TED Talk: How Africa Can Use Its Traditional Knowledge to Make Progress

Imagine that this is your life: you live in a rural area of America, where there’s not a lot of upward mobility available to you unless you are educated, and the only schools available to you are private schools. Despite the fact that your family doesn’t have a lot of money, they manage to save enough to send you to preschool, in the hopes that you’ll get a head start in your education, so that you can get good enough grades to go to a better high school and then hopefully get into college. You go to preschool, and then kindergarten, and you sing songs about the days of the week, colors, the alphabet. But here’s the catch: it’s all in Chinese. You have no idea what you’re singing about; you’re just memorizing the sounds.

When you start elementary school, it’s more of the same. You are drawn shapes and learn that they are called 之字形, 圈, and 三角形. You’re taught about the color 红色 and chastised for not using First Tone correctly, but you’re not sure what First Tone is because you don’t start taking foreign languages until middle school. In middle school, you start taking your MSAs, which are very important. In home economics class you learn how to use a rice cooker, but you don’t know anyone around who actually uses a rice cooker (you also learn the symbolism of Han Paper art in Home Ec, which you will be tested on). English is often skipped over, as your teachers believe that your accent is stupid, and that focusing on English would limit you in applying for international jobs in the future. In spite of that, the foreign language credits you learn often take the form of learning basic greetings in Chinese and there isn’t any reading material in Chinese for you to practice.

When you start high school in 9th grade, you are illiterate, both in English and in Chinese. And you will be told that it’s your fault. Because how could you not take you studies seriously? Why didn’t your parents help you practice your Mandarin calligraphy? Your teachers will say, “kids in this podunk town! They just don’t care about helping themselves. Once I finish my contract I’m getting a better job in suburbs.”

Sounds awful, right? Well, for many children in rural Zambia, this is how school is. The notion that “Western” equals “good/modern/sophisticated”  and “Zambian” equals “bad/backwards/stupid” is so pervasive that it permeates almost every level of the education system. It’s a mentality that was implied in my training, and is reinforced in my mere presence here (something I’ve been trying to subvert as much as possible). And, underneath that initial mentality is one that I find much more disturbing: that “good/modern/sophisticated” equals “whiteness,” and “bad/backwards/stupid” equals “blackness.”

The crazy thing? It’s not true! Before rural Zambians started using the inefficient, cheaply-made plastic jerrcans to carry water, they used these beautifully made clay pots in a method that actually created a refrigeration effect (they also did this with gourds. How freaking cool is that????)! I was an environmental studies major and worked as a nature educator before this, and I still struggle identifying local plant types, but you ask any person in my village about any indigenous plant and they will spout off the name and it’s uses. This includes grasses, people, the thing that professional botanists struggle to identify. So, let’s start celebrating people’s diversity, and their different forms of intelligence and expertise! Please?


P.S. There are some wonderful educators in this country, and I’m not trying to detract from that. I’m merely trying to point out there are significant systemic issues stemming from this.


TED Talk: The Next Generation of African Architects and Designers

Ok, so last month I shared a rather disheartening vision of growth and development within Zambia and Nigeria, which arguably would also apply to post-colonial states throughout Africa and the world. This month, I’m going to share the opposite. This talk by Rwandan architect Christian Benimana is so incredibly inspiring, and pays homage to other innovators and idealists in Nigeria and Burkina Faso. There is incredible talent in the continent of Africa.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this video was that the projects referenced were so community-based, and didn’t rely on western-centric concepts. I would love to see how my community would respond to the buildings shown in Burkina Faso compared to a western model. Any chance you’d want to come to Ikelenge, Zambia, Francis Kéré?


TED Talk: Who Belongs in a City?

I recently had a great opportunity to speak with city planners working on the development of Solwezi, the capital of North-western Province. Solwezi, for all its rapid growth and certified “boom town” status, lacks much of the infrastructure afforded to the capitals of provinces such as Eastern or Copperbelt. An interesting thing I noticed, though, was the focus. First, one of Solwezi City Counsel’s primary short term growth goals was eliminating unplanned settlements surrounding the city. While the idea is to replace these settlements with upgraded, permanent structures, the unanswered question is where will all the displaced people from these existing settlements go? Second, “growth” seems to be synonymous with shopping malls filled with foreign owned chains. When I asked what would happen to the existing open-air markets (which provide self-driven employment to hundreds if not thousands of Solwezi residents, there was no concrete plan in comparison to shopping malls. This begs the question, who is this growth for?

More close to home, Ikelenge is expanding its infrastructure as it becomes divested from Mwinilunga. Instead of centralizing, however, many of the new government buildings are being built roughly 5k outwards into my village. Specifically, on plots of land already occupied by farmers. The planning process directly affects poorer community members, as more expensive houses are listed as legitimate, while traditional homes are deemed disposable. The location of my village also favors those with motorized vehicles, as Ikelenge is located centrally in the district, but my village is not. Again, these spaces are clearly not being built for existing residents. So, who are these spaces being built for,? And what happens those it is not being built for?

This talk by OluTimehin Adegbeye talks not only of gentrification in Lagos, Nigeria, but forced migration, violence, and suppression (tactics used globally, including the United States). With a Utopian vision for cityscapes, how do these methods not undermine everything? To me, the answer is that they do, but I’ll leave it up to you to decide for yourself.


