Reconciling Realities

•August 12, 2009 • 7 Comments

Time is short and the people are beautiful. I pick up 10 lollipops on the way home from work – enough for me and each member of my family. After everyone has finished eating that night, we are sitting around the fire chatting, singing and staring into the flames. I slide into my room to grab the surprise, and watch everyone’s eyes light up as the bag of goodies is passed around. After settling into the newfound glory of a sugar sphere mounted on a plastic sphere, I catch some snippets of Tonga in whispers between the younger girls, Pristina and Brenda. They’re calculating the cost of the treat. After a couple stumbles, Memory corrects them and announces that it cost me 5,000 Kwacha (roughly $1.25 Canadian) I can read from their exchanging of glances that this is some luxury.


After watching him count out the bills a second time, I sign off on the form. Yep, that’s 527,500 Kwacha in my pocket. For showing up. 2 days in the capital city of Zambia attending meetings, making a couple presentations and the daily spending allowance (for transport and food) blows the candy money out of the water by a factor of 100. After hours of meetings and plenty of discussions – there have been many issues tabled, and tensions between field staff and head office staff are high. Transport challenges, reporting requirements, record keeping, funding requests, personal finances – there is a mountain of administrative challenges associated with running an NGO. I can relate from experience to many of them, and I hardly have any bullet-proof solutions. Humans will be humans in their interactions. And accountability and transparency takes a lot of hard work and co-ordination – which isn’t always easily when you’re spread across a huge country and lacking reliable communication technology.

Amidst it all, my mind still gets the wind knocked out of it when I compare the money spent on simply having these discussions with the day-to-day incomes of the rural poor in Zambia. How do you rationalize it if you’re talking to the man biking 3 massive bags of charcoal (50kg each) 20 km to town with hopes of selling one so he can buy some maize to feed his family?


“Education is free in Canada, isn’t that right Muchindu?” I nod in agreement. “Ah ah ehhh” Memory shakes her head and peers at me curiously. I reassure her that it’s true; the government pays our school fees right up until Grade 12, but that we pay our own university or college tuition. “I have to pay $9,500 Canadian for my last year of university coming up. That’s… ummm…. 40 Million Kwacha or so”. Shrieks and gawks and jumping around ensue. ‘I could buy a truck for that much’…’I could buy all the land I need for that much’. Memory looks at the sky and points – ‘I could buy  … a… a.. Aeroplane!’ We all laugh pretty hard at that one, but that doesn’t mean that we’re laughing it off. The reality clings like static, and in the ensuing silence I could see it reverberating in the heads of my friends.


Snap back to Lusaka, stuck in a traffic jam. And this is one with cars, not people and animals like I’m used to. All of a sudden a flash of sirens appears in the empty lanes heading in the other direction. They’re followed by at least 15 sleek shiny cars: land rovers, BMW’s and the like. Once the government convoy passes the traffic is allowed to continue. Alfred is shaking his head as his gaze follows the parade to the horizon. He speaks my mind: “How is this possible? In the same country where the rural people can be struggling so much. How can the gap be so big?” We continue to the hotel, heading into the rich part of Lusaka – Arcades, shopping malls, cars everywhere. I’m reminded a bit of my brief experiences in California, and it’s all a little overwhelming. I roll over to click off the light in my hotel room, and I fall asleep to the alternating whirr of the minifridge and the drops of water coming from the attached bathroom with hot water on demand.

It’s hard to remember that I had woken early that morning to the sound of roosters and sweeping. Woken on the floor of my hut, and stepped outside to smell the woodsmoke of the fire that water to bathe in is being heated on. Water carried by hand and head from the nearby canal. I get confused and apprehensive at returning to Canada in the midst of reflections like these. There is an unbelievable contrast within Zambia – and I experience two ends of the spectrum in a single day because I have the money and privilege to do so.  What churns my stomach and heart like nshima that has almost finished cooking is that my life in Toronto will see one end of the spectrum become the norm. And in full honesty, I should say return to the norm for me. It’s been a short jaunt into a different world for me. And just as my fingers are locating the edge of the transparent sticker of life, I’m tearing myself away. It’s like my first camp-out alone in the backyard, and I’m running back into the comfort of a heavy duvet and a nightlight after seeing only one or two constellations.


Will I remain or become grounded from this experience? I may not be learning all the details and fullness of what it means to be Zambian, but I am spending a lot of time living and working beside my Zambian friends. The question I’m contemplating is what will it all mean in a few years? The excitement and energy of CLTS bounding forward; the deeper connections with Alfred, Florence, Choloka; the numerous friendships with villagers, councillors, health workers and more.

