Pottery lesson

One afternoon soon after arriving at site last May, I was biking back home with Sebastian when I spotted a large clay pot for sale on the side of the road. I asked him if there was a strong local art movement in town. He ignored this, instead explaining patiently that Zambians use these pots for cooling and storing water. We stopped and chatted with the woman who emerged from the nearby house, who was surprised but pleased to see a muzungu and even more surprised and pleased to learn that I’d be living just down the street for the next two years. I bought the pot — as it turned out, I had an empty corner of my living room I was dying to fill with some local art — and the potterymaker told me to come back so she could teach me how to make pots.

A few days later I obediently returned. The woman sat me down in the shade to watch how she mixed water with a specific kind of dirt, making a soft, malleable clay. She patiently took me through the process of kneading the clay like bread, shaping the foundation, building the walls without the aid of a spinning wheel, and finally etching designs and patterns into the surface. She explained how she dried the pot or bowl or vase in the sun before burning it over a fire in a makeshift kiln. She demonstrated how she used a folded chitenge to wrap the pots before strapping them to the back of her bicycle in order to transport them safely to the market.

A pot hand-crafted from clay right in my village will cost you 8 kwacha, or about $1.50

Toward the end of the lesson, I spotted the name “Nancy” shaped into the side of a finished cup in large and careful lettering. When I inquired about the personage of this Nancy, another woman on the compound extracted a photograph from a worn folder and brought it over to me. In the 4″ x 6″ snapshot were three smiling Caucasian faces, a man and woman who looked to be in their late 50’s with thinning hair and glasses and a pretty younger woman who may have been their daughter. A picture that would have been utterly unremarkable if viewed in the world I came from but which seemed extremely out of place here. The women explained to me that the potterymaker’s eldest daughter is away at secondary school, sponsored by a woman in Australia through a correspondence program organized by World Vision, an NGO working in our district. This woman, the older woman in the picture, was coming to visit the village a few weeks later and the cup was a gift for her, a token bearing her name.

Fast-forward one year later and the Australian woman has come and gone. The craftswoman is still making pots. (In fact, I’ve since learned that the Nshinda area is a bit renowned throughout Zambia as one of the only places in the country where this particular type of pottery is made.) And the grungy Peace Corps volunteer is still hanging around, about to celebrate a full year of asking dumb questions and chasing cheeky kids away from his porch. The three of us form an unlikely trio whose lineages traverse the globe — a fifth-generation Californian whose ancestors lived in China, a Bemba-speaking Zambian whose tribe originated in the Congo, and an Australian who can probably trace her heritage back to England — yet we are all linked through this chance meeting, this unanticipated progression of events.

But even if I had never seen the photograph, even if I had never bought the clay pot on the side of the road, even if I had never set foot in Zambia, the three of us would still be linked by a broader connection: we breathe the same air, we share the same world. I know this, but sometimes I forget. And it took a pottery lesson in a village in rural sub-Saharan Africa to help me remember.

Two of my host sisters during training in Chongwe

At my host family’s compound during Pre-Service Training a year ago

You might be a Peace Corps volunteer if…

If a light drizzle is enough to promptly cancel all of your programs for the afternoon.

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If you’ve ever done a Google search for: “If an egg floats, is it really bad or just stale but still edible?”

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If your pet cat eats better than half the kids in your neighborhood.

If you’ve ever gotten off a 12-hour bus ride, sniffed yourself, then thought, I don’t really need to bathe.

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If you’ve ever contemplated starting a fire to make lunch and decided instead to just eat spoonfuls of peanut butter directly from the jar.

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If you’ve ever done unspeakable things with empty bottles just to avoid using your latrine late at night.

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If you haven’t gotten a haircut in half a year because “nobody will see me anyway.”

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If you’ve ever shared a bus seat with a woman holding a live chicken and both of them spent the entire ride glaring at you.

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If you’re convinced that your malaria medication is making you actually clinically unbalanced.

