My parents are in town and we’re traipsing about the country. Not two full days in Zambia and they’ve already befriended market vendors, met some of my closest Peace Corps volunteer friends, and produced more blog posts and Facebook updates than I have in the past three months. The combination of jetlag and 21st century smartphone technology is a potent mix in the right hands.
My parents are arriving in Zambia tomorrow, and so like any dutiful son I’ve been busy cleaning and preparing my site for their visit. Most of this work entails teaching kids how to ask my dad, “Are you Jackie Chan’s brother?” and removing cat hairs from all surfaces for my feline-allergic mother.
However, their much-anticipated arrival is also a good excuse for me to do some renovations, including installing a few new shelves and devising a vertical dishrack on one of my kitchen walls.
At the end of my 27 months in Zambia, I’ll have to confront several uncomfortable truths.
I’ll have to acknowledge that my time spent in Nshinda will have done much more for my own personal development than for the development of my community, to say nothing of my host country. I’ll have to realize that even after two years I’d still be lucky if I catch half of what someone is saying to me in Bemba. I’ll look in the mirror and find staring back at me a person who will be in his late twenties, unmarried, unemployed, and will be a pretty good bet to move back in with his parents. (Ladies, it doesn’t get much more attractive than this.)
And the most uncomfortable truth of all is that I’ll have to admit my Peace Corps service won’t have made much of a difference.
But then I remember Sebastian. I remember the innumerable hours I’ve spent with my counterpart hanging out by his fish ponds and chatting. I remember organizing meetings and visiting other fish farmers together, always waiting for him because he is always late. I remember biking the forty kilometers to town and back with him, stopping to greet every person he knows along the way (and Sebastian knows pretty much everyone).
I remember the countless times that he’s teased me about being fat and the countless times that I’ve teased him about talking too much. I remember ribbing him about how slowly he rides his bike, telling him that it’s because he smokes and smoking is bad for you, and I remember him jawing right back that he’d go a lot faster if he had my nice expensive American bike. I remember that Sebastian always talks about Sebastian in the third person, and I chuckle to myself as I realize that Matt has started to do it too.
I remember his wide grin, his playful spirit, his kind heart. I remember his incredible passion and his insane work ethic. I remember haranguing him constantly about the value of keeping records and tracking expenses, wondering if it’s all just a waste of time. Then I remember sitting with him in my living room in the evenings, flipping through the pages of a battered old notebook as he proudly shows me where he has painstakingly jotted down every kwacha he’s spent on his fish farm and every fish he’s netted from his ponds.
I remember that from the very first day I arrived in Nshinda, he immediately and cheerfully assumed the role of my father, my tour guide, my teacher, my translator, my therapist. And I remember that over these two years, he has become not only my colleague but also my brother and my friend.
And I’m reminded of a parable:
A man goes out on the beach and sees that it is covered with starfish that have washed up in the tide. A little boy is walking along, picking them up and throwing them back into the water.
“What are you doing, son?” the man asks. “You see how many starfish there are? It won’t make a difference.”
The boy pauses thoughtfully, then picks up another starfish and throws it into the ocean.
“You’re probably right,” he says cheerfully. “But it sure made a difference to that one.”
In America, the barter economy has sadly gone the way of the passenger pigeon. Except in small, rural towns or farming communities — on his farm in California’s San Joaquin Valley, my dad has been known to trade fish for fruit, car repairs, and old musical instruments — the only way that you can get something is to fork over your hard-earned cash. However, here in my village in rural Zambia I’ve found that various kinds of currency other than kwacha will pay for certain work or services, especially among the more vertically challenged demographic:
Old plastic bags and empty bottles
Every morning, a trio of little boys arrives at my house announcing that they want to sweep my front yard. In insistent, high-pitched voices, they chirp “Ndefwaya ukupyanga” (I want to sweep) or “Leteni ceswa” (Bring me the brush) like fledgling birds until I come out to
feed them worms let them use my brush. After they finish sweeping, I give them either an old plastic bag or an empty plastic bottle. The payment is scrutinized closely; if the boys see any holes, they impudently toss the trash back through my door and demand more. But if it passes inspection, they chortle with glee, sure that they’ve pulled a fast one over me, and scamper off to make kites, soccer balls, and toy cars.
