Welcome to my Peace Corps Crib

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[Home sweet hut. Alfie and I outside my mud and thatched hut. We quite like it]

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[My living room. When I first moved in the dividing wall with the map wasn’t there and the walls weren’t plastered. I focused on making my house my home when I first moved in.]

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[Behind the dividing wall is my inside kitchen. Perfect for one person.]

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[The other room is still one big room and it’s the master bedroom.]

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[The other half of my giant bedroom.]

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A Letter To Rainy Season

Dear rainy season,

We meet again. I have been expecting your arrival for some time now and here you are. Oh, you bring life to a barren, brown world. Your showers bring green, luscious, vibrant life. We rejoice in your arrival for our fields will be lush and our stomachs full for another year. You dampen our soils and overnight transform our world. Your mercurial disposition always keeps us on our toes. One minute you are a titan; a violent force of thunder and lightning powerful enough to tear roofs off houses and your torrential downpour so intimidating it has all taking cover for fear of your effable might. The next minute you are a gentle and welcoming sun shower gracing us with early morning melodies of pitter-patter raindrops outside our windows. Above all, we thank you rainy season for bringing life and sustaining ours.

Yet, dearest rainy season, you’re kind of an asshole. A real doucher. Although I celebrate your arrival I celebrate your departure even more. Last year I was naïve and unaware of you d-bag ways. Upon feeling the first drops I danced and sang. I welcomed you with open arms. But oh, this year my feelings have changed. At the first sign of your arrival I grimaced and cursed the heavens. For now I am jaded and know better, dear rainy season. You no longer fool me with your green grasses and raging rivers. Your mangos aren’t even enough to salvage my affection towards you. For I have seen your dark side. I have seen and lived all the shit you have to offer; nay all the shit you force onto all you come in contact with.

For starters the humidity in which you bring is suffocating and you spare no leftovers unspoiled mere hours after you’re finished cooking. My house is forever a sand pit for the mud, which is unavoidably tracked in by even the most careful of travelers, covers everything. Don’t even get me started on my grubby, muddy dog that is constantly running in and out of my house enduring muddy floors for the next 6 months. Oh! Six months, rainy season, is too long. Do you hate us so that you must darken our skies and flood our houses for half a year? You are a cruel, cruel companion. Work halts upon your foreboding appearance. What was once a joyous lifestyle of meetings, programs and general gallivanting about the village turns into a dismal life of being trapped indoors or huddled around fires trying to stay dry. Speaking of dry, nothing ever is when you’re around. Laundry takes days to dry and then upon reaching for it later to wear I find them once again damp purely from the intense, inescapable humidity. There is no running. There is no hiding. There are no tricks to play or tools to use. Everything is wet. You are like King Midas, except instead of turning everything you touch into gold it turns to mold. My clothes, my books, even my walls cannot escape the mildew that creeps up from the depths of your black and soggy soul. You are the pied piper of everything creepy and crawly. I am on high alert for bot flies, scorpion spiders and armies of ants trying to infest my home. The unbelievable amount of mosquitoes you bring has me constantly covered in bug bites. My scratches and scrapes are far more prone to infections and my allergies, oh the allergies, are the absolute worst. You really know how to kick a girl when she’s down with constant attacks on my sinuses bad enough to cause worry from my neighbors because I haven’t been able to stop sneezing for what seems like the past 7 hours. Rainy season, you bring about dark times. With no sun means no way of charging a goddamn thing. I burn through candles like Zambians burn through Tiger batteries for you will not allow me the simple courtesy of charging my solar light. The backs of all my shirts are stained with the splattering of mud kicked up by my bike tire. I have wiped out of slick mud too many times to admit to; though it always seems to happen in front of a large group of Zambians, who immediately take delight in my suffering and humiliation. See rainy season, you’ve even turned us against each other. How dare you mask you evils and your terror with beautiful giant mushrooms and delicious avocados for if I have to trudge through that filthy, muddy, disgusting Solwezi bus station one more time I might just lose it.

You are, however, a badass. I’ll give you that. You are relentless and give zero fucks. I respect that. And although I respect you, that doesn’t mean I have to like you. So, dearest rainy season, you’ve given me no choice. You are forever banished from goodwill and now have a permanent place on my shit-list; right in between men who cat call from cars and people who throw their pets birthday parties.

