Beneath the Surface

Disclaimer: These are the remaining posts from my village stay in Macha, which I just typed up now from my journal.

Thursday night (May 21st)

Two images I want to share to convey a feeling that I have:
1. Me last night watching Petros spreading “tick grease” on his cow to avoid it getting diseases from tick bites. I am standing outside of the fence looking in.
2. Me today at the Rural Health Post, after being overwhelmed by a group of the Malaria Research volunteers, standing alone in the shade against a brick wall, watching everyone interacting in the sun.

I am a hopeless outsider looking in, and this is made obvious with each laugh and weird look as I am bewildered by the simplest Tonga greeting. My brain hurts from trying to learn Tonga and my heart hurts from embarassment – but not for long! As I laugh around the dinner table with Petros and his wife (laughing at his son Wayne who is eating at a rapid pace), I feel welcomed and like I belong. My will, to be honest, wavered a bit today, as I sat on a brick behind the empty house – escaped from the commotion at the Malaria screening.

I also feel completely useless as a development worker – I know next to nothing of the people I am living with and supposed to be helping, and drawing out any kind of useful trends seems nearly impossible from this angle.

To mix things up, here’s a story I learned on the ride back from the Malaria screening trip:

There are 3 animals, who are all boarding a bus: a cow, a dog and a goat. As they were getting onto the bus, the cow paid the exact fare, and lumbered its way down to the back of the bus. The dog overpaid, and in its eagerness ran to get its seat, expecting to receive the change, but not getting any. The goat snuck in with a group of people and didn’t pay anything.

So when you’re driving down a road in Zambia, this is how it is! When you drive past a cow on the road, it will hardly even notice you. When you pass by a dog, it will chase you down because it wants to get its change. And when you pass by a goat, it will run away because it thinks you’re there to collect the fare it never paid!

Friday morning (May 22nd)

I wake up and it’s still dark out. I hear roosters crowing in the distance, the chickens and dogs scuffling around in the yard (dogs chasing chickens), and the sweet soft whisper of women singing in the distance. Then I hear the steady mechanical creaking of the borehole hand-pump just 20 meters away. The women and children in Macha are awake before sunrise, walking as far as it takes to the borehole (up to 2 km each way) to fetch the water needed for cooking, cleaning, bathing, drinking and whatever else.

My privilege is starting to hit me – not like a sharp knock to the head, but rather a slow and inevitable tidal wave. I think back to the longest days I worked in an office last year – maybe as much as 15 hours at the peak, and I reflect on how tired and frustrated I was to have no time to do the things I wanted: read, watch TV, play tennis. I am utterly ashamed when I compare this to the way Petros’ wife, Thabani, upholds herself – with such strength and poise. She fetches water, cooks every meal over the open fire in the yard, prepares water for baths (heating over the first) , washing dishes, harvesting from the field… On her feet putting in physical labour 15 hours a day. But for her, this is daily life – the family depends on her, and the Tonga tradition says it must be her, the woman, who puts in this work. And contrary to me, who received overtime for all those extra hours, she is working for subsistence – to keep her family alive and well.

Yesterday I was talking to my new friend Fortune, who is 22 years old (the same as I will be in a month). We spoke about the types of music we listen to- and were both in agreement on the goodness of Reggae. HE asked me how I listened to music, and I nonchalantly told him I had an iPod. He remarked that if he had an iPod in Macha, it would likely hget stolen. He also said “Ah, I wish you had 2 so that I might be able to use one.” The weight of this didn’t really hit me until It was compounded by me asking for his phone number, and him sheepishly replying that he didn’t have one. The triply play was complete when he offered me a tape by Lucky Dube, a Reggae star, but I declined because I don’t have away to play tapes. I told him I’d just download it on my laptop. You can look at it through a material lens if you want to, but for me it helped me see myself in a new light: A spoiled, rich white kid who has the luxury and time to think about when and how to replace my “old” cell phone, iPod and laptop.. and to not even blink at spending over $1000 to buy all 3. I guess it’s fitting for me to throw on my headphones and listen to something to take my mind off of it…

Saturday night (May 23rd)

