Further reading

Hello! I thought I had closed the book on Fishing in Zambia, but some of my recent reading has inspired me to use what is left of this platform to shamelessly plug a few other blogs that I thoroughly enjoy. I think you might, too.

Bush Baby Colvin

Bush Baby Number 1

Bethany Colvin is actually a former Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia. Not Returned Peace Corps volunteer, because she actually still lives in Zambia! I feel like this gives her insights even more credibility because whereas I was only in Zambia for 27 months, she has remained in my province of Luapula for several years after she completed her own service and is still doing very Peace Corps-y things with her husband, Jeremy.

Bush Baby Colvin has pretty much everything you’d want from a blog: a wickedly funny, brutally candid, and probingly insightful author, an interesting premise (how do you raise a Western family in decidedly un-Western rural Zambia?), a great story (Bethany and Jeremy own a small farm in a rural Zambian community, work with rural education and community development, and are literally the only expats I’ve ever met in Zambia who actually live in a mud hut just like the rest of their community) and tons of pictures of insanely adorable “Bush Baby Colvins” (now plural!). I had the privilege of meeting Bethany and Jeremy while I was serving in Zambia — in true frugal Peace Corps volunteer fashion, I hitched free rides in their trusty old Land Rover — and greatly enjoyed my short time getting to know them. These are folks who really walk the walk, so to speak. I want to be like them when I grow up.

You’re going to love this blog if you:

-Are a mother
-Wonder if you’re doing the right thing a lot
-Appreciate candor
-Have ever had a disagreement or fight with your partner and still love them anyway
-Are a living, breathing human being with a pulse


Emilie Syberg is a Rural Education Development volunteer in Northwest Province, Zambia. We met randomly at the Peace Corps Medical Office in Lusaka when I was receiving my health physical prior to departing, and I was extremely grateful for the chance encounter because now I get to stalk her blog from the comfort of my home with all of my modern American amenities. Boy, this is the best way to read blogs about people living in much different circumstances!

Anyhow, Emilie’s blog is a treat. Her writing has flawless word choice, a cadence that is beautifully evocative, and the sort of skill that almost slips by unnoticed until you stop and realize that you’re not just reading, you’re feeling what she writes. I tried to do this for two years but my writing feels absolutely wooden and clunky in comparison. Emilie’s recent blog post, “This and That,” may possibly be the single best thing I’ve ever read showing what it feels like to be a Peace Corps volunteer. Please check it out. I want to write like Emilie when I grow up.

You’re going to love this blog if you:

-Want to know what it really feels like to be a Peace Corps volunteer
-Appreciate the subtle use of repetition to emphasize a theme
-Finish a short story and feel that melancholy sensation of wishing it would continue while at the same time realizing that it does continue because it’s now a part of your own life and woah how did that just happen??
-Are a living, breathing human being with a pulse

Check out these blogs if you get a chance! I promise it won’t be a waste of your time.

Thank you!

One of the wonderful unintended consequences of writing a blog about my experience in the Peace Corps has been the opportunity to connect with people from all across America and beyond. I’ve received comments from current volunteers, future volunteers, and volunteers who served years ago. I’ve exchanged emails with people in Cambodia, Namibia, Germany, and Alaska. I’ve virtually “met” my fellow volunteers’ mothers, fathers, aunts, grandmothers, sisters, boyfriends, and bosses. Over two hundred and fifty of you fools have somewhat inconceivably decided to sign up for email updates when I publish a new post, and nearly two hundred more of you have good-naturedly refrained from defriending me when you see my posts show up on your Facebook newsfeeds.

This has not gone unnoticed. Each of you who has commented on a post, emailed me, “liked” one of my pictures, or told me that your mom loves my blog has contributed to the ego-swelling of one extremely tickled and affirmed volunteer.

And so as my 27 months in the Peace Corps here in Zambia officially come to a close, I’d like to thank each of you for reading. Y’all have helped make my service more enriching, and I’m grateful to have been able to share in this incredible journey.