Will they be stepping stones on a relentless path to “success:? Will they be charms on a necklace of romantic “Africa” that I dream of from a gloomy Toronto office cubicle? How can I reconcile their continuing reality when I leave for Canada? As I explained the next steps in my journey to Florence (buses, flights, trains) – she exclaimed at the idea of flying. It’s now striking me that she will never fly, and maybe never even leave her home country. Not these are necessarily bad things, but it puts my own privilege in perspective. So much of what has been challenging, interesting, different, fund, rewarding about being for me is because I’m able to jet in and jet out so briefly. I want to feel strong solidarity with so many of my Zambian friends but I question whether this is truly possible. I haven’t even experienced a single rainy season – when everything is washed out, Malaria and Cholera hit, and farmers work from before sunrise until after sunset in their fields. I semi-dress up and work in the biggest office (3 stories mind you) in Mazabuka District, and I can make trips to Livingstone, Lusaka, Malawi and spend a month’s worth of food on a meal, or a term’s worth of school fees on buses and lodging.

So how will I communicate it all to Canada? I’ve always thought of returned EWB Junior Fellows as playing the role of grounding Canadian ideas in rural African realities. Giving voice to Dorothy, to the poorest of the poor. Gulp. Where is the intersection of humility, inspiration, reality and empowerment? We were up late in Livingstone discussing these thoughts, and with no great conclusions. I don’t have the answers or the knowledge. I’ve barely scratched the surface, and I’ve only seen a small sliver of on-the-ground development work.

Excuses aside, it’s 3 months more experience than a lot of people, so it’s time to buckle up and figure out how best to contribute.

I hope I can challenge some stereotypes of “Africa”. I hope I can bring some of my friends and acquaintances in Zambia to life through stories, pictures, and videos. I hope I get questioned and challenged, and that I’m given no free credibility just because I’ve been overseas.

I plan to push people in their thinking, to ask difficult questions and listen deeply to the responses. I plan to be open and honest when sharing, and to create the time to talk to whoever is interested. And finally, even though I don’t know when, how or where exactly, I plan to return.


The Little Workshop That Could

•August 3, 2009 • 3 Comments

It should have happened at the beginning of June. Then it was pushed back. And again. I went to Malawi – it waited for me. Eventually we stopped waiting and planned around the damn thing, at which point things came together and the dates were set. I’m talking about the elusive CLTS training workshop that HAD been the bane of my JF placement – until last week that is.

The Big Idea: Our CLTS team is 3 members (about to be 2 as I go back to Canada) and our catchment area has 200-300 villages in it. We’re strapped for active and well-trained facilitators to help trigger villages – thus increasing latrine coverage and usage, so that water-borne diseases (diarrhea and cholera in particular) decrease.

Who: We invited some of all 3 “ropes” in the 3-rope approach:
(1) Technocrats (4 Environmental Health Technologists and 4 Community Health Workers) -> highly trained people who know their stuff and whose job it is to work on preventitive measures.
(2) Civic Leaders (9 Councillors, Mayor, Deputy Mayor, District Commissioner) -> elected representatives whose job is to spearhead development initiatives for their constituents.
(3) Traditional Leaders (Senior Headmen, Both Chiefs) -> high authority, high respect, existing structures that have a headmen at each village.

What: Intensive 5-day workshop including 2 full field days. Theory, practice, reflection, experience sharing, debate, skill sharpening, action planning.

… If it sounds a little too good to be true, and too easy you’ve got good intution. Rewind two weeks back and let the panic settle in. It has been an extended session of chaotic and opportunistic hopscotch. Ultimately I think the results came less from logical logistical plans that were followed to the T, and much more from energy, excitment, adrenaline and eyes wide open like a cat that’s about to pounce. And pounce we did…

So it’s Tuesday July 21 – the day before I take off to Livingstone and leave Alfred alone to plan a massive week-long workshop with 40 participants from all corners of the district. We’re desparately trying to hang onto the ripping coattails of my “Impact Plan” – which featured 3 intense weeks of full-out triggering by a small team of facilitators. We don’t have fuel money or a vehicle, and we’re going to Itebe Ward to trigger 2 villages in one day. But we’re not totally sure if the chief actually got the message through either. Inter-NGO collaboration comes to the rescue, and we catch a ride with the WatSan Co-ordinator for another local NGO – in fact the same one which was planning a major 5-year toilet construction subsidy programme in our area until Alfred convinced them to stop completelyl in favour of CLTS. We get to the village eventually (this is the worst road I’ve seen in all of Mazabuka district – in the rains apparantly you CANNOT pass – cut off completely). Turnout is about 5 people from a village of over 100. Trying to actually trigger with such a low turnout is like firing a cap-gun underwater in the middle of a gunfight – no point even trying. Instead we have a quick pow-wow and switch gears. We need about 12 villages to  be set-up and really ready to go for next week’s workshop (called Pre-Triggering) so we interview the headmen and find out the population, water points, latrine coverage, common diseases, existing village committees, currently working NGOs and more. Then we firmly set the date for next week and take his phone number.

