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.

Peace Corps by the numbers

I was posted to my site in Nshinda exactly one year ago today. What better time to look at some numbers?

452

days I have been in Zambia

Football at twilight

The football pitch at twilight in Petauke District, Eastern Province, February 2013

15

hours it takes me to travel from Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, to my site

Getting posted to site on May 10, 2013

Getting posted to site on May 10, 2013

4,500

liters of water I’ve pulled or pumped from a well or borehole

Some of the boys in my village wearing the same things they always wear

Sometimes I can convince neighbor kids to fetch water for me, like on this day in June 2013

3

non-Peace Corps white people I’ve seen in my district in the past twelve months

Dropping Allison off for her site visit with a welcoming party

We stand out quite a bit in a crowd — dropping Allison off at her site, April 2014

5

times I have emptied my trash bag (a typical-sized plastic grocery bag) in the past year

Lumangwe Falls, Kawambwa, Luapula, June 2013

Fun fact: in Zambia, it’s common practice to throw empty bottles out the window of the car/bus/truck once you’re done with them — there’s not as much litter on the sides of the road as you’d think because many bottles are repurposed as containers, cups, and toys

15,248

kids who stop by my house every day to say hello ask me for money/candy/food/plastic bags

Willie and Chungu hamming it up as we cook

Willie and Chungu hamming it up as we cook in Nshinda, April 2014

137

times I’ve been told I look like a woman

Some of the gorgeous (actual) women of Luapula Province

Some of the gorgeous (actual) women of Luapula Province

463

buns and fritters eaten

Kafutuma, Luapula, August 2013

Lighting an unusual square brazier in Kafutuma, August 2013

133

books read since being posted to site

Why yes, that is an elephant in the background -- on vacation at South Luangwa National Park, September 2013

Reading Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls while on vacation at South Luangwa National Park, September 2013

1,935

kwacha spent on talk time for phone calls, texts, and internet (mostly internet)

Charging my phone

Charging my phone using the rays of the sun, February 2013

28

kilograms of rice eaten

Lubunda, Luapula, July 2013

Cooking rice at Ryeon’s site in Lubunda, July 2013

173

hours spent on public transport

A canter full of Peace Corps volunteers on a game drive in Kasanka National Park

On a game drive in Kasanka National Park, November 2013

27

hours spent on public transport waiting for said transport to start moving

vamp

Waiting for the bus to leave in Mansa, June 2013

2

caterpillars eaten

Petauke, Eastern, February 2013

Caterpillars in the market in Petauke, Eastern Province, February 2013

0

mornings I’ve woken up in Africa and not been happy

Petauke, Eastern Province, February 2013

Pottery lesson

One afternoon soon after arriving at site last May, I was biking back home with Sebastian when I spotted a large clay pot for sale on the side of the road. I asked him if there was a strong local art movement in town. He ignored this, instead explaining patiently that Zambians use these pots for cooling and storing water. We stopped and chatted with the woman who emerged from the nearby house, who was surprised but pleased to see a muzungu and even more surprised and pleased to learn that I’d be living just down the street for the next two years. I bought the pot — as it turned out, I had an empty corner of my living room I was dying to fill with some local art — and the potterymaker told me to come back so she could teach me how to make pots.

A few days later I obediently returned. The woman sat me down in the shade to watch how she mixed water with a specific kind of dirt, making a soft, malleable clay. She patiently took me through the process of kneading the clay like bread, shaping the foundation, building the walls without the aid of a spinning wheel, and finally etching designs and patterns into the surface. She explained how she dried the pot or bowl or vase in the sun before burning it over a fire in a makeshift kiln. She demonstrated how she used a folded chitenge to wrap the pots before strapping them to the back of her bicycle in order to transport them safely to the market.