Emily and Chabala, the two teenaged girls who live next door, will weed my front yard with well-worn ulukasus (hoes) in exchange for a few tablespoons of cooking oil. As they work, the girls also direct a relentless stream of sass toward me for free. How generous of them.
Chabala, who is also my main supplier of fresh produce, sometimes trades a bunch of leafy greens for a cup full of laundry washing detergent in lieu of 50 ngwee, the typical going rate for umusalu. After I bring out what I think is a pretty generous amount of powdered soap (and worth well more than the eight cents the vegetables cost), Chabala protests that it’s not enough (wachepa) and cajoles me into giving her more.
Some of the neighborhood boys fetch me water in exchange for taking a picture of them once they come back and then showing them the picture on the camera playback screen. This also earns me a free lemon or five if I’m out at Sebastian’s ponds and offer to photograph Modrick, one of his sons, deftly prodding the tart fruits down with a long pole. Taking pictures is a slippery slope though because as soon as the camera comes out, kids materialize out of nowhere and choruses of “Tukopeniko! Tukopeniko!” (Take pictures of us!) fill the air.
When I channel my inner Tom Sawyer and start slashing the tall grass in front of my house with a look of extreme enjoyment, a boy will invariably come up to me telling me to give the slasher to him so that he can do it. If I refuse, sometimes the kid will even offer me a guava or mango in exchange for the privilege of cutting my grass. However, this also works if I simply head out to the front yard and start hacking away, so I’m pretty sure it just means they think I’m doing it wrong. Everybody’s a backseat grass-cutter.
High-tech backpacking gear
A comfortable chair
I was an avid backpacker in the States. I was a gear junkie who swore by his Arc’teryx pack, Katadyn water filter, Western Mountaineering down sleeping bag, REI ultralight tent, Patagonia 800-fill down sweater, The North Face fleece, and Asolo boots. I drove my ’99 Subaru Outback thousands of miles along winding mountain highways in order to reach various trailheads. I was equipped. Then I lugged all of my gear with me to Africa (had to leave the Subie at home since it was hard to fit in my luggage) and now I spend most of my time sitting in a foldable camp chair bought at Lusaka’s version of Wal-Mart for $15.
A good dose of adventure
A good dose of patience
Before I joined the Peace Corps, I pictured volunteers as enthusiastic explorers and seasoned travelers who traipsed the globe in search of adventure when they weren’t busy helping people. And many volunteers do indeed fit this bill. But as it turns out, life in the Peace Corps is so much less often about wanderlust than about waiting. Waiting for meetings to start. Waiting for buses to leave. Waiting for the day/week/month to end. Waiting for your phone to load News Feed on Facebook. We do a lot of waiting.
Toys and candy for kids
Service is often associated with giving. I had an image in my head of arriving at my site and distributing toys and candy to adorable, fresh-faced, polite, grateful children. This image was shattered into a million tiny pieces once I got to my new home and learned what every bedraggled parent already knows: if you give a kid a candy, he’s going to want another candy to go with it. Then fourteen more candies. Also, candy makes little kids sticky and decidedly not fresh-faced. Who knew? Since arriving at my site I’ve decided to change tacts and give kids trash from which they can fashion their own toys. In their hands plastic bags, old soda bottles, and discarded matchbooks become kites, soccer balls, toy cars, and playing cards. This encourages ingenuity and imagination, and has the added benefit of being free.
Books, books, and more books
Everyone thinks that being in the Peace Corps is a great opportunity to learn a new instrument. So a lot of volunteers bring a guitar with them, expecting that they will have acquired Steve Morse-level skills by the end of their two years of service. But although we do have a lot of free time, it takes self-discipline to teach yourself on your own how to do something like playing the guitar. And if you are self-disciplined and wanted to learn to play the guitar, you probably had already taught yourself well before joining the Peace Corps. So you will probably just end up spending most of your free time reading.
