Five reasons to have a pet in the Peace Corps

1. Proof that you’re not crazy

When someone catches you talking to yourself, you can just pretend that you were talking to your cat.

2. Theft deterrent

Nobody else in your community keeps an animal inside their house, so if the foreigner is doing it, it must be a dangerous guard animal. A dangerous guard animal that weighs six pounds and spends half the day eating its own hair.

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I've probably consumed five pounds of cat fur in the past year, which is about how much Hobbes eats in a day

3. Instant conversation starter

You can talk with curious kids for hours about your cat’s name, what it eats, what it’s doing RIGHT NOW, where it sleeps, what it’s doing RIGHT NOW five minutes later, and whether or not Americans eat cats.

4. Learn a whole new vocabulary

I not only know how to say “cat” in Bemba, I also know how to say “the cat is eating,” “the cat is sleeping,” “the cat is making too much noise,” “the cat has two little baby cats,” and “the cat will eat your toes if you keep pulling its tail.” Dr. Seuss ain’t got nothing on me.

5. When it breeds, you get cute offspring

Hobbes had kittens a couple of weeks ago. They’re not yet big enough to play with me, but I’m patient.

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Meet Siri (R) and Mance Rayder (L) -- (5a. Never miss an opportunity to teach Zambian kids about American culture)

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Hobbes is already starting to get tired of these little rascals

Thank you white people

A big part of a volunteer’s Peace Corps service is centered around cultural exchange. And during the past year that I’ve been blogging from Zambia, the culture has largely gone in one direction: from Zambia to me, and then from me to you lovely blog readers. Understandable. I’m living in the middle of Africa. What are you more interested in reading about, riding on a bus in Zambia or shopping for kombucha at Whole Foods?

But let it not be perceived that I’m shirking part of my 2nd Goal duties as a volunteer! Behold, invaluable cultural insights and observations that I am teaching Zambians about the inscrutable and enigmatic United States of America:

-A state is like a province. Kind of. Except a few states are bigger than the entire country of Zambia, and my home state of California has nearly three times as many people as Zambia’s total population. Zambia has 72 distinct tribes, each with their own language and culture, and although they like to tease each other they all get along great. Californians get all in a tizzy when there’s a push for multilingual lesson plans to be taught in inner-city schools.

-Americans do not all look the same. My go-to analogy for explaining why I look Chinese but am a fifth-generation American is to point out that many Zambians look Congolese despite having been born in Luapula Province, because their parents or grandparents moved here from the DRC. I’m relieved that President Obama looks black; I don’t know who else I would use to explain to Zambians that you can be American and not be white. Jackie Chan isn’t American. Chuck Norris is white. Not even Michael Jackson’s own mother knew what he was.

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I just about died laughing when I saw this thank-you note made by one of the girls at the end of Camp GLOW

-America has poor people too. Many Zambian families live on the equivalent of $1 per day. An annual income of $35,000 for a family of four isn’t enough to pay for rent and basic necessities in many parts of America. Almost unbelievably, it’s possible to make one hundred times more money than a rural Zambian and still struggle to put food on the table in the United States.

-There are entire communities of people over the age of 60 in America where people live once they reach the age when they can no longer perform daily household functions for themselves. “Why don’t they live with their children?” Sebastian asked, sensibly. I tried to explain to him how deeply ingrained independence is in the fiber of American society, but ultimately ended up admitting that most adult children in the U.S. will do everything possible to avoid living with their elderly parents.

-Imagine a place where a child can grow up and never even touch a patch of soil once. A place where houses are all carpeted or tiled or hardwood-floored, where back yards are all carefully seeded with Kentucky bluegrass, where streets and sidewalks are all paved and cemented, and where the only vestiges of natural landscapes are meticulously cultivated parks and playgrounds and gardens. I couldn’t either when I was a kid wallowing in meticulously cultivated mudholes. (Sub)urban America is a strange place.

