Coping with Leaving

I have two weeks left in my village at this point. Sitting in my doorway at dusk and staring out at my compound, it hit me for the first time that while I’ve been processing a lot of emotions dealing with leaving all the people that make up the warm heart of Siamuleya, I’ve hardly given any thought to losing the physical place. I realized that, in two weeks, I’ll likely never again get to wake up and gaze out over the hills; I’ll never again spend a day lazing around this simple but sufficient house; I’ll never again fall asleep to the frogs and crickets and whistling evening birds. Loss is a difficult emotion for me to cope with, even while I’m so excited to return home to America. It’s made even harder by the fact that I knew it was coming all along, I filled myself up with everything this place has to offer, and I still feel like I’m missing something. Maybe I always will, simply because I can’t keep this place tucked into my pocket forever. I have to let go, and it’s so hard.

Saying Goodbye

It has been a very long time since I blogged… Life here is surprisingly easy to adapt to, and then nothing seems all that notable to blog about after a while.
Just about a week ago marked two years in-country for me. That means my time is almost at an end… My host family is already talking about how I’m leaving soon. I’m excited to go home to America, but also sad to leave this place that has also become my home, and these people who have also become my family.
I have so much to do in order to get ready to leave - it’s overwhelming. Packing up two years of life and giving it away to various parties is daunting. Saying goodbye is not something I ever considered myself actually doing, though I knew that logically I must. It always just seemed so far away.
I’m going to miss this place, with the cows that try to eat my laundry and the hot sun that creeps predictably over my dirt yard. I’m going to miss these people most of all, though. Two months left and I’m starting to feel it now.

The Maize is Growing…

I’ve been away for two weeks over the holidays, and it feels incredibly good to be home. I got a lift home with one of my farmers, and on the walk to my house, I noticed the maize. It’s getting so tall! It was only planted maybe a month ago, but it’s already nearing my hip.
I don’t know what it is that’s so exciting about the maize growing. It might be the simple act of change - that for how static and routine life can be in the village, some things are still dynamic. It might be relief - that although we had a late start to our rains this year, they’ve finally settled in comfortably and we can expect good results. But most of all, I think it’s the thought of my family and community being well-fed in this coming year. Climate change has never been scarier than while I’ve lived among subsistence farmers. The rains are literally their bread and butter, the life force that brings forth nearly everything they eat. No rains, no maize - or relish. No rains, no food. Thank god for the rains.

2013 Comes to a Close!

It’s been a while since I’ve posted - sorrysorry, but I’ve either been too busy to post, doing too much or to weird of things to be able to try to sum up in a post, or there’s been absolutely nothing worthwhile to post about. Resolution: be better about that this year!

Anyways, this year I did one of those “Write down all the happy things that happen to you this year and keep them in a jar to read on New Year’s Eve” jars, and I’ve just gotten through reading all of them. So here’s my year in review, in no particular order.

  • I learned how to make cheese from my other PCVs
  • I went night scuba diving in Lake Malawi
  • I got to watch the first roller derby since I left America
  • I read bits of ‘Game of Thrones’ aloud with Evy because we were both super into it but only had one copy when she visited me
  • I helped out in the pharmacy at the clinic
  • I read 100 books in-country
  • I carried 20L of water on my head
  • I saw the lunar rainbow at Victoria Falls
  • I saw polocrosse in Choma with my PCVs
  • I sent a chocolate bar via bushnote to my neighbor PCV, Jeremy
  • I cut my hair into a mohawk
  • I got an anonymous bushnote from PCV friends about whether or not I thought George Clooney is hot
  • I cliffjumped for the first time in Lake Malawi
  • I did my first condom demo at the clinic, and it was surprisingly not as awkward as I thought it would be
  • I ate crocodile for the first time - delicious!
  • I spent 6 hours making hilarious cookies with my friend, Evy
  • I discovered my new favorite podcast, ‘Welcome to Night Vale’
  • I bleached my hair
  • I did a Superman Month, or one month in the vill’ with no electronics
  • I hiked to Kalambo Falls at Lake Tanganyika
  • I started helping out with outreach under-5 clinics
  • I did my first complete re-read of ‘Harry Potter’
  • I made hot season kebabs and fancy drinks with Evy
  • I learned how to keep bees

Here’s to hoping 2014 is just as good!