It’s a common assumption that Peace Corps volunteers are trying to make the world a better place. That we are idealistic and enthusiastic and selfless and a bit naive. But most volunteers aren’t blind to reality. Most of us know that our work isn’t going to mean much more than a drop in the ocean of development work being done throughout the world. Most of us are aware of the lost earning potential of these two years we’re spending serving abroad instead of working stateside. And most of us are as much selfish as selfless, constantly aware of the various opportunities afforded by our Peace Corps service: the opportunity to live in a different country and culture, the opportunity to experience a new lifestyle, the opportunity to learn more about ourselves, and the opportunity to flesh out our resumes, in addition to the opportunity to work in development and the opportunity to serve our country.
But although wells may run dry and libraries may fall into disrepair, although fish ponds may turn to mud or become choked with weeds, some remnants of a Peace Corps service can still persist long after any development work itself is forgotten. The friendships made within host communities. The constant exchange of vastly different cultures. The newfound humility and compassion and respect learned by Americans venturing out of their comfort zones. And with each of these lessons learned, these relationships built, these arbitrary barriers that separate mankind broken down, perhaps the world is in fact slowly becoming a better place.
Random news from my fourteenth month of Peace Corps service, in 140 characters or less.
June 11 – Hitching out from the Peace Corps Provincial meetings. When we reach Chris’s site, a flock of children magically appears to carry our bags.
June 13 – Attending a friend’s village wedding. Biggest difference: in America, weddings are for the bride; here, they’re for everyone else.
June 15 – Have a massive headache. Laying in bed but can’t fall asleep. Just another day as a Peace Corps volunteer.
June 19 – Swerved to avoid running over a chameleon this morning. How does a creature that moves so slowly manage to thwart natural selection??
June 21 – Stumbled across a village brewery today and learned how to distill alcohol. They thought it was hilarious when I declined to try it.
June 25 – Had a rough morning so I decided to go for a walk. Greeted farmers, teased women, bantered with kids, and returned home feeling at peace.
June 26 – I’ve been giving boys plastic bags in exchange for sweeping my yard. Just found out they’re trading them for condoms…to make footballs.
June 28 – Hobbes is AWOL but one of her former kittens has returned to replace her. He’s just as much of a diva — I’m calling him Calvin, obviously.
July 1 – Emi’s visiting Nshinda after being out of the district for over a month. We made spring rolls to commemorate our Asian-ness.
July 2 – Chatted with a small boy for 15 minutes. The entire conversation consisted of him asking, a bit optimistically, for everything in my house.
July 4 – Spent my 4th of July helping Sebastian net four ponds and harvest 600 fish. Just like my summers back home.
July 5 – Almost hit a snake with my bike. Scary: it was bright yellow and black, probably poisonous. Not so scary: it was about 12 inches long.
July 7 – Holiday weekend bike adventure: 104 km, 65 lbs of gear, way too much junk food, and a waterfall for swimming, bathing, and laundry.
July 9 – Spent 6 hours inspecting ponds with World Vision. Main conversation topics: the Germany-Brazil World Cup blowout and Sebastian’s two wives.
1. Thou shall honor thy host country’s culture and food
2. Thou shall not brag about thy accomplishments at site
3. Thou shall not complain about another volunteer’s cooking
4. Thou shall downplay thy host country language proficiency when speaking with a host country national or when visiting another volunteer’s site (especially if you are more proficient than said volunteer)
5. Thou shall not be squeamish about lurid discussions of bowel movements
6. Thou shall not look another expatriate in the eye when passing in a crowded public arena
7. Thou shall definitely not give another expatriate a nod of recognition or smile of eager solidarity
8. Though shall not whine about being bored
9. Thou shall not pass up the opportunity to acquire anything free
10. Thou shall not leave any part of thy mosquito net untucked