Short Stories 2

Country/Day: Zambia/34

Bikes Fixed: 21

Bikes/Day Avg: 0.61

So, I’ve passed the halfway point for my stay here, and I have to admit, it sometimes feels I am well past the halfway point. I mean, 34/60…something is a whole five percent past fifty percent (excuse me while I go all math major), but I think what I’m really feeling is the “end of an era” feeling – the same feeling one might get upon entering senior year of college, or before starting a new job, or finishing a 4,032 mile bicycle tour.

Or, apparently, 9 months of self-arranged international travel and volunteer work.

I can’t, of course, write a wrap-up yet, as that would be unfair to my audience, and probably unfair to myself, as well. I just wanted to iterate the feeling of closure, because I’m having it. And now you have a disclaimer, too, that my posts might seem a little less open-ended.

– – –

The Well

I spent the week at my aunt’s house, coding and, well, coding. You might be asking, what does coding have to do with fixing bikes? And you know, that’s a great question.

My family is full of storytellers, and one time my dad told me a story about a Peace Corps worker he knew. There was no name in the story (or, I don’t remember it), for simplicity’s sake, let’s call this person John. John was a civil engineer, and his assignment was to go to Africa and build a well.

The problem is that when John arrived, he found that the people did not want a well. They wanted a bridge. John contacted the Peace Corps and told them, “They want a bridge.” The response, unfailingly:

“Build them a well.”

So John built a well. And the well went unused.

A few years later John came back, and the well was still there. But there was also a bridge. And as he stayed, he realized that the bridge brought people from across the river who played soccer. Soccer made the village happy; in turn, they were more productive and well connected. They did not need a well, because they had a bridge.

I prefaced the entire 90 Bikes, 90 Days project with a disclaimer along these lines: To teach, learn. Fixing 90 bikes in 90 days was an easy way to quantify the project. In reality, I knew – and I hope I communicated to my supporters — that it’s almost never that simple (if you want to learn more about this, take a peek at Poor Economics – quite a good read).

Zambikes has been around for a while. They seem to have things pretty much figured out. They can make steel bikes. They can make bamboo bikes. They aren’t perfect, but no company is. When I arrived, I wasn’t instructed to do one thing or another. My instructions were, “Make improvements.”

These guys are great bike mechanics. So my contributions came more from my experience as a manager and computer scientist. Among other things, I think that Zambikes could see a lot of improvement if they let computers do some of the work for them.

To be sure I wasn’t “building a well,” I ran this by the management team, and they loved it. So I got to work, writing scripts for Google spreadsheets, in an effort to make a spreadsheet that was, essentially, axiomatic. Because computers.

And internet is free at my aunt’s house… but it’s about $500/mo at the guest house (see a few posts ago). So to work on Google scripts, which is internet-based, I decided to spend the week at my aunt’s house.

To be fair, I don’t expect this project to magically make Zambikes a 300% more efficient team. I think those would be false expectations. I acknowledge that working with spreadsheets, and working with computers, except for e-mail, is largely new to these guys. So it’s entirely possible I will finish this project, leave, and the implementation will crumble to pieces. And if that happens, I don’t think it will be because I’m a terrible person, but just because, despite my enthusiasm, things might work better another way. And that’s okay. It’s all part of the experience.

(naturally, I want the system to get implemented, to increase productivity by 300%, for Zambikes to get filthy rich, and then to get a check in the mail. Let’s just be honest about this.)


– – –


It’s complete coincidence that I just told a story about soccer in Africa, and now I’m going to tell another story about soccer in Africa. Actually, this isn’t really a story as much of an interesting educated speculation, but who’s counting anyways.

One of the things I noticed about Zambia is that there are soccer fields everywhere. And in my travels, I’ve gotten used to soccer fields. Far greater than the love of soccer in the US is the love of soccer in India. I saw a surprising number of soccer fields in India… and as an aside, a lot of them were when I was in the mountains, and they were on the edges of cliffs. How else do you teach people not to miss? Chelsea stickered cabs would honk at Man-U stickered cabs, people would ask me who I followed, and what position I played. It was nothing, of course, compared to culture around cricket (“What’s that?” I can hear my U.S. readers wonder), but that’s another story.

Then I went to Guatemala, where soccer was even bigger (!). Instead of just soccer fields on the edges of cliffs in the mountains, there was one soccer field in every major city. It was played in the city centers on a regular basis. On my way home from work I would stop and cheer and wonder if there were any pickup games, and how they found so many referees.

And now I’m in Zambia. And in Zambia, there are soccer fields everywhere. Not just in major cities, but in minor cities, and in not-even cities. Flying Mission, the organization my uncle works for, has their own soccer field. Zambikes has their own soccer field (This is the part where I would calculate how many soccer fields there were per square mile, if the internet would be so obliging. Alas). All the vans have soccer stickers, not just the ones in the mountains. You can buy soccer jerseys in the street (to be fair, you can buy anything in the street – even puppies. But, shh). Soccer is everywhere.

The cool part is (okay, the extra-cool part, because everybody knows soccer is the best sport ever), it’s a positive part of culture. I think in the U.S. we think of sports in general as having a positive influence on our youth. And yea, there are some sports fanatics. But I have to be honest, compared to some other places, the US is pretty lousy when it comes to enthusiasm about sports (and especially the most popular sport in the world – soccer, duh!). Here, though, when Zambia scores a goal, all you can hear is cheering. And I don’t mean you have to be in a bar to hear the cheering. I mean that sitting in the living room in my aunt’s house, you can hear cheering. It comes from people living in grass huts with radios, from people who walked three miles to the tarven (not a spelling error – more on that later) for the TV, from people who hear the cheers of their neighbors and just know what happened. It’s electric.

