Sunday, June 7, 2009

Maybe, in Mapalo...,

{rather than do a day by day recount of some time I spent in Mapalo I want to share the pages from my journal as I wrote them. I don’t write entries in a dated linear kind of way, I write them blurry and based less on chronological happenings and more on progression of thought.}

"So everything is necessary. Every least thing. This is the hard lesson. Nothing can be dispensed with. Nothing despised. Because the seams are hid from us, you see. The joinery. The way in which the world is made. We have no way to know what could be taken away. What omitted. We have no way to tell what might stand and what might fall."
Cormac McCarthy (The Crossing)

Anxious wanderings and haggard steps. Legs were treacherous - betraying every emotion that I tried so hard to conceal with every step I took. Underneath the canopy of a scorched sky - rich in shades of crimson, violet, and fuchsia - and amongst clouds of smoke, dust and all else an uneasy tension lay suspended in the air. A deep miasma that drowned my heart and submerged my consciousness with combative waves of revelation; sorrow - the revelation of the poverty griping the entirety of all I could see. When the sun begins its exodus to foreign horizons and all the tomorrows that they are waiting for the entangling and poisonous thorns and vines will slowly become more and more visible. Their vices more apparent; rising as the sun falls. Anxiety - the sun makes its final retreat west (crimsons and violets fade) leaving the red-dirt roads and red-clay huts bathed in the cold sterile silver lunar light. The celestial mirror reflecting the shining light of the sun with cautious hostility is the only source of illumination amongst the dark new big top tent canopy. Anguish – what is this bizarre circus I have walked into? Anger – how has the community come to this point?

Uncertainty – what can be done? The brilliant colours of the sunset have dissipated. Twilight has taken hold of Mapalo and I am in the market.

Sounds lost amongst the clamor of the day take center stage at this time. During the day one room watering holes that blend in amongst a world of activity play second fiddle; at night they are the vanguard of Mapalo. As the day drags on the bars, which are always open and always full, cease to blend in with their surroundings. As the vendors pack up their fish, vegetables, and charcoal to head back to their homes the sounds and characters of these do not increase… they become more apparent.

I stand in the center of the Mapalo market just as the last rays of sunlight are disappearing. The sun by now is greeting a new morning somewhere to the west, perhaps its gentle light is now shining in Canada. My companion is a local head teacher {who I will refer to as teacher from now on, I do not feel comfortable using the names of others in my writings without their permission!} who I stayed with for all the nights I spent in Mapalo. Eager to see the realities of Mapalo – of the poverty that has taken hold of the community – I ask Teacher on our walk to show me what he sees as the grim problems of the community. I ask to see what he sees as an embodiment of poverty - what he sees as the clearest image of poverty.

We arrive in the markets. Amidst the backdrop of nighttime the market takes on a script of a different play from the afternoon's production– gone are boisterous merchants so eager to sell me sun glasses and power adapters. Gone are the talk time merchants, small shop sellers, and vegetable vendors - vanished from their wooden stalls to homes unknown to me. Gone is the veil that sheltered my perceptions from one of the harshest symptoms of poverty: Mapalo unemployment which has lead to rampant alcoholism.

Teacher explains to me how with an unemployment rate that ranges from 65-75% and those who are employed making about one hundred and fifty thousand kwacha a month (less than a dollar a day) that poverty is rampant. On the opposite sides of the stalls, which I would normally visit during the day, in the market lie the bars that I now stand on the outside of. Sober proprietresses sell alcohol to not so sober patrons – Teacher informs me that due to the lack of opportunity these young men and women drink all day and all night. He says “this alcohol problem is only making the spread of AIDS worse.”

I had spent some time in Mapalo doing field work before beginning my “village” stay there and always will remember the puerile cries of the children; rich in ignorance, innocence, bliss, curiosity and everything it means to be a child. As I walk down claustrophobic dirt paths between red mud huts little faces peak out from around corners and through the shrubs and bushes: “MZUNGU! HOW ARE YOU!?” “HELLO!” the joyous yelps of children are fresh – echoing in my mind and onto this paper. But amongst these children where were the young adults – my contemporaries? I had only met a few in Mapalo thus far – most were volunteers on committees and the rest I always saw tucked away in yards behind houses always waving and greeting me… But what are they doing?

