Thank you!

One of the wonderful unintended consequences of writing a blog about my experience in the Peace Corps has been the opportunity to connect with people from all across America and beyond. I’ve received comments from current volunteers, future volunteers, and volunteers who served years ago. I’ve exchanged emails with people in Cambodia, Namibia, Germany, and Alaska. I’ve virtually “met” my fellow volunteers’ mothers, fathers, aunts, grandmothers, sisters, boyfriends, and bosses. Over two hundred and fifty of you fools have somewhat inconceivably decided to sign up for email updates when I publish a new post, and nearly two hundred more of you have good-naturedly refrained from defriending me when you see my posts show up on your Facebook newsfeeds.

This has not gone unnoticed. Each of you who has commented on a post, emailed me, “liked” one of my pictures, or told me that your mom loves my blog has contributed to the ego-swelling of one extremely tickled and affirmed volunteer.

And so as my 27 months in the Peace Corps here in Zambia officially come to a close, I’d like to thank each of you for reading. Y’all have helped make my service more enriching, and I’m grateful to have been able to share in this incredible journey.

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Are you a current PCV? Do you want to talk about yourself? Of course you do!

My friend and fellow Zambia PCV Hannah Harrison is doing an awesome blog series interviewing volunteers in Peace Corps posts around the globe. I thought I’d try to impress her help her out by sharing a link to her blog and seeing if any of my PCV readers from other countries would be interested in being interviewed.

As my service is winding down I know you’ll want to get your Zambia fix somewhere, and Hannah is a great writer and volunteer. Check out her blog at the link below, and if you’re a currently serving PCV or recent RPCV in a different post, Hannah would love to hear from you!

Calling All PCVs!.

Nshinda

All the news that’s fit to be read by our country director

Our third (and my final) edition of Zambition, Peace Corps Zambia’s volunteer-run newsletter, is now published. Check it out!

(Gracing the cover is Lenge, the youngest son of my counterpart Sebastian. This kid is so darn photogenic that even when a picture shows only his hands they turn out to be the best looking little-kid hands you’ve ever seen. Some people get all the luck.)

Zambition January 2015

Sea to summit

The beautiful massif of Mt. Mulanje - photo credit: Leah Karels

The beautiful massif of Mt. Mulanje – photo credit: Leah Karels because my phone no es trabajando

Sometimes my blog posts aren’t entirely representative of the topic or theme I’m trying to write about, and at no time is this more apparent than when something contrives to keep me from properly documenting a vacation. In this case, it was rain, rain, more rain, and a faulty kayak. Jiminy Cricket, I didn’t know it was physically possible for it to rain that much. Me and water, we don’t get along so well. So this is my excuse for why I only have pictures from two separate hours of my 312-hour trip.

In lieu of copious notes and gigabytes of photos, none of which I now have because of inclement weather and technological difficulties, here, have a list instead:

23 – different buses and taxis that I squeezed my wet behind into

28 – times we started to try to speak to someone in Bemba, then got blank stares and asked if they spoke English instead

15 – times they did indeed speak English

16,000 – total elevation gained, lost, skidded, tripped, and fallen over the course of four days on Mt. Mulanje

Heading to our first night's camp after a three-hour climb up a slippery staircase

Heading to our first night’s camp after a three-hour climb up a slippery staircase

4 – different distances we received when asking fellow busgoers how far away the next town was

0 – number of fellow busgoers who were right

5 – times that my buddy Sam and I accidentally flipped our kayak

1 – Sea to Summit dry bag that ended up being not quite as dry as advertised

3 – phones lost to water damage

1 – kilograms of rice bought in a futile attempt to remove water from said phones

37 – photos taken of spectacular sunsets at Cape Maclear

I mean, come on, the fact that places can even look like this isn't fair

I mean, come on, the fact that places can even look like this isn’t fair

11 – samosas bought from street vendors

8 – times I asked street vendors selling memory cards, shoes, yogurt, sodas, and candy if they also sold meatballs

0 – actual meatballs bought from street vendors

113,000 – Malawian kwacha spent on what I can now only surmise must have been mostly street food

1 – place we had to wade through a river because the road that was supposed to be there…wasn’t

43 – people I now know it is possible to cram into the back of a small canter truck with the bedspace of a Toyota Tundra

9 – funny signs I saw and photographed intending to start a “funny signs in Africa” series

1 – picture I have remaining of funny signs

Just one of several amusing signs/names I spotted in Malawi

Just one of several amusing signs/names I spotted in Malawi

 

Fun with glow sticks

Last week, ten volunteers organized and hosted a 5-day GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) camp in Mansa for 14 students and 7 adult mentors from communities throughout Luapula Province. The camp was a smashing success and great fun was had by all as we raved with glow sticks, made s’mores, and taught a delighted pack of pre-teen girls how to do the Wobble in between actual educational sessions on topics such as assertiveness, reproductive health, income-generating activities, HIV/AIDS sensitization, and gender equality.

