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“Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind’s mirror, the world […] If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe [diverse] races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real. Torturous advances won over generations can be lost by a single stroke of myopic president’s pen or a vainglorious general’s sword.”

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

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“The white man’s god is just like the white man. He thinks he is the only god, just like the white man thinks he is the only man. But the only reason he is god instead of Nyame or Chukwu or whoever is because we let him be. We do not fight him. We do not even question him. The white man told us he was the way, and we said yes, but when has the white man ever told us something was good for us and that thing was really good? They say you are an African witch, and so what? So what? Who told them what a witch was?”

-Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing

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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.

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“Since moving to New York I’ve learned what the word ‘geisha’ really means to most Westerners. From time to time at elegant parties, I’ve been introduced to some young woman or other in a splendid dress and jewelry. When she learns I was once a geisha in Kyoto, she forms her mouth into a sort of smile, although the corners don’t turn up quite as they should. She has no idea what to say! And then the burden of conversation falls to the man or woman who has introduced us–because I’ve never really learned much English, even after all these years. Of course, by this time there’s little point in even trying, because this woman is thinking, ‘My goodness… I’m talking with a prostitute…’ A moment later she’s rescued by her escort, a wealthy man a good thirty or forty years older than she is. Well, I often find myself wondering why she can’t sense how much we really have in common. She is a kept woman, you see, and in my day, so was I.”

Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha 

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Featured Video: ‘The Story of Bottled Water’

Trash services here are virtually, if not totally, non-existent in most towns and villages. I have a rubbish pit behind my house, and once that is full it’ll be covered with soil until everything breaks down. This probably worked well in the past, but the prevalence of plastic means that, when digging my garden (a former rubbish pit, I am knee deep in plastic wrappers and bottles that adamantly refuse to decompose for another couple hundred years or so (note: this is essentially a mini version of an American landfill).

The interesting thing is, people used to use better equipment. I’ve seen pictures and heard of beautiful hand-made clay pots that people used to carry water in, or store food in. There’s actually a way of refrigerating food in those pots, in which you put a small one inside another one and fill the space with sand. I don’t think Zambian people would use the term “ice cold,” but the water would be as cold as from a mountain stream, and the pots would keep food fresh for days, even weeks. “What happened to those pots?” I’ve asked many times. The answer is simple: they were told the pots were backwards, that plastic was modern and the way forward and more sustainable. People wanted that, and gradually people stopped making them, and eventually forgot how to make them at all. Now, after just a few decades, the elders will tell you that the young children today wouldn’t even know what the pots were if they saw them. And the “modern, sustainable” plastic? It breaks, and gives way, and it doesn’t preserve food, but it’s waste will be littered across the landscape for centuries.

Anyways, while this video focuses solely on plastic water bottles, it really makes you think about how much plastic waste is out there in the world! Reducing, reusing, and recycling is key to conserving our resources and making this world somewhere we can happily live in.

P.S. Many stores (MOMs, for example) make an effort to use biodegradable packaging whenever possible. Consumer purchases have a huge effect on how companies conduct business, so please support biodegradable/compostable packing!

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“The people of these regions [of sub-Saharan Africa] have been told so often that they are poor and powerless that they do not recognize the abundance surrounding them. Thus they can be persuaded by unscrupulous companies in league with corrupt national and local politicians to sell what they “own” for a fraction of its actual value. Even were they to embrace a new agenda that put the earth at its center, Africans might find that they cannot reach their goals because the resources (or the technologies needed to access those resources) are not available to them. It’s as if someone is being swept along in the current of the river, and you are on the riverbank telling her that if she calmed down and thought for a second, she’d be able to help herself by swimming to the bank and not drowning. But the current is getting stronger, and getting stronger; she is panicking and fighting the current, and as a result only increasing her chances that she will drown.”

Wangari Maathai, Replenishing the Earth

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“Change can be accommodated by any system depending on its rate, Crake used to say. Touch your head to a wall, nothing happens, but if the same head hits the wall at ninety miles an hour, its red paint. We’re in a speed tunnel, Jimmy. When the water’s moving faster than the boat, you can’t control the thing.”

Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake