Two years in Nshinda

Surveying a dambo area for pond sites

Surveying a dambo area for pond sites

Over the past two years I have watched fish ponds spring up throughout my district like boils, pockmarking the flat wetlands seemingly overnight. I have walked down verdant bush paths, along baking hot asphalt, and through raucous marketplaces. I have drifted off to sleep to the heavy patter of an all-night downpour in mid-January, and I have awoken to the late-June sunrise piercing my hut with shafts of light at 5:30am.

Over the past two years I have biked two thousand kilometers across the changing of seasons, through clouds of gnats and beneath searing sun. I have waved to two thousand screaming children.

Over the past two years I have discovered to my chagrin what it is like to be at the same time shocking, appealing, confusing, novel, desirable, and terrifying. I have been jeered like a Super Bowl referee who misses a blatant horsecollar and leered at like a leggy blonde trying to slip past a construction site. I have been prodded like the beleaguered family mutt and ogled with the same combination of fascination and apprehension as a tired python in a zoo. I have reacted with amusement, with anger, with irritation, and sometimes even with patience.

I got to fry up a chunk of this 18-foot python burned in a brush fire; it tasted like -- wait for it -- chicken

I got to fry up a chunk of this 18-foot python burned in a brush fire; it tasted like — wait for it — chicken

Over the past two years I have had enough strange experiences to fill hours of outrageous stories for bored future grandchildren. I have had my arms stroked lovingly by wondering six-year-olds, and I have been embraced even more lovingly by a drunk man in the market before I could spin away, startled, from his grasp.

Over the past two years I have traveled several hours in the open backs of trucks driven by several different strangers, and none have been serial killers. I have attempted to play my guitar for kids in the neighborhood who instantly bolted, thinking that it was a gun and that it was I who was the serial killer.

Over the past two years I have marveled again and again at the unsolicited generosity of pure strangers, and I have seen the power of a simple human connection. I have learned that, despite our various differences, most people tend to be pretty much the same wherever you go.

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

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

Over the past two years I have met with dozens of aspiring fish farmers. Some of whom actually turned out to be interested in fish farming, instead of making an appointment merely to see the muzungu. I have visited their farms, greeted their wives, and played with their children.

Over the past two years I have offered advice on how to improve existing ponds and laid out plans for where to dig new ones. I have told the farmers that I would check back with them in one week. In one month. I have returned to find that little or no progress has been made. And again I have greeted their wives and played with their children.

Over the past two years I have reminded myself over and over again of the oft-repeated Bemba mantra: Panono, panono. Slowly, slowly.

Waiting for a farmer out at his ponds

Waiting for a farmer out at his ponds

Over the past two years I have shrieked like a preteen girl every time I’ve seen a spider the size of a Volkswagen. I have scraped twenty-three rat carcasses off my floor, carried into my hut by my highly annoying, highly-trained assassin of a cat. Each time, I have told myself that I am building character.

Over the past two years I have stared at the same spot on my wall for a full half-hour. I have stared at the pattern of bark on a tree branch until I spotted Waldo. I have stared at outrageously prematurely developed teenaged girls until I realized that I was staring and mentally kicked myself under the table. I have stared at an ant crawling along the dirt for so long that it finally snapped at me huffily that it was rude to stare. I have had entire conversations with myself. Arguments, even. I have lost.

Over the past two years I have convinced hordes of kids to sweep my porch, weed my yard, wash my buckets, and cut my grass. I have paid them in old plastic bags and empty bottles and matchbox covers. In turn, hordes of kids have convinced me to buy handfuls of weeds masquerading as fresh produce and to unwittingly repeat, “Show me your penis.” They have paid me in toothless smiles and gleeful howls of laughter and with grubby paws clutching at my leg hair.

Chungu, Willie, and Kalu showing off their best model poses

Chungu, Willie, and Kalu showing off their best model poses

Over the past two years I have seen enough tragedy to fill an epic novel. I have seen droughts wipe out farmers’ maize crops and I have seen fish ponds that took months to dig dry up in the heat of October. I have seen a teacher whose only crime was being born female run out of town by a community claiming she was involved in witchcraft, and I have seen men who I thought epitomized virtue repeatedly cheat on their wives, laughingly denying their infidelity the entire time.

I have visited a 15-year-old boy on his deathbed. I have seen the agony etched into his stretched face, the terror in his eyes as they rolled back into his head. I have stood numbly, helplessly, as his exhausted mother mustered the last of her resolve to thank us for coming with a tight, despairing smile.

Over the past two years I have attended seventeen funerals, and walked or biked past dozens more.

Women in the village carrying bricks to the church

Women in the village carrying bricks to the church

Over the past two years I have learned what it is to be humble. I have been shown what it means to be wise. I have realized that I am not either of these things. And yet despite this, I have decided to try. Maybe, unlike in baseball and bowling, the effort itself just might count for something.

Over the past two years I have seen that it really does take an entire village to raise a child. I have also seen that it takes an entire village laughing uproariously to fish a bucket out of a well after a mortified new Peace Corps volunteer has accidentally dropped it in.

Goodbye, Nshinda. Thank you for teaching me about the things that matter, the things that we cannot change, and the things that we should never stop trying to change. Thank you for showing me the warmth of a village and the resiliency of a people. And thank you for accepting me into your community and into your lives. Mushale umutende. Stay in peace.

