What I don’t know

Lenge "helping" to net a pond

My little host brother Lenge “helping” to net a pond

I’ve been in Zambia for over two years now, and during that time I’ve written nearly 200 posts on the topic. You’d think I’d have gotten the hang of this Peace Corps blogging thing by now. And yet I still don’t feel like I’ve come remotely close to adequately showing you what it’s really like to be a Peace Corps volunteer. Sure, I can describe the things I do, the things I see, even the things I think. But these are still things that I know, wrapped up in a me-blanket stitched with the threads of my perspective and woven into the fabric of my experience. And I’ve slowly come to realize that the essence of the Peace Corps is much more intrinsically linked to the things I don’t know than to the things I do know. What it’s like to be a volunteer is much more accurately depicted in the things I’m unable to express than in the things that I can.

I can show you photos of adorable grinning children and I can share stories of how they simultaneously bring me boundless enjoyment and constant irritation, but I don’t know how to convey the consternation I feel at knowing that in a better world these kids wouldn’t be hanging out at the foreigner’s house all the time because they’d be in school instead. I don’t know how to show you how it feels to see ringworm, malnutrition, and open sores so often that my brain starts to trick me into thinking that this is normal. I don’t know how to describe the hopelessness of seeing something so easily fixable in a different world and being unable to fix it in this one. This is what it’s like to be a Peace Corps volunteer.

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Some of my neighbor children returning from work in the bush

I can relate to you funny encounters from when I’ve greeted people in the local language using the completely wrong words, and I can describe how I tell them what color the water in their fish ponds should be when they have a good bloom, but I can’t tell you what people in my village say about me behind my back. (Or, let’s be real, in front of my face — my Bemba is still as painfully awkward as a middle-schooler with acne and braces with a crush on the ridiculously early-developing and decidedly acne-free girl in front of him in his 8th grade English class). I don’t know what they really think about why I’m here or what I’m doing. I don’t know if they like me, dislike me, are amused by me, or are annoyed by me. And I can’t fully trust my counterpart and best friend when he assures me that people do like me, because I know he likes me and this is what people tell their friends when they like them and want to protect their feelings. This is what it’s like to be a Peace Corps volunteer.

I can show you how I draw my water from a well and charge my phone from a solar panel, but I can’t explain how it feels to know that in just a month’s time I’ll go back to faucets and electrical outlets while my neighbors will be pulling buckets out of a hole in the ground for the rest of their lives. I don’t know how to show you that the amount of guilt I feel at these times could fill the Grand Canyon. I don’t know how to describe the crushing disillusionment I feel in play-acting at what for everyone else around me is real life. This is what it’s like to be a Peace Corps volunteer.

Washing clothes (and trucks) at the edge of the lake

Washing clothes (and trucks) at the edge of the lake

Writers are often told to write what they know. When I remember this advice, I can’t help but despair a little — with every passing day, I find that I know less and less. But what I don’t know could fill a book. Or a blog. So maybe I’ve been going about this whole writing business the wrong way. Maybe I need to start writing more about what I don’t know instead.

One thing I do know: President Obama and I are from the same country, despite nine out of ten Zambians refusing to believe me

One thing I do know: President Obama and I are from the same country, despite nine out of ten Zambians refusing to believe me

ZamTwitter, Month 22

Random news from my 22nd month of Peace Corps service, in 140 characters or less.

February 7 – Just half-wobbled, half-sprinted out to my latrine and dropped trou a split-second before I exploded. My village must think I’m so weird.

February 11 – We’re in a rainy season drought: every afternoon the sky darkens and a few drops fall, then it gets sunny again. The farmers are not amused.

Following a fish farmer out to her ponds

Following a fish farmer out to her ponds

February 13 – Ughh. An extremely unpleasant side effect of a midnight thunderstorm blowing in is the huge gusts of wind which spray sand all over my bed.

February 17 – Spent nine hours today getting to and sitting during a meeting in which I spoke for all of five minutes. Sounds about right.

February 18 – I’ll never get used to the supreme disorientation of staggering half-asleep onto the first bus barreling through my village before dawn.

A common view -- on the bus, waiting to leave

A common view — on the bus, waiting to leave

February 20 – There are 27 people on this 75-seat bus. And two of them are babies. Why can’t all 11-hour bus rides be like this?

February 22 – At the new Pre-Service Training in Chongwe and just shepherded 20 new trainees through the market. Can’t believe two years has already passed.

Nothing quite blends beauty and chaos like a Zambian bus station

The outside of a rural Zambian market on a calm day

February 25 – I’m eating and watching a dubbed Indian soap as five Zambian trainers analyze tonight’s plot of Samira nervously meeting her future in-laws.

February 28 – Peace Corps in the 21st century: in addition to sessions on Zambian culture and aquaculture, trainees also learn about cellular data plans.

