Life lessons I didn’t expect to learn in the Peace Corps

A rural fish farmer who likes goats meets another rural fish farmer who likes goats

A rural fish farmer who likes goats meets another rural fish farmer who likes goats

You will earn more respect and be more well-liked if you approach people asking what you can learn rather than telling them what you can teach.

A lot of people think that the purpose of Peace Corps volunteers is to bring knowledge to their host countries and communities. Heck, a lot of Peace Corps volunteers think that the purpose of Peace Corps volunteers is to bring knowledge to their host countries and communities. It’s the classic development paradigm: the magnanimous benefactor with education and resources comes to teach, train, or donate to the lucky recipient, whose job it is to learn, develop, and be grateful.

And okay, yes, this is partly what we as volunteers do. But I’ve found that since arriving in Zambia, I’ve asked exponentially more questions than I’ve answered. And I have discovered that, to my surprise, people are more than happy to answer my plethora of questions about everything from school fees to witchcraft to land ownership to how to make village beer. Not a day goes by in which I haven’t asked a question or ten about something related to Zambia, its culture, or its people. I might teach a few farmers a few things, but in the process I am learning so many more things myself.

I worried at first that my curiosity would undermine the authority I was perceived to have as a person who’s ostensibly here to bring knowledge. But in fact, it seems like I’m actually earning more respect this way, as well as making a few new friends in the process. By showing genuine interest in the lives of people in my community, I’ve unwittingly stumbled across the first and most important rule for winning friends and influencing people. Dale Carnegie would be proud.

Michael and his host family making banana wine

Michael’s host family showing him the right way to use a spoon

What you do or don’t do has little influence on what other people think about you, so it’s futile to waste time placing too much value on their opinions.

I’ve struggled my entire life with caring too much about what others think of me. For a long time, I subscribed to the belief that if other people thought I was successful, then I was successful. If other people thought I was smart, then I was smart. If other people thought I was attractive, then I was attractive. It’s an easy measuring stick because we’re already very acutely aware of where we stand relative to everyone else around us — if our coworkers and friends don’t tell us how we should look and dress and act and where we should go on weekends, then our cousins or mothers or girlfriends might, and Instagram definitely will. But all this does is perpetuate a society full of conformists, each member taking her cue for how to behave from the people closest to her.

And after moving to rural Zambia, I found myself caring even more what people thought of me. I wanted to be a good volunteer, a responsible ambassador to America, and a respectable member of my community, so I looked to the people around me for affirmation that I was on the right track. Only after many conversations with volunteers farther into their service, along with good ol’ first-hand experience, did I realize that people would form their own opinions of me based on their own criteria no matter how hard I tried to cultivate a consistent image of who I was and what I was doing here. No matter how adept I become at speaking the local language (and in my case the answer is “not very”), after I leave there will still be a good deal of people who will claim that I hadn’t known a lick of Bemba, in direct contradiction to those who will stubbornly, while lying through their teeth, insist that I was fluent.

People will think what they want to think, and they will remember what they want to remember. No matter what I do, I can’t change how someone else thinks of me. So since I can’t change it, I might as well stop caring about it so much and instead focus that energy on using my own moral compass to guide me in my actions and endeavors. And when I do, I’ll be a much less anxious and more confident person.

Here's a guy who can't afford to care what people think about him

Here’s a guy who obviously can’t afford to care what people think about him

It’s not possessions that will make you happy, but interactions. It’s not what you do that will make you feel worthy, but who you are.

I used to be the kind of guy who took people for granted. I am independent, unwaveringly introverted by nature, and most of my favorite activities and passions are solitary pursuits, so it was easier to simply keep people at arm’s length rather than admit to myself that I was dependent on someone else, on anyone else, for anything. I had already long weaned myself off of the idea that material possessions equated to happiness, so I thought the Peace Corps would be perfect for me: not only could I deal with the physical and lifestyle hardships, but the language barriers, cultural barriers, and social barriers simply wouldn’t be as big of a hurdle for me as I’d heard they were for many volunteers. Meaningful interactions with other people? Don’t need ‘em.

Then I got here. That’s when I realized that yes, yes I do need them. I need them like a fat kid needs cake. I need them like a cat needs something to torture and decapitate. And boy was I surprised when I found them hanging out on my front porch with sticky little 7-year-old girls and their sticky little toothless grins, or loitering around with a 47-year-old rural fish farmer as we animatedly discuss last night’s news, or crammed into the back of a minibus as two other volunteer friends and I exuberantly belt out a horribly offkey approximation of the chorus of a local pop song while the other poor souls on the bus valiantly pretend we don’t exist. It took moving 10,000 miles to sub-Saharan Africa for me to realize that human interactions are what truly make me happy, even at the expense of increased vulnerability to and dependence on others.

