Monday, June 28, 2010

I promised myself I would keep up with this blog . I’m not even sure if anyone is reading it anymore, as it was something I decided to do upon finding out I would be living for two years in the African bush and needed some sort of semi-consistent mode of communication with my friends and family back here in America. Yet in writing about my experiences and recording my thoughts and reflections, I have found a great outlet. The two years I spent in Africa have essentially changed me in ways that I am still only beginning to understand. Writing about what I am feeling and experiencing as I adjust back to life in a developed country helps me to understand how and why I have changed. So if anyone is still out there following my rants… great! If not, that’s ok too. I’ll still send out my thoughts into cyberspace every so often. ☺

When it was getting down to the end of my service in Zambia, I began to hear the term ‘readjustment’ more and more; all the reverse culture shock I would experience; how no one would care about the experiences I had or even ‘get it’; how I would be so excited to get back to the states, only to find myself praying for one more day in Zambia. I guess at this point I am still waiting for all of these emotions to hit, yet after three months I find it to be a slim possibility. I guess I consider myself lucky that I haven’t experienced an incredibly difficult transition period, and I realize that everyone deals with the transition differently and adjusts back to living in a completely different world at a different pace. Yet I’m starting to believe that a lot of the potential hardships of readjustment are fed to us before we leave. We are told exactly how we should expect to feel as if there is no alternative. I don’t mean to detract from or devalue in any way the different ways in which people adjust returning to the States after living abroad. I only want to shed light on an alternative to feeling depressed, overwhelmed, and unhappy. For me, it was time to come home. But the relative ease of my transition doesn’t mean it hasn’t been a major life change. I have internalized the changes I know I need to make in my life after living in Zambia. I make a conscious effort to not waste time sitting in front of the television. I notice portion sizes at restaurants and try to get two meals out of one. I turn off lights when I leave the room. I spend as much time outdoors as I can. I make an effort to limit my wardrobe to clothes I actually wear. I appreciate the positive and real relationships in my life and try to let those people know how important they are to me on a more regular basis. I try to stay true to my soul and appreciate the simple things in life. The key word here is try; I’m trying. Although I know I stray and easily get caught up in what can be an incredibly overwhelming fast pace of life filled with responsibilities and obligations, I try to stay grounded.

In April, I was asked to be the key note speaker at Eastview High School’s National Honor Society Induction Ceremony. Although I dread public speaking, writing the speech really gave me the opportunity to address my transition from the village to Minneapolis. The speech actually evolved into a sort of personal mission statement. I’ve copied it here:

Good evening inductees, current members, families, friends, and staff. Honestly I’m not one to jump at the opportunity to speak publicly. Frankly I find it a bit scary and intimidating. So when Mr. Beach asked me to address you tonight I thought back to my own induction into Eastview National Honor society almost ten years ago. Looking back, I can tell you truthfully that I don’t have the faintest recollection of who the honorary speaker was. And to be honest, this truth gives me a bit of comfort tonight. So why have I decided to speak in front of an entire auditorium of people who probably won’t remember my name in a week, let alone ten years from now? Well, although I don’t remember the theme of the speech or who delivered it, I remember feeling inspired as I sat where you sit now and began to become aware of the potential I held. It is a privilege that you have all earned to be a part of NHS. Through your dedication to scholarship, character, leadership, and service you have basically proven that you rock. But it is all too easy at this time in your life to become so entrenched in obligations to your family, your friends, your teachers, your coaches, that you forget your obligation to yourself. I am honored to address you fine people tonight, but most of all I feel honored to remind you that even as you go on to more education, your career, the military, traveling… whatever you choose, all you need to do is be aware of who you are at this exact moment and what got you to this point. If you always remember to return to the simplicity of your being, to the basics of your personality and what you know yourself to be, you will always be a rock star. You can’t know the world until you know yourself, and service to others begins with self-awareness. If two years living in the African bush taught me anything, it is that what is simple is what matters most, and to never let yourself go broke believing the simple should be hard.

