Wednesday, September 24, 2014

before you join a tribe part one: call your mom

I feel like every other day I am reading something about people and their tribes. These phrases jump out at me every time I run across them – tucked away in a variety of settings, on blogs and articles and photo captions: “I just love my little tribe.” “Go out and find your tribe.” “Me and my tribe, we’re doing this.”

Interestingly enough, I seem to always hear these comments from white Americans and I can’t help but wonder, What is the TRIBE obsession all about, people?Am I the only one doing a double take with all of this tribal language? I can use my cultural IQ and deduce that tribes are exotic and sexy and therefore full of “Stuff White People Like.” So it makes a little sense. I guess.

But having lived for the last seven years amongst a tribal people, I’ve learned a few things about tribes that I wonder if the tribal-trendy Americans are aware of. Ya’ll are signing up – but do you know for what?

Without launching into an advanced anthropological study of tribal culture or differentiating between the customs of one tribe verses another, I want to present a blog series outlining some things to think about before you join a tribe.

Without further ado – part one of Before you join a tribe.

Before you join a tribe, you need to… prepare to venerate your elders. What does that even mean, you ask? Good question. Before I started living amongst the Aushi people of Luapula I pictured "veneration" as paying homage to old pictures on mantles surrounded by candles. Perhaps that is a practice in some tribes. (Perhaps I needed to consult a dictionary.) But despite varied practices and definitions, the principle of elder veneration is quite basic:

Older people deserve extreme respect.
Older people are to be sought out.
Older people are to be invited.
Older people are to be listened to.
Older people are to be heard.

Americans have adopted certain values that makes veneration of elders unintuitive. We are expected to, at some point, “age out” of our parents wisdom, becoming our own, free-thinking adult selves. Young families move far away from grandparents and even those that stay close often set up very strict boundaries regarding extended family time. We brand older practices as passé and prefer to let our peers (and Google) teach us everything we need to know about life. Older people are often tolerated – they don’t move quickly enough and don’t always know the latest news on a given topic. Their examples are super dated and not at all tweet-able.

Bana Kalaba Chama - she knows things. Seriously.
If you are a part of a tribe that doesn’t have ancient folk sitting in your midst then you are not a part of a tribe at all. The ones who have L.I.V.E.D. – they are the ones with true wisdom and understanding. It is these old souls at whose feet the young members must sit and learn and piece together history. Tradition, practice, celebration, protocol – EVERYTHING – stems from the council of the elders. Disrespecting or disregarding these people, or their counsel, is the most offensive action a tribal member could take.

 "bana kulu" - mother of many
And so when the young tribal gal meets up for coffee with her equally young tribal gal friends and they dish about marriage and parenting and career, neglecting to call their mom back and pushing off the promise to visit Great Grandmother in the nursing home – the whole lot of them might as well surrender their membership cards, for they blatantly dishonor the most fundamental of rules.

surrounded by no less than 4 generations of passed down wisdom

I am thankful that early in Bronwyn’s life she has had the opportunity to mingle with some of the ancients of the village. Their gray hairs symbolize of all the cumulative knowledge of all their years. These are men and women who have spent decades teaching children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and great-great grandchildren the way to live and to think and to relate to the other members of the tribe. Around fires at night they explain how marriages should endure children should behave and everyone listens in earnest and without a shred of skepticism because this is what tribes do.

you have never seen a cuter woman than this
Jeremy and I have commented on how the elderly in America are perceived as a burden. We shove them away in special homes to be cared for by strangers, letting their glorious knowledge fade away with their bodies. We watch as young people put up walls and fences and boundaries announcing via cold-hearted e-mail how much time the grandparents and aunts and uncles are welcome to “invade” their nuclear family's space. How many priceless encounters are millennials forfeiting by being too busy to care otherwise?

of course on the day that my child meets the oldest and most venerated woman in the village, she's running around like a crazy naked baby. thank heavens great-great-grandma is mostly blind.

Tribes, tribal members, recruiters and followers: invite the older generation sit with the girls at the table. Ask questions. Expect answers. Follow the directions. Love these people. Honor these people. Give them your attention until their last breath and then mourn their absence like a traveler who has lost her compass. They are a gift and a blessing, not a curse and a burden.

Call your mom back.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

what we can learn from the TOMS flop

In case we haven’t all noticed yet, charitable buying has become quite fashionable. American companies are popping up all over that have a charitable giving component. You can buy shirts that save whales and jewelry that supports widows. But the most famous of all the charitable corporations is probably TOMS. Oh Toms, your pink sparkly shoes had me at hello, though I also like the earth tones and plaids. I see these shoes everywhere I look, and everything about TOMS aggressive marketing makes my current earthy birkies feel so 2005. But sadly, I can never in good conscience buy a pair of TOMS. Here’s why:

When I first heard about TOMS' concept of the one-for-one, I pictured a very specific scenario. I pictured myself standing at the cash register, pictured my card swipe through, pictured some sad looking child being fitted with a beautiful pair of TOMS and pictured those shoes changing the course of his life. (Oh, you too?)

