Sunday, August 5, 2007

Thoughts from the field

From the past post we saw that in Zambia, as in many African countries in the push for industrialization, agriculture was a second priority. Throughout the 70s and 80s, Africa was the only continent that experienced a net decline in agricultural productivity. I mentioned before that agriculture plays a large role in Zambian life. But that’s really an understatement on many levels. 80% of the population is in some way engaged in farming activities (yet agriculture makes up less than 15 % of GDP). Of that 80%, about 60% are small holders (holding less than 3-4 hectares) or small-scale farmers. Who are these small holder farmers who play such an integral role in this society anyway?

They are individuals who I ultimately work for and with here so I’d like to give you a decent introduction to them and a description that goes beyond maximum acreage.

Introducing a group of women farmers to the program. Please note that I've just personified a farmer as male for ease of writing.

Long ago, before the introduction of agrochemicals (like fungicides, herbicides, insecticides) and fertilizers that boosted yields, hybrid and mixed seed varieties that resisted disease and draught with shorter growing cycles (and could do back flips and walk your dog for you), farmers harvested smaller yields and there was little to no talk of input handouts or commercial markets.

Then, fertilizers were introduced. Zambia, a strongly socialist country, started supplying farming inputs through a heavily subsidized program for both fertilizer* and maize seed** (where 60% of a bag of fertilizer is paid for by government). Farmers became dependent on these handouts, yet as the seasons passed, government support programs fluctuated and floundered. Sometimes inputs did not come on time and farmers missed the first opportunity to plant.

Maize and cotton, the major crops, are rain-fed. So timing is crucial. If a farmer delays a month in planting and misses the rains, say the oxen he has hired to plow the land is late, he losses half of his yield.

Other times, inputs did not come at all. Compounded with pressure on land and population, farmers had new mouths to feed - a growing middle class who worked but did not grow their own food. And since government support programs focused on maize, the staple crop,*** farmers would farm maize on the same plot of land year after year and farm the land dry (literally!).

For every ha of maize, a farmer looses a portion of N as well as K and P. If he plants maize year after year, his soils become acidic (loss of N) and infertile.

Long ago in the Northern Province of Zambia, people practiced the chitemene system of farming, in which forest land is cleared for agriculture. Trees are cut down and together with land residues and organic matter, they are set on fire. The plot becomes fallow, meaning that it is left for at least 15 years to regenerate and become fertile, ready for cultivation again. In the meantime, the farmer moves onto the next plot and starts the process over again. At present, burning is practiced, yet the fallow period is compressed into 1 or 2 years. Land that is immediately re-cultivated has a lower fertility. So, an average farmer gets a lower yield (like 1 tonne of maize / ha instead of 3 or 4 tonne / ha).

One of the most difficult aspects of being here has been observing practices which to me do not necessarily seem sensible or rational but are still perpetuated. Do I turn around and tell my family that their plot of land on the wooded hillside is adding to the deforestation, causing runoff that worsens the roads and soils, when they are just trying to eek out a next meal, my meal! Many living in compounds have farms 5-10 kms outside of town. They leave villages for the town for market access and find themselves scrambling for farmland on the city outskirts.

Some of these plot are ridged parallel to the slope instead of perpendicular. When the rains come, they will run down the mountain and flow through the gullies of the ridge, this will erode the soil and create a hardpan.

When the rains come, you plant. When it is time to till the land, that is what you do, your neighbours do it, your grandfathers have done it. When your child cries, at church, at a community meeting (or anywhere in public) you breast feed not bottle feed. Never mind the risk of mother to child transmission. That is what you do because it is understood and you have seen it being done since you can remember.

Intervention. Try asking a farmer to change what he does best. A farmer’s hands are hard, his pride is in his yield, his wealth measured in cattle. So tell him to diversify, to stop mono-cropping to help feed his family (it is said that 0.03 ha of cassava is enough to bridge the hunger gap, hardest felt in the rain season) or plant nitrogen-fixers (sesbia sesban, glicidia sepium, velvet beans, etc) between maize stalks along with legume rotation to rejuvenate his soils and reduce fertilizer costs...

