Word to your mother

I asked my parents to provide me with some blog post material reflections on their trip to Zambia last month and was intrigued, amused, and sometimes touched by their perspectives. Here’s what they had to say:

What was your favorite part of your visit to Zambia?

Dad: My favorite part was the village interactions with the kids and Matt’s close friends like Sebastian. These are the things he will remember and cherish always. I was impressed at how refreshing was the curiosity and relative unsophistication of the young folks (and some of the older ones), especially compared with our subsequent visit to New York where everyone was a bit stressed, closed into their little space, and hardened from a world that is more scary than rural Zambia. This is why I believe the environment shapes a lot of how someone becomes. I kinda knew rural Africa would be refreshing, but it still impressed me.

One incident showed how innocent the kids are: I was backing up the car one day and ran into a tree. A car-savvy person would have yelled out or stopped me before I hit the tree, but since these kids have not been around cars, they had no idea there was imminent danger. (The insurance was excellent and paid it off.) I thought that was funny.

Kids getting out of class at my local primary school

Kids getting out of class at my local primary school

Mom: I had a wonderful time in Zambia. Unlike some vacations where you travel to a destination, have fun, return home, and everything goes back to normal, visiting a Peace Corps volunteer at his site is totally different. I felt like I was experiencing, first-hand, all of the things that Matt shares in “Fishing in Zambia.”

Perusing a favorite blog is like reading a fascinating book. You become totally engrossed in the plot and in the characters’ lives, and you wish there was a way to magically become part of the story yourself. Visiting Zambia gave me this rare opportunity to experience “Matt’s Zambia.” I feel in a small way, that I “know” Chungu, the little boy who sweeps Matt’s yard for a plastic bag, and that I “know” Chama and Josephine, the little girls who came by to sell vegetables from their family garden. I feel like for the short time I was there, I was not just a tourist, but I was experiencing this totally different culture in an intimate and genuine way.

How I get my daily produce

How I get my daily produce

What was the biggest challenge you experienced while in Zambia?

Dad: The traffic, hecticness, and fear of theft (i.e. high walls, electric wire) in the major cities was worse than I expected. It has all the usual growing pains of a developing country’s capitol, but it was still unnerving. It was sad to see it but I should not have expected any better. It shows the results of colonialism. We saw the paranoia in Johannesburg too. So that made me think of how it could have been avoided, and what can we do here in America to prevent a similar unwinding of human decency.

Mom: It was frustrating to see needs and not be able to help. I had to keep trying to see everything through Matt’s eyes and ask myself, “Is this sustainable?”

Chungu with his favorite shirt

Chungu with his favorite shirt

What was the part of your trip to Zambia that you least expected?

Dad: I was impressed with the Peace Corps volunteers themselves, meeting the wide range of folks that volunteer now. It is kind of true that in the early years of Peace Corps it was idealists and hippies who served. That the majority of volunteers now are women is a huge change since when I was a volunteer. The willingness to use public transportation is also admirable.

Mom: When Matt signed up for the Peace Corps, I knew we would visit him sometime during his service. I was a little apprehensive because I am not an outdoorsy type of person nor am I very adventurous. So I was pretty hesitant about this trip. But once we arrived, I just fell in love with Zambia and her people. Everyone is so friendly and helpful. Zambians seem genuinely interested in talking to us and hearing about America. The children were delightful. Zambia is a very special place and I wish we could have stayed longer than we did.

Some of my favorite people in Nchelenge District

Some of my favorite kids (and my favorite volunteer) in Nchelenge District

How has Matt changed in the past year and a half since he left for Zambia?

Dad: Matt is comfortable in his new country, navigating the culture with ease. The pleasantries and greetings in the lingua franca are fun to observe; it is so important in being seen as an understanding compatriot instead of as a tourist or neo-colonialist. It is a sizable personality stretch for him, as he tended to be on the introverted side before coming to Zambia.

Mom: Before Peace Corps, I didn’t think Matt was that into community development, volunteerism, or development work. He didn’t express a high need to travel or “see the world,” so I was a little surprised when he signed up for the Peace Corps. I wasn’t sure what kind of experience Matt would have without that kind of idealistic, adventure-seeking background.

But while we were in Zambia, I could tell that Matt was an accepted member of his new community and was making a difference. Everything Matt did was through a lens of “Is this helping my village?” and “Is it sustainable?” Matt has always been very thoughtful and reflective, but the extent to which he has thought out his service and his impact there amazed me. It would have been easier, I’m sure, to write grants and attempt lots of projects in order to leave some type of lasting, tangible legacy, but Matt was always aware of the bigger picture.

I was also delighted to see Matt and his interactions with the children in his village. I have not known Matt to be naturally drawn to children, but in Zambia I saw this whole other side to Matt’s personality — a kind of cheeky, playful sense of humor. There was a lot of kidding around, and there was this genuine affection between Matt and his kids, almost like a big brother to little brother/sister type of relationship. It was quite touching.