Two years in Nshinda

Surveying a dambo area for pond sites

Surveying a dambo area for pond sites

Over the past two years I have watched fish ponds spring up throughout my district like boils, pockmarking the flat wetlands seemingly overnight. I have walked down verdant bush paths, along baking hot asphalt, and through raucous marketplaces. I have drifted off to sleep to the heavy patter of an all-night downpour in mid-January, and I have awoken to the late-June sunrise piercing my hut with shafts of light at 5:30am.

Over the past two years I have biked two thousand kilometers across the changing of seasons, through clouds of gnats and beneath searing sun. I have waved to two thousand screaming children.

Over the past two years I have discovered to my chagrin what it is like to be at the same time shocking, appealing, confusing, novel, desirable, and terrifying. I have been jeered like a Super Bowl referee who misses a blatant horsecollar and leered at like a leggy blonde trying to slip past a construction site. I have been prodded like the beleaguered family mutt and ogled with the same combination of fascination and apprehension as a tired python in a zoo. I have reacted with amusement, with anger, with irritation, and sometimes even with patience.

I got to fry up a chunk of this 18-foot python burned in a brush fire; it tasted like -- wait for it -- chicken

I got to fry up a chunk of this 18-foot python burned in a brush fire; it tasted like — wait for it — chicken

Over the past two years I have had enough strange experiences to fill hours of outrageous stories for bored future grandchildren. I have had my arms stroked lovingly by wondering six-year-olds, and I have been embraced even more lovingly by a drunk man in the market before I could spin away, startled, from his grasp.

Over the past two years I have traveled several hours in the open backs of trucks driven by several different strangers, and none have been serial killers. I have attempted to play my guitar for kids in the neighborhood who instantly bolted, thinking that it was a gun and that it was I who was the serial killer.

Over the past two years I have marveled again and again at the unsolicited generosity of pure strangers, and I have seen the power of a simple human connection. I have learned that, despite our various differences, most people tend to be pretty much the same wherever you go.

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

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

Over the past two years I have met with dozens of aspiring fish farmers. Some of whom actually turned out to be interested in fish farming, instead of making an appointment merely to see the muzungu. I have visited their farms, greeted their wives, and played with their children.

Over the past two years I have offered advice on how to improve existing ponds and laid out plans for where to dig new ones. I have told the farmers that I would check back with them in one week. In one month. I have returned to find that little or no progress has been made. And again I have greeted their wives and played with their children.

Over the past two years I have reminded myself over and over again of the oft-repeated Bemba mantra: Panono, panono. Slowly, slowly.

Waiting for a farmer out at his ponds

Waiting for a farmer out at his ponds

Over the past two years I have shrieked like a preteen girl every time I’ve seen a spider the size of a Volkswagen. I have scraped twenty-three rat carcasses off my floor, carried into my hut by my highly annoying, highly-trained assassin of a cat. Each time, I have told myself that I am building character.

Over the past two years I have stared at the same spot on my wall for a full half-hour. I have stared at the pattern of bark on a tree branch until I spotted Waldo. I have stared at outrageously prematurely developed teenaged girls until I realized that I was staring and mentally kicked myself under the table. I have stared at an ant crawling along the dirt for so long that it finally snapped at me huffily that it was rude to stare. I have had entire conversations with myself. Arguments, even. I have lost.

Over the past two years I have convinced hordes of kids to sweep my porch, weed my yard, wash my buckets, and cut my grass. I have paid them in old plastic bags and empty bottles and matchbox covers. In turn, hordes of kids have convinced me to buy handfuls of weeds masquerading as fresh produce and to unwittingly repeat, “Show me your penis.” They have paid me in toothless smiles and gleeful howls of laughter and with grubby paws clutching at my leg hair.

Chungu, Willie, and Kalu showing off their best model poses

Chungu, Willie, and Kalu showing off their best model poses

Over the past two years I have seen enough tragedy to fill an epic novel. I have seen droughts wipe out farmers’ maize crops and I have seen fish ponds that took months to dig dry up in the heat of October. I have seen a teacher whose only crime was being born female run out of town by a community claiming she was involved in witchcraft, and I have seen men who I thought epitomized virtue repeatedly cheat on their wives, laughingly denying their infidelity the entire time.

