Thursday, 16 August 2012

Fear Factory

I haven't written for a few days because things have been so busy.

But in the last week I have found one tiny window of time to learn a lesson about fear.

I was walking back to my room in the evening the other day and a huge grasshopper, at least the length of my iphone, jumped on my face.

Oh my god, the fear that gripped me was so intense. It was fleeting, but still so, so intense.

Same thing when there was a spider on my wall in my room. The word that best explains how I feel when I see a spider is 'terror'. Utter terror. The hairs on my arms stand up, my chin wobbles, I scream - all these things and more. Its an ordeal.

So, anyway, the grasshopper incident made me think about this a little bit more deeply than normal. What is it that I'm scared of? Is it the crawly little legs? Ew. Horrible, but not exactly terrifying. The eyes? Nope. Beady and alien looking, but not terrifying. The fact that they could kill you? Well grasshoppers, no, spiders maybe but highly unlikely. So the answer to that question is basically no. So what? I can't define it and that makes me feel quite pathetic.

I went out with a new friend for a drink the other night and he was telling me this story about how he got mugged. It was so full on. People dragged him out of his car with guns and lay him on the floor and beat him. They stamped on his head and kicked his face. They left him for dead, took all his money and his car and left him with psychological scars as well as physical ones.

Now if that had happened to me I wouldn't ever be in a car on my own again. I wouldn't be able to walk in the street without suspecting everyone of murderous intent, in fact I probably wouldn't be able to even walk down a street without some difficulty. That incident would decide how I live my life.

But not this guy. He wasn't dismissive of what had happened, he was cautious with his actions as a result, but it didn't stop him doing anything freely and without a problem. In short, he was able to isolate the incident as just an incident. His attitude was brave and courageous. He was explaining his thoughts while it was happening and I was amazed at how someone could be so rational and reasonable with their thoughts whilst going through something like that.

Unfortunately for me, this guy was the one and only witness to my pathetic display of irrational fear when the grasshopper came and landed on my face.

And I felt pathetic.

However, I made a vow to myself then and there to try my hardest to be more brave and more courageous.

So, yeah. Thats my story. Thats my lesson. The end.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

And so the revelation comes....

When I haven't blogged for a few days it feels like there's loads to say, but no order to it. A jumble in my head that is chomping at the bit to get out.

And then when it comes to writing there's this blank. Such a weird feeling having so many thoughts but losing the power of articulation.

So that's my pre-emptive apology for a bunch of weirdo ramblings. Here goes....

When I was 18 and in Uganda I saw someone get murdered.

It was deliberate that I saw it, some people with sick senses of humour were enjoying scaring me and laughing at me.

Lots of other things happened, and most of the people reading this are my friends and already know, so I won't bore you with the details. But this one image from that day has been in my head for 13 years. That event has dictated so much of my behaviours and my life. It made me fear everyone and everything. And I've really struggled over the years to not let that fear hinder me in my ventures and travels. Although I've been really scared so many times I've tried to push through fear and do things anyway. But its hard and its been hard to be open to my loved ones because they worry and seeing as I travel so much I don't want to worry them with things like that.

Anyway, being in Africa without anyone and on my lonesome was a really big deal for me. I know its only a few months, but the reason for the blog, for my nerves, for the 'bigness' of this trip in my head is because I was so terrified of something going wrong like it did last time.

So some of my personal development targets for this trip were about resolving these things in my head, put them somewhere that wouldn't burden me anymore. Lay it all to rest in a way that pysch doctors haven't been able to do.

But when I arrived I got scared that it wouldn't happen that way because the workload in the job is a lot, the novelty of being somewhere new was distracting and I was meeting lots of people and asking lots of questions instead of focussing on myself.

And then the weirdest thing happened.

Now, I'm completely agnostic, but it was almost weird enough for me to become a charismatic evangelical overnight. Almost.