ATTITUDE! It makes all the difference. On an overall level, today was my best day in Macha! But I spoke much less Tonga… I think I was able to reset expectations, and aim to have fun! At 10:30 last night, my older brother Aaron called me and woke me up, and I was so disoriented I thought it was 4:30 am! Ha. It was good to hear from home, and remember that life is speeding ahead at a Canadian pace back at home. This morning, I was up by 8, and went to dig and shell some groundnuts with Patrick. The best part (other than the women in the field laughing at my digging skills) was the look on this old woman’s face when she saw an ox-drawn cart coming down the road. It was carryign a giant cylindrical basket, which serves as a granary for storing maize that has been harvested. She exclaimed loudly, and then started dancing the most outrageous gangster granny dance I have ever seen in my entire life. Shaking her hips, pumping her arms, with a smile that spanned the horizon. It was infectious to say the least… I can still see her in my mind, wearing her black t-shirt with the sleeves cut off (some 80’s rock band shirt), and with her hair tied back with a cloth.

When we got back home, I splayed some soccer 2-on-1 with Sean and Tabane- sweating up a storm in my jeans (note to self: bring shorts to the next village stay). Oh! And I almost forgot to mention my morning stretch when Petros’ mother (68 or so) got me doing some aerobics while everyone at the borehole watched and laughed. Good times. I spent some time at lunch reading, then in the afternon played catch with Tabane with limes from the lime tree. We also played keep-it-up (kicking the limes with our feet to keep it up in the air) and counting the hits in Tonga (Omwe, Tobilo, Totatwe, Tone, Tosanwe). Later I busted out some rusty juggling, and tried to teach the family to juggle 3 limes at once – I think I probably confused more than impressed them, but it was still fun. After a cold bucket bath (that’s how we roll) Petros jumped on borrowed bikes to go visit Chief Macha. I had to catch myself as I got tired and frustrated by my lack of endurance, soft tires, poor gears and a hybrid of winding/rocky/sandy footpaths that we were biking on. Meeting the chief really brought up my spirits, and here are some reasons why:

-He was a major driver behind the entire Choma district’s uptake of Community-Led Total Sanitation (the same programme I will be working on in Mazabuka)
-He spoke of the importance of NOT offering a subsidy, and instead focusing on a mindset shift amongst the people.
-The triggering was facilitated by existing leadership structures (headmen, councillors, environmental health technicians, community health workers).
-His bottom line was to get communities to the point of “We are eating each other’s shit.” Disease doesn’t discriminate between chief, headmen, reverends or farmers.
-In addressing the issue of subsidized cement for the slab in a latrine, he had a beautiful way of putting it: “Everyone in Zambia builds their own house. If you can build a house, you can build one room more! Isn’t it? Does it make any sense to build your entire house, and get free concrete donated from an NGO for one room?”

Sunday Afternoon (May 24th)

So today is my last day in Macha, and it’s been a roller coaster ride of emotions, thoughts and experiences. Here are a few big things I learned:

1. Tonga is way harder than I’d expected! – I had unrealistic expectations, and I need to learn VISUALLY

2. Corruption is a big deal – I had conversations every day about the impact of corruption at many different levels (NGOs, govt, local leadership)

3. I need to have fun – My hardest days occurred when I was taking everything too seriously, and wasn’t living in the moment and making the best of life.

4. I am a Canadian – It’s taken longer to get over the fact that as much as I love Zambians, I am from Canada, and that’s okay!

5. I have a deep need to succeed – I really hit a wall when things went out of my control… and I definitely didn’t succeed at what I’d set out to do. This triggered many reflections on the external and internal successes I’ve had in my life, and how much I’ve relied on this to propel myself forward. I’m trying to dig deeper into why this is so important to me… I think this is just a crack of a door opening, and there’s much more to learn…

6. Dorothy lives behind the scenes – It’s hard to find the poorest members of a community, let alone communicate. Now imagine designing and implementing interventions that put her needs first, define success through her eyes, and that actually reach her. Empathy is bloody hard, and I need to work at. Layering on value differences makes it that much more difficult: How do I skew Dorothy’s views through the lens of my own values? My main takeaway is that it’s more about Aiming to bring her voice to the table, than actually being able to consistently do it.

7. Infrastructure is a game-breaker – Or a back breaker when you’re bouncing down a road in the back of a big truck. Roads, Cell Phone Towers, Electricity make a huge difference to the quality of life, and it really hit me in the face this week, as I experienced communities with and without these amenities.

8. I miss my friends and family – I’ve had almost nightly vivid, clear dreams of friends and family from Canada, and I’ve also had a lot of childhood flashbacks. I think that in my busy-ness and intense drive to succeed in my life in Toronto, I’ve not stopped enough to appreciate these amazing people in my life.