Some of my neighbor kids clowning around with my dad

Some of my neighbor kids hanging out with my dad

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The plural of minibus is mayhem

I spent last week in Lusaka as a volunteer trainer for the RAP 2014 In-Service Training (IST), helping to facilitate technical sessions for the intake of aquaculture extension volunteers who arrived in Zambia exactly one year after I did. Although I enjoyed working and sharing ideas with this impressive and engaging group of volunteers who are just beginning their Peace Corps services, the most entertaining part of the entire week was getting real comfortable with Lusaka’s ubiquitous minibus system of public transportation.

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Intercity Bus Terminal in Lusaka, one of the most hectic places known to man

Zambia’s capital is a rapidly growing sub-Saharan metropolis with inconsistent infrastructure, which is a nice way of saying that there are too many people and not enough roads. Rush hour is a sight to behold, with traffic laws relegated to mere suggestions and right-of-way at roundabouts and intersections going to the vehicle that is most battered and therefore cares least about getting bumped by another car.

Enter the minibus.

Riding a minibus in Lusaka entails hopping into a faded blue 30-year-old Toyota minivan with thin bald tires and a slightly heavier-set but just as bald driver and, packed into rows of tiny benches like human sardines with 19 of your closest friends complete strangers, rattling a few kilometers along a pothole-filled road to a different section of town. All the while, a skinny kid with baggy clothes hangs off the side of the van hollering at passersby, subjecting them to a steady stream of verbal abuse as he wrangles up more fares. If an unfortunate pedestrian so much as glances up, the bus screeches to a jarring stop and the conductor yanks the poor chump inside as the vehicle leaps away again with a cringe-inducing grinding of gears.

Riding in a minibus isn’t exactly the most luxurious way to get around. So why would anyone subject themselves to this, you may ask?

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A typical-sized minibus with an atypical cargo -- 12 volunteers (and their camping gear) traveling to Kasanka National Park last November to see the bat migration

1. Because they’re everywhere. The minibus routes follow all of the main roads in Lusaka and several dozen buses race each other up and down the thoroughfares, picking up and dropping off passengers at every stop along the way. If you miss one bus, another will come careening around the corner honking at you in approximately 3.4 seconds.

2. Because they’re surprisingly efficient. Driving in Lusaka is, as alluded to above, not fun. However, it’s a bit more fun when your minibus is the only vehicle that’s moving, weaving in and out of heavy traffic and making such liberal use of adjacent side streets and uneven shoulders that during rush hour they effectively serve as Zambia’s de facto minibus lane.

3. Because they’re dirt cheap. The price varies by distance, time of day, the whim of the conductor, and how white you look, but the fare is generally understood to be two kwacha (about 30 cents) if you’re going to get off 1-4 stops away, three kwacha if you’re traveling 4-7 stops, and four or five kwacha if you’re going all the way to the end of the line. Not too shabby when you consider that most of the time, you’re getting a ride and a show.

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The Big 5 look like harmless little kittens when compared with the singular terror that is a minibus

ZamTwitter, Month 15

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

July 10 – Killed two mosquitoes while in bed tonight. Am way too proud of myself. Floor, meet Matt’s new standards for achievement.

July 12 – While in the market today, a drunk guy who had been pestering me suddenly darted forward and kissed me. On the lips. Not my finest hour.

July 13 – Stopped in Kashikishi to buy cisense, tiny fish caught by the thousands daily in Lake Mweru, and got mobbed by feisty fish sellers.

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July 15 – Accompanying Ba Cleopher, my boss and the head of RAP, on site visits is giving me ideas for more home improvements I can do in my house.

July 17 – Hobbes is back after a month away and promptly had kittens in my closet. Calvin is not pleased that my attention is no longer fully on him.

July 19 – I’m cleaning house and renovating. Built three new shelves, swept out ten pounds of dust, and made a tiny rock garden.

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July 22 – Just saw a spider big enough to make a tarantula jump and shriek. I have never been more glad for the mosquito net I sleep under each night.

July 25 – Kiva’s persistent email reminder campaign pays off. Just reloaned credit that’s been in my account for a year to a cattle farmer in Uganda.

July 27 – My parents are officially in Zambia. Mom’s already taken a hundred pictures, and Dad’s already spent too much on fish-themed wood carvings.

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July 29 – Mom’s a big hit with the kids in my village. They’re playing card games, having photoshoots, and are fascinated with her skin.

July 31 – Emi’s hanging out with us in Nshinda and is doing a fabulous job of taking pictures, answering questions, and corralling incorrigible kids.

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August 2 – We’re in Chobe National Park in Botswana and lions were just spotted outside our camp. The guides’ advice: zip up your tents all the way.

August 3 – Visiting Victoria Falls for the first time. Had to grab a picture with the parents.

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August 6 – The crack in the floor of my latrine is getting larger. Sebastian assures me it’s no problem, but he’s not the one who has to squat over it.

August 9 – I’ve spent thirty hours in the last five days riding in buses. I’m pretty sure my rear end is permanently molded in the shape of a seat.