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

Saturday, September 11, 2010

An Evening With Mr. Sky, The Kamunjoma School Fete

It’s amazing what a set of gloves can do. Scott and I made the six hour trek by bush taxi and bus to Chipata to buy gloves, levels and whatever else we could find that looked like it would be helpful in constructing a bridge, which meant we also bought a lot more wine.

We planned to stay only one night in Chipata but the rumor of a Mexican restaurant proved true. In the lush garden of Msamwa’s Descanso Guest House and Restaurant we ate home made tortillas filled with chicken, beef, rice and beans, dipped warm chips into freshly prepared spicy salsa, and drooled over soft tacos.
SOFT TACOS! At happy hour we treated Msamwa’s husband Steve, a former Peace Corps volunteer, and Abe, who refers to himself as a “Peace Corps Boma Volunteer”, to beers. (It is a tradition of ours to buy beer for Peace Corps volunteers and we’re celebrating our tenth year in Africa alone!) Abe had just married Mildred a local girl.
It was love at first sight in Chipata over the New Accounts desk at Barclays Bank where she worked. Abe and Mildred were about to move to Indiana. When I asked Mildred what she would miss most she didn’t hesitate. “Sheema!” Sheema is the starchy mashed maze that is the staple of every Zambian’s daily diet. “I have eaten sheema everyday of my life!” she added. “Will I be able to get sheema in America?”
“No,” I said. “But there is this place called Costco where you can buy Creamy Mash that you might find an acceptable substitute.” But really, there is nothing like sheema but sheema.

Scott and I returned to Kamunjoma in separate vehicles, which brought the total of vehicles driven to Kamunjoma that week to two. I came back with 50 bags of cement in a Council vehicle, a new-ish Chinese truck. The driver got so lost that I’m sure we were in Mozambique for part of the journey. It took four hours to get to Kamunjoma but I still beat Scott by several hours. He was on another new-ish Chinese truck with Manson (former Zambian national soccer star) along with roofing materials and a dozen villagers who were hitching a ride in the back. What does roofing material have to do with building a bridge? Nothing! Scott being Scott had noticed an unfinished brick house behind the school at Kamunjoma and asked headmistress Diana about it. “It’s meant to be a teacher house but we will never have the funds to complete it,” she explained. In Zambia rural communities must provide a dwelling before the government will assign a teacher to the school. Scott asked Diana what would be needed to finish the 600 square foot house and that led to a trip to Petauke to buy materials. I’m really proud of the bridge but I am most proud of Scott. Because of him, Kamunjoma will be able to get one more teacher.

My homecoming back at Kamunjoma after three days away couldn’t have been better. “Madam! We missed you!” everyone said as they stopped by to shake my hand. “How was Petauke? How was Chipata?”

The next morning Scott distributed the gloves. Some of the guys had never put on a pair of gloves before and put on two left hand or two right hand gloves. Some didn’t even own a pair of shoes so why should they know how to operate a pair of gloves? Every day after work they locked the gloves away with the wheelbarrow, shovels, and buckets in a storage room. I will never in all my days forget how happy 13 pairs of gloves made them.

Days at Kamunjoma were always filled with lots of interaction with villagers but since we were camped by the school, which was deserted by 5:30, nights were quiet. One afternoon Scott said to the headmistress, “We would love to get to know you and the other teachers better. How about if we arrange to buy a pig so that we can share a meal together?”
“Yes! Let’s do that!” she said. “But,” she added making a face that told us we had made cultural blunder number 23, “we don’t eat pig. When we eat meat we eat chicken or goat.” Our dreams of a Zambian luau vanished. “O.K. Then let’s have a goat and a chicken!” said Scott. The next day to get the ball rolling Scott gave Diana the equivalent of US$20 in Zambian Kwatcha and the live chicken given to him by a headman of the next village. “It’s going to be wonderful!” she said. “The children have been practicing their performances for you and they are very excited. I have already arranged for the goat and my daughters and I will prepare all the food.” Performances?? Scott asked how many people would be there. “Less than 50,” she assured. Scott and I exchanged looks. Fifty? We expressed concern that $20 would not cover the expenses but she assured us it was more than enough. I was also concerned about which goat she had arranged since I had taken quite a liking to a number of them that wondered through our camp every day. I almost said, “Please don’t pick the tawny brown one with the cowlick,” but I knew she would not understand why I would be picky about meat. As they say in Africa, meat is meat.