March 4 – Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you haven’t. Walking to the doctor holding a vial of my poop, I realize the cap isn’t screwed tight.


March 5 – Just traded two packs of Juicy Fruit and a can of expired Altoids for two bottles of water and a Fanta. Love Zambia’s barter economy.

March 6 – Nothing says cultural exchange quite like a Phillipine-made film in Tagalog dubbed in English playing in Zambia. Gonna miss the buses here.

March 9 – Netted and restocked 1,500 fish today from Sebastian’s farm, but the big news in Nshinda is that Hobbes has new kittens. Five of them.

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These are not these kittens. These are old kittens. This just proves that I’ve taken a lot of pictures of kittens.


Are you a current PCV? Do you want to talk about yourself? Of course you do!

My friend and fellow Zambia PCV Hannah Harrison is doing an awesome blog series interviewing volunteers in Peace Corps posts around the globe. I thought I’d try to impress her help her out by sharing a link to her blog and seeing if any of my PCV readers from other countries would be interested in being interviewed.

As my service is winding down I know you’ll want to get your Zambia fix somewhere, and Hannah is a great writer and volunteer. Check out her blog at the link below, and if you’re a currently serving PCV or recent RPCV in a different post, Hannah would love to hear from you!

Calling All PCVs!.


A letter to myself from two years ago

Dear Matt,

It’s 4am, and you’re laying awake in your old bed in Mom and Dad’s house, too wired to continue sleeping. In just a few hours you will hop on a morning flight out of Fresno-Yosemite International to begin the first leg of your journey to Zambia to start your Peace Corps service; your mind is racing with a thousand different thoughts and feelings as you try to make sense of it all, to know what will happen. For a guy who doesn’t often experience emotional turbulence, it’s a strange sensation.

I know we’re not the biggest fans of unsolicited advice, but since your insomniac ass is trapped in bed for two more hours while my long-winded rambling ass is sitting in my hut with rainclouds looming and a full charge on my solar battery, this is just how it’s going to go. Relax. Don’t worry about it. I’ve seen how it all plays out, and everything is going to be more than fine.

You tear up for the first time since receiving your invitation to Peace Corps as the uptempo bass of Shakira’s Waka Waka pulses through your headphones. You feel ridiculous, a grown man of 24-nearly-25 experiencing a distinctly and embarrassingly emotional reaction to an overplayed commercial pop song. And yet you can’t stop picturing parting ways with Mom and Dad just an hour ago at the security checkpoint, catching your last glimpse of them waving through a glass door as you trudged off toward the boarding gate. It could be the last time you see them for two years. You don’t know then that you aren’t just saying goodbye to your parents, you’re saying goodbye to an entire way of life. With the only way of life you have known up until now. You don’t know then that this will be the last time you will cry for the next two years.

You meet a tiny, vivacious girl from Texas at baggage claim at Philadelphia International who is barely taller than the giant backpack she has somehow managed to wrestle off the revolving carousel. You get to chatting and find that you are instantly bonded by your excitement and anticipation of joining the Peace Corps. You contemplate telling her about the Waka Waka episode. You decide not to, figuring that this is the type of oversharing that is Too Much, Too Soon. You don’t know then that she will eventually become one of your good friends, that you will travel on an international vacation and help produce a volunteer-run newsletter together. You don’t know then that she and several others in your friend circle will eventually come to hear the Waka Waka story anyway, and that although they will find it hilarious and tease you uproariously, they will understand perfectly how you had felt because they had all felt the exact same way.

You bound down the stairs to the hotel lobby early the next morning with a folder under one arm, balancing a cup of coffee as you greet flustered-looking travelers burdened with mountains of luggage. You correctly deduce that they must be fellow Peace Corps invitees and you offer to help them carry their bags up to their rooms after they check in, chatting with them the entire time and trying to find out their entire life stories in five minutes. They are a bit taken aback by this level of energy at 7am, but not as much as you are. Even though you are extremely introverted by nature, your entire decision to join the Peace Corps was fueled by a desire to break out of the mold that you’ve been forming for yourself ever since you realized that getting good grades and keeping your head down were the key to a peaceful prepubescent existence. So with this in mind, you have resolved to channel the stores of projected extroversion you typically reserve for networking at work conferences and ingratiating yourself to a girlfriend’s mother. You don’t know then that this is going to end up being great practice for when you will greet men, women, children, and terrified little babies over and over again during the next two years. You don’t know then that your friends will later chuckle at the recollection, telling you that at first they assumed you were a Peace Corps staff member, and then later that they worried you were going to be one of those people, the ebulliently and annoyingly extroverted camp-counselor types that everyone else wants to bop over the head with a two-by-four.

