So you’re thinking about joining the Peace Corps

 I found these two kids in front (and their shirts) via a casting call through the Peace Corps marketing department

I found these two kids in front (and their shirts) via a casting call through the Peace Corps marketing department

One of the funny things about life after college that they don’t tell you in colorful brochures or limited-enrollment seminars is that your entire focus shifts from self-betterment to the betterment of other things. These are things that we honestly don’t care about much, because let’s admit it: the 22-year-old iterations of ourselves are all fundamentally self-centered creatures who dress up like hipsters must be forgiven for being unable to go ten seconds without perceiving the world as a Hollywood movie in which we ourselves are the cute, ditzy, vivacious protagonist who by the end of 90 minutes gets the guy and the job promotion for which she is fantastically unqualified.

But bills need to be paid, and even the most self-absorbed of us eventually come to realize that what pays the bills is managing other men’s affairs, working around other men’s clocks, fulfilling other men’s dreams. If we don’t reach this understanding on our own, then our parents and our student loans and our Facebook friends’ status updates are only too happy to elucidate us. And as we experience more of life so we learn, and as we grow older so we dutifully fall into line.

Sometimes though, sooner or later, the questions begin to trickle in. Is this all there is? Am I happy, or am I settling? Is it normal to feel disillusioned after only six months? Am I holding onto something that would be better to let go, simply because I’ve worked so hard and invested so much time to get to this point and it’s all I know? And am I so distracted now, am I so absorbed by the complexity and challenges of my daily life, that I can no longer see the forest for the trees? Have I ceded control of so much self-awareness that I can no longer identify what really matters to me?

Confronted for the first time with the beast of uncertainty snapping at the heels of stark reality, the only way to find answers is to seek out new perspectives. Getting a new job is one way to do this. Relocating to a new place is another. Changing your lifestyle just might do the trick. And if you want to try all three at the same time, you could do something crazy like joining the Peace Corps.


My life hasn’t quite been the same ever since arriving in Zambia two and a half years ago

All of the cliches are true. The highs are incredibly high — soul-affirmingly high. I’ve felt ridiculously, euphorically happy with my life more times in the past year than I did in the previous 25 years combined. The lows are an existential well that has no bottom. And making it even deeper is the knowledge that nobody’s dug this well for you but yourself. Helping people is cathartic, but from the short stoop of a two-year service it’s pretty much impossible to see far enough to tell if you’re actually making a difference thirty feet down the road.

Life is a bit lot less comfortable than it was back in the suburbs. You’re going to be a local celebrity, and you’re not going to enjoy it as much as you thought you would. In fact, you’re probably going to hate it sometimes. You’ll probably get some annoying disease you’ve never heard of before. Your fellow volunteers will end up being some of the best friends you’ll ever have, although most could use a haircut and a couple don’t bathe as often as they should. You still might find yourself inexplicably attracted to a few of them. And you just might end up marrying one.


Dirty, sweaty, and feel like you just lost the big game? Just another day in the life of a Peace Corps volunteer

So if you get to the point where you don’t think you can continue on in the same life track you’re in right now without losing your mind or selling a bit of your soul, consider doing something drastic like uprooting your life and moving somewhere radically different. The place doesn’t matter so much — although travel agencies and beer distributors would have you believe otherwise, sunsets look about the same everywhere.

But surrounding yourself with thousands of people who come from a completely different background and who value completely different things than you do is an exhilarating and profoundly educational experience. If you want all the time in the world to try to make even the tiniest positive difference in yourself and your community, without the excuse of a full-time job to justify not having the time or motivation to take these steps along the path of self-discovery, then this is where you may want to be.

It took moving to Zambia amidst a cloud of uncertainty for me to find the clarity of inner peace. To discern what I value instead of what others have convinced me I should value. To surround myself with influences that inspire me and help me to constantly learn more instead of with weak affirmations of the path of least resistance. To discover that in the process I have somehow managed to become a more curious and humble and appreciative person.

And the coolest thing is that instead of merely reading about my cultural faux pas and my existential crises and my wacky fish-out-of-water tales on this blog, you can do it too.

Turn that perspective on its head! Go find that inner peace! Drink from the Kool-Aid and forget about the sugar and empty calories for just a moment. (For 27 months, to be precise.) You’ll work them off when you’re running around scrambling to find a job again afterwards. A new life is out there waiting for you in the place where your comfort zone ends and your uncertainty begins. All you have to do is reach out and grab it.