When planted properly, the musangu tree adds 300 kg of fertilizer (D compound) and 250 kg of lime to soil. A savings of almost $ 200 CAN for a farmer).

“Umoyo unali obvuta” – living was difficult, as I have been told. You work throughout the year to prepare the land, so when you finally reap the fruits of your manual and mental labor should you not have every right to enjoy them? Try telling a farmer that he should save now and prepare for next season. He may desire a TV or a small business (the concept of subsistence farming here is a strange one. Farmers commonly grow vegetables and legumes for home consumption...

Cabbages, tomatoes, onions are commonly grown in select areas, near damns, swamp land, areas that are fertile or have access to some sort of irrigation. These onions are grown on dambles or wetland. Being regionally specific and lacking a comprehensive road network, marketing is a big challenge for these gardeners

...but market cash crops like cotton and the staple maize to buy cooking oil, soap, and candles from general stores like the one below).

I am here during the time of harvest so the economy is at its highest time in the year, unfortunately this peak has a correlation with alcohol consumption. After receiving money from the government, some farmers in both villages and compounds will drink.

In many communities, there are also these car graveyards.

Farmers, when they have money, will buy trucks or other devices which are in poor condition mechanically. Since they may not possess the excess cash for repair/maintenance throughout the year, these devices will lay waste or become scrapped for parts.

Cash Flow. To tell a farmer that he should think of farming as a business, which is one of the undercurrents of my project, when his business hasn’t paid him in a month. Non-commercial farmers sell maize to the government. The process is supposed to take two weeks, but a week becomes a month and then some and the farmer becomes cash strapped for the most economically active period of the year (in less common cases, a farmer is not paid at all!) and cannot buy inputs to prepare for next season.

In a community which we visited today, 9 out of more than 200 farmers had been paid. Farmers gave in their maize at the beginning of marketing season, June 1. We are now going into August. As farmers accumulate in queues outside, the maize depot below overflows with grain bags, now pushing outside

and piled in stacks like these.

Market isolation. I havn’t talked about this. For farmers that live 20-30 or 50-60 kms outside of town, where do they obtain inputs, seeds, fertilizer, insecticide, hoes, preserver, or anti-biotics for one’s oxen? Local dealers. Supply is limited, if at all, and price high. Cooperatives. They can be a great support network for farmers but if one is not a member, there is a fee attached and cooperatives can also vary in their effectiveness and activities. There is also not a cooperative for every farming community and cooperatives revolve around maize, the staple.

Why doesn’t some aspiring entrepreneur capture this market of isolated farmers by buying maize direct from within the community, early in cash and no transport costs for the farmer? And that’s exactly what happens. When bought at a reasonable price, it is saving grace for farmers. But when such buyers take advantage of the opportunity, farmers are swindled.

‘Brief Case Buyers,’ as many farmers call them, buy from small holders then sell back to the government at a higher price. So of the 9 farmers paid in that community today, only one received 40 million and the rest was shared between the 8 other farmers... I will leave it at that, though maize is a hotly politicized item and I am barely touching the tip of the iceberg here. As the delays in payments stretches on, these buyers maximize profits and farmers struggle to make ends meet during this crucial period.

Hopefully, this has not been too much information to swallow. After numerous field visits and time spent in a few communities, I’ve talked a little about intervention, market isolation, cash flow, basically slashing through a complex web of politics, tradition, and history in agriculture to give you a peak into the context in which I work and some of the challenges built into this society in which my project faces…

More than half way through my placement I have survived lions

You bet I took this picture !



Most dangerous and aggressive to humans. Do not disturb the hippo.

marriage offers varying in creativity,

(no picture)

and the chinimtali.

chinimtali watch out!

