**I actually wrote this post last weekend, but didn't get it posted before leaving on vacation due to the typical internet problems... so I'll post this, and then post a blog about THIS week tomorrow. :-)**
Last weekend I was sitting with Sophie and Mary Leslie at their house. Sophie and Mary Leslie are the two American girls who work with the GEMS program here in Lusaka, and are the only two Americans that I commune with on a regular basis. As such, we have taken to having Saturday night 'girls night', which typically consists of an American-esk meal (whether thats us trying to make our own chicken nuggets or taco seasoning, or just going out for pizza), a time of laughing and/or crying about the things we have experienced that week, and then watching a movie on someone's laptop.
Thus, as we were sitting and talking, the three of us again came to the conclusion that Zambia is simply so far removed from anything we had experienced in America, that it is almost impossible to describe. We laughed at how daunting it seems to even put into words what it is like to walk down the street in Zambia to our friends and family back home. But, those who know me well know that I am not usually one to turn down a challenge. Thus, here I give you: a 20 minute walk down the streets of Zambia.
First, I must remind you that I am white. This is an obvious fact, but not one that I can say I have ever really noticed or paid much attention to before moving to Zambia. I have always grown up in a time and community where racism is being quickly eradicated, and the color of someones skin was a descriptive statement, much like "she has blonde hair" or "he has brown eyes". It never meant anything to me. I realize that to some people, even in America today, that is an obtuse statement. Surely I know about American history, about the gross injustices of the past? Of course.... but to me, its always been in the past--and never made sense as to why our country fell into such a pattern in the first place. I remember discussing the 2/3rds Act in 8th grade history wondering how in the world a person could believe that another person should only count as being 2/3rds of a human being. Why were white people considered better? However, I could easily pass that question off, as the Act has been abolished in the USA, and it no longer had any effect on me.
But here, in Zambia, its another story.
When I leave my front door, and start walking towards the gate... the guard used to jump up to open the small metal door for me. I have now convinced him that I am quite capable of undoing the latch myself, and walking out. But if ever I even turn and hesitate to talk to someone still in the office, you can bet he will have the door opened for me... letting me out with a small bob of his knees (a sign of respect).
Upon exiting the gate, I am immediately thrust into the heart of Zambian urban life. The EOH office is on one of the main roads, aka: one of the few paved roads. All around there are 'businesses' lining the streets. A gate welder lives to my left, and just beyond him is the gate painter. A few paces further is a furniture maker, and just the other day I noticed a pile of rocks on the side of the street... signaling that they will probably start crushing the rocks by hammers shortly, and start trying to sell the shards to make cinder-blocks with. On the other side of the street, there is a strip mall being constructed. Brick by brick, there seems to be continuous work crews there, whether it is day or night.
To the right of my wall, there is a small house with a large yard, where two moms live with there 7+ children. If the kids are around, they will usually be the first to greet me as I exit my gate. Choruses of 'Auntie Annika!!' can be heard... as they have figured out my name. However, not one of the children know a lick of English, thus our communication is usually limited to a few smiles, kicking around an empty water bottle or two, and (when I have a few extra minutes and a little extra money) sharing a few cookies. I always get a kick out of the youngest kid in particular. The boy is probably not more than 3 years old, and his Mama usually carries him over to me, with him kicking and screaming the entire time. Nevertheless, by the time he sees that I have a cookie for him, the screams have stopped and he holds out his tiny, dirty paw... shaking the whole time. The Mama just laughs and will usually try to encourage the boy with a line like "muzungo bueno"... meaning "the white person is good."
I don't think there is any word in any language that has ever confused, frustrated, degraded, respected, made me love on people, and made me want to deck someone more. "Muzungo"... "white person". It's the word that all the men whistle at you as you walk down the street. It's the word that the kids dance around you singing. It's the word that will forever make me wonder "why are white people considered better?"
Let's continue our walk.