A pot hand-crafted from clay right in my village will cost you 8 kwacha, or about $1.50

Toward the end of the lesson, I spotted the name “Nancy” shaped into the side of a finished cup in large and careful lettering. When I inquired about the personage of this Nancy, another woman on the compound extracted a photograph from a worn folder and brought it over to me. In the 4″ x 6″ snapshot were three smiling Caucasian faces, a man and woman who looked to be in their late 50’s with thinning hair and glasses and a pretty younger woman who may have been their daughter. A picture that would have been utterly unremarkable if viewed in the world I came from but which seemed extremely out of place here. The women explained to me that the potterymaker’s eldest daughter is away at secondary school, sponsored by a woman in Australia through a correspondence program organized by World Vision, an NGO working in our district. This woman, the older woman in the picture, was coming to visit the village a few weeks later and the cup was a gift for her, a token bearing her name.

Fast-forward one year later and the Australian woman has come and gone. The craftswoman is still making pots. (In fact, I’ve since learned that the Nshinda area is a bit renowned throughout Zambia as one of the only places in the country where this particular type of pottery is made.) And the grungy Peace Corps volunteer is still hanging around, about to celebrate a full year of asking dumb questions and chasing cheeky kids away from his porch. The three of us form an unlikely trio whose lineages traverse the globe — a fifth-generation Californian whose ancestors lived in China, a Bemba-speaking Zambian whose tribe originated in the Congo, and an Australian who can probably trace her heritage back to England — yet we are all linked through this chance meeting, this unanticipated progression of events.

But even if I had never seen the photograph, even if I had never bought the clay pot on the side of the road, even if I had never set foot in Zambia, the three of us would still be linked by a broader connection: we breathe the same air, we share the same world. I know this, but sometimes I forget. And it took a pottery lesson in a village in rural sub-Saharan Africa to help me remember.

Two of my host sisters during training in Chongwe

At my host family’s compound during Pre-Service Training a year ago

First glimpse of home (for the next two years)

I just got back from Second Site Visit in Luapula Province, my first opportunity to see the village where I’ll be living for the next two years. Here are some first impressions, thoughts, and random notes:

-Nchelenge District is way, way up there. The drive from Lusaka took 12 hours by Land Cruiser not counting stops, and the Peace Corps cruisers go faster and stop much less frequently than the buses.

-There are literally thirty kids who like nothing more than to sit right outside my door and stare at me.  All. Day. Not to be outdone, I sit down right in the middle of the pack, making faces right back. Some of the braver ones poke me from time to time to, I think, make sure that I’m real. I played some “volleyball” with some of the older boys one afternoon (batting a village ball made from plastic bags and string around in the air with our hands) and the kids got really into it, both the dozen or so who were playing and the twenty girls and smaller boys who were watching. They were loud. But even if they had been silent as mice (I’m regretting my choice of words already – you can definitely hear the rats here scurrying everywhere), all of the bamayos still would have been watching because of the muzungu in their midst.

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-Luapula Province is beautiful. We passed a river gorge on our way up to Nchelenge and it looked like a scene out of Jurassic Park, lush and green and rugged and wild. That was actually atypical of Luapula since the province is very flat, but everywhere there is green and the red/orange/yellow/brown houses contrast vividly with the green grass and trees and the blue sky and white clouds.

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-Ba Sebastian Lubinda’s fish farm looks like a tropical paradise. Ba Sebastian is my counterpart and is practicing integrated fish farming with bananas and pineapples, along with some sugar cane, cassava, and maize for personal consumption. We took a tiny bush path to reach his ponds and it was like I had stepped onto the set of Lost. It’s very tropical and jungle-like. I kept expecting to see a tiger slink out of the grass until I remembered that there are no tigers in Africa. The ponds are gorgeous. There are purple/pink/white water lilies growing wild everywhere (I told Ba Sebastian that ku America my dad grows and harvests these exact same plants for sale and he laughed; here they’re worthless), banana trees and pineapples (he’s one of the only pineapple farmers in the province) lining all of the banks, and fish feeding on the surface.

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-I feel kind of ridiculous telling people that I’m here to teach fish farming in front of my counterpart who knows much more about fish farming than me. Ba Sebastian has 18 ponds and is applying for a loan from a Zambian government initiative to promote small fish farms in Luapula Province, and he also makes his own fish food from mealie meal waste (byproduct of the flour used to make nshima) and fish proteins. I’m not really here to advise him as much as I’m here to help promote fish farming in the area and use his farm as an example for other people interested in fish farming.

