Tip of the Day

If it is rainy season, and the road just outside your house has turned into a muddy, soupy mess, and drivers are routinely getting stuck there and then coming by to ask for help, and Jamie who usually tows them out with the 4×4 is in Lusaka and has the vehicle with him, and you go out one night to try to help someone who is stuck, don’t stand within the line of sight of the front tires.

 

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Employee of the Month

I get to wear a lot of hats at MICS. In Canada, I am used to a world of specialization. But here, you get to do everything — whether you are qualified for it or not. One hat that I have been wearing a lot lately is my HR Manager hat. This is one of the areas I was asked to help with when we arrived, so I have been diving in and trying to make sure MICS is a great place to work for our teachers and support staff.

Sometimes this is tedious work — writing employment contracts that comply with Zambian labour law is nobody’s idea of a good time. Sometimes it is difficult and even heartbreaking, as it was in December when we had to notify some staff their contracts would not be renewed. But other times, I admit, it is just plain fun.

One of the fun times came last Friday. We have been looking for ways to boost morale and to engage the teachers in striving to improve in their roles. We also wanted to take some steps towards narrowing the pay gap between our teachers and the government teachers. (MICS is a private school, and currently it is not possible for us to match the government salaries.) So at the start of this year we launched a good, old-fashioned “Employee of the Month” program. Every month, we select someone who has gone above and beyond in their role. They get a fancy laminated certificate, a cash prize, and some well-deserved recognition in front of their peers. (We are also working on some other perks, including a premium reserved bicycle parking spot.)

I have definitely been in some contexts in Canada where such a program might be met with eye-rolling and crossed arms. But here, the response so far has been more like wild enthusiasm. On Friday after school we gathered the staff to give out the award for January. The winner was Ms. Stembile Uli, who was recognized for creating top-notch lesson plans that are creative, thorough, and engaging for the kids. I expected her to be happy. What I did not expect was the reaction from the other staff. When her name was announced, they let out a great cheer. After the meeting she was mobbed, with every single staff member lining up to give her a big hug. Watching the scene, you could be forgiven for thinking this was the receiving line at her wedding. Or maybe that she had just won the Super Bowl.

So our new program is off to a great start, and no doubt people are already waiting to see who the deserving winner will be in February. In the meantime, I have a hunch people are paying a little extra attention to their lesson plans.

Congratulations Ms. Uli on the big win…you deserve it!

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Baby Nathaniel

He is finally here! In case you have not yet heard, on Monday morning at 5:39am, we welcomed Nathaniel Elijah Percy into the world. He weighs 9 lbs 3 oz and is, in my unbiased fatherly opinion, as cute as a button. Nathaniel means “given of God”, and he is certainly a wonderful gift.

The little guy kept us waiting until the last possible moment. With Julianne’s pregnancy extending beyond 41 weeks, her doctor had scheduled an induction for 8am on Sunday. But, around 4am, Julianne woke me to tell me she thought the baby had decided to come on his own. Some of us just work better with a deadline.

After 28 hours of labour, little Nathaniel was born. Joining us in the room for the birth were Julianne’s mother, as well as our incredible doula, Angie, who provided hours of support and encouragement throughout the process.

Caleb and Micah have been thrilled to welcome their little brother into the family, showering him with love and taking very seriously their job of teaching him all about the world. When he first arrived at the hospital, Caleb walked up to Nathaniel, pointed to himself and said, “This is called a ‘kid'”. Micah is already making plans to teach him about all the essentials: baseball, outer space, and really big numbers like a million.

As we sat in the hospital room together, enjoying our first moments as a family of five, Micah turned to me and said, “Daddy, I think a baby being born is kind of like magic.” I completely agree.

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What’s different about fenceposts?

First, let me say that not all posts in the “What’s Different?” series will be about animals hiding in things. But this one certainly is.

A few weeks ago we discovered a snake skin on our veranda. Our veranda is covered and screened in, so it felt more like finding a snakeskin inside our house than outside. Snakes periodically shed their skins, so this was just a little calling card saying, “Just so you know, I was in here.” Locals told us it was a green mamba. If you want to learn more about them, you can do so here. But let’s just say when I looked them up, it was words like “highly venomous” and “fatalities” that jumped off the page.

Fast forward to this afternoon. Our friend Japheth, who is doing some carpentry work for us at the house, came into my kitchen and asked if he could have a long stick. “There is a snake outside. I want to kill it.” It turns out our little green mamba friend had been living inside the fencepost in our backyard. Japheth had found him with his head poking out.

Japheth provided the bravery, and I provided the broom. He held the broom high above his head and swung it down as hard and fast as he could. Got him on the first try.

