Peace Corps Zambia: First Month of Pre-service Training

Hello from Zambia!

Please excuse the formating as I’m posting from my phone.

It’s been over a month since we arrived in Philadelphia to meet our cohort and get situated before flying over to Zambia. A lot has happened and we haven’t had much time to process it all. Here’s a basic run down of what we’ve done so far.

Staging in Philadelphia

A day full of introductions, ice breakers, going over the three goals and core expectations of the Peace Corps, safety and security, anxieties and aspirations, etc. About 70 volunteers from the RAP and LIFE projects met for the first time, so most interactions consisted of introductions and the same “where are you from” kind of questions. It reminded me of EPIK orientation or going to college for the first time.

Travel to Zambia

At 1am, we boarded buses to JFK where we flew to Johannesburg for a connection to Lusaka. I didn’t count how many hours we were in transit, but let’s say most people were sleepless zombies upon arrival. We were warmly welcomed by the PCV leaders and staff before stuffy buses shipped us to a lodge where we spent a few nights. Some sessions included medical information, getting jabbed with shots and starting malaria medications, going over safety and security again, getting our phones, learning a bit about Zambian culture and provinces, and meeting some current volunteers representing each province. On the last day, we learned which of the 6 local languages we would learn. Adam and I got assigned Bemba, the most common language spoken in the country. With other languages, you’d know which province you’d be assigned (Tonga speakers will live in the Southern Province), but Bemba speakers can go to Luapula, Central, Northern, or Muchinga.

Homestay Family

From there, we went to the training center for a quick briefing before boarding a cruiser to where we’ll stay for the next 11 weeks. We quickly left the tarmac and descended into bumpy back roads and drove through puddles so deep it felt like a river.

When we entered our housing compound, our host family welcomed us with huge smiles, clapping, and dancing. I introduced myself to each in broken Bemba and had long awkward handshakes while I stumbled on my words. Our family is rather nuclear: there’s father (bataata), mother (bamaayo), two sisters (bankashi balili) and one brother (bandume). Two other brothers live in a nearby town. It seems to be the norm to have an extended family within a compound; some trainees have 10 kids running around at any given time, but our situation is rather relaxed. I love spending time with the kids here. We read English books, practice Bemba, dance, play drums on water jugs, play hand games, do stretching and gymnastics, draw, etc. They’re the sweetest kids and are interested in everything we do. I taught them the macarena, limbo, hopscotch, some hand games. They’re also our teachers. From sweeping the compound properly to making a fire, they teach us how to survive on the daily. Bataata is full of wisdom and life philosophy. We love our conversations every meal time about happiness, impermanence, perseverence, treating others with kindness, etc. He and bamaayo made us feel at home immediately. I deeply respect them and am grateful to have been lucky with the perfect placement!

Pre-service Training

Our schedules have been pretty full every day. We wake up at 6 and have four hours of language classes and four hours of technical, safety, and cultural training. We get to the center via an intense bicycle path but it’s getting easier every day. In the evenings, we help around the house: cooking, cleaning, fetching water, and doing chores and taking bucket showers. I study for as long as I can after dinner before crashing at around 10. I’ll write a more detailed post about our daily routine during PST. So much information is being crammed into our brains every moment, but it will all be useful when we get to our sites.

Speaking of sites, perhaps the most exciting session was site placement! We’re going to Northern Province to a village about 40km from the provincial capital, Kasama. We’ll be first generation volunteers, so this village may have not had much interaction with Americans before. A main object for us would be to introduce the Peace Corps and lay the foundation for the next six years. Our situation is a little unique in that our house is on a primary school compound; our neighbors will be the teachers. We don’t know a lot about the village, but we’ll find out more next week when we visit our site.

First impressions of Zambia

We have mainly been in an American bubble. Plus, our host family has experience and training in how to deal with Americans, so what I observe so far cannot be applied to the whole country at all. We’re still only 30km from the capital, Lusaka. Anyway, these are my culture observations so far:
– It’s rude to sniff food because you do that to check if something is rotten. This is a habit I’m trying to kick! I love breathing in the aroma of morning coffee.
– ‎Greetings are important. We greet everyone we come across and are greeted back with smiles and putting their hands together. I’ve loved this!
– The women are strong! Our bamaayo can stir a tough pot of nshima (a staple corn meal mash) without breaking a sweat, but I could barely get the spoon to the bottom of the pan. My little sisters can carry 20l water buckets on their heads from the borehole. Everyone in our host family is hardworking.
– Strength of family. As with most cultures, family is of utmost importance. There isn’t even a word for “nephew”. One would address that child as a son. So children have many fathers and mothers.
– People don’t have as strong an attachment to dogs as Americans do. Dogs are there more or less for security, not so much companionship.

Current thoughts:

I’m in the honeymoon phase and absolutely loving Zambia, our host family, the lifestyle. I haven’t experienced culture shock and it doesn’t feel different from what I expected or experienced before. The adjustment has been no issue at all. My favorite part of PST is learning Bemba. After teaching English for so many years, I’m in the shoes of a student and know what methods work well for me as a language learner. The language makes sense to me so far and I can see my progress, but I have a long way to go and need to listen to it spoken at natural speed. Most people in this village speak Nyanja, but are familiar with Bemba. Can’t wait to be able to converse with ease!
I packed about half of the limit (50 pounds) but feel that I packed too much. Peace Corps provided bikes, books, a thorough medical kit, stationery, bedsheets, heavy blankets, pillows, water filters, solar lamps, chitenge (a versatile fabric mostly used by women to wrap as a skirt), etc. So I’m feeling anxious about all the stuff I have now. I’m looking forward to having all of my belongings in one place and organized to my liking.

Challenges: We have limited freedom and independence during PST. Our schedule keeps us busy from morning to night on top of studying, assignments, interacting with the family, and doing chores. I’m looking forward to being able to cook for myself and creating my own schedule.

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