Teacher provided me a possible answer – they are drunk – he says it without a measure of doubt in his voice. Many of the young adults of Mapalo suffer from a problem of alcoholism. I am not sure if this is the majority or just some, but the number I saw each day in the bars and tucked behind their houses with the strong odor of alcohol hovering in the air would reflect that Teacher’s problem is a real issue in the community. Throughout the week he is adamant in the way he indignantly reiterated his point that liquor is the most serious issue gripping the community – a problem that must be solved.( In a later conversation I asked him if it was more of a symptom of the lack of opportunity – and that the bars might not be the heart of the problems in Mapalo - which lead to a good discussion as we walked the streets of Mapalo – and of course a train of children calling for the Mzungu was my shadow – the youngest with the shortest legs serving as the caboose. )

But it seems Teacher speaks the truth in many respects. Just as poverty has drunken the aspirations of so many young people in Mapalo, Mapalo now drinks - inadvertently crushing hope to escape from the realities of poverty but only end up in a cycle.

Peri-urban communities… unplanned settlements… slums are very different from anyplace else I have lived. There is no land to till in Mapalo; nowhere to sow seeds. Impossible for fields to flourish with maize and groundnuts; even subsistence is seemingly out of the question for so many households. The population density is so high that in some areas even if households know to not put latrines near wells they have no choice.

Random customers, each with their own story, wave as we pass bars with outdoor “patios” – an imaginary lasso strangles me as I am drawn to the door ways, tempted to cross the river Styx. The patrons are ecstatic in their drunken haze and demand that I have a drink (as a personal rule I never drink, but that’s another story). “Mzungu, here drink!” when I politely refuse they then ask me to buy a drink for them to return the favor. A woman, who is breast feeding her child in the back of an outdoor bar, begins to follow us as we walk away. She stumbles up to me, child in tow, speaking in such a slurred manner that neither Teacher nor I can discern what she is saying – or even tell if she speaks English or Bemba. She staggers away, half her shirt still open, carrying her baby like a sack of potatoes – returning to her perch in the bar.

As we return to Teacher’s home I can hear the noises of the market – they don’t fade into the distance as they should. Is this evidence of the sheer volume of patrons who drink from morning to morning? Or perhaps the evenings walk has permanently etched such noises in the deepest reaches of my mind – now echoing just like the laughter and shouting of the children.

Teacher has a small family by Mapalo standards –a wife and two children. One is eighteen – he has a learning challenge. The other is a young child. His house has a main room used for storage and two bedrooms. He tells me “I hope you learned many things tonight, I want you to take a picture of Mapalo back to Canada so you can share what is real there”. He moves the cloth covering the door to his home and opens the door.

The nighttime walk through Bulgakov’s Walpurgis ball of Mapalo left me shaken. I had heard of the alcoholism prominent in Zambian communities and I had seen some telltale signs of poverty in my field work – but this was total immersion. I witnessed the horror in my new friend’s eyes, the horror the horror and the sorrow as he looked on and explained to me the situation. I heard the voices of the drunk and the voice of their judge – both voices were shouting out for a better reality, while the voice of the teacher demanded a different future for the children of Zambia. The idea of alcoholism and the hopelessness it represented had an impact on me, but what was more profound was Teacher’s reaction and desire to see a brighter tomorrow.

Exhaustion – red embers danced as the brazier glowed warmly; the charcoal slowly consumed amongst the ash. I sat on the red-dirt floor of the house gazing intently into the brazier, overcome with its gentle warmth radiating through the room. A candle glowed dimly in the corner of the room providing a little light to the room; the eyes of my hosts were on the opposite side of the room along with the candle... Munching some Nshima and speaking quietly in Bemba, Eating around another brazier – I had originally sat down with them on one side of the room by the brazier but they moved to the other. Lonely host imposed solitude or much needed sanctuary to reflect? I don’t know which. My thoughts wandered towards the children of Mapalo and I followed.

– I remember speaking with a community leader: he said some organizations come and build the community primary schools so that Children will have the right start. I ask but what happens to the children once they pass the last grade the school offers? The man replied they would add new grades – eventually though the children will need to go to a middle school. I ask what becomes of them once they finish their middle school – he happily says they will go to highschool. I ask what will happen next. He hesitates and looks towards the skies and proudly says “college and university!” – I ask about the cost of Zambian colleges and university and scholarships – he says that most people in Mapalo can’t afford these things, even with the best scholarships. He says “maybe some could work . . .” and then trails off. He soon remarks how the joblessness in Ndola and its compounds is just so high that there is little social mobility – parents have no work and can’t pay for college and university. Students can’t pay for their own school for there is no work; no work so very few can attend a Zambian university.