Sunset over the football pitch

Sunset over the village

Sh*t my neighborhood kids say

Kid: [Cheerfully] “Give me your bike!”
Matt: [Bringing bike outside to go fetch water from the borehole] “No.”
Kid: “Give me your bike!”
Matt: “What makes you think it’ll work this time when it’s never worked any of the previous 437 times?”
Kid: [Adopting what he thinks is a winning and persuasive smile] “Come on, give it to me.”
Matt: “Not on your life, kiddo.”
Kid: [Smiling even more widely now] “I’ll just take it with me now, okay?”

Lenge helping out with bucket transport duty

If charisma mattered more than brains and determination, little Lenge would never have to work a day in his life

Bread seller: [Walking slowly past my hut carrying a tray of baked buns on his head] “Amabuns amabuns amabuns!”
Kid: [On my front porch] “Mr. Matt! Mr. Matt! Mr. Matt! He’s selling bread!”
Matt: [Also on my front porch] “Believe it or not, that’s one of the things I can understand.”
Kid: “So buy some bread.”
Matt: “I already have bread.”
Kid: “Well then, give me some.”
Matt: …

Kids: [Pulling on cat’s tail, eventually she gets tired and goes inside]
Kids: [With look of genuine surprise] “You, where are you going? You cat, come back!”
Matt: [Grinning at a thoroughly disgruntled Hobbes who is now glaring disapprovingly from inside the doorway] “Yeah, Hobbes, come back out.”

We had a good run together -- rest in peace, Hobbes

We had a good run together — rest in peace, you ridiculous cat

Kid 1: “Where are we going?”
Matt: “We are not going anywhere. I’m going on a walk.”
Kid 2: “Why are we walking?”
Matt: “We’re just walking for fun.”
Kid 3: “Why?”
Matt: “Because it’s a great way for me to get some peace and relaxation.”
Kid 4: “Great, we’ll come with you.”

Kid 1: “Is your mother coming back?”
Matt: “No.”
Kid 2: “Is your father coming back?”
Matt: “No.”
Kid 3: “Is Emi coming back?”
Matt: “No.”
Kid 1: [Thinks for a moment] “Is Mrs. Janet coming back?”
Matt: “Nice try, but I do realize that this is just a sneaky way for you to ask the same question twice.”

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Mom hanging out at the ponds entertaining some of Sebastian’s kids

Kid: “Mr. Matt!”
Matt: [No response]
Kid: “Mr. Matt!”
Matt: [No response]
Kid: “Mr. Matt!”
Matt: [No response]
Kid: “Mr. Matt!”
Matt: [No response]
Kid: “Mr. Matt!”
Matt: [No response]
Kid: “Mr. Matt!”
Matt: [No response]
Kid: “Mr. Matt!”
Matt: “WHAT.”
Kid: “How are you!”
Matt: “Not as tenacious as a 5-year-old, apparently.”

Kids: [Playing outside my house on a scorching afternoon]
Matt: [Reading inside his house on a scorching afternoon]
Kid 1: [Gets in an argument with another kid] “Matt will come beat you!”
Kid 2: “No he won’t, he’s reading.”
Matt: [Not moving an inch] Darn, the gig’s up.

Proving to my homestay siblings that I really did live there last year

Proving to my homestay siblings that I really did live there two years ago

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 emperor’s new groove

I used to collect butterflies and moths as a kid. I’d spend hours running around our farm in California’s Central Valley, chasing after painted ladies and tiger swallowtails and cabbage butterflies. I’d spend even more (and decidedly less fruitful) hours watching grossly swollen tomato hornworms that I’d placed into mason jars, waiting for them to turn into sphinx moths. But what I liked most of all was poring over websites online where you could select exotic species from around the world and get them delivered, shriveled and dried, to your doorstep. For a price, you could acquire magnificent specimens from all corners of the globe: iridescent morpho butterflies from South America, gigantic golden birdwings from Southeast Asia, and regal emperor moths from Africa.

I though that these mail-order lepidopterans were the closest I would ever get to these far-away places. Then I moved to Zambia 15 years later and discovered that the larval stage of one of these species is a major source of protein for people in my host country during the rainy season. Meet Gonimbrasia belina, whose caterpillar is the tasty snack known locally as ifishimu. More commonly, this winged giant is known as the emperor moth.

Burn notice

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Right now Zambia is in the midst of the burn season. The air is crisp and dry, the grasses and brush are brittle and yellowed, and the winds blow relentlessly, so of course this is the best possible time to strike a match and send a wall of flame roaring toward your house. (A house which, I might add, is covered with more of that same dried grass. How convenient.)

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Although accidental brush fires do cause a lot of damage to fields and even communities when they spread out of control, most burning is planned. As any novice forester/agriculturalist can tell you, this annual purging is necessary for clearing out clutter and thereby preventing larger, more damaging fires from occurring later, as well as for adding nutrients back to the soil to increase fertility for the next cycle of crops.

And on a less technical note, burn season also means lots of small-hand-and-feet-warming stations throughout the village to prevent against the early morning chill, a surreal pink haze lazily blanketing the landscape and coating your lungs throughout the day, and spectacular light displays in the late evenings.

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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