I often woke with the crowing roosters at 4 a.m. to load up my bike (I still wish I could list ‘strapping things to bikes’ as a marketable skill on my resume) and start off on the two and a half hour cycle to the nearest main road before the sun got to a scorchingly hot point in the sky. One particular morning I remember feeling especially stressed about certain meetings I had in town, and what seemed to be the constant failure of my recent project efforts in the village. Although an incredible inconvenience, the bike-ride to the main road often became a necessity for my mental and emotional health. In other words, I had a lot of deep thoughts while cycling through the African bush. Approximately thirty minutes into the ride, without fail, I would pass by the token village eccentric, a very strange man I like to refer to as both the village welcoming and farewell committee combined into one human being. Most days he would be pacing back and forth on the bike path outside his home like a soldier, stopping to salute the morning sun every so often, all the while chatting away to himself. However, one morning I didn’t notice him in his usual spot. As I continued on my way, I began to notice a dark figure moving among the branches of a tree fifty meters ahead and figured it to be some sort of animal. Yet upon closer inspection, I quickly realized that the same crazy man had climbed and was perched in the tree, wearing nothing but a loincloth and some sort of cape. He had a large fruit in one hand, and was determinedly pounding it against a tree branch. I yelled out the standard morning greeting up to him, “Mwashibukeni Mukwai!” and I’ll never be sure exactly what he yelled back to me as I passed by, for I was desperately trying to keep my pace with the Black-Eyed Peas pounding through my iPod. But the fact is it doesn’t matter what he said. I proceeded to have the best bike ride of my whole two years, as the reality that yes, that did just happen, sunk in over and over again.

So you’re probably wondering why I’m telling you the story of a scantily-clad tree climber making music with fruit as you are about to be inducted into National Honor Society. It is because this story, with all its hilarity and ridiculousness, never failed to bring me back me back down to earth. Through all the crazy ups and downs, the moments of sheer frustration, the triumphs, the big failures, the small successes… when I remembered to just laugh and not take myself or life too seriously, it was doing so that kept me grounded and allowed me to learn what it means to serve. It helped me return to the simple things; the small stuff, because it’s all small stuff. And if you get too wrapped up in complexities and formulas, returning to the small stuff can never fail to save you.

Throughout my time as a student at St. Olaf College, learning about all the different ways to serve others was nothing if not overwhelming. I traveled to Mexico twice in those four years; once to aid in building houses in the border town of Juarez, and another time to study social programs and medical care in central Mexico. For the first time in my life, I saw real need. I was an eyewitness to dire poverty, to the clear reality of living on less than a dollar a day. I remember returning from one of these trips and breaking down emotionally from the seeming unfairness of it all. As a middle child, I desperately cling to my belief that life should be fair, and to see such black and white in life was both eye opening and heart wrenching. How can a small flowing stream, namely the Rio Grande, divide a haven of wealth and economic success from abject poverty and houses made of recycled tin? Why was life going to be unquestionably more difficult and full of economic hardship for those growing up on the ‘wrong’ side of the river? Although the answers to these questions are exceedingly more complicated than the questions that create them, I began to feel a desire and drive to search for an answer; an answer not only to why we have such need in this world, but the ultimate answer as to what can be done to create some sort of global balance. Returning to my eternal concept of fairness, I wanted to know what those who were born on third base could do for those who were struggling to make it to first, or even out of the dug-out. What is the best way that I can be of service to others? I saw need, and I felt compelled to understand it.

As citizens of a developed country, I viewed our specified role as that of a giver. I decided to join the Peace Corps because, in my eyes, it was the best way to begin to fulfill this role. But I would be lying if I didn’t also admit that my sense of adventure factored heavily into my decision to apply to live in a mud hut for two years. I graduated from St. Olaf having just begun to ask the big questions, just beginning to ask what it means to serve and how I can best be of service to others. I was about to find out that what I needed wasn’t answers, but merely the ability to ask the right questions.

