Short Stories Zambia

September 30th, 2013

So I’m at my aunt’s house for a few days, partly to use the internet, because I’m writing some things in Javascript and don’t know Javascript. As with most coding languages, if you know one, you can usually pick up another – if you have a quick reference to the syntax. Often, the syntaxes themselves are very similar (try comparing any two “for” loops – in Java and in C++, for instance. The fact that both Java and C++ have “for” loops should be telling by itself).

Of course – welcome to Africa – AfriConnect is aware of intermittent internet availability and is working to resolve the problem. And even more African, There is currently no time frame given for resolution. And by “intermittent” they also mean “when it works, it’s doesn’t work very well.” So I’m afraid there won’t be any photos for this post.

So since I can’t work on, you know, work, I figured I could at least write a blog post. I’ve been promising a Short Stories post for some time, and I think it’s about that time.

– – –


I’m sure many people are still going, “But what! What does Javascript have to do with Zambikes!” So I’ll just do that one first. It’s not really a story, but it’s still kind of interesting, and I feel I should explain any task that supersedes bike fixing.

Zambikes doesn’t currently use computers. Not really. They e-mail each other and their clients. But (I think) they could communicate better with each other and have a better awareness of their production process if they computerized some things. And just so you know I’m not going all first world on them… they agree. In fact, it’s been decided I should design some web-based spreadsheets for them to use. In order to make these spreadsheets more user friendly, I’ve also offered to write some scripts for them.

Scripts are (usually short) bits of code capable of doing a task that would otherwise be mundane or time-consuming. In the case of people who aren’t very familiar with spreadsheets, it can also do tasks that would otherwise be hard to learn, or that can be very tedious and therefore lend themselves to mistakes (like copying information from a work order to a production sheet, for instance).

Microsoft Excel even has really fancy ways of implementing scripts, which it calls macros, like buttons and pull-down menus and such (Microsoft Excel is capable of a lot more than most people think). The idea is that by pushing a button you can accomplish a lot more than you’d otherwise had to do by hand. The capabilities are really impressive and you can build some really slick stuff.

Unfortunately, Microsoft hasn’t quite mastered database management in a useful way. The easiest way to synchronize still involves remembering to push and pull your data (fancy terms for “putting it on the server” and “getting it off the server”). Google Docs has a much nicer interface – a non-existent one. It’s non-existent because all the synchronization is automatic and real-time. You can even see what other people are typing as they type it. So it’s impossible to, say, type in a production order, push to the server, and find out that while you were typing that the production team closed down for the day.

And the language that Google Docs uses for its scripts is Javascript. Hence… needing internet to learn Javascript. And also to test that script on Google Docs.

– – –

Clear Your Plate

Growing up in my family, we had the general rule that you should only serve yourself what you can eat. It wasn’t set in stone, of course, but it was present enough to teach us not to waste large amounts of food – which was, I think, the point. It’s sometimes impossible to guess just how much something is going to fill you up, but most people can get pretty close.

Once I reached college and had a bit more of a global awareness (or less, I suppose, depending on which college you went to), my friends and I would sometimes joke, “Ah, but there are starving children in Africa!” We had to finish our plates, see, because there was somebody else who needed it more.

That was the idea, anyways. Of course, there’s enough food in the world to feed everyone – the problem is distribution (actually, the problem is that nobody wants to give anybody free food. I’ve been to the grocery stores here and there’s definitely no shortages happening. But ignore this, because it ruins the story). The food isn’t in Africa, and by the time it got here and starving children found it, it wouldn’t be very good anymore. So we could always rebut, “Ah, but we’re not in Africa,” and compost our food instead.

That doesn’t really work here.

For whatever reason, I have a tendency to to able to stomach about 1.9 servings of the meals that my aunt cooks. Yesterday we had fish, for instance, and I took two filets. I could not, for the life of me, take the last two bites of the second one (they were big bites). “Finish your food!” my aunt said. “There are starving children in Africa!”

Of course, this is a lot more pertinent. The pretext was not, “These children are far away and it doesn’t matter anyways.” The pretext was, “These children are right down the street – you see them every time you leave the house, actually, and sometimes you can even see them from the house. You are actually wasting food, because it could actually go to someone who needs it.”

Clear your plate.

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As much as I’d like to give food its own post, I’m not really sure there’s enough content for that. If you recall, Zambia is a British colony, which I’m guessing is the reason why a lot of the food here seems British/semi-familiar. They have burgers, french fries, stir fries, etc – for the most part, I eat a lot of what I ate at home. The only major difference is the ingredients available, and sometimes the quality of the ingredients available. To be honest though, given that I’m abroad, I really have nothing to complain about.