So far it’s a fairly standard case of Plan A fail, settle for Plan B – but we keep our eyes peeled, and stumble upon the fact that the Chief is coming to Itebe to hold a meeting with all headmen from the entire Ward this afternoon, because they’re opening a donor-funded school the following week. Jackpot!! Alfred and I throw caution to the wind and tell our other friend that we’ll find our own ride back and we set off walking for the school. We manage to arrive early and then proceed to interview 11 headmen in the space of an hour or two, and firmly set all the dates, times and have phone-numbers for follow-up. Oh yeah, and then in the big meeting, we decide to sit in and then get a 5-minute spot from the chief to advertise the meetings – which he heavily endorses. We had no ride home – but just as we walked out of the classroom, a big Canter truck was dropping someone off and we flagged it down. With 3 bicycles, 10 cartons of fish, 20 passengers and their luggage – there appeared no room for 2 giddy friends like me and Alfred. But wait, we’re in Zambia!! So our seats are on the roof of the cab of the truck, adn feature frequent ducking to avoid tree branches.

Now it’s Sunday July 26 – hours before participants arrive and we’re scrambling to finish programs and handouts on a pain-in-the-ass printer (they suck just like in Canada) when we find out that half of the facilitation team we’d arranged to help with the workshop weren’t going to be coming at all. Alfred’s sweating, but I’m pretty confident – it just means more exposure for him, and I’ll be out of my comfort zone a little more than usual.

Monday morning -> We forgot stationary. Alfred has borrowed my bike to get to the shop, and leaves the main conference room to go there exactly wn the workshop is supposed to start. 25% of participants are here, and they’re already growing impatient. After an hour, I start the workshop – of course forgetting that when it comes to Self-Introductions, you need to introduce the Chief. Ouch! His Royal Highness… nonetheless Alfred arrives and by the end of the day, at least half of the expected participants have been given two head’s worth of knowledge on CLTS triggering – and are geared for the field

Tuesday -> Unbelievably successful day of triggering. Itebe has less than 2% sanitation coverage (aka NObody uses toilets) and also high diarrheal and cholera cases to match. Couple this with really strong turnouts, and we are 6 for 6 on our first round of triggering -> including strong reflection and debrief when we get back to workshop

Wednesday -> Enter passion, politics and energy. The house is lively as discussions on past-subsidy programmes stir up the councillors and EHTs. Challenges on not inviting every single key person in the district start coming our way, and Alfred stands tall to put the ball right back in their court. Group problem-solving on major CLTS challenges proves semi-useful, and an exercise I lead on facilitation quality really brings out some fantastic best practices and stories from the previous day’s triggering. Our strategy to split the 2 field days with a refleciton/learning day is really paying off now 🙂 Not to mention the presence of the Mayor and District Commissioner – and calls from the participants to visit the council and see the quality of sanitation/toilets there! Blood pressure is rising, and momentum is building.

Thursday -> To the field again, but with some big-time visitors. Alfred is triggering with his boss’s boss’s boss (no pressure man),  and we also have a group from Lusaka joining us – which features the donor’s boss’s boss who is in charge of 20 countries for WatSan. Gulp. They both attend their first triggerings, led by 2 differnt facilitators, and both are blown out of the water. Alfred was at his usual highly energetic best, and Edmond was leading the donor’s group through another 3-vomiter triggering. End of day session reveals huge praise and excitement – mostly aimed directly at Alfred. The Mayor has really internalized the concept – and is showing key signs of natural leadership and driving the program forward.

Friday -> In a final “Way Forward” session – facilitated by my good friend Angela from Choma – the commitment making ball gets rolling. Councillors are stepping up to take control of their wards – and the chiefs are calling meetings to include both councillors and senior headmen. Technocrats are locked and loaded – taking it all in with shining eyes. There is such a buzz in the room, and before the close we have presentations from leading members of the villages triggered in the workshop. 7 out of 12 made it into town and presented their action plans for becoming Open Defecation Free (ODF) in a one month time frame. The deal is sealed with some top-notch closing speeches. Shit, shame, disgust and cholera are heavily used terms, but this doesn’t take away from the importance of the moment. I did have to hide my head when a couple people mentioned my leaving and gave me way too much credit for just being here (haha and calling me Muchindu all the way).


It’s been quite an overwhelming and exciting experience -> but it has reconfirmed in me the huge benefits of being present to the opportunities that exist, and not playing captain to a sinking initial plan. We hopped from one boat to the next amidst a swirling storm of uncertainty and looking back on the experience I feel a little shell-shocked. Things went so late on the Thursday night that I stayed at the lodge and shared a room with Alfred – we both were in agreement that it couldn’t have gone better if we’d planned it – a common phrase over the summer. Flex, bend, weave, duck and spring forward.

First with the head, then with the heart.

Of Leaps and Leadership

•July 31, 2009 • 3 Comments

It’s a beautiful silent serenity. The half-full moon’s light floods the yard around my hut, and the packed-down red dirt paints a mural with the shadow of the mango trees. At night is when my mind can slow down, my heart can expand, my lungs can breathe deeply in the presence of my Zambian family. My Tonga is steadily improving, and I’d say 90% of our conversation is now in Tonga. It’s something to look forward to every day, as I weave my way across the good patches of the sandy road home from work. It’s extremely humbling to be interacting in another language. One of my favourite phrases is “Ndilaswilila maningi, ndavwla ashonto” meaning I’m listening very much and I’m understanding a bit. Which pretty much sums it up -> I spend a lot of time listening. To words, to sounds, to gestures, to posture. I wish I could articulate so much more to everyone I live with – but to my host mother Florence in particular. In “hard knowledge” terms I honestly don’t know too much about her, but in human contact – shared time, space, meals and eye contact – we know each other so well.