My first wake up call happened a few years ago when the Home Based Care group we work with received a shipment of TOMS from Africare. Africare dropped off a few boxes, left instructions to give the shoes to orphans in the community and left. The caregivers went into thank you baby Jesus its Christmas morning mode and immediately divvied them up. Out of two hundred pairs of shoes, I don’t think a single pair ended up on the feet of an orphaned child. The caregivers first kept a portion for themselves and the rest went to the neighbors and friends of the caregivers according to whomever they wanted to make happy. When I questioned the “distribution methodology” I got the why you messin’ face so I backed off. In the caregivers minds, everyone in Fimpulu is equally poor, so why does it matter if we help an orphan in a poor family or a two-parent-child in a poor family? According to local culture, its an arbitrary distinction.

I get it. But there seemed to be another problem. All of the shoes were the same size and obviously not all two hundred children (and adults) would have the same size feet. The solution for this was apparently to give the shoes to the adults, granting them permission to do whatever they wanted with them. The families were directed to put the shoes on the feet of whomever, or, if they did not fit anyone, they were advised to go ahead and sell the shoes.

I snagged these pics at Mansa’s local market though I’ve seen them elsewhere. Please note the NOT FOR RESALE markings on the inside of the shoe. I may be stating the obvious here, but, the shoe that is clearly marked not for sale is indeed, for sale... as in, not on the feet of the ones for whom they were originally intended. Something tells me that TOMS’ magical plan has veered a wee bit off course.

uniform, black TOMS, all one size (and a photobomb by some white girl's hand)

The misappropriation begs the question, does TOMS know? If so, does TOMS care? The shoes are being sold because, presumably, ill fitting footwear is not the kind of assistance that the poor communities actually need. If the shoes are being sold for $4 a pair, why not give that $4 directly to the community? Why not put it directly into the kind of orphan care that actually cares for orphans? School fees? Clean water? Certainly I’m not the only one with a ready list of viable solutions!

I keel over at the resource waste that comes about as a result of the hierarchical, trickle down effect. The positive potential of big aid suffers mightily as international NGO’s select project countries, who then must coordinate with national offices, who communicate with the regional offices managing the local offices who designate field officers to hold meetings with community groups who will then distribute the materials to NOT the target population. Painful.

It's identifiably crummy development practice to tell an entire region that it needs size 4 shoes when anyone could guestimate that less than one percent of the target population has size 4 feet. But then again, maybe its not TOMS fault, maybe its Africare’s US office. Or maybe their Zambia country office. Or maybe their Mansa office. Or…

How many hands did the project have to sift through before it stopped being any good at all? My guess is not that many. Still, this is the expected flow of policy and programming and service delivery starting necessarily at point A and not arriving until somewhere around point X.

I’ve bought quite a few orphans shoes this year. Mulenga and I went traipsing through down UB market to find hard soled, shiny but not too shiny, wide-toe box, handsome looking black school shoes. I left gushing to my husband that shopping with boys is so much fun and we should try to have six sons. I did the same for Kabange... and Chabu... and Stephen. 

Mulenga: let's go find shoes for those growing feet you're propping up ON MY WALL.
These kids live a stones throw from my front door and I know pretty much everything about the trueness of their need. No one will take their shoes and sell them to buy something lame, like beer. I’ll hunt them down if I don’t see them jog past my house on their way to school each morning. I’ll have many an opportunity to make them feel loved by telling them they are smart and capable and good looking. And I’ll do this because I can. Because these names are not ones on a spreadsheet on a remote desktop – actually, they are playing checkers on my front porch. The directive to care for them is not coming from sixteen office levels above me – it is coming from obvious overflow of love thy neighbor.

This is the luxury of being small, a luxury not afforded by the big, impressive, our website makes us sound super effective NGOs. It’s a luxury I certainly don’t take for granted and would encourage the generous first world to value a little bit more. So wear TOMS if you like - they are a perfect accompaniment to skinny jeans, this is true. But let's be real about their impact, and challenge the corporate charities we're buying from to do the same.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

where there is no google: the subtle privilege of living green

Living in Zambia has made me significantly more “green.” A few things I know to be true: A little dirt never hurt anyone - my daughter's face is evidence of that. Straight from the earth ingredients make the healthiest - and most delicious! - foods. Our bodies are much more resilient than we realize, and nature holds many solutions to many problems. The sterility of American medical centers and the synthetic everything in stores and the plastic smell at the grocers – these things turn me off and I know that in many ways, my Zambian neighbors and I are crazy lucky.

