FiZ selected as PC Zambia’s nominee for the 2013 Blog It Home competition

I was notified this afternoon that Fishing In Zambia has been chosen to be Peace Corps Zambia’s nominee for the 2013 Blog It Home competition! I am honored that this blog was selected as the site which best exemplifies the spirit of the Peace Corps’ Third Goal from a very large pool of fantastic PCZ blogs (Zambia is currently the largest country by number of serving Peace Corps volunteers in Africa with 284, and second-largest in the world after Ukraine).

I am excited to represent Zambia in the global Peace Corps competition, the winners of which will attend and participate in the inaugural Third Goal Mobilization Summit in Washington D.C. this August.

What is Blog It Home?

The Office of Third Goal and Returned Volunteer Services is proud to announce the 2013 Blog it Home competition.  This competition will serve as a major part of our efforts to elevate the Third Goal and infuse best Third Goal practices throughout the volunteer lifecycle. To participate in the competition, each post is encouraged to select one PCV whose blog exemplifies the spirit of Peace Corps’ Third Goal.   Up to six currently serving volunteers with outstanding blogs will be selected by the Office of Third Goal and Returned Volunteer Services to attend the Third Goal Mobilization Summit in Washington D.C. this August.   (More information about the Summit can be found HERE.)

[Excerpted from an email sent by Tom Kennedy, the Peace Corps Zambia Country Director]

I’m at the provincial house in Mansa right now for Mini-Provs, so I was able to upload a few photos I took with my real camera at site in May/June:

Green like fish farming

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Fish farming isn’t very glamorous. It’s grimy, strenuous, blue-collar work characterized by dirt under your fingernails and the faint odor of mud rising from your pores no matter how many times you bathe. My dad served in the Peace Corps as an aquaculture volunteer in Papua New Guinea from 1981-1985, started a fish farm shortly after returning to the States, and has been growing, harvesting, and selling fish and water plants ever since. He loves it. I served bags of Fritos and grape-flavored Simply Sodas to my grandpa’s grinning workers for 25 cents each from 1996-1998, started thinking pretty much exclusively about girls shortly after hitting puberty, and had been dreaming of a nice, clean, air-conditioned office job ever since those long summers as a kid spent toiling away in the murky water and the 110-degree San Joaquin Valley heat. Me growing up, not so thrilled about fish farming.

So of course once I was an adult who could make his own decisions, I left my nice, clean, air-conditioned office job, joined the Peace Corps, and now live without air conditioning in sub-Saharan Africa working as a Rural Aquaculture Promotion (RAP) volunteer. Or, in other words, fish farming. Although my 15-year-old self may not have appreciated fully all of the life lessons that his father assured him he was gleaning from the muck and sweat and pungent carcasses of rotting fish, my 25-year-old self is appreciative of the role fish farming played in his personal development and thinks there’s a neat sort of circularity in the way that this has informed and led to his life as a fish farming volunteer a decade later.

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Patrick Chansa is a bright 20-year-old who finished secondary school last year, speaks fluent English, and wants to study forestry at the University of Zambia. For the time being though, Patrick is a member of a newly formed fish farming group in Kampampi. Last Wednesday he took me to visit their new pond site. After reaching town, we turned off the tarmac onto a bush path that twisted through a bucolic forest and then coasted down into a vast grassy dambo valley.

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The pond was almost finished, smelling like freshly turned mud. The smell of development (my personal madeleine). From my perch on the muddy bank I offered some advice for remaining pond construction and beginning management, describing the benefits of making the pond walls sloped (“to give the fish better spawning habitat!”) and extolling the virtues of adding manure and plant compost to the water (“once it turns green, that’s when you’ll know you have a good bloom!”).

On Friday afternoon I biked over to Chabilikila to host a pond staking workshop with my nearest PCV neighbor, Sarah. As a CHIP volunteer most of Sarah’s work is with community health, but her youth group wants to start fish farming so I agreed to come over and provide a physical blueprint for where and how much to dig. The workshop was scheduled to start at 14:30, which meant the group hadn’t fully arrived until 16:00 – punctuality is a foreign concept for Zambian meetings. No matter, this just meant I was able to spend more time catching up with Sarah, a former preschool teacher who is, true to vocational stereotypes, exceptionally good-humored and patient as a saint.

