July 10, 2009
Here in Meheba Refugee Settlement FORGE employess about 30 people to manage and coordinate our various projects. While FORGE sends new project managers every year–and the occaisonal consultant like me–the regular employees provide all our institutional knowledge and really run the day-to-day operations. In addition to our employees, there are a number of refugees in Meheba who have adopted FORGE into their extended families and look out for us mzungus to make sure we’re ok. There’s Minos, the bike repair man who can build a reliable mountain bike from spare parts; “The General,” the Don Corleone of Block G who operates daily transport to and from Solwezi and knows everything that’s happening in his community; Boas, the bartender who sells no alcohol (a good thing) but always has cold sodas; and the spiritual leaders: Isaac (the imam at the local mosque) and Boniface (the pastor at the largest church in Meheba). Then there is Bridget.
Bridget is Boniface’s wife and she is an expert tailor. All you need is to show her a picture of a dress and provide the fabric and she can pretty much do anything on a hand-cranked sewing machine. She is also the type of woman that every community needs: welcoming, friendly, motherly, and all-around nice. Whenever I am in her area I always try to stop by her house for some gossip.
We learned today that her father had passed away yesterday. Because he still lives in Eastern Congo there was no hope of Bridget or her children attending his funeral so a grieving ceremony began at her house. In Meheba, mourning lasts for 3 days during which friends and family gather at the home and provide support. At Bridget and Boniface’s this meant wall to wall people sleeping in their home and a large gathering sitting outside under tents. The family is expected to provide food and coffee for all the mourners. Those of us at FORGE provided some food and spent about 3 hours at the house today.
I haven’t known Bridget too long, but in a short time she has become a good friend and it’s been hard on all of us at FORGE too. I never know what to say when someone has lost a loved one, but I like the Meheba way of mourning. Sometimes all that’s needed is a hand to hold and some solidarity.
July 4, 2009
If I was in another place and another time, that title could mean something VERY different. Here in Meheba Refugee Settlement it means that incredibly mean and nasty ants are headed towards the house with the intention of devouring everything in their path. This is where I need to digress and note that when living in a refugee camp it is necessary to listen to the refugees for the best way to stay alive and protect your property. For instance: Doom, Raid, and most other industrial-strength insecticides do absolutely nothing against Red Soldiers. The only reliable weapon is fire. So, while our guard, David, began raking up the brush to build a fire break we started pouring boiling water (luckily our coals were still lit to make bath water) on any scout that dared get to close. Then we lit the match and went back to sleep. Pretty eventful.
Ants aren’t the only pests that refugees know how to fight better than we do. There are also puntsi flies that like to lay eggs in wet laundry. So, you think your jeans are dry and pull them off the line only to end up with larvae burrowing under your skin and making a nice home. The remedy: a little vaseline over the opening and then popping the largest, most disgusting pimple you’ve ever seen and watching out for the bug that emerges. Thankfully, we were given a charcoal iron and the heat kills the bugs. Only one employee has ever gotten puntsi flies, but he swears that it is not an experience to repeat. I’m not sure what a doctor at a fancy hospital back home would do with a person presenting with weird bug-boils, but I’m pretty sure it would involve a quarantine, expensive meds, surgery, and a hefty bill.
Finally, most refugees believe, really believe, in witchcraft. We were warned against using a particular building for an computer education project as the people living next door were “wizards.” It has actually worked out well for us as the “wizards” keep potential scavengers away from our solar panels, but they also are ostracized in the market and sometimes people throw stones at them. Also, I’ve learned that a witch can fly a person from Meheba to America in two hours!!!! I’m trying to find the correct person so I can maybe save some time on my return trip.
I hit a teeny-tiny wall today. I have to renew my visa every 30 days while in Zambia and since I was in town today and it expires next week, it seemed like a good idea to stop at the immigration office to handle it. I’m a horrible procrastinator, so I was pretty proud of myself for being so on top of things. Uh huh…I should have known better.
Apparently, there was some confusion as the immigration officer couldn’t figure out why I was there today when my current visa was still good for another week. I explained that I didn’t know if I would be back in town before it expired so I wanted to be safe and do it now. This caused lots of confusion, and led to a diatribe about how I was unprepared and should know my plans better. Also, there was a discussion about how I would not get locked up for coming in a few days after the visa expired to renew it. I was later assured by friends that preferring to do something later rather than early is common in Zambia. Who knew?
All’s well that ends well, but it was a definite lesson in patience and knowing when to just give in, apologize, and wait for the stamp.
June 25, 2009
My house almost burned down two days ago when the bush caught fire! Supposedly it happens every year about this time, but it was very disconcerting to ride down the road with fire on either side and get home to find the compound completely ringed in flames. Thankfully, it stopped about ten yards from the house at the firebreak. Unfortunately, the ant-hill and trees near our project buildings were not so lucky. We spent a good hour video-taping the action and carrying water to keep the buildings and squatters’ residents from going up.
All’s well that ends well, but it was definitely an adventure!
June 21, 2009
Originally home to over 200,000 refugees, Meheba now houses approximately 14,000 people hailing from Angola, DRC, Rwanda, Burundi, and Sudan. Those that are left have hopes of being offered resettlement in the U.S. or Europe (in actuality only about 1% of refugees world-wide are able to utilize this option), or being absorbed into the Zambian population. Some, such as one of FORGE’s employees, were born here in Zambia but are still considered refugees and unable to obtain citizenship.
In theory, refugees are supposed to have the right to travel and work within the country of acceptance, but that is not the case in Zambia. In Meheba, FORGE is one of only three employers and the 50 or so jobs that we offer to refugees is by far the largest number. The UN and Zambian government occasionally hire refugees, but most of their positions are held by Zambians.