A Can of Worms Labeled “Cultural Appropriation”

I am many, many things – lots of little odds and ends that make up a complicated and ever-changing individual. I am complex, thoughtful, multi-faceted, and proud of all of those bits and bobs. Because of the importance of these identities, I seek to be educated about all of them, empowered within them, and always yearning to know more about the identities of others – identities that are just as important to those individuals as mine are to me. This passion for understanding often leads me to late-night blog marathons and discussions with my diverse group of friends. After a year in Africa, I think it’s time. I’m opening this can of worms… Cultural appropriation, development obstacles, and white privilege, and specifically how these things relate to me as a white Westerner in “mystic ancient Africa.”

This blog has been a long while in the works, stewing away in my brain and just waiting for the right moment for me to unleash it. It’s gonna be a doozy, and I’m sure that I can’t do the broad subjects enough justice in the media of one blog entry. I’ll try to define things as I go along, but if you’re really interested in learning more about these topics at large (which I certainly support) then I would encourage you to do some Googling, read as many blogs as you have time for, and get the many rich perspectives that come from the sea of intelligent POC (people of color) bloggers on the internet.

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GLOW GLOW Power Rangers!

One of my favorite projects I’m involved in these days is Camp GLOW, which stands for Girls Leading Our World. GLOW is a girls’ empowerment camp put on by Peace Corps Volunteers, with the goal of empowering girls in rural areas through education. We cover issues like HIV/AIDS awareness, self esteem, puberty, budgeting, malaria prevention, and others - but we also do fun things like crafts, team building games, and field trips.

I’ve been busy, shuttling myself around my catchment area to pick girls for my camp. Each PCV selects two girls from grade 8, at least for what we’ve decided for Southern Province, and mine are very excited about this opportunity to go to camp. I had the girls of the grade 8 class at Siazwela write an essay about why they wanted to go to camp, and got some really great responses, from wanting to know their HIV status to excitement about bringing the lessons they learn back to their community.

We’re busy-busy in the process of planning this camp, getting all the sessions planned and supplies gathered, and come December, we should have everything we need to make this an awesome week. However, we can’t do it without help! If you’re interested in helping with Camp GLOW, we’d appreciate any of the following supplies that we can’t get in-country:

  • embroidery floss for friendship bracelets
  • yarn for crafts
  • beads and string for jewelry making - especially any cool-looking beads that we can give out for prizes or participation
  • crayons, colored pencils, etc
  • construction or otherwise colored paper
  • old magazines for collaging
  • glow sticks for nighttime games
  • small cute things for prizes - hair clips, headbands, scrunchies, key chains, bracelets
  • anything else you think we can use!

It’s really difficult for us to find certain things that will help us make this camp everything it can be, so we appreciate any help given. Afterwards, we’ll be mailing out thank you cards to all of our donors. If you’re interested in contributing, you can send things to my address:

Lee McKinstry, PCV
US Peace Corps
PO Box 630569
Choma, Zambia

If you’d like to keep up to date on our GLOW adventures, you can ‘Like’ our Facebook page here. We’re all very excited about how things are coming along, and I can’t wait to share more with you about how this thing goes.

Time Goes By

I’ve officially hit my service halfway point - October 5th was one year since I swore in as a Volunteer. It’s been a crazy journey, and although I’m glad it’s finally half over, I’m also glad that it’s only half over.

My life and work have continued to crawl along in their sleepy way. Fishponds are cropping up all over, and though we have yet to get any fish yet, we’re getting excited for the time when we do - hopefully very soon. I’m also working with my nearest grade 5 class, doing a correspondence exchange with them with a grade 4 class in Alaska. What’s taking up most of my time, however, is Camp G.L.O.W., which can and will fill a post of its own. Stay tuned for that…

It’s hot season now, and the days are sweltering. I usually spend my time indoors, hiding from the heat until I have a program to go to. My family continues to be the most awesome, and I consider myself so fortunate to get to have another whole year with them.

I’ve been going through a lot of personal turmoil and confusion lately, and although it’s so hard to go through tough times without my support group of family and friends near to me, it’s also kind of an interesting experience. I have the time and the space to just figure things out without any overt pressure, which is something I actually enjoy, as much as the distance hurts.

