After swearing in as official volunteers, we moved into the village and started Community Entry, a two to three-month period dedicated to integrating into the community. During this period, leaving our site is prohibited other than going to the nearest town for food (about a 30km bike ride for us) and required Peace Corps business. Our main tasks are to learn how to fend for ourselves, build relationships, get to know the village, improve local language, make our home our own, and start laying the foundation for the next two years of fish farming work. A month into community entry just flew by, yet the days go by slowly. What have we been doing exactly?
Every day is a festival of greetings. You must greet and acknowledge everyone you pass. Like most languages, there are an array of phrases from which to choose depending on the person and time of day.
Muli shani? Mulifye bwino? Mwashibuka shani? Mwabombeni mukwai. Mwabomba shani? Ikaleni mukwai. Mwaliila? Icungulo mukwai.
How are you? Are you just well? How did you wake? You are working. How are you working? You are sitting. Are you enjoying? Good evening.
When meeting new people, I would introduce myself as Lianne, but that they can call me Mulenga. Lianne is difficult to remember, so I asked our host mother to give me a Bemba name. Mulenga it is! Then we’d explain that we’re development volunteers with Peace Corps from America. We’ll be living in the village for two years as fish farming teachers and we’re also here to exchange culture. As first generation volunteers (typically a site has three generations of volunteers, totaling six years of development), we must introduce Peace Corps and explain our role (We share ideas, encourage, and teach people in such a way that they can continue when we leave. Sustainability must be the goal. And we do not give money.) to lay the foundation for the next six years of volunteers who will work in the catchment area.
Usually, visitors show up at our house at some point in the day. In Zambian culture, it’s acceptable to appear at someone’s home unexpectedly. Sometimes, people just want to greet and check up on us. Other times, we offer a chair and it turns into a three-hour conversation. A few female students regularly visit me. Recently, three visitors we met at a church came by to ask question after question about America. We enjoy visits like that, though it can be awkward when we’re in the middle of cooking or doing chores. Our host mother and counterpart sometimes show up at night carrying a full meal, but we have already eaten. Other times, they say they’re coming, but then they don’t. Lately, we’ve been better able to gauge when they might be coming so I can prepare some food to share.
Our village is rather large with a population of 2,000. Learning names and faces was challenging at first, but I’ve come to recognize many people as we wander about. It’s nice to be able to greet people by name and start building friendships, something that was hard to do when we lived in Asia. Most people are incredibly friendly, want to chat, get to know us, and welcome us to the community. So many smiles.
Getting to Know the Community
About once a week, we take out our bikes to explore our 20km catchment area. Three main dirt paths bring you through the various villages. Every time, we set off with no particular destination or expectation, but find ourselves invited to someone’s home. One time in particular, we ended up staying for hours playing American and Zambian games with a bunch of kids. We loved it so much and ended up returning the next week. We are rarely able to leave without someone giving us some kind of gift, usually ground nuts as that’s now the harvest of the season.
Besides getting to know the geography and people, we’re asking questions to better understand the community dynamics. We’ve learned about the important meeting places, some of the organizations (e.g., Women’s Club), local economy, lines of work and other income-generating activities, and needs. Gathering such information will help us adjust to life here and better understand how we can best work with them. For example, one dire need is a clinic; the nearest is a 4-hour walk away. Not ideal when somebody has malaria, which is unfortunately quite prevalent. Another interest is a baking club; a few women approached me that they’d like to learn how to bake, so that is something I’m working on starting. Another keen resident wants to start a Positive Living group for people living with HIV/AIDS. We’re glad that people are approaching us with project ideas rather than us barging in and doing what we want to do. We hope to serve as facilitators to mobilize people to help themselves rather than us building stuff and leaving. Again, sustainability.
Zambia is officially a Christian nation, so it comes as no surprise that people often ask “What church do you go to?” as one of the first questions. Growing up without organized religion, I put my beliefs aside and attend a different church every weekend. We are always received well as visitors and usually make an introductory speech. Churches are prime gathering places and announcements are made there to communicate important events. Every church has been a different experience, but with the same themes. I particularly enjoy the singing, dancing, and drums as well as practicing my Bemba-listening skills. I don’t foresee us becoming regular members of any church, though.
I always keep a notebook on hand to study new words, write sentences for future meetings, and jot down words I hear to look up later. I felt confident in my Bemba during pre-service training, but must improve significantly, especially in listening to the rapid fire pace of speech. I don’t feel like I’ve learned new grammar since moving to the village, but listening and fluency have become easier. There’s two more years of learning and by practicing every day, I feel like I’m at a good place right now, though I probably sound like caveman textbook languages. I can’t say it’s not frustrating sometimes when I can’t understand. Learning Bemba is essential to integrating and working well here, so I prioritize it.
