Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy Holidays!

Its that time of year, again.

Christmas. Turkey dinners, shiny wrapping paper, mistletoes, egg nog, mulled wine, crazy shoppers, unscrupulous drunken party behaviour and fancy dress parties. And of course, family.

I’m going to have to admit it is really hard for me to believe that it’s Christmas. The subtle changes of seasons don’t provide a constant time check that says ‘ Its getting cold, leaves are falling, rain is falling, snow is falling, ready…..ready… its CHRISTMAS!’ I mean, just last week, I was out motoring around in the muddy fields, talking to farmers not about Christmas, but about how much rain will come and what the harvest will be like this year. And our public space isn't invaded with Christmas decorations. Take a look at what the main drag of LusakaCairo Rd—looks like, today, on Christmas Eve, just like every other day.

This isn’t the first time I’m going to be spending Christmas away from home and in Africa. In 2003, I was in Ghana and I’ve observed about Christmas there is similar to what I am observing here. And that is, that Christmas isn’t IN YOUR FACE. There aren’t public Christmas trees, no lights, few decorations. Reminders of Christmas are usually a lot more subtle and usually unexpected. For example, last weekend, I was packed into a mini bus. The person’s phone in-front of me rang as many often do; but this time, instead of 50 cent filling the air, there was another familiar tune. It took me a few seconds to realise that it was ‘ We wish you a Merry Christmas’. And then on Tuesday, it was down pouring and I stepped into a store to escape the rain only to have another oddly familiar tune playing in the background – ‘have a holly jolly Christmas’. To my ears, the harmony and beats of Christmas carols just don’t fit with the beats and melodic sounds of traditional African music. There are fake plastic Christmas trees in cluttered in a few store windows and it’s a bit odd because you never see these trees growing naturally around here, and really, trees? Inside? There was an old blow up Santa Claus doll hanging from a thatch roof hut I saw last week in Monze. Santa? In Zambia? A fat old white bearded man in a red and white suite? SHU-AH! ( as in ‘Sure!?!?’ as in REALLY?!) Usually, when I think of all of these western symbols of Christmas, I can’t help but feel like it is a phony way of celebrating, and how it is a testament to western culture that really doesn’t fit into local context.

And today, being Christmas eve, I was out on the town and came across a sight that seems to symbolize what I'm trying to say.

Consider exibit A. Zambian Santa.

I know that this is Zambian Santa, because notice the nice booty.

Exhibit B. notice the gum boots (its rainy season) and face mask ( masks, are hot items).

And then, Santa here, has a whole other persona.

I mean, sure, there isn't a 'HO HO HO' but this Santa has a street style all his own. I don’t know what I enjoy more, his high pitched screech, his ‘HELLO!HOW IS ZAMBIA?', or the fact that he has completely blow apart any childhood image of a nice old Santa, sitting in a mall, bells ringing in the background, nice instrumental 'silent night, or the fact that instead of riding around in a sleigh and upholding an image of gentleness and care, he’s scurrying around Lusaka accosting people. *sigh*. Randomness. I love it.

But really, besides today's randomness, overall, Christmas here is a pretty low-key event. You can walk down any street and there isn’t much that will remind you that it is Christmas. Most households just use the time for family, go to church and if there is extra money, cook special meal. And I think that I kind of like the low-key nature. I used to think that I enjoyed this mostly because I’m kind of afraid ( yes, I think afraid is the right word) of the consumerism that overtakes our communities back home during this time of year. That maybe I was happy that there wasn't a lot of western influence (yet) on this holiday. But yesterday, it kind of hit me that I realised that I kind of like the low key nature of all of this because it means there are fewer reminders that I am going to be away from family.

My family isn’t religious in the traditional sense. Actually, what am I talking about? We’re not even religious in the non-traditional sense! I think that we can count the total times anyone has ever gone to church on one, maybe two hands. Christmas for us has been much more about family getting together and with my brothers and I dispersed across the country (and world) these days, the holidays has been much more about that. It is a time for us to spend time together, catch each other up with our lives, make fun of each other, cook feasts, regress back to childhood tendencies (this includes my mother of course) and remind my dad that yes, he just may be more of a circus ringmaster than head of the household. And now that we’ve got little ones in the midst, I’m sure that it will only add to our barnyard antics. Holidays really, is a time where I always remember how lucky I am to have such characters in my family, and how truly special I am as a sister, and a daughter.