Because Peace Corps gives you a ton of time to yourself to think. It gives you five aircraft carriers’ weight in tonnage of time to think. And you end up spending that time thinking about what you’re doing, what you’re not doing, what makes you happy, and realizing that what makes you happy is not sitting alone in the dark in your tiny hut reading a status update on your phone that says your friends back home are having fun and being happy without you. But as a result of all this thinking, you also start to think about who you are when everything else is stripped away. About who you are beneath the degrees, the job, the money, the aspirations, the expectations. And maybe in the process you just might learn something about what self-worth means to you, about where it comes from, and about how you can keep it.

Some of my favorites

Some of the other volunteers who came to Zambia with me in February 2013

Things that I miss

I’m annoying endearing among my group of Peace Corps volunteer friends for asserting that I rarely miss people or things in America. Most of the time this is true. Sometimes it’s a big fat lie.

In no particular order, here are some things that I miss living here in Zambia (all images shamelessly lifted off the interwebs unless otherwise noted):

1. Watching viral videos on Youtube

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2. Microwaves

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3. Listening to baseball games on muggy summer evenings

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4. Pad Thai

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5. Refrigerators

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6. Leftover Pad Thai stored in the fridge overnight and reheated in the microwave the next day

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7. The sound of trout rising in an alpine lake

One of my favorite off-trail lakes in the High Sierra

8. People-watching at coffee shops

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9. Browsing eBay for vintage fly fishing reels

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A nice little L.W. Holmes Perfect Copy in my collection

10. Sundresses

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11. Shoes that stay clean for more than five minutes

Possibly the sharpest pair of wingtips I've ever owned -- pity they  didn't fit right

Possibly the sharpest pair of wingtips I’ve ever owned; pity they didn’t fit right

ZamTwitter, Month 17

Random news from my seventeenth month of Peace Corps service, in 140 characters or less.

September 12 – Minutes from my meeting today:
-biked 42 kilometers there and back
-waited 2 hours for it start
-listened to people arguing for 6 hours

September 14 – Visited a couple of new fish farmers today. When I asked if we could survey the fish in the pond, they brought out a casting net.

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Using a casting net to sample fish species and size in an old pond

September 15 – I’ve gone from getting fresh vegetables brought to my doorstep to biking 3km for limp pieces of lettuce. What a difference a month makes.

September 16 – Busy day at the farm. Sebastian’s working on the new house, supervising the pond-diggers, and getting yelled at by a woman demanding money.

September 17 – Random guy shows up at my door with some gemstones. Google says they’re amethyst. Pretty, but probably not gonna turn me into a millionaire.

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Gemstones found in a shallow quarry about 15 kilometers away from my village

September 19 – I’m a fan of The Five Love Languages, but Gary Chapman should tell my cat that dead rats by my bed isn’t how I prefer to receive affection.

September 24 – After 20 months, it finally happened: a last-second desperation grab was all that kept me from dropping my phone down the chimbusu.

September 26 – In Makasa watching Chris and Lucas spend the pre-dawn hour netting fingerlings using the prettiest chitenge net you’ll ever find.

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Appropriate technology: using local textiles to fashion makeshift seine nets

September 28 – We’re doing peer support scenarios at the PSDN training in Kasama. Never thought listening (and being listened to) could be so cathartic.

September 30 – How does a great hitch turn into an unforgettable one? When after a free 350km ride, your loquacious driver buys you ice-cold beers.

October 3 – Boarding the bus back to site today I felt awash in this incredible sense of serenity. 4.5 scorching hours later I felt awash in sweat.

October 5 – Third visit with a new fish farmer. Was surprised and pleased to find that, per my advice, he actually made a compost crib.

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One of Sebastian's cribs exposed as the water level in his ponds continues to drop

October 8 – Allison is visiting Sebastian’s farm with one of her fish farmers. We end up sitting and complaining for 3 hours. Typical Zambian meeting.