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Editor’s Note:

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. “Joel, that does not look like a green mamba. It looks an awful lot like a philothamnus semivariegatus, otherwise known as the spotted bush snake.” Well, you would be right. After I posted this, a friend in Zimbabwe who knows his snakes quite well emailed to reassure us that we did not have a green mamba in our back yard for the past few weeks. Turns out this little fella is not even poisonous.

Zimbabwe Part 3: Shumba Shaba


We could not return to ZimbShumba Shaba Blog_05abwe without going to Shumba Shaba. Set atop a massive rock formation in the hills of Matopos it is, quite simply, the most beautiful place either of us has ever been. The lodge is run by Denis and Sandy Paul, who are the warmest and most gracious hosts you could ask for. The chalets are perched on the side of the rock, each with a back wall of bare rock and a front window that gives you a spectacular view of the sunrise without needing to get out of bed. Stand outside on the rock at night and you can see stars not just above you, but also straight ahead and for 360 degrees around you. The only way I can think to describe it is that it’s like a planetarium, except that is the wrong waShumba Shaba Blog_03y around. This is the thing that planetariums (planetaria?) are meant to imitate.

The boys had a wonderful time exploring and clambering over the rocks. Julianne and I enjoyed the delicious food and breathtaking view. A place like this is, of course, a photographer’s paradise. A few favourite shots below…

 

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Zimbabwe Part 2: Mtshabezi

The Ndlovu family.

The Ndlovu family.

I am not quite sure what you might picture if I told you I was going to visit old friends in rural Zimbabwe. But I’m pretty sure it would not be this.

I am sitting on the couch in a crowded living room in the home of our friends Richard and Snoe Ndlovu. Richard is the director at Mtshabezi hospital, and he and his wife took great care of us when we arrived there in 2006 and became our closest friends. As often happens in the evenings here, people have just started showing up. So there are not quite enough seats for everyone, and some people are seated on the floor or perched on the edge of an armchair. There are a few conversations going on around the room — about politics, or the economy, or what was and was not accomplished on a recent trip to town. There is a heated debate about a young woman who is about to be married, and whether she should be following Zimbabwean cultural traditions or set them aside in favour of a more Christian approach. The speakers in the debate are all switching fluidly between English and Ndebele, so I never quite catch what the actual issue is.

Every few moments, in the middle of this conversational chaos, someone will yell out in a way that always strikes me as particularly African. Ow-waaaaaaaaaaa! or Ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-eeeeeeeee! And everyone else will stop and look at the television. For whatever else we are doing here — visiting or storytelling or debating — we are also watching professional wrestling.

photo (2)It was one of the many surprises about life in Zimbabwe for Julianne and me when we lived there in 2007, this obsession with pro wrestling. The kids in the community seemed to know when it was on, and they would cram into the living room until there was no more floor space and sit watching in wonder. The adults were no less into it, and with every big move they would cry out, contorting their bodies or shielding their eyes or ducking their heads, as if someone might leap from the screen and direct the next move at them.

I remember asking Richard once, as we sat in his living room with wrestling on the television, if he knew that it wasn’t real — that the moves were choreographed. He had not known this, and he sat quietly absorbing the news. After a long silence he turned to me and asked, “And what about NASCAR…is that real?”

It is an odd scene, I know, and one that still strikes me as funny. If you looked outside you would see all the hallmarks of rural Africa — there are chickens and goats running around, there are women walking past with water jugs balanced on their heads, and you would not have to walk too far down the road before you started seeing mud huts with thatched grass roofs. And here we are inside, watching Daniel Bryan bodyslam his opponent.

But I share this with you because I want you to have a picture, a little slice of regular life here in Africa, that sets aside the usual cliches. I am not sitting there marvelling that they have so little and yet “they seem so happy.” I am not turning to Julianne and telling her that I came expecting to give to them, but that I ended up receiving far more than I gave. I am just sitting in a living room, hanging out with good, good friends. We are talking, and laughing, and enjoying being together. And it feels like home.

Zimbabwe Part 1: Hwange

A little over a week and a half ago, we set out on a little trip to Zimbabwe, a few hours drive from where we are in
Zambia. The main purpose of the trip was to attend the annual retreat for BIC global workers in the region, but since Julianne and I lived in Zimbabwe eight years ago, we decided to take advantage of being there and extend our stay a little. We had an incredible time — visiting friends and returning to some of our favourite spots in a country we love so much.

Now we are back home, suitcases are unpacked, laundry is done, and we have had a chance to go through the many photos taken on the trip.

So buckle up folks, it’s Zimbabwe week here on our blog. First stop is Hwange National Park, on a game drive with the crew from the BIC retreat. Here are some photos from the day…

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Chris climbs on top of the truck for a better view.

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What’s different about boots?

