Thursday, October 29, 2009

Baking Birthdays

In the village, birthdays aren't celebrated. There usually isn't the money to make anything special, much less to buy gifts. I learned this when I first arrived to the village. We were eating dinner one night (just like every other night) when my bamaama mentioned it was Sandra's birthday. But how could this be a birthday? It's just like every other dinner, every other day. Where is the fun? The excitement? I LOVE birthdays! I feel like everyone should have a day to feel really special, especially in Zambia. I started to devise my plan.

I didn't want to buy everyone something for their birthday. That would get expensive since there are 15 of us. I also wanted to do something that the family could continue after I left.

The next birthday, Sitemba's, was right around the corner and I still had no idea what to do. So I went to the tuck shops in the village to buy cookies and juice for him. That night after we ate nshima and relish, I gave Sitemba his birthday treat. He shared with everyone even though their wasn't enough cookies for everyone to have one full one! I had seen the communal way families live here-sharing relish and mealie meal and cooking oil when another family doesn't have food to eat, sharing plows and ox carts for field work, and sharing what little a family has to help a neighbor in need. What I hadn't expected or experienced yet was a 6 year old boy sharing his birthday cookies and juice with his entire family. Obviously I needed to devise yet another plan.

My bamaama, who is the best cook I have ever met in Zambia, said she knew how to bake cakes. She just didn't have the ingredients. Well, I have the basics of any American kitchen: flour, sugar, butter, milk, and eggs. “I could bring them over and you could show me how to bake a cake,” I told her. And that is what we did for the next birthday.

My bamaama's oven is brilliant. It's a hole in the ground. She builds the fire in the hole to heat up the ground. Then when the wood becomes coals they are taken out of the hole and placed on an iron sheet. The pan is put into the hole and the iron sheet is placed on top. Presto! An oven in born!

It was a bigger hit than the cookies and juice. A tradition was born!

For every birthday since, my sister Jacqueline and I have baked birthday cake. I even have my very own oven that a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer made for me. It's made of mud bricks for the sides and the back of the oven with an iron sheet for the top and a piece of metal for the door. My bataata even found some scrap pieces of metal rods that act as the shelf inside the oven. And boy is it AMESOME!!!!!!

The kids look forward to every birthday now. As soon as I wake up on a birthday, the kids are at my house excitedly asking, “Kupanga birthday? Kupanga birthday?” Which means in English, “Baking birthday? Baking birthday?” And I'll tell them yes, which they already knew, and they get even more excited. Running around my house screaming and yelling while I try to put water on to boil for coffee.

Every birthday person gets to choose what kind of cake they want. Jacqueline and I have also added brownies and more recently Toll House Cookies (minus the chocolate chips) to our repertoire of birthday choices. With 15 birthdays a year, Jacqueline and I have become professional bakers!

My hope is that when I leave, the family will continue to celebrate birthdays by baking cakes. I also hope that long after I'm gone, the kids will remember all the fun we had baking birthdays.

My Friend Ralph S. Mouse

When I was kid, I thought it would be incredible to have a mouse as a friend. Of course this was after I read the books about Ralph S. Mouse. Having adventures together while riding a toy motorcycle wearing a ping-pong ball helmet. What's not to love?

I'm here to tell you, it's not fun in real life.

You make certain concessions when you live in a mud hut. You don't have electricity, you have candles. You don't have running water, you fetch it from a well a la Jack and Jill. You don't have carpet, you have cement. You don't have comfortable couches to sit on, you have hard hunks of wood carved into a stool-like shape. And you have critters.

There is nothing you can really do to keep everything outside since you are basically living outside. I've had one snake inside my house and several others outside. I've had termites raining from the ceiling during the height of the rainy season. I've had spiders catch and eat cockroaches. (It's why I don't kill the spiders Mom!) I've had a bat living underneath my bed. I was fine with all of those things but Ralph S. Mouse is killing me.

Ralph S. Mouse likes to perform his (or her, I'm not sure) hi-jinxes at night. And loudly. I'm a very heavy sleeper but he has been waking me up every single night this month. Its starting to get to me. I'm used to getting a solid 10 (if not 12) hours of sleep every night. Ralph is really cutting in to my sleeping pattern!

And he is eating everything!

It started with a single water flavor packet. Ralph pulled it out of the container I keep them in because I didn't put the lid on tight. Fine. I didn't like that flavor much anyway.