Ted Talk: Don’t Misrepresent Africa

As I was selecting pictures for a September-November photo dump, I realized that I was (subconsciously or intentionally, not sure which) not including pictures of people within my community, particularly children. I do post pictures of people, but it’s been limited and in this case it was like I was specifically avoiding those types of photos. It led me to question why that was.

I think a thing that’s always worried me about this blog is that it’s probably the first thing people at home have really heard about Zambia, or, if they have, the only opportunity for a well rounded view. I had a woman repeatedly tell me how brave it was that I would go to a place so uncivilized as the vague, homogeneous Africa. So from a very early point in my service I’ve felt a lot of responsibility to present things in a way that are fair, and do people in Zambia justice.

The second part has been kind of on my radar as more and more images of short-term mission trips by various people pop up on my Facebook newsfeed. In them, there is usually a young white person, surrounded by a throng of smiling black children (who, of course, everyone assumes are orphans) and a sea of comments about how great it is to helping them, those anonymous children used as a backdrop. Which makes me think of the time a girl in college jokingly told me that she wanted to “adopt an African baby and then return it when it stops being cute.” A close PCV friend of mine summed it up really well the other day by asking “do people see pictures of our kids and think we’re taking mission trip photos?”

When photography first came to be, many cultures feared it would steal your essence, a notion that is laughed off today, but is it really so far off? You put this image of yourself out into this world, and it stops being you. “You,” the image of you, becomes whatever other people want to see, what they think “you” are. And is it fair for me to throw images of my community members out into this world without them fully understanding how much the world will warp that image? To me, people in my community have dimension and reality. When pictures are posted by me, they become flat, malleable to whatever the viewer wants to see (or, perhaps worse, what I want the viewer to see). Comfort ceases being himself and becomes “that little African boy Nick posted.” A friend’s house stops being beautiful or well-made and becomes something that wouldn’t fit American standards for a dwelling. I stop being being a random guy bumbling through life and become this disgusting white savior trope, a whitewashed lead in a story that isn’t mine. Sometimes it feels like a lose-lose.

While this TED Talk focuses more on journalism photography, I found it to ring very true for me. I think it gave me some food for thought on proceeding, and I hope it will for you too.


TED Talk: How Trees Talk to Each Other

Dating back until at least middle school, I have wished I could see time lapse footage of root movement in a forest. Specifically, when my dad told me we couldn’t plant a Weeping Willow in our backyard because of their knack for finding water pipes and bursting them, it just seemed to me that trees weren’t nearly as static as we think they are. This thought was later built upon when I took an ecology and evolution summer class in college, and my professor explained that the trees are constantly fighting one another for sunlight, albeit so slowly that humans do not perceive it without something like time lapse.

So, these ideas had been on my radar for some time. However, when my sister sent me this video just prior to my departure, it blew my mind. It was exciting and magical, while tragically hopeless and sad about what we have destroyed.

If you found this interesting, there is a very interesting book that takes this topic from another interpretation: that the fungi (closer in DNA to animals than plants) is actually farming/herding the trees. It is called Mycelium Running, and while I have been unable to find a copy in Zambia I have heard a lot of great things about it from an impassioned fellow volunteer.



What the hell am I up to? Well, I just started a project that I’m very excited about, and have been wanting to do for some time. MTV has been airing a PEPFAR commissioned television program called Shuga. Shuga is stunning in the fact that it showcases the talent of African countries (Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa so far). Any Lupita Nyong’o fans out there? This was her first big role. It is also an incredible public health project, weaving important sexual health information into compelling story-lines. I took a public health class in college where we talked about the massive impact soap operas have on public health campaigns, and I firmly believe that if Zambia had more domestic soap operas our rates of Malaria and HIV would be much lower (ask literally any volunteer in Zambia; I mention it about once every minute).

Anyways, how does this relate to me? Well, my school has electricity, my teachers have televisions, and I have a flash drive. This will hopefully be a winning combination. I just finished transcribing the first season of Shuga into scripts, and tomorrow will start the process of edition my inevitable mistakes and printing out 15-30 copies of each script. The plan is to start a drama club with my local school’s grade 9s, where we do table reads once a week paired with GRS activities. At the end of each month, we will have hopefully finished the episode and can watch it on TV! I’m beyond pumped, which obviously means my expectations are much higher than my ability to successfully pull this off!

By the way, y’all in America should absolutely watch this show! Specifically, the woman who told me I should wear gloves at all times in Zambia to avoid contracting AIDS should watch this show, because she still has a lot to learn about HIV/AIDS. Bless her ignorant little heart. But seriously, the situations in Shuga are in no way limited to the continent of Africa. I personally could relate to specific story arcs within the show, and there are many people in the states who have never had comprehensive sexual education.


TED Talk: ‘Every Kid Needs a Champion’

I first saw this video when training to work with Parks and Recreation, and it’s stuck with me ever since. Development work, at it’s best, is a lot of teaching, so it’s been cropping up in my consciousness a lot more than I expected, and to be honest I’ve used a lot of her examples in almost ever single meeting/program I’ve had so far. I think it’s also pretty busy to become bitter and jaded* during your service for a lot of reasons, so the segment from 6:19 to 5:35 has looped around in my head quite a lot, and I once accidentally plagiarized part of it during a group chat discussion, only to realize after the fact!

Anyways, if you can’t tell I absolutely love this video and will just let it speak for itself.

*I want to make a cocktail called a “Bitter and Jaded” and so far the only two ingredients I can think of are bitters and absinthe. If anyone has any suggestions for possibly a better green liquor or anything that would pair well with bitters, hit me up!