What I’m learning in training

I’m not a Peace Corps volunteer (PCV). Surprise!

Well, not technically, anyway. Right now, I am a Peace Corps trainee (PCT) in Pre-Service Training (PST – the Peace Corps loves acronyms, and once you learn how many different things we have names for, you will too). Here’s a glimpse of what RAP 2013 (Rural Aquaculture Promotion) PCTs are learning during PST in PCZ (Peace Corps Zambia), before we become PCVs starting CE (Community Entry) in just a little over a month:

We’re learning a lot about fish farming, including but not limited to playing in muddy ponds and frying up fish.

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Kate and Grant pull weeds from the pond that our group is managing. We stocked fingerlings via 50-pound barrels strapped to our bikes a few weeks ago so that we could experience what it would be like to transport fish to ponds out in the bush. It’s unwieldy. Like balancing a wheelbarrow on your head while doing the Wobble, unwieldy. (The hops in the dance sync nicely with the potholes in the road.) My group and I were in the middle of congratulating ourselves when a Zambian blew past us balancing three 75-pound sacks of charcoal on his rickety bike. Perspective. It bites. While I’m on the topic of bicycles in this country, Zambians also carry other people, massive jugs of water, and live goats on bikes which like most things in Zambia are held together with twine and a good bit of hope.

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The group watches a harvest at Kalimba Farms near Lusaka. They had several nice fish ponds which were completely upstaged by the fact that they also had crocodiles. Kalimba Farms is an integrated farm that specializes in growing and harvesting crocodiles for their skin and meat. I ate crocodile burgers for lunch. Have I mentioned crocodiles yet? We also saw a couple of zebras and an ostrich on neighboring farms during our drive back. This means that with the exception of a few monkeys we saw on the side of the road in Eastern Province a month ago, all of the stereotypically African wildlife I’ve seen so far here has been on farms.

We’re learning a lot about language and culture. (Tulesambilila sana ukulanda icibemba elyo intambi shabena Zambia.) My Bemba classes have been going well. The lesson plan emphasizes practical and experiential-based learning, which means we get to do things like bike to Chongwe market and barter with the vendors. (The exchange rate is currently about 5 kwacha/$1, so I’m still having trouble shaking the feeling that I’m playing with Monopoly money.) It’s always an adventure. This seasoned American consumer is feeling more and more at home each time he interacts with the people in this colorful and eclectic bazaar. And just when I think I’ve seen it all, I wind up deep in conversation about the differences between Japan and China (and the baffling fact that I am from neither country), or being tailed by a persistent drunk with Shake Shake on his breath.

(Rule Number 1 for drinking Shake Shake: Don’t drink Shake Shake. It’s an alcoholic substance that comes in milk cartons and has the viscosity, texture, and color of that leftover milk and soggy cereal at the bottom of your morning cereal bowl. And if this wasn’t reason enough to stay away, it tastes like that milk would if you left it outside in the sun for three days. In fact, I have a suspicion that this is how they make it.)

One of the biggest cultural differences between Zambia and America that I’ve seen so far revolves around thighs. A woman in Zambia wearing a skirt or dress that ends even two inches above the knee is akin to a woman in America wearing only a bra or bikini top outside the pool/beach. Very few people do it, and the ones who do are basically considered to be hookers. Thighs are viewed here to be nearly as private a part of the body as genitals. Breasts, on the other hand, are much less censored here than they are in the U.S. I’ve seen more nipples (usually mothers breastfeeding in public) than uncovered thighs since I’ve arrived in Zambia.

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Buying 2 meters of one of the four chitenge patterns we’ve found in Chongwe with fish on them: K25

Having a tailor turn the chitenge into a pair of bright orange, slim-fit, tapered-leg trousers: K20

Getting an orange Mirinda from the restaurant next door which cannot be called a hole in the wall without affronting both the hole and the wall: K2.5

Sitting on the tailor’s front porch, drinking an ice-cold soda, watching him stitch seams on my trousers with expert precision on an ancient sewing machine, chatting with the affable woman who is breast-feeding her 4-month-old daughter named Blessing, all the while trying valiantly not to gawk at the nipple out in plain sight directly in front of me: priceless

In addition to the trousers, I’ve had two shirts made by two different tailors from chitenges with different fish patterns on them. I’ve also bought three knock-off Zambia football jerseys, four other chitenges, and a 2016 Olympics Rio de Janeiro shirt. I’m not doing a great job of bucking the stereotype that Americans are all loaded with gobs of kwacha.

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I pose at a fruit stand a few kilometers down the road from Chongwe. After I negotiated a bulk discount for watermelons using my rudimentary Bemba, we loaded them up into our backpacks and Holly promptly fell over in front of all the bamayos. She was, unfortunately for her, nowhere near her bike. We were, unfortunately for her, laughing hysterically.

We’re learning a lot about what it’s like to be C-list celebrities. Crowds literally appear within seconds wherever we congregate, but are almost always comprised of only one type of person: the small kind. Everyone else just stares as they pass by, throwing the clustering children disdainful looks even as they themselves can’t help craning their necks for a better look at the white people.

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We wanted to take a few group photos after finishing a pickup football game with the neighborhood kids. To say they were uncooperative would be a gross understatement. To say they took advantage of the opportunity to touch the muzungu all over with their grubby little hands would be the gross truth.

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Mike teaches a couple of local kids how to shake hands like a Wisconsinite. If there’s one thing a little Zambian iwe likes more than football, it’s touching a muzungu. Any kind of contact absolutely thrills them. I high-five some of the braver kids I pass by as I bike to class. It’s fun until they start trying to pull you off your bike as you wallow through sand. The little piranhas can smell blood from
kilometers away.

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Today all 18 of us spent five hours working on our sunburns and sweating in our Sunday best for Easter Mass at St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Chongwe. President of Zambia Michael Sata was in attendance along with his entourage, so it was a big deal. During his speech, President Sata pointed our group out to emphasize a comparison he was making between Zambians and Americans. The crowd of nearly a thousand people turned in unison to look at us and giggle. I’m getting good at ignoring people laughing at me.

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13 thoughts on “What I’m learning in training

  1. This is a lovely post! So much life and humor in it 🙂 Also, I love the dress of the woman to your right! Was it a chitenge?

    • Yeah, that’s Morgan’s chitenge dress! It’s really pretty. The girls are tired of hearing me say it, but if I were a female I’d have so many cute dresses, skirts, and just normal wraps made from chitenges. 🙂

  2. Hi Matty! I am so proud of you. Looks like you are doing well. Shake Shake sounds so disgusting! You look great, your hair is not down to your shoulders and you don’t look sunburned. Loving the photos, reading your blog makes the distance seem shorter and is always entertaining. Miss you! 🙂

  3. Matthew, you look wonderful!! I second Lucy, the Shake Shake sounds like it is a good substance to avoid! Love reading your blog and keeping up to date on your exploits by way of the pics you post! Be safe…..miss you and love you.

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