Ralph got into the container the next night and chewed open half of my favorite Crystal Light cherry pomegranate water flavor packets. I'm mad. But I still had a bunch left. There are starving people in the world, who also happen to be my neighbors, so not really a big deal in the grand scheme of things. I remedied the situation by putting all my water flavor packets, along with my tea and coffee, into a bigger plastic container with a lid that snaps shut. Problem solved.

If only I were so lucky.

Ralph starts chewing on the plastic lid to try and eat his way into the container. Ok. I'll put everything in the containers in plastic bags as well.

He found some green tea bags that I forgot were out. Whatever. I'm just annoyed at this point but won't do anything about it. He can do his thing, I'll do mine.

Ralph decided to up the ante and show off his Houdini-like climbing skills.

He ate my onion. That was in a basket. Hanging from the ceiling by string. I'm still not sure how he got there. But he did. This basket was ingeniously designed by yours truly to keep said vermin away from my precious fresh veg. He still ate my onion. I didn't even know that a mouse would eat an onion. INSANE!!!!!

I have cleaned everything in my house. He ate the seeds I was going to use for my garden. He ate my plastic grocery bags that I use for trash. Everything and anything I thought he might be tempted by has been put in a ziploc bag and then into a plastic container.

He ate the lid off my butter container. Luckily for me, he didn't fully succeed and my butter is still safely inside. Now I have to find a plastic container to put my butter container in. This is exhausting!

I washed my dishes and notice the plastic handle to the one 'sharp' knife I own is chewed off. At least I can still sort of cut things.

I find the plastic lid to my back-up instant coffee is half way gone. At least Ralph likes coffee!

Every night I get woken up to the sounds of scurrying and chewing. Every morning I wake up, put on my coffee, and try to find what has been yet another casualty of Ralph S. Mouse antics.

My non-existent strategy needs to find a focus. Cleaning isn't solving anything. I think its time for the big guns. A Zambian.

It might be a mistake but I have run out of options. To fully understand my hesitation, I have to explain a bit about how Zambians generally operate. Nothing is an emergency. It takes days to accomplish anything. Which is usually fine. I have all the time in the world here just like Zambians. But the rats are eating everything I own! Time is not on my side. (And I have recently discovered that yes, there is more than one.)

After I discovered that the rats are eating my Old Navy flip flops, I decided it was time to complain. I usually don't complain because I know it won't get fixed as fast as I would want it to. I learn to adapt and live with things. (A bat living under my bed for several months says it all!) Or I fix them my crazy American way which my bataata says isn't fixing it properly. But I can't fix this problem myself. So I complained. Days ago. And I've complained every day since.

Finally my bamaama yelled at my bataata to put the poison in my house before the rats start eating my clothes. Well, that is a comforting thought. They will eat my clothes????!!!! Leave it to my bamaama to get things done! I should have asked her in the first place! My bataata was roasting pumpkin seeds and corn kernels to pound and mix with the poison before I knew what was happening! Action! YES!!! Finally!!!!!! The traps were laid and I was very excited to finally get a good night's sleep!

“Do you hear chirps and squeaks in your house at night?” BaWesley asked me as he was mixing the poison.
“Yeah. It's bats right?” I replied.
“No. It is a rat. Those type of rats are hard to get rid of. Especially if they move into the roof of your house. They eat everything. I think that is what is in your house.”
“Great. I've heard that noise for weeks now,” I said while thinking to myself, what else have they eaten that I haven't discovered yet?
“Don't worry. We will get rid of them,” he said reassuringly.

I'm not reassured.

My house smells like Corn Nuts but the rats are eating the poison! I should have been reassured!

Hopefully this will get rid of them for good. The next step will be mixing dry cement with the pounded pumpkin and corn kernels. I hope for the rats' sake that they take the poison and die peacefully. No one wants death by cement.

2 days later.

My bedroom smells like death. The oh-too-familiar smell of a decaying animal. And its getting worse. Armed with my flashlight, I start the search and there it is. Under my plastic shelves. And because my bamaama loves me, she got rid of it.

