Z is for Zambia

White Rhino by SarahDepper, on Flickr

I never wanted to go to Africa. I was sure of it. That is, until I went to Yemen, another place I never wanted to go.

But a good reason to go to Yemen came along. And I am so very pleased. I enjoyed Yemen so much more than I had expected (Y is for Yemen) that I realized I needed to give more consideration to other places I thought I didn’t want to go. Africa came immediately to mind.

I planned to retire from the Foreign Service once I had completed 20 years. Everything about the system was geared to encourage Foreign Service employees to leave after 20 years, except for the few who managed to be promoted into the Senior Foreign Service. I didn’t expect to reach that level, so I planned my life assuming I would retire in 2005.

In 2003, I actively sought as my final assignment an opportunity to see as much of Africa as possible in what I assumed would be my final two years: roving management officer. For my last two years, I would serve temporarily in whatever management positions the Bureau of African Affairs felt were most important to fill when the gap between leaving and arriving employees was long or when vacancies occurred unexpectedly, due to illness or other emergencies.

Plans have a way of being interrupted, especially when living overseas. Instead of spending two years in Africa as a roving management officer, I was only there for nine months. And that meant I only experienced three countries: Madagascar (A is for Antananarivo), Eritrea (E is for Eritrea; K is for Keren), and Zambia.

My stay in Zambia was the shortest: three weeks. Far too short. So I’m “extending” it through reading.

Zambia is the setting for a number of memoirs. Here’s one I just finished. Watch for my review of it soon. (A preview–I gave it five stars.)

(From Goodreads.com) “In Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller remembers her African childhood with candor and sensitivity. Though it is a diary of an unruly life in an often inhospitable place, it is suffused with Fuller’s endearing ability to find laughter, even when there is little to celebrate. Fuller’s debut is unsentimental and unflinching but always captivating. In wry and sometimes hilarious prose, she stares down disaster and looks back with rage and love at the life of an extraordinary family in an extraordinary time.”

The following are now on my “Want to Read” list:

(from Goodreads.com) “When former journalist Adeline Loh could no longer endure the brain-deadening routine of work, she did what any sensible person would do: flee Malaysia with a paranoid vegetarian named Chan and go ambling in the lion-infested wilderness of southern Africa. However, upon arriving in Zambia, the bush virgins realised nothing from the Animal Planet documentaries had prepared them for survival in the savannah. With baboons, hippopotamuses and buffaloes conspiring to tear them into pieces, our addled heroines rattled along crater-pocked tracks, canoed through the crocodile-infested Zambezi River, flew over Victoria Falls on a little tricycle with wings, stalked incestuous rhinoceroses and peed amidst thorny shrubbery. And in more life-preserving moments, they pondered antimalarial druggies, sleazy hunters and muscle-bound native women while hoping to achieve their main goal—not to get eaten alive!

“In Peeing in the Bush, Loh recounts in candid prose her fun and engaging misadventures in Zambia with a rich mix of anecdotes, commentary and deft description.”

This one is in my hands, written by the same author as the one just finished so I am looking forward to starting it.

(from Goodreads.com) “When Alexandra Bo Fuller was in Zambia a few years ago visiting her parents, she asked her father about a nearby banana farmer who was known as being a tough bugger. Her father’s response was a warning to steer clear of him: Curiosity scribbled the cat, he told her. Nonetheless, Fuller began her strange friendship with the man she calls K, a white African and veteran of the Rhodesian War. A man of contradictions, K is battle-scarred and work-weathered, a born-again Christian and given to weeping for the failure of his romantic life and the burden of his memories. Driven by K’s memories of the war, they decide to enter the heart of darkness in the most literal way, by traveling from Zambia through Zimbabwe and Mozambique to visit the scenes of the war and to meet other veterans. The result is a remarkably unbiased and unsentimental glimpse of life in Africa.”

(from Goodreads.com) “It is 1972 and James and Katrina Martin set off for a well earned month of vacation from Zambia to South Africa and England. They return to find that James is to be offered an opportunity to start a new mine away from the Zambian Copperbelt, an opportunity that he takes. They travel to the Mtuga operation which is located just off the Great North Road in the Mkushi district of Zambia. The mine is sited on old workings from the 1920’s and is being re-opened as a surface mine. The Mkushi District is better known for its tobacco and maize farms and in the late 1970’s for the camps of the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA), an organization that they will encounter a few times.

“Life is complicated when the Rhodesians close the border with Zambia and Zambia retaliates, potentially stranding all their new mining machinery outside the country. They must formulate a plan to get everything to the mine and the operation started on time and to budget. Things are further complicated by corporate politics and rivalries that create problems along the way.

