Wednesday, July 22, 2009

progress is dilapidation...?

The cold glimmer of roadside lamps glances off the dust covered mini bus window. Every scratch on the pane’s surface has a story and during the fleeting moments as light flashes by the chronicles of pebbles flung skyward towards unsuspecting windows, or the tales of a fierce dust storm are illuminated. Dusk slowly settles amidst the pot hole ridden paved roads, fenced houses, and arching trees of Kwacha road – a road in Ndola. Standing in defiance are the street lights; a symbol of remonstrance to the impending nightfall. The half spent moon emerges as the evening traveler’s lantern; a beacon amidst the darkening skies.

While riding within the crowded solitude of the mini bus the hacking sounds of coughing and the odd conversation in Bemba whisper to my ear unique thoughts and ponderings. Grey dark dust dances in clouds as it is raised thru the air by July winter wind storms. The flu is coming to prevalence in the compounds and places where gregarious humans congregate. The story of a cough –who is the principle protagonist: particles? Pathogens? The moist sounds of phlegm and mucus stirred up, within lungs, by sudden anguish accompany the hacking coughs of those in the bus.

As dusk’s daily dance unfolds I reflect upon my placement thus far; amidst bumps on the road, the anguished coughing of passengers, and the avaricious shouts of the conductor. The calm and gentle voice of a Zambian passenger causes time to slow, but only momentarily. “Why are you here?”


“why are you here?”

In this bus?

“why are you here in Zambia”

The guillotine had fallen; it had dangled for some time and was waiting for the slightest July breeze to cause it to fall. With it fell the weight of internal dilemmas, indecisions, uncertainties, and all the questions as junior fellow might have after a couple months abroad. From the gaping injury spilled all the uncertainty I had attempted to internalize.

Why am I here?

Since May 23rd such a question has greeted me in the morning and been my lullaby as I struggle to sleep.

“Why are you here?”

Hesitation. Why is any Musungu here? I thought – “Patrick, such a migratory bird, flocking abroad carrying aspirations and flawed assumptions. Silly bird”. Why am I here? Hearing the question from an external body – a party not named Patrick, not myself, made the answer all too apparent. I do not know. To learn? Yes I have learned a lot, and I think that if I was to rest with one answer that would be it.

I’m here to know Zambia. I am here because I want to hear the stories… But not just hear I want to listen, I want to experience and I want to feel. I want to see the struggles families go through, I want to see their happiness, their troubles and their successes. But why that – my drive is to serve others and I think, perhaps, if I delve a little deeper… Perhaps this migratory bird is here to start exploring some questions first hand. Questions lead to discord within.

What is development? What does it mean to suffer? What is poverty?

The emerging moon bears witness to these internal arguments, these thoughts which have become a burden upon the decision making faculties within my heart and mind – questions which challenge me to evolve my thinking. Yet at the same time do such thoughts cripple? Are there answers, or discussions?

My existence within dusk ridden mini bus rides and twilight meals of Nshima and relish within four mud brick walls is out of place – the looks draped upon the faces of grownups in Twapia suggest a weary anxiety of this new visitor, while the cries of “musungu, musungu” delivered to me by children further indicates how much of an oddity I am. “...many children never leave the township till they are aged, they have never seen musungu. They think you are a ghost...”Says one of my coworkers. The romanticized notion of the musungu – a ghost, or a source of money – perhaps there is some truth in these thoughts. At times the role of a musungu within a community is fairly phantasmal - while I am able to observe everything happening within the community, it is difficult to meaningfully interact with those who dwell within. Eyes lock – mutual observation - but both parties are unable to verbally communicate meaningfully; every conversation feels like a scripted play – the playwright being my working knowledge of Bemba, if only there was time to develop a fluency in Bemba. My presence in the community is not understood; musungus come and go working feverishly at whatever their development, evangelism, or development evangelism aims are. The collective perception of the musungu is a tangled web, knots of experiences, conversations, and expectations – many of which do not apply to me. Isn’t that what life is – a web of adversity, love, experiences, and dreams? If I were to photograph the family I live with and return to the youngest thirteen years from now (so he would be twice the age he is now) would he relate to the figure in the picture? Would they relate to me as the same musungu who walked so heavily through the paths of Twapia in the cold month of July?

" is life in Zambia some sort of dream
a game I play?
airplane pinch, scenery fades

It may seem as so to the Zambians - the white boy who plays development worker / villager of Twapia.

“Patrick you are a real Zambian” laughs a coworker, moments before I walk through the prison to arrive at the minibus which will take me to the traffic circle colloquially called “Kitwe Kitwe” – where I board a second bus to Twapia. I disagree with every word of it.

Integration is not something I believe in – if I ever state that I have integrated it is very likely I am either a liar or a man of superficial intentions. These mini bus rides, these nshima meals, these pit latrines, and every other “Zambian” experience makes me no more Zambian than the night time makes the moon the sun. I can reflect these experiences, but I’m no substitute for a Zambian. After all why is a migratory bird, branded a jf, in Zambia? To share the stories back home – right then and there I have a reason to hit the ‘eject’ button. Unlike my young Zambian friends I can leave Twapia when all is said and done – and for those who read this blog I know that I have restated this over and over, sorry for the repetition – and it is this idea that I find crippling. Within Twapia exists thousands of souls worthy of a chance – yet because of their birth lot they receive different circumstances. But I wonder – if Twapia was Calgary and Calgary was Twapia, would the Twapia folk not live out life the same as the rest of us? Driving cars? But perhaps this statement reaches a measure of truth because the way these cultures have been encouraged to change – explicitly and implicitly – has been through western memes. There’s no way for a westerner to ever truly understand what goes on deep within the mind and heart of someone else in their own country.., Much less in somewhere like Zambia.

Some people I have met have argued the simpler life leads to a purer form of happiness than what we experience in the ‘developed world’ – perhaps ignorance is bliss, but what of those who yearn to experience more? I’d argue that cultures should evolve to find what is meaningful.

Perhaps progress is the expressed dilapidation of the human soul – trading a life or death dependence on the natural world for a life or death dependence on a time clock. Losing meaning in life through the pursuit of higher meaning? I once heard that a philosopher is never truly happy. Maybe not. Despite the romanticism of the simple life ‘living off the land’ I wonder of modern medicine, deep thought, and exploration of new ideas. What is it going to be my friend – the menu has two choices: Happiness or cognizance? To me it is not so simple. Yet who are we, the privileged west, to decide what is poor and what is rich?

Do we need notions of progress to have fulfillment in life? Is living in the success or is living in the struggle – is it a human’s accomplishments that define them, or is it the burns we receive climbing for the sun with wings of wax and feather? In the case of the latter – how is development allowing cultures to evolve meaningfully if it doles out solution after solution? There are books and real world examples of how ‘development should be’, but I wonder if these are still rules from a book, some sort of play book, penned in the west and reinterpreted. The book wasn’t written in Bemba... Maybe it’s time to throw out the book? Maybe I’m audacious and ignorant. Despite the critical circumstances communities face – disease, death, illiteracy – I am often left wondering if these development solutions just might be crippling a community to adapt to problems on their own, in their own way. Perhaps hindering genius from taking flight.

In that case is progress dilapidation?


We are led to believe a lie
When we see not through the eye
Which was born in a night to perish in a night,
When the soul slept in beams of light.
God appears, and God is light
To those poor souls who dwell in night,
But does a human form display
To those who dwell in realms of day.
William Blake

1 comment:

  1. Fine, I'll try again. Less whole heartedly though, I promise.

    We share the same lullaby, my friend. It's been keeping me up a night, and waking me up early. So much so that I wrote an incoherent post at 3am day before last, but was to self conscious to post it (see: incoherent). Maybe I'll email it to you, we'll discuss in more detail.

    Integration. You're just about as Zambian as I am Malawian, eh? That's right: EH. It's difficult isn't it? Trying to find a place. I wonder if it's the result of so much moving around, or a fault of my communication skills (or lack thereof), but I don't believe my community(ies) really understand why I am there either.

    "Oh a Mzungu. Solve my coffee problems, tell me what to do." (Shit, confirmed. They don't know why I am here).

    I just wrote you an excessive email so I'll cut this off here, but thank you for being so articulate. You organize my thoughts by expressing your own. Much appreciated.