What I don’t know

Lenge "helping" to net a pond

My little host brother Lenge “helping” to net a pond

I’ve been in Zambia for over two years now, and during that time I’ve written nearly 200 posts on the topic. You’d think I’d have gotten the hang of this Peace Corps blogging thing by now. And yet I still don’t feel like I’ve come remotely close to adequately showing you what it’s really like to be a Peace Corps volunteer. Sure, I can describe the things I do, the things I see, even the things I think. But these are still things that I know, wrapped up in a me-blanket stitched with the threads of my perspective and woven into the fabric of my experience. And I’ve slowly come to realize that the essence of the Peace Corps is much more intrinsically linked to the things I don’t know than to the things I do know. What it’s like to be a volunteer is much more accurately depicted in the things I’m unable to express than in the things that I can.

I can show you photos of adorable grinning children and I can share stories of how they simultaneously bring me boundless enjoyment and constant irritation, but I don’t know how to convey the consternation I feel at knowing that in a better world these kids wouldn’t be hanging out at the foreigner’s house all the time because they’d be in school instead. I don’t know how to show you how it feels to see ringworm, malnutrition, and open sores so often that my brain starts to trick me into thinking that this is normal. I don’t know how to describe the hopelessness of seeing something so easily fixable in a different world and being unable to fix it in this one. This is what it’s like to be a Peace Corps volunteer.

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Some of my neighbor children returning from work in the bush

I can relate to you funny encounters from when I’ve greeted people in the local language using the completely wrong words, and I can describe how I tell them what color the water in their fish ponds should be when they have a good bloom, but I can’t tell you what people in my village say about me behind my back. (Or, let’s be real, in front of my face — my Bemba is still as painfully awkward as a middle-schooler with acne and braces with a crush on the ridiculously early-developing and decidedly acne-free girl in front of him in his 8th grade English class). I don’t know what they really think about why I’m here or what I’m doing. I don’t know if they like me, dislike me, are amused by me, or are annoyed by me. And I can’t fully trust my counterpart and best friend when he assures me that people do like me, because I know he likes me and this is what people tell their friends when they like them and want to protect their feelings. This is what it’s like to be a Peace Corps volunteer.

I can show you how I draw my water from a well and charge my phone from a solar panel, but I can’t explain how it feels to know that in just a month’s time I’ll go back to faucets and electrical outlets while my neighbors will be pulling buckets out of a hole in the ground for the rest of their lives. I don’t know how to show you that the amount of guilt I feel at these times could fill the Grand Canyon. I don’t know how to describe the crushing disillusionment I feel in play-acting at what for everyone else around me is real life. This is what it’s like to be a Peace Corps volunteer.

Washing clothes (and trucks) at the edge of the lake

Washing clothes (and trucks) at the edge of the lake

Writers are often told to write what they know. When I remember this advice, I can’t help but despair a little — with every passing day, I find that I know less and less. But what I don’t know could fill a book. Or a blog. So maybe I’ve been going about this whole writing business the wrong way. Maybe I need to start writing more about what I don’t know instead.

One thing I do know: President Obama and I are from the same country, despite nine out of ten Zambians refusing to believe me

One thing I do know: President Obama and I are from the same country, despite nine out of ten Zambians refusing to believe me


ZamTwitter, Month 22

Random news from my 22nd month of Peace Corps service, in 140 characters or less.

February 7 – Just half-wobbled, half-sprinted out to my latrine and dropped trou a split-second before I exploded. My village must think I’m so weird.

February 11 – We’re in a rainy season drought: every afternoon the sky darkens and a few drops fall, then it gets sunny again. The farmers are not amused.

Following a fish farmer out to her ponds

Following a fish farmer out to her ponds

February 13 – Ughh. An extremely unpleasant side effect of a midnight thunderstorm blowing in is the huge gusts of wind which spray sand all over my bed.

February 17 – Spent nine hours today getting to and sitting during a meeting in which I spoke for all of five minutes. Sounds about right.

February 18 – I’ll never get used to the supreme disorientation of staggering half-asleep onto the first bus barreling through my village before dawn.

A common view -- on the bus, waiting to leave

A common view — on the bus, waiting to leave

February 20 – There are 27 people on this 75-seat bus. And two of them are babies. Why can’t all 11-hour bus rides be like this?

February 22 – At the new Pre-Service Training in Chongwe and just shepherded 20 new trainees through the market. Can’t believe two years has already passed.

Nothing quite blends beauty and chaos like a Zambian bus station

The outside of a rural Zambian market on a calm day

February 25 – I’m eating and watching a dubbed Indian soap as five Zambian trainers analyze tonight’s plot of Samira nervously meeting her future in-laws.

February 28 – Peace Corps in the 21st century: in addition to sessions on Zambian culture and aquaculture, trainees also learn about cellular data plans.

March 4 – Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you haven’t. Walking to the doctor holding a vial of my poop, I realize the cap isn’t screwed tight.


March 5 – Just traded two packs of Juicy Fruit and a can of expired Altoids for two bottles of water and a Fanta. Love Zambia’s barter economy.

March 6 – Nothing says cultural exchange quite like a Phillipine-made film in Tagalog dubbed in English playing in Zambia. Gonna miss the buses here.

March 9 – Netted and restocked 1,500 fish today from Sebastian’s farm, but the big news in Nshinda is that Hobbes has new kittens. Five of them.

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These are not these kittens. These are old kittens. This just proves that I’ve taken a lot of pictures of kittens.


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!.


A letter to myself from two years ago

Dear Matt,

It’s 4am, and you’re laying awake in your old bed in Mom and Dad’s house, too wired to continue sleeping. In just a few hours you will hop on a morning flight out of Fresno-Yosemite International to begin the first leg of your journey to Zambia to start your Peace Corps service; your mind is racing with a thousand different thoughts and feelings as you try to make sense of it all, to know what will happen. For a guy who doesn’t often experience emotional turbulence, it’s a strange sensation.

I know we’re not the biggest fans of unsolicited advice, but since your insomniac ass is trapped in bed for two more hours while my long-winded rambling ass is sitting in my hut with rainclouds looming and a full charge on my solar battery, this is just how it’s going to go. Relax. Don’t worry about it. I’ve seen how it all plays out, and everything is going to be more than fine.

You tear up for the first time since receiving your invitation to Peace Corps as the uptempo bass of Shakira’s Waka Waka pulses through your headphones. You feel ridiculous, a grown man of 24-nearly-25 experiencing a distinctly and embarrassingly emotional reaction to an overplayed commercial pop song. And yet you can’t stop picturing parting ways with Mom and Dad just an hour ago at the security checkpoint, catching your last glimpse of them waving through a glass door as you trudged off toward the boarding gate. It could be the last time you see them for two years. You don’t know then that you aren’t just saying goodbye to your parents, you’re saying goodbye to an entire way of life. With the only way of life you have known up until now. You don’t know then that this will be the last time you will cry for the next two years.

You meet a tiny, vivacious girl from Texas at baggage claim at Philadelphia International who is barely taller than the giant backpack she has somehow managed to wrestle off the revolving carousel. You get to chatting and find that you are instantly bonded by your excitement and anticipation of joining the Peace Corps. You contemplate telling her about the Waka Waka episode. You decide not to, figuring that this is the type of oversharing that is Too Much, Too Soon. You don’t know then that she will eventually become one of your good friends, that you will travel on an international vacation and help produce a volunteer-run newsletter together. You don’t know then that she and several others in your friend circle will eventually come to hear the Waka Waka story anyway, and that although they will find it hilarious and tease you uproariously, they will understand perfectly how you had felt because they had all felt the exact same way.

You bound down the stairs to the hotel lobby early the next morning with a folder under one arm, balancing a cup of coffee as you greet flustered-looking travelers burdened with mountains of luggage. You correctly deduce that they must be fellow Peace Corps invitees and you offer to help them carry their bags up to their rooms after they check in, chatting with them the entire time and trying to find out their entire life stories in five minutes. They are a bit taken aback by this level of energy at 7am, but not as much as you are. Even though you are extremely introverted by nature, your entire decision to join the Peace Corps was fueled by a desire to break out of the mold that you’ve been forming for yourself ever since you realized that getting good grades and keeping your head down were the key to a peaceful prepubescent existence. So with this in mind, you have resolved to channel the stores of projected extroversion you typically reserve for networking at work conferences and ingratiating yourself to a girlfriend’s mother. You don’t know then that this is going to end up being great practice for when you will greet men, women, children, and terrified little babies over and over again during the next two years. You don’t know then that your friends will later chuckle at the recollection, telling you that at first they assumed you were a Peace Corps staff member, and then later that they worried you were going to be one of those people, the ebulliently and annoyingly extroverted camp-counselor types that everyone else wants to bop over the head with a two-by-four.

You walk purposefully along the disheveled line of bleary-eyed fellow invitees sprawled across the floor of the International Departures ticketing plaza of JFK not quite 24 hours later, waving your camera up before you like a peace offering. You are recording video of everybody’s responses to your made-for-Peace-Corps-propaganda query, “What are you most excited for in the Peace Corps?” and you doggedly press forward despite knowing that more than a few of your fellow invitees wouldn’t be opposed to bopping you over the head with a two-by-four right about now. You coax and cajole and wheedle, assuring them that they all know they’ll want to see this video again two years later when they finish their services. Everybody gamely participates, and their answers run the gamut of responses from things like “helping people” to “playing with children” to “discovering more about myself.” You don’t know then that six of the people in this video will no longer be in Peace Corps when you all reconvene for your Close of Service conference two years later. You don’t know then just how much these answers will change over the course of those two years.

You touch down in Lusaka the next day, stiff and jetlagged from 17 hours of flying and a few more hours of waiting in airports. This is the farthest you’ve ever traveled in your life. It’s hot and muggy, but the sky is blue and past the runway everything is verdant and green. As your shuttle leaves the airport, you pass people walking along the side of the road balancing baskets and buckets and branches on their heads and you make a mental note to yourself that you’re not in Kansas anymore. You don’t know then that you’ll spend so much time over the next two years sitting and waiting and sweating and holding in bowel movements in cramped and muggy and noisy buses that you will be immensely looking forward to a nice, air-conditioned, personal-entertainment-system-right-in-front-of-your-face 17-hour flight. (With a bathroom!) You don’t know then that two years later you’ll still look around and marvel at the sky and the trees and the people and the fact that this has been your life.

You lucky bastard, you’re about to embark on the greatest journey you’ve ever had. Yes, you’ll have more ups and downs than a newly hatched butterfly trying out its wings for the first time in the middle of a breezy summer afternoon. But, rather like that butterfly, you’ll also experience an ethereal sensation of a new world opening up before you, a world bright and colorful and intense and real. Being a Peace Corps volunteer truly is the hardest job you’ll ever love. And it starts: now.

Your older, slightly grungier, hopefully wiser, and definitely more charming and handsome self,


ZamTwitter, Month 20

Sorry for the delay in blog updates! By a combination of unfortunate weather and blatant user error (read: I’m dumb), my phone died an ignominious, watery death during my recent clash with Malawi’s relentless rainy season. Since then I’ve had to run around town purchasing a new phone, attempt to recreate various blog post drafts from memory, and gnash my teeth over the unexpected additional expense and inconvenience. But not to worry, Fishing in Zambia is now back in (belated) action.

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


One of the unfortunate and very real consequences of rainy season in Malawi (photo credit: Leah Karels)

December 15 – Helped dig terraces along pond walls today for planting rice. Promoting integrated aquaculture, or just trying to keep busy between rains?

December 18 – Hobbes’ latest kittens are driving me crazy. I’m badgering Sebastian to come get them before I bike out to the bush and leave them there.

December 23 – Just bought produce from a passing boy and discovered that my usual suppliers have been profiting off my ignorance of current market prices.


This kalembula (sweet potato leaves, left back) only set me back 1 kwacha, or about 16 cents, six times less than what the girls next door usually charge me

December 25 – Today I learned that Christmas in rural Zambia is exactly like every other day, except with more requests for me to give people things.

December 28 – In Mansa to work on my Volunteer Report Form. What does a PCV eat when he can buy whatever he wants? Mostly pineapple juice and sausage.

December 30 – You know it’s been a rough two days of travel when your bus gets stuck in mud for two hours and that’s still not the worst part of the trip.


The worst part? Getting a nasty bout of diarrhea which forced me to exercise painful sphincter control for ten hours in order to not expel my bowels all over the back of a bus (photo credit: Leah Karels)

January 1 – Ringing in the new year in beautiful Tolkienesque southern Malawi. Only took 31.5 hours on transport in nine different vehicles to get here.

January 3 – Mt. Mulanje soars to nearly 10,000 feet above verdant tea plantations. This out-of-shape hiker gained 7,500 feet over the past three days.


The massif of Mulanje looming above its surroundings is rumored to have inspired the mountains of Mordor in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (photo credit: Leah Karels)

January 7 – Traveling from windswept, desolate Mulanje to sunny, placid Lake Malawi at Cape Maclear in one day is an exercise in extreme contrasts.

January 10 – I went to Malawi and all I brought back was three drowned smartphones and this impressively patterned sunburn.


Look closely and you can see the extent of where my short arms could reach with the suntan lotion (photo credit: Leah Karels)


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.