One volunteer’s trash is another Zambian kid’s treasure

If necessity is the mother of invention, then rural Zambian kids are its crazy stepchildren. In their hands, old plastic bottles and cast-off pieces of rubber become cars and trucks, pulled around on strings. Discarded maize husks and scraps of dirty chitenge are transformed into dolls, twigs and leaves are reimagined as propellers, and used plastic bags are strung upon sticks and launched into the air, reborn as kites.

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And most ubiquitous of all are the makeshift footballs. Across the world balls are made by children using whatever they have on hand, and here in my village plastic bags are the material du jour. The kids wind the bags tightly and tie them so that the resulting effort is rounder and bounces truer than any synthetic, FIFA-approved soccer ball you can buy at Big 5.

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I’m not wild about the idea of my flock of iwes rooting around in my trash pit – it’s bad enough that they literally see all of my dirty laundry – so in contradiction to my typical creed of sustainability and responsible natural resource stewardship, I burn my trash.

But I give the kids the plastic bags first.

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Riding in buses with counterparts

On Thursday morning I left The Barn Motel in Lusaka after the RAP ’13 In-Service Training and PEPFAR training to begin the long journey home. The following is a scattered collection of notes from the following 24 hours:

07:45 – There is a “professional” photographer on site this morning, a guy with a Nikon and a portable photo printer. Jen, Paula’s counterpart, pulls me aside to ask me to take a picture with her and her daughter Melody. Americans pay large portions of their incomes for luxury cars, designer clothes, and lavish vacations. Zambians pay large portions of their incomes for photographs of family and friends. I think there are lessons I am still learning about what is actually important in life.

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Jen, with a straight face, informed the other counterparts that this was a “family portrait”

08:02 – We board the minibus taking us to the bus station. Most of us. Hilda, Holly’s counterpart, jumps off to take a picture. Sebastian follows. Everyone groans, and the driver eventually shifts into first gear and rumbles off, forcing Sebastian and Hilda to run to catch up with the bus.

09:10 – We arrive at the Lusaka Intercity Bus Terminal. This place is a zoo. Sebastian, Ba Daniel (Lucas’ counterpart), Ba Maxim (Chris’ counterpart), and I fight our way through hordes of ticket sellers and buy tickets on the 15:00 Juldan bus to Kashikishi.

09:34 – We have time to kill so I decide a field trip to America is in order. We walk two blocks to Levy Junction, a modern indoor shopping complex that looks exactly like every big mall in suburban America. There I play tour guide, explaining all of the different sights to the dutifully awed and impressed counterparts.

09:45 – This may be my favorite Second Goal moment in Zambia:

Minibus to the Lusaka Intercity Bus Terminal: Kr15

Luxury bus from Lusaka to Kashikishi: Kr190

Four ice cream cones at KFC in Levy Junction: Kr14

Watching three rural Zambian fish farmers grin uncontrollably as they ride an escalator for the first time: priceless

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10:24 – We go up and down the escalators twice and then try out the elevator, like visitors to a foreign planet. Then I sit Sebastian, Maxim, and Daniel down on a bench and introduce them to Americans’ favorite mallcrawling pastime: people-watching. We sit for half an hour gawking at all of the various sizes and shapes and colors of people passing by. Sebastian slips me hushed translations of their running commentary: “Maxim is now talking about the women’s hips.”

11:12 – The boys need to do some shopping at a place where a shirt doesn’t cost as much as four months’ worth of food for a family of eight in the village, so we trek over to Kamwala Market. There could not be two more opposite places within two blocks of each other. Levy Junction is polished, immaculate, and smells like money and air conditioning. Kamwala Market is dirty, sprawls between derelict buildings and defunct railroad tracks, and smells like what money purchased, consumed, and regurgitated onto the muddy road six days ago.

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12:23 – Still browsing the market. And I thought I was a big shopper. I poke my head in various shops looking for interesting football jerseys but don’t find any. Meanwhile, I follow three short Zambian men as they buy blankets, little girls’ dresses, electricity inverters, teenaged boys’ shoes, chitenges for first wives (second wife got the blanket), and those interesting electronic gadgets which never end up working but which also never fail to appeal to men everywhere.

13:46 – Back at the bus station. Eric, a RAP ’11er from Northern, and his younger sister visiting from the States arrive; they’re taking the 15:00 Juldan to Kasama en route to visit his site. Erica, CHIP ’12 and one of our trainers for the PEPFAR workshop, joins us a bit later and we chat until it’s time to board our separate buses.