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Of Fish and Men

Dusk on Lake Tanganyika

Dusk on Lake Tanganyika

I spent last week with my friends Chris and Emily in Mpulungu, Northern Province, on the shore of Lake Tanganyika. Mpulungu is Zambia’s version of Monterey on the Central Californian coastline: lots of great shopping, a diverse history, interesting culture, friendly locals, and sweeping vistas on the shore of an incredibly diverse aquatic ecosystem.

It’s also really, really hot. If Steinbeck had been born in sub-Saharan Africa instead of Salinas, he’d have perished from the heat before he had a chance to write about the Musonda family making the pilgrimage from Kapiri to Mpulungu in search of a better life and jobs in the Lake Tanganyika fishing industry. The rest of Zambia is just leaving the warm, wet season and coming into cold season, but Mpulungu hasn’t gotten the message yet.

After hitching from Musaila to Kasama on Monday, we grabbed a swift and wind-chilled ride in the back of an open pickup truck up to Mbala on Tuesday morning, then hired a taxi to take us the rest of the way to Mpulungu. We spent the next four days exploring, marveling at the way fish permeate every facet of this bustling port town.

The waterfront market receives a healthy influx of fresh fish every morning, caught by fishermen the night before. A handful of commercial fisheries dredge the lake with nets, processing their catch in lakeside plants and shipping their prized yield downcountry to larger cities like Lusaka and Ndola and Kitwe. Lake Tanganyika, the world’s second-largest and second-deepest lake after Lake Baikal in Siberia, boasts 250 species of cichlids and 150 more species of non-cichlid fish. And we found tons of fish-patterned chitenges in the markets.

We bantered with kids, danced with merchants, and befriended generous local businessmen, who invited us to lavish braais where we feasted on fresh fish. We took a day trip to Kalambo Falls, a jaw-dropping single-drop waterfall in an impossibly deep gorge on the border of Zambia and Tanzania made even more striking by the fact that most of Zambia is a very flat country. We spent quality time bonding with good friends. We fished. We didn’t catch anything.

We prowled the sprawling markets every day, discovering items we hadn’t seen anywhere else in Zambia. Mpulungu’s proximity to both the Democratic Republic of the Congo and to Tanzania means a healthy infusion of foreign textiles and goods, which means Matt was delighted to find the national football team jerseys for random countries like Côte d’Ivoire and Zimbabwe.

Lake Tanganyika isn’t exactly a famed vacation destination (unless you’re a fish biologist) because it has few white sandy beaches and little tourist infrastructure. But as a place to visit for the sheer enjoyment of a beautiful locale and new cultural experiences, it’s hard to beat.

Kalambo Falls

I’m on vacation in Mpulungu, a town on the coast of Lake Tanganyika which has the distinction of being Zambia’s only port. Yesterday we took a day trip to hike to Kalambo Falls on the border between Zambia and Tanzania. Depending on who you ask, Kalambo Falls are the second highest, highest, or one of the highest waterfalls in Africa with a 772-foot single drop to the river below.

There are two ways to reach Kalambo Falls. The first is to embark on a strenuous, two-hour hike along a trail that climbs straight up a sheer cliff (I’m exaggerating, but only slightly), then up and over a mountain ridge, then down the other side. The second is to take a $100 taxi ride right up to the edge of the falls. We, being cost-conscious Peace Corps volunteers, chose the hike and lived to regret it.

The best day hitching is still worse than having your own car

05:00 – My alarm goes off. I’m sleeping on the couch in Chris’ hut, and although I’ve got a blanket covering most of me and insect repellent slathered over much of the rest, I’m still getting bit. Oh well. It’s not like the alternative is significantly more comfortable: Chris and Emily, all combined 12 feet and four inches of them, are sharing Chris’ tiny single bed. I holler over at them to wake up, breaking through their earplugs.

06:15 – We trundle out the door and head to the road, a bit behind schedule. No matter; we’ve got the entire day to get to Kasama for the first leg of our trip to Lake Tanganyika.

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06:25 – A sharply dressed man in a dark suit and tie picks us up in his clean, late-model compact car and ferries us the remaining kilometer to Musaila Junction. Because all traffic into and out of Luapula Province has to come through Musaila, the junction is synonymous with PCVs for traveling out of the province to other parts of the country.

