nearly the end of a second year at school

Wow time flies. It’s a year since I posted almost. The last post I did was indeed quite dark! They were strange times for us all with the cholera and the drought. The harvest was dreadful as we expected and in two weeks I’ll return to wells running dry because the water table wasn’t replenished during the last rainy season. We’ll see what this year brings but it looks like climate change is happening, and the rainy season comes later and later.

St Francis Hospital

I got ill myself after the previous post and was hospitalised in the little mission hospital nearby. We thought it was malaria; the tests were negative but oh my I was in a bad way. They don’t have nurses to look after you so a family member comes and sits by the bed and attends to any needs. Alice (Ketty’s mum) came, bless her, and dealt with me lying vomiting on the floor and generally being a very sick person! Once I was a bit better I made some more new friends because being the only white guy there, everyone wants to talk to you. Though obviously not while you’re vomiting.

Ketty has had a relatively uneventful year, though our language is not yet good enough for her to share her adventures so I rely on her mum to keep me updated. She goes to visit twice a term and

Ketty at Magwero school with her mum Alice, and Rachel

last time two of my good friends, Rachel and Catherine, went also. Ketty turned 9 a couple of months back. She was 6 when I first met her but she still has the same joy of life. There’s a video below, with the short clip I put in a post last year but some more stuff that gives you an idea of what the NGO, Tiko Lodge, looks like. This is where I first stayed and met Ketty, as her mum Alice runs housekeeping there, and sometimes the kitchen. Ketty has obviously been watching some kung fu movie or something (they have electricity now in the house and a little tv they were given). I guess she’s been watching MTV also, judging by the extravagant gestures as she sings to me from the swing, and in the garden as I’m watering the plants. She is so full of life, what a joy she is to be around.

I’ll tell more when I get over to Zambia, in just over 2 weeks now. This time I fly Kenya Airways via Nairobi, and Alice is excited because she’s coming to Lusaka to meet me off the plane. Cool. Ketty’s still at school so she can’t come but I’ll go and pick her up for the long christmas holiday a few days after I arrive.

 

Not all plain sailing

Life here can be hard.

This post is an eye-opener for anyone who doubts that life is tough here.

We have Cholera in the area. Spread from the slums of Lusaka where the pollution of wells (main supply of drinking water) by nearby pit latrines (holes in the ground) has had inevitable consequences.

The schools will not start again on the 15th because of Cholera. There will be a review on Jan. 30th.

It’s almost lucky (!!!???) that the rains appear to be failing again for the second time in three years in Eastern Province, as Cholera is a waterborne disease and the compounds become flooded when the rains are good. At least The ridiculous Potato-head President of the United States assures us that global warning is not a problem.

The crops will probably fail; it’s too early to say yet. The government is supposed to support the population by giving food aid. They probably won’t as they have huge debt to pay.

Ketty had Malaria. An inevitable consequence of living here even if you have a mosquito net. You just get ill for a while, sometimes very ill. You feel dreadful. Then her grandmother had malaria straight after her, Then her mother. They’re all recovering or have recovered. It’s the annual competition for survival; will it be a mild illness this year or severe, even life-threatening?

Most of my friends here work for an NGO as ‘volunteers’ which means that they’re not covered by Zambian minimum wage. They get paid less than a dollar a day. They work up to 9 hour days but there are no other jobs in the area.

One positive note; I was invited by the Chief of this area to go to New year celebrations at his Palace. I was treated as an honoured guest and sat with him as The Nyau dancers (a secretive male sect) performed the ritual dance of ‘Gule Wamkulu’ accompanied by shouted vocals answered by singing from the girls of the community, and drumming to get deep under your skin. Awesome, powerful.

Happy new year to everyone.

Settled in at school

Seems ages since I posted. The fact is that I’m now living in a Welsh hilltop ashram and everyday life seems so far away. But we’re a busy place, established and run by a renowned Yoga Master, Swami Nishchalananda Saraswati, so there are courses and many people passing through. Many of them now know of Ketty and the community of friends in Eastern Zambia as I have a small poster up on our notice board, so the net of helpers spreads wider. Thanks again to all who have become involved in this lovely project.

Alice putting in hair extensions for Ketty to look cool at school

So to Ketty. My previous post was after we’d been to see her for the very first time at school. Her mum, Alice, sends me messages nearly every day via whatsapp (I gave her my old smartphone and use some of my contribution money to pay for airtime as she gets so little money from the NGO where she works. Like… none! right now).

are you leaving?

Anyway Ketty loves school. We left her, at the end of that previous post, hardly looking at us as we drove off, sad at us leaving, as we were at leaving her. Then she returned home for her first holiday… signing so fast that Alice couldn’t keep up. Her teacher says she’s little miss popular (of course); when she saw some of the young kids in the dorm didn’t have soft toys to cuddle as they went to sleep, she organised a rota to make sure everyone had one for a few nights a week, including in the rota her own little ‘Storm’, the husky dog I’d bought for her to soften her transition to boarding school.

signing ‘I love you’ to me during the school hols

I tell you, she’s special!!

So then back to school for her second term, and so happy to go back. Not that she’s had a bad time at home, her grandparents were so happy to see her as well as Alice and her friends in the compound. She was looking for me, even though we’d explained I was away until summer (our winter)… she was looking in the room at Tikondane, that NGO where I used to stay, just to check if I was hiding.

So my friends, I have to keep the dynamic going, year after year I will ask anyone who wants to share this delightful adventure to help me pay for the coming years of schooling. Just if you get pleasure from following this story and just if you get pleasure from knowing that you change the life not just of Ketty, but of her whole family. Why?

Because Ketty is also their pride and joy; when she’s happy and fulfilled, it brings sunshine into the lives of her family (Zambian families are very close and ‘organic’).

Alice, and her mum and dad, ask me to send their gratitude to all of you who have contributed.

I’m soon booking my trip out in December to take fees for Ketty’s second year of schooling. The first year was to learn sign language. Next year she will be starting an education proper, in that sign language, with both deaf and hearing teachers.

 

Love to all, Tony

Elephants and Flowers

Here’s a story I wrote, some of it sitting in camp as I was experiencing my first ever safari trip. I was doing volunteer stuff at an NGO in Eastern province Zambia, money was tight. When you see people around you with nothing, it’s kind of hard to play the white man and go off to an expensive safari lodge. But there’s one lodge that acknowledges what we’re trying to do and gives us cheap rates, and I split the fare to get there with some friends I’d made, so just after Christmas, four days of adventure.

Ketty
Ketty

Next time I really want to take Ketty. She’s seven (read about her here) and totally deaf, and a joy to be with. She’s so ‘visual’ because that’s her main sense, that I know it would blow her mind to see the animals that are actually the indigenous species of her own country. But like so many others, her family has no money for them to go 150 km and stay in places only the rich can afford. There’ll be a time my dear, you’ll see!



img_0776Drive east to Chipata then North, up into the hills. Vervet monkeys, intent on thieving from our bags when we arrive at reception; hippos doing their hippo thing in the shallows of the Luangwa river. I’m at Flatdogs Camp (take a dog, flatten it, et voila, you have a ‘flat dog’. Which is what they call a crocodile here.)

img_0579I spend an hour or so entranced by the hippos grunting loudly at each other, luxuriating in the cool water and mud, a stone’s throw from where I stand on the riverbank. A metre and a half of monitor lizard ambles past paying me scant attention. This place is different!

(Later in my stay, the guide tells me that most hippo communication is done under water, inaudible to us. So a whole sub-aqua gossip group all day long… ‘how was the grass last night?… sweet… I hear Hippolyta  is in calf again….’ etc etc.)