After stepping out of the gate, and hearing my neighbor's cries of "Auntie Annika!!" I usually wave, greet them in the local language and continue on my way. I turn left, and start down the street. The work crews are out, busy with their crafts. But not too busy to notice me. "Muzungo! Muzungo! Helllllllo!" By now, I know these men. I give them a small smile and wave. The one younger man asks again for my phone number, I tell him my answer has not changed. He tells me he's still waiting for his white wife. I tell him to just keep on waiting. We laugh and I continue on.
During the day, walking down the street can become a hazard. Trucks are parked all over the sides of the road, and to get around them you must either walk in the road (which is NOT advisable, as cars have the right of way here!), or jump the drainage/garbage ditch and pass through peoples' businesses. My first few weeks here, this was a proposition that made me somewhat nervous. First of all, the drainage ditches here are up to 3 feet wide and at least as deep. However, in them can be found anything from empty water bottles to dead dogs. Thus, miscalculating the jump would not only be a somewhat painful fall into the ditch, but a rather unpleasant one at that. Once on the other side of the ditch, there is the task of maneuvering around teams of working men.... trying to jump over whatever it is they are welding, or squeak by without getting paint, mud or some other substance on you can be a task in and of itself. Never mind trying to do it with an air of confidence at a brisk pace so that they do not try to stop you and 'just talk.'
However, I can usually make it down the main road without too many confrontations. Nevertheless, it is when I make another left hand turn and start down the dirt road into the compounds that it becomes significantly harder to avoid the men. Especially on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
At the corner of the my main road and the dirt road to the compound is the first of many bars. Alcohol in and of itself is a major issue in Zambia. I am not ashamed at all to admit that I enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, or a beer at a cookout, or a mixed drink with friends. I don't believe alcohol in and of itself is bad. However, I have never been drunk; and never plan to... as God voices his disapproval for drunkenness in the Bible. As I know that there is quite a range of people who read this blog, from my Grandpa to college students who I have never even met before, let me clarify this further by saying that I do not despise or judge those who have gotten drunk or enjoy a weekend escapade here or there... but I simply think that if God gave a recommendation in the Bible to 'not get drunk' as one of the better ways to do life; then I'm going to choose to take my Creators advice. Plus, from what I've seen during the moments where I have helped hold the hair back of a friend or two, or cried with someone who has made decisions they wouldn't have normally made after having more than I personally would consider having, I think my Creator was right. It doesn't look like much fun.
Nevertheless, in Zambia, there is a strong stigma against alcohol. When I first arrived here, I thought that was rather unjust. How could some random person on the street assume that if I had a beer I was not a Christian?? It seems preposterous! But then I started to learn that in Zambia, WAY more than America, drinking is a hobby. It is what the men do on nights when they don't want to deal with life. It is what groups of friends do because there is literally only one movie theater in the entire city. What's more, is it is an expensive hobby. One that costs a family its food money for a week, or a child his or her school fees. To go for a drink in Zambia, means automatically spending money on a wasteful, hurtful substance... simply because it wastes the family's money on something unneeded, and thus hurts the entire population. Whats more, is it becomes an addiction to many people, thus causing abuse in families where the abuser wants to squeeze every last Kwatcha (money note) out of his or her family members. Add into this the whole proposition of the AIDS pandemic, where a decreased inhibition here has the same effect that it has on many college students back home, and suddenly alcohol has a very deadly ring to it.
Thus, turning left and passing the biggest of all the compound bars is always a slightly unnerving prospect. Inevitably there will be at least 4 or 5 men calling out "MUZUNGO! MUZUNGO!", and inviting you inside for a drink...in the hopes that you will drink more. Other men take a more direct approach, coming up beside you, walking along with you, trying to get you to stop and talk. "Baby, I like the color of your skin! Be my wife!" "Your skin speaks of money! Come have a drink!" "I want babies with you!" "I want American wife, I go back with you!" "Pretty Mama, show me more white skin." The most drunk of men might try and grab your elbow when you refuse to stop, or put their arm around you. A quick shrug of the shoulder and a firm "NO!" stops most of them in their tracks, but the most audacious will continue on... pressing for answers. "What, you think you're better than me because you're muzungo? You think you can't have a drink with me? Come have a drink with me!"