Ralph S. Mouse is no more and hopefully his friends got the message. I need the sleep!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Black Water Fever: My good story to tell

When I lived in India I quit taking my malaria prophylaxis. We had it good. Everything would get sprayed once a week and I slept in my mosquito net every night. Wait. I take that back. Sometimes on the really hot nights I would flip the net off of the bed because I thought somehow the mesh of the mosquito net was blocking the cool air from getting to me. Anyway. I never really got bite so I never worried about getting malaria. Thus I quit taking my medicine. Like an idiot.

Fast forward 4 months.

After 2 days in Zambia, I was scared into religiously taking my malaria prophylaxis. Not only is malaria a terrible disease where blood parasites are put into your body by mosquitoes, but over 1 million people die every year from the disease. Along with headache, fever, chills, body aches and shakes, you feel like you are going to die. I wanted nothing to do with it. I hate being sick. I'm a firm believer in the flu shot. There is nothing I hate more in this world than throwing up. That was enough incentive for me to take my medicine everyday.

Unfortunately, you can still get malaria even if you take a prophylaxis. It just won't be as severe because the parasite count isn't allowed to reach dangerously high levels. But I wasn't going to risk it, I was going to do everything humanly possible to NOT get malaria. I take my medicine everyday. Everyday.

I also had 2 other methods to protect myself against malaria.

1) The power of positive thinking coupled with getting into my mosquito net before 9pm every night. If you say you won't get malaria, you won't get malaria. It's like when I was in school and I would say, “Uuugggh. I'm going to fail this test.” Then my dad would say, “Well, of course, you are going to fail it if you say you are going to fail it.” I'm sending positive anti-malarial vibes out in to the universe! Plus female mosquitoes are the ones that carry the malaria parasites and they only come out between the hours of 9pm and 6am. Fun fact: they are also silent. The male mosquitoes are the ones that buzz.

And 2) The Kim Burns Anti-Malarial Treatment. ( Drink a gin and tonic everyday. Why g&t's? History. When the Europeans, like David Livingstone, were wandering around Africa 'discovering' things, they were dying of Black Water Fever (malaria). The only thing the explorers found that would work against the Fever was taking quinine. Which is found in tonic water. And you can't have tonic without the gin!

I was adhering to all 3 of these things and then I woke up one morning in town, with mosquito bites all over my hands and arms. Fatal step #1. I forgot to close the mosquito net before I went to bed. Fatal step #2. I said jokingly to Kim, “I'll probably be back in town in 7-10 days with malaria!”

So I headed back to the village. I was hanging out getting back into the swing of things, and cleaning my house. School started and I was feeling perfectly fine. Then I went to bed. It is hot season so I took the blankets off my bed already. I was cold. I had to dig out my blankets and a sweatshirt. Then as I was trying to fall asleep I got the chills and shakes. This is when I thought something was up. I fell asleep hoping it would go away. No such luck. I woke up the next morning sweating beyond belief. And my head was killing me. I got up to pee and had to come back in my house to sit down and rest. I dug out the extra strength ibuprofen and took 2 to start. I found the strength to go and get fire so I could make coffee and told my bamaama that I thought I was getting sick. I told her my symptoms. She immediately said it was probably malaria.

Of course.


Then things got bad and a little fuzzy. The high fever, chills, the confusion. I finally started to write down what time I took what medicines because I couldn't remember. I couldn't eat anything but my bamaama forced me to eat nshima, which cures everything, as well as being the staple food of Zambia. My family finally insisted I go to the clinic. Zambians hate seeing me sick so instead of putting up a fight, I went with my sister Sandra. The clinical officer was pretty sure it was malaria but didn't have the reagents to test my blood to make a positive diagnosis. I went back home and called Peace Corps Medical. Yup. It sounds like malaria. Start taking Coartem (it gets rid of the parasite), go to town, and take the blood test.

I went to town the next day and what a ride that was. It was the second worst transport ride of my life, and that is saying something because I've have some pretty awful rides. It seemed to take forever to get there but I finally made it. I took the blood test. It came back negative but that is normal because I was taking the prophylaxis and I already started the Coartem. No doubt about it. I had malaria.

It was like the worst flu you have every had multiplied by a million.

But I survived and was back home less than a week later.

I was at school talking to some of the teachers about it. They asked me if it was my first time having malaria. I told them yes. To which they said, “At least you have a good story to tell when people ask you about living in Africa.”

I will have malaria parasites living in my liver for the rest of my life forever making me more susceptible to getting malaria. But at least I have a good story to tell?