Life lessons I didn’t expect to learn in the Peace Corps

A rural fish farmer who likes goats meets another rural fish farmer who likes goats

A rural fish farmer who likes goats meets another rural fish farmer who likes goats

You will earn more respect and be more well-liked if you approach people asking what you can learn rather than telling them what you can teach.

A lot of people think that the purpose of Peace Corps volunteers is to bring knowledge to their host countries and communities. Heck, a lot of Peace Corps volunteers think that the purpose of Peace Corps volunteers is to bring knowledge to their host countries and communities. It’s the classic development paradigm: the magnanimous benefactor with education and resources comes to teach, train, or donate to the lucky recipient, whose job it is to learn, develop, and be grateful.

And okay, yes, this is partly what we as volunteers do. But I’ve found that since arriving in Zambia, I’ve asked exponentially more questions than I’ve answered. And I have discovered that, to my surprise, people are more than happy to answer my plethora of questions about everything from school fees to witchcraft to land ownership to how to make village beer. Not a day goes by in which I haven’t asked a question or ten about something related to Zambia, its culture, or its people. I might teach a few farmers a few things, but in the process I am learning so many more things myself.

I worried at first that my curiosity would undermine the authority I was perceived to have as a person who’s ostensibly here to bring knowledge. But in fact, it seems like I’m actually earning more respect this way, as well as making a few new friends in the process. By showing genuine interest in the lives of people in my community, I’ve unwittingly stumbled across the first and most important rule for winning friends and influencing people. Dale Carnegie would be proud.

Michael and his host family making banana wine

Michael’s host family showing him the right way to use a spoon

What you do or don’t do has little influence on what other people think about you, so it’s futile to waste time placing too much value on their opinions.

I’ve struggled my entire life with caring too much about what others think of me. For a long time, I subscribed to the belief that if other people thought I was successful, then I was successful. If other people thought I was smart, then I was smart. If other people thought I was attractive, then I was attractive. It’s an easy measuring stick because we’re already very acutely aware of where we stand relative to everyone else around us — if our coworkers and friends don’t tell us how we should look and dress and act and where we should go on weekends, then our cousins or mothers or girlfriends might, and Instagram definitely will. But all this does is perpetuate a society full of conformists, each member taking her cue for how to behave from the people closest to her.

And after moving to rural Zambia, I found myself caring even more what people thought of me. I wanted to be a good volunteer, a responsible ambassador to America, and a respectable member of my community, so I looked to the people around me for affirmation that I was on the right track. Only after many conversations with volunteers farther into their service, along with good ol’ first-hand experience, did I realize that people would form their own opinions of me based on their own criteria no matter how hard I tried to cultivate a consistent image of who I was and what I was doing here. No matter how adept I become at speaking the local language (and in my case the answer is “not very”), after I leave there will still be a good deal of people who will claim that I hadn’t known a lick of Bemba, in direct contradiction to those who will stubbornly, while lying through their teeth, insist that I was fluent.

People will think what they want to think, and they will remember what they want to remember. No matter what I do, I can’t change how someone else thinks of me. So since I can’t change it, I might as well stop caring about it so much and instead focus that energy on using my own moral compass to guide me in my actions and endeavors. And when I do, I’ll be a much less anxious and more confident person.

Here's a guy who can't afford to care what people think about him

Here’s a guy who obviously can’t afford to care what people think about him

It’s not possessions that will make you happy, but interactions. It’s not what you do that will make you feel worthy, but who you are.

I used to be the kind of guy who took people for granted. I am independent, unwaveringly introverted by nature, and most of my favorite activities and passions are solitary pursuits, so it was easier to simply keep people at arm’s length rather than admit to myself that I was dependent on someone else, on anyone else, for anything. I had already long weaned myself off of the idea that material possessions equated to happiness, so I thought the Peace Corps would be perfect for me: not only could I deal with the physical and lifestyle hardships, but the language barriers, cultural barriers, and social barriers simply wouldn’t be as big of a hurdle for me as I’d heard they were for many volunteers. Meaningful interactions with other people? Don’t need ’em.

Then I got here. That’s when I realized that yes, yes I do need them. I need them like a fat kid needs cake. I need them like a cat needs something to torture and decapitate. And boy was I surprised when I found them hanging out on my front porch with sticky little 7-year-old girls and their sticky little toothless grins, or loitering around with a 47-year-old rural fish farmer as we animatedly discuss last night’s news, or crammed into the back of a minibus as two other volunteer friends and I exuberantly belt out a horribly offkey approximation of the chorus of a local pop song while the other poor souls on the bus valiantly pretend we don’t exist. It took moving 10,000 miles to sub-Saharan Africa for me to realize that human interactions are what truly make me happy, even at the expense of increased vulnerability to and dependence on others.

Because Peace Corps gives you a ton of time to yourself to think. It gives you five aircraft carriers’ weight in tonnage of time to think. And you end up spending that time thinking about what you’re doing, what you’re not doing, what makes you happy, and realizing that what makes you happy is not sitting alone in the dark in your tiny hut reading a status update on your phone that says your friends back home are having fun and being happy without you. But as a result of all this thinking, you also start to think about who you are when everything else is stripped away. About who you are beneath the degrees, the job, the money, the aspirations, the expectations. And maybe in the process you just might learn something about what self-worth means to you, about where it comes from, and about how you can keep it.

Some of my favorites

Some of the other volunteers who came to Zambia with me in February 2013

Things that I miss

I’m annoying endearing among my group of Peace Corps volunteer friends for asserting that I rarely miss people or things in America. Most of the time this is true. Sometimes it’s a big fat lie.