I have visited a 15-year-old boy on his deathbed. I have seen the agony etched into his stretched face, the terror in his eyes as they rolled back into his head. I have stood numbly, helplessly, as his exhausted mother mustered the last of her resolve to thank us for coming with a tight, despairing smile.

Over the past two years I have attended seventeen funerals, and walked or biked past dozens more.

Women in the village carrying bricks to the church

Women in the village carrying bricks to the church

Over the past two years I have learned what it is to be humble. I have been shown what it means to be wise. I have realized that I am not either of these things. And yet despite this, I have decided to try. Maybe, unlike in baseball and bowling, the effort itself just might count for something.

Over the past two years I have seen that it really does take an entire village to raise a child. I have also seen that it takes an entire village laughing uproariously to fish a bucket out of a well after a mortified new Peace Corps volunteer has accidentally dropped it in.

Goodbye, Nshinda. Thank you for teaching me about the things that matter, the things that we cannot change, and the things that we should never stop trying to change. Thank you for showing me the warmth of a village and the resiliency of a people. And thank you for accepting me into your community and into your lives. Mushale umutende. Stay in peace.

Sunset over the football pitch

Sunset over the football pitch

Stuff Peace Corps Volunteers Like, #5

Inspired by and written in the spirit of the popular blog and book by Christian Landers, Stuff White People Like. No Peace Corps volunteers have been harmed in the making of this post.


Home, sweet home

5. Bragging about how primitive their sites are

It is hard to spend more than three minutes talking to a Peace Corps volunteer without eventually hearing about the things that he or she does not have or cannot do because he or she is in the Peace Corps living in [your Peace Corps volunteer’s host country].

This is because for a Peace Corps volunteer, the primitiveness of one’s site is considered to be a high badge of honor. The fewer resources or amenities that a Peace Corps volunteer has, the higher up on the pecking order of Peace Corps bragging rights he or she ascends. Volunteers who only have intermittent access to electricity in Paraguay rank higher on the “more primitive site” scale than volunteers who only have intermittent access to internet in Armenia. And Peace Corps volunteers who serve in countries like Zambia scoff at these volunteers from their lofty perch atop the primitiveness rankings, anchored by their proud boasts of having no electricity and no running water.


Behold my very slow but fully functioning water collection device — works: every time it rains

Even within the same Peace Corps post, volunteers are keenly aware of the differences between provinces and from site to site. The intrepid soul who lives 25 kilometers off the tarmac and five hours from the provincial capital garners instant respect and outward envy from other volunteers, who secretly are glad they don’t have to climb a nearby termite mound and recite a complicated incantation in order to catch a cell phone signal.

However, none of these hardships can top the Peace Corps trump card: having served in the Peace Corps in The Early Days. It is an undeniable fact that life in the Peace Corps was harder, purer, grittier, and more primitive back before you were born. This was a time when volunteers had to ride camels to the school uphill both ways 20 kilometers in the sand, send letters through the bush attached to the scaly legs of dust-hardened Guinea fowl, and never complained about their sites’ primitiveness, ever.

My fancy kitchen with a state-of-the-art water storage system (left), gravity-powered tap (center top), natural fuel stove (right), and automatic food compost disposal system (center, furry)

My fancy kitchen with a state-of-the-art water storage system (left), gravity-powered tap (center top), natural fuel stove (right), and automatic food compost disposal system (center, furry)

Click the Stuff Peace Corps Volunteers Like tag below to read previous entries #1-4.

Zambag, n.

Zambag, zam-bag. n. 1. A large, zippered version of a reusable grocery bag made from durable woven plastic. 2. The personal transportation accessory of choice for rural Zambians and cash-strapped Peace Corps volunteers, who have been known to stuff these things with everything from pasta to books to pineapples to live chickens.

For the aesthetic pleasure of the discerning traveler, Zambags are adorned with vivid color prints of everything from large African mammals to the cosmopolitan skyline of Dubai to Miley Cyrus.

Zambian Colloquial Dictionary (ZCD), 2015.


