Though rural life is somewhat romanticized by townsfolk, in reality it can rather be nightmarish for them. In a few days they would start feeling empty to be away from all the hustle-bustle and glittering lifestyle of their cities. And if the concerned village is in an unfortunate corner of South Asia or Africa, the pain starts from the very first day. Either there’s no electricity or there are long and frequent power-cuts. Almost all amenities of modern life are absent. There’s no running water, let alone hot water. The best available toilet is a hole dug on the ground, surrounded by thatch, where people need to squat on. Forget about hygiene, squatting itself can be quite painful for a person not in good physical shape. If roads are non-existent and people have meager purchasing power, even the varieties of food available can be woefully boring.
Mapungu is a perfect example. When we arrived Mapungu by a boat, the sun was already setting. People standing at the docking point clapped their hands twice at each of us, a gesture of politeness, and murmured Muchwani, meaning “how are you”, with a broad smile. We replied “Hande” – I am fine, and clapped back. We found a vacant government house to take shelter. There was no power. The women teammates immediately started cooking in the dark; the men created a bonfire and started chatting while waiting for food. The women served food to the men first (and also to us, cause we were foreigners!) and ate whatever was left behind. Ironclad gender roles, with no hope of change in sight.
In the morning, we met the President. He tried to run for US presidential election and he should have been at least the Zambian president. But unfortunately he lives in a 10 feet by 5 feet palace that he made from scrap metal and wood he found on the street. But he neatly decorated his statehouse with papers and books he collected, and there’s a little corner where he sits down to perform his stately affairs. He lives on piecework, guarding people’s house when they are out and washing their clothes. But he is an avid reader of newspapers and talks like a well-educated person. He has a childlike curiosity and an innocent smile. He kept us amused for the rest of our stay. Every time a kid passed by him, it would shout at him, OBAMA!!!
However, we were in Mapungu to conduct a meeting with the community on the progress they made on a set of “dreams” that they created a year ago. There are two volunteer community facilitators in the village to mobilize the community in working towards the dreams. The meeting started at least one hour later than the scheduled time, a usual scenario here. When the facilitators started asking about their dreams, some villagers began protesting that they didn’t know anything about it! Most of the conversation was in Lozi, the language of the Western province. So I could not catch most of it. But I had a feeling that the community mobilization was not going very well. Later on, groups of villagers made presentation about their progress. They claimed that the came up with “bylaws” for fish conservation and at least 75% of the fishers in the village stopped illegal fishing. Sounds encouraging, but I tend not to take these verbal claim seriously. Because, without proper external evaluation, it is hard to say what really happened. Besides, I felt the level of community mobilization, mentoring support and supervision to the facilitators were not enough to have such a big change anyway. But it is a research project. Perhaps the idea is to find out how such loose models actually work in the field.
I was already getting sad about the food. The tendency of the people in this region is to deep fry everything, fish, chicken, beef, you name it. Our menu was limited to a combination of fried fish, fried country chicken, rape (a kind of spinach, virtually the only variety of vegetable available here) and maize meal. I guess here people fry and add a lot of salt in their food out of boredom with the lack of variety. But I was alarmed to think about the potential consequences of such an unhealthy habit. May be development practitioners also need to focus on food habit. But who does not know that food habits are hard to die?
Next day we had a similar meeting in a nearby village named Muandi. The floodwater was receding. So the only means of communication was walking on the sand. It was an hour long walk but my feet were aching. Walking on the sand is not easy. I couldn’t imagine how people travel from that village on a daily basis. What happens if someone needs to be hospitalized? Zambia is so sparsely populated, it is perhaps economically non-viable to build all necessary roads. Western province, with lowest population density and sandy soil, has some of the worst road networks. Even in the provincial headquarter, Mongu, there are only a few tarmac roads. So, it is easy to imagine the condition of the villages in the floodplain.
We had couple of other meetings and finally it was the day to return. My little raundevue was coming to an end. To be honest, I got pretty impatient by that time. For four days, I did not take shower. OK, I washed the lower part of my body in the icy-cold floodplain water one day, if you call it bathing. I did not dare to swim, I was afraid of crocodiles. Anyway, we started very early in the morning. It was cold but extremely beautiful. The first rays of the sun illuminated the entire floodplain in a gold color. Mist rising from the water, mingling with that gold, created a dream-like picture. Goodbye Zambezi, for the time being. I will be back again!