In many ways Meheba is not a traditional refugee camp. Each family has land for cultivation and the main center of the settlement houses a fairly large market with fresh vegetables, rice, beans, and bread. Many of the miners based near Solwezi will visit Meheba for produce as it is better quality and cheaper than in town. One of FORGE’s employees has an extensive garden and he supplies us with fresh greens, tomatoes, and onions on a regular basis. Cooking them is more problematic as our stove/oven consists of a charcoal brazier that is “slightly” difficult to light in the mornings. I’m getting the hang of it though.
FORGE operates multiple different programs in the settlement. I am here to help with the pre-schools of which there are three spread out throughout the camp. There are also multiple libraries, two health programs, a Women’s Center, an agricultural loan program, and a high school sponsorship program.
This past Saturday (June 20) was World Refugee Day and the UN sponsored a huge celebration on the grounds of one of the schools in the settlement. There was native dancing and skits based on sexual & gender based violence and the flight of refugees during war. It was slightly disturbing to watch the cheering whenever women’s rights were mentioned or anti-violence speeches were given knowing that only two days earlier a two-year-old had been raped in the settlement. We’re hopeful that things will improve though.
June 16, 2009
It’s been five days since I landed in Zambia and in that time I’ve seen some of the richest and poorest in the country, come to understand a little bit of what skin color means to native Africans, and thankfully not been attacked by a hippo…or a crocodile.
I arrived in Lusaka, the capital, on June 11 and immediately began a two-day training workshop with FORGE staff based there. I also got to meet nine refugee students that FORGE is sponsoring at the national university in Lusaka. They are all incredibly intelligent and most have plans to return to their native countries to open businesses, rebuild the government, or start advocacy groups.
The day after arriving, I traveled with FORGE staff and another volunteer to a resort town in the south of Zambia called Siavonga. It’s on the shores of Lake Kariba which was formed when the Zambezi was damned in 1960 to create a large hydro-electric power plant (displacing hundreds of people and multiple herds of wild game in the process). The lake spans the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe and power is generated on both sides of the dam, but most of the power created in Zambia is sold directly to Zimbabwe.
We were in Siavonga because the Zambian National Wildlife Society was holding a canoe race (which was much longer than originally advertised as a hippo had claimed a large chunk of territory between two of the resorts) to raise money, and FORGE was participating – my boat came in last unfortunately, but it meant we appeared on Zambian national television. The entire weekend was sponsored by many of the local hotels and businesses around Lake Kariba and the race itself was a type of scavenger hunt between six of the resorts. Most of the business in Siavonga is owned, operated, and frequented by white Zambians, and while most of those we met were friendly, there were definitely a few throwbacks of colonialism.
Regardless of skin color, it became very apparent that Zambian culture revolves around alcohol. We traveled to Siavonga on a bus sponsored by the event with members of the media, event organizers, and other “paddlers.” As soon as we pulled out of the station in Lusaka, the media people began drinking and what should have been a three hour journey became five with the multiple stops required to restock on beer or whiskey, or just run into the bushes. Thankfully, we met a nice Namibian in Siavonga who offered us a ride back to Lusaka at the end of the weekend. The ride back was much more enjoyable with a few stops to take pictures of the Kafue river and ancient baobab trees, and upon arriving in Lusaka our friend invited us to join him at a rugby match where we got to see the Zimbabwean national team beat a provincial team from South Africa at sevens.
The next day found us back on a bus bound for Solwezi, a small town in the north situated near the western edge of the copperbelt, and also the nearest town to the Meheba Refugee Settlement where I now call home. The journey took the entire day and passed through most of industrial Zambia, and the majority of copper mines in the country. The economic differences between some of the smaller outposts along the route and Siavonga was stark, but everywhere people were operating small businesses or farming so there seemed to be hope. Once we arrived in Solwezi and had found our luggage, including a few new solar panels for a computer literacy program in the settlement, we loaded up the truck and drove the final two hours to Meheba.
The road from Solwezi to Meheba leads into the bush and as we left the city center we passed through what can only be called a shanty-town as many natives of Solwezi are no longer able to afford decent housing in town thanks to the new copper mines which have increased prices. Further out we passed through a few villages until all that remained was an empty stretch of road that lead to the settlement. After a short chat with a drunken guard at the gate, and a VERY bumpy ride into the heart of the camp, we were home.
So, I leave next week for Zambia! I will be working for FORGE in the Meheba Refugee Settlement in northern Zambia, primarily focusing on refugee-driven educational development projects for young children.
The Meheba Refugee Settlement first began accepting refugees in 1971 during the Angolan civil war, and now there are refugees from Angola, DRC, Rwanda, and Burundi currently living there. Due to Zambia’s stable governance situation and continued economic prosperity, it has become a safe haven for refugees from throughout the sub-Saharan region. Furthermore, it’s considered a great tourist destination due to the large numbers of wildlife parks and sanctuaries, the Zambezi River, Lake Kariba (a major hydro-electrical project between Zambia & Zimbabwe), and Victoria Falls…not that I’ll be anywhere near water.
I would like to say how awed I am by the level of dedication so many Wagnerites are showing in heading out to the field for the summer. It is so easy as students to get drawn into the comfort of academia, but it’s important for us as practitioners to really see what is happening in the areas where we want to work.
I’m hoping to be able to blog a few times from Africa, but sadly will not have Internet access in Meheba so we’ll see. If my next post is not until I return, then I promise pictures!
Happy Travel Wagnerites!!!