When you take a look outside of yourself; when you step outside of your own beliefs, notions, and way of life, put on some else’s shoes and walk around in them for awhile, you are gaining a worldview that can only enhance your introspection. When you look at the world through someone else’s eyes, your own life is illuminated. My two years of service in Zambia can be summed up essentially as a return to the basics. Waking up every morning in a mud hut with a grass roof over your head can really cause one to appreciate the simple things in life; ultimately you don’t have a choice but to appreciate them. I fetched my water at the nearby river, carrying it over my back to my hut every day, being careful to conserve every drop, ever mindful of the amount used for drinking, dishes, and bathing. I started a fire every morning in order to make the necessary cup of coffee. I swept. I walked everywhere. Often times it felt as if half my day was spent greeting my neighbors in the village, as any social interaction not involving ten minutes of greetings was considered incredibly rude. I knew when the moon would be full and the children would stay up late serenading the night sky that never failed to show off the spanning Milky Way. I gave away my watch and told time by the constancy of the sun. I owned not a single mirror, and entertained myself by reading and writing. Irony is traveling to Africa to give of yourself to others, and in turn receiving the gift of finding yourself.

There is a quote by John Steinbeck that sheds light on the fine line between giving and receiving. He said to a friend once, “It is so easy to give, so exquisitely rewarding. Receiving on the other hand, if it be well done, requires a fine balance of self-knowledge and kindness. It requires humility and tact and great understanding of relationships. In receiving you cannot appear, even to yourself, better or stronger or wiser than the giver, although you must be wiser to do it well". Through the restructuring of my every day life, the true definition of service began to reveal itself. As I was peeling back the layers of my life and returning to the basics, I was in turn peeling back the layers of what it means to serve others so that, through all the facets and complexities, I arrived at a very primitive definition of service. The simplicity of my life began to parallel what I saw as a return to the simplistic nature of serving. I was realizing that my greatest successes in Zambia, the times when I was happiest, stemmed directly from the intangible. It was in the realization of empowerment on a clinic worker’s face when they knew they could facilitate healthcare education sessions completely on their own. It was in the gradual growing comfort those in the village felt around me the longer I was a part of their community. It was in the smile on a child’s face paired with slight confusion as they colored a picture of Mickey Mouse with a crayon for the first time on my doorstep. I realized that for me, service was becoming not just an act of giving, but an act of receiving as well.

When I saw the peculiar man in the tree that morning, I began to realize that in focusing all of my efforts on giving, I had forgotten the other half of service; the ability to receive. It is not our responsibility as citizens of the western world to ‘save’ those of developing countries. They don’t need our ‘saving’. The best type of service we can give them is one that comes from a combination of understanding and empathy. The best service we can give is service that is both informed and aware. When you put yourself out there, really open yourself up to other experiences, other cultures, the crazy ‘gong show’ (as I like to call it) of life on what all too often seems like another planet, it is then that you serve. When you remember that God has a sense of humor, when you stop taking yourself too seriously, when you take a moment to remember what makes you come alive and inspires your soul, it is then that you serve. So essentially it all becomes about awareness not only of the world around you, but of yourself.

You don’t need to move to a developing country for two years in order to become aware of the world. You don’t need to renounce your possessions, or live in a mud-brick hut with a thatched roof to have empathy for those living in poverty. Honestly it kind of just makes everyone think you are a bit ‘off your rocker’. All you need to do is be aware. Not only of the different ways in which people live their lives, but of how the way you live your life fits into the great puzzle. Being a member of NHS is testament to your character and potential to play significant roles in the course of the world’s future. You demonstrate the four pillars in your lives every day: scholarship, leadership, character, and service. Tonight I’ve focused mainly on service, yet the linking of all four pillars is not a secret. In the words of Howard Thurman, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Never lose your spirit or compromise your soul. Live your life aware of who exactly it is you are, and you will live a life of service. Thank you, and congratulations on your induction into Eastview High School’s National Honor Society.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

to serve.

