Thursday, June 11, 2009

thoughts on the value of Words, the power of a Dream and creating Hope

"Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow."- Langston Hughes

Words have an immense power to shape the perceptions of those who bear witness to them. Thinking back to the critical moments in the history of the twentieth century so many of them are coupled with the inspiring words of a great orator which have echoed through the annals of history for years, and will continue to do so for many more. Others have taken shape in the form of great writers; be it the protest singers - the troubadours of change who channel the energy of their time in the form of song or the more reserved poets, journalists and novelists who opt to share the truths of the world as they perceive them on paper for all to read. For me, at least, the power of language cannot be underestimated. Who hasn't heard the iconic statement "I have a dream" a rallying call for change in its own era and a continued source of inspiration to this day? Are all the sentiments, actions, and events of the civil rights movement still so largely remembered in the same way?

Returning to Mapalo for the first time after finishing my Township Stay truly felt the same as visiting an old friend for the first time after an eternity of segregation. Sleeping, eating, washing, laughing, talking, reflecting, cooking, writing, observing, and fetching water for many days in the community created some kind of bond to life there for me. Spending time in Lusaka and a house in town while I recovered, under doctors orders, was quite a change of pace. The lifestyle of Mapalo that had been entrenched in me began to crumble and dissolve - washed away amongst the hitch hiking and bus rides to and from Lusaka. When I returned to Mapalo, this time to do field work, the experience was something I can never hope to describe accurately in writing; however, I can say that it was a marriage of happiness and frustration - relief and anxiety.

When a curse becomes a blessing

Names and memories walk hand in hand in Mapalo - and for a Township that has changed names in the lifetime of some of its younger members there are quite a few memories to share. The history of the Township as I have heard it from different sources is a sad and bloody one - something of a modern incarnation of some demented old west tale with bandits and desperadoes taking hold of a wood shack saloon on main street town. In these tales the protagonist, be it the benevolent sheriff or a Sergio Leone anti-hero, rides into town and dispatches the violent and usually sadistic villains in some epic and grandiose manner. The tale ends happily - the west is safe again! The innocent townsfolk are still  struggling to survive, but our benevolent protagonist has rid the town of scum so all is well... right?

Mapalo once was named Chipulukusu - which is the word for cursed in iciBemba. Why was it called cursed? Some stories tell of gun violence while others talk of "poverty".

For a town with an unwritten history perhaps the truth can only be obtained through the oral tradition of story telling. I'm not sure how much of these stories are embellished or perhaps censored... The one thing I can say with certainty is that the Township is now cured of the plague of armed violence and has changed names to Mapalo - blessing.

Words laced with cyanide and sugar

The wind blows in its gentle way - no urgency or ferocity, but it still kicks up dust and red dirt as it causes the leaves of the trees over head to dance. The shade begins to shift back in forth in the breeze; gaps in the shade where leaves have fallen are tossed to and fro. I am only in Mapalo for a few hours today so I embark into the side streets looking for an English speaking fellow who has time to spare.

In Mapalo there is always time to spare; people want to help, however they all have their own set of mixed motivations. The household mother you are interviewing for as a member of an NGO will give you a warm farewell. She is happy to provide you with information; happy to contribute to the cause of whichever NGO it is that has come knocking on her door. However, another individual, perhaps, will try to help thinking he will receive something in return. One girl offered to teach me Bemba and before I had even learned a useful phrase she already began asking me for my bracelets, my phone or my backpack. "I would really like it if maybe you give me your phone so I might remember you!”

The shady side streets of Mapalo are a refuge from the sun beaming down on the community. The sun and I are locked in the heated dance of an intense love-hate relationship. The gentle light it may provide during the day is a great alternative to the pale and uncommitted light of the moon that graces the sky at night. For in Mapalo there are no street lights and few homes have electricity. The gifts of the sun are plentiful for daytime is the only time lots of meaningful activities can be commenced. In the community, for example, the one consistent thing I have seen done at night in the household is cook Nshima on a brazier under candle light and the dim offerings of the moon. The sun falls fast, usually by nineteen hours all is dark. However, the light of the sun is a taxing gift - the intensity when standing in the open fields is quick to give sun stroke and demands rehydration.

So when I am traveling to do field work - primarily semi-structured interviews - I prefer the shady side streets. I find the person I am looking for - a young man, maybe a bit older or younger than myself. The conversation we have immediately shifts off focus from water issues and into the community at large. The man wants to be an engineer he says, "There’s no money for school, I thought maybe my parents could help. That's why I visit them... But no, it is not looking possible, but maybe if..." I hesitate to tell him I am an engineering student with EWB. . .

He tells me a little bit about Mapalo - for him the place is not his permanent home. As I speak with him I ask him about the compound and he stops. His eyes glare directly at mine... "Did I say something offensive?" I think to myself, mentally back peddling. He says to me "please call Mapalo, and all the other compounds, Townships". "We do not need to be reminded of our situation."

The idea of a compound may be crushing too many people who live in places like Mapalo. Compounds are rattled with negative connotations in Mapalo. "People want to work for progress" he said, "and it starts with taking pride in one's home and trying to better it." The crushing mind set of compound life when coupled with the tangible poverty is too much - calling their home a Township, which has become more popular in recent years, is one way people want to escape this mindset.

The name change to Mapalo was one that has not had one hundred percent adoption - even the clinics and residential development committee buildings still bear the name of CURSED. However, whenever the subject of the name of the community comes up in conversation people are overjoyed by it. It would seem to me that just as happy people are to have boreholes and tangible acts of change in their community they are just as excited with the idea of the name change. "Things have Changed, our homes are a blessing" one woman remarked to me.

I take all my experiences with Mapalo and try to assemble a composite idea of what day in day out life in Mapalo might be. What will this life look like going on and on perpetually until I, as a typical Mapalo citizen, meet my end? In this hypothetical reality a lot of what I have heard about names makes sense. How many people in Canada would want to live in a town named Cursed? Would you want to take pride telling your families and friends you live in a town named Cursed? Add in extreme uncertainty. Add in the unemployment, rampant disease, and the struggle of day to day life.

When each breath of the living is the sour miasma of the cursed do their dreams not perish?

Now consider that your Township has improved in many regards. There are now opportunities to get clean water and many criminals are gone. Extreme poverty may still be present due to a complex web of issues but there has been an improvement - safety has been restored. Taking pride of this change through words? It seems that the new name has become a beacon of hope for many people. An indicator of change - a cry for continued progress and a reminder to everyone that is the poorest and most cursed place in the Copperbelt can change then perhaps there is hope after all.

When living and speaking with the people of Mapalo it is very apparent how words can impact others. The name of "Chipulukusu" or the idea of a "compound" is laced with the most sinister poison of the heart for many people, yet the idea of a "Township" and the name "Mapalo" are uplifting. To the people the name Mapalo is a reminder that, yes, change can happen. While a borehole may provide a man water, perhaps words and names - thoughts - can provide something for a different kind of thirst?

Will changing a name somehow give everyone jobs, food, clean water, and anything else they may want or need? No. Nothing will do that. Poverty isn't erased over night, over years. There's an intangible value that comes along with the rebranding of a compound to a Township, of changing curses to blessings that provides hope - something that might be in short supply but something that is essential for change. This is an aspect of the human spirit that enables endurance and ingenuity. Hope. Don't underestimate it; the people of Mapalo don't.

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