A person who I knew in Uganda, who I lost contact with as soon as I left, but who I had a good relationship with and who was possibly the only person in the whole world who could give me some perspective on this, emailed me. After 13 years. So randomly and out of the blue - he emailed me at exactly the time I was thinking about him and I was able to spill out my stories of all the things that happened and the real reason I left Uganda early and didn't come back.

And you know what he said? He said - that was a long time ago and you're still alive.

Nothing more than that. He listened to me and he understood perfectly about fear. He told me about things he'd been through which were ten times worse, but about my story he said all he could say in a sentence. He couldn't turn back time, he couldn't bring back any dead people and he couldn't change anything. So all he could really say was 'sorry about that, thats horrible, but move on now, yeah?'.

And my head changed. It was a lightbulb moment. Everything just clicked into place and I changed. It really feels different now.

And I don't think he'll ever know what he's done for me.

And, yeah, so anyway, then that got me thinking about Carl Jung and synchronisity. I can't tell you exactly what it made me think because I'm not intelligent enough to critique theories of analytical psychology with a bit of esoteric mixed in, but I paid him heed in my mind.

Weird how things happen. And weird how I can write a whole page of a blog telling you how I don't really understand them....

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Jibber Jabber

Before I came to Zambia I had a meal with some of my friends in pizzaexpress to say 'ciao'.

My lovely friend Gareth Bickerton - (I used to think of him as a funder because he works for UnLtd, but in reality he's just a really nice bloke who has become a friend) popped along. Not for pizza, just to say hello and goodbye at the same time. When he passed by we had a conversation about my blog. I can't remember the exact conversation because I was tipsy already, but he said something along the lines of 'when are you going to write you first drunk blog?'

Gareth, today marks a momentous day.

I had to come to Lusaka to renew my visa, see someone, somewhere about something, (can't remember) and hopefully get a massage for the car crash injuries that are still causing me f**k loads of pain.

The plan was to get to my hotel in the evening and catch up on all of the sleep I've been missing because of the neck pain and the local mosque call to prayer that wakes me up at 5am every morning.

However, that plan quickly turned into seven beers in the hotel bar.

But it was amazing, though because I only paid for one. There was a few people in there and one of them kept sending drinks over to my table, which was amazing!  Now, I'm sure the etiquette is to figure out who it is, go and say hello, chit chat, exchange numbers, blah, blah, blah...But I just drank all the beers and then left without saying goodbye. Is that bad?

Anyway. That's the situation.

Apart from that, and in terms of the trip - I went to a meeting absolutely out in the far away sticks yesterday. Probably the most remotest I've been for a long time, and it was amazing. The meeting was great, the drive there was bumpy but amazing, the mountains were amazing, the sunset was amazing, the welcome was amazing, the everything was amazing.

I feel so, completely happy here. And it's amazing. But I have a tiny little feeling that I might have a bit of a headache tomorrow, which won't be that amazing.....

THE END (of my first drunk blog)

Monday, 6 August 2012


I'm in my room looking out of my window and there's this tree directly in my line of vision thats really tall and bears these fruits that are crazy looking. They look like green dreadlocks.

I have no idea what they are, but it doesn't surprise me that there is some crazy exotic fruit in the garden. Also in the garden there are mango trees, olive bushes, pawpaw trees, tangerine trees, cashew nut trees, avacado trees, banana trees, some weird nut thing that I've never heard of trees and pineapple trees.

All that in a garden. You would never have to go to Morrisons ever again, would you?

The other thing that is so beautiful here is the host of sounds that you hear when you stop and listen. So as I write this I can hear birds. They're so loud and full of life and they don't stop until sunset, which is normal for any country, but there are so many here. And I guess because the sound of traffic isn't deafening like at home you can hear every sound they make.

I can also hear distant music, and it doesn't even matter that I've heard this song over and over again since I've been here. It's happy music and it lifts people's spirits. I can hear laughing and joking between people out in the compound. And that's something that I don't go an hour without hearing - laughing, joking, excited voices, happy people.