For most tribes, there are ceremonies when a female and a male become of age. For the Chewa tribe, the female ceremony is the chinimtali and the male, the Gule wa mkulu. As I watched history unfold before me, the centuries of oral tradition and storytelling in which these people have mastered, a blur of hip gyrations, foot stamping, and gum-filled smiles… “What were they chanting,” I wondered. Their actions following the storyline.

Synchronized shaking “the man, he isn’t good enough”

Wielding a hoe, “ Farming is important”

Arms in the air “ so are rains…”

Then spearing. Ah, they must be acting out a battle scene of some kind between tribes .

“The president is good, he supports farming”

“The one who speaks out against him, the one party, is found and killed!”


Next, I want to take you along a field visit to look at where your Christmas shoebox gifts, second hand clothes, and taxes go…

Walking home from the vegetable garden

Until then...Salini bwino! Stay well


*now Farmer Support Program. Many farmers had taken out loans, which they were unable to pay back. In Chipata, there are two banks, Barclays and Zambia National, but many banks have since disappeared due to a history of defaulting.

**through the Food Reserve Agency

***3/4 of the Ministry of Agriculture’s budget is spend on maize. Since being here, I have not found one conventional farer who does not list maize amongst the crops that he or she grows.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Running to Stand Still

Brakes. Check. Gear selector. Check. tires, rims... yes, yes the least warped of the lot. Whits. Check!

The sun is setting and it is getting late. So I hastily pay, mount my new bike, and take off in a cloud of sandy loam dust to learn that... Whomp! The wheel goes one way, and the handle bars the other... these merchants don't actually tighten bike components in place but rather loosely assemble them together for a quick sale.

Thus begins the myrad of mechanical mishaps. The first week into my placement was a disaster. I carried, walked, and parked this bike more than I rode it - the chain has broken 3 times (in different places) and my record for flat tires is 5 (during the same trip). Since that fateful day, I have discovered beyond a doubt that it is possible to ride with half a break, one pedal, and no seat (uphill while swerving through other bicycles carrying goats or maize bags). And as soon as I think things are looking up for old blue, bam! there goes a mud gaurd, a reflector, a screw, or a pedal. Something is set against me and I have come to accept that trouble and this bike are part of the same package!

My beast of burdern and source of frustration in the foreground and Luangwa Industries Inc. bicycle factory in the background. For the record, the expander in my handle bars on that day was actually broken too!

In the background of this picture, you'll see Chipata's only bicycle factory, Luangwa Industries Inc. My office, the PROFIT Chipata field Office, is located inside (the white building on the right). Not long ago, this factory was pumping out 300,000 bicycles a year with a total workforce of 200 - machinists, fitters, tap fitters, engineers, electricians, business managers. Its trademark bicycle was the eagle, a pinnacle of perfection as far as mechanical wheeled transport went, and a symbol of national pride, peace, and prosperity for a people with much to be proud of (Composed of > 73 different ethnicities and surrounded by strife and civil war in Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, Congo, and Zimbabwe, Zambia has never once experienced armed conflict). For these people, the eagle stood for a brighter future that production and independence promised to bring.

Now, entering the gargantuan factory was like entering a graveyard.

the machines idle, still as soldiers. pumps, mills, lathes asleep under a blanket of dust...

....some discarded and scrapped for spare parts.

Shipping and service vehicles parked, awaiting the return of productivity and its oil change.

At present, the only regular activity in the factory occurs in this small corner,

where bicycle frames are produced. Two people work in the factory, sometimes three and its output is a mere 5,000 bicycles a year. For an industrial powerhouse which not long ago serviced all of Zambia, the question is, "What happened?"

At peak productivity, the factory could regulate the introduction of competing products in Zambia - only if its supply fell short of national demand would other bicycles or parts be imported from foreign countries. After this restriction was lifted, in came poor quality bicycles that sold at lower prices. Struggling to compete, Luangwa industries raised its prices. If you do not care about how an apple tastes and are just interested in sustenance, do you buy the good tasting apple for $1 or the poor tasting one for 20 cents?