Here is an essay that I have been working on since returning from Zambia. I am still trying to formulate my thoughts into a cohesive expression/understanding of the past two years...

Since returning home from two years of volunteer service in Zambia through the Peace Corps, it hasn’t been malls, grocery stores, clocks, or all the white people not staring at me that I’ve found most overwhelming. Of course readjusting to the fast pace of life, the easy access to information and 50 different types of shampoo has been anything but underwhelming, the most difficult adjustment has been fielding questions from friends and family that never fail to include, ‘That must have been so difficult’, ‘I could never do anything like that’, or ‘How did you deal with all the poverty?’. If the past two years have taught me anything, it is that my definition of service deserved a dramatic restructuring. I’ve barely scratched the surface of understanding service, peeling back the layers of what it means to serve others so that, through all the complexities, I’ve arrived at a very primitive definition of service.

It is not our responsibility as citizens of the western world to ‘save’ those of developing countries. They never were and never will be ours for the saving. The best type of service we can give is service that comes from a combination of understanding and empathy, service that is both informed and aware. When you put yourself out there, truly allow yourself to be swept up by new experiences and foreign cultures in a place that all too often seems like another planet, you serve others. You take a look outside of yourself and your world. You quite literally step into someone else’s shoes and walk around in them for awhile, and you do so while gaining a worldview that can only enhance your introspection. I left Zambia with a million more questions than those with which I arrived. Thinking you know all the answers will only leave you stuck in a self- satisfied world that can become all too comfortable.

But grassroots development is most definitely not the only definition of service. Service can build its roots as close as your front doorstep. There is no need to move to a developing country for two years in order to become aware of the world around you. One does not need to renounce their possessions or live in a mud-brick hut with a thatched roof to have empathy for those living in poverty. The ultimate necessity is awareness. Read not only the newspaper, but online blogs and discussion forums. If you plan to give money to an organization aiding in development, look into not only the goals and aims of that organization, but where most of their costs are to see where your money is likely to end up.

We often think of service as a sort of transaction between two entities; one performs the act of giving, while the other in turn performs the act of receiving. Both are happy in their perceived roles, and the transaction we picture is straight forward and void of any confusion or misunderstanding. But when the lines are blurred the roles become interchangeable. The giver becomes also a receiver, and vise versa. This is the place where service finds its true definition, a definition realized only through awareness of these interchanging roles. It’s a bit ironic that it took serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in one of the poorest countries in the world to begin to comprehend the true nature of receiving. John Steinbeck once wrote to a friend, “It is so easy to give, so exquisitely rewarding. Receiving on the other hand, if it be well done, requires a fine balance of self- knowledge and kindness. It requires humility and tact and great understanding of relationships. In receiving you cannot appear, even to yourself, better or stronger or wiser than the giver, although you must be wiser to do it well.” Break out of the black and white roles of service, into the lovely gray of relationships where both parties stand to benefit.

Africa doesn’t need money; it doesn’t need more Peace Corps volunteers; it doesn’t need fancy formulas for development; what it needs is awareness of its reality on the part of both Africans and foreigners. Africa does not exist to fulfill the sole role of receiver; it has way too much to give back to us to be stuck in such a box. T.S. Elliot claimed that, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” When we challenge our view of the world, we challenge our actions in accordance with that worldview. We grow; we learn; we serve. We peel back the layers to reveal that we went broke thinking the simple should be hard.

Monday, April 19, 2010

back home.

Long story short: I got sick. Peace Corps couldn't figure out or treat what was wrong. I was sent home one month early, and have officially been back in Minnesota since March 17th.

I apologize to anyone who has been following this blog and didn't know that I left a bit early. I look now at the last time I updated, February 15, and feel a little bad that it was more than two months ago! A lot has changed since then.