The best time to plant a tree

I don’t know anything about planting trees. I know how to show someone how to dig a fish pond, and I know how to peg-roll the cuffs of my chinos, and my girlfriend would be only too happy to tell you that I know how to turn a switch in my ears so that they conveniently stop working when she asks me something, but I don’t know anything about planting trees. In my head, it looks kind of like this:

1. You put a seed in the ground
2. You water it
3. It grows into a tree overnight, like magic

I like magic. But I digress. We’re starting a new venture here in Nshinda and I’m cautiously excited about it. Moringa is a tree that has small oval leaves which pack a pretty powerful amount of protein when eaten, and they taste pretty good to boot. It’s an underrated quality of a food source that can be easily grown in my area where meat is scarce and expensive and child malnutrition is rampant. Last week I got my grubby hands on some moringa seeds, leaves, and one cute little seedling gifted to me by the Mansa provincial house’s awesome gardener, Ba Francis, so now it’s time to see what we can do with them.

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Drying moringa leaves in order to pound them into a powder that can be added to tea and other foods

Yesterday was Step 1: community sensitization. I plopped my new seedling outside on the front porch and got to work cutting old plastic soda bottles in half to create makeshift pots for the new seedlings. Everyone who passed by took a moment to stare appreciatively. Now you know just how infrequent of an occurrence it is to see Matt actually doing any work. Soon a group of the regular gang of loiterers little boys who frequent my house had assembled and I watched, amused, as they vociferously debated amongst themselves about what the crazy muzungu was up to now. I cheerfully explained to them that I was going to become a farmer and plant trees. They cheerfully assured me that no, no, I would never be able to plant trees. I ignored them and told them to fetch me some dirt. They grinned and refused.

Then I craftily changed tactics and told them that the trees weren’t for me, they were for them. Ah, now I was talking. I gave each of them their own bottle, showed them how to add dirt and some of my leftover compost water, and then had them carefully push dried moringa seeds into the moist soil. After the seedling grows, I told them, you’ll plant it at your house and it’ll be your tree. In a Hail Mary desperation toss to keep the kids from screwing around with the nursery flash of inspiration, I decided to label each of the bottles with a different boy’s name using duct tape and a Sharpie. I swear, I don’t think I’ve ever seen them more excited. By the end of the morning I had a small flock of dirty old plastic bottles nesting on my front porch and a slightly larger but just as dirty crowd of little boys hovering over their new charges, proud as peacocks.

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Posing with their own personal seeds

For the entire rest of the day, kids came up to me with old plastic bottles asking me to give them a seed to plant. I had a hard time keeping a stupid grin off my face as I told them to come back tomorrow for the next planting session. I still don’t know anything about planting trees, but we’re going to go ahead and try anyway. After all, I’m reminded of the most literal of meanings of my favorite old Chinese proverb:

The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.

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There's some quote out there about the crucial importance and empowering properties of validating a person's name, but I can't remember it at the moment

Zambike, n.

Nshinda, Luapula, January 2014

A typical bicycle in rural Zambia, carrying bananas from the farm back to the village

Zambike, zam-byk. n. 1. A Zambian bicycle manufacturer. 2. The informal regional name for all bicycles in Zambia capable of transporting huge baskets of produce, balancing precarious stacks of reed mats, and bending but not breaking under the weight of multiple 25-kilogram bags of charcoal. Used to ferry chickens, goats, and people — two on one bike is the default, three is not uncommon. Often missing (or featuring crude jury-rigged approximations of) pedals, seats, spokes, handlebars, tires, and/or hubs. These things defy the laws of gravity, decay, and a dude named Murphy, because if there were ever a case when something could go wrong, every Zambike would be a big rusty heap of things going wrong. And yet, incomprehensibly, they somehow always manage to still keep rolling.

Zambian Colloquial Dictionary (ZCD), 2014.

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This curious kitten split as soon as she realized that her playground was a moving hazard

The emperor’s new groove

I used to collect butterflies and moths as a kid. I’d spend hours running around our farm in California’s Central Valley, chasing after painted ladies and tiger swallowtails and cabbage butterflies. I’d spend even more (and decidedly less fruitful) hours watching grossly swollen tomato hornworms that I’d placed into mason jars, waiting for them to turn into sphinx moths. But what I liked most of all was poring over websites online where you could select exotic species from around the world and get them delivered, shriveled and dried, to your doorstep. For a price, you could acquire magnificent specimens from all corners of the globe: iridescent morpho butterflies from South America, gigantic golden birdwings from Southeast Asia, and regal emperor moths from Africa.

I though that these mail-order lepidopterans were the closest I would ever get to these far-away places. Then I moved to Zambia 15 years later and discovered that the larval stage of one of these species is a major source of protein for people in my host country during the rainy season. Meet Gonimbrasia belina, whose caterpillar is the tasty snack known locally as ifishimu. More commonly, this winged giant is known as the emperor moth.