I actually fell for this line the first few times... and I would stop and try to point out to them that THEY were the ones trying to coax me inside simply because of the color of my skin. Or I would explain that I find us equals, and that they should too.. and stop hitting on me simply because of my whiteness. Or I would try and persuade them that America isn't an instant ticket to fame and fortune like Hollywood makes it out to be (as 90% of what common Zambians know of America is what they see in movies). Or, in the most desperate of situations, one time I simply lied and said that my boyfriend wouldn't approve... to which I hastily had my left hand grabbed, and was notified that I was not wearing a ring, thus I was fair game. I considered buying a fake engagement ring for the first time in my life... but then realized that such a possession would probably only make it more likely that I would be mugged.
Nevertheless, I have since learned to just keep walking. I cannot convince drunk men that I am not better than them because of the color of my skin; but nor do I have any desire to be groped by them while sitting in bar. I walk on.
At this point of the year, the streets are one muddy lake after another. It has been in the 'rainy season' since the end of January, and at some points it takes a full on running leap to make it to the next portion of land... and at others, you just step down into the calf deep puddles, and grown as you see rotting vegetables, old hair weave, and empty beer bottles on either side of your foot. In the drainage ditches there are children playing, sending 'boats' made out of trash down the streams that have been formed... or simply splashing around in the dark water. In a few months time, all this water will be gone as we enter the dry season, and these roads will have a solid 3 inches of pure dust on them. Either way, I have begun to develop a whole new recognition of what it meant for Jesus to get down and wash his disciples feet.
As the kids in the ditches see you coming, they bound up from their games, and start in with that word again. "Muzungo! Muzungo!" The hungry ones look at you with big eyes. The shy ones hide behind their siblings. The brave ones muster up their best 'How are you?' and squeal in delight when I respond with "I'm fine, how are you?"... in their local language. And those who have learned my name come running, arms open... screaming "Auntie Annika!!", and just want to be picked up. I often wonder what these children see in me. Why do they get so excited? Do they think I have money for them? All the kids that I meet in the market ask me for money.... but these kids seem to just be content to have the attention and affection of a white person. However, I have to be careful. The children easily become jealous. If I pick up one of the kids, within seconds I have 15+ children surrounding me, all expecting to be picked up as well. And if I don't pick all of them up, you can visibly see them push around the little one who reached me first. They become so easily jealous. And of what? A hug from a stranger?
After untangling myself from the kids, I continue on down the road. I will continue to hear shouts of "MUZUNGO! BYE! BYE MUZUNGO!"for the next 70 yards, and will continue to smile and hold up a hand to wave goodbye to the mass of kids... how can I not?
Nevertheless, at the very moment when I am still smiling over the kids' use of the word Muzungo, I become instantly disgruntled again when I hear the men at the next bar start whistling it. I'll admit, there are a few times when I simply want to turn to some of these men and say something like "Congratulations, you're not colorblind! Yes,I'm white!" or just turn and shout and point back at them "Black person!", as I truly wonder if they understand how ridiculous it is to just be shouting "white person!" every time I walk down the street. Nevertheless, I simply ignore them and take in the scene of the rest of the street.
There are women and girls selling vegetables, ground corn, caterpillars, and capenta (small, dried fish). Ten year olds carrying two year olds strapped to their back with Shatengais (long pieces of African clothe). Five year olds cooking on open fires, while their Mama's watch from the shade. And, inevitably,there are 'Top Up Here!" signs stapled to tree trunks, with men sitting under them... no shoes on, threadbare clothes, but talking on a BlackBerry.
I should mention now that cell phones in Zambia are a huge deal. There are two major networks, 'MTN' and 'Zain'. Though Zain is considered to be the 'most trusted.' Everyone who is everyone has a cell phone. It is the biggest status symbol there is. In fact, because it is such a status symbol, apparently thefts of cell phones became a huge problem about 2 years ago. Now there is a THREE YEAR prison sentence for stealing a cell phone... whether it is a cheap hunk of plastic, or something imported from the USA. In addition, all cell phones in Zambia are prepaid. Thus, in order to get more 'talk time' you must purchase a 'top up' card. These cards can be purchased on any and every street corner. If you are driving in a car, simply stick out your hand with a bit of money in it, and a boy will come running with a card, handing it to you as he jogs beside you until you can make the exchange. Sometimes I wonder how everyone becomes a 'dealer' for these cards, as it appears that everyone is selling them. Nevertheless, no matter who you buy it from, when you buy a card, the exact amount you buy the card for is credited to your phone when you scratch it to find your 'secret code' to enter (think about lottery tickets and/or game entry pieces from cereal boxes).