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Once the gang had all assembled, we headed out to the pond site. The roughly 15 x 15 meter square of swampy land had been slashed (tall grass cut short) and burned to clear the plot upon request before my arrival. Rubbing some dirt under my fingernails, I got to work explaining the purpose of the pond staking and demonstrating each step of the process. Together we appropriated small tree branches for use as pond stakes, measured out the perimeter of the pond, hammered in stakes, calculated the slope of the dike walls, and linked all of the stakes together using twine.

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At one point in the afternoon I managed to throw in the word utonfukumfuku (natural springs) as I addressed the group, garnering a hearty laugh of appreciation for my pronunciation of this tongue-twisting and slightly obscure bit of deep Bemba. It was a much more effective deployment of local language than when I made the mistake of practicing the most phonetically repetitive word in Bemba in front of the kids who hang out on my front porch. Now they parrot back to me “Ayakatapakatapa ayakatapakatapa!” over and over again, chortling like maniacs the entire time and delighting, as only small children can, in the fact that what they’re saying makes no sense: “Green! Green! Green! Green! Green!”

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Of flowers

Aesthetics for aesthetics’ sake are rare in rural Zambia. Beauty is a luxury only the wealthy can afford, and when most people in the village are subsistence farmers who make less than $2.00 per day, time is better spent in myriad other ways than caring about how something looks. The deep purple water lilies that grow abundantly in the swampy dambo areas, gorgeous flowers which remind me of the farm ponds back home, remain unpicked even as they bloom alongside women washing their clothes and children in the stream. The flowers cannot be eaten or sold so they are, for all intents and purposes, worthless.

But there is a kind of quiet beauty that sneaks up on you when you’re least expecting it. It’s the kind that elicits a smile upon seeing the juxtaposition of gnarled red clay anthills with neat green rows of cassava plants, the former protruding like giant weathered fossils, the latter swerving matter-of-factly to avoid collision and continuing on in otherwise unerringly straight lines. The kind that pops out in the kaleidoscope of colors radiating from the chitenges that every woman wears, no two lengths of brightly dyed and boldly patterned fabric alike. The kind that is embedded in the careful workmanship of a brushmaker who spent an hour and a half in my insaka trimming an armful of freshly shorn grass with a homemade knife and patiently binding it together with thin strips of rubber recycled from old bicycle inner tubes.

After I bought the brush, I took a closer look at the handle. By painstakingly weaving the rubber strips under and over the tightly packed grass in a deliberate pattern, the man had added a personalized flourish: a simple design of a flower.

Reasons why Community Entry is like retirement

-I live alone in a big house, don’t work, and yet still have more money than the neighbors.

-Every day I complain of an eclectic assortment of minor ailments.

-I talk to my cat more often than I talk to most people.

-My evening footwear consists of thick wool socks with flip flops.

-I write my neighbors’ names down in a notebook so I don’t forget them.

-These darn kids just won’t get off my porch.

-I’m in bed by 8pm and wake up before 6am.

-Taking a slow walk around the neighborhood represents the bulk of my social engagements for the day.

-I plan my vacations two years in advance.

-I haven’t had a regular bowel movement in weeks.

We are cimo cine

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It just got dark. The village all around me is alive with the sounds of children playing and laughing, women calling across to one another, men returning from their fields, bicycles rattling by on the path outside my hut, chickens clucking, long-legged crickets chirping. The sounds of rural Africa.

I had thought I would be alone in my village for two years. I had read that being in the Peace Corps would be mentally and emotionally isolating, and so I tried to mentally and emotionally prepare myself for isolation. But how wrong I was. I’m the farthest thing from being alone in my village. Every other person in the village is here too.

Yes, I am the only American for a 6-kilometer radius. I’m starting to realize though that this is an arbitrary distinction based more on the set of criteria that I use to identify myself than on any inherent characteristics that I have. It’s this assumption, this inherent belief that my differences and not my similarities are what define me, that I’m trying to change in myself. That the Peace Corps as an institution is trying to change, I think, in both America and in countries across the world, one village at a time. It is a simple lesson but a resounding one: we are more alike than we can at first imagine.

There’s a phrase in Bemba, cimo cine, which means the same, or the same thing. I use it surprisingly often considering that I live in a place where I am the most different person my neighbors have ever encountered for longer than the time it takes a car to zoom past the village, in a culture where men readily hold hands in public even though husbands and wives never touch each other during the day and I haven’t seen a bare thigh since Labor Day of last year.

It actually comes out a lot in conversation with people when I’m trying to describe myself and have already said I’m not married and do not have children. Okay, so I don’t cook nshima and my Bemba stumbles along like an elderly man with a bum knee. (We both eventually get to where we want to go, but it takes much longer than it should and there’s a lot of gesturing involved.) But rather than noting my different skin tone, different hair texture and length, different eye shape, look instead at our similarities! I want to cry out, unsure whether it’s them or me who I really am trying to convince.

Look as I walk along the same bush paths that you take to get to your fields, cook at the same time as your wife and sister and mother, on the same brazier they use, with the same charcoal. Observe that I draw water from the same well, buy the same tomatoes and the same cabbage from the roadside. Watch as we laugh at the same things, greet each other in the same manner, shield our eyes from the same sun, complain good-naturedly about the same heat, and then gripe about the same morning chill the next day.

And begin to see, slowly, but certainly, that the product of our similarities is greater than the sum of our differences. To know that I am not alone here. To realize that we are cimo cine. We are, in the ways that matter most, the same.

The principal of the nearby school stopped by to visit yesterday and asked how I was settling into village life. When I said that things were going great and I was adjusting well, he asked with concern, “But isn’t it difficult living all by yourself, being here alone?”

I looked down at the children crowded around our feet, glanced over at the men laying bricks for the foundation of the new house next door, looked past them at the women drawing water from the well. My well. Our well.

I smiled. “I’m the farthest thing from being alone.”

ZamTwitter, Month 1

Some bits of news from my first month at site that didn’t make it into other blog posts, apropos of nothing. In 140 characters or less, of course.

[I don’t have a Twitter account, but I admire the emphasis placed on brevity. If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time at all, you know that “admire” is not the same thing as “practice.”]

May 16 – Had myself a wild night scratching ten MTN cards to put talk time on my phone. It’s like lottery, except with no chance of winning anything.

May 19 – Did laundry. Vowed never to wear socks again unless absolutely necessary. Like if it’s cold, or if I’m going to see the chief.

May 21 – Had an appointment to go see the chief. He wasn’t there. Waste of good socks.

May 24 – Brought out my Martin Backpacker to play for the kids and they ran for cover. Guess it does bear a passing resemblance to an assault rifle.

May 29 – Shooed an indignant chicken and four chicks out of my chimbusu at 8 o’clock at night. She took her sweet time. I really, really had to go.

May 31 – Asked some kids how they put out fires. Watched in horror as a 6-year-old calmly stamped, barefoot, on the burning grass. No big deal.

June 2 – Witnessed an African witchcraft ceremony at dusk with chanting, a witch doctor, and something glowing red. Wasn’t freaked out at all. Nope.

June 3 – Bought two fake Nike USA soccer jerseys. The irony of repping ‘Murica with shirts bought in Zambia and made in Southeast Asia is not lost on me.

June 5 – Have worn my Patagonia down jacket for three mornings in a row. Was sweating in a t-shirt by 3pm each day. Welcome to cold season.

June 7 – Third flat tire in the past two weeks. My bike’s inner tubes have more patches than an Eagle Scout.

June 8 – Hobbes: 1, mouse: dead. Slowly. Next time I’m getting the pest guy who doesn’t torture the vermin all night and then beg loudly for my rice.