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Back on the grid…

I’m back, did you miss me? I am sorry that I have been so distant. I was off the grid for the last week. I tried to post an entry to tell everyone I would be offline for the week, but I couldn’t connect on the day I was leaving. Don’t fret, I’m alive and well.

Let me get you up to speed. Most of the last week was spent meeting and greeting various family members. Every few days I made the trip to the sewing co-op to check on production. This means I spent enough time and money on mini-buses for several lifetimes. Mini-buses are the main form of public transportation here. Some of them are well maintained, but the majority is just one pothole away from totally falling apart. I can’t help but think this is partly in fault of the way they are overcrowded in order to maximize earnings per trip. I have decided that the ideal recipe for a good mini-bus ride is: window seat + reggae music + functioning shock absorbers (is that the right name?).

I’m happy to say that the sewing co-op came very close to my production goal of 100 units. We ended the production with a whopping 85 swaddling blankets and 10 baby duvets! I even scored 3 hat and bootie sets. I can’t wait to share the photos, everything looks so beautiful. I can’t wait to get home to start selling them. I’ll be launching an Etsy page to facilitate the sales process.

Between mini-bus rides and trips to the Living Compassion co-op, things are a bit of a blur. I stayed at my Cousin Ruth’s house. Ruth’s house is very modest; it’s really just a tiny shack that was built up in someone’s front yard. It has enough room for a twin foam mattress, a small shelf and some storage containers. All the cooking is done outside on charcoal, all bathing is done from a small tub of water in an outdoor bathing structure and all toilet activity is done using a pit latrine. Many people call that “camping”…but here it’s just living. Despite the rustic accommodations, I was pleased to spend the time with Ruth. She was the best host and chaperone a girl could have. I was grateful for her generosity, so I left her a portable dvd player that was donated to me by my friend Leila. Ruth told me she was bored and lonely living alone, so some entertainment in the form of movies and music seemed like a good gift. Ruth was ecstatic.

I visited the bulk of my extended family in our village. I started crying the second I saw the family running to greet me. Since this blog is about the business endeavor, and not about my family life, I won’t go in too much detail about the time I spent with them…but I will share the pictures when I get home. Suffice to say I saw some great progress (new homes being built) and some great heartbreak (a little niece badly scarred from falling in a fire). The one thing I regret is not getting out to the family farm. I was told it produced 800 bags of maize this year…a very healthy number

I’m back at Castle Lodge and decompressing before I fly home on Thursday. I am looking at my bags and wondering how I’m going to make it all those blankets fit!


Fear and Loathing in Lusaka…minus the Fear and Loathing.

On Friday, I made the big trip to Lusaka. We missed the bus we had planned to take, so we had to settle for less timely transport. The bus we boarded took 2 hours to load. Buses here don’t leave until every seat is full. While you wait, a preacher comes on to the bus and gives a sermon. The sermon usually ends with a blessing of the bus and a request for “donations”. If you get hungry or thirsty during the trip, have no fear! Vendors come on to the bus to sell you cookies, candy, water, Fanta and Nigerian movies! Nigeria has a big movie production industry, so big it is now called Nollywood. Nollywood films tend to be extraordinarily sexist and terribly violent. Most of the wardrobe and make-up choices would be right at home in an early 90’s R&B video. I’m sure they have plots, but I think that’s an afterthought…there seems to be a lot of yelling and crying. If anyone can recommend a legitimately good Nollywood film, I would love to see it. I won’t hold my breath.
The bus ride took 5 hours because we made several stops along the way. Luckily they entertained us with the aforementioned Nigerian cinema. My cousin Ruth was my travel companion on the journey. She was so quite the whole way, I wasn’t sure if she was happy about making the trip. It turns out she had only been to Lusaka once before, 6 years ago. It made me realize how localized her life is. I asked her if there was anyone she wanted to visit while we were in the big city. She told me she wanted to see her husband! I knew her husband had been away at school, but I had no idea he was in Lusaka. I asked her when she last saw him; TWO YEARS AGO! I was shocked and surprised because she didn’t even hint that she was looking forward to seeing him while in the city.
When we got off the bus, we met with another cousin named Farai. Farai is in his early 20’s and lives in Lusaka. He would prove to be an amazing tour guide and all round great guy. He was kind enough to take me to every fabric store in town in order to find what I needed. It took quite a few stops to locate what I needed, but in the end I found 40 metres of flannelette and 30 metres of poly duvet filler. Farai not only helped me find it, but hauled it all around town for me!
Now back to Ruth and her husband. We arranged to meet Justin (the husband) at the local post office. When we met him we were surprised to learn that he had just graduated in the same electricians’ course as Farai! They recognized each other from school. It truly is a small world.
Ruth and Justin reunited by shaking hands, you could tell they were very happy…but they are very reserved people. I thought we should celebrate with some dinner. We went to a local mall complex called Arcade. It was a modern outdoor shopping spot, complete with a movie theatre. I chose a restaurant called Mike’s. I checked the menu and saw that there was a good variety of foods to choose from. The Mike’s chain is from South Africa and is equivalent to a number of North American family restaurants. They offer salads, stir-fries, chicken, fish, steak and snails. You know the usual. I thought it would be nice for my cousins to try a new spot. How did it go, you ask? Well, let’s just say they would have preferred a traditional meal of nshima.
There are things we take for granted or assume. For instance, I thought everyone was comfortable operating a fork and knife. This is not the case. My cousins view cutlery with the same suspicion many westerners have for chopsticks. They would much rather use their hands. I told them it was okay to eat French fries with their hands, but I could tell it was still uncomfortable for them. At first, I felt a bit bad about taking them somewhere that made them uncomfortable but after thinking about it I realized something. It is a blessing for us to have a cultural exchange, even if some of the experiences are uncomfortable. I am not completely comfortable eating traditional Zambian food but doing so expands my world view.
After dinner, we parted ways with Farai and made our way to a guest house that was recommended to me by my friend Pasina. Since the married cousins hadn’t seen each other in 2 years, I thought it wise to rent them a room. It worked out well because I had plans to go out for drinks with Pasina. This meant I didn’t have to leave Ruth alone.
I met Pasina on the internet years ago, we bonded over being Zambians…there were so few Zambians on the social networking sites 7 years ago. This was our first real-life meeting, but it wasn’t awkward at all. We went to an Italian restaurant/bar called Portico. It seemed to be a hot spot for Zambia’s wealthier residents. The cocktail list had everything from mojitos to jaegerbombs. I had a couple of mojitos but no jaegerbombs. Some of Pasina’s friends came to meet us. There were two lovely sisters from the US and a couple of Zambians who had previously lived in the UK. It was fascinating to talk to them about life in Zambia from their perspective. The overall consensus was that Zambia is a place with great potential.
It was a great night, but all great nights come to an end. Pasina took me for a late night tour of the city in her car and dropped me off at guest house. She was kind enough to extend an invitation to her wedding next August. I really hope I can make it. I’m sure I will be itching to get back here by then!