My health situation has since been figured out. And I'm fine. I guess the most exciting updates are as follows: I take showers as often as I can. (I forgot how nice it is to have fluffy, clean towels to dry off with.) I make coffee with a coffee maker every morning. I go for runs in suburbia where no one stares at me. (I have yet to get on a bike... that will take some time.) I have a lease starting in june on an apartment in uptown minneapolis; One part-time job; Currently looking for one or two more. I've been dating. I've been drinking too many good beers. And all the food I eat is so tasty I can barely believe it. :)

Ultimately i'm happy to be home. And to be honest, I don't miss Zambia right now. Of course I will never regret my experience there, but it was past time to come home. I am sure that as time goes by I'll begin to miss aspects of my life there as well as people I met. But I am in such a better place mentally and emotionally right now. A big difference I've noticed in myself since I've returned is that I unfailingly find joy in the little things. And it's all little stuff. :)

So what's next? Trying to figure that one out...

I am looking at grad schools for mass communication/journalism and hope to head back to school in the fall of 2011 or 2012. I'll probably be sticking around the cities for about a year. After that, who knows? Colorado... New York... Texas... California...

I want to remain stateside for awhile. I see myself traveling and possibly living abroad again. It just feels too great to be home right now.

I am planning to keep up with this blog, and will write more about my readjustment back to Americaland. If you like it, read it. If not, no worries. :)

Again, I apologize for not being on top of updates. Yay for this amazing Minnesota spring, and go Twins!

take care. and peace.


Monday, February 15, 2010


A capital city with no sidewalks, in a country where the majority of the people walk everywhere they go; Buses and cars in a hot rush, in a place where time holds no meaning and nothing happens quickly; A country powered on the backs of the hard work of women, who hold no financial or legal power in their own households; A people obsessed with money and social status, living in a socialist society where individuals are not meant to stand out above others; A focus on what something looks like to outsiders, with no attention paid to the inner quality; An established national language, which the majority of citizens fail to speak or comprehend.

The more time I spend in Zambia, the more contradictions I notice. I’ve been stuck in Lusaka dealing with medical issues since Thursday, and have been feeling more and more frustrated with what I see and experience here. As a disclaimer, I’ll mention that of course contradictions exist everywhere in the world; I highlight those in Zambia because in order to understand them I need to put them out there, address them head-on. For my personal sanity I feel a need to comprehend them. Why are things they way they are? Why do people behave the way they behave? My life here is a futile yet hopeful attempt to put the pieces together, although I have the feeling they won’t complete any sort of logical puzzle. I’m destined to leave Zambia with far more questions than with which I came.

Lately even I feel like a walking contradiction. I’m living in one of the poorest countries in the world, in a rural village not found on a map, trying to work with local people to change their behavior. But what if the situation were reversed? If a purple-colored person moved to suburban Minnesota and tried to get me to change my behavior, I would most definitely think they were crazy. Oh, and did I mention that person isn’t fluent in English? Lately I find myself losing passion for grassroots development work. Grass can’t grow if it doesn’t receive nourishment from the sky. People cannot thrive with a government that consistently fails to protect their rights and best interests. If my neighbors in the village were somehow able to afford to travel to Lusaka, they might just die of shock upon seeing the wealth that resides in their capital city. The class disparities in Zambia are black and white, with very little grey in between; it might as well be two separate countries.

Foreigners come here to ‘help’ the people, while the government continues take a lot off the top, breeding both corruption and greed. As cynical as it sounds, power and money come hand-in-hand, and what chance does the majority have if they are poor, lack access to quality education, and are powerless to keep themselves healthy and thus alive? In a perfect world they’d have a fighting chance, but the haunting reality remains that they don’t.