I can hear sweeping brushes. That may sound silly, but its a really common sound, here. People sweeping their compounds and the front of their houses constantly! I'm not sure that really makes any sense because Zambia is the sandiest, dustiest place I've been to for a long time and as soon as you stop sweeping there's a breeze, a car or an animal that will take you back to square one again. But each to their own....

Maybe its worth mentioning what I can't hear, too. I can't hear traffic. I can't hear planes. I can't hear people's mobile phones going off every two minutes or people's frustrated fingers tapping a laptop or an ipad. It's wonderful.

And at night the sound of the insects, cicadas mainly, is so loud its crazy! But its beautiful and exotic and exciting.

And to compliment all the amazing sounds of Zambia are the colours. People wear colours that are as bright as their smiles. Patterns of every style, and colours that you would normally think clash but here are boldly and confidently worn. And the sky is bright blue. The sun is golden in the day and red in the evening. The sand is dusky and orange, the buildings are white or blue or pink and the smiles are the faces on people as they walk by are shining with warmth and happiness.

And that's what I wake up to every morning. It can't help but make you smile. It can't help but put a spring in your step when you walk to work, and it's helping me put as much energy and dedication into my job as I can. And above all, it's making me feel so lucky to be here, learning, experiencing and soaking it all up like a very, very colourful sponge.


Friday, 3 August 2012

Chilling with Chiefs

Today I had my first proper meeting with a chief. I met His Royal Highness Chief Ufwenuka at his home in a village about 45mins away from my own.

The land issue is so, so complicated here with so many different perspectives added to the mix and I'm trying to meet all those involved in the different arguments so I can get a clear picture of what's going on and thus put my best efforts into contributing something useful here.

Although its complicated I'm going to really try to sum it up in as objective a way as I can.

  • British colonial powers f**ked everything up (again) and now there's loads of land disputes.
  • Gender inequality adds to those disputes.
 Did I say objective? I meant angry.

So briefly when Zambia was a British colony the colonialists distributed land as they saw fit, even though the traditional tenure system in place meant that local people knew who already owned what, most of which had been in a clan or family for generations. When Zambia gained Independence in 1964 the new government that the British handed over to had to basically deal with two systems, the traditional one and the one that the British had introduced. Anyway, the government sorted a legal system to deal with state land, which is the good, fertile best land that the British took for themselves and then gave to the Zambian government, but they didn't sort a legal system to deal with customary land, which is the stuff that is owned by the people.

Customary land is traditionally held by chiefs and distributed to the people via village headmen. However, some corrupt district, provincial and government authorities have been trading customary land that isn't theirs and displacing people. Some chiefs who are corrupt have been selling inhabited land to government or district, urban folk without permission, again displacing people and also some corrupt headmen have been selling occupied land to international companies who want to build mines to feed the greedy self interest of their capitalist country.

Did I say brief? I meant ranty and long winded.

So anyway, back to HRH Chief Ufwenuka, (who incidentally you have to bow to and clap your hands three times when you meet him, something I was told AFTER I met him...). I was quite scared of him before I'd even seen him. I don't know which chiefs are the baddies and which ones are the goodies. I don't know which ones think women are pieces of meat or which ones want to see them as equals. It's all a bit confusing. Especially because I met a baddie headman the other day, but my judgemental side, (before I knew he was a baddie) screamed 'cute old man who I want to hug' at me. I didn't want to get it wrong again because I want to know what's what.

Anyway, back again from another transgression, to HRH CU. He was so beautiful. When I walked in, after tripping over the dog infront of everyone, I couldn't stop staring at him. He was captivating and charming. He talked with such sincerity about equality and justice, and he had this air of calm about him. I couldn't tell you how old he was, but old enough to have white hair, walking sticks and fairly advanced looking arthritis in his hands. As the most powerful person in his chiefdom, I thought he might not take kindly to suggestions about tenure systems in his jurisdiction, but my boss sat with him for a long time discussing ideas and he openly invited mine, too.

