When life gives you rain, make a raincatcher

I rely on the elements a lot more here in Zambia than I ever did in America, a fact that I’m made all too acutely aware of now that it’s rainy season. I can write this blog post only because I stuck my solar panel outside for a few hours yesterday during a glorious patch of sunlight in an otherwise overcast afternoon, which allowed me to slowly inch my phone up to a 75% charge. Last night I watched in alarm as the battery for my solar charger flashed the “dead” signal — after a few consecutive days of cloudy skies and frequent bursts of rain, it was the only thing in my hut that was bone dry. No more regular evening sessions of my Random 90’s-00’s playlist (where else can you listen to Green Day, Outkast, Creed, and Natasha Bedingfield back-to-back-to-back?). And up until last week, I pumped all of my water by hand from a well drilled 150 feet into the ground.

Typically rain comes only in brief windows in the afternoon or evening, but on Friday we had our first all-day affair. It wasn’t a downpour, but it started at 7am and continued without letting up. I eyed the water falling from the sky hungrily. Then a lightbulb clicked on in my head. Channeling my inner MacGyver, I fashioned a tarp using a sheet of plastic, duct tape, a bent piece of wire, and some twine. I rigged the contraption up at a slope between my front porch and my insaka, anchored the middle of the lower side to a bucket underneath, and presto! Instant (albeit slow) source of ukutapa amenshi (drawing water).

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In five hours of light drizzle on Friday I collected 15 liters, enough water for two days’ worth of cooking, drinking, cleaning, and bathing. Then on Sunday, for good measure, I netted 20 more. I’m not going to be able to blog as frequently if it keeps raining like this, but at least I’ll save myself a few trips to the borehole and entertain some of the kids in my village in the process.

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What they can’t eat, they can

English is notorious for not making sense. Words that mean different things sound the same, there are exceptions to every rule, and the distinction between there/their/they’re apparently still confounds many native English speakers well into adulthood.

Bemba, in contrast, is relatively straightforward. This doesn’t mean though that my conversations are confusion-free. Oh, no. Zambians speak faster than auctioneers, rattling off six-syllable words in approximately .048 seconds. Even when I’m able to make out their words I can’t always understand what they’re saying. (You see what I did there.)

For just one of many, many examples, I recently realized that ku lya means “over there.” When the two words are spoken together, they sound exactly like a word I do know, ukulya, which is “to eat.” So all this time I’ve been wondering why whenever I asked where somebody was, the response was invariably, with a gesture toward somebody’s hut, “Eating.”

It’s only natural for me to ask what they’re eating, and then I’m the one who gets looked at like I’m not making any sense.

Tabalya, ba lya!” they insist, pointing helpfully. He’s not eating, he’s there!

What I hear: “He’s not eating, he’s eating!”

This echoes too strongly of a parable from my childhood that so amused my father he could hardly get the punchline in without cracking up:

A couple of city folk are driving through the country and stop at a farm. The man exclaims to the farmer, “That’s a lot of fruit trees! How can you possibly eat it all before it goes bad?”

The farmer replies, “Well, we eat what we can, and what we can’t eat, we can.”

The man nods sagely, thanks the farmer for his time, and walks back to his car. He gets in and tells his wife, scratching his chin, “Those farmers sure are amazing people. I asked him what they did with all of that fruit and he told me that they ate what they could, and what they couldn’t eat, they could!”

It’s a constant source of amazement to me that I’ve managed to survive living on my own in a rural Zambian village for this long.

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Found this guy on the side of my hut this morning -- I asked the kids passing by on their way to school if they ate snails and they wrinkled their noses in disgust

It’s not about the money

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Last April during my first visit to site, I helped my counterpart Sebastian proofread his application for a loan through the CEEC (Citizens Economic Empowerment Commission) Micro Finance program. The CEEC is trying to boost development in one of the poorest parts of Zambia, and one area in particular they are focusing on is small-scale rural aquaculture. What a coincidence, I remarked when Sebastian told me about the loan program. That’s what I’m working on too! He chuckled nervously, hoping that this muzungu actually did know why he was coming to Nshinda. Don’t worry, I reassured him, I’m really a very funny person in my head.

Fast-forward nine months, after several CEEC site inspections to determine feasibility of project success, countless attempts at corny humor, and numerous 40-kilometer round trip bike rides to the boma to harangue the powers-that-be at each step along the way, my counterpart and I are thick as thieves and the loan request has finally been approved. Sebastian biked into town yesterday to open an account with the bank, and within a few days the lump sum will be deposited. He’s about to receive a windfall: a loan of 80,000 kwacha, equivalent to about $16,000 USD. To put this in perspective, an average day’s wage in my little slice of sub-Saharan Africa is 10 kwacha, or around two bucks. This is basically like winning the lottery. And this is where the real work begins.