Sincerely,

Katie Otañez

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Living Off The Grid

People back home are always interested in how I get by living without electricity or running water. First off, I’d like to say it really isn’t that difficult. When the Peace Corps interviews you they ask you about your ability to face hardships throughout your 2 years of service. I thought they were referring to living without our normal creature comforts. The hardships that they really meant went much deeper than daily inconveniences, but that’s a whole other blog. Living without running water, plumbing, electricity, or heat takes a bit getting used to but it truly is quite easy and pain free living off the grid.

WATER

It depends where you live. Some volunteers have a borehole equipped with a hand pump to pump up ground water, some have a covered well where they just lower a bucket on a chain to fetch water (both are ishina in Lunda) and some people , like me, fetch water from natural above ground water sources. Some have streams and rivers but I have a wetland (ijung’a). A giant marsh it situated a 2 minute walk behind my house. It’s beautiful, one of my favorite places in the village. There are always people there; fetching water, bathing, washing, or fishing. It’s the most beautiful at sunset with the golden elephant grass reflecting off the murky water, crowds of women fishing in the distance, and the faint laughter children enjoying their evening bath. We don’t fetch water from the marsh itself. Mixed with the clay soil and elements the above ground water is pretty gross. If you dig a hole, about a meter deep and a foot and a half wide, it’ll just fill up with ground water. The water table to high enough at the wetland that the soil that surrounds it is moist all year around so we can get clean water all year around. You just use a pot, or a bucket or a dish and scoop water out to fill larger containers to take back to the village. The ground water that fills these dip-holes (or traditional wells) is so clean. World Vision, an NGO, is putting in a bore hole right next to my house, but I’ll still fetch water from the marsh. Not only does the water taste great but I can drink straight from the dip-hole without fear of getting sick. I still filter it because there is a bit of sediment in it but for health reasons there’s no need to. It’s awesome. To be honest with you, I haven’t fetched my own water in probably 9 months. I have no problem fetching my own water. It’s a pretty simple chore since I just strap the 20 liter container to my bike rack. The kids however, have gotten quite used to fetching water for me. They’ll do anything for a piece of candy. So I can expect at least one kid a day coming over asking if they can fetch water for me. These kids have made me lazy. Keeping a supply or water in the dry season is a never-ending chore. But in the wet season I just stick a bucket under my host mom’s metal roof and catch rainwater. I don’t catch rainwater off my house because the grass makes the water pretty dirty but the water off the tin roofs is just fine. That’s probably the only good part about rainy season, an overabundance of water. In my kitchen shelter (chinsambu) I store containers and buckets of water. When I need some for water for cooking, drinking, bathing, or washing I just get some from the large containers. Some volunteers have gotten big metal drums for their sites for even more water storage or set up nifty water collecting devices like gutters but I think I’ll just keep making the kids do my chores for me.

WEATHER AND TEMPERATURE

When it comes to temperature control there really isn’t much control. The climate in Zambia is very moderate most of the year so most of the time it’s a non-issue. The times that aren’t moderate are short but brutal. It all depends on where you live but I know that in Northwestern Province (especially where I live) it gets downright chilly. June and July are the worst months. It can drop to the 40’s at night and there are days when you just can’t seem to get warm. We bundle up, sit next to braziers and sleep with more clothes. There isn’t much else we can do. Thankfully the cold season is short and the temperatures don’t go below freezing. It’s uncomfortable but manageable. I just hate to think about PCVs in PC Mongolia, burrrrrr. I lucked out being placed where I am. Truth be told, we only get about 2 weeks of hot season where it’s above 100°F for a couple hours before it drops back down to a comfortable temperature (well, comfortable after +100°F). Plus, before the rains start there’s little humidity so it’s a dry heat. Other Zambian volunteers aren’t so lucky. The volunteers in Eastern Province have the worst hot season. I’m not totally sure but I think their hot season starts around early September and ends around late November or early December. To put it in perspective how different it is from where I live, rain marks the end of hot season everywhere in Zambia. Rains in the eastern part of Zambia don’t start until December where ours start in September and October. From what easterners tell me, it’s like living in an inferno. There is no work to be done. There is no moving at all to be done because they are too occupied laying naked on their cement floors with a wet sheet on them. I think one volunteer told me it rarely got below 40°C (104°F) and could easily see it hit 45°C (113°F), and this was day in and day out. Unfortunately, apart from hiding in your house and staying hydrated there isn’t much to be done. I feel for those volunteers but I am so glad we don’t have to deal with that up here in the north.

