Editor’s Note: The following is part of a series written by Anthony ‘Tony’ Peele, a social entrepreneur who co-founded Swahili Coast with his wife Caroline and a volunteer and board member of the Full Belly Project.
Today, Virgil Malambo, coordinator for the Chipata District Farmers Association, and I are making the trip to the village of Kamlaza to do field work. We’ll be surveying roughly 40 people and collecting samples of peanuts that we will use for marketing the peanut harvest for next year. If the farmers can produce valuable peanuts, we will actually have to market and sell them to exporters — traders won’t just show up and pay a premium. Field work is by far my favorite part of being in Africa, as it offers the opportunity to briefly connect with people. This post is less about Full Belly, and more about what it’s like to build connections and understanding across cultures.
The surveys happened under the shade of a musekesi tree. I’m seated on a simple wooden bench, with roughly 20 male farmers sitting to my left and 20 women to my right. Virgil and I address the group to get underway. Having the seat as the focal point of the group always feels uncomfortably colonial — and evokes the painful history of colonial rule that created great suffering and injustice. However, conventions are hard to break, so for the start of our address I give an English address and Virgil translates to Chichewa.
After surveys got underway, I abandon the bench and settle in on the grass seated among the men. Most spoke some English, and some spoke quite well. For unfamiliar words, Google Translate on my phone did the rest. I chatted most with Daliso Chipeta — 45 years old, a father of six, and a farmer and businessman who farms six acres. He sports a gold-toned wristwatch and a bit of heft on his 5-foot-5-inch frame. In his spare time, his favorite activity is watching Manchester United Football in the English Premier League, although he laments that it’s been a hard few seasons as of late. Daliso admits he probably watches a little bit too much TV, and when the group laughs, he teases one of them back for smoking too much marijuana as the crowd erupts in laughter once again.
On a continent with some of the world’s poorest people, Daliso is not among the poorest. He lives in a relatively stable and regionally prosperous country, with the safety net of a stable food supply in the event of bad harvest season. And even among Zambian farmers, Daliso seemed to be doing quite well. But Daliso understands that as a farmer his welfare is tied to seasonal rains, pests, and markets for his produce that are all far beyond his control, and he’s well aware of the prosperous larger world of planes, skyscrapers, and hospitals to treat familiar illnesses that claim the lives of his friends and family.
I asked Daliso what one thing he would change about his village of Kamlaza. Daliso turned to the group and began to discuss it with his fellow farmers. After a short discussion of English and Chichewa among the group Daliso ultimately proclaimed that he would change was umphawi — the Chichewa word for poverty. When I asked what the discussion was about he clarified that the other contender for what he would change was an upgraded satellite connection at the local pub so they could watch more Premiere League soccer. And thus was Daliso’s dilemma — whether the greatest challenge to his village was either poverty or a profoundly familiar urge to order a larger sports package for the TV.
It would be easy to drive by Daliso’s village and see the mud bricks and thatch-roof huts and assume that life there is miserable. But once I was seated among a group of men laughing and joking, I’m reminded that, while Daliso’s challenges are certainly present, they don’t define him. He lives in a community of friendly, welcoming people that share laughs and a common culture, and overcomes adversity in the truly human way that we all do, when we are at our best.
As Americans, our perceptions of Africa are principally defined by poverty, so we expect that the African experience sees poverty as central to their identity as well. The reality is always so different. Life experience is not always defined by the ‘not having.’ Just as British colonials in Zambia branded Africa as ‘uncivilized’ as they overlooked the rich and complex cultures, we have allowed our perceptions of Africa to be colored by comparison to our own culture of excess — not by African perceptions of itself. To move beyond this colonial mindset, we need to do a lot more of the sitting in the grass and the listening, and a lot less of the talking.
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