Village Chicken

Hi folks. Realized that I haven’t said much about the two-and-a-half months I spent in the village. As time takes me further and further away from those experiences I thought I’d share a few now before the memories fade too much. This will be the first installment (hopefully) of a few thoughts and experiences from my time in bush.

In case you weren’t aware, when I arrived in Zambia I had been a  vegetarian for a little over five years or so. However, my well-intentioned attempts to hold to these herbivore habits met their demise along with an unnamed chicken in the back yard of a quite compound in Katuba. It was my first real day in the field, and Charles, who was to prove a wonderful friend, guide, and mentor during my time in Katuba, had slaughtered a chicken for us. Or rather importantly, his kids had caught the chicken, someone had slaughtered it, and his wife had spent a good portion of the morning preparing it and cooking it up with some nshima and relish.

Not to let myself off the hook too easily, but I really didn’t feel like I had much choice. When someone with so little offers not just their entire day and ongoing support for a few apples and biscuits (which we had brought for the kids, mostly), and then offers you a chicken (meat of any sort is a luxury)…well, you eat it. A bit chewy, but in complete honesty, not all that bad. And I didn’t even get sick! Very exciting.

Another village chicken moment:

- A few weeks later after a full friday of interviews and another village chicken lunch, Ketty (co-worker) wanted to buy two chickens to take back to town. A group of eight to ten children had been alternately playing and quietly helping two women cook for most of the day, sitting just off from the covered ‘shed’ were we had held our interviews. A women called in Nyanja to two young boys, maybe ten years old. Ketty indicated which two chickens she preferred and they began chasing at an impressive speed, causing a bit of chaos as the compound filled with frantic squawking. After what felt like an eternity but was likely around five minutes, each had been triumphant. Holding each bird by the wings, they brought them to one of the men who bound their ankles with ease and brought out a rugged knife. At this point I wished I understood more Nyanja – they laid one on the ground and just when I thought the end was near Ketty said something that made them pick it back up. Someone found a plastic (as they say here – plastic bag) for each chicken and pinched a hole for their still-very-much-alive heads to poke out through. With that, Ketty loaded them into a wicker basket and we headed off towards the main road to catch a bus into town.

Outline. Write. Rewrite. Re-rewrite. Pre-test. Scrap. Start again. Re-outline. Write.

…If only this process referred to my paper, instead of the questionnaire(s)!

Five months into my practicum now, I feel only slightly more productive then a rat running itself insane of those little exercise wheels, its motions oddly similar to those involved in the operation of a treadle pump.

Please forgive the implicit bitterness of this post. It is the venting of many researchers, I am guessing, that the expected results do not come soon enough, if at all. To expect otherwise would be naïve. This letting off of steam is, most likely, not much more than one of the growing pains of a young grad student.

But still. We really do not need five whole months of writing, discussing, and editing. I understand that current delays are a result of the mid-term meeting, the purpose of which was indeed to re-group, re-focus, and obviate any potentially fatal mishaps. And I agree we need to improve communication between countries. It is important that we all be on the same page. But it shouldn’t have taken everyone a year and a half to recognize this! ‘Streamlining’ should have been an organized process that happened at the beginning of the project. Even if  not much was known about exactly what technologies were being used and should be included, or what key issues were surrounded their use, their should have been a clear process established for communicating such findings and moving forward.

Without this, communication has been relatively hap-hazard. One person sends around a survey or suggestion, others comment, the debate goes on. This seems simple enough, but with a bunch of detail-oriented Ph.Ds, there is always something. We cannot be exhaustive in a single survey. Throughout the ‘lifetime’ of the survey we’ve inevitably had to admit that we simply cannot include everything. If we did we would take a full day, or week even, to complete one interview.

Perhaps this back and forth is simply an unfortunate necessity of large-scale research projects, an accepted concession of participatory planning, or of any such widely collaborative process. The more opinions involved, the more issues to be dealt with, the longer it takes. This messiness is a staple mark of any participatory planning or other process.

At this point, however, I am tempted toss participation out the window (defenestrate it, if you will).

