Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Thursday, November 4, 2010
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
It would be impossible to entirely relay every experience, every emotion, every person, and every place of the past two months in a matter of words, but words could never do justice. Words can’t recreate the strength and bravery in my amayi’s smile, the sunsets over Mwampicanyah village from the football pitch, my mornings spent in Nyanja class where a jumble of letters and sounds finally became my new language, and the way I felt when I visited Jacob Village and people I had never met before showed me the rawest form of love and generosity I have ever witnessed. I can’t promise my stories here will touch upon even a tenth of my life here, but they will be 100% me, totally and uniquely mine.
So I survived pre-service training, the nine-week instruction process that volunteers say is the most tedious time of their service. Our daily schedules were excessively crammed in order to assure time for language class, technical training, medical training, HIV/AIDS training, and cultural training. Though it was exhausting at times, I can confidently say that Peace Corps worked relentlessly to assure that we are well equipped for our new lifestyles in our new environments. When we were not learning Peace Corps related skills like how to co-teach with a Zambian teacher, how to cope with malaria and the inevitable diarrhea, and how to carry on a conversation (an elementary level conversation, that is) in the local language, we were busy immersing ourselves with our home-stay families. I stayed in a village called Mwampikanya with my amayi, my mother, and two of her nine children who lived with her. She is a short and round woman who is energy on wheels; she only rests from her daily chores to eat nsima, to gossip with the other women (usually about me), and occasionally on a blistering hot afternoon, she escapes under one of the few trees on the compound and just sits. Zambians express their hospitality through food, so saying I was well fed would be an understatement. She joined me for lunch and dinner and I will always cherish that time together, mostly because it was the only time that she allowed herself to slow down and I could soak in her stories and her laugh. We talked about everything, though she spent most of the time explaining cultural norms to me so I wouldn’t slip and offend anyone in the village – kneecaps and above are off limits in public, underpants must be hung to dry in your hut, don’t acknowledge a women’s pregnancy until AFTER the baby is actually born, only eat with your right hand, and greet everyone you see, even if you’ve seen them three times already that day and you’re biking up a very steep hill. While Peace Corps handled logistics, she taught me the survival skills for life in the bush. I learned how to sweep the dust out of my hut and the dirt in my compound (it’s a real craft to separate the leaves and sticks from the dirt, seriously), how to wash my clothes (though she’s sincerely concerned I can’t handle any article of clothing that isn’t black), and how to cook nsima (the staple food made out of milimeal that I am not strong enough to stir…yet). I’ll just say overall she has genuine doubt in my domestic abilities, but African women work harder than any American housewife I’ve ever met. Sometimes we wouldn’t talk at all, we would just sit and stare at each other in the most comfortable silence. Just by our conversations, she showed me that despite our wildly different lives we could become family, and we did.
There were seven of us that lived in the village of Mwampikanya, a cozy little place about 5 kilometers from the training center surrounded by hills of corn fields. The villagers were so proud to have volunteers staying there and everyone knew us by name. All of our families were related to each other in some way or another, the true test of a small town. We spent our time there visiting the three tuck shops where we befriended the owners and stocked up on lollipops and biscuits, we played Scattegories and cards sprawled on reed mats, we joined the rest of the village every Sunday afternoon for the weekly football game, and we watched the sunset over our new home laughing and pinching ourselves because life was too good to be real. There is this enormous tree that stands as the highest point in of Mwampikanya, which was a beautiful prop for the sky at every point in the day, but sunsets were definitely my favorite. In my new, simpler life, I have come to see sunsets as a staple for the day. I would sacrifice a running toilet for the African sky any day.