I am almost to the point of feeling hopeless after living here for two years; I can’t imagine the hopelessness one must feel raised in a country that doesn’t even pretend to care about their future. Correction: they do pretend to care, which may be even worse, as it creates the illusion of a potential that can easily be fulfilled. It takes not only a strong sense of self and a willful character to succeed as a Zambian raised outside Lusaka, but help from institutions put in place for the specific purpose of helping. I believe that certain institution is not Peace Corps. It isn’t NGO’s. It isn’t anyone that is not Zambian. It is institutions created by Zambians, made up of Zambians, run by Zambians that have the responsibility to help their fellow citizens.

As a volunteer in Zambia, I am lying to myself if I say that I am doing more for Zambia than it is doing for me. The ultimate truth is that I have gained more from this experience than any Zambian who has known me. And I will return to the United States a more informed citizen because of the opportunities my own country has afforded me. I attended public schools funded by my government. I burrowed money from my government to attend college. I say my government because it is a government with which I have a relationship; Although I’ll admit not always a perfect one, a relationship nonetheless. I would venture to say that tragically few rural Zambians feel any semblance of a connection to their government, and thus lies the contradiction in the Zambian government; It is a government that doesn’t govern its people. A government is a branch or service of the supreme authority of a state or nation, taken as representing the whole. If one is representing themselves and the interests of a select few, they are not a true government. Until the Zambian government decides to govern its people, those same people will continue to die of HIV, be unemployed, turn to the bottle, and experience no quality education and thus ability to better their own situation in life. That is true hopelessness, and it stems from contradiction.

I will be home in a little over two months, and it will be good for me to reflect on my time in Zambia from a different perspective. Although hindsight tends to blind itself to the ‘bad’ and illuminate the ‘good’, I don’t want to forget what has been negative in my experiences here; the frustrations and criticisms are just as important as the positive and praised. It’s human nature to find the silver lining, but we can’t ignore the dark clouds. Until we weather the storm, we can’t experience the sunshine.


Friday, February 5, 2010

notes on development

I believe that approaches to development are changing constantly. As an agent of healthcare development in Africa, if I don’t consistently assess and alter my personal approach at the extreme rural level, how can I expect to effectively participate in that development as a whole? I tend to yo-yo between the belief that all foreign aid should pull out of Africa as soon as possible, and the belief that there is hope in a system of foreign aid that actually helps those who need it most. But hope can only come from consistent dialogue amongst outside agents of development as well as host country nationals.

Among the PC volunteer community, there is a constant running dialogue surrounding whether or not any of us should really be here, and if we are actually doing more harm than good. We share our idealistic solutions to anyone that will listen, as well as our growing list of frustrations regarding living in the middle of the African bush without money or resources for the work we are expected to do; but we would be kidding ourselves if we thought we were the only foreign aid workers in the country who have these conversations.

I attended a development panel last week that opened up such a dialogue between the Peace Corps, NGOs, and the US Embassy in Zambia. It was held at the one of the higher-up Embassy officer’s home in Lusaka. (Light snacks and wine were served…they haven’t learned yet to keep Peace Corps volunteers away from free-flowing drinks…). Although we took time to appreciate good old-fashioned chips and salsa (even salsa con queso!), our main focus was kept on the questions put forth to us by American aid workers outside of Peace Corps (identified by their slick-backed hair, suits, and lack of flip-flops). We talked for a couple hours, although it felt like mere minutes, about issues such as handing out large sums of money to rural villagers, the entrepreneurial spirit (or lack-there-of, according to the US embassy) of Zambians, Zambian politics and its role in aid, and how we can keep hope in what all too often seems to be a hopeless situation regarding development in this country. There was a panel made up of 2 American employees of NGOs in Lusaka, 1 employee of the US Embassy, and 3 Peace Corps Volunteers (representing the education, health, and agriculture projects). Although at times the discussion turned to debate and became a bit heated, what was most significant about the panel discussion was its ability to help us realize the tremendous importance of what we have to teach each other. Although sometimes we hate to admit it, as rurally-placed volunteers we have a lot to learn from those focused on the big picture of development in Zambia. And even those dressed in suit and tie, living in fancy gated homes made to separate Africa from their small American haven, have something to learn from the liberal, tanned and dirty Peace Corps volunteers who spend two years trying to blend into a rural community in the bush, whose job it is to focus on the small picture, the ‘roots’ of grassroots development. If we can learn to listen to one another and open up our discussions and conversations to another point of view, development in this country can only stand to gain. However, there is one party missing from this equation, a group of the utmost importance, without which there would be no equation in the first place. This group consists of Zambians themselves.

