10 reasons why life in the Peace Corps is like college

1. My grandmother would wrinkle her nose at me in distaste if she saw how I dressed

Now....and then

Now…………….and then

 

2. I spend all of my time learning about new things and call it work

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3. One of the houses nearby blares loud music at all hours of the night

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4. Everything I eat is either fried, loaded with carbs, or both

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5. The gossip runs rampant when a female friend comes to visit, even after I insist that we’re “just friends.”

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6. I do my laundry approximately once a month, and even then only reluctantly

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7. The two biggest social activities in the neighborhood are hanging out and drinking

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8. I let my hair grow out because I don’t want to pay for a haircut

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9. People sign up to attend workshops just because of the free food

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10. All of the bikes are fixies

No two Peace Corps services are alike: Michael Krohn

At a hidden waterfall located just a few kilometers from Michael's site

At a hidden waterfall located just a few kilometers from Michael’s site

Earlier this month, I biked down to Mwansabombwe District to visit my good friend Michael Krohn in Ngalama. Michael is a LIFE ’13 volunteer who arrived in Zambia at the same time I did and was posted to a site just 65 kilometers to the south of mine, making him one of my nearest volunteer neighbors for the first year of my service. So of course our sites could not be more different.

I live in a bustling village that straddles a single road, with the main path through my community threading twenty feet in front of my front door and hundreds of people passing my hut every day. Many of these passersby are children who walk to and from the nearby primary school, which is so close that I can hear when goals are scored in football matches and when church hymns emanate from classrooms-turned-chapels on Sundays.

Michael, on the other hand, lives on an isolated family compound 12 kilometers off of the main road along bumpy, dusty bush paths. There are no other houses within sight, so if he doesn’t leave the compound for a program, he could spend the entire day seeing and interacting with nobody but his host family. He does this often, because they’re awesome — Michael eats lunch and dinner every day with his host father and counterpart Ba Rodgers, his host mother Ba Justina, and their seven extremely photogenic and sassy children.

Michael and his host family

Making banana wine

As an agriculture volunteer, Michael works with rural farmers to improve existing farming methods and help introduce efficient new techniques. Ba Rodgers has an incredible work ethic and an amazing integrated farm with a knack for animal husbandry, so while I was in Ngalama I toured the dry season garden, chicken coop, rabbit hutch (with an elevated tray for Michael’s and Ba Rodgers’ newest venture, guinea pigs), duck pond, and fenced pig enclosure. I tried my hand foot at the innovative foot pump which carries water from the stream up to holding basins near the house, learned how to make palm oil, and ate all of Michael’s pasta. We even watched Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief with the entire family one evening. (Friday nights are movie nights, using Michael’s laptop charged by a solar panel/car battery setup to show various family-friendly American movies ranging from Tangled to How To Train Your Dragon.)

All told, it was a great two days spending time with a good friend and great volunteer, visiting a part of Luapula Province I hadn’t seen before and marveling at the incredible variances that can exist between two volunteers’ sites.

The sound of music

I live in a community of fewer than 2,000 people in rural Zambia, spread over a section of land about 5 miles long and a mile wide. The predominant occupation in my area is farming. There is one road and no stoplights, and no restaurants, bars, stores, or parks. I can count on one hand the number of households that have electricity. So it should be a pretty quiet place, right?

Not by any stretch of the imagination.

A movie still from the 1965 musical The Sound of Music

A still from the 1965 film The Sound of Music

Most mornings I wake up at 5am to the sound of a rooster crowing. Right. Outside. My. Window. My life is a stereotype, I think to myself. Except the sun hasn’t even risen yet. And to add insult to injury, the damn roosters also crow at every other hour of the day, too.

Around 6am, the village officially begins to wake up. In America, you might walk out to your driveway to pick up the morning newspaper and exchange a few quiet words of greeting with your neighbor across your white picket fence. Here there are no fences, no driveways, and definitely no quiet words of greeting. Calls of “Mwashibukeni!” ring out as people begin emerging from their huts, sweeping the dirt in their compounds, or heading out to their fields. It’s not uncommon for the person you are greeting to be standing the length of a football field away from you. And for that person to then proceed to carry on a five-minute conversation with you without moving one step closer. You can hear them, and so can everyone else in the village.

Later in the morning, children disentangle from their respective family compounds and prowl the village in packs loosely organized by gender, size, and ability to be annoying. A popular rendezvous point is Matt’s house. Persistent demands fill the air for ceswa (brush, to sweep my yard), pepa (plastic bag, the standard going rate right now for yard-sweeping), ulupia (money, because who doesn’t want money?), and icibululushi (my Frisbee, because Frisbees are just fun). Some of the younger kids are tenacious in their belief that the louder the request, the more likely I am to acquiesce.

The neighborhood kids like to create an impromptu conga line, banging on my buckets vigorously, every time I go to fetch water

Another fun thing the neighborhood kids like to do is bang on my buckets vigorously as they accompany me to go fetch water

Eventually some of the little angels are summoned back home by their respective mothers to eat, or sweep, or wash dishes, or stop pulling Matt’s leg hairs. It basically sounds like this:

“Chungu, iwe!”
[A shout, with an undertone of warning]

[Silence]

“Chungu, iWE!”
[Louder now, emphasis on the “you”]

“Eeeyy?”
[A screech, not loud enough for Mom to hear]

“CHUNGU, IWEEE!!
[A full roar, loud enough that it is heard in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo]

“EEEEEEEEYYYY?”
[At a decibel and pitch that jams the navigational instruments of jets passing overhead]

“ISA KUNO!” (Come here!)

“NA ISA!” (I’m coming!)

