Phenomenal women

Writing about hardship is a standard motif for Peace Corps bloggers. We volunteers experience plenty of difficulties, both large and small — it’s one of the major differences between our lives here and our lives back home. It’s also often what is most interesting for friends and family to read about, so I hold forth about peeing in holes in the ground, fetching water from the well, and biking ten miles to get an onion. I write about people staring at me, people calling me names, people asking each other if I’m a woman. I share stories of loneliness, disillusionment, frustration.

But I don’t know the first thing about hardship.

Kasanka National Park

I feel disrespected when a group of boys taunts me as I ride past? Try greeting the headman and watching him completely ignore me, directing his attention instead to the male volunteer next to me, simply because I am a woman.

I think I get frustrated? Try having my input summarily dismissed at meetings, simply because I am a woman.


I resent being mistaken for a woman? Try having to wear ankle-length dresses and skirts at all times, including while biking and when hoeing my yard, during temperatures hot enough to fry an egg on my front porch, simply because I am a woman.


I think it’s hard to be stared at? Try being leered at by a man who is mentally undressing me with his eyes. Then another. And another. And another, who for good measure also demands that I marry him. Try experiencing this a hundred times over, every time I enter my market. Try experiencing this a thousand times over, every time I step outside my door. Simply because I am a woman.

I think it’s hard to pee in a hole in the ground? Try being a woman, and then try peeing in a hole in the ground.

[Editor’s note: I’m advised that it’s rather difficult.]

I have such an incredible amount of respect and admiration for all of the women who serve in the Peace Corps, in Zambia and throughout the world. But it’s not just because of the staggering amount of hardships they overcome, or the challenges they confront with heads held high. It’s also because of this indescribable thing that I can feel but can’t name.

It’s because of their hidden wells of strength and resilience and resolve. Because their passion inspires me, their radiance captivates me. Because they have this confounding need to talk about their problems even though they already know full well the solution. Because I still have no earthly idea why they always go to the bathroom in pairs.


It’s simply because they are women. Because I’m a man, wondering what I see in them but unable to touch their inner mystery. Because I’m drawn ineluctably to the fire in their eyes, to the flash of their teeth, to the swing in their waist, to the joy in their feet.

Because they’re women, phenomenally.


In remembrance of Maya Angelou, and inspired by (with the last two paragraphs paraphrased from) her poem, Phenomenal Woman


Happiness is having all the ducks you want

Throughout my service, I’ve been thinking about what makes me happy. And pared down to a generalized equation, it seems that my happiness is a direct function of the disparity between what I have and what I want:

Have = % Happiness

The math is simple. In a world where the only things that exist are you and ducks, then if you have nine ducks but want ten ducks, you are 90% happy. This is a ridiculous example, but so is trying to quantify happiness with an equation. Bear with me. The point is that the closer I am to having what I want at any given point in time, the happier I will feel.

New achievements, acquisitions, and experiences all help to increase what I have. Makes sense. Being in the Peace Corps certainly gives me a boost in the new achievements and new experiences end, and judging by the ridiculous amount of chitenges and football jerseys I’ve acquired it’s safe to say I’m not exactly lacking in the new acquisitions department, either.

However, the other half of the equation is just as important. My level of happiness can also rise even if what I have remains the same, if what I want decreases. Introspection, appreciation, and contemplation all help to shift my perspective on the things I already have and increase the value I derive from what I already possess, which thereby decreases what I want.

And a Peace Corps service is in large part about foregoing the accumulation of “haves.” I no longer expect to have water available at the turn of a faucet or electricity running at the touch of a button, so by comparison other creature comforts like a new iPad or watching the latest installment in the Hunger Games franchise drop significantly on my list of wants. Even the less tangible “have” trump card of “I’m living in Africa” fails to maintain its initial value because the visceral intensity of the experience of living in a new country fades over time. What is at first novel and exciting soon becomes, simply, everyday life.

But by focusing instead on turning my gaze inward and assuming full responsibility for my own fulfillment, my own reservoir of self-worth, I hope to actively work on becoming a happier person. And in the process, to learn how to want fewer ducks.


Emi's ducks, before they had ducklings and the male killed several of them and Emi cooked and ate him in retribution. (There's no moral to this anecdote, I sincerely hope.)

ZamTwitter, Month 12

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

April 11 – Biked 104 kilometers in 5.5 hours today as a conditioning run for a bike trip to Mansa in June. Rear is sore, but legs are still attached.


Turning my living room temporarily into a bike maintenance shop

April 12 – Just got handed a Jehovah’s Witness flyer by two dudes in shirts and ties outside my house. Some things are exactly the same as in America.

April 14 – After waiting two hours for a hitch, we flag down a truck driven by Chinese guys. It rolls past, then stops. They spotted the Asian! Score.

April 16 – Lake Tanganyika is the 2nd deepest lake in the world, renowned for its unique fishery. So of course we’ve spent the past two days shopping.


Emily saw this baby's shirt while we were in the market and insisted that I take a picture -- the baby wasn't quite as excited

April 19 – On a bus from Kasama to Serenje watching The Gods Must Be Crazy 2. I’m in sub-Saharan Africa, watching a movie set in sub-Saharan Africa.

April 21 – At the prov house in Mansa. I haven’t moved from my chair and laptop on the back porch in 14 hours. Technology is vastly underrated.

April 25 – Avocado ranch cheddarburgers with feta and sauteed mushrooms, and shoestring garlic fries on the side. Best dinner I’ve had in months.


No picture of the burgers (scarfed them too quickly) but here's some fried rice! (we cook on braziers when the power goes out)

April 28 – Helping to post the newest volunteers in PC Zambia to their sites this week. Shopping has never been such a gloriously chaotic fiasco.

April 30 – Back up to site. The kids instantly flock to my house and demand that I give them bread. I don’t have any bread. Nice to see you guys, too.

May 1 – Sebastian is making great progress on his new pond. Part of the loan agreement is that he has to use women as pond diggers along with men.


This photo is shamelessly posed -- two minutes earlier all of these women were resting in the shade

May 3 – Down to Mansa again en route to Lusaka for Midterm Conference. Busying myself writing blog posts, proofing resumes, and making fried rice.

May 4 – Another showing of TGMBC 2 on a crowded bus. Note to self: Kalahari bushmen appear just as novel to Zambians as they are to Americans.

May 7 – Today I’ve consumed 2 meat pies, coffee, 8 cookies, 2 shawarmas, more coffee, sweet & sour chicken with extra rice. I’m in Lusaka, alright.

May 9 – Have spent all day in bed with a high fever, along with half my intake. Conspiracy theorists among us blame the flu shots we got this week.


Traveling back up to Luapula after our Midterm Conference

Days last forever

A popular adage in the Peace Corps is that the days last forever while the months fly by.

Why? Well, time moves quickly when you’re busy and slowly when you’re not. And think about all of the things you do on a typical day. You sleep, on average, six to eight hours. You are probably gainfully employed, which means you spend an additional eight to ten hours wearing uncomfortable clothes and interacting with people you’d rather not. And you likely have some sort of commute, so tack on another couple of hours for the 45-minute drive to work each way in maddeningly slow traffic, plus parking and walking from the parking lot and stopping to buy coffee after realizing that your travel mug is still sitting on the counter back home. Finally, subtract the half-hour or hour or two hours you spend lounging in front of your MacBook Pro after you get home from work in order to decompress from the frenetic pace of your busy and challenging day by scrolling through your newsfeed and viewing photo albums posted on Facebook by people who you haven’t spoken with in three years. Perhaps with a glass of Pinot. Definitely, with a glass of Pinot.