A year ago, I would have tried my darnedest to defend participation, especially in plannin. Sure, it’s messy. And it’s long, and tedious, and sometimes painful. But in the end, it is better to have everyone involved for at least three reasons. First, ownership: if everyone has contributed, then everyone has a stake in the final plan of action, and is more likely to follow-through on her/his part. Second, agreement: once the battles are all fought out (ideally), everyone can accept the plan and work towards it eagerly, without bitterness or frustration or resentment. Finally, effectiveness: inclusion means more voices are heard, more debates had, more errors noted in advance. It suggests the creation of a more thorough, finely tuned product, a more grounded and comprehensible blueprint for action.

But now, with two months to go, I am starting to question that there might be a better way. Choose a benevolent dictator, or at least limit decision-making power to a lucky few. Not that full responsibility for the entire planning phase should fall on one individual – certainly, with all of these different countries and contexts that would result in inevitable mishaps. But, like most apparent dichotomies in life, this doesn’t have to be an all or nothing choice between fully equitable participation and complete dictatorial rule. After all, most participation is led in some way, and even dictators delegate. What I would like to see is a more structured, better-led process. The importance of facilitation cannot be overstated. Someone at the top should have grabbed the reigns a long time ago and said “this is what we need to do”, gathered input, distilled the important points, and made some decisions.

Without this, we get the seemingly endless round-robin of e-mailed feedback, in which I now feel stuck like quicksand, trying hopelessly to find my way back to solid ground.

Until next time…

I’ll spare you the boring details, but I have been a bit discouraged by bureaucratic delays in the project lately. In addition, a few conversations with highly enthusiastic undergrads from the Netherlands has left me feeling slightly jaded. In need of a healthy dose of inspiration, I pulled out a number of old poems I’ve fallen in love with over the years. Thought I’d share a bit from one here. So if you will kindly forgive the dramatics:

‘…I live in my Western skin,
my Western vision, torn
and flung to what I can’t control or even fathom.
Quantify suffering, you could rule the world.

They can rule the world while they can persuade us
our pain belongs in some order…

our powers expended daily on the struggle
to hand a kind of life on to our children,
to change reality for our lovers
even in a single trembling drop of water.

…Quantify suffering? My guilt at least is open,
I stand convicted by all my convictions -
you, too. We shrink from touching
our power, we shrink away, we starve ourselves
and each other, we’re scared shitless
of what it could be to take and use our love,
hose it on a city, on a world,
to wield and guide its spray, destroying
poisons, parasites, rats, viruses…

The decision to feed the world
is the real decision. No revolution
has chosen it. For that choice requires
that women shall be free….’

~ In The Dream of a Common Language

Zambike with chicken, Katuba.

Fun fact: “Zam” is a popular prefix in Zambia. The patriotic front is featured in such big-wig names as, “Zambeef” (beef monopoly), “Zamchick” (the poultry equivilant), and “Zamshoe” (self explainatory).

About Zambike.

Like IDE (the treadle pump people), ZamBike is a social enterprise. This means that they began as a non-profit organization that recieved funds from various donors, but aim to become a market-driven, profit-making company. At the moment, they are the only local producer of bicycles.

After my research assistant and I had been in Katuba for a few weeks, IDE set us up with brand new, neon yellow Zambikes. And I have to say, they certainly felt like the mercedes benzs of bikes. Even if the reflecters were a little loose and the gears a bit cranky, they had working brakes, after all! And gears. And functioning adjustable seats. Without a doubt, they were an impressive upgrade from our previous mode of transportation. (Feet). As a result of ZamBike adoption, we experienced increased productivity, reduced overall drudgery, and I’d say significantly improved levels of well-being.

The Problem.

Like with treadle and motor pumps, this led me to ask: if they are so great, why doesn’t everyone have one? And guess what? Turns out ZamBikes seem to face similar challenges to treadle pumps. They’re also produced locally, which means that they benefit more people (ie create more jobs), but cost more than they ‘need’ too. So far at least, they’re only just accessable to the rural elite.

But they are cool. Heck, they were featured on the BBC. Plus, they’ve come up with neat (and potentially life-saving) add-ons: the Zamcart and (my favorite) the Zambulance.

Zambikes on BBC – for the record, the cost has come down. I paid $150 USD for mine. Also, I think they stopped making them from bamboo…not sure on that one.