On the second-to-last day of camp, a British expat working with a local NGO came to assist with a sanitary pad workshop and mentioned that a girls’ group in a district further north in the province was doing a similar project, to great success. These girls were teaching and promoting the use of sanitary pads to classmates in their free time, away from school, because school policy forbade them from coming to class when they were on their periods. The really neat part though, she told us, was that evidently the leaders of the group, two young girls barely of menstruating age themselves and one older woman on the local PTA, had all learned how to make these sanitary pads at a camp which a Peace Corps volunteer had brought them to the year prior.

The first thing that came to mind was wow, that unsuspecting volunteer hit a sustainable development success story gold mine! I wonder who it is? Then it dawned on me: hey, the mentor I brought to last year’s Camp GLOW was a member of the PTA. I asked the woman what the name of the community was, and she told me that the group was in Nshinda. I swallowed. I live in Nshinda. That unsuspecting volunteer was me.

I should have been happy. Proud, even. But instead, all I could feel was embarrassment — I’d had absolutely no idea that this was going on at all. All of my attempts to start a GLOW group at the school with the teachers following the previous year’s GLOW camp had sputtered and died like a lawnmower running over an old shoe. I felt guilty for receiving accolades for something I didn’t do, ignorant for being completely oblivious that this was going on in my community without my knowing, and a little miffed that nobody who did know had told me about it.

Only later, after some conversations with more clear-headed volunteers, was I eventually made to understand that my not knowing about the girls’ group was not an indictment of my failure at community integration. Not only do the girls not speak English and I not know the words for period, menstruation, blood, or sanitary pad in Icibemba, but it wouldn’t matter even if we were best pals who chatted it up in homeroom every Wednesday morning, because talking about menstrual cycles and female genitalia in public is taboo in Zambian culture (and probably no less so if you’ve got a conspicuous foreign male in your midst). One friend reminded me gently that in America, most 7th and 8th grade girls would rather die than discuss their periods with their cute young male teacher. The only way that this group could have been a safe place for pre-teen and teenaged female students to learn and ask questions about periods and sanitary pads was if I were not involved at all.

Slightly mollified but still feeling like a bad volunteer, I resumed working on the slideshow that I was compiling for presentation the following day at the end of camp. But looking through the images captured during the week and then watching the campers’ sparkling eyes the next morning as they watched raptly and giggled every time they or their friends made an appearance on screen, I began to realize that it didn’t matter that I was in the dark about this. The fact that these girls and this mentor had the initiative and drive and leadership to create this project entirely on their own speaks volumes to the core of true development that it is building, a foundation that will remain long after the lines in a Peace Corps volunteer’s resume have eroded away. I realized that this camp is for these girls and women, not for me. It doesn’t matter what I try to do with it, it only matters what they choose to do with it. With this newfound knowledge and experience, these girls are carrying back with them seeds of inspiration that have the potential to grow and change some small but important part of their community, in their small but important part of our world.

And if they can do that, then I’ll be fine never seeing a sanitary pad or hearing about menstrual cycles. Because, I mean, really? That’s gross.

The rain in Spain falls mainly on my solar panel

It’s officially rainy season in Nchelenge District, which means there is approximately a 100% chance of rain every day, even if said rain is only a few meager drops struggling to escape a smothering wet blanket of humidity. The near-constant cloud cover also means that Matt is finding it approximately 83% more difficult to glean enough sunlight to write and edit consistent blog posts. He’s trying not to be a baby about it.

Anyway, the next installment of our Peace Corps Zambia newsletter Zambitious is out. Unfortunately, we had to find a new name because of a copyright infringement issue. Fortunately, it hasn’t changed much, so you probably won’t be able to tell the difference anyway. Check out the October 2014 edition of Zambition!

Zambition October 2014

Namibia

I just returned from a two-week road trip through Namibia. It’s a pretty amazing place. Where else in the world can you go to Oktoberfest with a crowd of transplanted lederhosen-wearing Germans, drive a few hours and go on a self-guided game drive where you nearly get your Toyota Corolla trampled by an elephant, drive another few hours and eat oysters and sip champagne while watching whales, then drive a few hours more and spot wild cheetahs while on your way to climbing the highest sand dune on the planet? Seven other volunteers and I logged over 2,519 kilometers in two subcompact cars, spent 87 hours in buses, slogged several miles through sand, and I didn’t do laundry once. Sorry, guys.