Zambags strapped to the backs of bicycles are a common sight -- this was my load for a 150-mile bike ride last June

Sh*t my neighborhood kids say

Kid: [Cheerfully] “Give me your bike!”
Matt: [Bringing bike outside to go fetch water from the borehole] “No.”
Kid: “Give me your bike!”
Matt: “What makes you think it’ll work this time when it’s never worked any of the previous 437 times?”
Kid: [Adopting what he thinks is a winning and persuasive smile] “Come on, give it to me.”
Matt: “Not on your life, kiddo.”
Kid: [Smiling even more widely now] “I’ll just take it with me now, okay?”

Lenge helping out with bucket transport duty

If charisma mattered more than brains and determination, little Lenge would never have to work a day in his life

Bread seller: [Walking slowly past my hut carrying a tray of baked buns on his head] “Amabuns amabuns amabuns!”
Kid: [On my front porch] “Mr. Matt! Mr. Matt! Mr. Matt! He’s selling bread!”
Matt: [Also on my front porch] “Believe it or not, that’s one of the things I can understand.”
Kid: “So buy some bread.”
Matt: “I already have bread.”
Kid: “Well then, give me some.”
Matt: …

Kids: [Pulling on cat’s tail, eventually she gets tired and goes inside]
Kids: [With look of genuine surprise] “You, where are you going? You cat, come back!”
Matt: [Grinning at a thoroughly disgruntled Hobbes who is now glaring disapprovingly from inside the doorway] “Yeah, Hobbes, come back out.”

We had a good run together -- rest in peace, Hobbes

We had a good run together — rest in peace, you ridiculous cat

Kid 1: “Where are we going?”
Matt: “We are not going anywhere. I’m going on a walk.”
Kid 2: “Why are we walking?”
Matt: “We’re just walking for fun.”
Kid 3: “Why?”
Matt: “Because it’s a great way for me to get some peace and relaxation.”
Kid 4: “Great, we’ll come with you.”

Kid 1: “Is your mother coming back?”
Matt: “No.”
Kid 2: “Is your father coming back?”
Matt: “No.”
Kid 3: “Is Emi coming back?”
Matt: “No.”
Kid 1: [Thinks for a moment] “Is Mrs. Janet coming back?”
Matt: “Nice try, but I do realize that this is just a sneaky way for you to ask the same question twice.”

DSC05600 (1750x1163)

Mom hanging out at the ponds entertaining some of Sebastian’s kids

Kid: “Mr. Matt!”
Matt: [No response]
Kid: “Mr. Matt!”
Matt: [No response]
Kid: “Mr. Matt!”
Matt: [No response]
Kid: “Mr. Matt!”
Matt: [No response]
Kid: “Mr. Matt!”
Matt: [No response]
Kid: “Mr. Matt!”
Matt: [No response]
Kid: “Mr. Matt!”
Matt: “WHAT.”
Kid: “How are you!”
Matt: “Not as tenacious as a 5-year-old, apparently.”

Kids: [Playing outside my house on a scorching afternoon]
Matt: [Reading inside his house on a scorching afternoon]
Kid 1: [Gets in an argument with another kid] “Matt will come beat you!”
Kid 2: “No he won’t, he’s reading.”
Matt: [Not moving an inch] Darn, the gig’s up.

Proving to my homestay siblings that I really did live there last year

Proving to my homestay siblings that I really did live there two years ago

The streets of heaven are crowded with angels (and one fussy cat)

A few months ago, my brother forwarded me a link to an op-ed piece in the New York Times written by a journalist whose cat had just passed away. When your own family members are sending you links about cats, you know you’ve become that person.

But I read the article and found that I could relate effortlessly to the author’s struggle to quantify what it was exactly he was feeling. To balance an actual emotional investment in a pet with the scores of things in one’s life that demand more important investments, emotional and otherwise. To rationalize a seemingly projected attachment with the very real and fundamental need for most of us to bestow and receive affection. And to recognize that, like the author, I had against all odds come to develop a grudging sort of relationship with the haughty little queen that had deigned to take up residence in my house, and in my life.