Over the next two days we could hear the children practicing their skits, singing, and drumming behind the school. This was turning into something a lot bigger than just dinner with a few teachers. On Thursday afternoon, the day of the fete, I found Diana’s daughters and three of the teacher’s wives under a tree chopping vegetables, plucking and cleaning chickens (2), and tending enormous pots of sheema over a wood fire. A large aluminum bowl was practically overflowing with small pieces of cooked goat meat.
Next to that was a pot of discarded chicken parts, feathers and all. I can say with authority that chickens are pretty stupid because the ones that were lucky enough to avoid being fare at the fete repeated tried to climb into the pot that held the dead chickens.

One of the teacher’s wives, Florence, put a few chicken innards and, I don’t know, maybe it was a neck, into a tiny pot with some water. She built another small fire between two bricks on the ground, handed me the pot and said, “This is Treeza’a pot to cook,” just so I could part of the kitchen preparations.
Later when I left to help Joyce (mother of eight) fetch more firewood I was laughingly scolded for leaving my pot. Diana saved me. “We are ready to begin the program,” she said and we walked together over to the sandy crossroads near the soccer field that was to be the stage.

“Less than 50” must mean something else in Zambia because there were well over 100 people gathered. Scott and I were seated at school desks arranged for the best view of the stage, a newly swept patch of the sandy road. The teachers were seated at other desks, two by two.
The dynamic dirt-bike-riding Doreen who runs the clinic two villages away was there too.

“Here is the program for today,” said Diana with a smile as she handed Scott and me a 14 item hand printed agenda; Opening prayer, Introductions, Poems, Skits, Dramas, Rumba, Speech by Mr. Sky… Closing Remarks.

The introductions were in Nsenga so one of the teachers, Mr. Tembo, sat next to us and translated. Mr. Tembo reminds me so much of my brother Sean. He is so kind and considerate. In fact, a lot of the time here, I feel like Dorothy in Oz because there are a number of people who remind me of someone at home. Washington, the new foreman on the job reminds me of my brother Joe because he is funny and loves to get the crowd going. Manson is the Eric Hagquist of Africa because he is an incredibly decent and nice person. And headmistress Diana reminds of my sister-in-law Cyndy because she moves through her day with such patience and grace. Anyway, the tin man, I mean Mr. Tembo translated the prayer and all the opening remarks. Most of what they said made us feel uncomfortable. At the same time, it made our hearts glad. Everyone just seemed so happy we were there. One of the teacher’s said during his introduction that there hadn’t been a “white man here since 1912” and that us coming to build the bridge made them feel good about themselves and their community. He said, “Before you came, we were nothing. Now we are something.” Can you imagine!

The skits performed by the children made me laugh. Some brought me to tears. (In fact, I must have sprung a leak in my tear ducts or something because lots of things in Kamunjoma seem to move me to tears.) They led off the program with original poems on subjects ranging from abstinence, to the hardships of living in Africa, to AIDS, to deforestation. Then four of the older girls lip-synced and danced several numbers from the Zambian top ten. Several boys performed a few short morality plays. One portrayed a student resorting to a life of crime because his father couldn’t afford to pay school fees. An older boy did a Zambian version of SNL’s Weekend Update. Scott got up to dance with the men and I got up to dance with the women.

So, I should explain about the dancing. It’s very provocative; especially dances performed during the harvest when bellies are full and everyone is happy. One dance is called “the push-push”. I know some of your kids read these updates so I’ll just say, well, it is a little disturbing to see girls so young doing the push-push. Joyce and other grandmother’s got up to show the young ones how it’s really done. Lots more to tell about the push-push but it will have to wait until later when I see you.