I’m kicking off a new segment on our blog today. The blog is a great place to share the big stories — about babies on the way or what is happening in the lives of students at MICS. But I think it is also the perfect place to share the little stories. In “What’s Different”, I intend to share with you some of those little moments that make life here in Zambia what it is — moments that are quirky, or maddening, or beautiful, or hilarious. So today, I am kicking off the segment with “What’s different about boots?”

What is different about my boots here is that there is a very decent chance there will be a toad in them in the morning. In fact, I have just come off two consecutive mornings of slipping my foot into my boot, and pausing because something doesn’t feel quite right. It takes a moment to register. Feels like maybe the insole has slipped out of place. But no. If I remove my foot and pick up the boot for closer inspection, out hops the culprit.

You would think after the first incident I would have checked my boots the next day. But it is easy to forget. Many years of I-can-just-slip-on-my-footwear-before-heading-out-the-door-and-there-is-almost-certainly-not-a-toad-in-there do not just disappear overnight. But I am learning.

So that, friends, is one of the things that is different about living in Zambia. More to come…

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Tried to get them to pose for a photo for the blog. Boots co-operated. Toad did not.

 

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Retreating to the corner and looking guilty.

 No toads were harmed in the making of this blog post.

Pre-natal Clinic

Pre Natal Clinic_02Julianne and I recently spent a morning at the pre-natal clinic at Macha hospital. Once a month, the hospital holds a clinic for expectant mothers and mothers with young children. One of the benefits of Julianne being pregnant (aside from, you know, the creation of a new human life) is that it is allowing us to experience the care of this hospital that is at the centre of our community here, and without having to get malaria or break an arm. Everyone we have interacted with at the hospital has been absolutely wonderful, and the care has been excellent.

The clinic was an interesting experience. Couples who are expecting a baby are required to attend a session as part of their registration with the hospital. Since the class is normally conducted in Tonga, the local language, we were treated to a private version conducted for us in English by one of the nurses.

He was professional and thorough, taking us through topics such as nutrition for pregnant women, what to expect during the birthing process, and how to monitor your baby’s health and growth after leaving the hospital. He did laugh a little as he took us through some of the material, which I think he was required to cover but which he knew probably would not apply to this couple from Canada. I learned, for instance, that I should give Julianne a break from working in the fields during her pregnancy. I have dutifully complied with this instruction.

One of the standard pPre Natal Clinic_01arts of the registration is for both parents to take an HIV test; the test is not a requirement but is strongly encouraged. The HIV pandemic has hit Zambia hard, with and adult prevalance rate of nearly 22% at its peak. And while education and prevention efforts of the last couple decades have helped bring the rate down, the statistics say that even today nearly one in eight adult Zambians carries the virus. The testing of expectant mothers is particularly important, because the virus can be passed on to infants. There are ways to prevent this, or at least reduce the risk, but only if the mother’s status is known.

Julianne and I were both tested as part of our registration with the hospital. After filling out the consent form (the first form I have completed in my life where I have been asked to indicated how many spouses I have), I had my finger pricked to get a small amount of blood. For Julianne, since her body has a slightly more central role to play than mine in the whole pregnancy thing, a few more tests were required. After these were done, we were told we would have our HIV results in a matter of minutes.

Getting the actual results was an interesting experience. The nurse we had been working with had a certain flair for the dramatic, so he built up the suspense a little. He put the papers face down on the table.

“I have your results here. But first, let’s talk a little. How would you feel if you were negative?”

“Ummm…happy?”

“Good. And how would you feel if you were positive.”

“Wellllll…surprised?”

“Okay.”

Long pause.

“Do you know that at this hospital we have a very good program of medicines for supporting those who are positive?”

“Yes, I did know that.”

“And if you are positive, will you take advantage of that program?”

“Well, yes, I suppose would.”

Now, I am pretty aware of the behaviours that can put you at risk for HIV. And I am pretty aware that the frequency with which I engage in those behaviours puts me in a pretty safe spot in terms of the likelihood of getting HIV. But if this guy kept asking me any more questions, I think I might have started to worry that I might be seeing a “positive” on that page.

At any rate, the suspense was about to end. He flipped the results over, and with a deft cross-handed manoeuvre he put my results down in front of Julianne, and her results down in front of me.

Both negative. Which was not a surprise. What was a surprise was this you-see-hers, she-sees-yours approach to sharing them. It doesn’t strike me as the kind of thing that would happen in our privacy-conscious culture in Canada. But as I thought about it more, it made a lot of sense. In a culture where women do not always have the say and the rights that we take for granted in Canada, this gives a pregnant mother a clear view of her partner’s status. It gives her information she might not get otherwise — information that may help her protect herself and her baby.

I am thankful for Macha hospital. I am thankful for the role it plays in the community here. And I am thankful that, while we are getting ready for this new little life to join our family, we get to experience first hand what a wonderful place it really is.