These crazy kids never fail to put a smile on my face

These crazy kids never fail to put a smile on my face


Further reading

Hello! I thought I had closed the book on Fishing in Zambia, but some of my recent reading has inspired me to use what is left of this platform to shamelessly plug a few other blogs that I thoroughly enjoy. I think you might, too.

Bush Baby Colvin

Bush Baby Number 1

Bethany Colvin is actually a former Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia. Not Returned Peace Corps volunteer, because she actually still lives in Zambia! I feel like this gives her insights even more credibility because whereas I was only in Zambia for 27 months, she has remained in my province of Luapula for several years after she completed her own service and is still doing very Peace Corps-y things with her husband, Jeremy.

Bush Baby Colvin has pretty much everything you’d want from a blog: a wickedly funny, brutally candid, and probingly insightful author; an interesting premise (how do you raise a Western family in decidedly un-Western rural Zambia?); a great story (Bethany and Jeremy own a small farm in a rural Zambian community, work with rural education and community development, and are literally the only expats I’ve ever met in Zambia who actually live in a mud hut just like the rest of their community); and tons of pictures of insanely adorable “Bush Baby Colvins” (now plural!). I had the privilege of meeting Bethany and Jeremy while I was serving in Zambia — in true frugal Peace Corps volunteer fashion, I hitched free rides in their trusty old Land Rover — and greatly enjoyed my short time getting to know them. These are folks who really walk the walk, so to speak. I want to be like them when I grow up.

You’re going to love this blog if you:

-Are a mother
-Wonder if you’re doing the right thing a lot
-Appreciate candor
-Have ever had a disagreement or fight with your partner and still love them anyway
-Are a living, breathing human being with a pulse


Emilie Syberg is a Rural Education Development volunteer in Northwest Province, Zambia. We met randomly at the Peace Corps Medical Office in Lusaka when I was receiving my health physical prior to departing, and I was extremely grateful for the chance encounter because now I get to stalk her blog from the comfort of my home with all of my modern American amenities. Boy, this is the best way to read blogs about people living in much different circumstances!

Anyhow, Emilie’s blog is a treat. Her writing has flawless word choice, a cadence that is beautifully evocative, and the sort of skill that almost slips by unnoticed until you stop and realize that you’re not just reading, you’re feeling what she writes. I tried to do this for two years but my writing feels absolutely wooden and clunky in comparison. Emilie’s recent blog post, “This and That,” may possibly be the single best thing I’ve ever read showing what it feels like to be a Peace Corps volunteer. Please check it out. I want to write like Emilie when I grow up.

You’re going to love this blog if you:

-Want to know what it really feels like to be a Peace Corps volunteer
-Appreciate the subtle use of repetition to emphasize a theme
-Finish a short story and feel that melancholy sensation of wishing it would continue while at the same time realizing that it does continue because it’s now a part of your own life and woah how did that just happen??
-Are a living, breathing human being with a pulse

Check out these blogs if you get a chance! I promise it won’t be a waste of your time.

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

Zambag, n.

Zambag, zam-bag. n. 1. A large, zippered version of a reusable grocery bag made from durable woven plastic. 2. The personal transportation accessory of choice for rural Zambians and cash-strapped Peace Corps volunteers, who have been known to stuff these things with everything from pasta to books to pineapples to live chickens.

For the aesthetic pleasure of the discerning traveler, Zambags are adorned with vivid color prints of everything from large African mammals to the cosmopolitan skyline of Dubai to Miley Cyrus.

Zambian Colloquial Dictionary (ZCD), 2015.


Zambags strapped to the backs of bicycles are a common sight -- this was my load for a 150-mile bike ride last June

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.”

DSC05600 (1750x1163)

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

All the news that’s fit to be read by our country director

Our third (and my final) edition of Zambition, Peace Corps Zambia’s volunteer-run newsletter, is now published. Check it out!

(Gracing the cover is Lenge, the youngest son of my counterpart Sebastian. This kid is so darn photogenic that even when a picture shows only his hands they turn out to be the best looking little-kid hands you’ve ever seen. Some people get all the luck.)

Zambition January 2015

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)