. Coaches organize the event, manage it, and orchestrate much of the flow and essence of the day but are not asked to counsel...these boys did and it was intense and surreal to see. It wasn't unexpected of them, but it also wasn't expected in this venue...I am daily floored by the passion and generosity, of themselves and their time, that these coaches give to their communities. Intimacy in a form that I will never give, nor should I, that I know lead many of these boys to think a bit harder about decisions they've made and will make.

Humility. I had to dance in front of a crowd, with a tv celebrity, all whilst wearing a scarf around my hip area and having children scamper up to put 50 and 100 kwatcha (the currency of Zambia) into my make-shift belt. Cultural relevance is very important here. My initial feeling was insane fear. I love to dance, but I like to dance best when everyone else is around me focusing on their dance moves and not mine. I also love to push my boundaries and so after a few minutes I let go a bit more and did a bit of solo dancing but then realized that I am in much need of practice. A woman from one of the women's groups that we work with offered to teach me how to dance- that is how bad I was, I think I embarrassed even her. The most awkward and humbling moment came when these children, whom have little came up and began giving me money. First off they were stuffing it into my belt and pockets and my first thought was, "huh, this must be what it feels like to be a stripper." and my second thought was, "this is a cultural norm, they are praising me with all that they have and I can't even dance!!!" I was confused and nervous, flattered and suspicious all at the same time and in the end I was just humbled. Humbled to have been given the honor of dancing with a celebrity, humbled to have been deemed worth of a few kwacha, and humbled enough to laugh at myself.

A successful day. Over 300 individuals were tested, multiple boys and men were referred to a clinic for circumcision, many women received birth control and I met a face that will stay with me eternally. Innocent is his name. We went to a school to recruit students to come during the past week and this boy was in one of the classes. Today he sought me out, thanked me for coming to his class, told me about his testing experience, told me about his family, opened his world to me...I am excited to see and hear what great things he does in his life. A big day, one that will now conclude in sleep.

Thank you again to all who have donated, literally you are all keeping me sane. Please share this blog and the GRS story with others. I will be fundraising throughout the year and love to talk about Zambia, GRS, and everything in between so please write if you have questions or just want to say hello. Much love from Lusaka. peace

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Meheba; a ten hour bus ride to the bush

Pretty well rested and back from the bush for the second day in a row I am settling into life back in Lusaka. For the past week (Monday to Sunday) I was up North. Traveling through the Copper Belt and up to the Northern capital, Solowezi, I found myself removed from all the familiar and at 11:30 at night entering a refugee camp with a rickety bar for a gate- very official. My first trip to Meheba had begun. It should be coined the place of logistical nightmares, or the place where I successfully butchered my first chicken, or perhaps the place where the song "Hold ya" will forever play to a new tune in my head.

Meheba is a refugee camp in the northern part of the country. The project that I assist is funded by a grant from the UNHCR and allows GRS to implement its curriculum on two refugee camps. It is a privileged opportunity and a blessing that we are still able to maintain contacts and a commitment to the community up there. I have not witnessed a place more worthy of the cause and the education that GRS provides. In Lusaka you find that schools, community centers, religious centers, the media, and the government are far more educated, open, and have accurate information about HIV/AIDS and all of the research, knowledge, and prevention surrounding the epidemic. In Meheba the myths are alive and questions go unanswered with little outlet for response. While they hear news and some are up to speed via the radio and some internet access, most know bits and pieces and rely on imagination and others to fill in the gaps.

For three days I assisted in a Training of Coaches, as we call it here, where we mentored the coaches on subjects of praise, vital conversations, making personal connections, and of course dancing every hour or so. I remember my third day sitting in the room of about 26 or so coaches, all with roots in places like Angola, Congo, Rwanda, etc and feeling completely flabbergasted and humbled by the fact that I, no one special, was allowed and respected in this community. It is just so strange to me that a month and a little bit ago I didn't know any of this existed and I had no idea as to just how honored I would feel to be in the presence of people with epic, tragic, and very real stories to tell.

The settlement of Meheba is a settlement, it isn't the camp that you concoct when you imagine a refugee camp. There are not many tents, mainly houses made out of the bricks of the earth and a base layer of cement. There are thatch woven roofs and perhaps four independently running vehicles in the entire camp. The UN of course has vehicles but are extremely busy currently. The Zambian government runs and is highly present in the camp of Meheba and recently the government has been under a push to repatriate refugees in certain settlements and those that do not wish to repatriate are being moved to Meheba. Thus the settlement grows and the vehicles are occupied. So we road around, when they showed up, in the back of many flat bed trucks, on the bumpiest "roads" that I have ever been on. I think I have more bruises on my butt than any other part of my body-but well worth the adventure to see the camp.

