1. "research", or, what i actually do all day

    “So, independent research… what does that mean?”

    Excellent question. Still figuring out the answer myself.

    Moving to a strange country by yourself is hard. Doing field research is hard. Getting things done with no supervision, deadlines, or accountability is hard. Staying motivated in the face of setbacks (some personal, some institutional) is hard. Combine all of the above, and I really think this might be the most challenging experience I’ve ever had.

    By some stroke of luck (or something… really not sure) I possess this crazy passion for migration, an intense work ethic, and maybe a bit more perfectionism than most. I really need everything I’ve got to want to keep doing this every day. Lies – I don’t want to do this every day. Some days I can’t wait to get out of whatever government ministry I’m waiting in and come home and make elaborate desserts and watch The Wire. But that’s part of it too. I’m really trying my hardest to maintain my sanity as well as accomplishing as much as possible.

    I think one of the hardest things for me has been the lack of definite goal or final product. As far as Fulbright is concerned, I don’t have to produce anything at all. This is the first time I haven’t had some sort of assignment or deadline or someone to report to, and it’s been really difficult to try to create this sort of structure for myself. I feel pretty fortunate to be studying a topic so relevant to so many different organizations: I’ve met with dozens of different government agencies, NGO’s, multilaterals, etc, all of whom are interested in the topic. Even though China in Africa affects their work, they aren’t able to study it in much detail as it doesn’t fall in their direct purview. I definitely feel accountable to them to learn as much as I can and present it in a helpful manner.

    I’m also learning how broad of a topic “China in Africa” really is. Though my number one priority is to look into the actual migration process and demographic trends, nine months is long enough to look into other aspects of the relationship as well. Unfortunately, when it comes down to it all of these themes are completely different. The literature and people involved in investment and diaspora studies and foreign aid have almost nothing in common. So, I have been reading my face off. It’s been a tricky balance between preparing for interviews (knowing enough about each specific topic to not sound like an idiot when I talk to people) and spending all of my time going over documents I really don’t need to be here in Zambia to read. I’ve probably been leaning too far towards the latter, likely out of a lack of self-confidence in my “research” skills (what are those anyway? How does one prepare? Still a total mystery to me). One of my new years’ resolutions should probably be balance that a bit better.

    So, this is all still pretty vague. What do I actually spend my time doing? Here’s a selection of activities from the past week:

    Being a complete creeper and taking pictures of all of the lists of permits available to be picked up at Immigration. I need some sort of sampling frame, and none is officially available. On those sheets place of work/residence is listed next to the name/nationality/permit number; I’m hoping to be able to at least generally map work and residence patterns. Now I get to type them all into my computer from individual photos on my iphone. Yay primary documents.

    Going through old newspapers at the National Archives to find public notices of government contracts awarded to Chinese companies. Tried going directly to all the ministries as well and was dumbfounded by how many said they only had 2012 data (if that). I’m not sure enough have been published in the papers to make it worthwhile, but thought I’d give it a shot.

    Picking up data I requested from various agencies. To get anything accomplished with a government office here, you need a formal letter (preferably from another government agency) stating what you’re looking for and why. I feel so lucky to have happened upon ZDA (Zambia Development Agency) as a sponsor because they have completely hooked me up in this regard. Things move extremely slowly here; just this week I picked up some census data that I requested about two months ago… yay. At least I got it. Definitely not guaranteed.

    Going through ZDA files. They’ve been super accommodating in letting me look through their records – as the government investment promotion agency they work with foreign investors planning to invest at least half a million dollars in Zambia. It’s been pretty cool to be able to look at specific cases and (hopefully) better understand overall trends.

    Reading reading reading. Data entry like crazy. Interviews. Trying to get to as many Chinese-owned companies as possible (not doing so well at this).  Creating my actual survey form (ideally to start distributing after the holidays). Did I mention reading?

    At this point I think I’m going to write and publish something extra awesome out of sheer stubbornness.