Sometimes when I’m feeling playful, I respond to Mom by bellowing, “NA ISA!” myself and the kids around me erupt in peals of delighted laughter. Their mothers appreciate my lively sense of humor, I’m sure.

Occasionally a vehicle zooms past on the tarmac, invariably accompanied by liberal honking. My house is only a couple hundred feet from the road, so I have the singular privilege and pleasure of hearing every bus and truck that barrels past doing 80 miles per hour, the driver leaning on the horn as chickens, goats, and children scatter ahead of it. Traffic is light enough that a passing car is occasion to look up and see if you recognize the driver or the ministry department/non-governmental organization name on the side, but my village isn’t a major destination so 95% of buses, taxis, and trucks are simply passing through. As quickly and loudly as possible.

And at all times of day there is music.

Nope, not this kind of music

Nope, not this kind of music

During the full moon, troops of children march throughout the village singing and chanting until well past their — and my — bedtime. On Sunday mornings, determined hymns float over from the flotilla of churches anchored near the school (and on Wednesday afternoons, and on Thursday evenings, and on Saturday mornings; they practice a lot). And whenever a boy in the 17-to-25 age demographic slouches by, a tinny voice trilling from a cell phone or small handheld radio invariably drifts languidly behind him.

But the most pervasive music of all come from my neighbors’ homes. Each afternoon, every compound that has a solar panel hooked up to a car battery begins playing their radio with speakers — a home stereo system, rural Zambia style. The sun is high and men have returned from working in the fields, so there’s little else to do than sprawl in the shade in nshima-induced food comas, drinking viscous, sour village beer and listening to one of seemingly only three genres of music ever played in Zambia: bass-thumping hip-hop, choral hymns, and twangy country. As loud as it will go, for as long as it will go. (Noise pollution restrictions would be entirely unenforceable in this otherwise peaceful community.)

And now that we’re no longer in rainy season, the solar panels can capture a full day’s charge of sunlight. So the sound of music fills the air, toggling like a mad deejay back and forth through a jarringly dichotomous musical playlist and continuing tenaciously until 5 o’clock.

The next morning.

My kids are (mostly) quiet as I show them pictures --  but ten minutes later: "Bring out the guitar! Bring out the guitar!"

My kids are (mostly) quiet when I show them pictures, but ten minutes later they begin to clamor for me to bring out the guitar

ZamTwitter, Month 13

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

May 12 – Packed into a cruiser with 8 other volunteers and 3 staff for the 9-hour ride up to Luapula. Still so much more comfortable than the bus.

May 15 – My cat returned home tonight after being AWOL for the past month. She instantly demanded food. Nice to see some things never change.

Hanging out at the ponds chatting with Sebastian and reading are just a few of my favorite things

Hanging out at the ponds chatting with Sebastian and reading are just a few of my favorite things

May 18 – Bought waffles at the side of the road. They don’t taste like waffles. Even Hobbes won’t touch them unless they’re covered in peanut butter.

May 20 – Our well’s back in action. I made a new icikopo (jug attached to rope for pulling water up) and now everyone else is using it except me.

May 23 – Laundry day. The water that my clothes have been soaking in for the past two days is brown — this is how I gauge if they’re clean.

Little Shatelle has much better style than this muzungu

Little Shatelle has much better style than this muzungu

May 24 – Just chatted with Sebastian about financing, loans, and interest rates. This rural Zambian knows more personal finance than most Americans.

May 26 – Visited new fish farmers, staked a pond, went for a swim, spotted two African spoonbills, scared a big monitor lizard. It’s been a good day.

May 28 – 21st consecutive day of non-solid poops. The really unhealthy part of this is that I no longer consider it to be very unhealthy.

May 30 – I’ve been taking afternoon swims in a fish pond nearly every day. It’s almost like having my own private swimming pool.

My new swimming pool

My new swimming pool until cold season hits

June 2 – I have a very carb-heavy diet here, but tonight still managed to mark a dubious first: I made both pasta AND rice for dinner.

June 5 – Visiting Michael, a volunteer in the next district. His site is gorgeous: rural solitude, extensive integrated polyculture, and a private waterfall.

June 8 – Arrived in Mansa after three days and 250 kilometers of biking. Have a sore knee and a bruised ego (we went REALLY slowly).

Ryeon and I on the last stretch, only 50 kilometers from Mansa

Ryeon and I on the last stretch, only 50 kilometers from Mansa

Buy some okra

I have a general rule not to give anything away in my village. For one thing, people ask me for pretty much everything they can think of. A man I hardly know will come up to my doorstep and ask me to give him my bicycle in the same tone and with the same guileless expectation of fulfillment that my next-door neighbor would ask for some matches or sugar. Grinning, I’ll tell him to get in line behind the 27 other people who have already called dibs on my Trek 3500, and the next day the same thing will happen.

And for another thing, foreigners are synonymous with aid in much of rural Zambia and donor dependency is a big issue. The Peace Corps exists in part to provide a more sustainable alternative to traditional development, so I’ll consider my service to have been a success if all I’ve accomplished by the end of two years is convincing some of my neighbors that not all white people are here to give away money.

However, some of the neighbor girls who sell me vegetables appear to have found a loophole in the system.

Exhibit A:

15-year-old Chanda skips up to my door yesterday morning holding a bowl of okra.

Chanda: I’m selling okra!
Matt: I don’t want okra.
Chanda: [waving a scolding finger] Ba Matt! Buy some okra.
Matt: But I don’t like okra.
Chanda: I need the money to buy a notebook for school.
Matt: …
Chanda: …
Matt: [paying her] SO not fair.
Chanda: [smiles winningly] I’ll come back tomorrow morning with eggplant, okay?
Matt: Guess what I like even less than okra?

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Some of the fresh produce that I buy way too much of when it's brought to my doorstep every morning