I’ve been moving around a lot lately – and swallowing deep drinks of guilt each time I have to tell my family how long I’ll be gone for. I spent a week in Choma – learning from Zambia’s best in CLTS – which was really eye opening. The place was swelling with leadership, and I really want to figure out what the early days were like. How do you spark so many people to action, and how do you make existing structures work for you? Then I also spent a good 4 day weekend in Livingstone, which is home to Victoria Falls, and is a bit of a tourist hot-spot. Restaurants, white-water rafting, sunset safari cruise, waterfall visits and bungee jumping. We went all out, and complemented it with some deep and powerful discussions about our experiences in Zambia, and our perceptions of this thing called development.

The gorge below is absolutely stunning. Beautiful green cliffs and way down below is the water that has just leapt over the falls, and is sorting itself back out afterwards. The sun has past its peak, and is bringing warmth and make-up to the scenery. I peek over the edge of the bridge and lose my bearings. I give my head a shake and bring my eyes to focus on the distance ahead of me, rather than the distance below me. I manage to psyche myself up and focus on leaping as high as I can – rather than contemplating what happens shortly after I stop moving up, and start to plummet head-first below. 3, 2, 1… I throw myself out there. My brain froze in disbelief – what person in their right mind throws their body off a huge bridge? Eyes widening, lungs filling, heart hammering. The freedom of free-fall is very deservant of the title – speeding to infinity and slowing to a stop in one fell swoop. What a rush!!

So I’ve got roughly 2 weeks left in my placement which is way too short – but at least I’ve managed to separate myself from that ever-moving clock. My friend Tony had a beautiful way of putting it – which is that we’re here until the end of a time period, not the end of a task or a project. It’s not necessarily easy to accept, but that’s reality. I feel like I’m short-changing so many relationships, opportunities and experiences by packing up and leaving Mazabuka just when I’ve started getting comfortable. But to spew out too many paragraphs on that topic would hardly be living in the moment, would it? I’m definitely excited for Canada – the people, the potential – to see my home through a different lens. And without a doubt my time this summer has solidified and grown my commitment to Africa, to Zambia -> more specifically to Zambia’s people. Like Alfred, like Florence, like Edmond, like Febby.

A major component of CLTS is leadership – and we talk about finding natural leaders within communities. Makes me wonder what are the core qualities of a leader – not only amongst the participants of triggering meetings here in rural Zambia, but also in students in Canada, in politicians internationally. In CLTS we look for people who speak up, who actively participate, who have influence over other people. The spark that really reveals it is when people get outraged – they say this is NOT acceptable, and we have to do something about it. Their sphere of responsibility extends beyond just their own household and family, and includes the entire community. At the core, I think this comes down to caring. It takes mental and emotional energy to care about people, and it’s too easy to just disassociate yourself from something so that it doesn’t matter. The next piece of leadership is speaking up – like the women in Choonza village today who challenged their own village headman after his quoted price to build a local toilet was ridiculous. They spoke their mind loud and clear, and let it be known that they care, despite what their friends might think. Finally, it takes action to be a leader. Spend the time, spend the energy – sink yourself into the task at hand. It’s a simple way of thinking, but I’m not convinced that the world needs another 400 page book on the depths of leadership theory. I think it needs people who care deeply, and are willing to put themselves out there to create the change that’s needed.

Living in a Spark

•July 19, 2009 • 3 Comments

Description of the events of Friday, July 12, 2009.

So this approach of Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) that I’m working with revolves strongly around an event called “triggering”. A number of factors have resulted in me attending only a small number of these so far, but we had ran one last Friday that I want to illuminate.
Alfred and I jammed ourselves into the remaining “spaces” of the back of a regular sized pick-up truck. We were passengers number 19 and 20, wedged between the luggage, maize bags, chairs, plastic containers and people. Basically my left leg was extended, climbing under one bag and over another, while my right leg was pinned so close to my chest that I could comfortably eat off my knee, albeit uncomfortable from cramping. I took video of the passengers, but upload sucks (let’s talk in Toronto in September).

We arrived just as the artistic sun splashed its final buckets of purply-orange pastel-paint on the horizon, and my good friend Edmond was there to greet us. This incredible man deserves a proper introduction – his home is in Chivuna, one of the wards furthest from Mazabuka, and Alfred and I stayed at his house once before (to cut down on travel time to and from Mazabuka town). He is currently a ward councilor, coming off 2.5 years as Mayor which ended in April. He is a big man, with massive, warm and contagious laughter – especially as I bring a new phrase of Tonga each time we meet. We greeted with a typical handshake-of-friends: a few shakes, then continued hand-contact until someone says something good/nice/funny and then more arm shaking, all the while still holding hands. It’s pretty sweet once you get used to it.