     

  2. belated thanks

    This Thanksgiving made me feel so lucky. Not only did we have an amazing meal and a gorgeous table (photographic evidence following) but a great group of us got to share it together. I think being overseas for such a classic American holiday really makes you appreciate it more, no matter how surreal it feels to be roasting a turkey in 100-degree weather and sitting out by the pool after eating. I think every year I’m thankful for the same three major things, but being here made me appreciate them a bit differently.

    1)   Food. I know, I know. Your cue to laugh at the foodie. Seriously though, I felt extra thankful to be able to help create and enjoy such an amazing meal simply because it’s so much harder to do here. By some stroke of Thanksgiving luck I was able to find a real (blue) pumpkin and roast and puree it for a pie (luckily the finished produced was not also blue). We also got our hands on a fresh turkey, spiced up some canned cranberry sauce (snaps Anna), and got treated to a lot of different family favorites. I guess I should really thank globalization for making all of this possible, but just seeing how happy people were to have “real” apple and pumpkin pie was pretty unforgettable.

    2)   Friends. I spent the first six weeks of my time here by myself almost all the time. Even though I definitely have a loner streak, it was pretty hard not interacting with anyone. I think the difference comes from being able to choose to be alone or not. As a consequence of doing independent research, I knew literally no one and didn’t really know how to go about changing that. I really was starting to come to terms with knowing I would have read every book on my kindle and watched every movie in my collection (probably multiple times) by the time I left, but then I got super lucky (full credit to Mindy actually) and fell in with a great group of people.  Case in point: after our Thanksgiving meal we made a bonfire and listened to some great guitar playing. Serious Midd flashbacks and more than I ever could have asked for.

    3)   Family. Even though I still hate spending holidays like Thanksgiving away from my parents, they’re coming to visit in about a month! A lot of people have been really surprised that they want to come here to see me; evidently their parents have no interest in spending their vacation in Zambia. To me it just seems natural – since I was a baby I’ve been traveling with my family, including to many “non-traditional” locations (read: Tunisia at age 5, still haven’t been to Florida). I am so thankful that my parents have instilled in me their same sense of enthusiasm and curiosity. The more places I get to go (definitely feel thankful for this growing list as well!) the more I want to see.

    I hope everyone also had an amazing Thanksgiving. If you’re reading this, chances are I’m thankful for you as well. Missing you all.

     

  3. Expat Bubble

    I’ve definitely been bummed to find that Zambians and expats don’t tend to mix much. One notable exception is my housemate Megan, but she’s been here for 8 years so she’s been able to make some really lasting friendships. I completely understand that it can seem not worth it to invest the time and energy in someone if they’re just going to be leaving in a few months, which is the case for most expats (myself included).

    I don’t think that’s the biggest problem though. I’ve actually been pretty sickened by the extreme isolationism of the expat community here. Most of the people working for big international organizations and foreign governments have absolutely gigantic houses with needlessly high security and really only tend to interact with other expats. To some extent I understand it and couldn’t honestly say that I want to live like the locals do. I am so glad my house is in a compound with a guard and a double locked door and bars by all the windows. I also would be pretty sad without Internet and the ability to treat myself to a coffee and a sandwich at a Western-style café on occasion.

    Still though, it’s all on a spectrum. We are the only muzungus (foreigners) in our complex here, and it is one of the safest and nicest places in town. I don’t really see the need for the gated, lighted, gigantic places most other expats live (and work). The American embassy is literally a fortress on a hill – talk about unapproachable. It doesn’t surprise me that some people in developing countries have serious resentment towards donor organizations. Most foreign employees make a very high salary and apart from that get tuition covered at the international schools (about $20,0000 a year) along with other benefits. I appreciate the commitment to international salary standards and the desire/necessity to provide one’s children with a quality education (though it does underscore how sad the quality of local education is) but it creates an incredibly huge gap between expat and local life.