“Although now married for almost three years, James and Katrina continue to discover each other and their romance and desire for one another is as strong as ever. They take every opportunity they can to be away and alone together in the more remote parts of Zambia.”

(from Goodreads.com) “1898, Tsavo River Kenya, the British Empire employs native workers to build a railroad. Construction comes to a violent halt when two maneless lions devour 140 workers in an extended feeding frenzy that would make headlines and history all over the world. Caputo’s Ghosts of Tsavo is a new quest for truth about the origins of these near-mythical animals and how they became predators of human flesh.”

You may recognize the lions as the titular characters in the 1995 movie, The Ghost and the Darkness. For the original book on which the fictionalized movie was based, see The Man-Eaters of Tsavo.

And there is also fiction.

(from Goodreads.com) “In A Cowrie of Hope Binwell Sinyangwe captures the rhythms of a people whose poverty has not diminished their dignity, where hope can only be accompanied by small acts of courage, and where friendship has not lost its value.”

K is for Keren

Lisa, a teacher from Texas at the Asmara International Community School, introduced me to Keren, Eritrea. Or perhaps it was Keren that introduced me to Lisa. It happened in the Keren Public Library.

Once a month, Lisa and her daughter went to the Keren Public Library where the US embassy had set up an American Corner. These spaces in public places exist in towns too small for an American consulate, where information about the United States is made available for the local population. Often a computer terminal connected to the Internet is the centerpiece. No American staff members work at American Corners. Instead, a local staff member from the place, often a library or a university, agrees to assist those visiting the American Corner find information. In many American Corners, discussion or cultural programs are hosted.

Maryam Deira Chapel
St. Maryam Deari Chapel

Keren is the second largest city in Eritrea, situated within 60 miles from Asmara. It was the site of many battles during World War II and the Eritrean War of Independence. One attraction in Keren, St. Maryam Deari chapel, located inside a beobab tree, marks the site where Italian soldiers hid during a battle with the British in 1941. The tree was hit, and the hole in the tree can still be seen, but the soldiers survived.

Sandra at the camel market
Sandra at the Keren camel market

Another attraction, at least for me, is the camel market, held each Monday.

But my fondest memories of Keren are of Lisa and her kids at the Keren Public Library. One Saturday each month, an embassy driver picked up Lisa and her daughter for the trip to Keren. Lisa invited me to come along. We got started late that Saturday so I asked Lisa what would happen if we didn’t arrive on time. I worried that the children might leave if we weren’t there on time. She assured me that nothing would happen until we arrived. She, it turned out, was the program in Keren. The children all waited for her. And when it was time for her to leave, they stayed at her side, holding her hands, her arms, her shirt, attempts to keep her there longer.

Armed with a cassette tape player, cassettes of songs used in American early childhood education programs, children’s books, and posters containing enlarged drawings from some of the books, Lisa performed with a group of 20 kids ranging in age from four to 14. She called it a class. I felt it was much more.

She got them all up on their feet to sing and dance along with the songs. Even the older ones enthusiastically joined in as they sang “I’m a little teapot, short and stout . . .” They all placed on hand on a hip with “Here’s my handle . . .” and raised the other hand with “And here’s my spout.” After they sang the song, Lisa asked questions about teapots, tea, and anything else the children’s answers raised.

My favorite part of the program involved Lisa handing out posters of the drawings from the book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do  You See? by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle. The children with the posters lined up in the order the animals appear in the book, and they held up their posters for the rest of the children to see when Lisa mentioned their animal as she read the book.

After Lisa finished reading the book to them, the children with the posters recited the book pages themselves. All of the children recited the first part of each page, “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what do you see?” The child holding the drawing of the brown bear then answered, “I see a [black bird] looking at me.” And so it went, not necessarily in the order of the pages in the book. The variation ensured that every child in the room listened carefully to know which animal they next would ask the question. A second set of children then took their places and repeated the exercise.

As I watched the performance, I conjured up a continuation of the lesson for Lisa, one where the students might have to give up the rhyme of “see” and “me” by replacing “you” with “he,” “she,” or “we” in the question and then replacing “me” with “him,” “her,” or “us,” as appropriate.

On the Saturdays Lisa wasn’t in Keren, she conducted two of the same classes in Asmara at the American Cultural Center. She repeated the class each Saturday so that all of the more than 100 children who wanted to take part could attend one.