I’m heading off to my midterm conference next week, in which I’ll get checked out by our med staff, go to the dentist, and check in with PC staff about various things. I know a lot of people in my group are already starting to think about what’ll happen after we leave, myself included, and it’s a time of stress for a lot of Volunteers. I feel like I’ve already gotten over the “one year slump,” as we call it, but there’s still always little hiccups that make you take pause.

Some in my group will be considering extension, staying for a third year, and although I flirted with the idea, I think that I’ve finally decided that a third year isn’t right for me. There are many things that I enjoy about my job here that I know I would continue to enjoy, but there are also things that I feel I need to accomplish in my life, and staying here would be a hindrance to those goals. Plus, there are only a small number of extension slots available, and I feel that my colleagues would be more fitting to these opportunities than myself. Peace Corps is great, but other things are waiting.

Of course, I still have a long time to think about these things! I’m only halfway through - and I have a lot of things to keep me busy from now until I leave. After midterms I’m going on vacation to Malawi with a dear friend of mine; November means provincial meetings and Thanksgiving at the house; December is Camp G.L.O.W., followed by the holidays, which I’ll be spending cozy at the house; January is full of trainings for the PCVs who will be helping out with pre-service training for the new group, of which I am one; February is when that group comes, and I’ll have them for a site visit; March will see me spending a month with them in Lusaka, helping out with their training; and then I’m not sure where life takes me from there, but that’s four jam-packed months at the very least!

So in short, life is excellent, and I’m very excited for everything to come. Stay tuned for that blog post about Camp G.L.O.W. soon!

Fetching Water

How much water do you think you use a day?

Let’s analyze America first: Wake up and take a shower - that’s a lot right there. Every time you flush a toilet, more water. Drinking water. Laundry water. Dish water. Cooking water. Gardening water. Cleaning water. Water, water, water. And it all comes out of a magical spout in the wall.

Now, let’s take my village in Zambia: Sorry, mom, but I don’t bathe every day. Would you, if you had to carry enough back from the borehole, every single day? And then the cold-season wind cuts right through your grass thatch bathing shelter, brr… Moving on, my pit toilet doesn’t require any water. My laundry process requires less water than a washing machine, and my dish process less water than a dishwasher. Some days I don’t cook, and I almost never use water for gardening or cleaning.

There are various reasons for some of these, but the most glaring reason is that water is heavy! I have to carry it back by hand (or head) from my handpump borehole, and that’s very hard to do with more than 10L - that’s only enough to pick and choose activities: I can fill my filter and have cooking water, but then do I bathe or do laundry? Either way, I probably have to go get at least one more full can.

I’ll admit, I’m pretty lucky when it comes to water. Many of my PCV friends have to bike to their boreholes, often for several kilometers. Me? Its a five-minute walk. Well, usually - my borehole’s been closed for a few weeks now, for reasons unknown to me. Now, I have to go to the clinic’s borehole, twice the distance (I know - boo hoo). But for people who live further to begin with, the task of fetching water, especially for a family of, say, ten, just sucks more.

Add this distance increase to my goal of learning to carry water on my head, and this task becomes a capital-O Ordeal. The most daunting thing to overcome at first was just the reactions of my neighbors, but now they’re fairly used to seeing a white kid carrying their water on their head. It can be a bit of a process, though…

First, I loop a chitenge through the handle of my empty 10L jerry can. I’ve carried 20L on my head once, but only for a very short distance. I’m working my way up, playing it smart. I tie the can onto my back and head off for the borehole. Then I have to pump for several long minutes to fill the can (or, as happens more often, a kid wants to do it for me). The women (and me, because I’m a n00b) wrap their chitenges into a sort of disc to put on their head for padding. I’ve seen some women do it without the padding, and it hurts just looking at them…

Usually I can balance the chitenge, as they do, while I squat/bend down to heft the can onto my head, but the most recent time, as I’d been doing laundry all morning, my arms were exhausted. As such, the women at the clinic (who have been doing this since they could walk) were treated to several displays of me dropping my padding, dropping the full 10L jerry can, and once, dropping both at the same time. Thankfully, a mama took pity on me and came to help (after first asking a nearby man, “Ba simbi olo ba sankwa?” - “Is that a girl or boy?”, my favorite expression when I walk around the village with my trousers and short hair). She lifted the can onto my padded head and I started home.