There is one food item I’d never had before, though, which I believe is exclusive to Africa. It’s called nshima. It’s essentially corn ground into a meal that is boiled to a consistency you can pick up and mold with your hands. It’s very similar to grits, except that you can’t pick up grits and eat them with your hands (okay, you can, but no more than a thick soup. Nshima is more the consistency of cookie dough).

In any case, it’s easy to make in bulk, easy to eat (no utensils), and easy to clean up (everybody eats with their hands from a community bowl, so it’s just the cooking pot and the bowl for dishes). It’s also easy to eat with other things – it’s usually served with what’s called relish, but I’m not sure I’d call it that. Actually, I’m not really sure how to define relish. In any case, the “relish” is usually finely chopped leafy vegetables that have been boiled as well. There might be chicken as well – the chicken and relish each get their own bowl.

To eat nshima, you pull off a chunk and roll it in your hands. This is, I believe, to shape it into a more convenient shape – a bowl – as well as to make it a better consistency. Sometimes the nshima on the top will get hard as its moisture evaporates, so when you roll it in your hand you blend the dry nshima with the wet below it, and end up with something a bit more consistent and a bit more pleasant to eat.

Anyways, after you roll it, you push on one edge a bit with your thumb to make a sort of pancake sticking out. You can use this pancake to scoop up relish or chicken, and then you bite off the pancake. For whatever reason the relish or chicken are always really drying (they have both been boiled), so as you eat you take more nshima from the glob in your hand.

Repeat until the glob is gone, then repeat.

It’s pretty good. The relish doesn’t have a great aftertaste because of the leftover water, but it’s nothing to complain about. Plus, it’s cheap, and easy to make.

In any case, nshima is slow to digest and expands when you add water. So if you have it for breakfast, then for lunch you can just drink some water, and you’ll magically be full again.

I wasn’t quite conscious of just how long a lump of nshima could take to digest, so one day for lunch I was feeling particularly hungry and I had, well, a lot. I’d like to say I don’t believe it can stay in your system for more than a day, but for whatever reason, I just wasn’t feeling great for about a week. Nor could I eat much. If you’ve eaten with me you know I eat, well, a lot (an ex-girlfriend once called me, perhaps affectionately, the “garbage disposal”). For that week I was not eating much. I was hungry all the time because I wasn’t getting any nutrients, but I couldn’t eat because it didn’t feel like there was any room. I couldn’t drink much water because there wasn’t any room. Needless to say, I survived, but I’m going to be more careful about how much I eat in the future.

– – –

Let’s Go… Fly a Plane?

As I’ve (hopefully) mentioned, my uncle is a flight mechanic for an organization called Flying Mission. He occasionally gets to fly as well, but the point is, I live on an airstrip, and every now and then there will be a spare seat with an offer to ride along. Needless to say, I get a little giddy, and then I accept.

One of these flights resulted in some volunteer work in Macha, which I posted about rather aptly a few weeks ago. Both on the way there and the way back, I got ride shotgun, wear a headset, and have the really rather tempting flight controls right in front of me.

On the way back: “Did you want to fly?” the pilot asked me.

I graciously accepted.

As it ends up, visibility wasn’t much more than a mile. This is unfortunate because when learning to fly, a lot of instructors recommend covering up the instruments and flying “by the horizon –” that is, using the horizon to know how level your plane is. This way you know where the plane is as well as how level it is, instead of just staring at the flight instruments the whole time and running into poles (and yes, those cell towers are tall enough to cause a problem if you’re not careful). On that day, I got the stare-at-the-instruments treatment.

But I still got to fly a plane.

I’d sat shotgun once or twice before, and of course, ridden in planes, but being able to take everything I’d learned from Flight Simulator (an apparently very legitimate program, the pilot told me, as some flight schools will count those hours as time towards a license) and use it in real life was a very cool experience. I know what almost all the instruments were, how to use them, and what effects the controls would have on them.

If flying wasn’t so expensive I would have picked it up a while ago, but alas, I was one of those teenagers who would have rather had a Wii than 2 hours of flight instruction. It’s always been on my to-do list, though, so don’t be surprised if I retire by a field and buy one of those DIY-biplane kits.

I swear, officer, it just took off by itself! I had no choice but to do a few loop-di-loops before landing it again. And my pilot’s license? That must have fallen out when I was upside-down…

– – –

Okay, the internet is back – for a bit anyways – and I was supposed to be working these past few hours (not all of which I spend typing this blog post, by the way). So, that’s all for now.

2 thoughts on “Short Stories Zambia

  1. EmmyLou Hanson says:

    Your stories keep us light headed! Keep loving the Zambians. E n R

  2. Marilyn Cook says:

    Great post! It’s fascinating to hear about Zambia and what you’re doing for Zambikes. Glad you’re feeling better.

    Ah, your dream to fly. I’ll bet you were good at it after all the hours you’ve put in on Flight Simulator. I can’t wait to hear more about it.

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