SHOWERS AND TOILETS

Volunteers are built outdoor showers (bafa). It’s just an enclosed square where you can privately bathe. Some volunteers are built the deluxe version of a brick bathing shelter plastered with cement (or else the bricks will melt in the rainy season) but most of us, including myself, are given grass bathing shelters. The grass ones only last a couple years and then have to be rebuilt. I’ve had mine rebuilt once in my service. Even still some PCVs opt to build a makeshift shower inside their huts. I haven’t seen one but I imagine it’s a corner in their house cemented into a small shower for one with a run-off going outside. If cement weren’t so expensive I might have done that myself. God knows my hut is big enough to accommodate it. Whether your bathing shelter is inside or outside most of us take bucket baths. For those of you who have never had the luxury of bathing outside I’ll enlighten you. I am high maintenance and heat up my bath water most days (unless it’s a middle of the day bath in the heat). A lot of PCVs just opt for a refreshing cold bath. Burrr, no thank you. Some put the bucket directly on the ground and squat beside it and bath using a cup or just their hands to splash water on themselves and rinse. I have a stand I put my bucket on so I can stand up straight while I bathe. Some PCVs bring Solar Showers from America and rig them to trees or create a way to hang them. The most industrious volunteers jerry rig a gravity shower with a small tank and a shower head you turn on and off. I am neither that handy nor motivated to upgrade my bathing style beyond a simple bucket bath. Alternatively the PCVs that live walking distance to a nice water source just bathe in the rivers and streams. Lucky bastards.

To be honest I was a little apprehensive of using a pit latrine (chimbushi). Now, there are days when I even prefer my outhouse to a modern flush toilet. No really! There’s no wasting water, no plugged toilets, minimal cleaning, and with it being semi-open it doesn’t smell nearly as bad as one might think. I think the two biggest complaints of my hole-in-the-ground shitter would be that it’s located behind my house which makes it a nuisance to get to in the middle of the night or when it’s raining. The second complaint is when you’re ill and all you want to do is just sit down as you’re dying on the toilet. Not really an option. I have the luxury of a larger than normal toilet. Most PCVs’ toilets are big enough just for a body but I could probably stick a couple of chairs in my pit latrine. It’s nice not feeling cramped and claustrophobic as you’re relieving yourself.

COOKING

Probably the thing that I miss the most is a modern stove. For now I have to settle for a brazier (mbabula). It’s a small round receptacle that you cook on. You put some charcoal (malasha) in it and your can either light it with some chemical fire starter or I just get some coals from my host mom’s kitchen fire to start my brazier. The brazier has a handle that allows you to swing it to stoke your fire. (I feel like I’ve explained this in a previous post. Have I?) This is the most common way we PCVs cook. We can even bake on it taking lit coals from inside in and piling them on top of your pot lid so you’re cooking from the top and the bottom. I think that baking on a brazier is far more trouble than what it’s worth so I almost never bake in the village. However I also have a propane “bomb”. It’s a propane tank with one burner on top. This is what I mostly use. I can get it filled in Solwezi, the provincial capital, and the tank lasts forever so I prefer my little gas stove. Since normally we only are working with one place to cook on at a time and since we have to cook everything from scratch (plus if you are using a brazier the extra time it takes to build and stoke your fire) cooking take so much longer than it did back home. I feel like most of my day is spent cooking if I don’t have leftovers to eat. I will return to America as the best camp cook ever. Two years of doing it day in and day out I will be top chef on a camping trip. There are a few volunteers that cook on straight firewood pure village style but not many. Another popular method is a spirit stove. Made of old pop cans and using methylated spirits it’s a small, convenient and pretty cheap method of cooking since spirits are available and cheap. Plus there’s no stoking involved since you need is a flame because that stuff is highly flammable. I know several volunteers that have a spirit stove as their primary means of cooking. Finally many volunteers make separate ovens. Think earthen pizza oven and there you go. The termite clay that is used to make them is durable like cement once fired and holds heat very well so just stick a couple pieces of burning firewood in the oven, let it heat up and you can bake for hours.

As I said earlier, living this way is the easy part of Peace Corps and can often be quite fun to be honest. I know I’ll take me about 15 seconds to readjust to my old lifestyle of 24 hour electricity, high speed internet and outside hoses (which I have the greatest appreciation for now). But I’m glad I’ve gained these skills; I know they will serve me well in the future.

And I will miss bathing outdoors. Seriously, it’s awesome.

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How I Get Around In Zambia

Transportation in this country is one thing that gives us PCVs probably the biggest headache, mostly because we travel around, a lot. Constantly traveling across a developing country can be difficult. There are several different ways we volunteers get around, none of which are very glamorous.

