Sunday, April 1, 2007


Kazungu Village, Malama Area, Monze District, Southern Province, Zambia (whew)

As I mentioned in my last post, I had the opportunity to stay in a rural village following a community meeting. This was my first venture into rural Zambia and I was excited. No, no, I was more than excited. The community was about 100 km away from the nearest tar road, and as we bounced along the winding narrow roads, my colleague Jonathon turned to me and said dramatically, “Ka-Hay! We are now in the heart of Africa’. I turned my face into the sun, took in a deep breath of air and looked around me at the expanse of lands, the fields of maize, at the absence of roads, and curiously back at the curious looks thrown my way from people who stopped at the side of the road to let our vehicle – a rare one – drive by.

Life here in rural Zambia is certainly different than in Vancouver, Toronto, Kingston, Wallaceburg, and any other Canadian city and you have to let go of what you know and are used to, in order to truly experience and embrace the differences; luxury is if your house has a tin rather than thatch roof; your family’s security is dependent on if and how much the rains will fall; you eat what is in season; you live with extended extended extended family; the women cook, and the men do not; children don't eat with adults; it is called maize, not corn; the milk is fresh, not processed; the night skies are filled with glittering stars as there is no electrical lights to compete with; water comes from a well; bedtime is when the sun goes down and you get up is when the sun rises; nothing is ever thrown away; you know what plants are edible, and which are not; cows, pigs and chickens roam freely by as you prepare your next meal; you read a book because you're studying something; aids is a reality; As much as I try to blend in and do as the locals do, it is inevitable that I stand out and everyone is curious about what the white person will do, how my white (yes, white) skin feels, if I’m able to eat nshima like them, and how my hair can be so straight.

Despite all of those things that me different from them, there are also those common things that strip away our differences and unite us as people, equal as humans; that unrestrained smile that transforms strangers into friends, the curiosity of children, love of family, kindness and compassion, tears of sadness, the joy of laughter and the list goes on.

During this time here, I happened upon another one that was somewhat unexpected but one that I will remember with fondness.

After church on Sunday, Madame Chiyombwe, the mother of the family I was staying with, said to me, “ Ka-Hay, you know, every year, as the rainy season ends, there are bicycle races that take place ever other week starting at 14:00. Today will be the first one of the year. Would you like to go and see?

“Bicycle races!?!?!?” But of course!

You see, among the many wonderful gifts that my parents gave my three older brothers and I there was the love of sport. Before I can even remember, our family would gather around swim meets, bike races, running races and triathlons. Guided by our parents, we were used to testing our bodies to their limits and pushing just beyond. From the time I was three, once a month, the six of us get up at the crack of dawn, pack into our sky blue Oldsmobile and travel throughout the cities of southern Ontario to race in swim meets. When I was six, my parents discovered triathlons and soon after that, our summer weekends were planned around those races.

I remember my brothers, all older and wiser than me, always chatting about the latest must-have equipment, the science of sporting technology, how we could shave seconds of our time if only our bikes were set up differently. I remember saving up our money from lifeguarding in order to buy the newest gadgets, and justifying the purchase to our dad who of course thought it was all a waste of money. Afterall, when he grew up in China, he didn’t even have a pair of shoes to wear and had to run barefeet on bubbling tar under the hot sun ( and maybe it was even uphill, both ways…)

To this day, one of my fondest memories of summer is when our family would meet in Kingston Ontario at the end of July and the four of us would complete the K-Town triathlon as my parents cheered us on from the sidelines. During this summer weekend, the residents of this quaint university town located on the shores of Lake Ontario would gather themselves around this annual race; the downtown would be blocked off and traffic would give way to the athletes, music would blare over the loudspeakers, announcers would call out names and the crowd would cheer finishers young and old, fast and slow, as they moved their bodies through water and along the tarmac towards the finish line. I remember energy of the crowds, the sense of camaraderie between friends and competitors alike, the scent of sunscreen in the air, the cloak of fitness draped over every body, and sense of accomplishment in crossing the finish line.

This was what I knew of swimming, biking and triathlons and on that Sunday afternoon, I honestly had had no idea what to expect in this remote community far off the tar road that was ‘deep into the heart of Africa’.

I walked with Freeman and one of Madame’s daughters, Viola and asked ‘Where will the racers go?’. They both waved their arms in a wide circle around them and pointed to no path I could see, to ‘that tree over there’ in the distance, and to homes hidden from my sight, but recognizable in their memory. After their carefully detailed answer, I still had no idea where the course was, but understood that it would cover somewhere around 40 km, start and end conveniently at the community tavern and it would make one loop around the outskirts of the community and out to the foothills off to the south. They said that it was probably going to take the riders about 1:45 – 2 hours and when I arrived, it was nearing that time.

Even before I could see the finish line, I could hear drumming and voices of a crowd. I arrived to see spectators passing the time until the winners arrived by dancing and showing off the impossibly awesome dance moves (how hips are able to move in ways I will never know). Friends chatted, babies hung off their mother’s backs, children roamed freely, and men drank their maize beer.

I tried to wander around the crowds inconspicuously but my white skin betrayed me and was I shoved into the middle of the crowd. Inquisitive eyes peered at me, and curious hands reached out to touch my skin. I took pleasure responding to their question of ‘where are you from’ with the honest ‘Canada’, and watching the look of confusion creep across their face.

As I was tried out my Tonga on some of the locals and amused them with my heavily accented and limited vocabulary, we heard from children perched upon a massive anthill that the first riders could be seen riding in the foothills in the distance. Suddenly everyone stopped what they were doing midstep and rushed towards the dirt road not wanting to miss a thing. The crowd began to gather along the finish line and though I did no know the words, it was not difficult to understand the chatter of excitement of who would be winner of this first race of the season.

In maneuvering to get a better view the crowd began to resemble the masses that lined the roads in the L’alp d’huez stages of the Tour and road began to disappear amidst the bodies. Crowd control in this neck of the woods resembled the herding of cattle and after a few whips of a stick, the road reappeared again.

Cheers soon erupted along the line of people like a game of dominos and before I knew it, the first rider whizzed by and then the second, and then the third. People began yelling, clapping, hugging and others spoke with surprise as the reigning champion was dethroned.

The post race party was not unlike those in Canada. The winner hoisted his bicycle above the mobs to celebrate his win.

Friends and strangers alike hovered around the racers and everyone wanted to touch the bicycles. And these bicycles showed the innovation and creativity that existed within these individuals and communities.

Speaking of these bicycles, if you’ll let me, I’d like to digress for just a moment. You see, one of the things that never sat well with me when I was in Ghana, and I hear it here as well, is the sense among the locals that they are not innovative, not creative, that somehow they lacked ingenuity. One look at their bicycles and was evident that they had not recognized their own worth. These bicycles were reincarnated plastic bags, wooden planks, mismatched gears and other things our spoiled western eyes would have considered garbage. I looked at these bicycles and couldn’t help but be in awe of their creativity, resourcefulness and innovation. I looked at these creations and understood even more, the meaning of opportunity, the meaning of having access to choices and opportunities for you to realize your potential, for you to be able to apply your skills and see your worth. I looked at these bicycles and asked myself the question that never seems to be far from mind; imagine what they could do if they had a fraction of the privileges and choices I had.

Anyway, there were no carbon fibre seat posts, no aerodynamic helmets, no yellow jerseys, no cowbells (surprisingly), no one had heard of Cervelo and certainly there were no scandals of blood doping. What there was a sense of community, a sense of competition, innovation, creativity, all in the commonplace of sport. And on this Sunday afternoon, although half a world away, I found a bit of home and a familiarity in people.