This leaves you with roughly two to six hours per day to squeeze in everything else — that is to say, life: stopping by Safeway to pick up pale asparagus under artificially bright lighting, eating nondescript portions of fettuccine, hiding the dirty dishes in the dishwasher, grudgingly scrubbing down the saucepan still stubbornly coated with the congealed remnants of mushroom marinara, setting an extra-large load of darks to gentle tumble, helping your son with his U.S. History homework while thinking to yourself that you don’t remember half of this stuff from your own childhood so how important could it be, asking your overworked and underpaid partner about her equally busy and challenging day. And weekends are even worse, that fleetingly short two-day reward for successfully running the gauntlet of the American workweek during which you feel compelled to utilize every second for the express purpose of carefully measured recreation and even more carefully documented leisure.

Now think about the things I do in a typical day. It’s a good bet that I’ll cook something. Then I’ll probably read something. Then I might hang out with some kids. Maybe I’ll get fancy and change the order. Anything else I do is subject to myriad factors, key among them right now, halfway through my service, being whether or not I want to.

So it’s no great surprise that time takes on a new meaning for me here in my new life. The very concept of time itself is redefined, assigned new sets of values. On any given day, I have 16 to 18 hours to do pretty much whatever I want. I can sit down with my counterpart checking his books to make sure that he’s properly accounting for all of his business expenses. I can engage in a throwing contest with a handful of boys and a larger handful of unripe, baseball-sized oranges. I can proofread and revise an article written by a volunteer in Northwest Province, then email it to the design editors for inclusion in the upcoming edition of our Peace Corps Zambia newsletter. I can spend two hours cooking food for lunch. I can go for a trek into the bush with three amused but intrigued boys in tow, flailing after butterflies with a piece of mosquito net stretched over a piece of bent wire and depositing them into an empty Nutella jar. I can walk over to the school to pump water and get teased by the feisty women and girls raucously thronged around the borehole. I can bike out to the ponds to visit Sebastian, check progress on the new pond he’s digging, and end up chatting with him for an hour about which would win in a fight, a crocodile or a python. I can do all of these things before nine in the morning.

Or I can spend the entire day sitting in my living room staring at the wall. Some days seem to go on and on with no sign of turning to night.

But time is moving. And never is this more apparent than with a quick glance at the calendar. I’ve already been here for fifteen months. I just returned to site from my intake’s Midterm Conference in Lusaka, which marked the midway point of our service. I was about to remark on how much more time I have left here in Zambia when I realized that the past year has vanished more quickly than a ten-year-old when it’s time to do chores. Unbelievably, it’s already been a year! Unbelievably, it’s only been a year. Weird.

So here’s to long days, short months, and the relativity of time. Let’s see where time takes me in the next (and last) 12 months of my service.


Sebastian and I with a new 25x50 meter pond he's digging

Peace Corps by the numbers

I was posted to my site in Nshinda exactly one year ago today. What better time to look at some numbers?


days I have been in Zambia

Football at twilight

The football pitch at twilight in Petauke District, Eastern Province, February 2013


hours it takes me to travel from Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, to my site

Getting posted to site on May 10, 2013

Getting posted to site on May 10, 2013


liters of water I’ve pulled or pumped from a well or borehole

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

Sometimes I can convince neighbor kids to fetch water for me, like on this day in June 2013


non-Peace Corps white people I’ve seen in my district in the past twelve months

Dropping Allison off for her site visit with a welcoming party

We stand out quite a bit in a crowd — dropping Allison off at her site, April 2014


times I have emptied my trash bag (a typical-sized plastic grocery bag) in the past year

Lumangwe Falls, Kawambwa, Luapula, June 2013

Fun fact: in Zambia, it’s common practice to throw empty bottles out the window of the car/bus/truck once you’re done with them — there’s not as much litter on the sides of the road as you’d think because many bottles are repurposed as containers, cups, and toys


kids who stop by my house every day to say hello ask me for money/candy/food/plastic bags

Willie and Chungu hamming it up as we cook

Willie and Chungu hamming it up as we cook in Nshinda, April 2014


times I’ve been told I look like a woman

Some of the gorgeous (actual) women of Luapula Province

Some of the gorgeous (actual) women of Luapula Province


buns and fritters eaten

Kafutuma, Luapula, August 2013

Lighting an unusual square brazier in Kafutuma, August 2013


books read since being posted to site

Why yes, that is an elephant in the background -- on vacation at South Luangwa National Park, September 2013