06:28 – Just as we’re being dropped off, a nice-looking car speeds south. That could have been our lucky ticket. We hope it’s not going to turn out to be one of those hitching days.

07:30 – An hour has passed. Literally nothing has gone by that was traveling more than a few kilometers.

08:03 – Chris greets a few familiar faces as they pass through Musaila — fish farmers he works with. Only two kilometers away from his village, Musaila is his boma and all of the shopkeepers know him.

08:28 – Two hours have passed now. We’re starting to worry that we won’t get out of Musaila. The problem with living in the most rural part of Zambia is that there simply aren’t a lot of vehicles that come in and out of the entire province on any given day.

08:31 – A truck approaches: late-model Hilux (the Japanese version of the Tacoma). Em stands at the side of the road flagging it down. Inside are three Chinese guys. At first it doesn’t look like they’re going to stop, but we’re elated to see that they slow once they pass us. Asian expats are hit-or-miss for hitching because they don’t usually stop to pick up unkempt-looking white people. Then I realize, pleased, that they’ve stopped because they noticed me. One of the rare times in my life that my Asian appearance has been to my advantage (some others: making friends in science classes at UC Berkeley, convincing Zambian boys in the village that Jackie Chan is my uncle).

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08:35 – We’re safely but uncomfortably wedged into the covered bed of the truck. I lounge gingerly against a sack of pineapples. The driver apologizes a third time for the dirty condition of the truck bed, and we reassure him for a third time that we’re thrilled and grateful for the ride. He generously tells us to help ourselves to the mound of groundnuts covering most of the bed.

08:42 – We’re going fast.

08:55 – We’re going really fast. Chris checks the driver’s console through the back truck window and reports that the needle is exceeding 140km/hr.

10:30 – The Chinese drop us off at Tute Junction, pump our hands enthusiastically, and wave as they drive away. They drove the past 260 kilometers in a blisteringly fast two hours — it’s as if we’d gotten an immediate hitch out of Musaila at 6:30 traveling at a normal speed. Spirits boosted, we walk over to the north side of the junction and begin hailing approaching cars.

10:47 – The good news: there’s substantially more traffic on the Great North Road than there was on the road to Luapula. The bad news: everything that comes is either unsuitable for hitching (taxis, semis) or refuses to stop for the tall blonde at the side of the road.

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11:49 – Chris and Emily head over to a nearby shop to pick up some drinks. Murphy’s Law tells us that this is when our ride will come.

11:54 – Sure enough, a big bus barrels toward us, closely followed by two private vehicles. Undermanned, I run down the road flapping my arm frantically at each of them.

11:55 – The bus and one of the cars both stop, so I race back and forth collecting information. The bus is the Zambian government’s PostBus which delivers mail to the different provinces. I ask for the rate to Kasama, counter with an amount half the price quoted to me, then dart off to the next car. The man driving cheerfully tells me to jump in. Unfortunately he’s only going to Mkushi, just part of the way to Kasama.

11:57 – A handful of men who have been loitering nearby have taken up my cause and are arguing vociferously with the PostBus conductor. He calls me over and tells me that he’ll agree to my counteroffer. Chris and Emily, seeing the commotion, come running back. I quickly mouth the price and destination to them over the clamor of the men talking. They agree, and we gather up our bags and hurry onto the bus.

12:06 – The bus lurches off. We can’t find any open seats because there aren’t any. However, there are tons of kids. Children occupy the lowest rung of the ladder when it comes to bus seating, so a few of them are nudged over into seats already occupied by other kids and we slide wearily in. I put in my earbuds and the Zampop blaring over the speakers fades away.

14:15 – We arrive in Mpika, where the bus stops to unload mail and people at the post office. I move up one row and now have two seats to myself. And they recline. It’s the little things in life.

16:05 – The two small boys in the seat across from me keep stealing glances when they think I’m not looking. I wonder if I have something on my face.

17:02 – We arrive at a crowded market area. I scan the signs and see Kasama Milling. We’re here. I ask Chris where we’re supposed to get off and he says he doesn’t know. He asks Em and she shrugs. We decide to stay on the bus until everyone else gets off.

