5 Essential Items in a Zambian Village

Peace Corps is a unique development organization in that volunteers live in the communities they serve. Like our neighbors, our house is made of mud bricks and mortar. We poop in a hole, cook over a fire, and fetch our water like everyone else does. Living in a rural village isn’t an easy adjustment, but having the right tools can make all the difference. That being said, one doesn’t need much to survive.

The third goal of Peace Corps is to share Zambian culture with Americans, so here’s a short list of practical objects everyone owns and uses nearly every day. Hope you get a little insight into the village life in Zambia!

Our house and garden


Brightly colored, elaborately patterned fabrics might actually have seven thousand uses. Women wear chitenge around their waist to show respect as well as protect their clothes from getting dirty while working. Rarely will you see a woman wearing trousers (pants means underwear) in the village setting, but women rock the leg divide in towns. As for shorts, that’s a no-no. Thighs are highly sexualized, but breasts are not. Additionally, mothers carry their babies on their backs wrapped up in the fabric. It makes me nervous watching a baby get tossed around nonchalantly on her mother’s back while her mother leans over, like a table, to secure her child with a strong knot.

One of my favorite things is tailoring chitenge into nearly anything you want – fanny packs, zip-off pants, full suits. Prices vary from $5USD to $20USD, not bad for a customizable outfit! I recently got a skirt made with pockets!!!

Other chitenge uses include:
– Headpiece (icitambala)
– Scrap pieces sewn into a door mat
– Diaper
– Bandage
– Rope
– Bags for carrying mealie meal from the hammermill
– Curtain
– Sewing to the bottom of a bed net to prevent it from tearing at the bottom and making it look more attractive – bed net beautification!
– Towel

Citenge is one of my favorite cultural objects. I get choice paralysis when shopping for one (a 2m citenge ranges from $1USD to about $6USD depending on the quality), but I own a few that I use every day!

Umwinko – Wooden Spoon

Undoubtedly, nshima (ubwali in Bemba) is the national Zambian dish. Much like kimchi in Korea, people eat these lumps at least twice a day or else it wouldn’t be considered a real meal. Nshima is kind of like mashed potatoes except made from dried and pounded corn. The texture is sticky and heavy. Though the carb balls don’t provide much nutrition, they makes you feel full. Corn is the main nshima staple, but it can also be made from cassava, sorghum, and millet (the latter two being healthier versions).

A wooden spoon is essential to cook some nshima. In fact, the act of making nshima has its own special word in Bemba (ukunaya). To make nshima, first boil some water and add a few handfuls of mealie meal. Let the powder run through your hands and stir to prevent lumps. Keep adding mealie meal and stir until the desired texture. The mash will boil and might even splatter. Use your umwinko and skillfully stir to prevent burning. The cement-like consistency becomes so thick that amateurs like me struggle when stirring with two hands, yet women take over and mix it like water. When it’s ready, you can spoon out individual lumps or just grab a hunk with your right hand, roll into a ball, dip into relish (like beans, vegetables, chicken) and pop it into your mouth! Delicious.

Hoe – Ulukasu

There are a few essential tools like an ax and a slasher, but a hoe is the most important in my opinion. Farmers cultivate limas of land to grow crops like maize, peanuts, and cassava with nothing but a hoe (well, two: a large one for making ridges and a small one for planting seeds). Our fish farmers dig ponds primarily by using just a hoe. We also have used one to kill mice and snakes in the house (sorry). Wouldn’t know what to do without my ulukasu!

Bucket – Imbeketi

You can never have enough buckets. We have about seven, but we could always use more. We use buckets to fetch and store water, make manure tea, carry sand/soil/compost, store food to prevent rats, sit on as a stool, use as a mini table, and so much more. The most popular variety of buckets are 10L used-vegetable oil buckets. My favorite kind of bucket (a phrase I never thought I’d say) has a comfortable handle that doesn’t indent my hand when hauling from the furrow.

Broom – Icipyango

A broom is essential in any household, but Zambians seem to have several kinds of brooms, all of which are made from sticks or dried grass of sorts found in the bush. Initially, I was fascinated that our host family during pre-service training swept the dirt every single morning. What’s the point of sweeping dirt around? They do it to prevent weeds from growing, disturb ants and termites, and just to make it look pretty! Even though I thought it was a waste of time, I’ve come to enjoy the look and find myself scratching the dirt with sticks every day.
I sweep multiple times a day inside the house. Dust seems to be bred inside and it can never be clean enough, so it’s important to keep sweeping!

A runner up is a brazier or mbabula. I cook primarily using charcoal (though I’d rather not because of the tree-cutting). I didn’t include it in the list because though it’s something I use every day, it’s not something people in our community always use; women tend to use firewood.

Read more about cooking in the village.

If you are a Peace Corps volunteer, what items are essential in your community?

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