Why I Need Music, Especially Now

IMG_20160517_164101Instead of living in a mud brick house in Zambia and working at a school with not enough books (or really not enough of anything besides dedicated students), I could have been living in an apartment in New York and working for a snazzy record label or publicity firm. That was the plan. That’s where I thought I’d be a year post graduation. But I made a different choice. Not because I didn’t love the music industry- I did, and I do. Maybe I’ll even go back to it at some point. I knew that despite my love of music, I needed to have some sort of immersive service experience, so I went for the extreme and landed in rural Zambia. I also knew that music could still be a big part of my life even if it wasn’t my job.

When I was working in music, I learned so much about what goes into us getting to discover our favorite artists, like why certain artists appear on the iTunes homepage, what it means for a song to be featured on an episode of GIRLS, or the importance of NPR Tiny Desk concerts early on in an artist’s career. But now, living in Zambia, away from Spotify and festival season and reading my Twitter feed full of music blog updates every morning, I’m experiencing the influence of music in a new way. I’m noticing new things, appreciating new things, and feeling new things.

We take a lot for granted in the U.S., including easy access to music. I hadn’t realized what a fundamental constant it was for me to know about and be able to listen to any new music as soon as it dropped. Or how privileged I was to be able to see most of my favorite artists on tour, even to meet some of them, and to write about them. Without all of that for the time being, I’ve been latching on to any semblance of that comfort, invigoration, and in fact, necessity I can find in Zambia, while watching others around me do it too.

Music has been incredibly grounding for me in the past year away. It’s like a familiar friend in the midst of an environment where although I’ve adapted a great deal, I am always being tested and where nothing will ever feel completely normal. One of my friends told me that music can make us feel at home no matter where we are in the world. That sentiment has resonated every time Hozier sings me to sleep at 7pm because there’s no electricity and I think back to the cathartic experience of seeing him live at the 9:30 Club. And when Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ “Home” serendipitously tends to come on my iPod just as I’m reaching the final stretch to the village after the 20km bike ride to get groceries. Or when any Chvrches song plays and I remember the time I served them bagels.

In addition to recognizing my reliance on music in Zambia, I’ve been touched watching Zambians display an equally, and maybe more deeply rooted, connection to music. For the most part, they only need the radio and themselves. My host mom seems the most at ease and relatable to me when she comes home singing the songs from her church choir. The students in Grade 1 all the way up to Grade 9 become frankly euphoric every time I or one of my friends teach them a new song. When they see me with my iPod, the joy radiates just from the chance to put in the ear bud for a few seconds, regardless of if they can understand a single word. Dancing doesn’t require the radio (although that helps) or anything other than people’s voices singing the song and their hands clapping the beat. When the radio occasionally is on, playing the same Justin Bieber song, they’ll say me, “Madam, shaneniko!” (Madam, dance!). Adele’s “Hello” has already been translated into several Zambian local languages. But the moment I’ll never forget is when six year-old Aggie Chulu asked me, with the most certain look on her face, if my name was Emily Beyoncé.




One Day in Milombwe

May 20th, 2016
I wake up not because of an alarm, but because I hear roosters. I get up to go pee in my very own little hole in the ground, not forgetting to bring my glasses and headlamp. Then I climb back under the mosquito net, relishing in that last hour before I have to make an appearance, before I become a spectacle for the day. It’s this bizarre in between period where, no, I’m not in America, yet the reality of being in Zambia doesn’t quite sink in. I can be in the dark and imagine warm cider doughnuts at the Union Square green market.

I check my phone, the bridge from my village life to my other life and find WhatsApp messages from Hannah, one of the volunteers who keeps me sane in Zambia, and Jen, one of my friends who keeps me sane from America. I think about the book I’m currently engrossed in, The Poisonwood Bible. This is an appropriate choice because a Baptist American family goes to the Congo, Zambia’s neighbor, for a whole different kind of service. A main character, Leah Price, says that if she tried to write down everything she did in a day, she’d run out of paper before breakfast since there are so many caveats required to adequately explain village life to an audience that isn’t there. I feel you, Leah.

It must be time to get up because Lyla, my disabled cat, is meowing. She got attacked by a dog a few months ago, the vets saved her life, but she still can’t walk. For some reason, taking care of a disabled cat seems to suit me. And let’s be clear, I need her as much as she needs me. So, I give her some food and she hobbles over to devour it.

I also need food immediately, thus I begin with the left over couscous from last night. No microwave. No refrigerator. Just straight from the bowl on my counter. I remember when my mom used to cook couscous with chicken, corn, and olive oil, none of which I have at the moment. Couscous won’t be enough to sustain me though, so I walk down to my host family’s yard so Priscilla can give me some hot coals to start my fire. I’m still in my pajamas and hair a mess, at this point having given up on being a “together” looking American. They get it, I’m not. As Priscilla prepares the fire, I do one of my favorite activities- playing with her baby brother, Cal. I play/hold babies so much that my community is convinced that I want to have lots of them right now. Not yet, folks! Now that the fire is ready, I put on the tea kettle to heat up water for oatmeal.

My phone dies, which means with this overcast day, I won’t be able to solar charge my phone anytime soon.  But every time I get anxious about this phone, I remember that, hey, I have a smart phone. I have not one, but three solar chargers (yes really, three). It’s time to bike to school, so I throw on the cold season usual- flannel, maxi skirt + leggings, and TOMS shoes. Today’s agenda at school is handing out last term’s exam results and disappointing parents.