I’m going to miss my family – mom, dad, mel, KH, wild man, KY, Janice, jada, KK, becca and of course, dear little izzy. A lot. I’ll be thinking about all of you from this side of the world ( yes, as I take a 2 day train ride out to the coast and Zanzibar).

Have a safe and wonderful holiday everyone and hope that 2008 will be the best one yet.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

SOOOO how's the weather?

It’s December (IMAGINE!). I hear that Kingston and Wallaceburg got some white stuff. KK tells me that Vancouver also got some white stuff (that wreaked havoc) and then turned into brown stuff.

Here in Zambia, like Canadians, we ALSO inquire about the weather, but the question du jour is not ‘how many centimeters?’ but rather, ‘How are the rains?’.

I was in Nalubwandea community last week doing household surveys ( more on this to come in another post) and that was the question on everyone’s mind. The response was worrying.

‘ Ah Ah Ah! Tsk tsk. NO RAIN! Imagine! Ah, this is not good. NO RAIN. They tell use we’re supposed to have more than normal rains but look! Nothing!’

Mr. Shambosha, a farmer in the group was lamenting to his pals about the empty skies, the dry dusty soils, and the closing window of opportunity if the rains do not come. The first set of rains came a few weeks ago and he had felt them to be sufficient so he planted his cotton. But since then, nothing, and if it didn’t rain again in 3 days time, that effort and the investment in the seeds would be wasted as they had already begun to germinate.

It’s rainy season and that means the hundreds of thousands smallholder farmers in Zambia become gamblers, testing their luck with mother nature and hoping that they will come out on top. From the middle of November through to middle of December, farmers across the country will keep an ear open during the night to listen for the pitter patter of rains and then in the morning eagerly look outside and ask: should I plant today, or wait until tomorrow; was today’s rain showers a fluke or is it really the signal that the rain is here to stay? Winning means the first step to security for your family. Losing means wasting this year’s inputs, and the dreadfulness of knowing that you will not have enough food for your family to last through the following season.

I’m not much of a gambler and certainly wouldn’t have the stomach for this risk. Just imagine what would you do if your paycheck depended on whether the sun was shining or the clouds were full of water? What would you do, if your family’s security and ability to put food on the table was dependent on whether it rained, when it rained, and how much it rained.

And even if the rains come on time, it is just one risk that among many. As the season continues, other risks creep up; what if the rains stop? What if it rains too much, as it often does in Chama district in eastern province and crops are regularly flooded. My colleague Sarah Lewis and other EWB Volunteers in northern Ghana actually knows this well first hand. Or what if someone falls sick in the family? It doesn’t just mean health concerns, it also means one less hand to weed, and if weeding is insufficient, yields will drop. Or if pests attack your crops, it is equivalent to a thief coming in and stealing your money. Some may romanticize the lifestyle of working your own fields and harvesting your food. In Canada, farming can be a choice and if that investment fails, we have other means to rely on. But here in Zambia and across the continent, farming is a gamble within in a lifestyle of vulnerability.

What is encouraging however is that while we can’t control the rain, we do have options that can decrease the risks associated with farming. With PROFIT, we’re trying to build the private sector as an alternative system that provides farmers with access to some of these other options.

By introducing private vet services, farmers can have access to preventative measures and improve animal health. In the mid 90’s when government vet services collapsed and disease ran out of control, 70% of cattle in southern province were wiped out. This directly impacted food security as farmers rely heavily on draft power for land preparation and if your lands aren't ready in time, then you can't plant on time, and if you can't plant on time, your harvest suffers.

By introducing private agricultural input companies directly into rural communities, farmers have the option to buy seeds, fertilisers and other inputs right at their doorstep, saving transportation money. It can also provide access to improved inputs and external knowledge for better farming practices.

By introducing oxen or tractor tillage service providers, farmers could have access to land preparation services without having to wait to borrow oxen; or it could increase adoption of improved land preparation techniques (like ripping for conservation farming) that can directly increase yields, but are often passed by because it of the labour intensiveness.

These are not solutions that will help everyone – there is no silver bullet. But at least these are opening up options for many farmers so that they might be able to rely less on hope and instead, have opportunities to proactively build security for their families.

So, as you’re all bundling yourselves up for the next few months of old man winter and looking to the skies to see if snow will fall, we’ll be looking to the skies and hoping that mother nature will cooperate, for another year.

I was beginning to get worried because when I left Nalubwandea, the skies had teased us every day in the end, never delivered on its promise. Three days ago, I got a text message informing me that it had finally rained. And I couldn’t help but feel relieved.