Across the country, similar trends occured and sourcing in-country inputs became harder. Dunlop Zambia, where the factory recieved its rubber, closed (moving operations to Zimbabwe). Paints and lacre factories closed too. Chemical companies, supplying the nitric and boric acid needed for bike brazing, followed (Zamefa, providing Luangwa Industries with brass for brazing, was the exception. It survived on copper products and is doing quite well now producing copper wires).

In response, the factory downscaled to manufacturing only frames. Since it is cheaper to use parts from other countries, the factory imports parts and asssembles the bike here.

The result for one frustrated Canadian volunteer was a non-specific mess made out of poor quality metal that brakes 3 times in the chain. The result for a nation was more devastating.


"Ah Ms. Tina what is the problem this time?" - Mr. Jerri

"It's the back tire again!" - Me

"Ah at least..."- Mr. Jerri

Mr. Jerri is one of the 2 workers left at the factory whom I happened upon in my search for an Alan key. He is the machinist, electrical engineer, and manager of factory operations, all in one, and can fix almost anything that he is asked to fix. Many of his friends have left abroad for better and bigger things, to South Africa or Australia.

In Canada, I think with his knowledge, tenure, and capibilities, he would be a millionaire, yet he stays in Chipata to look after his family. His sister passed away in the hospital at a time when the hospital staff were on strike and he communicates to his mother who still lives in their home village only when her cell phone is charged.

Mr. Jerri is one of the numerous individuals that I have been awed to meet. Like the cook with training in computer hardware or the street peddler with a background in economics or agroforestry. Like the many youth who seek further education beyond what is financially feasible or the lab technician who cannot run malaria tests at the hospital due to power outages, the street youth or piece workers who, after looking at their environment in the compound and its future prospects, drink dangerously brewed alcohol to pass the day.


A little background. The engine of Zambias economy is copper. Secondary industries and infrastructure like transportation, communications, institutions of technical training and higher education, unions (Zambia is known for its strong unions. Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia's first president, rose as a union leader in the mines), were dependent. Agriculture, employing or at least occupying 80% of the population, was a secondary priority.

So, when the price of copper dropped Zambia was hit hard. Then came the oil shocks. Zambia, a fuel importer, was importing oil in increasing quantities to feed its growing manufacturing sector and as a landlocked country, it relied on tenuous links to the sea for trade. After the Arab-Israeli war, oil prices skyrocketted in 1973. Trade suffered, so did agriculture. The tonne of tea that once purchased 60 barrels of oil now only purchased 3. Fertilizer prices rose, agricultural inputs fluctuated as farmers, a significant chunck of the population, struggled to supply an emerging middle class with food.

Insult added to injury. The same oil crisis gave rise to an abundance of 'petrodollars' that rich oil-producing countries invested in Western banks. Western banks in an attempt to make use of all this money floating around, were able to offer cheap loans to many developing countries. Zambia an economy dependent one commodity was left with few alternative sources of income. Then Bam! as oil prices rose again in 1980, interest rates soared, debt, and additional debt to service debt grew. Until in 1994, Zambia found itself owing 161 % of its GDP.

Conditions* on these accumulated loans deprived factories like Luangwa Industries of inputs and brought many sectors of the economy, textiles, roads, commuications, to its knees.

'Austerity' measures had rippling and crippling effects. Cuts in government expenditure, in education and healthcare... in communities which I visit, the nearest health clinics may be 20 or 30 kms away. So if a child is sick, she is carried this distance on her mother's back. After a few days in the hospital queue, by this time the sickness has reached a critical level, the single nurse who tends to dozens of patients tells her that the supply of medication is no more. I'm not sure what the treatment for malaria was then or how much it would have been, but now it is equivalent to about 30 cents CAN.

...reduction in wages and availability of credit, privatization of public utilities...

In 10 years, 280 companies were privitized (one of the fastest in the world) and employment that was once IN demand became scarce. Not long ago, companies used to pull high school students out of their studies so that they could train them and employ them. Now, people like Mr. Jerri lost their jobs. Mr. Jerri is at least fortunate in this regard, as the many skilled workers that are currently unemployed can attest to. For even an aspiring police officier with top qualifications may not be hired as no one in his family has worked for the police department.

