Peace Corps Zambia: FAQ for Prospective Volunteers

It’s wild how people are now finding out that they have been invited to serve in Peace Corps Zambia RAP 2019. I feel like we just arrived!

One year ago, I was full of questions. I sought advise from current volunteers from the Peace Corps Zambia Facebook group as well as our intake’s group. I thought I’d write some FAQs and my personal answers, though you’ll hear otherwise from different people. Hope this helps! Please comment or contact me if you have any questions any time.

With our wonderful host family during PST


Before Service

What Should I Pack?

This is a loaded question! It depends on what’s important to you. First of all, you can read my packing list, which varies wildly amongst volunteers.
I would encourage you to pack light. Do not meet the 100lb weight limit unless you’re packing a bunch of food or consumables that make you happy and that’ll leave you room to take stuff back that you accumulate in Zambia (it will happen!). You don’t need many clothes, especially as a RAP or LIFE volunteer. Pack good quality shoes that’ll last for two years. Running shoes if you’re into that and some quintessential PC garb: Chacos, Tevas, or Birkenstocks.
Pack photos of friends and family. Lots of seeds if you want to garden (not much variety here). Your favorite snacks and foods (wish I could’ve brought pizza).


Should I bring a solar setup?

I wouldn’t bring anything too bulky. Perhaps a smaller travel-friendly system to charge a laptop or do a better job at charging a smart phone, only if you don’t plan on buying a solar set up in country. Peace Corps gives you a SunKing light that illuminates like a desk lamp would and gives some juice to a phone, but it isn’t super powerful. We didn’t have a solar setup during community entry and survived just fine, but ultimately decided to invest in one so that we could work from our computer, use a fan in hot season, and watch the occasional movie. With no prior experience, we read a solar guide written by a fellow PCV and purchased everything locally. We bought a 100-watt panel, 75Ah battery, charge controller, inverter, cables, electrical tape, and four lights for about K2000, or $200 (nearly a month’s-worth of living allowance). We figured it will be worth it over two years and we can sell it when we leave.

What about gifts for host families?

My personal advice: be careful with what you give, especially at the beginning. It’s generous to bring something, but you don’t want to set that expectation in the beginning, that you just give things. Plus you don’t know how many people will be in your host family, so if you give something to your host parents but not your ‘host aunt’ who also lives on the property, this could create jealousy.
People in the village will often ask for money, phone minutes, fingerlings, etc., so you have to be persistent in saying that Peace Corps doesn’t give money, but we give knowledge to empower people to help themselves. Anyway, maybe I thought too much into it, but small, thoughtful, and practical gifts do well. Postcards from your hometown, some treats or food, stickers, children’s books, stationery, a vegetable peeler. For our amazing homestay family during PST, we took family photos and printed them off along with a fry pan, books, and a visitor book with a letter from us and a collection of recipes I shared during our time together.

Bought fish we harvested for our host family. A simple but much appreciated gift!


Do you have any tips on getting through the medical clearance process?

Yes, it can be long and tedious. Stay organized, don’t be shy to ask the nurses questions in your portal, be super conscientious of reading and following directions to a T, and do everything ASAP! I did my medical stuff in four different countries as I was traveling at the time, which I do not recommend. It was expensive, difficult to do multiple visits, and I had to deal with translations.

What about legal clearance?

Also, do this ASAP! Adam and I submitted fingerprints two weeks apart, but his came back cleared six months after me. It was a bit frantic when he wasn’t cleared until a week before staging. There wasn’t anything on his file for it to be suspicious, it just takes longer for some people. The government shutdown didn’t help, either. Anyway, if you’re not cleared and only a few weeks out from staging, I wouldn’t worry too much.

I’m leaving the US soon! What should I do!?

Do what you love! Spend time with family and friends. Eat a lot of good food with lots of cheese! Drink IPAs! Go on a camping road trip.
Other less fun tasks include alerting your bank you’re going to be out of the country (I highly recommend Charles Schwab for a debit card with no ATM fees worldwide), getting copies of important documents, and unsubscribing from emails so you won’t be overloaded when you check email after days of no signal.


DURING SERVICE

You will undergo three months of training before service to learn local language, culture, and technical skills. Read more about PST.

How’s the local language?

During orientation in Lusaka, you will learn your assigned language. A majority learn Bemba, which means you’ll be placed in Central, Northern, Muchinga, or Luapula. The rest learn Tonga (Southern), Kaonde (Northwest), Lunda (the very tip of Northwest), Mambwe (Mbala in Northern), Nyanja (Eastern), or Tumbuka (Eastern). Nyanja, Bemba, and English are most widely understood wherever you go. I can’t say much about the other languages, but I absolutely love Bemba! Read a detailed post about Bemba.

In the village, some people may speak English, but most do not. Learning local language is super important for integrating, gaining trust and respect, and working effectively. It’s not a priority for some volunteers, which is fine, but I personally find learning the local language super satisfying and the best way to connect with your community.

How do you use the internet in the village?

