Sunday, March 2, 2008

In Lusaka, Zambia.

Thursday 28 February 2008

I want to try and give you, the reader, an on the ground taste of what living, and training, is like in Lusaka, Zambia.

Morning is cool and full of cock-a-doodle-dos from the roosters next door. I grab a shirt, shorts and socks from the clothesline on the porch out front, slip on my runners, and start my morning run. By 6:15 AM the streets are already lined with Zambians going to work, or to school.

At the hostel there is a clean, well-tiled shower waiting for me when I return hot and sweaty. Breakfast is usually buns bought from a vendor nearby. To these we add mango jam and groundnut (peanut) butter, and order tea from the hostel kitchen. Breakfast is ate on the porch underneath the clothesline.

Our first session of the day is a language lesson from Brett Stevenson, co-Director of Southern Africa programs. She speaks functional Chichewa, and I don’t, so I pay close attention.

By noon we’ll have been through a session on value-chain analysis, or cross-cultural communication, and have received our marching orders for the afternoon. To give you an idea, today we were sent out on orders to gather information on the Zambian maize value chain, understand the key value chain interconnections, and return in time to draft a pair of interventions to improve the livelihoods of the maize market sellers of downtown Lusaka. It’s not a nice, neat assignment, but today we struck on a pair of good Zambian leads and had constructed a plan for a maize commodity exchange by suppertime.

Supper is nshima. It’s the staple food of Zambia: maize, milled to become “mealie-meal,” mixed with boiled water into a paste thicker and hotter than Thanksgiving mash potatoes. It’s served with a “relish,” which is a sauce and your choice of chicken, fish, beans, or anything else that might be on the menu. Grab it with your right hand, roll it in a ball, dip it in your relish, and dig in. Zambians eat it for breakfast, lunch and supper, but for this muzungu (white person), one meal of nshima fills me up for the entire day.

Once the sun sets, the mosquitoes come out, so spray profusely. We talk development, write blog entries, watch a football match over a beer at the bar, or just pack it in early.

At the end of the day, lying in bed under just a sheet, the question in my head is “just what on earth are we doing here?” But here is where we are, working side-by-side people we trust and admire, trying to solve tough problems, in a culture that’s full of warmth and hope. So instead I ask myself “why would we want to be anywhere else?”

It’s a pretty wonderful thing to live and work in south Africa. Even with the morning roosters.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


We all made it just fine, and all in one piece.

(Ok, five different, human-sized and shaped pieces.)

Late on Friday night, packed into a van cab that still contained a dozen balloons from an earlier birthday party drop off, the five of us—Ashley, Hans, Mark, Megan, and I—made our way to Pearson airport. We stopped just before check-in to unpack and repack mosquito nets, strong sunscreen, and malaria meds to meet luggage weight restrictions and security fluid rules. No one lost a Swiss Army knife, or a canister of bug spray going through security (though I did receive the extra attention of a random search—ah, those friendly airport folks).

Twelve hours later (six for the time change, six for the flight) we were out roaming the bicycled streets of Amsterdam. Yes, we checked out a few coffee shops. No, Mom, I didn’t light up (though, that’s not to say the ambient smoke didn’t have an effect). Through no fault of our own, we found ourselves in the red light district. (My inkling is that every street originating from the train station we arrived at eventually funnels into it.) We took our time finding our way out. After lunch, we found a coffee shop that sold actual coffee, where we found an incomplete set of Jenga blocks and played a couple of intense rounds before making our way back to the airport to be early for our connection.

It was on Kenya Airways that we arrived in Nairobi. It was likely the point at which things became noticeably different: Hans pointing out Mt. Kenya, an all-African flight crew, African patterned upholstery, and a continuously updated on-screen map of our plane passing over the Mediterranean, then Tunisia, then the Sahara desert and even further on south. (Could it really be? Was that pixilated airplane really us?) We touched down (not so smoothly), taxied, and then sat in a humid, but not too hot, terminal waiting a little over an hour for our final connection.

After leaving Toronto late Friday night, we arrive mid-morning Sunday in Lusaka, Zambia: our final destination. The five of us ask a passing Kiwi to document our successful arrival on the tarmac of Zambian International Airport. Next is the visa line. I realized then why the passengers were in such a rush to exit the plane: the line, even divided into fourths (one each for Zambians, government and VIPs, some NGO with a particular four-letter acronym, and visitors—us) is excruciatingly long. After successfully attaining semi-legitimate holiday visas, we found the luggage carousel to hold all of our bags, save one: Ashley’s jam-packed, navy backpack. And so, finally, after notifying the airport baggage claim, we found our welcoming party, Monica Rucki, still so patiently waiting to pick us up, loaded our bags into a pair of taxis, and we drove, past the parking gate, past maize fields, past people on foot and on bike, farther and farther away from anything we had known before.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Why I did it.