So today I've not only learned about different perspectives in the land rights argument, but I've definitely had another lesson about judgements. I never cease to amazing myself with the judgements that I have, even though I'm well travelled and consider myself open minded and culturally sensitive. I still judge and get it wrong constantly. Thanks to Chief U, I have been humbled.

I had two topics in my head to talk about in my blog this evening, but this one is already looking a bit lengthy so I'll perhaps save the other one for another time, but if I forget, can you mention the word 'sound' to me and then I'll remember what I want to write about.

Fank ewe!


Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Serious stuff again....

Polygamy. Discuss.

I am really, really interested in finding out people's thoughts on this because I'm confused.

Before I came here I didn't know that many of Zambia's ethnic groups are traditionally polygamous and that its a practice still very common today. It's perfectly legal here, in fact when I was discussing marriage with a local lady yesterday she couldn't believe that in the U.K. it wasn't legal.

On the one hand I am absolutely committed in my work life and my personal ethics to preserving and respecting culture and tradition as a way of empowering a sense of identity in people. I think that self identity is particularly important when material wealth and poverty is high - people might not have much, but they have a confidence in themselves, a feeling of foundation and pride in who they are, and that of course is inherently linked with the traditional culture that one comes from.

But there are several problems with polygamy here. Firstly, men can have several wives, but women can't have several husbands, so needless to say equality suffers. This is an explicit gender inequality, which ultimately affects the ability to empower and in turn has subsequent consequences in terms of poverty.

I met these women the other day at a community meeting on gender empowerment and land rights. 

They were amazing. They were intelligent, kind, bold and charismatic and each had something to say about the positive development of their community. But many of them hadn't been 'allowed' by their husbands to voice their opinions at home, in public or in the presence of any members of the traditional leadership, (e.g. chiefs). Why? Because they are women.

One woman I talked to was a widow. Her right to speak her mind about what happened to her assets, her children, her life on her husbands death was taken away from her by her late husband's family and she was at their mercy in terms of how to survive. This strong, funny, courageous woman felt that her dignity was stripped and her future uncertain by virtue of the fact that she was born female. 

But when I talked to her about being a Zambian she was proud. She wanted to welcome me to the 'real Africa' as she called it. She wanted me to share her experiences of her beautiful country and culture. Which is polygamous and explicitly gender biased. So what to do?

The second problem is that HIV and Aids is such a huge contributor to poverty issues in Sub Saharan Africa, as well as other sexually transmitted diseases and infections, and transmission rates are significantly attributable to high numbers of sexual partners. So polygamy, for all its cultural weight, can be dangerous.

The first thing I learned in university when I was studying International Development was don't always trust statistics. I've never really paid a huge amount of attention to that until coming here, but I see why my lecturer was so keen on this lesson now. Currently Zambian HIV/Aids rate stands at around 16%, but we know that because those 16% were tested. Most of these women hadn't been tested. They don't know their status. For that reason I suspect that the real statistics are much higher.

Same as gender based violence. You might not be able to see it in the picture, but several of these women had suspicious looking bruises or marks on their faces or arms. One of the women told me that she fell off a step. Her friend told me she was beaten by her husband. By my reckoning the story tells me that she's too embarrassed to report it or she's in denial. Or maybe she thinks its her husband's right to beat her, as many women do. One of the others even told me that it was an expression of love.

Obviously polygamy and gender inequality aren't perfectly synonomous, but I have started to believe that they have a profound effect on each other and that it is very rare you would witness polygamy without the subordination or oppression of women.

I do, however, question whether or not its my place to mention these issues in the context of my job here and what I'm doing, which is ultimately a poverty reduction role. Am I in a position to challenge cultural heritage to satisfy my inevitable westerncentricism? Can I legitimately and morally attempt to influence deep-set behavioural patterns that are not in my realm of experience, or necessarily my understanding?

I can't quite figure it out in my head.

So, polygamy. Discuss.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Massive brag alert!