Any kid under the age of 7 who sees me along the way shouts, “How are you, Madam???”. The older kids are over it by now. My bike brakes are barely functional these days, so I walk down the first hill. Here comes the dilemma- do I walk through the river and freeze (it does get cold in Africa, you know) or walk over a dilapidated log bridge and maybe fall through it into said freezing river. This morning is particularly brisk, so I struggle over the bridge with my bike, make sure to greet the woman washing clothes in the river, and just as I step off the bridge…I trip and twist my ankle in front of my friend, Ba Patricia. She offers a sympathetic, “sorry, sorry,” and internally, “that white girl is so clumsy.”

I’m headed off again and see a group of students. Roster, who is in my class, is holding a bag of lollipops, meaning that she’s selling them. I stop and buy one, knowing that it won’t do much to improve the village’s perception of me as “probably 19 or so years old.”

I get to school, pass by the teachers’ housing compound and see my star boy student, Kennedy, sweeping his yard, a job that is typically reserved for girls. My feminist brain goes straight to, “Yes! Gender!” or in a Zambian accent, “Gendah!!”.

We’re supposed to be here at eight, but I’m the only one besides my head teacher. No surprise there. We wait for another teacher to bring keys to the office where most of the exam results are held. Slightly important.

My best teacher friend, Morgan, shows up wearing a full on graduation cap and gown. I completely fail to hide the confusion on my face. “Oh, today has to do with examinations. I thought it made sense.” Because he’s my friend, I find this endearing and no one else seems to think this outfit is unusual.

The group of female teachers arrive with the keys and food for lunch, including a live chicken. I don’t take a second glance because in rural Zambia, if you want to cook a chicken, you better find one and kill it first.

Since I’ll be here for the day and my phone is dead, I set up my solar charger next to the shelter that used to be there to feed children but is now serving as a voter registration booth.

Almost exclusively women come to pick up the exam results. There are a few men, but the scene is definitely dominated by head wraps and colorful chitenge fabric, and babies on backs.

I manage in Bemba to tell some parents that their 15 year old can’t read. I tell them that we’re giving the kids medicine on Monday and they need to eat something before school, doubting that it will happen, anticipating a bunch of sick and fainting kids. Not a single parent questions that we’re distributing this medicine to the children. It’s medicine, it’s meant to help. My top student’s mother asks, “What are her problems?”. Well, one problem is she’s way over qualified to be at this school.

This is the time we give up on the rest of the parents, usually about half, who aren’t going to show up. This is when we start complaining that lunch isn’t ready. I can’t just leave. I’ve lived here long enough to know not to pass up a free hot meal. With meat!

As we wait outside, thinking about food, Mr. Ephraim Kunda shows up. He’s the captain of the village soccer team, my former women’s group counterpart, a parent, just an all around solid human and village leader. He tells Morgan and I that the men from the team are at last ready to be serious and help us with work for the sports grant. They’ve committed to coming tomorrow on their one day off to clear a volleyball court and demonstrate their commitment before we buy the sports equipment. Phew. I’d been getting discouraged with this project, but standing by while Morgan and Ephrain discussed things like, “this needs to be a partnership,” means *hopefully* we’re back on track. I walked around the soccer field with them and three other men, was firm with these men, they listened to me, and it felt f*cking great.

Finally, finally lunch is ready. There is much debate to make certain that each plate has an equal share of meat, we wash our hands, skip the usual prayer because we’re so hungry, and inhale that oily, salty chicken and nshima, paired with the unfortunately named vegetable, rape.

The seating arrangement is segregated by gender, not due to any official rule about how teachers should sit, but that’s how everyone feels most comfortable. I watched closely for the first teacher to finish and wash his nshima hands, so as not to draw attention to the muzungu who doesn’t eat enough.

On my bike ride home the sun is out, and as a result, my bridge vs. river dilemma isn’t a thing. Through the river I go. I return home to, “Ba Emily babwela!” Emily is back! Lyla is eager to escape the prison that is my house and expand her domain a whole extra two feet onto the porch, and shit on it too.

When I get home from the chaos that is school, all I want is some peace and quiet. All I want is my bed and my phone and my book. Within five minutes, two host sisters emerge, wanting my attention, scolding me for not washing my dishes or sweeping (they’re 9 years old). Those tasks need to be done but I use the excuse that I’m tired to get them to scram. It doesn’t last long though.

I update Jen on the day over WhatsApp and get jealous of the food she’s eating in Brooklyn. I send her a photo of me on my porch and it isn’t until then that I realize I’ve been wearing two different earrings all day. Oops.

My most cherished time of the day. I sit on the porch, intending to read or write, but ultimately just space out and take in where I am. Stare at the trees. Recognize how normal it’s become for cows to run through my front yard.

My host sister, Clarice asks me for salt. I’ve grown more of a back bone now that I’m almost through month 12 and say no. She saunters away, insisting that I’m greedy in Bemba. But because she’s nine, she’s back in five minutes and we’re friends again.

This is another favorite time in that when the sun goes down, I go inside, close the door, close the curtain on today’s performance as a Peace Corps volunteer, and have the first real alone time since I woke up at 5:00AM. I have bowl of oatmeal #2. I do have other food options but, eh. I top it off with a mug of Tazo chai that is nothing short of orgasmic and also full of memories. I’ve started cooking inside in order to avoid the inevitable hungry kid staring and asking for food.

I’ll go to sleep soon, since without electricity, there’s not much to do. I sit here writing, thinking, wow, when I try to articulate my daily life in Zambia it sounds a little crazy and absurd, but spectacular. Just when I believe it all can’t get any weirder, my cat flinches, and there’s a rat climbing up my wall…