A number of people have asked why I decided to work with Engineers Without Borders, and perhaps why I even submitted an application in the first place. Memory is a funny thing to me, and I don’t know if the reasons that I have in my head today for wanting to work with EWB are anything like those that I had in February, 2007 in the weeks before I applied.

In an attempt to go straight to the source, here is the first question of the original EWB application and my response. I’ve felt the desire to edit it before I posted it (mostly to cut out particular flowery bits), but resisted. So here it is in original form.

1. Describe why I am passionate about international development and describe how this interest came about.

At night, when the stars are out, I find myself with the thought, why do I live here in Edmonton, Alberta and not in Nancy, France, or Calcutta, India, or Abidjan, Côte D’Ivoire? Where I was born and raised was never up to me to decide. But regardless of why I live in Alberta, the context and surrounding of this province has shaped and molded who I am. As I reflect on where I live, I find that there is another part of me that transcends my surroundings and connects to every other person in every different context on this planet. For me, it’s from this understanding of the fundamental interconnectedness of the human race that my passion for international development grows.

This passion has emerged slowly in different areas of my life. During my time at university, and even before, I have had the great fortune of knowing a number of very wise mentors. These mentors have been friends, professors, business people, and acquaintances, and they all have stretched my own understanding of the world and of my role in it. My desire to be involved in international development didn’t spring up at a particular moment. Instead it has been the outcome of months and years of activity, of reflection, of questioning, and of discussing the important problems of the world with these mentors who have passed in and out of my life.

I’ve also found myself faced with very heady challenges, most particularly last year as President of the Students’ Union here at the University of Alberta. In that role, I found myself on the receiving end of failure time and again. Past challenges, and especially past failures, have given me a chance to admit that I don’t have all the answers, that I am error prone, that I am more ignorant than understanding of the world around me. Realizing this has been a great starting point for a new journey of learning and growth. It has made me question what I think is worthwhile to pursue, and has brought me to a desire to give the simple abilities that I have to the service of people most in need. In short, it has led me to want to be involved in international development.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Toronto rain

It's raining in Toronto right now.

It's a light misty rain. The kind of rain in which you can see the column of the CN Tower, but not the bulbous observation deck and certainly not the spire. The kind of rain that cools your face, refreshing you. The kind of rain that doesn't get you wet, but does get your toes wet since the tips of your shoes kick up drops of water from curbside puddles.

I have three stories to tell. They're actually all the same story, just told from different locations, times and perspectives. They are not all my stories, but in a way all stories are my stories too once I've heard them or read them.

A man breaks up with his girlfriend of a long time. This is never easy since feelings never flow only in one direction. But he's done it, and feels it is the best decision he could make hard as it may be. Though the pain is raw he won't intellectualize the pain. He won't describe and categorize and sort and file the pain. Instead he sits beside the pain, camps out next to it, just to be with it and, maybe, someday, to let it go.

A woman moves to the big city to work with refugees arriving from all over the world. The refugees are claimants, their future not yet secure in their new home. Asked what her work is, what services she provides to the refugees, she has little to say. There isn't really lots of things to do other than certain administrative, bureaucratic tasks, she says. Mostly I am simply here with them, here to sit beside them as they tell their stories, here to be with them in their frustrations and tears and laughter and small celebrations.

Two men, one in from out of town for a visit, arrive at a small lake by car. As they start their walk in the fresh air the older man asks the younger man if, next time, he would not slam his car door shut. Of course. They talk, and stroll, and get back in the car and drive home. Before they re-enter the small apartment the older man says that, while he knows the younger man doesn't realize it, he had slammed the car door again. Sorry.

Little over a year later, sitting on a quiet park bench, the younger man realizes what the older man was talking about. He writes an email to his friend telling him so.

In Alberta it doesn't often rain like this. Maybe it's a function of the nearby lake, or maybe the natural humidity. It certainly doesn't rain like this in January.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Back in Akwaaba House.

The conference is over, and we've made the drive back to our Toronto halfway home: Akwaaba House, 12 Treford Place, a bit south of College.

Yesterday was floor polish and elbow grease. We took this place apart and put it back together piece by piece. What was two days ago a highly lived house where you might hang your hat for a time now feels a bit more like home. The process from 'house' to 'home' was captured brilliantly via the time lapse feature of Nick Jimenez's digital camera. Watching five hours of hard work played out over fifteen minutes of sped up footage might seem belittling, but it was a bit of a rush seeing how things all came together.

At the same time, I think we all came together.

Life at home in Akwaaba House is like bunking with your friends every day at summer camp. We are all fast becoming friends and having a good laugh together as we learn each others' idiosyncrasies. As always, everyone washes the dishes differently: some wash a lot, then rinse, some rinse as they go, some pre-rinse, other over-sud. Nick had never seen milk in a bag before (I was only spared this shock by living in Michigan for two early childhood years) and poured the milk into the jug instead of adding the bag and snipping the corner. Everyone peels oranges differently.

I've never lived with so many other people who love what they do, love the work they've chosen, read so much, work so hard, and are generally such a cheery, immediately likable lot.