Play that funky music, muzungu

Before coming to the Peace Corps, I was a pretty level-headed and balanced person. Mr. Level-headed and Balanced, that’s what they called me. (Had the girls falling all over themselves in high school, let me tell you.) I had a stable personality, and a calm temperament, and roughly the same amount of emotional variability as a tortoise.

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This is a baby tortoise. Aww, isn't he cute??

But that all changed once I moved to Zambia. Peace Corps loves to warn new volunteers about the emotional roller coaster, the cliched metaphor du jour used to describe the ups and downs you will experience during your service. But what they don’t talk about as much is that you’ve got a FastPass to this ride and it runs multiple times per day. I may start out a given morning feeling one way, but you can bet I won’t be feeling the same way by the time evening rolls around. My emotions bounce all over the place like a toddler in a grocery store. This is now normal for me here. This is my day-to-day life.

And as if the ride wasn’t already dramatic enough, I’ve been in a sort of funk for the past few weeks. If I’m being honest with myself, I’ve been in a sort of funk for the past few months. There are a few plausible explanations why:

For one, I’m at that point in my service when many volunteers hit a lull — about two-thirds of the way through my actual two-year contract and nearly three-quarters of the way through my 27 month-commitment in Zambia. It makes sense; things that used to be novel and exciting, if not necessarily pleasant and comfortable, are now no longer novel and exciting. Now they’re just unpleasant and uncomfortable. The drunk men harrassing you. The unwavering stares that bore deep into your soul. The sweaty half-hour you have to spend fetching water. Hot season. Last year, I was kind of excited for hot season, in that I-know-it’s-going-to-suck-but-I’m-kind-of-looking-forward-to-seeing-just-how-much-it’ll-suck sort of way that you can be excited. This year, it just sucks. I already know how much it sucks, I already know how long it’ll continue to suck, and I can’t even get a self-pitying blog post out of it as consolation prize because I already did that last year. Shit gets old.

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Sebastian's sons renovating a dried-up pond during the height of last year's hot season; and I thought I had it bad when my dad used to make me go check for frog eggs every day during the middle of the infamous Central Valley summers

Another possible explanation for my current rut is that life after Peace Corps keeps looming larger and larger the longer I’m here, and for a planner like me that means more distractions and less living in the moment as I scramble to get my rear in gear. I was never under any delusion that these two years wouldn’t go by swiftly, or that I didn’t have to think about what might come next, but there’s a difference between thinking about something and actively planning for it. Being in the Peace Corps is kind of like living in a bubble, and I’m not just talking about the 360-degree visibility which allows curious villagers to stare at me from all sides as if I were a caged lab rat. I’m currently being very comfortably provided for by the United States government, with killer health insurance and rent stabilization to make a New Yorker green with envy, so it’s a little unnerving to read about all of the problems with the American economy and to come to terms with returning to this reality in just a few months.

And as if these reasons weren’t already enough, my closest Peace Corps friend just finished her service and moved back to America to start grad school, so now I’m facing the next eight months without my favorite partner in crime living just an hour-and-a-half-long bike ride away. For the entire time that I’ve been at site, Emi had been a constant as one of the only other volunteers in my district. She pretended to like my cooking, left bobby pins all over my hut, and staunchly defended all things Seattle and Washington State (except for the Mariners, which was no big deal because they’ve only been my favorite baseball team since I was 8). We traveled together, hosted workshops together, and visited each other’s sites often enough that her village thought I was her brother and my village thought we were married. She also has really nice legs. Since Emi left our district, my street cred among the young men in my village has dropped significantly and I’ve been spotted talking to myself just a little bit a lot more.

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A white sandy beach is the first thing you think of when you picture a landlocked country in the middle of sub-Saharan Africa, right? Yeah, me too.

So that’s where I am right now. I’m in a funk, and my Earth, Wind, & Fire playlist goes on for hours. It’ll end eventually though, since this roller coaster ride always climbs back up every time it plummets down. For now, I’m just going to try to focus on being more candid in this blog and hope that self-deprecation is the key to enlightenment. Or getting a job.*

*If there are any employers among my dear readership who might have an opportunity for my wiseacre self, seriously, I’d love to hear from you. I have a B.A. and a B.S. from UC Berkeley, two years of experience in business administration, almost two years of experience arguing with little Zambian kids, and several pairs of Oxford cap-toes just itching to be laced up.