My boogers are dust and diesel

I’m feeling a little loopy from all the diesel fumes I inhaled today.I don’t think vehicles here have to pass aircare. The combo of dust (it’s the dry season) and diesel fumes makes for some toxic boogers. Yuck. I made a day trip to Kitwe, a mining town about 45 minutes away from where I am staying. I met up with my cousin Ruth who had signed on to be my tour guide for the day. My main reason for going to Kitwe was hunting for cotton flannelette for the soft side of the baby blankets. My search was fruitless. I must have gone in to every fabric shop in the town. Zambians seem to have a love affair with cheap satin…natural fibres were conspicuously absent from the shops.
We gave up the hunt for flannelette and started searching for interesting chitenge. If you are just tuning in, chitenge is the traditional material used for just about everything in Zambia. You wear it, you carry babies with it, you wrap you hair in it…it’s multifunctional. I purchased about 50 metres of material from a variety of vendors in the market. The market was large and labyrinthine. I would have loved to take pictures but I didn’t feel 100% safe whipping out my camera. Although, I generally feel very safe in Zambia; I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. I already stick out enough, even though I tend to dress down while travelling here. My hair seems to be a major point of interest for the local women. I’ve had no less than 5 ladies ask me if it is a wig. Some of them have grabbed it to be sure.
Tomorrow, I make a final effort to find flannelette in the big city of Lusaka. If I don’t find what I need there, I will have to shift to plan B. Plan B involves buying poly fill for the remaining blankets and finishing them with plain cotton on the reverse side. That means I will have some blankets that are more like baby duvets and some that are like swaddling wraps. This is not necessarily a bad thing. This is the reason I am here. I am sourcing and troubleshooting.
I checked in with the Living Compassion team to see if the co-op is making good progress on the sewing. It seems to be on schedule. I will be visiting them on Monday to check in and see how things are going and give instructions on finishing the items.

One thing that was really great about today was speaking with Ruth. She told me that our family farm is doing well. They managed to produce about 700 bags of maize this year. They sell the maize to the government food reserve and live off the profits. She said that the whole family is doing better thanks to the support of my father who provided the funding necessary to get the farm running. She also said that everyone is motivated to work harder and be the best they can be. This was truly touching sentiment as it was not long ago that they were living in a rather difficult state of subsistence.

This made me all the more eager to get out there and see how things have changed since my last visit.

Fun with travel logistics…

Yesterday, I spent much of the day trying to plan my itinerary for the rest of the trip. I’m finding the logistics to be a bit of a challenge. I think I have figured out a plan that makes sense. Tomorrow, I will meet my cousin Ruth in Ndola early in the morning. We will take a bus to Kitwe. Kitwe is the major trading area of the Copperbelt region. I’m hoping to find some suitable fabrics for the soft side of the blankets. I have visited several shops in Ndola and come out empty handed. If I don’t find the fabric I need, I will have to continue my shopping in Lusaka. Lusaka is the capital city. I have been assured that the material will be available there. I intend to travel to Lusaka on Friday. The trip is about 4 hours long by bus. I am a bit nervous about the solo bus trip to the big city, but I am arranging for someone to meet me at the bus stop.
The very helpful staff of the guest house has instructed me to take the bus operated by the Zambian post office. It is usually on time and not overcrowded. The other benefit is that it will drop me off at the Lusaka post office instead of the main bus depot. The main bus depot in Lusaka is a nightmare and I want to avoid it at all costs. The porters at the bus depot are very aggressive. They grab at your bags and try to hustle you on to specific buses. You can spend hours waiting for a bus to fill before it will depart. I don’t think I’m brave enough to go through there on my own. I will stick with the post office bus.
I will spend one or 2 days in Lusaka, depending on accommodations. Afterward, I will take the post bus back to Ndola to drop off fabric. I will then check out of the guest house and make my way to the village. I plan to spend about a week there. The village is where my aunt, uncle and various cousins and children of cousins live. I am really looking forward to this part of my trip, but I want to make sure all the production stuff is underway before I go off the grid.
Tonight will be an early night…got to get my beauty rest for the day trip to Kitwe.

And “sew” it begins…

Today marked the first official day of baby blanket production. I spent the day at the co-op “creative directing”. I showed the seamstresses the fabric combination and the basic construction guideline and let them get to work. In no time, they had whipped up a gorgeous sample. I gave it the once over for quality. Pretty, pretty good if I do say so my self.

Later in the day, I received a tour of the Living Compassion property. It’s a small but functional collection of buildings. There are facilities for education, cooking, sewing, storage and more. Plumbing and electricity is an ongoing project, but they are working on having showers and flush toilets available…a rarity in Kantalomba.