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17:25 – Kasama is a big town. We’re still moving.

17:30 – Ah, now we’ve stopped. We disembark, deftly sidestep the raucous welcome line of taxi drivers, and trudge off toward Shoprite.

18:18 – Our grocery shopping done (Kasama Coffee!), we look for a restaurant. The first place we come to has no shwarma as advertised. The second has only a few tired samosas in the warming display on the counter. The security guard at a bank points vaguely down the road. We trudge off and are relieved to find an open restaurant serving nshima.

19:05 – Stuffed to the gills, we spill out into the parking lot and hail a taxi to take us to the Kasama provincial house.

19:25 – We arrive at the house. We’ll crash here tonight, then tomorrow morning we head up to Mbala and then on to Mpulungu, Zambia’s only port on the shore of Lake Tanganyika. Right now though, Chris and I spot an autographed poster of Taylor Swift and make Emily take a picture of us with it. Already feels like home.

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Show me a Peace Corps volunteer

Written in collaboration with Hannah Harrison, a RAP 2014 volunteer, and cross-posted with her great blog, Hannah Goes Fishing. All credit goes to Hannah for the great blog idea!

Show me a Peace Corps volunteer and I’ll show you people of all colors, ages, and creeds. I’ll show you men and women and people who are sitting in between. I’ll show you daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, all of whom have left those families to find new ones across the world.

Show me a Peace Corps volunteer and I’ll show you someone who knows illness, misery, cold, heat, and crawling infestations of a thousand varieties. I’ll show you someone who has become intimate with infection, friendly with fungus, and can compare the viscosity of fecal matter over a meal. I’ll show you someone who gave up deodorant long ago, and subscribes to “it’s clean enough” more often than not. Show me a Peace Corps volunteer and I’ll show you someone who hand-scrubs their one collared shirt every night in order to be presentable before their tribal leadership, their classroom full of eager students, or their government official. I’ll show you someone who boils their water to bathe, filters it to drink, and sweats to haul it home.

Yes, it’s a cliche, but yes, it’s true — Peace Corps volunteers bathing in a stream

Show me a Peace Corps volunteer and I’ll show you hair that’s too long, a bike that’s too seldomly maintained, and an entire wardrobe that hasn’t been washed in weeks.

Show me a Peace Corps volunteer and I’ll show you someone who has faced fear, change, animosity, and misunderstanding. I’ll show you someone who looks at those obstacles as learning opportunities, even if it is just learning to cry at the end of the day for all that didn’t work.

Show me a Peace Corps volunteer and I’ll show you people driven to purpose, to change, to throwing themselves whole-heartedly into their work and living it out, each and every single day of their service. I’ll show you someone who is up at the crack of dawn to dig a fish pond and burns the candle late writing grants and letters home. I’ll show you someone who knows when, sometimes, it’s better to take the day off and play with the kids than to go to yet another meeting. I’ll show you someone who, when they do hold meetings, may wait for hours for no one to show up, but will keep showing up themselves in case someone finally does.

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Emily assisting the facilitator during a session at Camp GLOW

Show me a Peace Corps volunteer and I’ll show you someone who knows that even the most impoverished person can be rich.

Show me a Peace Corps volunteer and I’ll show you someone who has tried nine different ways to cook an egg. Only one of them has little bits of shell still in it.

Show me a Peace Corps volunteer and I’ll show you someone who knows great frustration but also great love. I’ll show you a person who knows the greatest extent of hopelessness after another sleepless night next to their pit latrine, and I’ll show you the great depths of compassion when a friend brings medicine.

Have to make time for yoga, even on vacation

Perhaps not surprisingly, a lot of volunteers enjoy yoga

Show me a Peace Corps volunteer and I’ll show you ecstatic joy, bitter cynicism, and crushing despair. I’ll show you blind optimism, deadening restlessness, and persevering hope. Sometimes all in the same day.