Ever since I was posted to site, I’ve been lecturing my counterpart and anyone else who will listen about the importance of expense accounting, budgeting, and financial planning. (Why yes, I am that guy who likes to pore over personal finance blogs in his free time. Might not win me a ton of dates, but dammit my investment portfolio will thank me for it later.) It’s important for everyone, I admonish, but especially for small-business owners. You need to know what has gone into your farm and what you’re getting out of it in terms of time and resources and money. And because time and resources can also be quantified in money, it’s pretty much all about the money. Sebastian listens raptly. He’s one of the hardest-working and most motivated people I’ve ever met, but he isn’t super strong on the accounting side of business management and I worry that in the long term, listening might not be enough to reverse an entire culture’s worth of conditioning.

It’s the blessing and the curse of living in an aid state. Donor dependency is a real barrier to sustainable long-term development here in a part of the world where people have grown accustomed to watching money flow from the coffers of well-intentioned muzungus. Because of the way that typical aid agencies operate, with too much overhead and too few boots on the ground, aid tends to stick grease-like to the places where the wheel squeaks the loudest. Big ideas and grandiose schemes that can be encapsulated in ten-second sound bites are given more weight than unsexy business skills training and capacity building for long-range planning. And as a result, bright, motivated individuals like my counterpart have learned to play the game.

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Sebastian is the squeaky wheel personified. He invests a lot of time and effort in making and maintaining connections with various government and non-government organizations dedicated to development in Zambia because he’s realized that, for better or for worse, this is what works. He gets things done in a country where things rarely get done because of his singular assertiveness and persistence in follow-through, qualities lacking in so many of his more reserved countrymen. And now this squeaky wheel is about to get more grease than it’s ever seen in its life.

It’s not about the money, I tell Sebastian. A successful business doesn’t use a loan as a gift but as an incentive: an incentive to turn this money into more money, to dig more ponds and branch out into more agricultural ventures not to provide growth statistics for aid agencies but in order to increase profit margins. I point out the 12% interest rate on the bank agreement. I make sure that he notes the 60-month loan tenure. You’ve got five years, I warn him. Let’s make them count.

My counterpart already has big plans to expand his farm outward. To hire men in the community as full-time employees and eventual new fish farmers. (His current 20-pond farm has been entirely dug, renovated, and maintained over the past eight years by the one-man force of Sebastian Lubinda.) To purchase more supplemental feed. To integrate his fish farm with goats, pigs, and ducks. To train many of his 13 children in the family business. Even to build another house in the village, with a mindful eye on accommodating the second and third generations of Peace Corps volunteers after I leave.

Something that I greatly admire in Sebastian is that he has the gift of farsight. He has the desire and determination to create a better future for his children, and his children’s children, and by extension for Zambia and for the world. He has the ability to imagine the life that he wants for himself and his family, and the knowledge and skill to achieve this vision. And now he will have the financial resources to help him realize his dream, too.

It’s not about the money. But I concede that it does help. No big venture is without its risks, and building a stronger future is a risk well worth taking. As I sit here in my mud hut writing this blog post, a wave of pride for Sebastian washes over me. For my counterpart, for my community, for my country of service. And I can’t help smiling to myself.

So this is what development feels like.

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Things I don’t have to think about in Zambia

Part 2 of a two-part series. (read Part 1 here)

I’ve just returned to Zambia from holiday leave in the States, so what better time to reflect on differences between the two cultures?

Things I don’t have to think about in Zambia:

Where my money is
Zambia operates predominantly on a cash economy, and in the rural areas cash is not only king, but lord, serf, and the scrawny dog that the serf kicks. Gone are the days of checking Mint daily to monitor balances in checking accounts, saving accounts, mutual funds, CDs, credit cards, Roth IRAs, and penny stocks. I now have one bank account with the nearest ATM 240 kilometers away, and the kwacha I keep in my hut is split between my wallet and my socks basket.

Being late
We Americans spend an awful lot of time thinking about and making sure that we’re not late. Not everybody does this. In Zambia, nobody does this.

What to wear
Wardrobes are kind of pointless in a place where clothes are a grudging necessity, not an expression of identity. Nobody in the village notices if you wear the same thing two days in a row, and most kids wear the same tattered, filthy clothes every single day, pieces of clothing in name only that wouldn’t be fit for rags in the States. I feel at the same time guilty and grateful, because when trying to tell the various children running around apart, “Too-Big Green Shirt” calls to mind the kid in question much faster than his given name of Isaac. (Side note: TBGS is getting rather brash lately, giving me a big sloppy kiss on the arm after I tell him to leave so I can cook in peace.)