Lisa’s program wasn’t something the US embassy asked her to create. It was an idea based on her passion for sharing language and learning with more than just the two dozen children in her elementary school classroom at the Asmara International Community School. She started out hoping to establish a children’s story hour like in libraries in Texas she had brought her daughter to before her daughter reached school age. She asked for permission to invite the children of US embassy employees. On that first day, a dozen children arrived. The next week, she was surrounded by children who lived in the neighborhood who asked if they, too, could join the class.

Reading to children and encouraging them to learn to speak English was not Lisa’s only passion in Asmara. She noticed many children in her own neighborhood did not have shoes. Lisa approached the owner of a shoe store in Asmara and arranged to pay him for shoes in exchange for a coupon she printed and gave to children whenever she saw one without shoes. Each month she received a bill for the number of pairs of shoes she had given coupons for.

Lisa’s willingness to immerse herself into the lives of the people, especially of the children, of Eritrea inspired me to take the time to talk with a few boys I met on the street in downtown Asmara a few weeks later, a conversation that led to my sponsorship of a neighborhood soccer team, documented in E is for Eritrea.

Thank you, Lisa.

E is for Eritrea

Team USA in Asmara Eritrea
Habtom (at left), Dawit (third from the right) and the other boys of Eritrea

Eritrea had been independent for less time than I had worked for the US Department of State when I arrived there in February 2004. I knew very little about it, only that it gained independence from Ethiopia in the early 1990s.

My stay in Eritrea was short–just four months. But by the time I left, a piece of my heart was firmly embedded in the country.

It all started one Sunday afternoon when I went with my friend from the embassy, Jewel, to a barbecue at the Israeli ambassador’s house. When we arrived, Jewel noticed that one of the tires on her car was flat. Always practical, Jewel decided there was no need for us to delay our arrival at the barbecue to replace the tire; we could find someone to help us change it when it was time to go home.

She was right. And it was her timing that made all the difference to the rest of my stay in Eritirea.

While Jewel pointed out to the volunteers where her spare tire and jack were, I stood back on the sidewalk, just watching. That’s where I was when a group of young boys approached. There were eight of them. They were carrying a t-shirt, each of four boys holding onto a corner of it as if it were ready to catch something. One of the boys approached and asked me for help. Since none of the boys appeared to be injured, I asked what kind of help they needed. He pointed to the shirt and said they needed money to buy uniforms.

At this point, I thought about my options. A) I could just shoo them away, telling them I couldn’t help, B) I could give them some money towards their uniforms, or C) I could spend the time I was going to have to wait for the tire to be changed talking with them.

I choose C.

The smallest of the boys, Dawit, was the only one who seemed comfortable speaking English. He translated as we talked.

First, I asked what kind of uniforms they needed. They explained that they wanted uniforms for their soccer team. I asked the boys their names. I only caught a couple of them. Isaias, Daniel, Habtom.

I asked how much money they needed for uniforms. They said each uniform cost 100 nakfa (Eritrean currency, the equivalent to $7.00). I asked how I could be sure they would use money I gave them for uniforms. After they couldn’t answer that question, I asked if I was going to have to trust them. Dawit nodded vigorously at that. Yes, I would just have to trust them.

When I noticed that the tire was nearly changed, I gave the boys 300 nakfa so they could buy three uniforms. And they went off down the street. But a minute later, Dawit and Habtom came back. Where did I live, Dawit asked. I told him I lived in the United States. But he wanted to know where I lived in Eritrea. I didn’t know my address. Someone from the embassy picked me up each morning and someone else dropped me off at home after work. When I explained that I didn’t know my address, they reluctantly went away.

But a minute later, Dawit and Habtom were back. This time, Habtom handed me a pen and asked me to write my telephone number on his hand. That I could do. And they rushed away again.

I never expected to hear from or see them again. But the following Saturday, Habtom called. Since he didn’t speak English, I was about to hang up when I heard him say,  “Habtom 300 nakfa.”

The next voice I heard was an Eritrean who spoke English and who told me the boys wanted to meet me the next day to show me their uniforms.

Every Sunday for the rest of my stay in Eritrea, I met with the boys of the soccer team, as many as 16 of them at one point. I watched them practice, took photos and videos as they played, and after practice they walked with me to my house where I gave them refreshments and we watched videos together–Finding Nemo and Bend It Like Beckham were their favorites.

That first day, only four boys had uniforms. So I bought the rest of the boys uniforms, too. And boots, and soccer balls, and better boots when the first set fell apart after a couple of games, and a second set of uniforms. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my money or my time in Eritrea. I still can’t.

C is for Cairo

I didn’t want to go to Cairo. I had just arrived in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, in August of 1996 to take up my responsibilities as management officer of the US Embassy there. I was eager to get started. But instead, I was sent for a three-day conference in Cairo less than a week after arriving. The conference was important. But the financial management officer was also going, and I didn’t see why we both needed to go. But the boss insisted. So I went.

