One More Cup of Chibwantu

My stomach sinks and settles with disappointment at her words. “Chibwantu has finished yesterday, sorry, baMaddie,” banyinaStembiso says, apologetic and a tad embarrassed. I say of course it’s taakwe bubi (no problem), after all she just brought home a new baby, things are busy! But understanding as I am, the disappointment still sits there, right where the chibwantu should be, my stomach notes. Until I remember that my baMa was preparing some last night. A few hours later I arrive home. After a thorough greeting to my siblings who are here, I request a small jug of chibwantu. They bring it and I eagerly abscond to my own house on the compound. As I guzzle down a cool glass of the pulpy corn and munkoyo-root beverage, I realize that it’s my first cup of this stuff in weeks.

That’s only possible because I’ve been out of the village a couple weeks. Around these parts it’s a constant piece of the rhythm. People are nonstop offering you chibwantu, preparing chibwantu, milling maize for chibwantu.

It can serve as lunch in a pinch, you send your kids with a bottle of it to school, you find it at weddings and funerals because, well because you find it everywhere.

And then drinking it has its own rhythm too. First, before you fill your cup you have to somehow agitate the grit-like pieces of maize in the mixture so they’re not all settled on the bottom when you’re pouring. My favorite way to do so is dunking my own cup up and down within the jug a few times. Then as you’re drinking, you have to swirl your cup a few times before you take each swig, for the same effect. I can’t tell you how many times I ended up with clumps of soggy cornbits clinging to the bottom of a cup before I got the hang of the technique. And how many times said cornclumps missed my mouth and landed on my face, cup tipped bottom-up toward the sky.

It’s hard to put your finger on the point when something seeps into your bones. Maybe it was when my baMa poured me some from a bucket after spending hours in the field harvesting maize. I slurped it in the shade of a masuku tree, looking out on the piles of corn ears dotting the rows. Those heaps would soon be collected in the oxcart, stored in the granary, and perhaps some day ground with our handcrank mill into the coarse meal for chibwantu. Or it could have been the cup I drank scooped from a massive drum during a break in a 7-hour church service. Or any of the countless times someone I visited hadn’t prepared a meal, but would not let me leave without joining them in drinking some chibwantu. And I can’t forget that moment I was hitching a ride after visiting a volunteer friend and the people who picked me up pulled out a bottle of frozen chibwantu for me. That’s the stuff of hot season mirages.

Whenever it happened, actually liking it snuck up on me. The first few times I tried it, I did so with the tastebuds of a tourist. I remember excitedly thinking that I should take advantage of the opportunity for this exotic experience in case no one ever presented me this unusual drink again. Hah. Despite that excitement, the note I wrote in my journal my first week in the village simply said, “Thoughts on Chibwantu: Iffy.”

Once I wisened up a little, I was eager to ask for it purely to demonstrate that I knew it was a thing. Similarly, I sometimes used it in my favor with new people I met to forge a sense of identification, “Yes, of course I even drink chibwantu.” Then for a while I simply drank it the way a polite guest does, finding it acceptable when the social situation suggested, but not seeking it or enjoying it in its own right. I still don’t know when it became something I crave, but I think in that moment I shed some layer (one of many) of guesthood in this culture.

When my family first gave me the same mini jug full that I got today, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to finish it. After a few days it started to ferment, at which point I still tried it a couple times. Eventually I gave up and fed the rest to my cat. Now I’m savoring back to back cups, only worried the jug will be gone before I know it in just a few hours.

Let’s try not to read that last paragraph as too neat of a cliche metaphor for my time in this village. It’s not that simple, and I’m just here to talk about chibwantu, I swear.

…Ok fine, yes, I buried the lead here. This is all a roundabout way of saying that I’ll be turning a page soon and moving out of my village in early September. I’ll be taking up a different volunteer job in peace corps in the capital of Southern province for the rest of my time in Zambia (probably until this coming May). I don’t think it’s a wrong choice, and I’ve got a lot to look forward to, but it certainly wasn’t an easy choice. I’ll be close enough to visit the village occasionally, but this transition is really starting to hit me now.

I feel the expectation of having this blogspace in this moment creating a pressure to express some kind of reflection on the past year and a half of my life. The biggest thing I can say is I definitely feel beyond lucky to have been able to be here for all the time that I have. To be honest, I didn’t come to peace corps hoping for grandiose narratives of transformative change one way or another. Yes, I’m probably a little more patient and both I and the people I’ve come to know probably have a few new cracks and crevices in our souls thanks to our time together. But in terms of things I can sum up neatly, it’s possible the main takeaway I’ll end up with is a fondness and habit for chibwantu. That’s a story, too. And it’s one that perhaps is more meaningful to me than others might understand.

In terms of work-type things I’ve been trying at around here… I’ve been inspired by so many of the people I’ve been able to work with in the village and they’re really what it’s about. As for what I’ve contributed, in the grand scheme of things it’s probably about the regular mixed modest mess of learning and failures and stuff planted that will stick around for a few minutes that you might find with any curious and semi-motivated person being plopped in an environment new to them for a year and a half with everything peace corps provides.

And I have no idea where to begin to explain the individuals I’ve gotten to know in this place since I arrived and how I feel about them. So instead here I am just spilling on about how I now weirdly enjoy this grainy root-soaked slurry that I would never have bothered to imagine. But hopefully you get the point.

Maybe some other day I’ll try to do a few more of these people and their stories justice. But for now all I can do is pour myself one more cloudy cup of chibwantu. I’ll give it a swirl as the daylight fades, the stars come out, and a beat banged on a bucket lines the evening air while baNdiza comes back from the garden singing, her bright teasing belting accompanied by the clatter of cowbells coming home and Guinea fowl screaching from the trees. Then I’ll put that cup to my lips, and just drink it all in.

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