Zambike website


Last week marked the middle of the 3 year Agricultural Water Management Solutions project, the larger effort that includes my little case study in Katuba. The meeting was a wonderful opportunity for me to meet colleagues from all over (Ghana, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, India, the United States, and of course Zambia), learn about all sorts of impressively awesome research, work on my networking (huh-um) skills, and practice not running up to brilliant strangers and asking for a job.

The workshop covered a whole panoply of (for me, at least) wonderfully exciting topics, findings, musing, mishaps, and the like. Unfortunately, I do not have enough space or time (ok, so literaly speaking i do have the space… i think this blog can go on forever.) Anyhow. Here are a few random observations that may or may not be related to small-scale farming, irrigation, women’s empowerment, or anything else:

  • In a workshop, as in both the development world and life in general, power, education, and yes, sometimes money, appear at face value to be correlated with how often one’s opinion is heard and also how cogently it is presented. There are and were exceptions to this. One woman farmer was particularly vocal. She also seemed, compared to her peers in her village, to have had some sort of advantage/leg up to get her where she was – and relatively speaking, she was doing quite well.
  • Donors are donors, which means 1: they make decisions. 2: everyone has to be nice to them. 3: they will not hear about failures, even if they insist that they won’t pull funding and that they really, really, want to know.
  • Gaps persist. The appropriate use of buzz words (bottom-up, pro-poor, gender, gender, gender) is perhaps an indication of good will. This isn’t a bad thing. But when it comes down to it, donors and project managers need financial, political, and human capital and GUMPTION to really push through any of the wonderful ideals. Organization and follow-through won’t happen on its own. Especially not when there are six countries involved.
  • Never underestimate the importance of the coffee break.
  • On “joint-venture” and “outgrower” schemes (essentially commercial-smallholder cooperative arrangements; farmers give up land, labor, and decision-making for an equity share and, if the project is successful, substantial improvements in income and food security). They actually seem to have a good deal of potential, maybe even more so than the small-scale stuff I’m working on (so many have given up, already, on the idea that small-scale farming can be a viable enterprise). The road from colonialism is always more complicated than it looks at face value.
  • The World Bank, apparently, is still intimidating. Even for a seasoned professional from the FAO. Hrmph.
  • For some, rain means bad weather: for others it means a full stomach. This is good to remember when you’re soaked and splashing through puddles in slippers on the way home, like yesterday afternoon.  ; )

Alright, back to work. Peace.

Alright. New goal. A post per day. Screw quality control. This morning’s topic: cutting crocodile teeth. Why not?

So in the kitchen this morning (the backpackers I’ve more or less moved into has a communal cooking area), met a white Zimbabwean farmer who used to sell roses. When Mugabe chased out all the white farmers about three years ago he moved here to Zambia along with a number of others. He has since opened a crocodile farm in Western Zambia, with about 11.000 crocs that he feeds, rears, and eventually kills and skins. The skins are exported around the world (he had just come from a meeting with a buyer from Singapore) for handbags (he mentioned Louis Vitton and a bunch of shmansy sounding brands I can’t remember).

So…yes. I joined the conversation right when he was describing the process involved in trimming a croc’s teeth. Apparently it involved a sort of two-pronged device that one sticks down over the crocodile’s neck. It shocks the croc, so it’s stunned for about three to four minutes. They shove a stick in it’s mouth, vertically, to keep it open just in case, and then they go in – one person on the top and one on the bottom, and trim away.

You really can’t make this stuff up. More later on how Africa doesn’t actually fit the stereotypical wild-jungle images inevitably invoked by this post.

Peace out. jc

Back to it.

A progress report. Just before I left, Mr. Ndiyoi, who had conducted an initial situation analysis for Zambia, officially took lead for organizing project activities in Zambia, which is great! We also got a budget, which is also great! So we now have a vehicle (!) and four wonderful statistics gurus from the Central Statistical Office to help implement the survey. With help from Mr. Ndiyoi, I also reconstructed the survey (yet again…) to make it usable for analysis. Over the last week, the lovely enumeration team completed a listing (essentially a census) of all seven farming cooperative zones in Katuba! We’ll use this listing to draw a stratified sample of treadle pump, motor pump, and bucket irrigators. We should be back in the field by the end of this week and (hopefully) done with the survey by February.  This frees me up to work on my lit review (waaay behind…) and paper, and complete some qualitative interviews and such in my last months here.  And to learn how to properly use STATA…ouch.


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