The conversation is clear in my mind, illuminated by the charcoal burning so quietly below. These schools are built to pass on knowledge to children – to share the legacy of their parents and new ideas with young vessels full of hope and bewilderment, full of the passion to see and grow. But where is there for these children to grow to? I realize the frustration of Teacher as he looks at the bars with such spite – the Bars are an indicator, evidence, an embodiment even of the flowering tips of the poverty, the weeds that have choked opportunity in Mapalo. The innovation and energy of these children is unquestionable – they build their own action figures, ninjas, out of red clay. One of Teacher’s sons made his own checker board for a game called ‘broadway’ – fanta caps serve as game pieces. Upside down and right side up – no color coding like in our version. Every neighborhood scamp has his own home made soccer ball – layers of bags tied with string. Excited by cameras they all assume the shapes of wrestlers and ninjas and pose for a picture; the grim faces and karate-style poses dissipate to giddy laughter when they see the picture on the lcd. I think to myself that these Children are phantoms – precious spirits lost in a cruel world only to grow into wayward souls unless things begin to change. But I do not dwell on such thoughts for long – I begin to drift into thoughts of how things can be changed. How does a world of limited opportunity grow into one where every child in Mapalo has a chance to live their dreams? Where alcoholism doesn’t grip so many lives? I once heard ‘it is better to light a candle than to curse the dark’ in this moment I couldn’t have agreed more.

{ This next paragraph is one that I did not want to share in my blog – but it has found its way here.}

I head to the room set aside for me to sleep. The voice of Teacher is barely audible in the next room, but he says to his children he has hope for Mapalo – because for the first time ever a Mzungu is sleeping under the roof of a Mapalo home. He then moves the cloth covering the doorway to my room and reiterates the statement to me – “I’ve asked around… and it would seem you are the first Mzungu ever to sleep in a Mapalo home with a Mapalo family. Maybe, maybe in Mapalo there is hope.., maybe there is change.”

Why the event of having a Mzungu in his home is something so profound I don’t think I’ll ever understand. I can leave the poverty of Mapalo, he cannot. I have opportunities in Canada that are unimaginable, his children do not. I can sleep comfortably knowing my family will have food, water, and shelter. He cannot. Even the mud huts of Mapalo collapse in the rainy season. Do you or I have to worry about the rains dissolving the cohesion of the homemade bricks that make our homes? Do we worry one day our walls will collapse potentially killing us? (this is how one of his neighbors died last rainy season).

I have not grown up in the community of Mapalo – my life is so drastically different from those around me. I can try to integrate and understand – I want to be emphatic to my new friends but I don’t think I can ever truly understand any one individual in this community. But Teacher speaks with such conviction about the hope of having a Mzungu – he speaks of how this community was one called “Chipulukusu”- cursed and that it is now called Mapalo – blessed. Like Teacher said, perhaps seeing the white man live there with a family has shown the changes he wants to see for how the outside world views his community – perhaps I will never know. At the end of the day I am but an ignorant white kid sitting still - no ground breaking powers to reshape the community at will (as some members might believe) and his words trouble me, confuse me, and leave me that way for all my nights and days and mornings and breakfasts and borehole adventures in Mapalo.

As I try to sleep on an improvised bed underneath a now invisible mosquito net in near absolute darkness I can see a glimmer of light drifting in under a gap in corrugated tin roof. The sounds of Mapalo at night are a deafening blur. I can still make out the sounds of the bars and drinking yards through the thin walls of the house now joined by the characteristic angry yelping of dogs, but amidst them I hear something else. I listen long and hard – and I hear one of the most beautiful sounds I can remember – laughter. I hear the laughter of children amongst the clamor of their older counterparts. But even more powerful than the laughter I begin to hear singing – songs of happiness and worship. Songs of hope.

Perpetually my perceptions were reshaped as the events in Mapalo passed. I arrived at Teacher’s house with an open mind ready to see through the eyes of his family what life in Mapalo is. What does it mean to live in Mapalo? The truth of poverty as Teacher believed it was shown to me with clarity and precision by a visit to the markets at twilight; future trips through town made the backyard gatherings in the morning and the bars stand out for what they really are. Why are so many youth drunk? No jobs, no school – how does Mapalo get to a point where this doesn’t have to happen? But as I felt so angry in the darkness, laying on a combination of wooden crates, boxes, and mattresses my perspective changed again as the sounds of joy permeated through the mud hut. There is great hope in Mapalo – the laughter and the singing reflects this. The people collectively have not given up as some community members may believe. But to me it would seem that it will take more than building schools for the youth - serious change in this community seems to be contingent on economic development.