On the first day of the conference, our seats were assigned. Table tents with our names and the name of the diplomatic post we represented were already on the tables. Mine was in the front row. Abu Dhabi had the alphabetical advantage I rarely enjoyed personally.

After getting settled, I turned around and noticed that the name on the table tent just behind me was familiar, Ohaila Ataya. Almost ten years before, Ohaila worked for me at the US Embassy in Doha, Qatar. I hadn’t seen her since.

I was so pleased to see her name, and then to see her come forward to take her place, I nearly cried. We hugged and chattered back and forth about how happy we were to see one another after so long.

I had hired Ohaila as the financial management specialist in Doha and I believed that she had learned much from me. But I had learned so very much more from her.

Ohaila is Palestinian. She and her sister had lived in Doha most of their lives since her family lost their home in what had been the British Mandate of Palestine. Less than a year before, their parents left Qatar as immigrants to the US. Ohaila and her sister had to stay behind, living with their aunts, working at the US Embassy.

From Ohaila, I learned much about the Palestinians who were displaced when the state of Israel was formed. Most of them left their ancestral homes. Many ended up in refugee camps in Jordan. Others with more means took jobs in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, or Oman. Some emigrated to the United States.

The generation of Ohaila’s parents sent their male children to the US, Canada, or Europe to university, hoping they would make a better life for themselves and their families elsewhere–once they stopped dreaming that Palestine would be returned to them. That generation kept their female children close, planning marriages to the young Palestinian men sent off to other lands so that they, too, could escape. But many of the Palestinian men fell in love with and married the women in the countries of their studies. So the Palestinian women left behind became spinsters, denied children of their own because of the lack of eligible men to marry and the lack of freedom to choose a non-traditional life.

And yet Ohaila always smiled. She was a devout Muslim woman who adhered to the pillars of Islam while at the same time respecting the faith of others around her. She explained aspects of Islam that Westerners find so difficult to understand. For example, I had always heard reference to how simple it was for a man to divorce his wife by saying “I divorce you” three times. But Ohaila pointed out that the requirement to say it three times was to provide assurances to women that a man was certain about what he said, not shouting it in anger. In context, Ohaila’s explanation made sense.

Ohaila never blamed others for her situation. She viewed everything in her life’s path as an opportunity. She demonstrated her faith every day. Her example gave me reason to want to understand more.

And Cairo gave me an opportunity to connect with her again. So while I didn’t want to go, I’m glad I did. I even saw the pyramids and rode on a camel.

A is for Antananarivo

Cochecitos by copepodo, on Flickr

Check out the toy cars made from soft drink cans.

From September 2003 until January 2004, I lived in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar. Known as Tananariv during a period of French colonization, it got shortened even further to Tana, especially by foreigners who have trouble getting the multiple-syllable names out with accents in the right places.

I had always considered Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world, to be part of Africa, but the Malagasy people don’t agree. On a map, the gap between Madagascar and Mozambique on the east coast of Africa gives the impression that Madagascar split off from Africa. But there is more evidence, hidden from view, that Africa first split off from Gondwana, the supercontinent, at which time Madagascar’s west coast was formed. We’re talking millions of years ago, nearly 200 million years ago. Then a mere 88 million years ago, Madagascar split off from what since became the Indian sub-continent. It then drifted west. The minerals and precious gems found underground are similar to what can be found in India.

Its people also do not seem African. And they aren’t. The original people who settled Madagascar came from islands in the South Pacific. The people look more like Indonesians than Africans. They are short in stature and lighter in skin tone. They dress more like the people of Indonesia. The women wear sarongs and shawls around their shoulders. And their original animist religious traditions are more like those of Indonesia. They revere their ancestors and periodically remove the bones from their tombs in a ceremony referred to as turning the bones. Once the bones are removed, the family gathers to celebrate after which the bones are rewrapped in silk, sprayed with perfumes, and then returned to the tombs.

Madagascar is also home to unique plants and animals, the most famous of which is the lemur. More than 100 species of lemurs exist, all of them endemic to Madagascar. They range from the size of a mouse to a rhesus monkey. The largest, the indri, has a very distinct call which some people compare to a baby crying. Listen and decide for yourself.

By the way, the movie Madagascar got it right: the natural enemy of the lemur is the cat-like fossa.

For more information about Madagascar and Antananarivo, check out the following:

Enjoy some music from Tarika, a Malagasy group focusing on traditional Malagasy music and its roots in Indonesia: