Green like fish farming

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Fish farming isn’t very glamorous. It’s grimy, strenuous, blue-collar work characterized by dirt under your fingernails and the faint odor of mud rising from your pores no matter how many times you bathe. My dad served in the Peace Corps as an aquaculture volunteer in Papua New Guinea from 1981-1985, started a fish farm shortly after returning to the States, and has been growing, harvesting, and selling fish and water plants ever since. He loves it. I served bags of Fritos and grape-flavored Simply Sodas to my grandpa’s grinning workers for 25 cents each from 1996-1998, started thinking pretty much exclusively about girls shortly after hitting puberty, and had been dreaming of a nice, clean, air-conditioned office job ever since those long summers as a kid spent toiling away in the murky water and the 110-degree San Joaquin Valley heat. Me growing up, not so thrilled about fish farming.

So of course once I was an adult who could make his own decisions, I left my nice, clean, air-conditioned office job, joined the Peace Corps, and now live without air conditioning in sub-Saharan Africa working as a Rural Aquaculture Promotion (RAP) volunteer. Or, in other words, fish farming. Although my 15-year-old self may not have appreciated fully all of the life lessons that his father assured him he was gleaning from the muck and sweat and pungent carcasses of rotting fish, my 25-year-old self is appreciative of the role fish farming played in his personal development and thinks there’s a neat sort of circularity in the way that this has informed and led to his life as a fish farming volunteer a decade later.

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Patrick Chansa is a bright 20-year-old who finished secondary school last year, speaks fluent English, and wants to study forestry at the University of Zambia. For the time being though, Patrick is a member of a newly formed fish farming group in Kampampi. Last Wednesday he took me to visit their new pond site. After reaching town, we turned off the tarmac onto a bush path that twisted through a bucolic forest and then coasted down into a vast grassy dambo valley.

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The pond was almost finished, smelling like freshly turned mud. The smell of development (my personal madeleine). From my perch on the muddy bank I offered some advice for remaining pond construction and beginning management, describing the benefits of making the pond walls sloped (“to give the fish better spawning habitat!”) and extolling the virtues of adding manure and plant compost to the water (“once it turns green, that’s when you’ll know you have a good bloom!”).

On Friday afternoon I biked over to Chabilikila to host a pond staking workshop with my nearest PCV neighbor, Sarah. As a CHIP volunteer most of Sarah’s work is with community health, but her youth group wants to start fish farming so I agreed to come over and provide a physical blueprint for where and how much to dig. The workshop was scheduled to start at 14:30, which meant the group hadn’t fully arrived until 16:00 – punctuality is a foreign concept for Zambian meetings. No matter, this just meant I was able to spend more time catching up with Sarah, a former preschool teacher who is, true to vocational stereotypes, exceptionally good-humored and patient as a saint.

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Once the gang had all assembled, we headed out to the pond site. The roughly 15 x 15 meter square of swampy land had been slashed (tall grass cut short) and burned to clear the plot upon request before my arrival. Rubbing some dirt under my fingernails, I got to work explaining the purpose of the pond staking and demonstrating each step of the process. Together we appropriated small tree branches for use as pond stakes, measured out the perimeter of the pond, hammered in stakes, calculated the slope of the dike walls, and linked all of the stakes together using twine.

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At one point in the afternoon I managed to throw in the word utonfukumfuku (natural springs) as I addressed the group, garnering a hearty laugh of appreciation for my pronunciation of this tongue-twisting and slightly obscure bit of deep Bemba. It was a much more effective deployment of local language than when I made the mistake of practicing the most phonetically repetitive word in Bemba in front of the kids who hang out on my front porch. Now they parrot back to me “Ayakatapakatapa ayakatapakatapa!” over and over again, chortling like maniacs the entire time and delighting, as only small children can, in the fact that what they’re saying makes no sense: “Green! Green! Green! Green! Green!”

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