The tough thing about carrying water on your head isn’t the weight but the balance. I see women all the time carrying 20L hanging off one side of their head, their necks crooked at a really uncomfortable-looking angle to balance it. I’m still not able to carry hands-free, but one hand is really all it takes. The posture is difficult, as well, and after a morning of being hunched over a laundry basin, my back was hurting by the time I got home. Add to that all the curious stares and delighted laughter, and you’ve got a pretty accurate picture of the process - I’m the village entertaining monkey.

What’s more is that these women are serious powerhouses! It’s not uncommon to see a woman walking around my village, shoeless on the rocky bushpaths, 20L of water in an uncovered bucket, balancing it hands-free as she books it home, with a baby strapped to her back and an armload of veg for dinner. Absolutely amazing. They learn so young, is the thing - my little host sisters of about 11 years will carry 20L of water with ease.

Having to carry my water has made me even more conscious of my use. A lot of it gets used twice - dish and laundry rinse water becomes dish and laundry wash water, respectively, for example. I make sure to fill my filter before I head off to fetch more water - there’s nothing worse than getting back with a full jerry can and the intent to do laundry, and having to pour it into your filter instead. I’ve learned to play Tetris with the water I have, pouring partial large jugs into empty small jugs so I can bring back as much as possible from one trip.

I’m slowly turning into a Fremen from Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune,’ guys. I told you it would happen.

It is three in the morning.

I just had to get out of my warm bed into full-blown 8°C cold season and chase two cows away from my house in my socks.

They were drinking my dishwater and eating my dishsoap.

I can’t get back to sleep because I can hear the one’s bell clanging all around my family’s compound.

It’s too early for this.

The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love

Long time, no post… To be honest, there’s not really a whole lot to talk about here on the daily. Life’s just been rolling along as usual. I’ve had some programs I’ve been busy with, like Provincial Meetings and PEPFAR HIV/AIDS Training, and now I’m just settling into a new cozy village routine, complete with some actual events in my planner.

But actually, real talk: Things have been a bit rough - at least until recently.

I just passed my 8-month milestone. That means I’m finished with one third of my service, and although I still have a lot of time left, looking back on those months, it’s a lot of time gone, as well. I started thinking to myself the other night about what that meant - what I had accomplished, what goals I’d set myself for my one-year mark, and how I felt about my life so far. And… I came up with a lot of nothing.

The one thing I can say that I’m proud of is my integration with my community. They love me, and I love them. My host family treats me as one of their own, and I never thought it possible to feel such a wholesome love from people who barely know me. They are absolutely wonderful. All the people I work with on the daily are fantastic as well. Yet through all this outpouring of acceptance, some days I just feel a little…undeserving.

Peace Corps Volunteers are a special breed of development worker that dig right down to the root of a community’s issue, work with local leaders and those affected, and figure out solutions that are effective and sustainable. The community has to have needs and drive, otherwise the job of the Volunteer becomes a little wishy-washy. I should know.

As I said, things have been a bit rocky for me. The village is great - but maybe that’s the issue. There seems to be nothing demanding my time and attention. My village is on a road that’s actually marked on the Zambia map - that’s more than most PCVs in this country can say. The clinic is very nice, and is actually the health post for a wide radius. Most people in my village have a cell phone, and some even have two - I don’t even know anyone in America that has two cell phones! Thus, most days I try to eke out some work that will leave me feeling fulfilled and also help my village on the way to some sort of foggy goal, but usually nothing surfaces, so I end up spending a lot of time reading.

It’s not like I want my village to be overwrought by things like famine, disease, drought, and other maladies - far from it! I love my sleepy little village just how it is. But that’s also the root of the issue: How do you tackle a community’s problems if there don’t appear to be any?

They say Peace Corps is the toughest job you’ll ever love, and they ain’t lying. It’s really challenging to do this type of work, especially when you have no leads. Try to ask villagers what they need and they’ll either tell you something you can’t easily provide, like, “We need a school,” or they’ll tell you a ridiculous non-essential thing, like, “We need solar panels for television.” (Either that or you get the completely helpful, “We need development.”) It seems like the influence of the Western world, especially, has confused rural communities about what the word “need” actually means. Television, cell phones, cars, fancy clothes, and trips to America are not needs; needs are food, water, shelter, medicine, and then you can throw in development issues like education and income-generation.