Show me a Peace Corps volunteer and I’ll show you a 55-year-old divorced mother of three who has weathered some of life’s greatest challenges — getting married, raising children, reentering the workforce at the age of 40 — and who is now throwing herself head-first into another. I’ll show you a 22-year-old who just graduated from college last semester and has the world at his fingertips. I’ll show you a 65-year-old retired widower coming back for a third tour of Peace Corps, driven by a new chapter in life.

Show me a group of Peace Corps volunteers and I’ll show you someone who is Haitian American from Washington D.C., someone who is Japanese American from Hawaii, someone who is Pakistani American from the San Francisco Bay Area, someone who is Irish American from Georgia, someone who is Mexican American from Los Angeles, and someone who is Italian American from New Jersey. All of whom are called, without variation or discrimination, “white foreigner.”

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Chantel, Michael, and Taj at the Mansa Camp GLOW in December 2013

Show me a Peace Corps volunteer and I’ll show you a sense of humor warped by 18 months’ worth of poop jokes and a vocabulary honed on a collection of novels large enough to make a lit major turn green with envy.

Show me a Peace Corps volunteer and I’ll show you a person who wants to change the world. I’ll show you a person who gets easily frustrated because she has high expectations for herself and doesn’t want to let her community down. I’ll show you a person who is idealistic and enthusiastic and dedicated and determined and maybe a little bit naive. I’ll show you a person who fails at changing the world. But I’ll show you a person who has come to realize just how much her world has changed her. And I’ll show you a world that is ever so slightly better for it.

Show me a Peace Corps volunteer and I’ll show you a citizen of the global community. Someone who can never go home again, or see the world as they did before their service. Someone who was once a child, staring at the finger pointing toward the sky. Now, they look and see the moon.

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Watching the bat migration at Kasanka National Park, November 2013

 

ZamTwitter, Month 11

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

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Checking out a fish farming youth group's ponds during the Second Site Visit I hosted at the beginning of April

March 10 – Celebrated the onset of my late twenties today at the house by doing my taxes, sipping a wine cooler, and watching Honey, I Shrunk The Kids.

March 13 – Am spending my evening sewing up holes in my mosquito net made by curious kittens while I was gone. Another wild Thursday night.

March 16 – Problem: I have no mirror to see my rapidly growing hair. Solution: the last 15 pictures on my phone are selfies. I’m not weird at all.

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Finally got a haircut last week. Before...

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...And after

March 18 – Had eight different meetings with officials, stopped to chat with three fish farmers, gave short speeches to two classrooms. Busy boma day.

March 19 – I love how the first steady rain we get in a week starts at 8pm. Decision time: stay in bed, or go put buckets out under the tin roof?

March 21 – Biked 36k into the bush today to visit a fish farmer’s ponds. Gorgeous. There’s a lot of Zambia I don’t get to see when I stick to the road.

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Ba Mwengele showing off the effect of the recent rains on the path to his village of Mwengele (he's the headman, so he gets naming rights)

March 23 – Helping Sebastian build compost cribs this morning turned into swimming in the ponds, which turned into general laughter at how white I am.

March 25 – Today some kids showed me how to catch and eat big crickets. For some reason, I told them Americans eat butterflies. Cultural exchange fail.

March 27 – Just tried the tea wine I’ve been brewing for three weeks. It’s strong enough for one cup to knock out a medium-sized animal.

March 29 – Sitting with kids on the porch discussing Hobbes’ love life. The village gossip circuit will overload when 6 new white folks arrive Monday.

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Mariah and Collin, Luapula's new married couple, and their honarary Nshinda family

March 30 – Spent four hours this morning cutting the grass around my house by hand. Today’s lesson: human lawnmowers get sore backs really quickly.

April 4 – Muzungus are on full display at Matt’s site visit. The kids haven’t seen a whole lot of people making coffee using an Aeropress before.

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The look on Chungu's face is one of utter bafflement

April 7 – Our bus is delayed at a checkpoint for an hour because the driver isn’t in uniform, but it’s no problem for 9 guys to cram into a Corolla.

April 9 – I’ve given my last kitten away to Sebastian three times. All three times it escaped and found its way back. We may be doing something wrong.

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With a little bit of luck, the kitten might just turn into something like this...creature we saw on the side of a store near Kanadi