It is a rural camp, lots of trees, reeds, a few streams, and chickens and goats running around everywhere. Even Guinea Hens...! I cannot escape them. So on our last night in Meheba one of our coaches gifted us a chicken- a village chicken, a very distinct difference-and I was the one to cut its neck. A strange moment, met with many gitters but I feel accomplished. And they really do twitch, even after the head has been severed. I ate the gizzards and the liver, dressed it, cooked it, ate it, felt like I should have blessed was a memory none the less.

As for now I am home again, back in Lusaka. I have to say it was nice to come home to a familiar place and to familiar faces. All these people, Max, Marissa, Spaik, Zales, Tommy, Lena, and the office really are turning into my family and I have to admit I missed them all over the week. Getting back into office work now. I want to share a few more stories about the camp but will have to do so later as the post is getting a bit rambly.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

some attend graduations, others create them

I should begin by elaborating on the title. There is an advertising campaign in Lusaka for the phone company Zain. Billboards splatter the city with images of happy couples, families, events and all retain a similar phrase "Some [fill in the blank], others create [fill in the blank]." For example, "some fall in love, others create it." Therefore in honor of the one advertising campaign that has caught my eye as rather individualistic and something that I have spent a bit of time pondering my title reflects the power of catch-phrases. The graduation part might also seem a bit confusing...Grassroot Soccer has a curriculum of 10 different hour long sessions that they disseminate to youth ages 12-about 19. At the end of the curriculum we like to celebrate-aka dance a lot-the knowledge, skillz (our curriculum is called SkillZ so I now spell many s' with a z), and relationships that they have attained over the duration of the curriculum. Since I work with mainly refugee populations the event took place at the urban UNHCR site, Makeni.

Let's paint the scene shall we. A courtyard surrounded by 302 chairs set the stage for the graduation, a PA system played every popular Zambian song known to man (it's getting to the point where I am starting to learn the words of songs, or make them up), and off to the side we had our testing partners. The Elton John Aids Foundation recently gave GRS a huge grant to amp up our testing and Voluntary Counseling and Testing capacity. An amazing gift and an intense undertaking it has lead us to combine all events with a testing component. Children and their parents getting tested for the first time, dad's with their children coming up to me and asking for consent forms, people excited about knowing their HIV status. That is why I am here- to support knowledge and healing. It was chaotic and nothing, I mean nothing, went as planned but at the end of the day it all happened in a successful and positive manner. A quintessential learning process. It feels like a small accomplishment to have the first event of my time here past and I am curious to see, feel, and experience those to come.

Off to Meheba this morning, the refugee camp up north. Gearing up for a 10-12 hour ride. Wish me luck.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

honeymoon is over

good morning!

Our dog has taken to barking non-stop from about 6:30 till whenever I get up in the morning and then the cat starts in- an ensemble that compels me to get out of bed early in the morning. I have to admit that I rather enjoy Lusaka early in the morning. The colors are cool until the sun reaches the right angle with a mass of yellow and red. Beautiful.

This morning I am having my first cup of coffee in some time. I resisted purchasing coffee because of the price but I think there are just some things in life that are routine and comforting-coffee being a big one for me. I've decided I'm never traveling anywhere without some sort of French Press ever again.

Zambia is still Zambia, spent the past week and beginning of this week in a workshop based on training coaches. I should probably explain a bit more about the curriculum (which everyone here pronounces culiculum-Zambians mix up there r's and l's in English and in Nianja). Basically Grassroot Soccer is a prevention program but what they have found is that youth are more inclined to change behavior based on a role-model or caring adults influence. Makes sense right? So the positive is that the knowledge and awareness about HIV is very high, myths still exist-there are billboards echoing the rumors that sleeping with a virgin will cure AIDS, and a child proclaiming that someone with AIDS has the power to bewitch you, but in general the communities are aware of the epidemic and it's relationship to sex. The things that they aren't as aware of are the cultural norms that promote HIVs spread. For example multiple concurrent partners and intergenerational sex. Older men with younger women and having more than one partner at the same time-fascinating stuff. So we have been trying to come up with a way to train our coaches as facilitators, leaders, role models. I love love love this stuff! The curriculum is just that, education and facilitation, seems simple but there is so much to it. More will come...don't want to bore you just yet.

We are getting ready for some big events, settling in, and I am getting to know everyone in my house and the workplace much much better. Incredible people who I will introduce you all to-perhaps in my next blog.

For now just busy learning the lay of the land, the terminology, and trying to find another little niche to use as a project. And learning Nianja- amazingly humorous language! Weather is warm...settling into the hot season, but evenings and nights are still cool. Stars are beautiful and I know none of them by name. Time for work this morning. Will chat soon. peace.