Even if I get a straightforward answer from one of my neighbors, the issue arises of how to tackle it. Like I’ve said, the last 8 months have been comprised largely of sitting around and just waiting for the right moment to strike. Working with subsistence farmers is especially tricky, because they’re busy with planting, then tending the fields, then harvesting… And obviously that can’t be interrupted, because they have to eat. That’s priority number one. So I’m left alone to plan out fantastical dreams of what I wish I could be doing, just waiting and hoping I’ll catch the chance to pounce.

That in itself is a problem. The American mentality eats away at my conscience every single day. I hear it in the back of my mind every time I sit down with a book, sketchpad, guitar, or iPod - GET BACK TO WORK! YOU’VE STILL GOT SIX HOURS OF WORKDAY AHEAD OF YOU! YOU HAVE TO PUT FOOD ON THE TABLE! YOU LOOK LAZY - REPRESENT YOUR CULTURE BETTER! YOU DON’T DESERVE THAT STIPEND YOU JUST “EARNED”! Meanwhile, relaxing on the other side of my brain is the mellow voice of the Global South - Take a load off… You can still finish it tomorrow. You’ve worked really hard today, you deserve a break… What if you read for a bit, then plan your lesson for tomorrow, and then cook dinner? It’ll wait. Go hang out with your mamas, they miss you. Besides, you’ve got all these oranges to eat…

I think a lot about the intersection of cultures, especially in regards to work ethic. A lot of people look at cultures like those I work with here in Zambia and term them lazy, carefree, and unreliable - but it’s much deeper than that. In America, your worth as a community member is determined by the work you do for the community or your social status. It’s based in outputs and numbers, unless you get lucky and wind up famous or ridiculously rich somehow. In Zambia, however, and in many other countries in the Global South, your worth as a community member depends on how you fit as a jigsaw piece in the bigger picture. It depends on the time you spend with family and friends, the work you do to support them, and your self as an individual. Basically, it boils down to this: In America, worth is quantitative; in Zambia, worth is qualitative.

It’s this shift that gets me every single time. When I’m sitting alone in my hut, despairing over the fact that I’m a terrible Volunteer who never accomplishes anything, I’m always thinking in American terms: What did I do today? How many hours was that health talk? Can I put that on my quarterly report and did I record all the numbers for that? Did I remember to give that information sheet to the nurse? What have I got planned for the rest of the week? Is it enough? Should I do more? What I need to do is focus on a healthy balance with the Zambian system: Have I even said two words to my host family today? Will the nurse be around after lunch today to go over the points of my talk? Are my sisters around to go fetch water with me? What’s mama cooking for lunch, and can I go learn a new recipe from her? Is bataata around to go look at that pond site afterwards? Can I squeeze in lunch with my neighbors between those two health talks tomorrow?

Every single day, I face these challenges. Everyone suspects culture to be a huge obstacle in Peace Corps service, but many people can’t see the complexities of the daily struggle from the outside. But slowly, ever so slowly, I’m making the change. Finding more time to just be with people, see the glow of appreciation on their faces for the little things I do with them, and ask if there’s anything more I can do.

So I’m sure you’re all wondering what I’ve been up to lately… Fish farming has been incredibly slow to start, but we’re finally making some headway. I’ve just staked my first pond with my counterpart and a headman of a neighboring village, and I’m hoping it’ll be dug soon so we can get him some fish. However, most of my work is focusing on the health sector. I go to my clinic every Wednesday to give an HIV talk, focusing on how the virus works, prevention and condom demos, myth-busting, erasing stigma, and encouraging people to go for testing. On Wednesdays I also talk to the pregnant mothers who are at the clinic for their first antenatal visit, usually around 15 weeks into their pregnancy, to inform them about birth preparedness, danger signs, HIV and malaria in pregnancy, and nutrition and exercise. On the last Friday of the month we have our under-5 clinic, and I’ll be doing nutrition talks and cheese demos at each of those, as well as at the under-5 outreach clinics we do at the nearby villages, Siabunkululu and Kasonde. I’ve also drafted up a few talks on diarrhea and dehydration (the cause for 17% of deaths under age 5), the importance of vaccination, and malaria - and hopefully soon I’ll have a bit about male circumcision (as a preventative measure for HIV and cervical cancer).

So I am indeed keeping busy! We’re also getting the ball rolling for our Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) girls’ empowerment program in December. There’s a lot of balls up in the air right now - I’m just waiting to see which will come back to earth, which I’ll have to drop, and which I can keep juggling for at least a little while longer.