As I learned more about the livelihoods of the people of Mapalo the dichotomy between those resigned to poverty and those with hope that are fighting a way out became stronger and more apparent. So perhaps teachers problem is turth - there are men drunk in their yards at ten in the morning and remaining in this state all day. These aspects represents some of the darker moments of Mapalo. But there is hope, not just in singing but in the tangible actions of people in the community.

Hope for a better tomorrow is embodied by proud women who work tirelessly in the fields of farms far from home to make small wages that they use to start small scale businesses upon return. These businesses are small and take a lot of effort to make ends meet but due diligence in the side streets and markets of Mapalo is allowing some members to eck out a living. These women have begun to form groups to collect their own money and develop a locally operated micro-credit group so more woman can pursue business effectively. Women are pushing serious change in Mapalo. Hope is embodied by the committees and RDC who work tirelessly to see the community bettered and improved by planning with NGOs and trying their best to be a voice for the scattered peoples of Mapalo. Hope in the men who work seven days a week, or if they do not have a job look for piece work diligently. Some people my age I had a chance to speak with were members of volunteer committees and shared with me deeply how they want to see changes in the community.

Mapalo, once called CURSED – a village inhabited by both the honest folk and all the bandits, gunmen, and criminals has been cleaned up and is moving towards positive change. Even the re branding of the town has, according to some members, uplifted the spirit of the community in many ways that were unexpected. More and more people have gained access to resources – both in terms of knowledge but also in the tangible resources of hand pumps and capital – which many say is moving the community forward into uncharted territory. But there are still prevalent problems that will not be fixed overnight. 20% HIV/AIDS, 70% unemployment, high levels of illiteracy and many still without access to clean water are just a few of the more severe symptoms of the poverty that has strangled the community, along with much of the country for years and will continue to do so unless change is continued to be driven from within and outside of the community.

"The rain falls upon the just
And also on the unjust fellas
But mostly it falls upon the just
Cause the unjust have the just's umbrellas"
— Cormac McCarthy

Caring, anguish, love, depression, and hope were just a few of the manifestations of Mapalo I noticed in my time there. I was taken into a house that is already stretched beyond its means with open arms and ushered in as a member of a family. A stranger welcomed like a long lost brother. I have had many experiences in Zambia thus far but this really reminded me of some age old wisdom – those with next to nothing will share openly all they have while those with some will only want more. My first host family, a family with significantly more means who I spent some time with earlier, had members who saw me as little more than a client and demanded steep financial compensation when I departed. Teacher's family welcomed me into their home and shared their brazier with me, warmed me when I was cold and made sure I got to a doctor when I was sick. They showed me to the market and shared their view of the world with me and wanted to hear mine. They fed me and were even prepared to butcher a chicken for me. (I assured them that I am a vegetarian and they understood and made me the best beans ever!) Eventually they let me contribute to household activities and the cost of food and used some of my contribution to buy charcoal -eventually I started functioning as a member of their family. A high point was helping with the dishes and finally making it clear that I could sit on the wooden stool and then the floor. (the hosts kept giving me the only chair in the house). I did not want to destroy my family's right to be good hosts but I also wanted to be treated as an equal. I eat in the house, so I help cook. I eat food so I help pay. I make a mess, I clean it up. If the family sits on the floor, I sit on the floor. At the borehole when people want me to move to the front I decline and help them pump their water, just as they do for their neighbors.

I hope that, even if slowly, my actions were a tide that eroded myths of the Mzungu and deposited sentimental sediments amongst my household to see Mzungus as not the keepers of answers and solutions and money but friends and equals.

Despite the problems facing Mapalo – even as poverty has coiled its self around the lives of many, even if there is desperation and alcoholism in the lives of some – the people are just like you and I – a complex web of hopes and dreams and all the darker aspects of the world too - and for a few days of my lifetime I got to be closer to what it is like to be in Mapalo.I heard the voice of Dorothy in the winding back streets and the school houses and around the boreholes. For a moment in time I experienced life in poverty; the tastes, the smells, the sights, the sounds and most importantly the emotional feeling of poverty. For a moment in time - a few short days out of all the days I have lived on this blue planet - I lived in uncertainty. I lived in Mapalo.

and maybe, in Mapalo, there can be change.


  1. WOW! came across your blog randomly as i'm currently trudging through undergraduate dissertation materials on water provision to mapalo and chifubu (pretty near mapalo, you might know it). inspiring, and has actually given me a pointer of a question i wasn't sure how to answer - yay! was there in the summer doing my research but it's really awesome to know that other people are working and living in and loving mapalo. so thanks!

  2. Hi Katie - I just saw your comment! Thanks!

    I'd love to hear more about your research in Mapalo and Chifubu.