    I think what makes me feel most uncomfortable is that many expats’ jobs are focused on helping improve peoples’ lives here. If international organization or government employees got paid a little less and contributed the difference to an aid project (or even to an individual, to help someone through school for example), they probably wouldn’t notice the difference but it could be huge for the person they’re helping. I am definitely not trying to say that there aren’t people doing amazing work with true commitment, but I’m pretty conflicted about what seems to be the default system.

    These issues are definitely complicated. I admit I originally judged families with lots of domestic employees (cooks, housekeepers, gardeners, etc.) but this is actually a really important source of jobs for locals. I read the other day that Zambia has only 400,000 formal-sector jobs for a workforce of over one million. Hiring domestic help, then, is actually an extremely effective way of contributing to local development, not just an indication of privilege. 

    As someone who wants to work in the international development/diplomacy field, these are really important issues to come to terms with and understand. I definitely feel fortunate to have had this opportunity before committing to a career path, and I look forward to having my views evolve even further.

     

  4. Here and There

    I’ve been lucky to attend some pretty cool events over the past week, including the finale of Zambia Fashion Week and TedX Lusaka.

    I really loved the cross of modern designs and traditional fabrics at Zambia Fashion Week. Some of my favorite looks:

    you can’t see my favorite one out of this collection - a jacket of that material with a leather peplum-ish ruffle around the waist.

    Minus the matching bag…

    Three people spoke at TedX, and they showed two videos of other Ted Talks. One of the live talks was about being able to be happy while alone, especially while traveling (snaps, totally identify), the second was about women in technology (the girl was a boss, only about 25 and rocking her own tech startup), and the third focused on entrepreneurship and loans. They’re planning on doing another one in March - I hope I can go to that one too! It was a great chance to hear a variety of Zambian perspectives on important local issues.

     

  5. Market Price

    I have been instructed by some helpful Zambians on how to best avoid “muzungu pricing” aka absurd markups for clueless tourists. While I definitely don’t want to pay $200 for a tiny wooden statue like someone tried to trick my housemate into doing, I’m actually not as avid a bargainer as I might be otherwise. Even though I only have a stipend to pay for everything while here, I definitely have much more to spare than most Zambians. I don’t really see the point (and in fact have ethical problems with) arguing a vendor ‘s price down to save a few dollars that I honestly probably won’t miss but could mean more food on the table for his/her family.

    Of course I have no way of knowing what they’ll use their markup profit for, but just estimating a day’s income for most typical Zambians, I prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt. For example, I bought a really nice hand-woven basket from this group of guys up the road. There are about ten of them preparing the materials and making the baskets, but from what I’ve seen they probably only sell four or five a day, if that. They charged me 80 kwacha for a small basket – even though I probably could have gotten it down to around 60 or so, why would I? First of all, $15 is more than a fair price by U.S. standards, and more importantly, 80 kwacha doesn’t go far when split among ten people. I feel the same when mini bus drivers “accidentally” forget to give me my change – when people are only paying 4 kwacha each, an extra few could make a significant difference to the driver and conductor.

    I am sure I make vendors very happy by not bargaining, but I don’t really care if they think I’m a dumb muzungu. My monthly stipend is almost twice the average yearly income here. That makes it really hard to justify saving an extra dollar for a quarter cup of Starbucks.

     

  6. 36 Weeks

    No, I’m not starting a countdown yet, don’t worry. I just got here and am looking forward to a great nine months.

    I have, however, decided to think about this experience on a weekly basis. I think measuring in weeks will help me to both rise above inevitable ups and downs and to set (and achieve!) reasonable goals.

    Nine months is just kind of hard to comprehend. I haven’t even been here a month, and I have no idea where I’ll be (metaphorically) in another month’s time. It’s too long a time frame to really plan around. A week though is totally doable. I’ve started making weekly to-do lists; though perhaps I’ve been a bit too ambitious, I definitely feel accomplished when I see how many things I’ve checked off. A week is also short enough that if I get a bit off track, I won’t feel like I’m nailed down to a long-term plan. I can tell that flexibility is going to be key here, so even though I want to stick to my original goals, I will need some freedom to jump to plan B (C, D, E…) when plan A fails. Besides, it is super difficult to pin down plans in advance here (the number of times I have heard “just text me in the morning to set a time” – in work settings - is growing rapidly), so there’s just no use in planning a month out anyway.