Lydia looks after me at dinner. Like all the Zambians I’ve met she’s friendly and open; happy to tell me about her life here. Apparently a bunch of elephants were in camp just before we arrived; that leads her into an elephant story.

img_0738Now, back in England if we have a garden or allotment we might get a bit annoyed when our vegetables get eaten by slugs and snails. Lydia’s garden gatecrashers were….. elephants. she tells me how she had a flower-growing field and a roadside flower stall at Mfuwe where she lives. The elephants visited that field on a nightly basis when her crop was blooming; seems they loved the fragrant munching on offer. Lydia would wake herself around 1 in the morning and, to the dismay of  her family and neighbours, beat a large drum for several hours in an attempt to scare them off. Alas to no avail. When an elephant is set in it’s course of action, dissuading it from that course is, needless to say, a major undertaking. Add in all it’s relatives and only a cataclysm, like the earth opening up, is likely to make them rethink their plan. So that flower business failed, but Lydia now has a good living at Flatdogs, ironically cashing in on those elephants!

The rains here, as in most of this part of Africa, have been late. The camp closes for two months soonimg_0706 because parts of it can be under water when the river floods. But this year, as last, the rains are insufficient to make that happen. Weather patterns are abnormal, again. Apparently it used to be that the rains could be predicted, almost to the day. Fields ready to plant, wildlife tuned in and ready. But these last years it’s been getting more and more random, delayed, insufficient rain to swell the rivers so they carry life giving flood waters down to the mighty Zambezi and it’s plains. Perhaps another example of a part of the world, which, with their simple-profound culture living much closer to the natural ways of Mother Earth, paying the price for the reckless refusal to tackle climate change by the so-called more ‘civilised’ countries. No apologies for any perceived political naivety.

I’m woken myself by noisy neighbours at 4.30 am. Ponderous pounding of large feet around the tent, heading for the river. Hippos, off to digest the night’s grazing. Apparently when a bunch of them are in the water they’re collectively called a ‘raft’ of hippos, because the little ones like to crowd surf across the backs of the big ones.

img_0596While I’m on that subject, what’s a group of zebras called? I asked Malama, the safari guide, what on earth kind of camouflage is psychedelic black and white zig zag stripes that make you feel like you ate the wrong kind of mushrooms for breakfast! He laughs and says, ‘I think you just got the point, Tony, look at the herd as they move around together. It’s totally confusing visually, for any predator also. Hard to perceive whether a group or one big scary animal best left alone’. Hence the group name ‘A dazzle of zebras’.

Dawn safari. I have few words, because what I see is hyper-real. Like stepping into a children’s pictureimg_0613 book. And you start to realise…. this is what our planet looks like, smells like, sounds like. Pristine. The dawn sounds of tropical birds, hippos snorting snuffling grunting loud! as we cross the Luangwa river into the img_0687reserve, crocs snaking through the water looking like they’re on devious and highly secretive missions, monkeys casually wandering out of our way; they know the road belongs to them, not the humans. A group of elephants appear out of the early morning haze. I have never before seen an elephant, except at a zoo. This is their world. I’m in paradise, quietly ecstatic at the privilege of just being here, being alive, breathing in the same air as these magnificent fellow travellers on this world of ours.

img_0602This is what will be destroyed by the uber-rich who run the planet to our detriment. But for now, look in wonder; the towering majesty of the giraffe, her liquid eyes languidly gazing back at me from her lofty altitude. The antelopes, I forget how many Malama tells me, Pukus and Impala the only ones I remember. (The Ulingana logo is an Impala that I saw, and took it’s picture, that first morning). The huge flapping ears, big as wings, as the elephants use the veins in the back of them to cool the blood. Whilst of course the Hippos have their mud, glorious mud, to cool theirs.

img_0658img_0719And the lions. Magnificent savage angels with green gold eyes. The first time I saw them, afternoon safari, we swung round into a dry river bed near the main river… and there they were. Crashed out in the sun, some of them lying on their backs like pussy cats, legs akimbo, sunning and snoozing. Why don’t they attack? Malama tells me that they appear to so completely not understand a vehicle with some humans in it, that it’s as if they don’t see us… well they do, img_0671because they look at us, but they don’t get it so they ignore us. But stand up in the vehicle, hang an arm or a leg out the side, and you become prey. Important information later as the lions get moving and are walking within a few feet of us, an occasional glance at us. Not disdain, they don’t do human emotion, more just the bald statement of a class A predator, ‘We’re the lions, don’t fuck with us’.