The first is by our PC issued Treck mountain bikes. Riding a bike every day and having a bike be my main source of travel had me worried before I came. I hadn’t ridden a bike for years and years before I arrived in Zambia. I am happy to report that I am now a biking machine. On the day to day I don’t cycle that much because I live only 10 km from town and that’s really how far I have to go most days to buy groceries and see counterparts. However, for the holidays three friends and I went on a bike trip and covered over 200 km across Northwestern Province.

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[Lucas and I on the last leg of our bike trip]

My mountain bike, to American standards, is pretty middle of the line as far as mountain bikes go. But compared to my neighbors’ bikes in the village I ride a Ferrari. I have by far the nicest bike around and boy oh boy do the villagers love it. The kids take it to fetch water for me. All of our bikes have bike carriers which is one of the most valuable things I own in Zambia, apart of course from the bike itself. I carry groceries and packages home from the BOMA on it. That’s how I carried my cat back to my house when I got it. When my bike is out of commission I get rides on the back of Zambian bikes. They’re so pro at carrying people on their bikes. It’s very impressive. Oh and in case you ever find yourself in that situation, side saddle is way easier than riding with one leg on each side. Just so ya know.

Buses are another major way we travel. There are 2 types of buses in this country: charter buses and mini buses. Charter buses (or some call them luxury buses) are exactly like greyhound buses and it’s the easiest way to travel most times but it also can be expensive, for our stipend. Actually from Solwezi to Lusaka (an 11 hour bus ride) is less than $40. Some of the charter buses are nice and some are not so nice. I’ve had a whole row to myself and I’ve snoozed the entire way and bus drivers give me discounts and special treatment then I’ve also had to wait until the middle of the night for my bus to arrive and I’ve had cockroaches crawling on me. You get to know the good lines and the bad lines, when to take buses and when to avoid them. Mini buses have mixed reviews among volunteers. Some loathe then and refuse to take them but most tolerate them when we have no other choice. There are large mini buses which are my favorite type of bus, but they’re not as common. Then there are the regular, small, dreaded blue and white mini buses. In Lusaka this is the way to get around in the city. It’s usually really comfortable since people within the city might only have their purse, backpack or shopping bags and no one is really going very far. These small mini buses also do long trips as well and that is a situation you do not want to find yourself in. A bus that should hold 10 adults comfortably will cram in 30 and all their luggage, you hope the windows open but usually they don’t and you can bet on either a crying baby(ies) or someone with some REALLY bad BO…or both. It’s one of those experiences you just have to laugh at and try to sleep through or else you’ll probably try to throw yourself out of the moving vehicle. And of course, doing it with a buddy makes it much more tolerable.

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[minibuses at the Lima Tower bus station in Lusaka]

Hitchhiking is not only common in Zambia but Peace Corps allows it. They’d much rather us take a bus but we’re allowed to hitchhike if we need to. Some volunteers only hitchhike because of the cheaper prices and novelty of it. That’s why I hitch. You and I say hitch a ride but Zambians say hike a lift. I still say hitch. Unlike America, hitchhikers are always expected to pay a small price although there are plenty of people willing to give free lifts, especially to us white people in exchange for some good conversation. We don’t use our thumbs here instead we hold our arms out with our hand straight and your palm facing the ground and then you wave at cars with your hand up and down bending at the wrist. There is subtle skill to hitching in Zambia and some volunteers are better at it than others. I’m not a very good hitchhiker but others are natural born Sissy Hankshaws. I get by though. I prefer hitching as well because it’s usually cheaper, the cars that pick you up are usually nicer and if you woo your driver with good conversation there’s a good chance they won’t charge you. Plus, the best stories come from hitchhiking. No one wants to hear the story, “one time I got on a bus and then after a while I got off again”. Boring. Just like PCVs love to share details about our most recent illnesses we love to swap war stories of our adventures on the road. And just like joining The Club is a rite of passage here, having an epically horrible day hitching is as well. Mine happened a couple months ago. I was leaving a town called Serenje which is where the provincial house for Central Province is located. I was trying to make it from Serenje to Solwezi in a day. The journey is about 10 hour car ride I think. I’ve never done it in one shot so I don’t know for sure but I do know that it can be done fairly easily in one day, I had done it before. The town of Serenje is a couple of km from the highway so thankfully I was picked up and driven to the junction and didn’t have to walk the 2-3 km. The same men said they’d give me a ride to Kapiri (the next junction 4 hours away) but they had to drop off some fuel down the road if I wanted to come with them and waste a couple hours. The truck was comfortable, the guys were friendly, and it was only 6am so I agreed to run the errand with them. Well, the person they were dropping the fuel off to was one of their brothers whose semi-truck was broken and had to be fixed and of course the guys in the car helped him fix it while I sat in the back of their car…for 5 hours. I didn’t get back to Serenje until noon and had covered zero ground. I got on a big mini bus, comfortable but slow to Kapiri. It probably stopped every 20 minutes. At Kapiri I found a ride fairly quickly but I already knew I was so behind I wasn’t going to get into Solwezi until pretty late. Some police officers picked me up and I rode in the bed of their truck to a large town called Kitwe. I don’t like Kitwe. For some reason unknown I always have a hard time getting out of Kitwe. It was t-minus 30 minutes until it was dark and I still had about 4 hours still ahead of me. It was too late to try to hop on a mini bus and far too late to hitch so a man coaxed to buy a ticket from the charter bus coming up from Lusaka and going to Solwezi, I would just hop on in Kitwe. It was coming in an hour and then I’d be on my way, simple enough right? Well, then I realize which bus line I bought my ticket from: Ticklays. The worst bus line of them all and I knew my journey was far from over. What was supposed to be an hour wait turned into a 5 hour wait on a cold bench in a bus terminal with too many drunks stumbling around for my taste. Thankfully there were about 10 other Zambians waiting for the same bus who were just as upset about the whole situation as I was. After an incredibly uncomfortable and crowded bus ride on a bus I was sure was going to fall apart in mid-transit I finally arrive in Solwezi at 4am. Thankfully a man waiting for his friend on the bus gave me a lift home. Zambia won that day. Zambia won big time.

The final mode of transportation is the favorite among PCVs, the crème de la crème of all transport options. Better than flying down a hill on your bicycle, better than spacious buses, better than free hitches: Peace Corps cruisers. If you’re lucky enough to time your travels right and the PC vehicles have room in them and the drivers are nice enough to take you it is a very very good day. When that happens you can be sure to count it as me: 1, Zambia: 0.

There are many days here I miss my car, or really any car I can jump into any time and go. But for the time being I’m enjoying the adventure of Zambian transportation, anyway it comes.

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

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Nyau Dancers

On my first site visit I went to Eastern Province where the Nyanja tribe is. There we saw the nyau dancers perform for us.

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Nshima: What Is It and Where Does It Come From

I’ve had several questions about the specifics about my daily life: how I cook, what we eat in Zambia, how I live without electricity, how I get around and so on. In this blog I’ll talk about how Zambians eat and cook because it is very different from how I cook and eat in the village.

Food here in Zambia takes center stage in the culture, of course like most other cultures as well. The only difference is the food options here are limited and, to an American palette, bland. Nonetheless food is the ultimate bonding experience here and no matter where I am or who I’m talking to in Zambia one of the first questions I get when they find out I’m living here is “do you eat nshima?” They’re impressed when I say yes and I straight up blow their minds when I tell them I’m also able to cook it. I do make fun of myself and tell them my nshima isn’t good because it comes out too lumpy. The Zambians get a kick out of my supposed lumpy nshima. I could kill here being a standup comedian just by making nshima jokes from a white person’s perspective.

You’re probably thinking what the heck is nshima??? Fair question. Nshima is Zambia’s staple food. In the villages you can find those who eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. However, most Zambians only eat it for lunch and dinner; every single day. There are three types of nshima: breakfast, corn and cassava. In the southern half of the country they eat corn nshima and in the north, where I live, we eat cassava. Breakfast nshima isn’t really for breakfast. It’s super processed corn nshima you buy from the market and you’ll find only it served in restaurants. Let’s see if I can adequately describe nshima. You start with the flour (or milli meal) which is either ground corn (think corn meal) or cassava flour. Making cassava flour is much more involved than just grinding up corn kernels. Cassava is a white root with a tough brown skin. First you have to remove the skin with a knife then you have to soak the tubers in water. I’m not quite sure how long the roots have to soak but it has to be long enough for them to start to rot. When the roots are good and fermented then the drying process starts. There are tough long fibers in the middle of the root that are first removed and thrown away. After the fibers are removed the women break up the rest of the wet cassava root into small pieces and lay them out on a drying rack to dry out for a few days. Once the cassava pieces are completely dried then the pounding begins. For corn flour everyone just takes their bags of dried kernels to a diesel powered hammer mill to mill their flour but pounding cassava is still done by hand. Little by little they pound the bejesus out of the cassava in giant mortar and pestles. Believe me when I say this is very hard work and takes a whole lot of muscle. The women make it look so easy but when I tried I could only do it for about 10 minutes before my arms felt like jello. The women were sweet and applauded my strength and thanked me for helping them but let’s be real; the children can pound better than I can and they all know it. After the cassava is pounded into a fine powder the powder is sifted into an even finer powder. And that is how you make cassava flour. Ta-da!