You walk purposefully along the disheveled line of bleary-eyed fellow invitees sprawled across the floor of the International Departures ticketing plaza of JFK not quite 24 hours later, waving your camera up before you like a peace offering. You are recording video of everybody’s responses to your made-for-Peace-Corps-propaganda query, “What are you most excited for in the Peace Corps?” and you doggedly press forward despite knowing that more than a few of your fellow invitees wouldn’t be opposed to bopping you over the head with a two-by-four right about now. You coax and cajole and wheedle, assuring them that they all know they’ll want to see this video again two years later when they finish their services. Everybody gamely participates, and their answers run the gamut of responses from things like “helping people” to “playing with children” to “discovering more about myself.” You don’t know then that six of the people in this video will no longer be in Peace Corps when you all reconvene for your Close of Service conference two years later. You don’t know then just how much these answers will change over the course of those two years.

You touch down in Lusaka the next day, stiff and jetlagged from 17 hours of flying and a few more hours of waiting in airports. This is the farthest you’ve ever traveled in your life. It’s hot and muggy, but the sky is blue and past the runway everything is verdant and green. As your shuttle leaves the airport, you pass people walking along the side of the road balancing baskets and buckets and branches on their heads and you make a mental note to yourself that you’re not in Kansas anymore. You don’t know then that you’ll spend so much time over the next two years sitting and waiting and sweating and holding in bowel movements in cramped and muggy and noisy buses that you will be immensely looking forward to a nice, air-conditioned, personal-entertainment-system-right-in-front-of-your-face 17-hour flight. (With a bathroom!) You don’t know then that two years later you’ll still look around and marvel at the sky and the trees and the people and the fact that this has been your life.

You lucky bastard, you’re about to embark on the greatest journey you’ve ever had. Yes, you’ll have more ups and downs than a newly hatched butterfly trying out its wings for the first time in the middle of a breezy summer afternoon. But, rather like that butterfly, you’ll also experience an ethereal sensation of a new world opening up before you, a world bright and colorful and intense and real. Being a Peace Corps volunteer truly is the hardest job you’ll ever love. And it starts: now.

Your older, slightly grungier, hopefully wiser, and definitely more charming and handsome self,


All the news that’s fit to be read by our country director

Our third (and my final) edition of Zambition, Peace Corps Zambia’s volunteer-run newsletter, is now published. Check it out!

(Gracing the cover is Lenge, the youngest son of my counterpart Sebastian. This kid is so darn photogenic that even when a picture shows only his hands they turn out to be the best looking little-kid hands you’ve ever seen. Some people get all the luck.)

Zambition January 2015

Sea to summit

The beautiful massif of Mt. Mulanje - photo credit: Leah Karels

The beautiful massif of Mt. Mulanje – photo credit: Leah Karels because my phone no es trabajando

Sometimes my blog posts aren’t entirely representative of the topic or theme I’m trying to write about, and at no time is this more apparent than when something contrives to keep me from properly documenting a vacation. In this case, it was rain, rain, more rain, and a faulty kayak. Jiminy Cricket, I didn’t know it was physically possible for it to rain that much. Me and water, we don’t get along so well. So this is my excuse for why I only have pictures from two separate hours of my 312-hour trip.

In lieu of copious notes and gigabytes of photos, none of which I now have because of inclement weather and technological difficulties, here, have a list instead:

23 – different buses and taxis that I squeezed my wet behind into

28 – times we started to try to speak to someone in Bemba, then got blank stares and asked if they spoke English instead

15 – times they did indeed speak English

16,000 – total elevation gained, lost, skidded, tripped, and fallen over the course of four days on Mt. Mulanje

Heading to our first night's camp after a three-hour climb up a slippery staircase

Heading to our first night’s camp after a three-hour climb up a slippery staircase

4 – different distances we received when asking fellow busgoers how far away the next town was

0 – number of fellow busgoers who were right

5 – times that my buddy Sam and I accidentally flipped our kayak

1 – Sea to Summit dry bag that ended up being not quite as dry as advertised

3 – phones lost to water damage

1 – kilograms of rice bought in a futile attempt to remove water from said phones

37 – photos taken of spectacular sunsets at Cape Maclear

I mean, come on, the fact that places can even look like this isn't fair

I mean, come on, the fact that places can even look like this isn’t fair

11 – samosas bought from street vendors

8 – times I asked street vendors selling memory cards, shoes, yogurt, sodas, and candy if they also sold meatballs

0 – actual meatballs bought from street vendors

113,000 – Malawian kwacha spent on what I can now only surmise must have been mostly street food

1 – place we had to wade through a river because the road that was supposed to be there…wasn’t

43 – people I now know it is possible to cram into the back of a small canter truck with the bedspace of a Toyota Tundra

9 – funny signs I saw and photographed intending to start a “funny signs in Africa” series

1 – picture I have remaining of funny signs

Just one of several amusing signs/names I spotted in Malawi

Just one of several amusing signs/names I spotted in Malawi