About half way through training, we discovered through a piñata game where we were going to be living for the next two years. Peace Corps likes to play the waiting game, so I was relieved, excited, and slightly terrified for all of this to become real in the name of a tiny village in Africa where I would be serving. I am going to be moving to Jacob Village in Petauke District in the Eastern Province in Zambia, but I can’t promise you google map will locate my mud hut. I traveled there about four weeks ago with my supervisor for my first taste of independence in the African bush. I am first generation, meaning that I am the first Peace Corps Volunteer that has ever lived there, so their enthusiasm was electrifying. I was greeted by a welcome ceremony of roughly 300 people who had traveled from neighboring villages to see me. I was presented with a plethora of gifts, including 20 pumpkins, 4 nsima spoons, and 7 live chickens. I have yet to kill a chicken, but thankfully my new neighbors were happy to do so in the name of meat for dinner. They danced and sang and cheered for me, it was by far one of the most memorable days of my life. I will never forget how I felt when these strangers fed me, spoiled me, and accepted me, because they already considered me a part of them, regardless of my novelty. That sort of raw human emotion is unique. It’s hard to come by that sort of generosity in many places I have visited, but not in Zambia, a place where people don’t even have anything to give.So tomorrow a cruiser will drop me off in the bush, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t scared. I feel like I have spent the last few months at summer camp, and now this is when the real journey begins, the kind of journey that’s both terrifying and exciting because you know it’s worth every risk. One of the greatest lessons I have learned so far in the Peace Corps is self-reliance, realizing that you are just enough. It is easy to get lonely when the sun sets at 6:00 and the lack of electricity paired with the lurking snakes and spiders keeps me inside my hut. It is times like this at night when there’s nothing but the company of your journal and your books that is the true test of being alone. Although I know these experiences are going to be much more intensified when I am alone in my village and I don’t have the security of Americans in neighboring family compounds, I already feel the impact of learning such a lesson. In realizing that you are the one you have been waiting for, you experience an overwhelming sense of contentment. I think that will be both my greatest challenge over the next several months, as well my greatest reward at the completion of my two years.For the next three months I will be in Community Entry, which is the Peace Corps’ terminology for the initial three months of service where the relationships formed will determine my service of the next two years. I am not allowed to leave my village to come to the Provincial House except for a day long meeting, in June, so my internet access will be bare to minimal in the bush. Hand written letters are still highly encouraged, and probably the best way for me to stay in contact with everyone. My new address, which will be my permanent address here is:
P.O. Box 560059
I continue to surprise myself everyday here. They say you should do one thing a day that scares you; try doing 100 things everyday that scare you. Regardless, here I am, with few doubts that this is where I am meant to be. Although, I can confidently write that if I am ever feeling shaky about my decision to be here, I never look down at my feet like the saying goes. I find it much more reassuring to look up at the African sky and then I know I am exactly where I am supposed to be – the clouds and the stars are much more encouraging than my clumsy feet.
Monday, February 15, 2010
I have to be honest. I decided that I would officially accept my Peace Corps invitation the day I heard Maria Shriver give the eulogy at her mother, Eunice’s, funeral. I know, I know, my obsession with the entire Shriver family is probably unhealthy and an extremely irrational source for my grown-up life decision-making, but she said something that really resounded with me. Maria said, “If mummy were here today she would pound the podium and ask each of you what you have done today to better the world.” I’ve always looked up to Eunice, someone who showed up in life as herself and worked tirelessly for a cause that was close to her. I thought about what I had done to better the world, and nothing momentous came to me. Sure, we all better the world by being good friends to the people in our lives, by participating in community service, and by the role models we are to the people around us, especially children. But there I was, a recent college graduate, with the world of opportunity at my fingertips, and I was definitely not changing the world as a nanny on Nantucket. I felt that this was my chance to better the world, or at least give it a try. I know I won’t walk away from my Peace Corps experience feeling as though I’ve changed the world or even a country, but I can only hope that I will leave Zambia having helped a few souls.
I take off for Philadelphia today for my staging/pre-orientation, and then on Wednesday, I leave for Zambia. Wednesday also happens to by my birthday…quite a way to start my 23rd year. Nothing like a solid 15 hour flight. My bags are packed, although they are definitely overweight and unmanageably large. I have said my goodbyes to a small portion of the people I would have liked to talk to, but I blame the last minute packing, and hence the overweight issue. I have taken in most of my favorite American dining, although I have a stash of sour patch kids for the plane, clearly. My emotions range from absolute fear to uncontainable excitement, the curse of my sleepless night and knotted stomach. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t doubting my decision, but I think this is the sort of feeling you are supposed to get before you take this sort of leap and dive into something different.
Unfortunately, I am not going to have internet access for the next couple of months because I will be training and staying with a host family. Based on the intensive schedule, I don’t think I’ll have much time for anything except sleep and maybe a bucket shower here and there. So this blog will be lifeless for a little bit of time, but I promise I will update as frequently as I can once I have access to my computer. Until then, here is my address and snail mail is always encouraged, you know how I love a good hand-written letter:
P.O. Box 50707
My mom asked me last night if I was going to be different when I came back. My immediate response, “Absolutely.” Then she said, “Just promise me I’ll be able to recognize you. No dreadlocks.” I’m sure I’ll look the same on the outside, aside for my unwashed hair and sunburns. As for the inside, I can’t promise anything. I hope it changes me, why else would you sacrifice so much and go on this sort of journey?
I’ll leave you with this. The following excerpt is from the book “Nine Hills to Nambonkaha” written by a Peace Corps volunteer, Sarah Erdman, who served in Western Africa. It was an amazing read and I soaked up every word she wrote. This is how she ended her introduction:
People ask me now, “What was Africa like?” I tell them that the place I came to know is laughing yet troubled, strong yet crippled, and dancing. Africa is like nothing I had known before, until I knew it better. But to really explain it, I have to start from the beginning.
So here is to my beginning, let’s hope it’s dancing…