To make nshima all you need to do is add water. Depending if you want to make corn, cassava or a mixture of corn and cassava nshima, you add the flour to the hot water at different times. No matter which nshima you’re making you’ll follow some general guidelines. Basically you need a pot of really hot water. You then add the flour little by little while you continuously stir it with a wooden spoon. You keep adding and adding and adding until it gets to the right consistency. First it’ll feel like thick water, add a little more, now it’s the consistency of creamy soup, add a little more, now it’s cream of wheat, add a little more, now it’s oatmeal, add a little more, now it’s play dough. Stop. You want play dough. Now you have a molten hot pot of a substance that looks like cream of wheat (and kind of tastes like it too) but is as thick as play dough. Cooking nshima is equally difficult as making the flour. I can cook a small one portion pot by myself no problem but no one ever just cooks a small pot. You’re always cooking big family pots of nshima. You have to have some pretty impressive muscles to cook a big pot of nshima. Not only that but the contents are so hot it bubbles and spits boiling hot porridge on you and you have to stand back while you stir or else you’ll get boiling hot porridge in your face. Ouch! You can’t touch the sides of the pot to steady it because it’ll burn you and villagers don’t use oven mitts. Well, I should say you and I can’t touch the edge of the pot but the women can. The palms of their hands are just one big callous from a lifetime of hard labor. Then once it’s the right consistency it still probably needs to be stirred a bit more so you’re sure all the flour is mixed in well. The women pick up the pot, with their bare hands and take it off the fire and then wrap their feet along the sides of the burning hot pot to keep it steady while they finish mixing the nshima which is so thick it’s basically unmixable.

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[Rinence mixing some nshima]

For corn nshima the traditional way to serve it is in small lumps piled on a plate while with cassava you mold it into a perfectly shaped giant ball in an equally giant bowl. However, no matter which nshima you’re eating the nshima is communal. That means everyone sits around and grabs from the same bowl or plate.

Nshima is eaten with your right hand. Before eating there is a separate bowl or pitcher of water to wash off your hands before you eat. From the giant bowl of nshima you grab a small piece from it and roll it around in your right hand into a perfect little ball. There is actually a verb in the Lunda language that means “to roll nshima in your hand”. Then you use that and like a fork, or better yet, like a piece of tortilla picking up other food. No one eats just nshima by itself. We eat relishes with nshima, like side dishes. You use your ball of nshima to pick up a bit of food from the side dish and eat it all in one bite. If you’re rich you eat beef, chicken, goat, or fish as your relish (you are also permitted to use your left hand when eating meat). Normal relishes are cooked greens such as Chinese cabbage, rape (similar to kale), cabbage, cassava leaves, pumpkin leaves, sweet potato leaves, or local greens found in the bush. Other popular relishes include eggs, beans, mushrooms, tomatoes and onions, dried fish, caterpillars, grubs, flying termites, and small rodents such as field mice or moles.

No matter if you’re cooking nshima, relish, boiling potatoes, or heating bath water all is done over a log fire in their chinsambu, or kitchen shelter. Kitchen shelters are open and normally beside or behind the main house. If you’re looking for the woman of the house there’s a good chance she’s there. Some chinsambus are made of brick and some are just made of 4 wooden poles but all of them have thatched roofs. How they use firewood is different than we do in America. In America we almost always pile our firewood and often in a teepee structure. Here they lay their pieces of firewood flat on the ground, not in a pile. For one fire one might use 3-5 pieces and they all lay them flat on the ground with one end of each of the logs coming together in the middle. It kind of looks like a star then as the logs burn together in the middle of the star you slowly keep pushing them together to maintain the star shape. I’ve realized that method is a much better method of cooking. If you want a bonfire you should pile it high but if you’re cooking over a fire while camping your logs will burn quite a bit longer with them flat on the ground.

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[My host mom, the lovely Mineva, starting a pot of nshima]

Who you eat with differs from American culture. In America the idyllic picture of our family meals is everyone sitting around a table all eating together. In Zambia men and women eat separately. Girls always eat with the women and small boys eat with the women too but once the boys reach puberty they start eating with the men. Men will eat their meals in the chota or just out in the open while the women and children always eat inside or right outside of the chinsambu. Whenever I eat nshima with my host family I eat with the women. However, I still get the white person treatment where I sit on my own reed mat, have my own plate or nshima, my own plate of relish, and my own hand washing bowl usually of nice warm water. If it was up to my host mom I would eat with the men because she thinks it’s more proper for me to eat with my host father. I refuse and insist to eat with her and the kids but we meet in the middle with the special treatment she gives me.