In Mongolia I galloped, full pelt, across these vast, open and endless plains. Well, not me, the horse did the galloping. It would be pretty funny if it was just me. Wind in my hair, making 'clip clop' sounds with my teeth.

Anyway, the point is that that was a time when I experienced absolute freedom. Exhilaration, happiness, joy and just utter, utter freedom.

I was with this nomadic family and the dad took me out for a ride and showed me a bit of Mongolia. I told him I could ride (because all Mongolians can ride horses like experts and I didn't want to let him down). I had done a few novice excursions with ponies as a kid. It was amusing. Their technique is so different to Western riding technique. I felt like I was in a Ghengis Khan movie. I know he didn't make movies - I mean a film about Ghengis Khan.

After we galloped, we climbed a rock, well it was more a cliff, and we ended up stumbling upon this tiny, tiny little monastry that some hermit monk looked after. It was only one little room. We spent some time looking at the prayer wheel inside and I learned about some of the different buddhas.

After the ride, we went home to the ger, (the big felt tents that Mongolians live in) and ate yak and drank salted, butter milk, (bleurgh). We talked. Mostly about the toilet because that was the only word in Mongolian I could say at the time. 

The whole experience was special. Really, really special. Life changing and deeply moving.

I never thought that I would be lucky enough to have that experience even once in my life, but yesterday something happened that made me feel almost identical.

When I came to Zambia, I knew that on my weekends off work I wanted to try and do some excursions because there's a trillion things to do here if you love nature and you don't mind getting dirty. So this weekend I chose Lochinvar. It's a national park famous for its birds, and as I'm sure you know by now I love birds.

I was so excited! Me and some work friends, Charles and Hakalima, hired a four by four and drove for about an hour and half to the place, which is quite close by Zambian standards. Charles and I rode in the back of the truck so we could feel the wind in our hair and the dust from the road in our lungs.

The drive was exciting enough. Just so many sights on the way. And at one point I thought it could have been Mars because everything was so red from the dust of the road.

When we got there it was instantly amazing. I saw so many birds. Amazing ones. Ones I'd never have thought I would see in my life. I wrote a list of the ones I saw, but I'll send that to you individuals on request because I know its not everyone's thing.....

At some point during our drive around the areas we made a decision, with the ranger at our side, to fully off road and go on a mission. And then all of a sudden I was in the Africa that you see on David Attenborough programmes. Long, yellow grass, the occasional windswept tree, plains and plains of just incredible landscape. We drove, seemingly with no destination, but fast, which was exciting and adventurous. Then all of a sudden, from nowhere beside us and thundering past were hundreds and hundreds of Zebra.

They were so beautiful. And just doing what they do. Running, stopping to eat, feeding their young, running some more. And their line was broken up by the occassional wilderbeest. I felt so priviliged. So lucky and so free to hear them running besides us, like it was a race.

The day went on and was punctuated by sightings of impala, oribi, Kafue lechwe, common duiker, (no I'd never heard of them, either) and thousands of birds.

As the day was closing I was buzzing. And then - the icing on the cake. We had slowed to find a path to follow back to the main roads and we came to a near halt by this black rock. After a pause the rock opened its wings and flapped them and, oh my word, this bird was the biggest thing I've ever seen in my life! It was absolutely stunning! I guessed the span from wing to wing to be about four metres!!! It was enormous! It turns out it was a martial eagle. The biggest eagle in Africa and my estimation was right - these things can grow!

Amazingly it flew up to a tree and perched on this branch that was basically a twig. How do they do that? When I sit on a plastic chair I can't give it all of my weight.

Anyway. There was more, there was the boabab tree and the hot springs, the fishermen's wives, the hollow rock that ancient people used as a drum to respect their ancestors, savannah, woodland, etc, etc.

I am so lucky. I am so unbelievable lucky that I don't know how to thank life. It is good to me. And nothing is wasted on me. I love these experiences.

But I want to share them! So I humbly invite you all to Zambia for next weekend's excursion - Malawi! Coming?