Ours was a fairy tale story. Kind of. Like any woman worth pursuing, I had heard about her well before we actually met. It was March 2013, and I was in the middle of my Pre-Service Training when I received information about where I would be living for the next two years. My soon-to-be volunteer neighbor sent me a text to say hi, and added that her cat had just had kittens in case I wanted one. I’ve never really been an animal person — anyone who knows me knows I have a hard enough time expressing my feelings for people, much less a pet — but having a cat meant not having to deal with mice, rats, tarantulas, and other, creepier things in your hut, so I told Sarah that I would love to take her up on her offer. A cat owner I would become.

Two months later I found myself biking back from Sarah’s house with a hissing, squalling kitten strapped to the back of my bike. I had just moved into my site a few days prior, and between the stares and cocked eyebrows that my cat-in-a-basket was eliciting from passersby, and the other stares and cocked eyebrows that I was already receiving as the new foreigner on the block, I was feeling about how my panicked prisoner sounded. Later that evening I crouched next to my bed with my headlamp trained into the farthest, darkest corner of the room; gazing back at me with unmitigated terror was a quivering mess of downy fur that stuck out on all sides like porcupine quills. I sighed. “Little cat,” I said conversationally to my new kitten, “This isn’t going to work. You’re supposed to be making me feel less scared, not the other way around.” I prodded a small dish of dried fish with my foot that I had filled as a peace offering. She flinched at the sound and glared balefully back at me. “Fine,” I replied, trying not to sound huffy. “It’ll be there in case you change your mind.”

It was the first time I’d ever spoken seriously to an animal. It would not be the last.

Fast-forward two weeks and we were beginning to overcome our inauspicious start. I had named my reluctant new housemate Hobbes, in a nod to my favorite fictional feline, and after her initial terror had turned to distrust, then to acceptance, and then to curiosity, Hobbes had taken to following me around everywhere like a little dog. I was overjoyed, and tried hard not to show it. I watched her antics with growing amusement as she tested boundaries in that manner unique to small kittens, approaching an object of curiosity like my brush slowly, edging toward it with the utmost of caution, then finally poking an exploratory paw out to touch it. Once assured that the brush wasn’t going to fight back, she happily abused it until she got bored and moved on to something else. When she sidled up to me and kneaded her little body up against my legs, I gratifyingly took this for a sign of affection. Little did I know that she was simply beginning clinical trials for How To Make The Human Like You, storing away data points for future reference when she might best use this to her advantage.

By the time we’d been together for three months, Hobbes and I were well on our way toward comfortable domestic bliss. I learned her routines and her favorite activities (mostly, sleeping and eating). Her favorite place to nap was on my sunny front porch, and her second favorite place to nap was wherever put her within paw’s reach of me in case food happened to materialize out of thin air. But not just any food. I found that even though I bought small dried fish specifically for her, my snobby pet preferred pretty much everything that I ate instead. And when I informed her that she received better food than most of the kids in my community, she just yawned dismissively as if to say, “It’s not a farthing less than I deserve, Human.” We were getting to know each other.

As I watched my cat pad languidly but purposefully around the hut, I began to realize that it was I who was living in her space, and not the other way around. My home started to change in small ways because of my furry roommate — a cat door appeared at the top of one of my brick walls, complete with a tree branch ramp for her to reach the entrance from the outside, and all food went into large sealable storage buckets after I quickly learned that it took approximately 1.7 seconds for a curious cat to come sniffing around if I left it out unattended. Just as quickly, Hobbes learned the sound of my food bucket sliding out from under the table and from then on, no matter what she was doing at the time, the rough scratch of plastic on cement would instantly send her on a swift beeline toward the kitchen, tail pointed high in the air and twitching in anticipation. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t inclined to give her any of the food I was cooking; she was quickly mastering the same complex technique my neighbor kids employed to get me to give them something: ask so loudly and persistently that Matt eventually acquiesces in order to get you out of his hair.

After about half a year, Hobbes had transformed from a kitten into a small cat. And she was a looker, too, covered head to paw in silky soft white fur with a calico tail. Her slim paws and small, regal head made her appear prim, even delicate; only her piercing green eyes belied her true nature as a ruthless hunter and cunning tactician. She learned things about me — things like Matt doesn’t like to get cat hair on his clothes, and Matt doesn’t like to have cats in his lap, and Matt doesn’t like to have cats taste-test his food while he’s cooking — and then used this information chiefly to do these things anyway when she wanted to be sure to get my attention. And whenever we disagreed on something, I invariably lost, for what lonely man can withstand for long the guiles of a determined cat?