Green is good and nature is lovely and I feel very fortunate to be able to engage both without tremendous effort. But one thing I’ve learned is that living a healthy and a successful green life is not merely about access – it is also about understanding. As beneficial that nature can be, it can also be fierce and we must learn to respect the boundaries of its healthy influence.

nature babies. what, your kids don't play with fire in the middle of the night?
In rural Zambia, there are many traditions that employ natural remedies for common ailments. Aloe Vera grows in abundance in the bush and many people use its healing salve on wounds. Specific bushes have been identified as containing anti-venom properties and are quickly applied to snake bites. Charcoal is commonly used to treat upset stomachs. Papaya seeds are chewed on to repel mosquitoes.

But there is much ignorance in the use of natural remedies. Traditional healers make large sums of money offering concoctions of all natural ingredients for illnesses, often times playing on the fears people have of scientific methods. The witch doctor down the road from us is well known for lobbing off hemorrhoids in her living room (with a presumably unsterile knife) and packing the wound with herbs. Many TB patience default on their clinically observed treatment course because the traditional medicines sit better in their stomach, though they will never cure Tuberculosis. There is a woman in the neighboring district who claims she has found the cure for HIV and people are lining up to pay her $40 to procure this miracle drug. First, second and third degree burns are indiscriminately packed with ashes of tortoise shells despite repeat infection. Women routinely induce abortion by drinking the liquid of certain boiled leaves and roots.

Many of these traditional practices are grounded in semi-accurate medical theory, often surrounding the drawing out of infection and promotion of the body’s natural healing properties. Many practices though are based in nothing other than mysticism. Most mothers tie a piece of bark from a certain tree around their babies’ necks to ensure proper healing of the soft spot. Women wrap beads around their waste as a method of birth control. Potions are drunk to expel demons from an (actually) malnourished child. Skin is cut and packed with powder to alleviate aches and pains.

She says her muscles still ache. 
How exactly is a person supposed to separate out legitimate natural healing remedies vs. nonsensical folklore? How was Patience’s mom supposed to know that honey and aloe were beneficial burn creams but tortoise ash and toothpaste were not? What’s the difference between a pregnant woman swallowing down iron-rich beans verses swallowing down dust of a termite trail? How does a person make heads and tails of all this natural stuff? How should a person determine what will help and what will harm? How can a person weed out superficial fixes in favor of solving root problems?

Most of my green friends are exceptionally good researchers. When I wondered about putting this hair stuff on Bronwyn's hair, I got a my answer in about 2 seconds from my awesomely connected friends who not only communicated "hell-to-the-no" but also furnished me with evidence to support their answer.
baby girl has a blond fro and it needs help. sadly this was not it.
Standard procedure for many green/natural/conscientious consumers involves taking the time to research every ingredient, every drug fact, every source and possible side effect. They know what to look for and why that obscure word on the back of a package is a red flag and a no-go. They know which websites are reputable in providing accurate information and they know to cross check again and again. The anti-child-vaccination crowd? You have never met better researchers in your life. The hard-core natural child birth friends? They are armed and dangerous (in the best way possible) with incredible statistics for powerful and peaceful childbirth. The organic everything tribe – they are fierce and can list the horrid ingredients contained in common foods and and can tell you about an essential oil for just about anything. They know their stuff through and through… and they live in a technology based society that is ready to assist them.

This is the subtle privilege of living green.

in rural zambia its not "organic" or "natural" or "free range," its just FOOD.
My awesomely green friends are not successful at this lifestyle because they are better or smarter or more deserving than my Zambian neighbors who still dabble in earthy mysticism more than anything else. They are successful because they live in houses with electricity and own computers and have grown up using google and most can just ask Siri to answer any question they might have. They have access to a patient’s bill of rights that lets them ask questions and accept or reject treatment accordingly. They visit doctors are able to pull up CDC recommendations during patience visits and expect to have a conversation. They live in counties where public health advocates add value by trying to empower the consumer. They can read anything about anything, fact check and compile evidence, drain their battery, and charge it up while they sleep soundly, and all of this cries of privilege.

I used to be rather critical of the blind dedication to natural remedies here in the village. But eventually I realized that most things are not as obvious as I think they are. (I didn’t know Nutrigrain bars were the devil until yesterday, so clearly I’m not all that.) People often don’t know what they don’t know, and its important to be gracious when hearing the stories of people who have no way of knowing. In every situation, doing the best you can do is, in fact, the best you can do. 