Some of the boys in my village wearing the same things they always wear

Some of the boys in my village wearing the same things they always wear, including, yes, that stylish cap

Having a car
On the list of things I miss in America, nowhere near the top are flat tires, warped brake rotors, registration renewal fees, overheated radiators, or smog checks. Or rush hour traffic. Remember that parable about the monkey trap? A monkey sticks his hand into a jar full of nuts but after he grabs one, he can’t remove his fist because the jar opening is only wide enough to permit an open hand to pass through. The monkey refuses to let go of the nut in order to get away free and is thus trapped by his own greed. The very concept of traffic seems like a particularly sly monkey trap. Try explaining to a rural Zambian why millions of wealthy Americans spend hundreds of hours per year sitting in their expensive cars while not. moving. one. inch.

Power outages
Ha, ha.

The weather forecast
It will be hot. During the cold season it will be cool in the morning, then it will be hot the rest of the day. During the wet season it will rain every day. It will get dark in the afternoon, the clouds will turn ominous, the thunder will roll in. Lightning will flash and the heavens will open. In half an hour, it will stop. And then it will be hot. During the hot season I will wish I were dead.

I don’t like traveling

So this sounds like an outright lie. He’s in the Peace Corps! He lives in Africa! He must love adventures and exploring and have an unquenchable thirst for travel!

Yeah. No. Before I moved to Zambia last February, my extensive wandering beyond U.S. borders consisted entirely of a few hours spent in Vancouver and a couple of cruises that stopped in Ensenada and Cabo San Lucas long enough for me to find myself the proud owner of a small weapon made from the spike of a marlin. Not exactly James Cook over here. (Though in a fight, my marlinspike dagger makes me a formidable foe.)

There are a lot of reasons why I’ve never backpacked through Europe, eaten cheap, delicious food in Thailand, or taken pictures of pretty things in New Zealand. Some of them include:

1. I’m frugal
2. I’m a closet hipster, because
….2a. I don’t like to do what everyone else likes doing
….2b. I’m reluctant to part with money
3. I can backpack through the Sierra Nevada, make my own cheap, delicious food, and take pictures of pretty things right outside my door
4. Did I mention that I don’t like to spend money?

I’m only a few hours away from beginning my third international flight in under a year. My five-times-delayed flight that was supposed to depart two days ago turned into 4.5 hours on hold with Orbitz and JetBlue while sitting in the cell phone waiting lot outside SeaTac after midnight, and I’ve found myself in possession of an entirely new itinerary that has me taking the scenic route to Lusaka by way of Dallas/Forth Worth, Washington D.C., Senegal, and Johannesburg. Once I arrive in Lusaka, I’ll take a 10-hour bus ride to Mansa, my provincial capital, and from there catch another bus in order to travel the remaining 240 kilometers back to site.

If you’re keeping score at home, that’s 24 hours of flying, 11 hours of layovers, 14 hours on buses, and not a few hours of me feeling sorry for myself.

I still don’t like traveling. Living in sub-Saharan Africa hasn’t changed this, even if it has given me a bit more patience and a lot more experience in reacting to things that don’t go as planned. But what I do enjoy is learning about a new culture, adjusting to a new life, experiencing a new world. Living, rather than traveling.

And being a Peace Corps volunteer offers the opportunity to focus on living in spades. Zambia, I can’t wait to come back.

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Using a measuring tape and hoes, not spades, to help my former Peace Corps volunteer neighbor Sarah Perry’s youth group stake their first fish pond

So you’re about to move to Zambia

With the next intake of Peace Corps Zambia trainees about to arrive in just a little over a month, I thought I’d work a bit on updating my Resources page for new incoming volunteers. There’s already a wealth of information out there available to Peace Corps invitees, so I’ve focused on PCZ-specific topics that I felt I didn’t know very much about prior to arriving in country.

Supplementary packing list

Cell phones and communication

To those of you in the RAP/LIFE 2014 intake, enjoy your remaining month with family and friends and best of luck in packing and preparing!

Fun trivia: the blue North Face duffel on the left is making its second tour in the Peace Corps! My dad used it when he was a PCV in Papua New Guinea, 1981-1985

Fun trivia: the blue North Face duffel on the left is making its second tour in the Peace Corps! My dad used it when he was a PCV in Papua New Guinea, 1981-1985