A morning in the life of a Peace Corps trainee

[This post was originally intended to be “A day in the life of a Peace Corps trainee” but it was taking way too long to write and PST is already almost over. I decided to sacrifice scope for painstaking detail.]


05:45 – I wake up. Sometimes it’s because of crowing roosters, one time it was the sound of Bamayo chopping up a fallen tree for firewood, usually it’s the alarm on my phone. I stay in bed contemplating the virtues of five more minutes of sleep. Then ten.

05:55 – Third alarm sounds. Time to actually get up. The rest of my family is already awake and bustling about. I pull my mosquito net out from where it is tucked underneath my mattress and get out of bed. This thin mesh is all that stands between me and bugs/lizards/rats of intimidating size, and since I don’t want them to be waiting for me under the covers when I crawl into bed at night, I’m vigilant about always re-tucking my security blanket carefully under the mattress after I extricate myself from my nest. I put on my contacts and do my 30 morning pushups, then throw on some clothes. I take pride in the fact that Bamayo has never had to pound on my door to wake me up, unlike some of the other trainees. Sure, she prepares my bath water and cooks all of my food, but I’m an adult, dammit.

06:05 – I put some toothpaste on my toothbrush, grab my water bottle, and head outside. I call out good morning, “Mwashibukeni mukwai,” to Bamayo where she is sweeping the dirt in front of the house and she returns the greeting. Sometimes after dinner I can get away with doing both my teeth brushing and my peeing at my trash pit, about 20 meters away from my hut, in order to avoid the little shop of horrors that is my chimbusu at night. No such luck in the clear visibility of the morning though, so I start brushing at the trash pit first, then duck into my nearby chimbusu and lift up the 5-gallon bucket lid that serves as a cover with a deft flick designed to propel any exploratory cockroaches away from me. I do my business, replace the lid, duck back out, and finish brushing, trying not to make eye contact with the next-door neighbor also brushing his teeth outside his doorstep about ten meters away. I’m not antisocial, but I don’t know his name, can’t remember if we’ve met (probably), and in Zambian culture, looking into another person’s eyes is considered to be intimidating or a come-on, depending on the context and the person. I’m not wild about either option.

06:12 – I return to my hut to figure out what I’m going to wear today, waving to my little sisters (bankashi) playing in the dirt who smirk and wave back. I wore socks most days the first couple of weeks, then realized how long it takes to do my own laundry by hand. I have a nice Chaco tan now.

06:22 – Either Bamayo or Mwansa, my 10-year-old sister, brings out my red plastic wash basin from inside the house and places it near the big pot of water boiling over an open flame outside the kitchen insaka. This is my cue to amble over, mix my bathing water (amenshi yakusamba) to the desired temperature using hot water from the big pot and cold water from a bucket nearby, and carry it over to my insamba. I wash my face and splash water on my hair, and every few days I shave.

06:34 – I bring the washbasin back over to the house where I deposit it on the front porch or hand it off to a grinning bankashi, then go back into my hut. With my door open and the curtain down, I can spy on the house surreptitiously as Bamayo boils water and fries French toast for my breakfast on twin braziers on the porch. I get dressed, check my email, and sweep my hut.

06:43 – Bamayo finishes cooking and disappears into the house with a covered plate. When she reemerges I trot outside, inspect the unintelligible inscriptions that my little sisters Mwila and Malenga have scratched into the dirt, and head into the house. Breakfast is arranged carefully on a platter on the coffee table in the middle of the living room: the covered plate with food on the left, mug with saucer and spoon on the right, instant coffee, small container of sugar, and smaller container of instant milk powder at the top, each with spoons balanced on to of them, and tea kettle with boiling water to the side. I sit in the armchair across from the couch, where I have sat for every meal since arriving, and which I strongly suspect is Bataata’s seat when the family is not hosting a trainee. I eat while listening to the morning news on the family’s radio and typing up a few paragraphs of an email in progress. After I finish, I return the coffee, sugar, and dried milk to the cabinet on the other side of the room and bring the platter and kettle outside to the rack fashioned from branches where Bamayo washes and stores the family’s dishes.