Reading Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls while on vacation at South Luangwa National Park, September 2013


kwacha spent on talk time for phone calls, texts, and internet (mostly internet)

Charging my phone

Charging my phone using the rays of the sun, February 2013


kilograms of rice eaten

Lubunda, Luapula, July 2013

Cooking rice at Ryeon’s site in Lubunda, July 2013


hours spent on public transport

A canter full of Peace Corps volunteers on a game drive in Kasanka National Park

On a game drive in Kasanka National Park, November 2013


hours spent on public transport waiting for said transport to start moving


Waiting for the bus to leave in Mansa, June 2013


caterpillars eaten

Petauke, Eastern, February 2013

Caterpillars in the market in Petauke, Eastern Province, February 2013


mornings I’ve woken up in Africa and not been happy

Petauke, Eastern Province, February 2013

A typical day in the Peace Corps

Lenge keeping the floats up

Netting a fish pond in my village of Nshinda

Who am I kidding? There’s no typical day in the Peace Corps.

Despite the fact that this trope is used by volunteers so constantly and reflexively that cliches are sick of hearing it, the truth is that it really is hard for us to cobble together one semi-accurate example of a typical day in the Peace Corps. Why? Well, for one thing, plans have a different meaning in a place where time is measured in months instead of hours. For another, life has a funny habit of getting in the way.

To illustrate the pitfalls that lie sneakily in wait for the earnest Peace Corps blogger, allow me to attempt to show you what a typical day looks like for me:

06:00 – Wake up, get out of bed, head to the chimbusu for my morning constitution decide to check email, somehow find myself on Facebook

06:05 – Light my stove, boil water for coffee, do my morning pullups, drink coffee on my front porch Yeah, still on my phone

06:30 – Sweep my front porch, teach the kids how to spell a few new words using bits of charcoal on the cement pavement Still in bed, discover a folder of music I haven’t seen in AGES, start dancing exuberantly to Sk8er Boi (read: flopping like a fish, since I’m still horizontal in bed)

07:04 – Spread Nutella on some buns I bought the evening before, eat breakfast in my living room All that flopping really makes me need to pee, wiggle out of my mosquito net, fumble open my door and shuffle quickly out to the chim while ignoring the kids cheering me from my insaka

Nshinda, Luapula, January 2014

Kalu, Willie, and Mwape clowning around

07:06 – Still eating Shoot down kids’ repeated requests for me to give them Frisbee/plastic bags/money/play guitar/show them pictures, tell them I need to eat, prep the spirit stove, spill some spirits in the process, light it while still holding the cap about a foot above the stove, watch my eyes catapult out of their sockets as the flame leaps like magic from the stove up to my hand, yowl like a maniac and swat out the flame, gingerly start the water boiling for coffee, do my pullups, make my Nutella sandwiches, drag a stool outside preparing to eat my breakfast on my front porch in the cool morning air, quickly reconsider as my kids promptly resume their requests for Frisbee/plastic bags/money/play guitar/show them pictures, bring the stool back inside, eat breakfast in my living room

07:20 – My counterpart Sebastian stops by on his way to the ponds, we chat for a bit and I tell him I’ll come out to visit this afternoon

07:34 – Decide to go fetch water, place my empty 10-liter buckets outside, walk them with my bike over to the borehole at the school, greet bamayos and teachers as I pump water, strap 45 liters of water to my bike, walk my bike and my water carefully back to my hut hear chattering iwes start banging on them while I fetch my bike, head off to the borehole with my vertically challenged entourage forming a conga line ahead of me, find five bamayos already waiting to pump water, leave my bike and buckets with a kid to hold my place in line and go visit the head teacher, greet five other teachers in the process

