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.