First Contact: Fibalala

Instead of shutting off, when I find myself in a moment of uncertainty, I am awake.


A sun is setting somewhere, everywhere; a sun is rising somewhere, everywhere.


I was just bathing in a shelter built from grass bundled into heaps and molded into a lowercase letter 'e'.  It surrounded me just like villagers of Fibalala, the village where two years of integration will bring moments of extreme joy, diametric sadness.  It is a village where people work the land.  They grow maize, groundnuts, cassava... they raise children, suffer illness, laugh hysterically when happy.  Village members surrounded me because I am new.  An attraction they have never seen.  They hover in wonderment. Some sit on their haunches, anticipation coiled and ready to bound toward this foreigner and shake his hand.  Like the bathing shelter, people surround me just enough to cover the essentials, but leave enough room for wandering eyes to look in, to possibly see something that was once an imagination swirling in their mind.  This was our first meeting.


"Muzungu is not his name," said sub-chief BaSimon.  "His name is Justen."  Yes, we all have a name.  We are something to each person our self contacts, directly or through the mysterious echoes of gossip.  Each moment a story is created.  Maybe a pleasant one is fabricated in BaEster's world.  She has five fish ponds and came to this welcoming of the stranger to see what I can do for her.  What about that village headman?  What story did he build?  We connected eyes when I first saw him; maybe he had been watching me from the moment I jumped out of a government Land Cruiser.  There was an inclination to say hello.  Greetings are integral in Zambian culture and a whole conversation can be carried out seeking information about one's family, one's crops, one's livestock.  Here you say, for example, "You have woken up," before asking, "How have you woken up?"  It is a process.  Greetings show you care about the person standing in front of you.  They are not statements made in passing. Zambians greet with their whole self; body and language will tell you exactly what is truthfully on their mind.  Words are misdirections, leading the uninterested or uncaring in a misguided direction. The crops are always doing well, even during a drought. Don't flinch- unless you understand the nuisances of the exchange you are likely to miss its entire meaning.  But ignorance won.  After greeting dozens of people, the desire waned.  I need to see him again.


A ghost was walking alongside his bicycle.  On a path that once carried through, it is now blocked by newly planted shrubs, the beginning of 'my' property.  A small access point allowed him to walk through.  Alcohol moves faster than a drunk man.  When he finally arrived I said, "Please, sit here," and offered the doll house sized chair neighbors were lending me.  It is communal living at its best.  We share stuff, unless, maybe it is our own.  A purple hat, appearing darker because the sun said goodbye to Fibalala sometime ago, and sunglasses, deemed useless because of the darkness, framed this figure.  Opposite me sat a man, BaKayvash.  He was real. Witchcraft is serious business here. Do not get caught up in it! I hastily wrote down his name or I would never remember it.  I feel like an interrogator each time.  Removing the tiny spiral bound notebook from my pocket in order to capture the moment in print; I am just a volunteer. 


His English is non-existent.  I wanted this challenge of communication, but I wished he could speak English.  It is hard to decipher his codes: He lives in the village of Tobanya and says he is my neighbor.  I live in Fibalala.  Where do I live?  And it sounds like he is saying something important.  About how speaking the local language, Bemba, is crucial here.  I repeat what I think I heard, then reiterate that I have been learning to decipher his secret language for two months.  Amazement rushes over me.  I can interact on a basic level.  There is much more to learn.  We exchange this message several times: I must speak Bemba here.


A new day blessed the village.  I was walking around the nsaka, a circular structure with a roof made of grass, earlier today.  It is used as a gathering point. A place to gossip, a kitchen outside the home.  The nsaka is mine.  Large enough to fit several dozen people inside.  We will fit comfortably because what's a personal bubble?  I enjoy meters of space between people in the U.S.  Here, I am lucky to get one molecule of breath's separation.  


Reinvigorated by the task, exhausted by the task.  My stomach is turning.  What have I eaten to feel this way?


People have been coming to me all day.  It is Easter, but just another Sunday here in southern Samfya district in Luapula province.  And the talk with BaKayvash reminded me of the importance of speaking Bemba here.  Trainers say I speak well.  I am unsure what I understand.  I hope what I think I say is actually what I say. 


Knowing a language does not necessitate talking.


That is what I enjoyed when I went to BaWebbi's house.  An older fellow, widowed, I believe. He is gentle, he is kind, he already wandered about the village to find me and say the window of the hut was left open.  He will be my guardian.   Bawebbi was relaxing on his porch, a small space right out his front door.  Sheltered from the elements by a tin roof above, I sat on a stool and we watched a  goat drink milk from its mother.  Webbi then prepared a bucket of water for me to bathe from.  Remember that grass shelter from earlier?


The sun was setting once again.  I cannot show my underwear, locally known as pants, or secrets, in public, but I can bathe in an oversized grass skirt which mostly circumambulates me, with eyes peering beyond, staring at an orange horizon.


My commitment is to the people.  What is the commitment of the people?  My message is clear: I have no money to give and just a little bit of knowledge to share.  Are people still interested in what we can accomplish together?


I think so.  During the evening's darkness, the last visitor, an active member in orienting the community to my arrival, and I talk.  120 community members have pitched in, he notes; whether carrying bricks, fetching wood, applying mortar made from the dirt under our feet, beautifying the property, or digging the trash pit, people have offered to help.  They have cultivated a home for me.  I hope to help create a better home for them. 


When we serve others, we serve our self.