Edmond is a man of dedication – his father died when he was young, and his mother struggled to pay for 3 children all in high school at the same time. The result was Edmond having to take a gap year after grade 10 due to a lack of funds. He pulled some strings and had his fees paid for by a American missionary, but had to transfer to a cheaper school – 15 km from his home. So he would wake up at 4am, and start the trek with no breakfast. I asked him what happened when it was the rainy season and he just shook his head with a look that spoke mountains of the challenge. He described his foray into politics at each step (from schoolteacher -> councilor -> deputy mayor -> mayor) as other people pushing/encouraging him to “go for it”. I asked him what he thought was his strength that got him where he is today – and his humility meekly poked its head out to say “I really don’t know Mike!” I’m hoping to do some video interviews with him over the remaining few weeks.

So enter Edmond, Mike and Alfred – we were “triggering” a community just a 20 minute walk from Edmond’s house so he knew the area well.

The sun had past its apex as the meeting space filled out – a distinct divide between the male youth who joked, chattered and pushed each other playfully to my left and the group of 10 or more old women (bacembele) on the right who sat on the ground shelling maize cobs, with babies in their laps or tied to their backs with chitenges. We opened with introductions, and I greeted them in Tonga with my increasingly built up introduction (I add a bit each time as I learn more). Needless to say they laughed heartily – even before I could finish! I guess they thought I only could say 5 words, instead of the 8 or 9 I’m capable of.

The mapping exercise was fascinating – the 35 or so people in attendance in one big circle, while the headman of the village drew the village borders with a stick, and someone covered it in grey ash to show the outline. Next people identified the main roads (aka paths) and marked them with leaves… but not without some serious arguing – which was eventually won by a middle aged woman. The main stream was marked with a path of dried long grass, and water points (all open wells, with one borehole) marked by plastic containers. Then each person grabbed a white card and started to locate their own house. It was a bit of mayhem, but using the help of their neighbours we got everyone marked on the map. Those with toilets used yellow cards to show these facilities. Now the fun part – shelled maize-cobs to mark your shitting areas! The place erupted with laughter and ribbing, and some people were more shy than others in showing where they do their business. One youth was tossing his a few feet from where he stood – over the village border, and grinning a wide smile, while talking out of the side of his mouth to his neighbours.

When all was said and done, we interviewed the map – noting shit-heavy areas and asking questions about the use of toilets. The core point to be brought out was that a huge amount of the defecation areas were in or right beside the stream. Also, all the open wells were within a few feet of the stream. It was quite amazing the effect of such a simple, visual tool – people could see with their own eyes that their own behaviours were contaminating their own water.

Fast forward to the group walk (Walk of Shame), which only lasted 2 minutes before a shriek and some yells from a nearby bush confirmed a sighting. One of our over-zealous co-facilitators quickly picked up a pile of the shit and brought it back. As he carried it back to the meeting area, people jumped back from him. Very similar to the fleis when you walk close to the pile as it sits on the ground. Microcosm? The sight and smell of the very stuff itself was overpowering. 2 women immediately vomited upon sight, and a third ran behind the house and threw up really loudly. The demonstration of cooked chicken scraps placed by the shit seemed to take place in slow-motion, as people were quite obviously in shock. As the meeting drew to a close, there was a long open discussion from community members. One of the vomiters wouldn’t even look into the center of the group, where the shit was still on the ground. She angrily raised her hand and said “we need to put that STUFF – somewhere!!!”

Two old women totally dominated the conversation – first calling for others to act on their behalf, and eventually even committing to dig pits themselves (pretty impressive commitment from 60+ year old women). We took photos of 3 groups – those with toilets, those planning to build them, and those who hadn’t made up their minds. After a group commitment to build toilets and use them, and to tell their absent friends about it as well – there was a change of energy.

Spontaneously, one of the two leader ladies started clapping slowly and rhythmically. Right on beat, she started dancing and chanting as she moved into the center of the crowd. “Ni Chali Bobo, Ni Chali Chibotu” the first phrase became a kind of call-out by the dancer, and the second phrase was repeated back by the crowd. She danced her way to me, Alfred and Edmond. Edmond joined in, as he knew the words and the rhythm well. As he stepped back out, my eyes met the old woman’s and I just went for it. I jumped in and started dancing and the place went absolutely crazy! A crescendo of shouts and cheers was followed by booming laughter from everyone as myself and the old woman danced aruond each other. I will never forget that moment. The words mean “If it was like this, then it would be good”.

I reflect back on it, and it was a pretty charged and emotional couple of hours. I led a debrief with our facilitation team afterwards, and we definitely were pushing a little too much – there was a lot more facilitators talking than community talking. Participatory approaches are actually pretty difficult in practice – and it takes explicit time to address what is required from facilitators to create that space. My current headspace is around trying to create some simple tools to evaluate “how well are we facilitating” that can make debrief faster and more focused. It will also help me understand how the facilitators themsleves perceive their own performance – a pretty important prerequisite to any interventions to change their style.

Born Again Zamadian

•July 13, 2009 • 6 Comments

Sunday, July 5th.

Alfred pulled me into the house and I sat with him and Fiensa to say goodbye. It really felt significant, and I struggled to find the Tonga words to thank them for their unbelievable warmth and generosity… I reverted to English even though Fiensa wouldn’t understand. Even the act of trying to articulate what it had meant to me got my emotions stirring, like a bubble wand in the bottle. As I brought those words into the world and they floated into the room I nearly burst.

With my bike piled high w/ a mattress and blankedt, I said goodbye to all 5 children. Liebeck, the first born, with his quite smiles, big laugh and bright eyes. Albert, my clothes washing and computer games buddy, the animated and wide smiled character. Krechma the quirky but hard-working. Danny the skeptical youngster (although teaching him how to snap seemed to really win him over).

Mutinta. The mischievious musimbi (girl). She lights up my life and is a bright beacon of Zambia’s potential in my eyes. Without any prompting, this less than 2 year-old ball of energy ran up to me and followed her brothers’ examples of handshake and she even said Twalumba (thank you). But she didn’t let go. Her delightful smile lit up her face and she started to chatter and bounce around. Then she danced around and I went right with her, every baby step of the way. Fully loaded with my camping backpack and all. There was an amazing fusion of emotion as the joy of dancing w/ Mutinta swirled into the sadness of saying goodbye to her. Eventually the moment dissolved into the cool stiff breeze, and Alfred and I set off for the farm, where I will be staying for the rest of the summer.

“Sometimes the slightest things change the directions of our lives, the merest breath of a circumstance, a random moment that connects like a meteorite striking the earth. Lives have swiveled and changed direction on the strength of a chance remark.” (The Power of One – Bryce Courtenay)

Sunday, July 12th, 2009.

Mebo, ndime Muchindu. Ndizwa ku Canada, Ndikala ku nganda Ba Choloka.

I came to the village live, to learn, to love. To deepen my personal connection to rural Zambia, and broaden my perspectives. I had no idea what awaited me.

The word is not the thing. And for that reason I hesitate to try and describe the growing bond between me and my growing family. Two parents and their seven children. Choloka the father works at a nearby dairy farm, and I’ve been working on my milking skills early in the morning. Florence the mother beams every time I see her, and hardly speaks any English. She calls me by my new Tonga name, Muchindu (which means from the cat family – lions, cheetahs). She works insanely hard at everything from cooking toncleaning to chopping wood to gardening, and carries the youngest son Chipo (Gift) on her back the entire time. The eldest daughter is Memory (17), who is in grade 8. She can be shy or assertive – it depends who’s around. The second born is Derek (15, Grade 6) who is starting to come around me, but uncertain whether to speak English or Tonga. The other two girls are Brenda and Pristina – I’ll tell you more about them later. There’s one boy who seems like a ghost – I rarely hear his name, and it’s difficult to remember. Finally there’s Best – the second youngest, and with confidence that lives up to his name. He beats the dogs and demands stuff all the time from everyone, including me!

Snapshot highlights from my new home:

-First hour: surrounded by 30-40 kids in the yard, staring, giggling and running to hide behind each other, too afraid even to greet me. I learned that some had never seen a white person before. Crazy weird tension in the air that even the tennis coach in me didn’t know what to do with.

-First day: Sitting around the fire in the last fleeting hours of daylight with a pen and notebook learning Tonga. 10-15 kids crowded close to me now to watch what I’m writing. Also laughing at my mispronunciations and poor listening skills.

-First night: teaching some of the family “Frere Jacques” in English and French – they laughed so hard at “Ding-Dang-Dong”. Then we upped the stakes and translated it into Tonga and sang it as a group. Good times!

3 new people I’ve met & will briefly introduce. Yes they’re all male – as are most of may extended interactions with people in the village.

Fred – met him in his tomato garden, where they were digging a long ditch to reach the irrigation canals (built to water all the huge sugar-cane commercial farms, but tapped into by many small-scale farmers). Freddy is 31 with 2 kids, and is sharp as a whip. He has just finished selling his crop of tomatoes which grew through the rainy season (extremely difficult) and has sold them for a killer price. He’s saving for a motorbike so he can greatly increase his ability to transport vegetables to town. He calls nshima “Kapower” because it gives you power. Many Zambians strongly believe that they will only have strength for the day if they eat lots of nshima… I think this super strong belief/attitude could be pointed to as a root cause of the huge dependence on maize.

Livias – dropped by while I was reading in the yard, and we ate some Makoa together (a crazy spiky fat and short wild cucumber that is quite sour but good!). He proceeded to tell me all about his life – he’s 27 with a child named Harman, but the child’s mother has married someone else. This is because he wanted to finish school (aka high school) before marriage and she wouldn’t wait. He’s 27 and didn’t finally get his grade 12 until 2 years ago. His father died when he was in grade 7, and his mother sold off all their livestock to pay for 3 years of school fees. Then he was sponsored by some people in Saudi Arabia for the next year and half (and the headmaster made him go to the Mosque as they tried to convert him). Finally that source ran out, and he scraped as much as he could together to finish grade 12.Unfortunately he still owed 400,000 ZMK (roughly $1000 CAN) and it took another 3 years to get his transcript. Like many Zambians, he shakes his head in disbelief when I tell him that high school education is free in Canada. And that we have less than 30 in a class, not 60 like it can be here.