Village Zambians grow almost all their own food. They are the definition of subsistence farmers. But because they are subsistence farmers food is often scarce. The beginning of the rainy season is hunger season. I can’t imagine what hunger season will bring since even after the harvests most of the kids in my village only ate one meal a day. The kids do a lot of chores for me, mainly fetching water and I give them a lolly pop when they finish but maybe if I have bread or peanuts or popcorn I give them the option of candy or food; they always choose food. Sometimes it makes me laugh thinking about how different they are from American kids and sometimes it makes me sad knowing how hungry they must be. There’s a reason why my main job here is to increase food security. Food here is so important to their culture and to their existence but there is still so little to go around sometimes. And yet, there are days when my neighbors will just show up at my front door with plates of food for me. It just goes to show how deep the culture is. They’d rather feed their guest and make me happy even if that means less food for them.

*Sorry for the lack of pictures. Time ran away from me but I’ll be sure to add them to the blog at a later date.

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6 Months: A peak into my daily life

I’m sitting at Best Ways, a modest restaurant in my modest town of Mwinilunga. The lunch rush has managed to fill a few tables in this small one-room joint. Best Ways is THE place to be for Peace Corps volunteers in the Mwinilunga area. Don’t be confused, it’s plain, stuffy, and lacking in meal options but the manager and employees have a good relationship with the volunteers so we made Best Ways our HQ in town. They hold our PO box key, let us charge our phones behind the counter and let us use their employees-only toilet (a flush toilet mind you). In return we give them our business and our friendship. It’s a relationship bordering on the too familiar. Good thing the manager, Indiasi, thinks we’re good people. I don’t think most managers of restaurants would let their patrons bring in their own beers, rummage around behind the counter, or change the TV channels on them. However, I don’t think other patrons sit down and teach Indiasi’s 10 year old son how to play Crazy Eights when it’s slow.

For lunch I’m having a cold orange soda and a doughnut fritter. I’m on a budget. A bwana (rich) woman walked in and looked around and saw me typing away on my computer. She invited herself to my table. She’s a doctor of medicine just passing through. A female doctor! Not something I see often out here in the bush. I’m sure she’s happy to have some good conversation with me as she eats her lunch.

It’s been almost 6 months since I’ve come to Mwinilunga and I finally feel like I’m settling in. I bike through my little town and I wave to my bike guy, Mr. Kapepa, who owns the bike repair shop in Kapanda. The employees at the post office wave me to the front of the line and chit chat with me while they get me some stamps. I see Mr. Skooka, the man who runs the Farmers Training Center (FTC) just outside of town, hanging around outside the Livestock Department government building and he gives me a guilty smile. I assure him I have his number and promise to make a trip out to FTC soon. I feel bad for blowing him off in the past but he’s a kind man and understands I’m busy. I see Rebecca, my area’s World Vision officer, walking on the side of the road. We talk shop about projects to collaborate on but I can tell she’s trying to get somewhere so I let her be on her way. After I finish up here I’ll buy some Blue Band and spaghetti at Charles Chaklika’s shop. Although I can buy margarine and pasta at a number of food shops in town Mr. Chaklika has my loyalty being my host father’s son and all. He is always happy to see me and asks me to say hi to his father for him, who for the two years I’m here I suppose, it my father too. I don’t consider Charles my “host brother” though. Probably because he doesn’t live in the village and I don’t see him every day unlike his youngest brother Humphrey who lives 3 houses down from me. The Chaklikas are a big, well-established family here and I’m happy to be a part of it for the time being.