However, the big to-do in Zambia right now is because of an additional 'scratch off' on the Zain Top Up cards. As, at the moment, Zain is running the biggest promotion Zambia has ever seen. It is being called 'The Real 2010'and thus throughout the course of the 2010 year, Zain is giving away 20 vans and 10 houses to people in Zambia who subscribe to the Zain network. In addition, everyone has the opportunity to win T-shirts, key rings or hats when they scratch off a 'winning' Top Up card. However, in order to win one of the vans or houses, 3 contestants a week are brought on a live TV show to play a few games for the chance of winning big. Last Wednesday night was the first episode of 'The Real 2010' in Zambia... and I actually got to be a part of it.
Back in February Esther and I had decided to write into Zain about trying to get sponsorship money for the MFHs. She had heard a tip from a friend that Zain was considering donating money to an orphanage, and thus we jumped at the opportunity. On Monday night, I returned home from playing volleyball at the International School to find a note from a Zain representative who said that they had decided to sponsor EOH, and needed to come the very next day to film some footage of the MFHs! So Tuesday there was a camera crew, and Esther did a quick interview about the EOH mission... and we found out that we were one of two finalists for a huge donation! We were told that as the 'kick off' for the new 'Real 2010' TV show, they had decided to put two charities on the show, and demonstrate the last game to raise both hype for the Zain promotion, and awareness for the charities. Thus, Wednesday night Mama, Patricia, Esther, myself and three of the kids and the Mama from House 3 were on live national television! To make a long story short, we ended up winning $2000 that night for EOH. A great night indeed... and forever cementing Zain in the hearts of my Zambian coworkers.
However, it is probably almost night time for you if you're reading this (even if you started reading it in the morning!), and I have not finished walking with you... so let me continue.
My feet are dirty, I'm emotionally drained, I am sweating from trying to walk quickly in between my stops to love on the kids, and I am just arriving at my destination: the My Father's House's 3 and 4. Before I go in their gate, the neighboring kids again accost me. "Why do you go THERE? Play with US!" How do I explain to them that they are loved, but that I am not capable of being a second mom to every child in the street? The 16 kids waiting just inside the gate are already a lot to handle!
But I kick an empty bottle at them, buy one or two of the vegetables that they are selling, and give high fives to the boys. A little bit of love can go a long way.
I walk into the gate, and finally I have made it. I try not to think of the gross injustices I see outside of the walls. I forget the harassment of the men on the street. I try not to muse over how my very face can bring such hope to some kids and such disappointment to others when I dont take the time to stop and play. I try not to think about the fact that on my walk I have passed at least a dozen kids who honestly need to be in a safe, loving, orphan home just like the one I am currently standing in.... and concentrate instead on just being "Auntie Annika" to these kids.
At least until I have to start the walk home.
Back in the USA, I used to really enjoy going for walks to clear my head. Or a run every once in a while when I really needed to let off steam.
That is not possible here. Going for a run would cause more disappointment than I could handle, as all the kids would be hurt if I did not stop. Plus, running through the puddles would mean soggy sneakers for volleyball. But even a half mile walk requires emotional toughness. Sometimes I force a smile to my face, and try to not cry when I see kids digging for food in the garbage on the side of the road. Sometimes it is all I can do to resist the urge to walk up to the parents of those children and ask why they are letting their children eat garbage, when the Mama is cooking food. Sometimes I laugh out loud when the youngest ones run awkwardly towards me. Sometimes I want to slap young men across the face when they get upset that I am paying attention to the children, but not their sexual advances.
But, in all actuality, all these 'sometimes' are just my 'always' life here in Zambia.
One step at a time.
I am a muzungo.
And I am here to love God and love others.
Even when I'm just walking down the street.