An economy that was once one to one with the US dollar, had its own national airline, bus company, and solid manufacturing base (from cars to Colgate) back in the day (when there was no talk HIV/AIDS), is now running to stand still. Today, the eagle, a symbol of national pride, peace, and prosperity, is found with the words Xin Hua clad on its gear and selector parts, while the tube and tires come from India.

* A comment about conditionalities. Many people hear the term "structural adjustment" and think privatization -> bad -> cause of poverty. And I hope to explore this more later.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Banja Yanga

There were at least 20 of them. Enclosing in on me like an avalanche of eyes and hands. Bobbing, grabbing, pushing, shoving to get closer. Younger ones scrambling over older ones to get a better view of the mzungu. Hair pulling ensued. They had not seen one this close. What would her skin feel like, her hair? Does she eat nshima? Ah, she smiles too! Mzungu, mzungu!* Curiosity takes hold…

This was my first encounter as I approached the village compound that would be my home for next 3.5 months.

later that day

As soon as you bring out the camera, the scene changes. Everyone insists on having their picture taken


My household consists of four single females and it rocks. “Amai" - or Mom, a mother of seven, Queen the breadwinner of the family (she works for Zambia State Insurance), and Sharon, 20 years with a daughter of 18 months.


She speaks the least English in the household, and I the least Nyanja, yet I think that I am able to communicate with her the best. She works harder than almost everyone I know and is constantly one step ahead of me.

In my efforts to help around the household, I am usually more of a detriment than any source of assistance. When I am reading, she replaces my candle before I notice it as a mere stub. If I leave my scuffed blundestones out for the night, they are polished in the morning. When I make my bed, I come home to find that it is made better. She washes last night’s dishes, draws water, and already has nshima on the boil while at the same time washing clothes and probably carrying something on her head before I barely get up to brush my teeth.

In front of our house, there is an abandoned clay hut. Amai has hired neighbours to do the piecework to smash the hut into a pile of the clay.

The crushed clay is then moulded into bricks,

which will be used to build an extension of our kitchen (unless cement powder is mixed in, these are the building blocks for all residential construction here, they are moulded like so and then burnt) - we live in a brick house with a tin roof with no electricity. Almost all of our neighbours have a clay house with a straw roof. We don’t have to walk far to draw water as we have a well in our backyard. So by these standards, we are a rich household in the village compound.

From our backyard

At the end of the day, the pile of stones must be covered with water so that the heap does not dry overnight.

I come home from work and I find them at this task. I fumble over the words, “Nifuna neme tiendezeni - I would like to help.” It always starts like this.

“But your feet! You don’t have no shoes.” She points at my bare feet. Then I point back at hers. “Niether do you!” She laughs so I draw water from the well, carry the bucket (though not on my head yet) to the pile, and with great zeal dispense its contents. I return with clay caked between my toes, trousers covered in splatter, and dress shirt ruined. And it usually ends like this.

Whether at my attempts to cook or store food (which has brought rats) or tie my chitenge, Amai has been known to laugh at me for five minutes straight. And even after all this, she will still take me in and call me her daughter.


For the first few days, I had thought that the young one belonged to the eldest sister. Yet I would wonder why Sharon, who is my age, tended to the baby day and night. After everybody has gone to bed, dishes must still be cleared and clothes must still be ironed. So Sharon will often do this. If the baby cries, Sharon will do this with the baby strapped to her back. Sharon wants to be a nurse or a teacher, both career paths currently out of her reach financially so right now she is studying to work in customs, maybe in Tanzania she says. She is gorgeous and sharp as a whip. I want to tell her that she can be anything that she wants to be. We admire eachother, but in different ways.

When Sharon was 17, she gave birth and the man left the picture. Young pregnacies are common in the compound village. Sometimes, when the family finds out that the young woman is pregnant, she is not accepted back into the family and so must fend for herself and the baby. Alcoholism is also a huge problem here.

When Amai found out that Sharon was pregnant, she accepted the child into the family and named it blessing.


People react differently to skin colour. Many years ago, when the Portuguese first arrived, the Ngoni people thought the white man was some sort of strange, white baboon. In my experiences so far, dogs have chased me, children grab my arm to feel my skin or reach for my hair (school children in numbers are a force to be reckoned with)… in some of the villages that I visit for work I am the first white skinned person that they have seen, so some will stop what they are doing, drop both hands to their sides, and just stare.

But Blessing, man! For the first week, she couldn’t stop crying. When I would look at her and smile or attempt to ease the situation, things would worsen. I’m sure I was the cause of many headaches that week. Amai would just laugh.

Blessing ready to cry


Some things are expected to be assumed, others need to be forced in front of you.

For my first “La Mulungu" or Sunday/Day of Worship, I went to church with my family (religion and its infleunce on daily life is very different in Zambia than in Canada. With mention in the constitution, Zambia is predominately a Christian nation. The question is not whether you are religious, but “what church do you go to?”). It was the weekend of African Freedom Day,

so much preparation and practice had gone into today’s activities. For someone with little to no religious upbringing, church was...

....people breaking out into spontaneous dance, elder women hollering and crying out in bursts or when someone was congratulated on their achievements (the women do this thing where the tongue wags back and forth and it sounds like Zena the Warrier Princess), songs so beautiful and beyond my ability to describe. I wish I could have recorded their voices to play them here.

Halfway through, a group of people in flocks hauled in a gargantuan sack. Underneath their flocks read, “TB: ANYWHERE, EVERYWHERE.” The sack was cut to reveal a stack of blankets, dozens upon dozens (right now it is the cold-dry season and it gets very chilly at night). The blankets were for members of the church who had loved ones lost to HIV/AIDS.

Names were called and I watched as one after the other, ophans and widows, stepped forward to receive their blanket. As the stack dwindled, “Queen Banda,” my sister is called. She stands, walks to the front, receives her blanket, and then quietly sits back down beside me. Some things are expected to be assumed, others need to be forced in front of you.

I cannot overstate the impact of HIV/AIDS. It is a living pandemic, it is everywhere and affects all aspects of life here. I’ve heard statistics ranging from 17.5% to 40% of the population is affected, it varies depending on where you are in Zambia. In Chipata, a person will die everyday. Many people also do not get tested and there are rumors about the disease that perpetuate its dissemination. It is on the radio, on billboards, in churches, and in schools. In the media, it eclipses the impact of other prevalent sicknesses like malaria...

It is as though on every other field visit for work, we arrive at a community to discover that there is a funeral. There is no community mobilization and nothing you can do. The meeting is cancelled and we pack our bags and go home. When a chief dies in a village, there is no business activity for a week (or else fines are imposed).

To hear that HIV/AIDS hampers the economy and the nation’s development, affecting young adults, the most productive part of the population (in some villages that I have visited, there is a disproportionate number of elder people and children), bringing life expectancy to 30.5 yrs (In 1996, life expectancy in Zambia was 50. It’s 80 in Canada.), or that it so badly afflicts the education system (it is estimated that up to 45% of teachers are positive), is one thing. But to actually see it, is another.

My sister Queen


On the day of my arrival to the village compound, I knelt down to shake hands with the youngins that had surrounded me …

As I asked their names and ages, frantically trying to gather their responses, Queen explains that only a few of them have parents. Some have none, others one. This single parent will leave for Chipata to clean, crush stones, stack bricks, work the markets, or perform other "piece work" jobs in the informal sector, returning every 2 or 3 days to bring the children and extended family food. “One or maybe two meals today, saving the other for tomorrow. This is how they survive,” Queen says. And I had to close my eyes and turn away.

*Please refer to * on post "A Day in a Life"

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Initial Impressions

Phew! It's been far too long since my last post and a lot has happened since then. Although this blog is entitled 'initial impressions,' I wrote these blog thoughts long ago so many of my initial impressions have changed and now seem silly. But I'll share a few of them anyway, then do my best at re-capping what has happened from Lusaka to Chipata to my host family to my work.


7 hrs across the Atlantic + 12 gruelling hrs over the African continent + much sleepless transit time and pre-departure training recovery = 9 Canadian volunteers landing safely in Lusaka, Zambia.

After we landed, we began in-country orientation - a crash course in language, Zambian politics and culture. Within a week, we met our partner organizations and got a feel for the work ahead, then were dispatched to various corners of the country to work with government, privately funded aid programs, or smaller scale NGOs, some of us in water and sanitation, others in agriculture and agro-processing, irrigation...

Ka-Hay, Long Term Overseas Volunteer, runs Zambian Jeopardy. I'll take pre-independece Zambia, then Levi Mwanawasa for 200!


Standing here, if you were to tell me that 3/4 of this nation is impoverished, I would not believe you. Lusaka is a city of high rise buildings, paved roads, millionaires, big business - the Celtels (biggest cell phone service provider in Southern Africa), Dunavunts, and Coco-Cola. People flock the streets from 8 to 17 hrs for work and school, cell phones are in abundance, street vendors hawk Fanta and the daily Post (a more popular newspaper not owned by the government).

This is actually in Chipata, but I think it makes for a good dichotomy

While at the same time, there are also the street children without shoes (who may or may not have a somewhere safe to sleep), where mass rural-urban migration has brought people to the city outskirts (putting pressure on the government to provide for basic infrastructure),* compounds without running water and electricity where disease and crime have a strong presence ... Zambia is actually one of the most urbanized countries in Southern Africa (at about 40% urban).

Owen commented that if you put someone from Lusaka in Toronto and vice versa, he or she would experience little culture shock. I would disagree, but he makes a sound point. On the whole and indeed on the surface, it seems that people run their own lives to make ends meet and continue their day just as we would back home.


Not so. As I settled into this border town, I would sit down with Zambians, with my host family, co-workers, bank managers, street vendors, students, car mechanics, aid workers, neighbours. I would hear their story and dig a little deeper into these impressions to learn about a nation, a people and an economy, that is actually running to stand still.

Communities settle along the road from Lusaka to Chipata (6 hours on The Great East Road). Note that there are no power lines along the road

To start, I want to waste no time in introducing you to my family or "Banja Yanga" as they have been the most influential part of my experience here so far...

*I would later learn that as men migrate to towns or cities in search of jobs, cultivation of traditional land is left to elder men and women. This has resulted in lower productivity in subsistence agriculture and lower food reserves for rural communities in times of drought. Zambia is one of the most urbanized countries in South Africa (about 40% of population).

Saturday, May 5, 2007

The beginning

Takulandirani (Welcome)

As a write this, I await a storm of jam-packed pre-departure learning, from inter-cultural communication, integration, health and safety...

After preping us for the terrible and unforgiving 'Brown Menace,' Levi Goertz explains the ins and outs of water purification

...agriculture and agronomy, rural livelihoods, religion, gender, to development models and approaches, that will sweep me off my feet and take me to Africa. I welcome and invite you to come along for the journey…

An Introduction: Who Am I?

My name is Cristina Randall (though only my passport calls me Cristina, everyone else calls me Tina) and I am a student studying Systems Design Engineering at the University of Waterloo. For the next three months, I will be based in Chipata, in the Eastern Province of Zambia, on an internship with Engineers Without Borders. Along with eleven other brave interns, I will be working with an NGO that is based and working locally. The organization that I will be with is called PROFIT - Production, Finance, and Technology (more to come about PROFIT).

Note the attempt at spelling EWB with our fingers

Where is Zambia?

Zambia (named after its main river the mighty Zambezi) is a landlocked country in southern Africa. It is bordered by the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania.

What am I doing there?

As a youngin, I wondered how different things, like food commodities, would come from halfway across the world just to end up in a small neighbourhood of Vancouver, Canada. Like my mom's coffee from Ethiopia or my chocolate from Brazil. How did the cotton* from my favorite made-in-China T-shirt come all the way here from Burkina Faso?! As the engineer in me took over, similar questions persisted… how did this coltan travel all the way from the Congo and end up in my cell phone (along with the assortment of other consumer electronics around the globe)? And what is the nature of these
transactions and interconnected processes?

Asking these questions led me to realize that a) the world is a large and complex place, with vast differences in living standards and opportunity and that b) the poverty that we often hear about in distant lands is actually a lot closer to home than we like to think. When I was 16, I organized a trip to Costa Rica with my school to learn about how people live under varying levels of income and access to basic infrastructure and education, I came back to Canada realizing that it was me that needed a better education in terms of understanding how my actions resonate globally and realizing that whether I like it or not, I am a global citizen. By actions resonating globally, I mean that everything from the purchase of T-shirts and chocolates to pension plans and mutual funds, affects another individual in another country.

In Zambia, around three-quarters of the population is classified as living below the national poverty line, with 63.7% living on less than a dollar a day and an overall life expectancy of 32 years**. But what does this actually mean for the farmer who hopes the rains come, his wife who works tirelessly for too many hours a day, or his children who are absent from school? For individuals coping with such circumstances on a daily basis, what really are their challenges and what are their stories? These are examples of some of the questions I will ask and hope to share with you over the course of the next three months.

What to expect?

As a second year engineering student with little to no background in economics, foreign policy, or development, in talking about many of these problems, water scarcity, food security, HIV/AIDS, economic dependence… I am merely scraping the surface.

Problems. If I talk about these issues as they are seen only as problems, I wouldn't be telling you the full story. In focusing on the negative (the corruption, civil war, famine, and disease frequently in our media), we tend to neglect the stories of people and their daily, humble efforts. And in the cases which I have seen, these efforts are of innovative, dedicated, and proud individuals, seeking to build a positive life for themselves and for their children. Why would one characterize a nation by its vulnerabilities and not by its strengths? A wise Ghanaian woman once said to me that in Africa no one uses the word problem, instead they use the word challenge.

So, this blog is not a story of issues, but of people and challenges. Through my project, partner organization, and host community overseas, you will meet the people I meet, and take part in the sights, smells, tastes, and sounds of the places I travel to and live in. As an intern in international development and as a student, I aim to share my experiences with you, clumsily learning the etiquette of eating Nshima, looking like a fool as I practice Nyanja, or listening to a farmer's opinion of what the role of westerners should be in development.

I want to keep this blog as interactive as possible so post your thoughts, comments, and questions or by all means, email them directly at and I'll do my best to respond promptly. Let me know what you'd like to see or hear more of and keep the questions coming...f
rom, "what do people in the eastern province eat, how do they wash their clothes, what pastimes fill their day, what do Zambians think of Canadians?" to others which at first may not have immediate answers, "What do Africans think is the most effective form of assistance? Does the West have a responsibility to provide this?" And going even further, "If the challenges in development are so related to behavior change (check out Parker's talk), both in Canada and abroad, do we have the right to change those behaviors?"

During this journey, I hope to share with you the stories of those I meet as best I can and paint a picture of their livelihoods (I'll talk about this later) and the challenges associated with them. While I won’t have all the answers, I will strive to seek out the right questions.

A note though...

As you have come to observe, many of the views expressed in this post and indeed what I have come to learn carries its own assumptions and preconceptions. How I see challenges faced by Africans may not be the same as how Africans sees those challenges themselves. So as I anxiously await departure, I keep this thought close in mind and ask your assistance in keeping these assumptions and perceptions in check - what I see as the right solution may not necessarily be the appropriate one when placed in a different social, political, and cultural context.

*This is another interesting article on the international cotton industry
**CIA World Fact Book, UN Human Development Report
***When I say West, I'm loosely talking about North America and Northwest Europe as well as other nations at the top of the rung in terms of HDI