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15:19 – Ba Sebastian and I have the entire back row of the bus to ourselves. If we’re not joined by anyone else, we’ll have a very comfortable ride.

17:39 – In Kabwe. No more private back row. Oh well.

19:01 – We’re stopped in Kapiri for a bathroom and snack break. Sebastian opens a soda and it explodes all over him. The 40-year-old man sitting across from me wearing pants that were only in style with teenaged girls in the 70’s clambers off to buy a loaf of bread for the woman in the seat next to him so that she can stay on the bus with her baby. When she tries to pay him back, he shrugs her off and tells her not to worry about it. I resolve (again) to try to be a better person.

20:33 – I switch the Kindle off (David Brooks’ The Social Animal, 72% completed) and push the earbuds in. Ready for some electropop from Lorde.

21:02 – Have listened to “Tennis Court” and “Royals” on loop for the past half hour. Now ready to start trying to sleep.

02:15 – In Samfya boma. I sneak off into some nearby bushes to empty my bladder for the first time in six hours. Daniel and Maxim prepare to disembark at the next stop. Only five more hours to go until I’m back home.

03:38 – We arrive in Mansa. Sebastian buys a loaf of bread from a street vendor who tosses it up through the open window of the bus. The five-kwacha bill Sebastian floats down to the bread seller is somehow lost. We spend the next ten minutes searching the ground with our cell phone lights as Sebastian and the bread vendor argue chippily back and forth. Sebastian finally withdraws his head from the window and slams it shut, announcing that it is the fault of the other man and not his own.

06:33 – We arrive in Mwense boma. Not far now. Sebastian tells me that he will get off the bus in Shanyemba, where his first wife lives, so that he is not seen arriving in Nshinda with me and perhaps prompting people to think that he has been given lots of money.

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08:29 – Always expect the unexpected when it comes to transportation in Zambia. Our bags are at the back of the hatch, so the conductors won’t let us access them until they reach Kashikishi at the end of the road. Passing Nshinda as I write this.

09:59 – Sitting outside a restaurant called Refreshment Centre in Kashikishi, waiting for another Lusaka-bound Juldan bus to take Sebastian and me back down to Nshinda. At least I got to do my grocery shopping. I strike up a conversation with an elderly Congolese gentleman passing through Kashikishi from one province in the DRC to another. He knows French, Swahili, and Bemba. I know English, some Spanish, and some Bemba. It’s a struggle, but we muddle through.

11:03 – Back at site, at last. I’m hot, sticky, haven’t bathed in two days, and have been stewing in my own sweat the entire time. The bus dropped me off in front of the school just as classes let out, so any pretense I might have entertained about arriving unnoticed was quickly vanquished. Still, I don’t think I’ve ever felt happier to hear the choruses of “Ba Matt, Ba Matt!” or to argue with my perpetually disgruntled kitten. It’s good to be home.

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ZamTwitter, Month 4

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

August 12 – Watching a Jane Austen plot twist unfold is like seeing a corgi run. Ridiculously implausible, but I can’t stop grinning like a fool.

August 13 – I hail a set of headlights at 5:45am. The conductor tells me happily I’m on my own bus. I’m confused. He points to the name: Zhongtong. Oh.

August 16 – Hard to feel more American than watching Up in Zambia with 7 other volunteers, laughing and smiling and getting teary at all the same parts.

August 17 – Found out that the teenager with the horribly infected leg who I visited last week died later that day. Sometimes life feels too short.

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Make a face, I said, forgetting that my kids don't know English

August 19 – Sat on the ground for two hours today watching a ceremony. Still don’t know whether it was a funeral, a wedding, or a church service.

August 21 – It was a funeral. Went to another one today. Everyone ended up staring at me instead of listening to the preacher rail against drinking.

August 24 – My well is being overdrawn so it takes twice as long to fetch water now. Third-world problems, first-world attitude.

August 27 – Balanced a lounge chair, a bookshelf, and a bucket o’ stuff on the back of my bike for 6km this morning. Becoming more Zambian by the day.

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Also almost made off with a curious kitten

August 28 – Part of an 18-foot python is simmering in a stew right now. I’ll fry it tomorrow. This will go down as either an awesome or a horrible idea.

August 31 – At the house, and brought my fried snake with me. 13 other volunteers have now tasted it and it is overwhelmingly deemed to be excellent.

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September 2 – Have been riding on buses for 19 of the past 21 hours. Was on a bus for the other two hours, too; it just wasn’t moving. This is Zambia.

Why did the elephant cross the campground?

Because it can, and nobody else is big enough to tell it to leave.

I woke up on our last morning at South Luangwa National Park and was about to head over to the lounge to check my email when a large shadow loomed behind me in the early dawn. I turned around. An elephant, closing in quickly.

I was on the other side of Morgan’s tent, so I said calmly and with authority, “Morgan, DO NOT GET OUT OF YOUR TENT. THERE IS AN ELEPHANT.”

Then calmly and with authority, I bolted.

As I looked back in bemusement and awe and not a small amount of trepidation, the elephant loped steadily right between the ten-foot gap between Morgan’s tent and mine. I had to pinch myself to make sure this was really happening.

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Peering out of Holly's and Meggan's tent at a second approaching elephant

This is a commonplace occurrence at Croc Valley Lodge, the staff breezily assured us as we spent the next hour watching, mouths agape and camera shutters flashing, as four elephants casually stripped leaves off of the adjacent trees.

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The sheer ridiculousness of the situation was cast in more full light after the sun rose

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Our camp intruder passing back across our campsite

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They never asked us if we wanted to take out damage insurance - 5c. Trampled by elephant

On safari

I’m at South Luangwa National Park in Eastern Province right now, where I met up with Holly, Meggan, and Morgan after 22 hours of riding in buses from Nshinda to Mansa to Lusaka to Chipata. It’s been a great trip with amazing scenery, fantastic food, and hilariously irreverent friends.

A few pictures from our first day of game drives. To view the entire gallery click here.

The Ugly American

A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They’re loud and ostentatious. Perhaps they’re frightened and defensive; or maybe they’re not properly trained and make mistakes out of ignorance.

-William Lederer and Eugene Burdick, The Ugly American

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The Peace Corps exists partly as an answer to the archetype of The Ugly American, brought to life so vividly and with such unswerving bluntness in the pages of the eponymous 1951 novel. However, even though Peace Corps volunteers are often the only non-host country nationals living in their immediate communities, even though our organizational and most of our personal goals are at direct odds with the caricature of the ostentatiously self-absorbed, ignorant American, I’m uncomfortable to admit that I at times see traces of this unflattering character reflected in myself.

A seldom-realized fact about the Peace Corps is that the typical volunteer spends a surprising amount of time out of site. We attend conferences, meetings, and workshops, and we accrue two days of vacation leave per month. In Peace Corps Zambia, this means that a typical volunteer will spend about a third of one’s service, or over 240 total days, out of his or her site during a two-year span.

I recently finished my Community Entry, the period in one’s Peace Corps service expressly intended to expedite a volunteer’s integration into his or her own community with explicit restrictions against leaving site. And yet since being posted to site I have spent ten days at the provincial house in Mansa for program days and my first four house days after Community Entry ended, two days in the next district over for a major cultural festival, eight days helping to host two different site visits for new volunteers, and parts of seven days visiting neighboring volunteers. And right now, I am currently on vacation at South Luangwa Park in Eastern Province where elephants and hippopotamuses have already been spotted from our campsite. None of this movement would cause any Peace Corps staff to raise an eyebrow out of impropriety, but combined I’ll have spent an entire month out of my community during my first four months of service.

And I’d be lying through my teeth if I said I behaved in the same manner regardless of where I am or who I’m with. When Peace Corps volunteers get together, we play music. Often loudly. We drink. Often excessively. We talk about food, poop, and sex. Often unconcernedly about whomever else might be listening.

This is partly because all of these things are destressors, and there is no shortage of stressors when you live in a village where you are constantly stared at, pointed at, laughed at, and called or whistled at. Where everybody else speaks a language you don’t have a hope of fully understanding, where nobody catches your corny Star Wars references. Where nobody can relate to being 10,000 miles away from your family and friends back home.

But it’s still no excuse. Regardless of reasons, I can’t help but feel a little guilty that the image I present when I’m with other volunteers is different than the one I project when I’m by myself in my village. Which do I feel best portrays America to Zambians? Which do I feel best portrays who I really am to myself?

I guess all I can do is try my best to be the not-so-ugly American and to be more consciously aware of how I am perceived. I can try to live modestly, to not isolate myself socially, to not be loud and ignorant, to not let my fear govern my actions. I can strive constantly to learn and listen and respect and love.

And within the confines of the provincial house, after business hours, when only other volunteers are around, I suppose I can cut myself some slack if I’m loud, obnoxious, oblivious to my surroundings, and socially insular. They’re Americans. They’ll understand.