About Me

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Author of Safari Jema, A Journey of Love and Adventure from Casablanca to Cape Town http://tinyurl.com/owdwvrp I write about travel and adventure from my home in California and from Africa. I've sailed a catamaran from California to Hawaii, trekked in the Himalayas, worked as a construction manager on a bridge project in Zambia, hiked 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago, (http://bootsbedouinsandabridge.blogspot.com/) and traveled in over 100 countries and all seven continents. Indie Book Award Winner for Best Memoir of 2012, New York Book Festival Honorable Mention for Non-Fiction, San Francisco Book Festival Honorable Mention for Non-Fiction, Travelers Tales Solas Award for Best Travel Writing Honorable Mention for My Gambian Husband. Indie Book Award Finalist - Best Travel Book 2013. BOTYA Honorable Mention 2013 - Travel Essay. Member of The Explorers Club since 2013 You can follow my current 2013-2014 expedition across Africa, this time in a 1973 Land Rover Series III 109 on http://teresaokane.blogspot.com/ and on facebook https://www.facebook.com/safarijema

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Dancing Bridge at Kamunjoma

“Mwauka bwanji!” greeted the Nsenga woman as she shook my hand and curtsied. She doesn’t curtsy just for me. Everyone greets one another with a respectful dip.

It was our first morning in Kamunjoma Village and the beginning of our bridge project. Well, not our bridge project. The community, led by the indomitable headmistress of Kamunjoma Elementary School Diana M’wanza, contacted the non-profit Bridges to Prosperity for help in building a pedestrian bridge between the village on one side of a seasonal river and the school and clinic on the other. B2P provides an engineer and volunteers to a developing country to oversee and teach, but the village takes ownership of the bridge from its inception and is responsible for gathering all the materials and labor. Most of the funding comes from grants from local rotary clubs partnering with rotary clubs from around the world. Though not big fans of many NGO’s or charity organizations in Africa, this one sounded unquestionably worthwhile to Scott and me and we finally got our chance to volunteer this summer. I mean, anything that can prevent kids and sick people from being washed away during the rainy season and keeps girls going to school all year can’t be a bad thing, right?

We met Candice, an Engineers Without Borders volunteer, over breakfast in Lusaka after an epic 18-hour bus ride from the Zambian border. Candice is overseeing the four bridge projects under construction in Zambia this summer. Later that afternoon, we met Zoe the B2P country director who said brightly, “This is full immersion for you!” as she handed us a manual before leaving to spend a month in Italy. “Have fun!” she added as she drove off. The next morning Candice showed us a fifty-foot long “demonstration” bridge in Lusaka built by B2P. As a local woman walked from one side of the suspension bridge to the other she complained, “It dances when I walk on it!”
“She should try walking on the 350-foot span you guys are going to build!” said Candice. She drove us to the Shoprite grocery store where we bought supplies -camp stove, food, wine (you can take the girl out of College Park, but you can’t take College Park out of the girl!) then drove us 400 kilometers to Kamunjoma village in Eastern Zambia 5 kilometers from the Mozambique border.

The bridge site at Kamunjoma is 45 kilometers from Petauke the nearest boma (town) but it takes four hours on a bush mini bus, or two hours in a Community Council vehicle, or three and a half hours in a land cruiser (more specifically the land cruiser of former premiere national soccer team player Joseph Manson) which has no brakes – or starter motor, a proper fuel tank, springs, or the sufficient amount of lug nuts to keep a tire in its place – to get there. Kamunjoma village has a population of around 50 families, has no running water, no electricity and is way out in the boondocks over very rough dirt roads. It’s perfect! The only thing lacking are elephants. The extent of wildlife out here is bats (flying out of the hole in the ground we use as a toilet), and the goats, chickens, cows, pigs, and enormous spider (Eek! almost too big for the toilet paper roll it climbed out of) that wander through our camp.

We set up our camp under a tree just across from Kamunjoma School. The compound consists of four classrooms in two buildings and five tidy teacher houses behind the school. Because there are only five teachers for 316 students, the students attend class in shifts all day from 7am to 5pm. The teachers are delightful, hard working, and earn US$ 400 per month.

At 6:30 each morning students – some who have walked more than 5 kilometers – begin sweeping the entire compound with knee high brooms made of twigs. After the grounds are swept, the Zambian flag is raised and classes begin. Subjects are Geography, Science, Math, Civics, English, History, and a couple of other subjects I can’t identify by their abbreviations. The classrooms are bare except for desks (shared by two), a sweeping roster, and a blackboard. I have yet to see a single book. Though the children all live in huts made of mud and they walk to school over dusty paths they always manage to look sparkling clean, tidy and spotless in their pressed school uniforms and ties.