Additionally, soccer, for lack of a better phrase, keeps kids off the streets. They are still on the streets, of course, but what I mean is that they get exercise, they make friends, and they have something to do every night at 6 PM besides get into trouble. This is, again, something that will make my US readers go, “Yea, we have that here,” be we have that in the US in the same way we have enthusiasm for sports. You only see it in movies. Here, you see it every day. You meet people who are best friends because they kicked a ball together. You meet people whose dads are drunkards, but they are alright, because they have a community to support them, a community born out of soccer.

This is why I find Flying Mission’s soccer field to be an especially potent investment. And it really makes the story about the bridge ring true – there are just forces at work that you can’t understand until you’ve lived them.

– – –

Side note:

I realize I’m addressing my U.S. readers a lot in this post and I apologize to those of you from other countries. It’s not that I don’t care about you, it’s just that I don’t think I can speak with authority about, for instance, the opinions of a french person towards soccer. FYI.

– – –


Pronounced “moo-zoo-n-goo,” “muzungu” is an African word for “white person.” You figure this out pretty quickly, usually because someone tells you, and then because people start addressing you by it. As you walk through the street, someone will shout, “Hey, muzungu, how are you?” or “Muzungu, come into my store.” Sometimes people just shout “Muzungu!” as you walk by, waving, and wanting you to wave back.

I experienced a little bit of this in India and Guatemala, but not to the same extent. As someone of a different culture, people of course have questions. But that they would want to address you in their language isn’t something I’ve experienced before (everybody in India seemed to want to use me to practice their English). I don’t think it’s something a U.S. citizen would ever understand, either, seeing as how we expect everyone to learn English. But it would be along the lines of shouting “Hey Asian person!” every time we passed an Asian on the sidewalk.

They also really like it when you give them a thumbs-up. It’s just the darnedest thing for them.


– – –




I don’t know why, but for some reason, putting “Zam-” in front of most words makes them sound ten times better. You’ll notice, for instance, I’m working for a company called “Zambikes.” After spending some time here, I really have to applaud Dustin and Vaughn for that choice, because it’s very Zambian of them – two very American guys, born, raised, and college-educated in California.


Up until recently I just thought it was a clever name, but once you get here, you see that it’s very much a part of the culture. There’s Zambeef, the leading beef company; Zamleather, a company with many subsidiaries making, among other things, shoes and soccer balls. In response to the international cell service provider Airtel, there’s Zamtel. And I’m sure there’s many I’ve missed.


Aside from just names, some companies have taken up slogans based on this trend. Zamtel’s service plans are, fittingly, “zamtelligent.” And sometimes they are “zambitious.” I’m not sure which one is pushing it more. But at least it’s memorable.


I find this actually to be really cool. I can’t speak for the company owners, of course, but it seems to me like these companies are taking pride in their product. The only U.S.-ish named company I can of is Amtrak, which doesn’t really make a fit about being American (interesting, because that’s kind of “in” right now). In an age where many countries are importing, Zambia is, for lack of a better phrase, making a name for itself (not all of it’s products are made local, of course). It’s pretty cool to be in a country that makes much of its products locally, but it’s extra cool that they make a culture out of it.


You might even say it’s… Zamawesome.


Okay, I tried.




– – –


Languages… Lots of Them.


The first thing that becomes readily apparent to most U.S. citizens when they go abroad, I imagine, has to be how many languages other people speak. The vast majority of U.S. citizens only speak English. About 20% speak one foreign language, but “speak” is usually in quotes, as if to say, “I took this in high school, but I’ve never been there before.” I’ll own up to this one and say yea, I “speak” French.


U.S. citizens, you see, enjoy the privileged position of speaking the second most popular language in the world, which is the international language. We don’t “have” to learn other languages. Let’s be honest, we’re ignorant jack… if we don’t, but it’s not like bad things will happen if we don’t. If you live in the U.S. and want to start a multinational corporation, you can do it in English.


Most other countries don’t enjoy this position. They enjoy, in my opinion, a better position (a less ignorant one, I would say, but that’s just me). They learn not only their local language, but they learn English. They can communicate with each other, and they rest of the world – whereas, for the most part, we can only truly communicate with ourselves. Perhaps this is me being idealistic, but I think it’s difficult to really get to know someone if you don’t speak their language.
But okay, I’ll get down off my high horse and get back to the facts.


During my visit to India, everybody spoke Hindi, and most spoke a state language (each state having their own). Anyone well educated spoke English. A few people had learned European languages as well, but this was rare. Bottom line, India is probably more multilingual than the US, but not by much.


Zambia has seventy-two languages.


Well, sort of. Let’s see if I can get this right, as there seems to be some debate (so if you read this and think I’m wrong, know that I’ve probably heard your side of the story, but I’m just typing the one I’ve heard the most of): There are seven major tribes in Zambia. Each of them has between five and ten dialects – a dialect being a bit more than what a “southern accent” is to English; more like what Mandarin Chinese is to Traditional Chinese. On top of those dialects, there’s the foreign languages – English, and a surprising amount of Hindi.


But basically, everybody here speaks at least three languages. Even the “uneducated” people I’ve met speak at least English, the dialect of the tribe where they are from, and two or three dialects surrounding the area where they are from.


It is so cool. And it makes me feel so… American.


– – –


Believe it or not, I actually have more stories I could put here, but uh… my fingers hurt. And also I’m tired. So, more later. Pretty good though, right? Given I haven’t been posting as often as I’d like, I think 4 pages and sore fingers is a good result.


Anyways, ’till next time.

One thought on “Short Stories 2

  1. Marilyn Cook says:

    One of your best blogs yet! Love the stories. You’re a great story teller. Zambulous!

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