After all the acts were done and practically everyone had gotten up to shake their booty the headmistress said, “Now we will have a few words from Mr. Sky,” and she looked directly at Scott. That’s how we found out that Scott was Mr. Sky on the program. Scott, ever quick on his feet, rose to the occasion and gave one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard because he exactly expressed what was in our hearts. I remember the last part was something like, “Though our time here is short, the time spent with you here at Kamunjoma will remain in our hearts forever.” As corny as it sounds, it’s true.
After the performances and speeches we ate. Believe it or not, one goat, two chickens, some tomatoes and onions, and bucket loads of sheema – all bought for less than $20 – is more than enough to feed over 100 people, at least in Kamunjoma.

We had been in Kamunjoma for nearly a month and had completed two foundations and six tiers. The entire experience greatly exceeded our expectations. We wish we could have stayed to the end but because of logistics in the developing world it takes four months to build a bridge and we needed to return to America. Villagers will be finishing the bridge. That’s the whole point anyway. The main aim of B2P is not to build a bridge. It’s to teach locals how to build bridges so they can build more bridges. That’s one of the reasons it can take four months to finish a bridge. We learned a lot about bridges.
Scott enjoyed teaching and I, well, I really enjoyed playing with the children and getting to be a Madam (not in the Heidi Fleiss sense.)

Zoe, The B2P country director, returned from her vacation in Italy and drove Candice out to Kamunjoma to manage the project for the week after we left. All the remaining materials needed to complete the bridge– 1500 feet of cable, rebar, more cement, gravel, wood (and more gloves!) – were delivered and Scott presented Washington with the heavily dog-eared bridge manual and his Leatherman, which is useful not only for opening canned corned beef when the aluminum key provided snaps off –as it inevitably will– but also for wiring rebar.

Zoe said she could use our help before we flew out setting anchors at another bridge site in the Copperbelt and that afterward we could stay in Kafue National Park while she checked progress at a bridge near the Angola border and collected Valentine a volunteer there from Germany. We jumped at the chance to learn how to set anchors and camp in a wildlife area.

We spent two nights in the Copperbelt. It’s a long drive and the bridge there was having more than it’s share of challenges. Workers ran into solid bedrock within 24 inches of digging the second foundation hole so work had come to a standstill while Zoe was in Italy. It took some time to gather the workers and to track down the man who had the key to the latrine where the tools and cement were stored. After that we had to drive to town to buy sheema and tomatoes because the main concern was not who had the key but would they get lunch that day. I spent most of the time driving Zoe’s Toyota TRD (the pickup like the ones Keith Bramer and my nephew Colin have which Scott lusts after) back and forth from a pile of sand to the bridge site.
Two men went with me and loaded sand into the back of the truck while I talked to the children who were there pounding rocks with rocks to make little rocks for mixing with the cement which would surround the rebar cage we made for the anchor. Scott helped Zoe teach the workers how to pull cable over the towers that sat atop two tiers. Compared to Kamanjoma the Copperbelt bridge was a short one so it only needed two tiers.
Rebar was bent to just the right angle using a tree and discarded remnants of cooled charcoal left after sheema preparations was used as chalk to mark where the rebar should be cut.

Zoe left the workers with instructions on how to build the approaches, said she would return in a week and we drove off to Kafue. We learned from Zoe that Candice, Valentine, Scott and I were the only volunteers she had all year to help her build the five bridges in Zambia. Unfortunately, we were flying home in three days, Valentine in four, Candice in five. But Zoe has built over 30 bridges for B2P in South America and Ethiopia. She is a dynamic woman and mother of two girls, age 1 and 3. Seeing her in action in the Copperbelt there is no question she is up to the task.

Our last two nights in Zambia were spent amongst hippo, lots of hippo, camped at Mukambi Lodge in Kafue National Park. We enjoyed sunrise over the Kafue River and watched lions roar. On a late afternoon game drive we came across a big herd of elephant, porcupines, civets, a bush baby and yet more hippo.
We also were attacked by tsetse flies. If you’ve never been bit by a tsetse fly you’ve never experienced frantic self-slapping. They can bite right through a pair of jeans and I had swellings the size of a tennis balls. Ouch!

It has been an amazing five months. First hiking the Camino in Spain then two months spent transiting Africa through Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania. We got lots of exercise and met great people. Kamunjoma was best. There’s no place like home, that’s for sure. But Kamunjoma comes close.

Boots, Bedouins, and A Bridge signing off.

Scott and Tris
Mukambi Lodge, Zambia