One comment made by an NGO worker at the panel rang especially true; that we cannot afford to forget that we are guests in this country. We are welcomed with open arms, complete with a plethora of greetings and handshakes, into Zambia. Zambians desire to show us their culture, the way they live, their beliefs and values, their lives in such a way that allows us to call this land-locked country in sub-saharan Africa that so easily gets lost in the shuffle our home for as long as we choose to stay. Ultimately, no matter what projects we work on, how strong the relationships we form with host country nationals, or how long we talk around the point of development in Zambia, none of us need to be here; from the volunteer carrying water to her hut everyday to the US Embassy worker in charge of dispensing small-scale grants to community schools to the Director of World Vision. Ultimately we should all be constantly working ourselves out of our jobs here. Zambia is developing from the hard work of Zambians, not foreigners. We have to recognize that we are here to aid with that development, not to do it ourselves. I feel like a broken record when I say that development in this country can only come from Zambians themselves; but surely this seemingly simple concept has defined my service and life here for the past two years.

Maybe it’s the tiny hippie hidden somewhere inside me, but I tend to get a bad taste in my mouth when seeing foreign aid workers driving around fancy land cruisers with USAID (United Stated Agency for International Development) emblazoned on the side. I know part of this bitterness comes from seeing them pass by me as I’m stuck hitch-hiking on the side of the road (dude, my tax dollars help pay for that vehicle!), but mostly I tend to think they are missing what’s right in front of them; the projects they fund and work they do doesn’t trickle down to those at the very rural level who need it most. I’m angry at them for not seeing what slaps me in the face every morning that I wake up in my village. But when I get caught up in this anger and bitterness I only forget that they may have the same frustrations with me. I am only focused on development at the smallest of scales, and I don’t see all that goes into efforts to dispense developmental initiatives across an entire country. I don’t see successes and failures on a national level. I don’t have a degree in foreign affairs or international development. I only have my experiences of the past two years, experiences that have never failed to spark my curiosity in the big picture. After discussing/debating development efforts with those with the fancy suits, many pc volunteers feel even more put off by those at the top. As for me, I find myself more intrigued. There is so much more to learn, and unless you are willing to keep your mouth shut long enough to hear another point of view you’ll find yourself stuck in a self-satisfied world in which it’s easy to feel a bit too comfortable. It doesn’t help to criticize a system over and over again. We need to learn to understand that system, its failures and successes, and work within it ourselves in order to change it. I could see myself possibly working internationally in the future, at what capacity I’m not sure. But my interest has definitely been sparked.

The group I came to Zambia with almost 2 years ago had our COS (close of service) Conference in Lusaka last week. There were 52 of us at the beginning, and now we are 45. 15 people in my group have chosen to extend their service for a third year, most continuing their work with different NGOs in Lusaka. In order to celebrate the near-end to our time in Zambia, Peace Corps put us up in a fancy lodge for 2 nights about an hour outside of Lusaka. During the day we had sessions on the logistics of finishing up our service as well as moving on with life after Peace Corps. But the best part of the conference was hanging out with 44 other people who all seem to be in about the same place mentally and emotionally as I do right now, 44 other people who have been living here for the same amount of time as I have. At this point, in the thick of rainy season, most all of us have finished with our projects and are ready to move on to what is next. Of course there is that bittersweet feeling that always accompanies ending an incredible yet, at times, extremely frustrating experience that can’t help but change you. I booked my flight home, and should be arriving in Minneapolis (I pray it’s not too cold) on April 24th. Although I feel more confused now more than when I came regarding exactly what it is I want to do next, I feel at peace with the fact that I’ll figure it out. I know what makes me happy, and I’ve learned to find comfort in the little things. It’s time to leave Zambia behind me, knowing that what I learned here I will carry with me for the rest of my life. And that’s all I know for sure. As so succinctly put by Tom Petty:

It’s time to move on. It’s time to get going.
What lies ahead I have no way of knowing.
Under my feet the grass is growing.
It’s time to move on. It’s time to get going.