Sorry for the slowness in getting this one posted, but it’s been a hectic week of transitions. Hopefully in a day or two I will be up-to-date and posting my current thoughts, rather than catching up all the time. I am now safely in Mazabuka, and just finished my first 3 days of work. Keep your eyes peeled for more.

REQUEST: Please drop a comment to say what you’re finding the most interesting, exciting or insightful from the blog! There are a million thoughts going through my head, and I’m constrained to only share a few. I also would love to know who all these people are that are reading – holler at me even if it’s one sentence πŸ™‚

Sending some serious Zambian love your way,



~ by mikeklassen on May 29, 2009.

14 Responses to “Beneath the Surface”

  1. Very impressive Mike. Good for you!

  2. i check your blog almost every day for updates, just so you know. i don’t say that to pressure you to write more – must be hard to ‘live in the moment’ and report back at the same time, constantly reflecting on what has happened. it seems (from here, at least) that you’re doing a pretty good job of finding that balance, though.

    i’m not sure quite how to say this without it sounding mean, but i’m glad to hear that you’re having a hard time. somehow i think you know what i mean. of course i don’t wish you pain or heartache, but that struggle is what will help you learn. i think there is also a balance to be struck between acknowledging and really internalizing what privilege means (which you’re doing) and sh*tting on yourself. there are things we participate in, yes, and things we benefit from that are hurtful and oppressive to others. we have some choice – but lots of things we don’t have much choice about – things that are bigger than us that distribute wealth and power in certain ways. i’m rambling a bit, but all i mean is don’t be too hard on yourself. or, be too hard on yourself, and then seek your own forgiveness.

    my favourite thing on the blog is hearing what you’re learning – tonga, about zambia, similarities, differences, and mostly about yourself.

    much love from oxford street.

  3. Hi Mike,
    What an adventure you are having. You do sound a little overwhelmed, but that just means you are really exposing yourself to the difference. Just remember to take those breaks when you need them and kind of check out for a bit. It will keep you going. We miss you here, but so appreciate that you are sharing your amazing experience with us. Lots of love

  4. Mike, your insight is incredible. So many of the thoughts you are expressing resonate with me, especially your comment on your need to succeed. Thanks, and keep up the great work.

  5. Interesting post Mike !

  6. Mike,

    I’m so proud of you! I’ve been reading every post; it’s great that you’re constantly reflecting and that you’re aware that this experience is a roller coaster of emotions. Keep enjoying and living the moment!

    All good things,

  7. This was a long but very insightful post. It was an interesting read.

    You have a very apt title πŸ˜€

  8. Very eloquent and deep writing there Mike! I really like how you pointed how easy it is to complain here about relatively minor things in stark contrast to what you’re experiencing there. Keep it real and living in the moment.

  9. hi hun! awesome posts + really illuminating perceptions. i am really enjoying your posts and look forward to what may come. so proud + also resonating with what you’ve been experienced.
    miss u + with you the very best!
    ~ Sar

  10. Hi there!
    I’ve been following some EWB blogs for this summer, and stumbled upon yours … was definitely caught by your insight!! I have a feeling I will be checking your blog quite regularly – you are very good at recording your thoughts clearly. I’m going to be taking some good lessons out of your blog (as well as others), so I thank you for that πŸ™‚ Living life in the present is definitely the way to go!! Keep enjoying the hell out of it (life).


  11. yo mike, your outsider issue totally hit home for me, i could go more into that when you get back (it’s too much to type out). that said, this is my favourite post so far! i’m lovin’ the reflections so keep it up πŸ™‚

  12. it is so interesting to read all the raw emotions you are having… i can hardly imagine. I like the point form journal reflection style — less edited, and in your other post the quotes from Alfred. i’d love to see some more photos if you get a chance, too.
    Miss you, brother! thanks for all the effort you are putting into sharing your experience with all us back here. lots of love.

  13. hey bud,
    Amazing posts, and i’m stoked to hear of the tremendous realizations, growth, and learning you’re experiencing. It is difficult to maintain a blog with so much detail from so far away, and you’re doing great. keep it up man.
    I like hearing about your interactions with local people the most, as well as your internal reflections on these interactions.
    take care bro,

    • Hi Mike. Learned from your mom that you are in Zambia. Your increased sense of personal awareness and resulting disequilibrium will certainly change your views of self, others and the world in which you live. Can’t wait to talk about the whole experience. Take care.
      Mr H

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: