10,000 hours

In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.

-Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success

10,000 hours is a lot of time. By this benchmark, it will take me approximately 821 years to become an expert at peeing while standing up. Longer if my target is a hole the size of my chimbusu. 10,000 hours is a lot of time.

Speaking of a lot of time, it’s a popular saying that being a Peace Corps volunteer is a 24/7 job. Development is something we do when there isn’t a funeral going on or when it’s not raining or when the fish farming group still wants to work with the muzungu even after learning that he isn’t going to give them any money. However, this is simply a starting point for the conversation of what a volunteer does.

Because I am the only American living in a 70-kilometer long stretch of the second-farthest district in the farthest province from Zambia’s capital, everything I do and say informs what the people in my area think about Americans in general. To them, I am America. What I do and say is what all Americans do and say. As far as the people of Nshinda are concerned, all Americans talk to their cats, wear basketball shorts that are in perpetual need of washing, and are charming and witty and above all modest.

My role as de facto U.S. ambassador to rural Zambia doesn’t quite consume all 24 hours of each day; I read prodigiously and check college football scores on ESPN.com more often than the average bear. But I would guess that I spend at least twelve hours per day either actively engaged in cultural exchange or reflecting upon and reacting to it. And here’s something interesting: if you were to take those 10,000 hours and divide this total by 12, you’d get just over 833 days. That’s 119 weeks, or right around 27 months. The length of a typical Peace Corps service including training is… 27 months.

Coincidence? I think not.

By the time I conclude my Peace Corps service I will have devoted approximately 10,000 hours to becoming an expert in grassroots diplomacy. I will have spent 27 months learning, teaching, thinking about, and living in a country and society radically different from my own. I didn’t join the Peace Corps to save the world, but I might just come out on the other side of these 10,000 hours understanding a little bit more of it.


Sebastian's sons getting an early start on their 10,000 hours of fish pond digging

Kasanka National Park


Bats in flight at Kasanka National Park

Bats in flight at Kasanka National Park

From Wikipedia:

The first of Kasanka’s famous straw-coloured fruitbats (Eidolon helvum) start arriving towards the middle of October each year. By mid-November the roost has reached its highest density and numbers are estimated to be around eight million! It is believed to be the highest density of mammalian biomass on the planet, as well as the greatest mammal migration known to man.

A group of us visited Kasanka National Park last week in order to witness the largest mammal migration in the world. It was pretty spectacular.

Check out more pictures in the gallery here.

I buy local


When I was in college I went to farmer’s markets and shopped in grocery stores that sourced local organic kale and grass-fed beef. The Brussels sprouts grown in Salinas were more expensive than the ones shipped up from Chile, but I didn’t mind. I supplemented my academic curriculum with a steady diet of Michael Pollan, fought off hordes of foodies at Off The Grid Thursdays for pricey food truck fare, and rubbed elbows with the Berkeley landed elite at Chez Panisse, the birthplace of the slow food movement. My food was slower than a glacier.

However, here in rural Zambia, buying local isn’t a deliberate choice made by a burgeoning environmental steward. It’s an economic and logistical default. Vehicles are uncommon and everybody grows or makes something, so the scope of what it means to buy local narrows considerably: when I want some tomatoes, I stroll along the tarmac until I spot a tray of them perched atop an overturned bucket on the side of the road. I hand a small bronze 50-ngwee coin (the equivalent of ten cents) to a small girl sitting in the grass or a bamayo hurrying out of the nearest hut, she gives me two medium-sized tomatoes, and I am on my way.

Depending on the season, on any given day I can find a plethora of offerings sitting by the side of the road within a 10-minute bike ride from my house: tomatoes, fried fish, cisense (tiny dried fish), bananas, tangerines, groundnuts, sweet potatoes, dried cassava, sugar cane, beans, eggs, fritters (lumps of fried dough), buns (small baked rolls), guavas, jackfruit, and another big green fruit the name of which I haven’t yet committed to memory and which I’m told doesn’t taste great anyway.


Occasionally I can find onions and huge avocados, a treat because it saves me the 20-kilometer ride to the big market in Kashikishi. If I head a few kilometers south on Saturdays, I can get cabbage at Shabo Market. And from time to time, one of my neighbors even sells, I kid you not, deep-fried waffles.

I can even get some groceries without leaving my front porch. The fish seller pedals slowly along the path by my hut in the early afternoon, advertising his wares with a shout repeated at ten-second intervals. His fish are piled upon each other in a basket tied to the back of his bicycle and smell about how you’d expect them to smell after they’ve been marinating in the sun all day. I politely pass on the isabi.

When the meat sellers are spotted walking a bicycle with two blood-stained buckets strapped to the back slowly through the village, word spreads and the bamayos assemble swiftly. They lift up goat legs and pig’s heads (with hooves and snouts still attached) for inspection and haggle with the men over prices in rapid-fire Bemba as I watch with a mixture of interest and apprehension. Sales are jotted down in a worn notebook so that the money can be collected later. The chance that these dismembered animals have been kept refrigerated and covered is about as high as the chance I’m going to risk spilling my intestines into my chimbusu the following morning after eating questionable meat. So I tell people that I’m a vegetarian and pass on the hairy slabs of goat, too.

Meat is kind of a big deal. Although each of Nshinda’s 7,638 chickens and goats have free reign to poop in my front yard, sleep in my latrine, and wake me up at 4:13am, precious few of them actually end up getting eaten. They’re more like status symbols and walking, squawking (loudly) banks. When a family needs the kwacha they’ll sell the animal, usually taking it to the boma (though I did just bike past a baby goat trussed up and lying by the side of the road yesterday afternoon).


But when I hear the lilting melody of “Umusalu!” and spot a basket of leafy greens bobbing along the path in front of my hut with a tiny child nearly hidden beneath it, I yelp “Ndefwaya!” (I want) and hurry out to purchase a few bunches of Chinese cabbage. In fact, a couple of my neighbor kids, astute budding businesswomen with a keen eye for identifying a steady revenue stream, now stop by my house several times per week to ask if I want umusalu. I give them a few kwacha and five minutes later they reappear on my doorstep with fresh produce in hand, tomatoes or rape or kalembula (sweet potato leaves) picked directly from their gardens.

Now that’s what I call buying local.


ZamTwitter, Month 6

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

October 12 – Spent an hour tossing cups of water at iwes through my windows. Matt thinks: This will chase them off! Kids think: This is a fun game! Sigh.

October 14 – Sebastian gave me a pineapple after I helped move fingerlings from a drying pond. Dinner tonight: tortillas, black beans, pineapple salsa.


October 17 – Got 43 cries of “Muzungu bele!” (foreigner) and 11 singsong taunts imitating Chinese on my ride to the boma today. It’s nice to be noticed.

October 19 – It’s 11pm and a crowd of people is laughing and cheering outside. No idea what’s going on. Midnight revival meeting? Impromptu comedy show?

October 21 – Killed a bat this evening inside my hut. Just another day in the life of a Peace Corps volunteer.

October 23 – The muzungu draws water from the borehole at the school for the first time, is the afternoon’s entertainment for a schoolyard full of kids.

October 24 – Nearly ran over a scorpion this morning. Biggest scorpion I’ve ever seen. Only scorpion I’ve ever seen. Biggest scorpion I’ve ever seen.


October 27 –  Chatted with Sebastian for two hours comparing American and Zambian nativism, then discussed how to cook caterpillars. Love this guy.

October 29 – First rain of the wet season!

October 30 – Second rain of the wet season!

October 31 – Third rain of the okay you get the picture. Wish they lasted longer than fifteen minutes though.

November 3 – Solar eclipses are overrated. The partial eclipse visible over central Africa today wasn’t nearly as exciting as the thunder this evening.


November 5 – First taste of summer sausage in nearly a year; grease was literally dripping from the wrapper. Going to get so sick. So worth it.

November 7 – Watched ten fish farmers argue over where to dig a pond for two hours. I guess working in groups makes things take twice as long everywhere.


November 10 – At a funeral for four hours. Some bamayos sought refuge from the rain on my porch; now have six new friends who wonder why I’m not married.

Meet my kids

Most of my worst enemies are under four feet tall.

They commandeer my insaka and porch and then act obstinate when I deign to encroach on their territory. They ask me constantly what I’m doing and where I’m going, feeding this information through the village grapevine so quickly that everyone in the next village over knows that I boiled water for coffee ten minutes before it actually happened. They crowd around my windows pestering me to come out when I’m cooking or reading, and then when I toss cups of dirty dishwater through the windows at them they just laugh uproariously and clamor for more.

They are basically evil.

However, it’s hard to hate them for long because they’re also my closest friends and staunchest supporters. They fight each other for the honor of sweeping my front yard, chase away drunk men who wander too close to my hut, and race ahead of me to the borehole with my buckets when I go to fetch water. They bang on my front door, concerned for my health, when I’m still not up by the worryingly late hour of 6am. They welcome me home with a chorus of cheers when I return from a trip as if they’ve been waiting the entire time for me to come back. They probably have.

Their shouts and laughter and cries are like a playlist for my day-to-day life on perpetual repeat, and even though sometimes I get the urge to strangle the little buggers, my service here would feel strangely empty without them.

Meet some of my favorite kids:


Chungu (3rd from left) is my next-door neighbor, a precocious 6-year-old with the longest eyelashes I’ve ever seen. He’s cheeky, impudent, and can be incredibly obnoxious when he so desires. He mimics my facial expressions, ignores me when I address him, and won’t shut up when I’m trying to read. We’re pretty much besties.

Willie (back, 3rd from right) is a quiet 8-year-old who often sits alone at my insaka and just looks at me with big round eyes. He’s less manipulative than Chungu but more histrionic, given to impromptu bouts of crying when an older kid looks at him sideways. He often asks to sweep my porch and more often asks me to play guitar. I’m flattered until I obligingly haul it out and start playing, and two minutes later he tells me to stop. Willie and Chungu are the two mainstays among the revolving cast of iwes that frequents my house.

Mwape (2nd from left), 10, is Willie’s older brother. This age is particularly annoying because he’s old enough to not scare easily but not so old that he gets bored of tormenting the muzungu. Mwape is always genuinely helpful though when I ask him to do something, like chase down another miscreant for me so I can whack the offender with a brush.

Kalu (far right), 6, pals around with Chungu and Willie and has a disarmingly innocent, gap-toothed smile that belies a dedicated fondness for sneaking up on me and pulling my leg hairs. Hard.


Febe (left) is a confident, bossy 12-year-old with her baby sister perpetually strapped to her back. Febe has the distinction of owning the loudest voice in the village; I get hearty laughs from the other kids (and mock indignation from Febe) when I tell them that I can hear her coming from across the village.

Maenez (2nd from right) is a tall, pretty 15-year-old who teases me so mercilessly it borders on harassment. We scowl at each other and she makes me squirm by asking questions using words in Bemba that she is fully aware I don’t know. She has a fake boyfriend in the next village over that she tells me she’s going to visit when she sashays past my house, daring me with laughing eyes to refute her.


Maggie (right) is a cheerful 11-year-old with a round head, closely cropped hair, and omnipresent grin. We make faces at each other as she passes by on her way to draw water and occasionally she stops long enough to smack one of the younger boys in my regular entourage.

Daenez (center), 12, is Chungu’s older sister, easy-going but imperious, with a keen eye for business. Daenez is my umusalu supplier, delivering vegetables like Chinese cabbage and sweet potato leaves straight to my door on a weekly basis. This morning I had a half-hour conversation with Maggie and Daenez on my front porch about family names not matching kids’ names, and whether or not the girls want to have kids/husbands/houses when they grow up. They’re not sure yet. Smart girls.


Joni (back, sticking her tongue out) is a playful 13-year-old who tries out new hairstyles and extensions with Maggie and Daenez and parades them in front of me, fishing for compliments, when she’s not keeping her 5-year-old sister Kapata in check. This is a full-time job, because Kapata (second from right) is the devil reincarnate.

Priska (bottom center), 4, is the devil reincarnate’s understudy. She and Kapata totter around terrorizing the neighborhood at all hours of the day, and they like to play a game called see-how-many-times-you-can-reach-out-and-slap-the-muzungu-before-he-smacks-you-with-the-brush. By my last count, they’ve gotten up to five. The only reason why this game even exists is because Priska is utterly adorable. This tiny imp has me grudgingly wrapped around her little grubby finger.