I think that that’s all anyone does – the best they can. The birthing women and the snack providing moms and everyone trying to reduce their footprint. And for this reason, I hope the green movement stays humble – teaching, engaging, exploring, and sharing where possible, but remembering the privilege and providing a comfortable  space for those who maybe have not benefitted from the same.

What about you? What are your favorite green/natural/organic/healthy living/education sites? Link up, green bloggers! Comment below!

Monday, September 1, 2014

who/what/where is home anyway?

In a less than 24 hours, we will leave “home” in order to go “home.”

… Cue all the emotional chaos that is exp-at life/raising a third-culture child.

We have tried so hard to only reference “home” when talking about our “home” in Fimpulu, but somewhere along the way we must have referred to America as “home,” because even while standing in our kitchen in our “home” in Fimpulu Bronwyn has, more than once asked when we are going “home.” I feel you, baby. It’s confusing to me too.

I’ve never much liked all of the cliché references to home that are out there.

Well the internet is certainly not helpful here. I have no greater understanding of what “home” really means now than before I clicked all those links, and who does the internet think it is anyway, defining vast and profound metaphorical concepts with nothing but pictures?

“Home is where the heart is.”  

photo cred

Sometimes home gives me beautiful and feelings and fills my heart with joy. But, sometimes home makes my heart hurt so badly I have to leave. Sometimes home does not feel like home to me.

“Home isn’t a place, it’s a person.”

photo cred

There are many times when the people I love are in multiple places. Sometimes the ones I love the most are not with me and I feel like I’m in exile. Sometimes my people are at arms reach and my soul still stirs with a longing that home does not provide.

“Home isn’t a place, it’s a feeling.”

photo cred

I’ve felt every emotion possible about all the places I’ve called home. This idea insinuates that home should be all warm-fuzzy-wonderful-feelings... and what if its hard? What if home is where I'm sick or what if its dangerous or what if its lonely? Then what? What is home to me then?

“Home is a long bear hug.”

photo cred

What does that even mean?

In recent months, I’ve thought a great deal about how I will explain to Bronwyn why we call many places home; why sometimes we are leaving home and sometimes we are returning home, why sometimes we are content to be at home and sometimes we are longing for home.

This is the stuff that lands TCK’s in counseling as young adults, and I feel I owe her something here. If I cannot protect her from Malaria and if she must skype her grandparents over pitiful connections and if her poo will never be solid for all the random dirt she shoves in her mouth than AT LEAST I SHOULD BE ABLE TO ANSWER THIS QUESTION FOR HER. What do I, her mother, mean when I talk about home?

I cannot profess to have the “right” answer to this. I have one idea only and it comes not from the depths of my wisdom but rather from the rawness of my gut – as I’ve wrenched this answer out through elation and depression, trying to make sense of it all.

The idea that I consistently come back to is that home is neither location or person or house or heart. Feelings are fickle and its easy enough to get on a plane and go, but the constant in the home equation is significance. Home, then, is the place where I wake up with a fire in my bones. Home is where my passions mesh with the course of human history and I dare to imagine. Home is where I need to be if the fullness of God is to create fullness in me. Home is where my presence, my head, my heart and my hands matter.

I want Bronwyn to understand this, that most of the time, home is in Zambia because that is where our lives currently matter the most.

When one of the young men we’ve put through school tears up and says, “you’ve changed my life…”

When the orphan’s caretaker lets us know, “she would have died without you…”

When I hold the slippery babe and wait for its first cry…

When the old man tracks me down to say, “I never dreamed of seeing books like this…

When the gathered women sit and sing and say, “We know God loves us because YOU love us…


the namesakes: Michael Colvin and Beauty Bethany. this is what matters

And yes, sometimes home is hard, and sometimes it is lonesome. Sometimes we leave home to go home because the revival found in one home matters as much as the life transformation in another. But when the sabbath has done its good work and we start dreaming of Zambia, we often start speaking in terms of, “We’re ready to go home,” which simply means, our purpose here is done, and it is time to fulfill our purpose there once more.

As we’ve been preparing for this upcoming trip home, I’ve had a hard time coping with the thought of leaving Zambia. It has been an emotional few weeks with me worrying about Patience and praying for resources, and just trying to accomplish too much in too little time. More than once I’ve tearfully pleaded with Jeremy, “Let’s just stay, I don’t want to go, I don’t want to leave our home.” Jeremy’s only response was, “I’m glad you feel that way,” and what he means is, “I’m glad you feel significant here. I’m glad this work is worth it. I’m glad you realize how much this matters.”

I’m glad too. And I want for Bronwyn to know this: That gladness of home is found where our presence matters, if we are in the places God has prepared for us, and when our work reflects our true and better home, prepared for us in heaven.  

What about you? Where do you call home?