Kikaonde word of the post:
Solwezi draws an earnest comparison to towns of America’s “old west”. The provincial capital of Zambia’s Northwestern Province and the home to Peace Corps’ Northwestern transit house, Solwezi has seen a boom that harkens of the gold rush. It’s inhabitants have come seeking work in the ever growing mining industry of Zambia. Copper has replaced the gold but the other particulars remain the same. Churches, stores, and markets have sprung up in town to support the cattle ranchers and gold miners of the day. Wealthy Zambians, South Africans, Australians, Chinese, and Americans stroll through town for a bite to eat and a nights rest in between travels to and from the mines. They support the industries that have banned together in the loose confederation that is the Solwezi economy. But apart from the economic structure, it is the dust that seems most drawn from a Hollywood western. Every step, during the dry season, results in a fine mist of powder that leaves people, animal, plant and structure equally tinted in the robust red hue. Depending on which tribal source you cite, the red dust has either colored the African’s skin or been colored by the centuries of bloodshed the continent has contributed to the soil. Either way, the red dust is apart of the African tradition but today, it is nothing but a frustration to me. Katherine, Laura, and I are making our way up a steep, dust-covered incline on the way to the largest market of the town. As we reach the pinnacle of the hill, a cruiser, no doubt owned by a wealthy miner, blows by us, distributing dust evenly across our path and into our lungs. The haze forces a momentary stop to cover our mouths and catch our breath.
“I never thought I would say this but I can’t wait for rainy season! My clothing might actually get and stay clean!” Laura exclaims. Katherine and I agree upon Laura’s remarks as we nod our heads through sporadic coughing. Katherine points out a leaf easily 10 meters off the ground. Despite the height, the leaf has not be spared the engrossing red mist of the dust. We share a momentary smile at the spectacle of a green town turned red and continue towards the market, all the while passing more and more people, equally as red-tinted as the leaf.
The main Solwezi market stands as another caricature of old western lore. As far as the eye can see, merchants peddle whatever it is they are selling on the nearest shopper. Their eyes widen as three muzungu enter the market.
“Customer! Customer! Friend! Look!” The shouts can be deafening but are easily remedied with a quick response in Kikaonde. “Kechi tubenakupota akwe ne.” The shock and awe at us knowing at least rudimentary Kikaonde melts into warming laughter, a pattern sure to repeat itself time and again as we journey deeper into the market. Today, we are shopping for a tall order. Not impossible to find but not a Zambian staple by any means, Avocados are our search today. Trips to Solwezi often accompany attempts to recreate anything American, and today the goal is guacamole. Tomatoes, onions, assorted greens (mostly pumpkin and sweet potato leafs), okra, mpua (tiny white eggplants), pineapple, watermelon, live chickens, piri-piri (African version of habanera peppers), dried and smoke sardines and other fish, Kitenge (decorative fabric used for EVERYTHING from a skirts to baby holders), used clothing, cook-ware, and pretty much anything else you could ever want can be found around some new, twisting corner hidden deep in the market. The maze has been the end to many a good volunteer but for reasons we can’t understand, this is the place we have grown most attached to here. The market is life in Africa, chaotic, loud, unorganized, confusing…but always cheerful, enlightening, and most of all, served with the traditional African sense of humor. We find everything in the market, a man dressed as a woman and dancing to sell pirated DVD’s, a woman using her baby as an adorable puppet to sell the muzungu some Irish potatoes, and eventually Avocado. Haggling is another aspect of market etiquette that we have fallen in love with…here is what haggling for an Avocado just might look like…
“Nanchi Inga?” (how much?) I say to the merchant with a sleeping baby strapped firmly to her back.
“2 pin, one.” (roughly 40 cents) She answers.
“Ah! Mutengo wabaya! Bweizeipo!” (The price is way to high, please lower it!) Katherine replies with a slightly comical tone in her voice.
“Ine. 2 pin.” (No)
“Tukonesha kupota Avocado akwe byo 1 pin” (We can buy Avocado over there for 1 pin) I reply, hoping our merchant hasn’t realized that Avocado isn’t to be found anywhere else in the market.
“1.5. Kijitu?” (ok?) She subsides.
“Kijitu!” we answer in unison, proud of our saving of roughly ten cents per Avocado. As she puts the Avocadoes into bags, we utter the greatest word to ever be created and we utter it in seemingly planned unison…”Mbesala!?”
Mbesala (M-bay-sail-a) literally translates to “Bonus” and is a customary way to end a transaction. The merchant gives us a sly smile, obviously disappointed that we know about this wonderful cultural transaction. She grabs a spare tomato and a handful of piri-piri and slides them into the bag with the Avocado, free of charge.
“Tambulai mbesala” (here is your bonus) she says with a hearty laugh that wakes her sleeping child into a gut wrenching sob that begins the moment it sees three white people standing in front of it.
“Twasanta Mwane” (we thank you) we say as we make our way back into the labyrinth that is the market. Our journey complete, we begin our long trek back to the transit house. Now only laughing at the constant dust spray. Katherine begins loudly singing her own rendition of Alicia Key’s and Jay-Z’s “New York” much to the delight and dismay of the locals around us. “These streets will make you feel brand new, these lights will inspire you…living in SOLWEZI. Concrete…and dust…jungle where dreams are made of. There’s nothing you can’t do living in SOLWEZI!” We share a laugh as we garner the stares from hundreds of locals, most of who are now laughing along.
“You know, those lyrics kind of work…” Laura says, “I’ve never felt newer in my life, or more inspired.”
We don’t talk much as we walk the rest of the way back to the house; we each are stuck in thought. The truth is, this is what our dreams were made of. The people who have joined Peace Corp have long dreamed of foreign markets and great adventure. It’s a strange feeling to realize you are living a dream. Without saying a word, it becomes painfully obvious that we are all thinking the same thing.
“How in the world has this small, mining town in Northwestern Zambia become our home?” Katherine says with wonderment.
“I don’t know, but somehow, it has…” I reply as I spot the same leaf Katherine pointed out earlier. Still covered in dust, still hanging on for dear life. I can’t help but feel slightly connected to that leaf. Both dust covered, both hanging on for dear life, and both living in Solwezi. With help from my friends, Katherine, Laura, Ken, Taylor, Bart, and more…we have made this home.
New pictures up on facebook and a very exciting project/website is in the works so check back often! Love you all!