We go back as it’s getting dark. The lions are getting up. ‘Let’s eat’. We get included into a hunting circle. For an hour maybe, now in darkness interspersed with quick looks using the red light torch, we edge forward towards a herd of Impala. The light briefly picks out hundreds of gleaming eyes, all looking in our direction. A lioness just two or three feet from me, glances briefly, hunkered down on haunches. I think how she could launch herself from that position in an instant and be on us; an easy meal, it’s apparently happened very occasionally!

img_0680Hard to describe the building excitement, the tension. A flurry of activity off to the right. A lion on point has cut out a lone Impala and chased it into the waiting circle, no escape, it swerves away from one lion, straight into the jaws of another. Within seconds there’s a seething mass of lions, more coming to join the melée all the time. The Impala is soon torn to pieces, we’re just a few feet away from chomping, slavering crunching sound of powerful jaws making short work of the feast.

Ha. I’m congratulated by the others on my return. Why? They tell me some of them have been on safari a hundred times or more, and never seen lions kill. I breeze in and my first evening safari I get the action. For sure this is a poor attempt to describe the astonishing feeling of getting drawn straight into the heart of a wildlife documentary!!

We humans are tolerated by the other species here in Paradise. We should be duly humbled. Where is it at, hunters coming in with their high powered rifles and being so far away from what is reasonable, what is right, what is giving due reverence to the goddess, to nature, that they hunt and poach their way through the habitat of these precious creatures? Not only here but everywhere, we surely have to learn to tread lightly if we’re going to prove that we deserve a place on the same planet.

Cultures and Vultures

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Abstract: Has the concept of ‘working for a living’ become distorted away from our own best interests, without us realising. Rural Africa, which is regarded in the West as being third world, may have a far better cultural model.

 

Who wants to work!

Actually I do. Love doing stuff, creating, being productive.

The norm though, for many of us, is to work in a job because we have to. Usually working for someone else.

OK… back to first principles, what we need:

  1. Basic animal needs:     Food, shelter, a mate.
  2. Luxury items:                Happiness and the search for meaning.

Three years ago a review by Experian found that some 7 million working people in the UK were basically on the breadline. Middle class people as well as the lowest paid. The money they earned was just enough to keep their noses above the water; pay the mortgage, buy food, support a family. If they lose the job, it all goes down the pan; they’re applying for social housing and going to a food shelter for handouts. WOW.

So that’s no different from (1) above, in the neolithic era. Except those people were probably a lot scrooge-28854_1280closer to (2).

Of course there are people who are very content with their lot; according to Credit-Suisse, FIFTY PERCENT of the world’s wealth belongs to ONE PERCENT of people, and 97% of total wealth is held by 30% of people.

Swallow those numbers. That’s the whole planet. This is what Oxfam has to say re the UK, 7th richest country in the world.

Over 2 million people in the UK are estimated to be malnourished, and 3 million are at risk of becoming so.

36% of the UK population are one unexpected bill away from hardship.

1 in 6 parents have gone without food so their children get fed.

(http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/our-work/inequality/food-poverty)

entrepreneur-1428452_1280Most people are working for the benefit of the already very rich. If we want to play the game we have no option but to climb up the ladder as far as we can and cling tightly to whatever rung we’ve managed to reach.

This is the model of society that we’re brought up with, and assume to be the correct way to do things, even though it doesn’t work. Political alternatives are non-existent, most politicians are greedy for personal power and wealth. With some few, but great, exceptions.

My opinion is that Western society will implode. I don’t think it’s possible to change it simply because the people holding ALL power are the people in that top one percent. Then it occurred to me to look to a gentler model of how humans could co-exist, forget my roots, abandon ship in terms of hopes for a fairer society. It won’t happen in the West.


I experienced life in rural Eastern province, Zambia. This area, along with Malawi, Zimbabwe and big chunks of the immense DRC, is probably the poorest area of the world. Existence is hand to mouth in the purest sense of that phrase. People grow crops, and eat them. If the crops fail due to drought, there is no food. Most people have hardly any money. Cooking is done outdoors on a fire of sticks or charcoal. Water is from a communal well, or if you’re very lucky, borehole.

img_0792But, and here’s a big but…. there is something much more wholesome about life there. So am I advocating a return to some ‘primitive living’ model? No, I’m not advocating anything. I’m holding this out for inspection. There are not enough life support systems, but mostly because Zambia, like many African cultures, has been plundered. And is subjected to the same emulation of a failed model; some are very rich, most desperately poor.

I guess what I’m saying is that human culture and civilisation has a better chance of rising above dog-eat-dog in places like this, than in the West.

The West has too much to lose by changing.

In the poor countries, people rely more on friendship, cooperation, loving one’s sister or brother. And already, where I was staying, there are successful cooperatives being formed. This is probably a key factor in future developments in rural communities.

Cooperative groupings mean equitable sharing of roles in a business, but more than that. When you are working in a company which is squeezing as much as possible out of it’s workers for the profit of senior managers and shareholders, that culture often reflects down through the ranks as mistrust, a sense of performance-related unease, definitely a sense of inequality. That’s been my experience when I worked in big business. And that brings a lot of stress to everyone, another serious malaise within Western culture.

When you work together without pressure, the natural friendship of healthy human relationship is much more common. I see in myself, if I fall out with someone (I can be opinionated, aloof) it makes me unhappy. Which makes me stressed and unable to function. I saw far more smiles, gestures of affection, regard to a fellow human, in the very poor communities of Africa.

Ultimately what will save us as a species? Probably only global community. National boundaries are an invitation to falling out with the neighbours. And only when the nations start working together do we get close to agreements (e.g.climate change) which may save the planet, or at least, our species (the point being that once we’ve wiped ourselves out, the planet may recover). As a true global community we could learn to live with our planet rather than on it.

Imagine living in a society where artists, teachers, health workers are valued more highly than bankers and politicians. Now that would be something!

This is an opinionated piece, of course, and I welcome, indeed hope for, criticism and comment.

Saint Francis of Tiko

Two back-to-back 8 hour flights then a 7 hour drive, and I arrive at an NGO near Katete, Eastern province Zambia. Just before Christmas. I’m there to be a ‘volunteer’, though in truth I suspect I gained more than I gave. Tiko is a backpacker lodge but has many local people working there to maintain the lodge, tend the gardens, feed any visitors.

Here a short story I wrote when I’d had time to relax into the welcoming embrace of the people who became my friends, who nurtured me with warmth and laughter. A culture where people greet you in the morning while holding your hand and looking you in the eyes. A culture where I plan to spend a lot more of my remaining life.

IMG_0565IMG_1057The centre of the lodge is the Verandah, tin roof, walls coming up to about four feet on every side, then open to the air. This is where you can work if you’ve got some paperwork to do, or sit & read, or plan the treehouse we’re making for the kids, eat lunch or evening meal, meet any visitors passing through, watch lightning displays at night. And most important, talk to people, get to know them, and they me. Become friends. Cement friendships. Slowly realise how much I grow to love them. (The housekeeper, Alice, who’s in this first story, is the mother of Ketty, my lovely little deaf friend who I sponsor through specialist school – see that project on Ulingana.)

So I give you a flavour, the mood, in which my stories were written. I hope you enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed writing, sitting there on Verandah, or sitting on the ground under bougainvillea blossoms while the seamstress sits next to me making tiko souvenirs for the occasional tourist that’s breaking their long journey between Victoria Falls and the safari parks, venturing for a brief moment into the Zambia that’s not in the brochures.

*******************

Saint Francis of Tiko

I’ve stopped regarding the christmas decorations as anything out of the ordinary. Hanging motionless in the heat shimmer of midday 40 degrees. We’re all languid in this heat, slow walking as if we’re the funeral procession for the chicken that Agnes carries in by one wing, resignation to it’s impending execution in it’s one visible eye.

Ruth
Ruth

At the other end of the chicken spectrum, Ruth makes me an omelette for my lunch. It’s the best I’ve ever tasted; today-fresh ingredients but the magic ingredient is her smile. A few weeks back, before I arrived here, some Americans were staying. By all accounts they were caricature tourist Americans. Hard to believe such a species would roll up in these parts but there you are. Very overweight, a bit loud etc. They decide to go up to Mfuwe to visit the game park at South Luangwa, a couple of hours drive so they’re making a weekend of it. The safari lodge where they’re staying has some self-catering accommodation so they want to take food with them as they’ve enjoyed the mountains-of-eggs-with-everything breakfasts that the kitchen staff happily provided for the amply waist-lined. And so, the morning of their departure, they tell Ruth, ‘We’ll have 4 trays of eggs’. A tray contains 30 eggs, so that’s 120 in total. Ruth responds, her eyes on the copious girth in front of her, ‘Do you want your eggs fried, or boiled’. Her mind is a book I cannot read so I make no guess as to her guile, or lack of it!


Chef
Chef

Ruth and Edison (chef) run a pretty amazing operation, a tight ship, when it comes to the kitchen. Cooking in the villages is done on open fires outside (under a shelter in the rainy season). At the lodge there are several charcoal braziers, on which I’ve seen them cook dinner for about thirty or forty people! When I get to know them better, they let me into their domain, the courtyard behind verandah where those braziers sit under the lean-to tin roof, and I cook alongside them a few times, always accompanied by laughter. Laughter at little things. Also they laugh at my strange ways, my muzungu ways, but it’s with the affection that a grown-up would have for a child learning their ways and customs. And I laugh with them for pleasure of basking in their warm good humour.


IMG_0807 Let the rains come soon! This heat saps the strength and dries the land to a powdery dust that gets everywhere. But there’s water in the borehole; enough so that every morning before the heat becomes too brutal, we can water the germinating seeds and already growing vegetables. Except this morning. Zambian electricity is a random thing; trying to win us over by the ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ principle. So without the borehole pump to feed the taps we must wind up buckets from the wells over and over until the shallower ones start to run dry. I’ve taken on my own bit of garden where I experiment with high protein crops; lentils, quinoa, plus some other veggies and even some honeydew melons. If we could get quinoa to grow, it would be a great way of providing balanced protein to the carb-heavy diet here. I’m learning how to use the traditional hoe to dig the beds I need for planting. It’s hard work, and only increases my respect for the women who do a day’s work at the lodge, then go and cultivate their fields in the evening.


Does everything happen for a reason? I am lent a book by an Italian poet; stories of St Francis of Assisi. He has a dream, where a great Lady appears to him and somehow he realises that she has a mission for him, for his life. He is the son of a nobleman, but in his heart he knows his destiny lies elsewhere. The lady of his dream he realises is Lady Poverty; she is the symbol of the paradoxes that Francis reads in the Gospels. Richness in poverty, life in death, strength in weakness. These people live as if such a Lady is their Patron Saint. I give the book to Ruth to read when I’ve finished it. She, like everyone here, knows I’m not a christian, but they understand that I know, as do they, that we are all tied by the thread of common humanity, and the love that is the nature of that common thread. They are amused, then intrigued and full of questions, at the sight of me doing early morning yoga and meditation on the secluded ‘blue lizard terrace’.


Alice
Alice

Alice can’t plant her groundnuts, maize and cassava. The ground is too dry. It’s God’s will if the rains are too scanty this year. It will be God’s will that they all grow hungry. Not rumbling belly hungry, but malnutrition hungry. Stunted children hungry. Brains that lack the nutrition to imagine a way out of grinding poverty hungry. I think Alice doesn’t function on the same level of blind faith as many here. There’s a fierceness about her I love and admire. She looks like she’s ready to go upstairs and beat on some rain-god heads if they don’t get their act together.

Some five minutes after our conversation, it comes. A deluge. Crashing immense noise; millions of tons of water hurled downwards by those demented rain gods. Thunderous crescendos threatening to burst through the tin roof; sense of hearing at saturation point. The trucks hammering along the Great East Road between Malawi and Lusaka raise plumes of water fit to drown the cyclists and pedestrians that are the highway’s constant companions. Except that they’ve all disappeared; diving for cover to avoid a drenched battering from the elements.

Happy planting Alice.