Nshinda, Luapula, January 2014

Kids in my village returning home from the bush

07:58 – Head back out for a walk around the village, looping back to the school to buy some of the buns that I spotted earlier, walk along the road engaging a flock of Grade 4 girls in a giggly conversation about their names and my age and whether or not I’m married A throng of kids arriving for class congregates around the borehole as I get to the front of the line, I pump water with an audience of 50, strap the buckets to my bike, discover that someone (probably many someones) has fiddled with my gears while I was gone, awkwardly wheel the bike off very slowly in the lowest of my 21 speeds, continue back to my hut as my counterpart’s youngest son Lenge attempts to ghost ride my bicycle, I hiss at him, unable to swat because both of my hands are needed to steady the heavily laden bike, he is well aware of this and, emboldened, sticks an impudent tongue out at me

08:35 – Return home, invigorated by a fresh dose of community during my walk, settle into a chair and reflect on my fortunate life decide not to take a walk because I’m peopled out for the morning, plop down in my reclining lounge chair and stare at the wall

09:03 – Crack open a book and start reading

09:12 – Still reading A new wave of kids arrives and clamors to play Frisbee, I tell them to come back in the afternoon, they tell me they want to play now and start banging on my windows, I ignore them and they finally get bored and go away

09:46 – Still reading My 15-year-old neighbor Emily stops by to ask if I want to buy produce, I place my order, and she returns five minutes later with a large bunch of pumpkin leaves which I buy for one kwacha (about 20 cents)

11:15 – Light the brazier and begin chopping vegetables for my lunch of rice, fried soya, caramelized onions, and sauteed pumpkin leaves


Hobbes patrols my kitchen for loose scraps on a regular basis

12:40 – Finish cooking, eat lunch, save leftovers for dinner

13:06 – Bike through the village and into the bush to visit Sebastian’s ponds, check on his progress, stop and chat for a while It starts raining so I set up my raincatcher, Sebastian will understand completely when I don’t visit him because nobody keeps appointments when it’s raining, continue reading in blissful solitude now that the kids have been chased back to their respective homes by the rain

13:52 – Continue reading My neighbor kids Emily, Daenez, and Chungu run up and dash under my porch to seek refuge from the rain, peppering me with questions only a quarter of which I understand, they persist doggedly anyway and I continue doggedly to try to catch the verbs for the next hour

15:00 – Walk to the school for a meeting with the head teacher and a member of the PTA regarding our GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) group with the older-grade girls It’s still raining, figure nobody’s going to come for the meeting but walk over anyway, confirm that nobody is there, trudge back sopping wet

My homemade rainwater catch-system in action (slowly)

My homemade rainwater catch-system in action (slowly)

16:15 – Play Frisbee with the older boys in my front yard It stops raining, I take down my raincatcher, boys materialize instantly reminding them I said they could play Frisbee in the afternoon, everything is now sopping wet though so I tell them that we’ll play mailo (tomorrow), they protest but soon forget about Frisbee when we begin an impromptu Bemba-to-English lesson

17:02 – More kids show up at my house, this time clamoring for me to show them “snaps”, I grab a stack of 4×6’s and bring them outside, flipping through them slowly so the kids can see photos of my family, friends, and trout from back home I ignore them for as long as I can but eventually relent and show the gaggle of kids my photos, which they gaze at raptly, not caring that I showed most of them these same pictures four days ago

17:30 – Go inside and close my door for the day, do my evening pullups, take a shower

18:00 – Write in my e-journal (which consists of writing journal entries as emails on my Bluetooth keyboard, then sending the emails to myself), write and send emails (to other people), eat leftovers for dinner

It's a typical Tuesday night in Matt's hut

It’s a typical Tuesday night in Matt’s hut

19:00 – Floss, brush teeth, crawl into bed under the mosquito net, work on blog draft posts

20:08 – Start reading Can’t keep my eyes open and fall asleep

22:30 – Finish reading and go to sleep Wake up because I have to pee, don’t want to go outside to my chimbusu because scary things live outside at night, pee in my bathing shelter