Archive for May, 2009

Shavuot no antidote to 4 in the morning
May 31, 2009

LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — Every single night around 4 in the morning I wake up to two thoughts, which then have the power to keep me awake.

I’m not home, is the first one.

Everything is different here, is the second one.

I both bore and enervate myself.

That I am not home should not be news by now, the end of my fourth month here. And, in fact, considering the ephemeral nature of home, I am in a home, having added two new African masks, chitenges draped over the upsholstery that came with this furnished flat, a fresh bunch of roses from the market each week, and my stuff.

Everything being strange here should be even less newsworthy to me, even at 4 in the morning, as everything being strange here is why I came.

But as F. Scott Fitzgerald said in the real dark night of the soul, it’s always 3 o’clock in the morning. For me it’s four. That is the hour when thoughts become inarguable, fear-inducing convictions.

So I went to a Shavuot celebration today, to get out of the house on a Sunday, and on the erroneous guess formed during daylight hours that that wouldn’t be strange.

This was based on thinking that between growing up in New York and living in South Florida, a Jewish holiday would be like old home week, although the only ones I’ve celebrated at home I was taken to, a stranger in a strange land.

But here, where people from Birmingham and people from New York greet each other as if they could be cousins, a Jewish holiday seemed to promise a little less strangeness than that which fills and frames each day here.

That turned out not to be the case.

For one thing it was an Israeli Jewish celebration and the hosts along with most of the guests spoke Hebrew. For another thing it turned out to be a tradition in the hostess’s family that people slide around in the water on Shavuot.

“Everyone will get wet,” she said firmly.

That’s what you think, I thought back, nodding and smiling.

After all how could they make that happen, short of pushing me onto the mat they had the sprinkler trained on, and that the host kept pouring liquid soap on?

Then the water balloons came out.

“He threw it over his shoulder with his back turned,” one of the guests who, like me, stayed determinedly dry. “It’s getting very tricky.”

The guest, one of a few Zambians there, became very good at dodging water balloon attacks. We huddled together, taking turns standing behind each other and they asked me if I knew Hebrew.

No, but I know some Yiddish, I said, just to look like I belonged somewhere, although that was completely irrelevant to this place. Yiddish seems a little like Nyanga, the language that goes unwritten here, pieced together from a trail of the several dozen other languages here.

They agreed it sounded very similar in principal and wanted to know some.

I taught them how to say “nishtihin, nishtiher,” as we ran from one end of the backyard to the other, dodging water balloons.


Bits and pieces
May 10, 2009

LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — “Sh’t, sh’t, sh’t, sh . . .” I said the other day while trying to make a right hand turn across two lanes of opposing traffic (a right-hand turn here being the equivalent of a left-hand turn at home, only complicated by no traffic light and minibuses driven by Hell’s Angels wannabees).
“I’m terribly sorry,” I added right away to my passengers. Zambians don’t use rough language. In fact the unpublishable words I’ve heard since here came out of my own mouth, almost all in the privacy of my home.
“It is all right,” my front-seat passenger said kindly. “We don’t mind at all.”
“It was rude, I know Zambians don’t curse,” I said.
“We understand that people are all different,” the front seat passenger said. “we don’t expect everyone to be like us. Besides, some Zambians do swear. We call them ‘yos'”
A new Bemba word for me to master the sublteties of its pronunciation and then remember, I thought.
“Yose?” I repeated.
Yoze,” the front seat passenger hesitated while the back seat passenger giggled. “Their people who try to act like Americans — you know: ‘yo motherf’cker, sh’t, what’s happenin'”
Oh. Like Americans.
How embarrassing, once again.
Where grace and kindness are as woven into the cultural code as patterns in a chitenge cloth, one is going to be embarrassed, or at least in awe, now and then.
At the same time, the much-touted acceptance of diversity — and it is the quality you are likliest to hear Zambians express national pride in — has well-defended borders.
For example, there don’t seem to be very many sick people here. People seem to go from being alive to dead without spending much time in that transitory phase, which is recognized only fleetingly, posthumously.
The second president was in South Africa receiving specialized treatment for a heart condition this week when news broke that his 32-year-old son died here in a Lusaka hospital where he had been briefly admitted. This was especially sad, because he is the second of the president’s two sons to die young.
In general lately, the second former president has had a tough time of it. He is facing corruption charges; his wife has aleady been convicted and spent a couple of days in the pokey before being released while appealling.
We know all about this, the wife even having given a cheerful interview during her brief interrment.
We also know how many times both she and the former president cried on their way from the plane from South Africa to the funeral home, thanks to a play-by-play account in one of the newspapers this morning.
But we don’t know what illnesses took the life of either son.
While I will continue to enjoy kindly Zambian tolerance of my American ways and endeavor to deserve it this year, the sick, of whom there are many in this country, would likely enjoy it, and already do deserve it, even more.