Our camp is comfy cozy with two chairs, a table, and of course, the hammock we brought from home is slung between two branches on the tree. Each morning at dawn a family of chickens join us for breakfast. They cluck and scratch outside our open tent door while we sit inside sipping coffee, and dipping and eating Rusks (rock hard buttermilk biscuits). A brand new shower enclosure built just for us is 20 paces away and the clean and odor free brick enclosed long drop toilet – hole in the ground – is 60 feet away. I can’t figure out how it is that they have no odor. Except for the bats, spiders, and occasional mouse, they are as pleasant as they get. At 6:45, the bridge workers begin arriving by foot or bicycle from their villages. Sometimes a few ox carts or cowboys pass by our tent window. Cowboys are boys who tend cattle instead of going to school. They get paid after five years of service – one cow.

The school is located along a ridge with soft shallow valleys dropping away on either side. We are able to watch the sunrise in the mornings and see it set (just over the toilet enclosure) in the evenings. The harvest is complete and farmers are busy burning off the maize fields – all that smoke in the air makes for spectacular sunsets. Sometimes Manson comes by for popcorn, a glass of wine, or a cup of tea we serve with shortbread cookies called Eet-sum-mors. You can never go wrong offering someone food. There are two seasons here: the “harvest season” and the “starvation season”. Right now everyone is in a good mood and there is lots of laughter because bellies are full. There is loads of the staple corn meal (sheema) to eat and ground nuts aplenty.

It is full dark by 6:30 and the school is deserted so after cooking and eating dinner we usually go to bed. Most nights we can hear drumming and singing coming from distant villages.

There is no phone service and no cell coverage, except for in two spots. One is a two-kilometer walk away on a well-worn path that leads to a tree overlooking another pretty valley. The villagers call the fifteen square foot spot “The Network”. The first few times we walked to The Network children had to show us the way. Now they just come with us for fun. They run and bounce and laugh with absolute delight when we talk to them or show them their photos on the camera screen. Everyone, even the headmistress, bursts out laughing when they see their image. Some have never seen a picture of themselves so friends have point to the screen and say, “There’s you!” in their language, Nsenga.

The other place we can get cell service is outside the head mistresses office at school. But you must face classroom number 1 and hold the phone way above your head. Conversations are never possible (unless you are 6’7’’ like my brother Sean) but texting is – though this only works between dusk and dawn, and only if there is no wind. Despite the inability to make phone calls regularly there are signs on one-room shops or stalls from Kamunjoma to Petauke that read, “Top Up (your call time) Here!”

Candice stayed with us on the job site for only one day. She (thankfully!) confirmed that
the foundation holes had been dug in the right spots and were approximately the right dimensions. Together we confirmed that the sand-to-cement proportions the block makers were using was correct and that there were the required three huge piles of rock and river sand next to the bridge site. We weren’t exactly handed a bridge manual and told, “Good luck!” but almost. As she left, Candice told us, “Don’t worry! There will be a Zambian man who works for B2P joining you in a few days. Boston knows everything!” Boston never showed and a week later we received a text that he was no longer on the job. Maybe he had gotten tired of waiting for the project to actually begin.

Bridge construction was scheduled to begin on May 15th while we were transiting through Africa. On May 15th in Egypt I said to Scott, “We’re missing out on the beginning of construction! I hope we get there before it’s completely finished.” Scott, ever the realist, looked at me and said, “Are you kidding? We will be lucky if the project has begun by the time we arrive!” We had the same conversation in Sudan on June 15, in Ethiopia on July 15, and on August 1st the day we arrived in Zambia because construction had been routinely delayed. Apparently the village had been too busy with the maize harvest to worry about a bridge. But by the time we arrived most of the fields had been cleared and they were completely committed to the project. (Maybe that was because of the three-page letter from B2P threatening to build a bridge elsewhere unless the village started assembling materials.) Anyway, Candice drove away and left Scott and me with a manual, two holes in the ground, and a crew of men, women, and children to build a 350-foot bridge. “Holy crap!” I said to Scott as we dove into the project headfirst. We set centerlines and corners with the masons (a frustrated Scott continually saying to the masons: “It must be a square, not a parallelogram”) and began studying the bridge building manual. We know construction but we’ve sure never built a bridge before – especially in a developing country with people who have never even seen a structure over one story tall and who don’t speak or understand English. Of the three masons working on the bridge, Boma Banda is 86 and really doesn’t see very well. The second mason, Grandwill Pheri is not quite that old but he had to quit after a week because of a swelling in his groin (every time I ask the crew, “How is Grandwill today?” they begin giggling uncontrollably.) The third mason is Patrick Chirwa. He is a little older than Scott and savvy about bricklaying but still bewildered about what “level” means. (Though we had a breakthrough the other day when he used a tape measure to make sure one of the tiers was square.) The masons get paid four dollars a day. None of them speak English.

There are also 8 unpaid laborers who mix cement and move river sand and rock from an ox cart (if we are lucky to have an ox cart show up that day) to the wheelbarrow, and 4 other unpaid laborers who are detailed to make 2000 cement blocks. They all call me “Madam” and are thrilled when I remember their names. Last names are easy because there seems to be only 4 or 5 main clans in the 9 surrounding villages that are supplying labor and will benefit from the bridge: Banda, Zulu, M’lungu, Tembo, and Pheri. The first names are sometimes harder to remember. One of the block makers has a name that sounds like Onebagof Salt. Many have biblical names like Aaron or Joseph or Moses so those I remember but only after pairing their name with a physical characteristic like, Few Teeth or NYC Baseball Cap or Beautiful Smile, though that one is not as helpful since they all have beautiful smiles, even Few Teeth.

The women and children of the village work as well. The women and girls deliver river sand from plastic buckets on their heads and the boys, well, the boys do whatever the headmistress tells them to do.

The second day we were there, seventeen 12 to 18 year-old boys were detailed to build me a shower enclosure. Dressed in their school clothes – blue trousers, light blue shirt and blue tie – they constructed an enclosure near our tent made from tree branches and tall grass. It was all tied together with strips of bark. They even fabricated a hook from which we could hang our sun shower. When I stood in the nearly finished enclosure fully clothed and mimed taking a shower one of the younger boys said with a smile, “Yes. Be very clean. Yes, get all the details.” I thought he was too young to know all about the “details”, but apparently not.

Another eight boys were excused from class while they unloaded the 50 bags of cement that had arrived one day and, with regularity, the youngest boys suddenly pour out of class at a full run and pick up sticks to chase the cows, goats or pigs that walk through our camp. Today, a line of forty students, each one carrying a cement block that weighs at least 30 pounds, made their way from the spot where the blocks are being made to the bridge site, a half kilometer away. The girls – three of whom bring us buckets of water balanced on their heads each day each day – carried the blocks on their heads too.

Whenever children bring any adult or us something (oranges, lemons, a message…) they present it with both hands on bended knee. One day Scott asked the headmistress for a bucket so we could get water to do laundry and she said, “I will get one of the children to do it. The children here are free!” There are two other phrases Diana is fond of saying, “These children are strong!” and, “We teach our children to be self reliant!” And they are. There is an invisible boundary 40 feet from our camp where the strong children take a break from schooling or laboring or playing to stare at us. We were told that the last white person to stay here was when the school was founded in 1912. “How are you!” they sometimes call with impressive rolls of the “r”, but mostly they just stare and smile because we are the first white people they have ever seen.

The walls inside the foundation pits on each side of the bridge were completed within a few days. Eight men, led by Edwin the ever-smiling foreman who speaks English but doesn’t seem to always understand it, threw large stones into the pit and compacted and leveled the rocky mass. The masons applied a concrete apron around the rim readying it for the first of three one-meter-high tiers that will be built on top of each foundation. The main thing Scott and I have to do everyday is to keep an eye on the four guys who mix the mortar. Often there is not enough sand, or they are mixing it with cloudy river water instead of clear bore hole water, or it has been kept sitting too long before the masons are ready for it, or it has too much water. The other concern is, like I said, one of the masons is 86 and doesn’t see very well. His blocks are rarely level but because he is so venerated, no one, including us, wants to say anything because he still manages to climb in and out of a one-meter hole in the ground, heave blocks and rock around, and is sweet and nice and 86. Scott’s major frustration is that there doesn’t seem to be a word (or concept!) for “level” in the Nsenga language and of the 4 levels on the job site, only 1 actually works and that one is so scratched up it’s barely legible.

This bridge project reminds me constantly of something my dad always said, “Do the best you can with the tools you’ve got,” because the level is the only tool we have on the job site. I shouldn’t say that. We also have one wheelbarrow, two buckets, three shovels, and three trowels. But what we would give for a water level, a string level, a sieve, gloves, and a plumb bob! If fact, this weekend we are going to make an all day trip to the nearest town that has a hardware store (Chipata, about 150 kilometers away) to buy some or all of these items. In an ideal world we would have brought our own tools from home but since we’ve been on the move in South America, Spain, and Africa for four months it just wasn’t feasible to lug it around with us. The only “tool” Scott brought from home was his Leatherman. He thought at least he could us the pliers to wire rebar together but after carrying it more than 14000 miles, the only thing he’s used it for is to open a can of corned beef. Anyway, we don’t really mind going to Chipata. There is reputed to be a Mexican restaurant run by a former Peace Corps volunteer and his Zambian wife. Definitely worth 6 hours on public transport!

We’ve had one disheartening day when the importance of using correct amounts of sand, water, and cement was clearly driven home. The masons had finished the first bridge tier, measuring 11-square feet by one meter high. All night Scott had a nagging concern that the mortar hadn’t been mixed properly and wasn’t strong enough. In the morning he was able to knock down blocks simply by tapping on them. When Scott told the workers that the entire tier would have to be rebuilt they weren’t too happy. They thought it was a waste of cement. “It is going to lower your profitability” one man said to Scott. “There is no profitability!” said Scott exasperated. “These bridge approaches will be 4 stories high. The most important thing is that they are strong!” They were still doubtful. Also they have real difficulty picturing something they have never seen. “…Four stories…” But the tier came down so easily that there has been a lot more attention to detail ever since, especially where mixing mortar is concerned. Scott really knows his mud. One of Scott’s jobs in college was mixing mortar for mason extraordinaire, Al Giovanni and Scott was fond of saying to Al, “Whoever mixed the mud must have really known what he was doing!”

If I’m not on the bridge site by 7am each morning everyone asks, “Is Madam alright?” “She’s fine! She is with the block makers this morning,” says Scott. But the bush telegraph has already gone out that Madam may be sick and pretty soon I have women stopping by to mime that I should drink a little water with sand or dirt mixed in it and I will be fine. (Not a bad piece of advice actually. Pepto Bismol is always a fall back remedy for me when I’m traveling and it mostly consists of clay.) Anyway, so no one worries about my health I have to be at the bridge site first thing and greet each worker individually with a handshake and “Mwauka bwanji!”

Then yesterday the head of the PTA walked (there are no vehicles except for the once a day bush mini van within 35 kilometers of Kamunjoma) from his village to meet Scott. He said, “The block makers are lonely if Madam doesn’t come by to see how they are doing.” The bridge site is between the village and the school but the block making takes place near a well behind the school so now I have to make several trips a day back and forth between job sites. They all work so hard and it is important that we notice. “Zicomo quom beeli!” “Thank you so much for your hard work!” I say when I see them and their smiles could light the village.

We are having the time of our lives out here. Aside from walking between job sites, (“Madam! See how many stones we have collected!”) I spend my time with the children. Mostly they teach me words in Nsenga of which the most common words sound like Mocha, Beano, and Nacho (with a decidedly Italian inflection), or we take turns drawing pictures in the dirt with a stick, or they show me the trucks they have built from discarded wire, cardboard, and plastic bottle caps. One day Edwin brought me a flat lump of mortar that had sat too long. “This one is expired!” he said handing it to me. It made a wonderful bush blackboard.

Scott thrives out here. He gets invited to the huts of headmen in adjoining villages and is given live chickens as a gift. (When he returned to camp carrying the still live chicken by its feet I said, “What the heck am I supposed to do with that?” I hope the headman did not hear that we re-gifted it to the headmistress.) The other day we were the guests of honor (“Thank you for the invitation. Please, keep the chicken”) at a village Nyao Dance performance. I loved it that Scott joined in on the dancing and the frenetic gyrations of the masked Nyao dancers.

Most of all, I love people’s names –Innocent, Sweetness, Happy, Charity, Special, Godfrey... I also love hearing women sing, just for the heck of it. And the drumming. Oh, I love the drumming. And I love it that the village is throwing a party just for us. The children have been practicing all week what they will perform for us. I just love it.

Scott and Tris
Kamunjoma Village, Zambia

You can see photos at http://picasaweb.google.com/scottandtris

To read more about Bridges to Prosperity you can find their link at http://www.firstgiving.com/teresaokane

Next: The Kamunjoma School Fete, an Evening with Mr. Sky.

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