Every site differs, but most people can at least connect to use Whatsapp somewhere in the vicinity of their homes. Some people are lucky enough to have fast enough internet to do anything. Our service is sporadic and super slow, but we can post photos, check email, and look up the occasional inquiry on Google. We access internet via phones by buying a SIM card (Peace Corps provides everyone with Airtel upon arrival, but we changed to MTN as it’s better where we are) and adding money to buy data packages. There are different kinds of packages, but 5GB for 30 days costs K100, or about $10 USD. You can buy talk time at stands in towns or right from your phone once you hook up your bank account with your SIM card. It’s pretty neat, actually. People skipped landlines and went straight to cell phones and mobile banking.

Speaking of banks, how do you deal with money?

We were set up with Barclays upon arrival. Every month, Peace Corps will deposit a living stipend as well as any extra non-recurring costs like required travel for official events, medical expenditures, safety and security upgrades, grants, etc. You also get money for your vacation, bank fees, and communication. It isn’t a lot compared with US standards, but you can certainly survive in Zambia and even save money. After close of service, you will receive a readjustment stipend of around $7,000 USD.

To access money, you can withdraw from an ATM in towns. You need cash in the village, but only use small bills as breaking large ones (K100) is always a problem. We don’t keep a lot at site for safety purposes and we just don’t need much as there’s nothing to buy. In town, we use cash as well. We only use the debit card for the ATM and sometimes the supermarket. Additionally, you can check your balance and statements and send money to friends with mobile banking

How do vacation days work?

PCVs accumulate two days of international vacation per month of service. You can use them all at once or spread apart, given your vacation request is approved. Popular destinations include Malawi, Namibia, Tanzania, and Cape Town. Peace Corps doesn’t allow us to travel to certain places, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, and these restrictions vary based on current events.
Further, PCVs receive four “culture days” per quarter to use within Zambia. Popular places are Victoria Falls, Lake Tang, South Luwangu National Park, Kasanka National Park, Samfya, and of course, fellow PCV sites!

How close are fellow volunteers placed?

Again, it depends. Our closest neighbor is about a two-hour bike ride. Some people are 30 minutes apart. If it’s important for you to have close neighbors, request that to your program manager during PST site placements. They try to take your needs into consideration during site placement.


Do you ever feel unsafe?

Personally, not often at all. I feel very safe in Zambia. Being in a couple, I don’t deal with harassment much, but when I’m not with Adam in town or even in the village, I do get cat called and marriage proposals. It can be a common issue with females, unfortunately, and even being grabbed. Try to have a travel buddy. You can also seek a woman, especially one with children, to help shoe the bothersome people away. The worst offenders are drunk men. They are usually annoying but harmless, but I would still advise not to be around people who are drinking, especially if alone.
Theft is the most common reported crime. Keep your valuables in the Peace Corps office or provincial house. Don’t flash anything fancy. Don’t leave anything outside (we do sometimes, but feel your village out first). Hold onto your belongings on public transport and never let people hold your stuff.
I feel the most safe in the village, the least in Lusaka (though I’d still say Lusaka is generally safe). As you would anywhere, just be alert and use common sense.

How do you receive mail?

I think Adam and I were the only ones to not receive any mail during PST. But everyone uses Dotcom Zambia as the cheapest and most reliable method to send packages. It costs $16 per kg. Your sender would ship the package to an address in Connecticut. Then the company sends it to Peace Corps Headquarters in Lusaka. A PC cruiser will deliver it the next time it drives up to your province.

What is the provincial house?

Zambia is one of the few countries to have provincial houses, officially called provincial resource centers. Since every post is rural, making travel to the capital difficult to do in just one day, there are houses in every province where PCVs can stay overnight before taking the 5am bus to the capital. The center is where provincial staff work, where volunteers can store some items in their cubbies, and even just go to take a break from the village for mental health days. We get four program days per month to do so. The large house has about 18 beds, a stocked kitchen, a library, and lots of resources like manuals. We can also use the computers and internet (lol, well not Northern) to do work like quarterly reports and grant-writing. Best of all, it’s a great place to connect with the volunteers in your province, unload and rant with each other, and just be yourself without the pressure of being ‘on’ all the time in the village. It sort of has the feel of a hostel or college share house.

What is your living situation like?

All posts (except for Peace Corps Response) are in rural villages. There are certain standards for homes, such as there must be two rooms, bars on the windows for security, a latrine, and dish drying rack. Most people live on the same compound of their host family, so you may be surrounded by kids and chickens. However, we live on a school compound in teacher housing and do not have a traditional host family. You will likely not have electricity nor running water, but you should be within 1km of a water source. We haven’t seen many sites, but they are so different from each other.

Peace Corps provides everything you need to stay safe and healthy: an insecticide-treated mosquito net, water filter, solar lamp with charging ports, basic phone with SIM card, bicycle, helmet, basic bicycle tools, medical supplies, and malaria prophylaxis.

What is your typical day of work?

Again, there is no typical day! What I love about the RAP project is that you can choose your own schedule. If you work better in the morning, set meetings then. If you like to wake up slowly, meet farmers later in the day. Make your service your own. Education volunteers have a more regular schedule with the school. If you like regular predictable schedules, you can make that happen. Read more about RAP and what kind of work we do!

If you have any questions, feel free to contact me!

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