Fish Farming Work
Currently, there are a handful of farmers who raise fish. They have shown their motivation to learn and improve their current ponds, which do need quite some work.
We had our first general fish farming meeting with 15 in attendance. Our counterpart showed up near the end, so we were on our own to lead. There were some awkward moments when we couldn’t understand everything the farmers were saying, but we were able to communicate what we wanted to say well enough, I think. The following week, we visited some fish ponds and helped farmers select a good site for a pond. With two very motivated farmers, we staked a pond and advised them on the digging process. I cannot contain my excitement to see what a beautiful pond it is going to be, one that will provide income and nutrition for his family and village for a long time if maintained well! There’s a lot of interest in learning how to raise fish as it’s a lucrative business and important source of protein in a landlocked country. I’m grateful to have randomly been posted to this unique project.
This past year, the community put resources together to build our house. Our brick and mud home has four rooms and a tin roof, a good size for a couple by Western standards, but considered rather large here. There’s a latrine out back, a bathing shelter made from grass, and an insaka (open-air grass hut) for cooking and lounging. The surrounding area was cleared just to build the house and as a result, the grounds are barren. One pitiful tree remains and the rest are weeds and a cornfield. We weren’t thrilled about the lack of vegetation or shade in addition to the lack of natural light inside due to only having three tiny windows. But with time and hard work, it’s feeling cozier and we’re growing to love and feel comfortable here. Some work we’ve done so far:
-Hung solar ambient lights to outline the rooms
-Raised the mattress with painted pallets
-Built a bookshelf from planks and pallets
-Built a stove and oven from bricks
-Built a kitchen shelf and counter
-Hung wicker baskets up for fruit and veg (when we’re lucky enough to have some)
-Sewed fabric over couch cushions for our soon-to-be L-couch and reading bench
-Made compost heaps
-Planted some cow peas, velvet beans, rape (a leafy green), onions, swiss chard
-Started planning and preparing a permagarden
Everything takes a little longer to do here, namely fetching water and washing clothes. Fortunately, the borehole is a few minutes’ walk away and there’s a newly renovated furrow running right behind our house. I also find myself sweeping the dirt outside every morning. Everyone does it and I initially thought it was a waste of time, but I’ve come to enjoy the swirly dust pattern. Adjusting to chores hasn’t been much of a challenge yet.
Preparing food was a huge source of stress for me at the beginning. It took 2-4 hours for a meal because I had awful luck starting the brazier and only have one source of heat to work with. With some guidance from several people and even 9th grade girls, I got the hang of it and can get the fire burning within a few minutes, but cooking still can be a chore when hangry. There’s not a ton of room for creativity as food availability is limited. During posting, we stocked up on staples like pasta, rice, beans, soya, spices, etc. In the village, however, we can only buy eggs (very thankful for this), oil, flour, and packaged cookies at the little shops. Fortunately, friends, visitors, students, and farmers have kindly given us sweet potatoes, bananas, pumpkin, cabbage, and peanuts. This time of year is busy for harvesting, so there must be an abundance now, but we feel guilty that they keep gifting us their fruits of labor. We’ve given gifts and made banana bread in return, but also were warned with creating jealousy and expectations on what we can give.
I’ll write another post dedicated to cooking in the village, but for now, I’ll say that it takes up a large part of the day!
There are some days with ample downtime, other days not so much. During free time, we read a lot, play chess, walk around visiting people, listen to podcasts, write, and tend to seedlings. Internet is bad here and we don’t have a solar setup to charge a laptop for movies, so we mostly abstain from electronics besides checking on the constant WhatsApp messages from fellow PCVs! We can get some charging juice from our solar lamp.
The main challenge has been being the female half of a couple. Gender roles are clearly defined in the village. Some people may think that I’m merely Adam’s assistant or that I’m here to cook his food and prepare his bath water. Farmers ask Adam for advice even though I can speak Bemba better. Or if I say something, sometimes they don’t even look at me and see what Adam has to say. It is extremely frustrating, but I try to be patient as it’s an ingrained part of their culture. We can only lead by example and share aspects of our culture; that women are perfectly capable of doing anything men can do. And too, that men could also be fully capable of doing what women here typically do. In our relationship, as I cook, Adam does the dishes; and we do the laundry together.
Well, that’s a briefing on this past month. Hope to go into detail with all of the above in future posts.