07:10 – Back in my hut I gather everything I need for the day in my backpack. Some are the same things I carried in my pack back in undergrad: notebooks, pens, water bottle, emergency snack. And some were staples in my man-purse messenger bag when I used to bike to work across town every day: bike patch kit, pump, spare tube. But others are unique to my current life in rural sub-Saharan Africa: portable solar panel, anti-diarrheal pills, malaria prophylaxis, and passport.

07:15 – I strap on my Chacos, throw on my helmet, and lock my door with a padlock (more for Bamayo’s sense of security than mine; I gave her my spare key within three days of moving in, but if it’s locked then she doesn’t have to watch my hut constantly while I’m gone). I tell Bamayo in Bemba when I’ll be coming home, say goodbye, wave to my sisters, and then ride off for class.

The benefits of using a chimbusu

Pooping in a hole in the ground is usually one of the bigger concerns for invitees to Peace Corps Zambia. I wasn’t concerned. For one thing, I was an avid backpacker when I lived in California and so I made my own holes in the ground before I pooped in them. For another, we were all assured that living in a mud hut without electricity or indoor plumbing would be the first thing we adjusted to, not the last.

And yes, I have indeed gotten used to squatting over a hole in the ground whenever nature calls. What I didn’t expect is that I actually prefer my chimbusu to toilets now. And I’ve got two solid (groan) reasons why:

Disclaimer: I’m going to talk about poop. A lot. Graphically. Delicate sensibilities have been warned.

-Last year I read a life tip on Reddit (oh, how I miss Reddit) that advised elevating your feet while sitting on the toilet to facilitate a smoother and less messy deposit. It aligns your lower intestine with your anus in such a way that it creates a straighter shot, and behold, it works! (Also works out your hammies like a boss.) Well, squatting on your thighs over your chimbusu opening as you do your business creates that same magical alignment where everything just slides right out with minimal sticking. Fact: I’ve used only two rolls of toilet paper over the past two months of regular bowel movements.

-You know how in the 4th grade you were told that the heart is the strongest muscle in the body? That’s crock. When I have diarrhea (and here in this country of new foods, suspect water sources, and dubious hygiene practices, this means every week), my rear end becomes a projectile launcher with approximately the same stored energy as a dying sun. The last thing I want to aim that sucker at is a bowl full of water 7 inches away. Good grief.

First glimpse of home (for the next two years)

I just got back from Second Site Visit in Luapula Province, my first opportunity to see the village where I’ll be living for the next two years. Here are some first impressions, thoughts, and random notes:

-Nchelenge District is way, way up there. The drive from Lusaka took 12 hours by Land Cruiser not counting stops, and the Peace Corps cruisers go faster and stop much less frequently than the buses.

-There are literally thirty kids who like nothing more than to sit right outside my door and stare at me.  All. Day. Not to be outdone, I sit down right in the middle of the pack, making faces right back. Some of the braver ones poke me from time to time to, I think, make sure that I’m real. I played some “volleyball” with some of the older boys one afternoon (batting a village ball made from plastic bags and string around in the air with our hands) and the kids got really into it, both the dozen or so who were playing and the twenty girls and smaller boys who were watching. They were loud. But even if they had been silent as mice (I’m regretting my choice of words already – you can definitely hear the rats here scurrying everywhere), all of the bamayos still would have been watching because of the muzungu in their midst.


-Luapula Province is beautiful. We passed a river gorge on our way up to Nchelenge and it looked like a scene out of Jurassic Park, lush and green and rugged and wild. That was actually atypical of Luapula since the province is very flat, but everywhere there is green and the red/orange/yellow/brown houses contrast vividly with the green grass and trees and the blue sky and white clouds.


-Ba Sebastian Lubinda’s fish farm looks like a tropical paradise. Ba Sebastian is my counterpart and is practicing integrated fish farming with bananas and pineapples, along with some sugar cane, cassava, and maize for personal consumption. We took a tiny bush path to reach his ponds and it was like I had stepped onto the set of Lost. It’s very tropical and jungle-like. I kept expecting to see a tiger slink out of the grass until I remembered that there are no tigers in Africa. The ponds are gorgeous. There are purple/pink/white water lilies growing wild everywhere (I told Ba Sebastian that ku America my dad grows and harvests these exact same plants for sale and he laughed; here they’re worthless), banana trees and pineapples (he’s one of the only pineapple farmers in the province) lining all of the banks, and fish feeding on the surface.


-I feel kind of ridiculous telling people that I’m here to teach fish farming in front of my counterpart who knows much more about fish farming than me. Ba Sebastian has 18 ponds and is applying for a loan from a Zambian government initiative to promote small fish farms in Luapula Province, and he also makes his own fish food from mealie meal waste (byproduct of the flour used to make nshima) and fish proteins. I’m not really here to advise him as much as I’m here to help promote fish farming in the area and use his farm as an example for other people interested in fish farming.

-My house is pitch black and creepy. And that’s during the day. I took pictures inside the hut at night which look like stills from those movies set in deserted cabins in the woods where the victim enters the hut and sees one lone wooden chair, illuminated by her headlamp, giving you just enough time to wonder in horror where the chair’s occupant is before BLAMMMM the minor downbeat assaults your ears, the light gets knocked to the floor, and the primal screaming begins. Nope, I wasn’t feeling scared at all as I quivered in my tent inside my hut that first night at site.


-My hut is huge: I have four rooms and a hallway, and each room is as large as my entire hut in homestay. One room is a combination storage and bathing area (with drainage pipe leading outside – I’ve already taken advantage of this feature to brush my teeth and pee without leaving my house; it’s pretty fantastic), one room will be a bedroom, and the other two rooms will be a kitchen/storage and a living room/general purpose room. Seriously, I pretty much own a mansion.


-I think I’m going to love Kashikishi, a big market in Nchelenge on the shore of Lake Mweru 23 kilometers away from my site. I bought a t-shirt there for K5 ($1)  which reads “Manet for lovers, Monet for others,” partly because it’s delightfully ironic (I can’t for the life of me remember which one was Monet and which one was Manet; are they even two different artists?), but mostly because it’s the softest t-shirt I’ve ever felt. This thing is serious hipster candy and probably cost $45 in America before it was donated to charity and shipped over to Africa along with millions of other second-hand clothes. I love the stories behind each item in the market, comparing prices across the country and delighting in finding the same oddball shirt in two markets 14 hours away from each other.


-During the ride to Kashikishi, I met with several district government officials in Nchelenge (Department of Fisheries, police, Department of Agriculture). Ba Sebastian also introduced me to every person we passed along the way who is a fish farmer or had expressed previous interest in fish farming, well over a dozen people all up and down the 23 kilometers, completely unplanned. That took seven full hours, and then in the evening we biked 12 more kilometers to find a carpenter in the next catchment area who agreed to make me a table and two chairs for K150 (the guy in my area wanted K300 for a table and four chairs). All told, I biked about 60 kilometers on Monday, more than I ride in a typical week in training. It provided great exercise and language practice; I greeted no fewer than two hundred people in Bemba, eliciting all manner (ha ha, Swype automatically inserted Manet there; I swear these programs think for themselves and have ridiculously dry senses of humor) of reactions from enthusiastic welcomes to angry yelling to confusion about whether I’m a woman or a man, to, most often, shocked faces quickly followed by the automatic respectful response. (Zambians are nothing if not respectful; contrary to American culture, it’s perfectly appropriate, even expected, that you call an old man you don’t know bashikulu, or grandfather, when you pass him on the street.)


-My counterpart has two wives and two families. Surprise! They both are well aware of each other and seem to be fine with the arrangement, and he splits his time between the two houses/farms. Nope, this isn’t normal here at all. In fact, it’s generally frowned upon in this Christian nation, although so many Zambian men cheat on their wives that it’s assumed everyone has a “side plate.” So if Sebastian is faithful to both wives, I can’t really see how ably and openly supporting two families is a morally bad thing in this country where many men can’t even provide for one. And this confident, gregarious man knows how the logic adds up. After he introduced me to his first wife, Ba Sebastian asked me with a sly grin what I thought about polygamy. I was left to sputter, “Nshi shibe” (I don’t know), thankful that the oncoming darkness hid my embarrassment.

-Two days at site and I’m already giving speeches in front of the entire village. The headman called an impromptu meeting and I inadvertently strolled right into the middle of it. I sat down on the periphery, trying to be unobtrusive and remain unnoticed, but when you’re the only muzungu in a 5 kilometer radius that’s kind of hard to do. The headman called me up to speak, and I about fell over in shock. Nailed it. I think.