As so often comes packaged with beauty, Hobbes developed the kind of personality about which adjectives like “haughty,” “snobbish,” “dismissive,” “high-maintenance,” and “demanding” are tossed about with disapproval but also with grudging respect. And although I huffed and scolded and remonstrated, I couldn’t deny that I was entertained. Arguing with my cat was marginally but undeniably preferable to arguing with myself, and since she maintained her end of our original bargain and kept the house swept clean of anything smaller than she was, I was content to put up with her incessant complaining and her fur accumulating everywhere. So by the time she started having kittens of her own, kittens that cried loudly, pooped and peed everywhere, tore up anything I left within their reach, and generally negated the value of having a cat to keep out the riffraff, I was already too set in my ways to offer much in the way of resistance.

Thus began the halcyon days. At first, intoxicated by new fatherhood, I spent hours observing the kittens with unconcealed delight, documenting their every action for posterity with my camera and marveling at how tiny and adorable they were. Then later, after Hobbes continued to pump out litter after litter and it began to seem like there were always cats in various stages of growth underfoot, I slumped comfortably into the caricature of the beleaguered dad, largely ignoring the little yowling balls of fur pinballing around the hut. I would look up over my book at an exhausted Hobbes sprawled on the floor and with a raised eyebrow I would angle at her the time-honored look that said, “You did this to yourself, girlfriend.” She would shoot back the time-honored look that said archly, “Let me remind you, Human, that you’ve just about outlived your usefulness to me.”

I knew that our domestic partnership had always had an expiration date. This was a marriage of convenience, not of passion — I provided my cat with a comfortable and leisurely life, and in return she provided me with a mirror for my affection and an additional personality to fill the lonely hut. I knew that we’d have to part ways eventually, but it just didn’t seem like it would be that big of a deal. Hobbes would stalk primly off into the wild fringes of the village after I left, terrorizing lizards and mice by day and continuing to toy with the neighborhood tomcats by night. She would be fine. She was infinitely better adapted to this life than I was, and I thought that she would survive and thrive long after I had gone.

But as it turned out, I thought wrong. After spending a few days away from site running errands in Mansa, I returned to my hut late in the afternoon to find Hobbes sprawled lifelessly on the kitchen floor. Bite marks around her neck bore fatal witness to what must have been the only time in her life she was unable to escape the determined pursuit of one of the village dogs. As I stood there dumbly, trying to comprehend what had happened, I heard pitiful cries from another dark corner of the hut. A closer inspection revealed three tiny kittens, clambering blindly over a fourth recently dead sibling. They had just been born a week earlier and wouldn’t be able to survive much longer without their mother. Still reeling from the macabre scene, I stepped into the living room to get a grip on my emotions. Then I steeled myself for what I knew I had to do next.

I chose for the gravesite a secluded spot in back of my house, away from where the neighborhood kids liked to play. News of the cats’ deaths had spread swiftly through the village, and a few dozen of those kids were congregated now, as curious to measure my reaction to the recent turn of events as they were to watch me fill the shallow grave back in. They fidgeted but stayed uncharacteristically quiet as I bent over shovelfuls of fresh earth. Finally one of the smaller girls broke the silence, asking me in a tiny voice if I was going to have a funeral. I looked down and was quiet. I thought about the dozens of funerals that our community has borne witness to over the past two years, about the mothers, sons, uncles, and babies taken too soon from this world, and about the dozens of life-sized holes in the community that they have left behind. Then I thought about Hobbes, about the life that we shared together as unlikely companions over the past two years, about the way her outsized personality had filled my home, and about the cat-sized hole in my heart that she had now left behind.

The sun was setting now, and in the receding light I looked back up into the darkening faces of the surrounding children. They shuffled uncertainly. I forced a smile and told the little girl that of course not, of course we wouldn’t have a funeral. It was only a cat. Only my cat.