    On the other hand, I think a week gives me a longer timeframe to see everything in context. I know things aren’t going to go uniformly well, and there are going to be days where I just want to curl up in my bed and feel sorry for myself. And that’s fine, I’m just trying really hard to not get too derailed by those things. That’s just one day out of the week and I can turn it around from there. My second two weeks here have gone much more quickly than my first, and I’ve achieved a lot more as well. Thinking a bit longer-term is helping me to not get so bogged down when I’m frustrated or sad.

    I’m also getting into a bit of a flow! Mondays I will now have choir rehearsals (we’re doing Handel’s Messiah for the holidays, yay), Tuesdays are the awesome huge vegetable markets (expect to hear more on this front), Sundays are Frisbee at the American School, etc etc. I’ve also joined a gym so it’ll be nice to have a bit more structure, as well as obviously improving my physical and mental health :)

    Week three, check. On to week four!

     

  7. Point A to Point B

    No matter where you live or what you do, some part of your day likely involves getting from point A to point B.  I feel like transportation is one of those aspects of life that, while present everywhere, can illuminate a lot of the differences between different places in the world. Everyone can get stuck in gridlock, but will you be in your own mirrored SUV or on a bike or crammed onto a minibus with 20 other people?

    Here in Zambia I don’t have a car, which a lot of people think is crazy. Lusaka isn’t a particularly walkable city (see below) and the concept of biking is (nervous-)laughable. Fuel is super expensive though (about 8 bucks a gallon if my rough calculations are right - yay for different metrics and currencies) and it just didn’t make sense to get a vehicle and spend all that money for only nine months here.

    So, I’ve been mainly taking the minibuses and walking, which tends to elicit either concern or laughter from those I tell. I’d been warned about the minibuses even before I came, but really haven’t found them so bad. Essentially they’re large vans with bench seats, usually painted blue with an orange stripe (I guess the government is in the process trying to register them all). They follow (semi) pre-determined routes and are definitely the cheapest transportation option besides walking. Travel from my house down to the government centers in town usually costs me 4 kwacha (about 80 cents). Minibus drivers aren’t as renowned for trying to rip people off as are cab drivers, but occasionally you get the odd guy who SWEARS that no, the price has never been 4 kwacha, nor even 3 like I have sometimes paid, but that they couldn’t possibly take me on board for less than 5.  I don’t usually argue over the 20 cents, though some expats have said that’s their favorite part of minibus-riding.

    On the way into town, I walk about four blocks to the main intersection of my neighborhood and there’s usually a bus waiting - “TOWN BUS!” as the conductors yell. Up front there is room for about two passengers (sometimes three if they’re really trying to get their money’s worth) and the driver, while in back there’s usually three rows of seats and sometimes a fold-down seat where the conductor/guy who takes the money sits. I’ve realized that they won’t ask you where you’re going – you have to tell them and then pay accordingly. Definitely a bit nerve-wracking at the start when I wasn’t sure of all the names of the stops, but I think I’ve got it down now. On the way back out of town, I walk up to one specific stop where the buses heading back to Kabulonga congregate, and usually have to wait (sometimes 5 minutes, sometimes up to 30 minutes) until the bus is full enough to leave. For some conductors this is that every formally defined seat is full… for others this could mean that there is literally no breathing space in the back. Definitely fun in 100 degree weather :) In terms of safety, I actually haven’t felt too in danger on the minibuses – they seem about as risky as being in a car sharing the road with one, haha.