-My house is pitch black and creepy. And that’s during the day. I took pictures inside the hut at night which look like stills from those movies set in deserted cabins in the woods where the victim enters the hut and sees one lone wooden chair, illuminated by her headlamp, giving you just enough time to wonder in horror where the chair’s occupant is before BLAMMMM the minor downbeat assaults your ears, the light gets knocked to the floor, and the primal screaming begins. Nope, I wasn’t feeling scared at all as I quivered in my tent inside my hut that first night at site.

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-My hut is huge: I have four rooms and a hallway, and each room is as large as my entire hut in homestay. One room is a combination storage and bathing area (with drainage pipe leading outside – I’ve already taken advantage of this feature to brush my teeth and pee without leaving my house; it’s pretty fantastic), one room will be a bedroom, and the other two rooms will be a kitchen/storage and a living room/general purpose room. Seriously, I pretty much own a mansion.

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-I think I’m going to love Kashikishi, a big market in Nchelenge on the shore of Lake Mweru 23 kilometers away from my site. I bought a t-shirt there for K5 ($1)  which reads “Manet for lovers, Monet for others,” partly because it’s delightfully ironic (I can’t for the life of me remember which one was Monet and which one was Manet; are they even two different artists?), but mostly because it’s the softest t-shirt I’ve ever felt. This thing is serious hipster candy and probably cost $45 in America before it was donated to charity and shipped over to Africa along with millions of other second-hand clothes. I love the stories behind each item in the market, comparing prices across the country and delighting in finding the same oddball shirt in two markets 14 hours away from each other.

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-During the ride to Kashikishi, I met with several district government officials in Nchelenge (Department of Fisheries, police, Department of Agriculture). Ba Sebastian also introduced me to every person we passed along the way who is a fish farmer or had expressed previous interest in fish farming, well over a dozen people all up and down the 23 kilometers, completely unplanned. That took seven full hours, and then in the evening we biked 12 more kilometers to find a carpenter in the next catchment area who agreed to make me a table and two chairs for K150 (the guy in my area wanted K300 for a table and four chairs). All told, I biked about 60 kilometers on Monday, more than I ride in a typical week in training. It provided great exercise and language practice; I greeted no fewer than two hundred people in Bemba, eliciting all manner (ha ha, Swype automatically inserted Manet there; I swear these programs think for themselves and have ridiculously dry senses of humor) of reactions from enthusiastic welcomes to angry yelling to confusion about whether I’m a woman or a man, to, most often, shocked faces quickly followed by the automatic respectful response. (Zambians are nothing if not respectful; contrary to American culture, it’s perfectly appropriate, even expected, that you call an old man you don’t know bashikulu, or grandfather, when you pass him on the street.)

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-My counterpart has two wives and two families. Surprise! They both are well aware of each other and seem to be fine with the arrangement, and he splits his time between the two houses/farms. Nope, this isn’t normal here at all. In fact, it’s generally frowned upon in this Christian nation, although so many Zambian men cheat on their wives that it’s assumed everyone has a “side plate.” So if Sebastian is faithful to both wives, I can’t really see how ably and openly supporting two families is a morally bad thing in this country where many men can’t even provide for one. And this confident, gregarious man knows how the logic adds up. After he introduced me to his first wife, Ba Sebastian asked me with a sly grin what I thought about polygamy. I was left to sputter, “Nshi shibe” (I don’t know), thankful that the oncoming darkness hid my embarrassment.

-Two days at site and I’m already giving speeches in front of the entire village. The headman called an impromptu meeting and I inadvertently strolled right into the middle of it. I sat down on the periphery, trying to be unobtrusive and remain unnoticed, but when you’re the only muzungu in a 5 kilometer radius that’s kind of hard to do. The headman called me up to speak, and I about fell over in shock. Nailed it. I think.