In no particular order, here are some things that I miss living here in Zambia (all images shamelessly lifted off the interwebs unless otherwise noted):

1. Watching viral videos on Youtube


2. Microwaves


3. Listening to baseball games on muggy summer evenings


4. Pad Thai


5. Refrigerators


6. Leftover Pad Thai stored in the fridge overnight and reheated in the microwave the next day


7. The sound of trout rising in an alpine lake

One of my favorite off-trail lakes in the High Sierra

8. People-watching at coffee shops


9. Browsing eBay for vintage fly fishing reels


A nice little L.W. Holmes Perfect Copy in my collection

10. Sundresses


11. Shoes that stay clean for more than five minutes

Possibly the sharpest pair of wingtips I've ever owned -- pity they  didn't fit right

Possibly the sharpest pair of wingtips I’ve ever owned; pity they didn’t fit right

ZamTwitter, Month 17

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

September 12 – Minutes from my meeting today:
-biked 42 kilometers there and back
-waited 2 hours for it start
-listened to people arguing for 6 hours

September 14 – Visited a couple of new fish farmers today. When I asked if we could survey the fish in the pond, they brought out a casting net.


Using a casting net to sample fish species and size in an old pond

September 15 – I’ve gone from getting fresh vegetables brought to my doorstep to biking 3km for limp pieces of lettuce. What a difference a month makes.

September 16 – Busy day at the farm. Sebastian’s working on the new house, supervising the pond-diggers, and getting yelled at by a woman demanding money.

September 17 – Random guy shows up at my door with some gemstones. Google says they’re amethyst. Pretty, but probably not gonna turn me into a millionaire.


Gemstones found in a shallow quarry about 15 kilometers away from my village

September 19 – I’m a fan of The Five Love Languages, but Gary Chapman should tell my cat that dead rats by my bed isn’t how I prefer to receive affection.

September 24 – After 20 months, it finally happened: a last-second desperation grab was all that kept me from dropping my phone down the chimbusu.

September 26 – In Makasa watching Chris and Lucas spend the pre-dawn hour netting fingerlings using the prettiest chitenge net you’ll ever find.


Appropriate technology: using local textiles to fashion makeshift seine nets

September 28 – We’re doing peer support scenarios at the PSDN training in Kasama. Never thought listening (and being listened to) could be so cathartic.

September 30 – How does a great hitch turn into an unforgettable one? When after a free 350km ride, your loquacious driver buys you ice-cold beers.

October 3 – Boarding the bus back to site today I felt awash in this incredible sense of serenity. 4.5 scorching hours later I felt awash in sweat.

October 5 – Third visit with a new fish farmer. Was surprised and pleased to find that, per my advice, he actually made a compost crib.


One of Sebastian's cribs exposed as the water level in his ponds continues to drop

October 8 – Allison is visiting Sebastian’s farm with one of her fish farmers. We end up sitting and complaining for 3 hours. Typical Zambian meeting.

The best time to plant a tree

I don’t know anything about planting trees. I know how to show someone how to dig a fish pond, and I know how to peg-roll the cuffs of my chinos, and my girlfriend would be only too happy to tell you that I know how to turn a switch in my ears so that they conveniently stop working when she asks me something, but I don’t know anything about planting trees. In my head, it looks kind of like this:

1. You put a seed in the ground
2. You water it
3. It grows into a tree overnight, like magic

I like magic. But I digress. We’re starting a new venture here in Nshinda and I’m cautiously excited about it. Moringa is a tree that has small oval leaves which pack a pretty powerful amount of protein when eaten, and they taste pretty good to boot. It’s an underrated quality of a food source that can be easily grown in my area where meat is scarce and expensive and child malnutrition is rampant. Last week I got my grubby hands on some moringa seeds, leaves, and one cute little seedling gifted to me by the Mansa provincial house’s awesome gardener, Ba Francis, so now it’s time to see what we can do with them.


Drying moringa leaves in order to pound them into a powder that can be added to tea and other foods

Yesterday was Step 1: community sensitization. I plopped my new seedling outside on the front porch and got to work cutting old plastic soda bottles in half to create makeshift pots for the new seedlings. Everyone who passed by took a moment to stare appreciatively. Now you know just how infrequent of an occurrence it is to see Matt actually doing any work. Soon a group of the regular gang of loiterers little boys who frequent my house had assembled and I watched, amused, as they vociferously debated amongst themselves about what the crazy muzungu was up to now. I cheerfully explained to them that I was going to become a farmer and plant trees. They cheerfully assured me that no, no, I would never be able to plant trees. I ignored them and told them to fetch me some dirt. They grinned and refused.

Then I craftily changed tactics and told them that the trees weren’t for me, they were for them. Ah, now I was talking. I gave each of them their own bottle, showed them how to add dirt and some of my leftover compost water, and then had them carefully push dried moringa seeds into the moist soil. After the seedling grows, I told them, you’ll plant it at your house and it’ll be your tree. In a Hail Mary desperation toss to keep the kids from screwing around with the nursery flash of inspiration, I decided to label each of the bottles with a different boy’s name using duct tape and a Sharpie. I swear, I don’t think I’ve ever seen them more excited. By the end of the morning I had a small flock of dirty old plastic bottles nesting on my front porch and a slightly larger but just as dirty crowd of little boys hovering over their new charges, proud as peacocks.


Posing with their own personal seeds

For the entire rest of the day, kids came up to me with old plastic bottles asking me to give them a seed to plant. I had a hard time keeping a stupid grin off my face as I told them to come back tomorrow for the next planting session. I still don’t know anything about planting trees, but we’re going to go ahead and try anyway. After all, I’m reminded of the most literal of meanings of my favorite old Chinese proverb:

The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.


There's some quote out there about the crucial importance and empowering properties of validating a person's name, but I can't remember it at the moment