    I’m lucky that the thinktank I’m working with is right around the corner from my house (by coincidence) so I can just bop over there whenever. The city has basically a wheel and spoke layout, which can make it tricky if you want to get out to one of the other neighborhoods (most of the nicer residential neighborhoods are out on spokes). Luckily though, I’ve been spending most of the rest of my time in the center of town at government ministries, embassies, and the like. I’m pretty proud that I have not yet had to take a taxi, and am instead just walking everywhere the bus doesn’t go. This is totally fine during the day, but I do have a taxi number in case I ever end up anywhere kind of far away at night.

    Walking can sometimes be fun, but it’s definitely a very dirty process. Sidewalks are non-existent, and I’ve become extremely grateful for packed dirt on the side of roads as opposed to loose, blowing dirt. In the middle of town generally the walking paths (for lack of a better word) are pretty well-defined just from heavy use, but sometimes getting somewhere involves scrambling down through ditches and hopping over large holes. I definitely look pretty silly offroading in a suit and ballet flats. Also I would incur a lot of jokingly-condescending “awwww, my little Fulbright scholar” comments from my loving boyfriend about the (extremely high) frequency with which I trip over things.

    The other thing about walking is that I have gotten lost so much! I must rely much more on street signs and building labels in the U.S. than I thought! The city doesn’t really have formally defined sectors, so businesses and houses and everything are all mixed together. For me everything looked super similar to start and I’ve gotten turned around really frequently. Luckily once I find something the first time, I’ll never get lost again, but definitely still working on getting to know the city. I did come across my first stoplight in the city by accident the other day though! Major find.

    Taxi and minibus drivers are pretty aggressive towards walkers (not just white females like me) so I’ve picked up a few tricks. First, I try to always walk opposite traffic, though this still doesn’t always work. You really think I would be walking the opposite direction if I actually wanted to be on your bus?? Evidently. The “taxi drivers” (a lot of taxis are just personal cars – avoid at all costs – they will 100% definitely rip you off) at the end of my street now know that I will never say yes to their “taxi, mami?” requests, but the guys downtown are harder to shake. I don’t know if it’s because it’s really rare to see a young white girl walking around or what, but the answer is still always “no.” Usually they’re pretty surprised when I say this straight up to them, and sometimes they laugh at me, but hey, they stop asking.

    So far I haven’t regretted not having a car, nor feared for my safety in any way, so I’m definitely planning on sticking to my walking/minibus combination. Just always very happy to be able to wash my feet at the end of the day :)

     
  8. went to his concert on wednesday… really amazing story of a former child soldier from sudan. pretty legit rapper too.

     
     
  9. records at zambian immigration… all i have to say is HAHAHAHA

     

  10. mi casa

    my house is really cute. photographic evidence:

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    we have a really lovely patio complete with star jasmine and a visiting neighborhood kitty (sorry kate, no kitten photos). super nice for a relaxed morning with coffee and a book!

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    from there it’s through the front door into the kitchen, well-stocked thanks to my housemate with non-essential but really pretty essential (you know what i mean… foodie life) items like a coffeemaker, stand mixer, muffin tins, etc. in the next few days i’m going to make some whole wheat apple muffins to have with the pumpkin coffee i brought along - who says i can’t have fall even when it’s 100 degrees outside?? priorities. seriously.

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    after passing through the small study-ish room (good work table for when i feel like focusing on time-venue sampling procedures… yep…) you get to the lovely airy living room. not pictured is the fireplace evidently pretty necessary for “winter” here aka june & july. the house is concrete and there’s no heating so it tends to get a bit chilly even though 45 degree outdoor temps are balmy by vermont standards…

    i’m still in an ongoing battle with my room to try to get pictures and other decorations to actually stay affixed to my wall, so currently it’s not in particularly photo-ready shape. also forgot to take pictures of our pool (rough life, i know) so a mi casa: vol 2 post is in order!

    i’ve officially passed the one week mark in pretty good form. definitely missing everyone at home, but had a few productive meetings and am starting to get to know some people here. i’m definitely excited for things to pick up - less time by my lonesome in the house (as nice as it is), hopefully some research progress, and more stories to share with you all! love and hugs.