-Americans are not all happy. I live in a place where children walk barefoot to school, where women draw water from open holes in the ground, where my Nalgene bottle costs more than everything in my next-door neighbor’s house combined. And yet people in my community are generally happy. When I was visiting America for the holidays, I noticed a running theme in nearly every conversation I had, with my parents, with my brothers, with friends, cousins, aunts, the bored-looking girl at the Safeway checkout counter: in some shape or form, we’re all searching for a level of meaning and happiness in our lives that is currently lacking to some degree. Show me a person who is content and generally does not want for anything, and I’ll show you a rural Zambian village where he will fit in perfectly.

ZamTwitter, Month 9

I didn’t post a ZamTwitter update last time around because I spent most of December out of site for Camp GLOW and my home leave in America, but we’re back on with Month 9. Random news from my ninth month of Peace Corps service, in 140 characters or less.

January 10 – It’s 3am in a hostel in Lusaka and I’m wide awake listening to 14 guys snore. That 10-hour bus ride today suddenly looks real relaxing.

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I walked around downtown Lusaka at 4am for over an hour before finding the bus station

January 13 – A simple walk to the grocery store becomes an animated conversation with several bamayos about my diet choices. Zambia, I’m back.

January 15: It’s rainy season. Lush green everywhere: good. Mosquitoes: bad. Tall rows of maize blocking views of Matt going to the chim: excellent.

January 16: A big thunderstorm tonight flushed a disgruntled wet cat through my door. She’s been AWOL since Tuesday. Glad to see you again too, Hobbes.

January 19 – Emi comes to visit. My village is instantly buzzing with the latest gossip about Matt’s woman/sister/daughter/wife.

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Emi and Hobbes hang out on my porch with Bupe, one of the kids who lives near me

January 20 – Caught a 4-hour window of sunlight today. Laundry: done. Solar panel: charged. Doormat: dried. Two can play this game, rainy season.

January 23 – Went on a bike ride today and bought 3 huge avocados, 6 tomatoes, and 3 small onions for a total of $1. Local AND cheap produce? Yes please.

January 24 – Ten minutes of work, some plastic and twine, and a steady drizzle all day netted me 15 liters of water. Kind of absurdly proud of myself.

January 27 – Boma day. Chatted with some district Fisheries folks, grabbed lunch with Emi, shopped for groceries, and picked up a new chitenge.

January 29 – Found out about a fish farming workshop 2 days ago. Found out 15 minutes ago that I’m co-facilitating. I’m incredibly well-prepared.

Facilitating a session on pond management at a World Vision fish farming workshop at Mangamu School, Nchelenge District, on January 30, 2014

Facilitating a session on pond management at a World Vision fish farming workshop at Mangamu School, Nchelenge District, on January 30, 2014

February 2 – What do Zambian kids and American college boys have in common? They both love Frisbee. My popularity with the 6-15 demographic is sky high.

February 7 – I’m Tom Sawyering my front yard. As soon as I step outside with a hoe and start hacking, a dozen kids line up to show me how to do it right.

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Kalu, Willie, and Mwape clowning around

Epitaph for a phone

Early Friday evening Matt’s trusty phone, veteran of over 100 blog posts and dozens of snapshots of little Zambian kids and 24537 repeats of Toto’s Africa, finally succumbed to a protracted battle with a faulty charging port. It had been this rural Peace Corps volunteer’s sole source of computing power at site for nearly a full calendar year.

The Samsung Galaxy S-model smartphone fought valiantly in the last few weeks of its life. A year’s worth of cycling under suboptimal climate conditions had wreaked havoc on its internal circuitry, but each time it appeared that it had drawn its last spark, a new angle or tweak was found which yielded another charge. However, its final days witnessed a marked turn for the worse. The old phone struggled to eke out even a few more percentage points of battery life despite being hooked up to all manner of cables and power supplies, and in the end the unilateral decision was made to pull the plug. Very much literally speaking.

I figured that the chances of a used phone with cracked screen bought on eBay for $50 lasting through 27 months in sub-Saharan dust and heat were exactly nil, so I’ve kept a backup phone stored at the Peace Corps provincial house in Mansa in anticipation of this event. Though we’re experiencing some technical difficulties at the moment, not to worry! Fishing In Zambia will return to full operating strength and a regular posting schedule shortly.