While touring the property, we attracted a lot of attention from the local children. One of the young boys started dancing and wiggling around. To the surprise of the children, Jen started dancing back. This created a wave of laughter. Soon the children we were engaged in a game where we would walk away, they would follow and when we turned around they would run screaming and giggling.

I’m so frustrated because I have some great pictures of all of this, but I can’t post them. I’ve tried just about every method I can think of! I guess you will all have to wait for the super-mega-giant-photo post when I get home in September.

A day of rest

Sunday was a very restful day at the guesthouse. It was a day full of meditation, yoga, walking and internet-ing. This was the first day I was able to get online as evidenced by the kazillion blog posts. I spent a good amount of time out in the sun; catching up on my email and facebook notifications.

We capped the evening off with a mish mash dinner of breakfast items. The power went out so we were not able to have the casserole we had planned to eat. I didn’t complain because I love cereal…even for dinner.

We go shopping…

Saturday August 14th, 2010

Rise and shine! My cousin Christopher called me to tell me he is in Ndola now. We had made arrangements to meet. I just wasn’t expecting it to be at 7:30am. I jumped out of bed, had a hot shower and put on a comfortable shopping outfit. My goal was to find enough suitable chitenge (fabric) to start the blanket manufacturing process on Monday. I trusted my cousin would be able to show me around. He has what we call “street smarts”. He would make sure I wasn’t taken advantage of. Prices in Zambia are often on a sliding scale.
I meet Christopher at the Shoprite grocery store. Christopher’s mother was my dad’s sister. His mother died years ago. I didn’t get a picture of Christopher because the battery in my camera was back at the lodge charging. Christopher took me to a street vendor who was selling Tanzania fabric. I managed to find 12 metres of beautiful fabric. It was a good start but I needed more!
We board a mini bus to take us to a local open air market. Mini buses are about the size of a VW van. People pack in to them like sardines. It’s a bumpy and claustrophobic ride, but the fair is usually about fifty cents. When we reached the market, my cousin found a textile broker he was familiar with. The textile broker proceeded to take us on a wild goose chase search for Congolese fabric. The fabric from Congo is supposed to be superior in quality. The textile broker loaded us on to another mini bus to another market. When we reached the second market, I was expecting to find a large selection of chitenge. To my dismay, there were 4 very ugly styles. I told my cousin that they were not suitable for my project. My cousin told the vendor and he asked us to wait while he retrieved some other items. I don’t know where he went, but when he returned 10 minutes later he had 10 different styles. I ended up purchasing 4 of the styles, 28 metres worth. That was enough to get things started.
Next stop, hardware store! I was on the hunt for a powerbar that would accept all my North American plugs. It was surprisingly easy to find. It cost about $10, not too bad considering how crucial it is to my experience here. I have phones and batteries and laptops to recharge!
After the hardware store, we stopped for a Fanta before returning to the Shoprite grocery store. At Shoprite, I purchased some cookies, canned peaches, chocolate, kidney beans and apples. It’s an odd mix, but I just wanted some snack type items to have around the lodge. Christopher helped me find a legitimate cab driver and we said our goodbyes making plans to reconnect later in the week.
Back at the ranch, another member of our motley crew had arrived. Jane had bussed in from another area of Zambia to join us. She lives in the UK but spends several weeks of the year in Africa for work. We all sat down for a meeting with some members of the co-op to discuss things like finances and malaria prevention. After the meeting, we did yoga. I haven’t done yoga in a long time. I am happy to report that I did not die. Sure, my form wasn’t the finest…and there were moments when I was cursing Rodney Yee…but I did it.
We had dinner at an exceptional Indian food restaurant. There was a large group of Europeans in the restaurant. We tried to determine where they were from, and we decided on The Netherlands. Who knows if we were right, but it’s fun to try to guess what people are doing in Ndola. It’s not really tourist country. Most people are here for the mines or the missions.
I zonked out as soon as we returned from dinner, no evening movie for me. The combination of shopping, yoga and naan really did me in.