Lovewell – Choloka’s nephew and frequent post-dinner fire visitor. Huge buck-tooth smile and a heart of gold. He’s 25 and in grade 11, and loves biology. I threw whatever I could at him in terms of terminology tonight and he was game. He told me “Ah, you have to be serious with this one, Biology. If you say to yourself it’s difficult, then you’ll never manage. You must say – it is the easiest thing in the world, then you’ll be all right.” His pride in knowing about different flowering types of plants and how it related to maize was really wonderful, and filled me with hope.


As the grains of sand trample each other in a rush for the bottom of the hourglass, I’m left wondering. Exposed to the reality of what a “short-term” placement means. Playing mediator between my excitement for Canada and my longing to follow Zambia down the rabbit hole. Curious to probe the impacts of this blog on myself and others. Has my form of reflection affected the heart of what I’m learning about myself? Am I forming or changing people’s perceptions of “Africa”? From what to what? Time to shut the brain off… Whiirrrrr, click.

Then and Now

•July 5, 2009 • 7 Comments


Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. Sunlight creeps through my barred window and makes like razor-thin spaghetti through the small holes of the mosquito netting. I wake usually to the sounds of sweeping by Fiensa, the mother of the household. Sweeping the red dust of the yard with a no-handled broom, bent over at the waist. Things get dirty fast, but they’re cleaned daily. The mornings this week have been sharply cold – less than 5 degrees a few nights. All the more motivation to bathe faster – vigorously splashing water into the air then and lathering with soap before the water droplets land on me. Steam curls under the rickety doorway of the bathing shelter like a thief peeking around the corner of bank vault. Steam that’s similar to the sauna-like cramped bathroom on my 3rd floor apartment back in Toronto.


“So… do you plan to return to Africa?” Alfred’s words are carefully measured, and despite his ever present smile, I can see the glint in his eyes that conveys the importance of his question. Certainly I’ve been thinking lots about it these days. Seeing the family-like interactions of the long term volunteers. Getting comfortable enough here to be frustrated by my lack of integration – particularly in terms of language learning and fending for myself. Internalizing the length of time it takes to change everything – myself, others, organizations and most importantly the conditions for people in Zambia. “Do Engineers Without Boundaries volunteers ever return to their same place?” Alfred ventures a step closer to what he’s really asking, and I must share the truth straight up – like nshima with no salt, no relish. It’s a window into empathy, and I wear my uncertainty on my sleeve. The chances of me in another EWB placement with Alfred at Africare are highly unlikely. It’s a great shield to deflect a tough question from getting to me, and I used it. But it left me walking away wondering… Organizational crutches aside, would I return to work with Alfred? My heart sure knows the answer.


“Ah, but Zambia. We are just a developing country”… “Zambia is not like developed countries”…”We so face many challenges”… “Corruption – it is everywhere. We have a very big homework” … Hearing so many self-depreciating comments has really surprised me. Particularly in light of the upbeat, friendly and positive demeanor of so many people I meet. I always disliked the word development – and the differentiation between “developed” and “developing” nations. The way it consolidates a power dynamic between us and them, and the way it predetermines success as a Western industrialized country. My roots in Energy Systems and environmental concerns screamed that it’s impossible to sustain a world where the entire population lives the lifestyle we enjoy in Canada. I thought of “appropriate technology” as in traditional, local materials as a really intelligent way forward – a good compromise between Canada now, and the struggles of current rural Africa. Hold on! A bit of a leap there, buddy. Who am I as a clueless foreigner to be making conclusions on the behalf of billions of people I’ve never met? I think that’s a big, scary and realistic risk of “International” Development – hypothetical moral based discussions millions of miles from reality that end up informing billion-dollar policies. My current theory is that Zambia will not rise or fall based on international development (well maybe it will fall based on it..) but rather Zambia’s highest potential lies in its own people. I’ve been blessed to be working with Alfred, and I think our best hope for helping is to find and support more Alfreds. People with dreams and drive. Their ideas for Zambia’s future are infinitely more important than mine.


Open the Door to Zambia

•June 29, 2009 • 4 Comments


June 29, 2009 – 11:55 pm – Lusaka, Zambia

Focused. Peaceful. Connected. In Perspective. Liftoff! Some quick updates – I attended my first “triggering” at a school on Friday… it was pretty crazy. I’ll save videos for my return to Canada, but a couple pics here should give a glimpse of waht “internalizing” oral-fecal transmission looks like on the face of  a Zambian schoolchild. There were an intense number of flies making the round trip from shit to fish and back.

My coach, Ashley, has been visiting me from Malawi ( and she’s helped me find some really strong clarity in planning my work impact over the rest of the summer. If you’re die-hard, email me and I’ll share it. Sunday was my 22nd b-day, and despite the lack of planning, it did turn into a party. I watched the Confed Cup, ate my weight in home-made lasagna, met a bunch of Peace Corps volunteers. Round that night with getting locked into the house we were at due to a faulty doorknob, and we had to have the door kicked in to get home. Never a dull moment.

Friday, June 26th, 6:30pm. Mazabuka, Zambia

So many funerals. Brothers, sisters, cousins, daughers, mothes, friends. Gone. Passed Away. No longer with us. Yesterday the woman who works in the photocopy shop was rushing to find a chitenge (cloth worn by women like a skirt) because “You can’t go to a funeral in a miniskirt!” The jokes and laughter around the fact that funeral goers would be crying and shrieking louder at this insult than from grief was shocking for me, but seemed to flow naturally from the others in the hallway. She was attending the funeral of a colleague’s child.

I haven’t gotten below the surface, to know what’s really going on in the hearts and minds of people who acknowledge the inevitable frequency of deaths here. My first night in MAzabuka Alfred was mourning with friends over a lost relative. My bus ride to Macha I might a man traveling to a funeral. It’s probably once every day or two that you meet someone coming from or going to a funeral. Last week I was working at the computer and listening to music when an office neighbour dropped in looking for someone in our office. We were chatting when she said “Oh, I like this song. I mean I really enjoy it! My sister who passed last month loved it so much, and she was always listening to it.” Without blinking. She cheerfully said goodbye and headed off.

I’m definitely treading water in the top meter of a deep ocean of implication and significance. It still jolts me to hear about funerals so often… I guess it’s the first level of encounter with a life expectancy of 35 or so. I couldn’t fathom that number, just like I can’t grasp death itself.

I spoke with Alfred last night about his life, after we had demolished another stellar dinner of nshima, rape and white beans. Here’s a brief script:

Mike: Alfred, what do you dream for your children?
Alfred: For Albert, I think he could be an architect. You know he’s very good with the drawings! A friend of mine told me that there are many scholarships for that type of work.
Mike: How about Libeck, he seems so calm, so mature? What do you think he wants to do with his life/
Alfred: I interviewed him recently, but he hasn’t decided. I think he could be a good lawyer. He listens very well, and can think a lot in his head. You know, when his grandmother told him that his younger brother was as tall as him, he replied “it’s because he had someone to try and catch.” Libeck is very sharp, that one.
Mike: And Krechma?
Alfred: An accountant. He is very disciplined, and he will always finish his times-tables without even beign told to. He’s always to school early in the morning too..

Mike: How much do parents decide their children’s future in Zambia? Do they choose their own career?
Alfred (raised eyebrows): Neither! You are scrambling for wahtever opportunities you can find… you can’t just choose liek that. Me, I wanted to study Business Management. I had the top mark in Economics in the history of my high school. I got accepted to go to England. Ah, but the fees, my father couldn’t pay them. When I applied for Zambia, I was rejected though. I spoke with them after, they saw my transcript and were shocked! you see, this corruption, it’s a major problem. We have a lot of homework here in Zambia.
Mike: So what did you do instead?
Alfred: I studied Agriculture in college, then started farming on my father’s land. Soon after, I got married, kept on farming. I worked with Heifer International for a while, where they donated pregnant cows to vulnerable people, who then pass it on after it gets pregnant again. I was also an area leader for DAPP (Dev’t Aid from People to People), helping to mobilize people, and this is how I came across CLTS and UNICEF.


I look up to Alfred immensely. He has amazing energy, an open honesty, and an invincible vigour to embrace every day with open arms and an open heart. Hearing about his life like that really helped me put my own in a more human context.

Opportunity is the word of the day, and I’ve been given some unbelievable ones in my 22 years on this planet. I’m reflecting on it more and more these days, but still keeping my head up and eyes forward to the future. Every day we are walking the mysterious corridor of unopened doors, and someone has to try the knobs. Today is the doorframe through which the future emerges, reborn, reopened every morning.

For me this translates into realizing that it really doesn’t matter all that much If I get the Rhodes Scholarship, or what my marks are in 4th year. The fulfillment of living, learning, challenging, struggling and opening right here is invaluable, incalculable and infinite. In the red dirt of a Zambian road or the paved sidewalk in Canada there is one foot planted and one lifting off. Grounded. Airborne.

Life is full of people, full of relationships, links, connections and opportunities. It’s people like Alfred though, whose presence can make you realize that relationships are more fundamental than things. The pure goodness that comes from some deep-down source of contagious inspiration. For Alfred, it’s the long term hopes and vision for his country, coupled with the daily passion, determination and Action to actually create REAL Change. But that’s just my lens, my perspective. Whether I’m distorting, magnifying, diluting or just telling it how it is, there’s some potential for further connection worth exploring.

I pitched an idea to Alfred last night, and I’ll open the door for whoever has read this far: I want to take a stab at connecting Canadians and Zambians in a meaningful way. I’ve got many ideas on how to do it, but let’s start simple and maybe scale it up. And start with people. If you’re game, then send me an email at with the answers to the following questions: (Or if you’re open to it, just post it as a comment to the blog)

1. Who are you and what are you all about?
2. What makes you proud to be a Canadian/Zambian?
3. What do you think of Canada and Zambia’s relationship?
4. What are 3 questions you’d ask a Zambian/Canadian if you had the chance?

Please include your phone number as well, and stay tuned for whatever emerges next!!