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



Is the Peace Corps worth it?

At some point during their service, nearly every Peace Corps volunteer reflects back on the past month or year or two years and asks themselves the million-dollar question (er, well, in my case, the $280/month question):

Is it worth it?

Is the Peace Corps worth it for our host countries? Does the work we do really make a difference? Is bringing Americans to live in underdeveloped communities worth constantly provoking the jarring contrast between privilege and struggle? Is it worth the potential to incite jealousy and resentment, worth the possibility of engendering false hope and unfulfilled dreams?


And is it worth it for us volunteers? Is spending two years of our lives here worth the infinitesimal gains we may make, worth the three steps back for every one step forward? Is it worth the job opportunities passed by and the friends’ weddings and grandparents’ funerals and annual family Christmas feasts that we’re missing back home? Is it worth the loneliness and frustration and restlessness and discomfort and despair?

I pondered this question many times before joining the Peace Corps, because moving halfway across the world to live in a mud hut in sub-Saharan Africa for 27 months was not a decision I wanted to make lightly. Before starting off on the path less traveled, I came to the fork in the road, plopped myself down, and camped out there for a year. Serving as a Peace Corps volunteer meant giving up a good job with great benefits and fun coworkers. It meant bidding farewell to a Subaru-driving, organic-almond-milk-drinking, fixed-gear-bicycle-pedalling, sure-let’s-take-a-day-trip-to-Lake-Tahoe-and-then-come-back-in-time-to-watch-the-sun-set-over-the-Golden-Gate-Bridge-because-we-can yuppie’s wet dream. It meant leaving loyal and hilarious friends, weirdly and lovably simpatico brothers, unwaveringly supportive parents, and doting grandmothers. It meant walking with eyes wide open into a new world where I knew successes would be fleeting and failures would be constant.

But I decided to do it anyway.

And yes, sometimes my life here feels like one long and convoluted detour. I bounce over potholes and swerve around roadblocks on a daily basis. Meetings get postponed and postponed again, then canceled. Every great idea I have for a new project to start in my community is met with an equally great obstacle that is either cultural, social, or bureaucratic. Fish farming programs are delayed for weeks, and when they do finally come together the farmers focus on the most random things to spend two hours arguing about.


Life outside of work is often even more trying. Every time I step outside my hut I get leered at and verbally accosted like a lissome blonde trying to slip quietly past a construction site. The same little kids who act like I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread one day throw rocks through my doorway and demand money the next. My neighbor’s youngest daughter is ill with a disease that is easily curable in America and the clinic and the hospital have both told him that there’s nothing they can do. I spend a lot of time doing nothing. An embarrassingly large, shocking amount of time doing nothing.

When I’m working on projects, I question my motives and wonder if I’m just trying to appease my sense of guilt at not doing enough, at never doing enough. When I’m sitting in my hut reading, that guilt spreads over me like the sticky sheen of sweat that slathers my body each evening.

But evaluating the worth of a Peace Corps service isn’t as simple as jotting down attendance at meetings or counting new fish ponds. Development may be the easiest of our organizational duties to slap onto a job description, but it’s often the most difficult foundation upon which to build lasting results. Perhaps more solid are the lessons that we’re learning and teaching here in our host countries, as well as the insights that we’re bringing back to America. The effects of cultural exchange, though harder to quantify, may very well last longer than wells and libraries and fish ponds. Because thanks to sons and daughters and sisters and college roommates and nephews and ex-girlfriends who live in gray tenement buildings in Albania and sticky flats in Thailand and parched mud huts in Zambia, there is a growing network of Americans back home who are learning a little bit more about the world around them. And our neighbors in our host countries are receiving similar lessons as they observe and interact with American women and men on a daily basis, many of them young, most of them serving alone, nearly all of them coming from a radically different cultural and ideological background. They study our differences and answer our questions and reflect on our commonalities, as we learn their language and eat their food and share in their lives.

And through it all we ourselves are constantly changing. I think of the transformations we’ve undergone and will undergo, the strengths we’re discovering, the self-esteem we’re building. I think about the friends we’ve made, the tears we’ve fought to hide, the laughter we’ve shared. I think about the certainties that I’m coming to realize aren’t quite as certain as I once thought they were. I think about the humility that I am slowly learning, the compassion and respect for my fellow human that is surging within me. And I ask myself again if it’s worth it.

The answer, at least for me, is a resounding yes. Every single step of this incredible journey is worth it: the triumphs, the setbacks, the elucidation, the confusion, the disillusionment, the clarity. There are so many reasons why joining the Peace Corps has been one of the best decisions of my life. And the number of fish ponds I’ve helped farmers dig is nowhere near the top of the list.


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

Reasons why Community Entry is like retirement

-I live alone in a big house, don’t work, and yet still have more money than the neighbors.

-Every day I complain of an eclectic assortment of minor ailments.

-I talk to my cat more often than I talk to most people.

-My evening footwear consists of thick wool socks with flip flops.

-I write my neighbors’ names down in a notebook so I don’t forget them.

-These darn kids just won’t get off my porch.

-I’m in bed by 8pm and wake up before 6am.

-Taking a slow walk around the neighborhood represents the bulk of my social engagements for the day.

-I plan my vacations two years in advance.

-I haven’t had a regular bowel movement in weeks.

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.


-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.


-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.


-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.


-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.


-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.


-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.)


-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.