I’m not on as much as a routine as I’d like here. Some volunteers are on very strict routines. Not stressful routines or busy routines but they plan out their weeks very carefully to help them keep some structure in their lives and keep them sane. I get that. Our lives are so unstructured here that we yearn for people to tell us what to do so we make that person ourselves. I normally wake up at 7am on the dot. My body does not want to wake up at 7, I’m sure it wants to wake up at 11 but I live next door to a blacksmith and at 7 every morning, without fail I wake up to them starting work. Loud bangs and clashes of metal on metal is my alarm clock. I roll around in bed for about another hour trying to fall asleep or just tinkering around on my phone and usually emerge from my house around 8am. My village has already been awake for hours and many are already out working in their fields. I know they see my late morning schedule as lazy but girl’s gotta sleep. The first things I do are always the same. I zombie out to my pit latrine to do my morning business and zombie back in my house to get dressed. I make a cup of coffee on the bomb (a propane tank with a single burner on top) and then go greet all of the men working in the chota. A chota is like an open-walled gazebo with a thatch roof. It’s where all the men hang out in the village. Every village in Zambia has at least one, though depending where you go they might be named differently. In Lunda, we call them chotas. I sit outside with them men, sip my coffee and try to keep up with their conversation. I never can, they talk too fast and I inevitably end up zoning off and stare mesmerized at the red hot iron being skillfully molded by hand into axe heads. The main two things they manufacture are axes and hoes. They carve the handles using chisels and knives widdling them into perfectly straight and smooth handles out of whole tree branches or trunks. They buy scrap metal, cut it into pieces, and mold them using nothing but fire and brute strength. The whole village seems to be involved in blacksmithing but the boss is Mine Mashombi, my next door neighbor and owner of the chota, or as he likes to call it “his factory”. I suppose he has a system paying those who work for him but I can’t tell how since some days some men work, other days other men work. It seems random and it probably is but the men putting in the work don’t complain so I’m sure Mine as a system. Even the young boys help out. The do the easy jobs that don’t take much strength like blackening the ends of the handles or burning holes in the axe or hoe heads for the metal pieces to go. Mine says he also pays the small boys. Whether he does or not it keeps the boys busy and out of trouble.

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[molding an axe head]

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[cutting scrap metal into hoe blades with mallet and chisel]

After I finish my coffee I start doing some chores. I wash dishes from the day before, sweep my yard and if I need to I do some laundry. I have stopped fetching water for myself because the kids like to for me. Either one or two of them take a 20 liter jerry can and my bike and get water for me from the wetland behind my house. I don’t mind fetching water but the kids love the candy I give them as payment so I let them.

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[washing dishes in my yard]

Normally I never have meetings scheduled until the afternoon when the men and women have returned from their fields or their trip to town. After my chores I have the option of relaxing at home. I sit outside in my wicker chair and read or cook while listening to a re-run podcast from my iPod. If I need be I take the morning and early afternoon to make a trip to town to run errands and buy vegetables. I can buy some vegetable in my village. Tomatoes almost always and occasionally onions, cabbage, or greens. However, since my village is so close to town vegetables are rarely sold in the village, as seen in more remote villages, and instead transported to town to sell in the market. I live 10 km from town and it takes me about 30 minutes to bike there or 1 1/2 hours to walk.

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[on the way to town]

Justina, my host brother’s wife, heads to town every morning to sell tomatoes and onions. I always buy my tomatoes and onions from her. She gives me a hard time if I don’t. Plus, I think she likes showing off in front of her friends at the market that she’s friends with a white woman. One thing I love about my town is how safe it is. I can leave my bike anywhere propped up against a tree or building and nothing will happen to it. I’m never scared I’ll get robbed or harassed more than the occasional kids asking me for money or men proposing marriage.  After returning home from town or a long morning of hanging out at my house I do actual “work”. It depends on the day what I have scheduled. Some days I have meetings, trainings, or meet with kids clubs. Other days I just need to check up on my farmers or counterparts. Some days I just go pay visits to my favorite families to chit chat and spend some time interacting with their families. Two-thirds of my just is cross cultural interactions and cultural exchanges so just paying a visit to my favorite Zambians does count as work. Well, technically if I did nothing but hang out with my village for 2 years that would also be considered “work”. Staying busy, however, keeps me sane so I try to schedule at least one “work” activity a day.

The evening is usually spent cooking and spending more time with my village. Occasionally I charge my computer in town and I set it up outside and everyone gathers around and we watch a movie. Those are fun nights. The kids oooo and ahhhh and squeal while the adults ask me to explain the plot. When we watched Gladiator I had to explain that no, the people aren’t actually being killed in the movie and no, this wasn’t filmed 2000 years ago during the Roman Empire. It’s entertaining and educational. Once it’s dark I’m in my hut. Normally I read until I get tired which is around 10pm. I fall asleep under my mosquito net to the sounds of a million insects outside doing insect things and the chatter of villages still awake around the fire. Then I wake up and do it all over again. Honestly, the routine can be pretty monotonous so we volunteers find little things to look forward to or get excited about like letters from the post office or upcoming vacations. Life here is slow, life here is frustrating, life here is nothing short of bizarre but it’s simple. It’s when you over-think it, is when it becomes over-whelming. But if you just take it one day at a time and accept it for what it is then it’s a lot easier to wrap your mind around and be at peace with.

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