Saturday, January 23, 2010

hitchhikers' guide to mozambique

Search no more. I believe I have found the most beautiful corner of sub-saharan Africa. Mozambique lays on the eastern side of southern Africa, forming a long stretch of coastline on the Indian Ocean. Not only is the country itself magnificently beautiful, but the people exude beauty from their language to their welcoming manner. Mozambique was colonized by Portugal, causing Portugese to be the official language. Yet the dialect spoken is ‘africa-fied’ in such a way that could only create a perfect mix of Bantu and Romantic tongues.

In an effort to cut back on the number of absolute travel nightmares while roaming in Africa (although they never cease to make the best stories after the fact), my friends and I decided to fly first to Johannesberg in South Africa and continue on from there to Mozambique by bus. At this point in my Peace Corps service, I have no qualms with experiencing a bit of westernized culture for the sake of my sanity. South Africa never fails to be somewhat of an oasis for the Peace Corps Africa volunteer community. McDonalds, malls, customer service, 4-lane highways, sandwiches, diversity, and did I mention McDonalds?? Maybe I should find it a bit shameful to admit that 75% of the time we had in Johannesberg was spent at the local shopping mall. But just to have so many options and people who are willing to help you make decisions; to have efficiency, to be perfectly honest… it made me ridiculously happy.

After spending one night in the big city of Joberg, we hopped on a 6-hour bus headed for Nelspruit (near the border of South Africa and Mozambique). I believe I’ve mentioned this multiple times already on this blog, but you learn to fly by the seat of your pants when you live in Africa. When you make plans you only set yourself up for disappointment; whereas when you let go of any expectations and just let the cards fall as they may, you are bound to be pleasantly surprised. Although this philosophy conforms nicely to my lifestyle in Zambia, I realize it will need to be adjusted upon my return to Americaland. Having some sort of game plan seems to work out much better that side of the Atlantic.

Upon our arrival in Nelspruit, we made our way to the mini-bus station in hopes of getting on a last-minute bus going to Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. Living in a peaceful country such as Zambia has increased our naivite when it comes to traveling in Africa. As we were walking to the bus station, multiple people pulled their cars over to concernedly inform us that we should not be walking around this town as foreigners; that is was actually incredibly unsafe. Stuck with only the possessions on our back, no car, and no clue when it came to our orientation in Nelspruit, we justified our will to get to the bus station by the false security of power in numbers. I can honestly say that it was not the best situation to be in and we should consider ourselves fortunate that everything ended up working out sans any sort of confrontation. We got on a cramped mini-bus to the border and proceeded to Maputo knees against the seats in front of us, necks cocked to the side, heads pressed against the roof. All we wanted and needed to do upon arrival at the backpackers in Mozambique was shower. There was no water. We camped on the roof of the kitchen and due to pure exhaustion were able to fall asleep despite the stagnant humid heat that would come to be a common theme for us on Mozambiquean nights. We woke up the next morning dirty and stinky, but with beach on the mind and the determination to get to our next destination.

We were told by staff at the backpackers that due to the nightmare that is transport in Mozambique, we should abandon dreams of making it to Vilancoulos (our northernmost destination), and instead stop in Xhai-Xhai first, then head onto Tofo. Of course when you don’t own a vehicle in Africa, public transport becomes the only option more often than not. But we were just one hellish, hot-box, cramped mini-bus (termed chapas in Mozambique) ride away from surf and sand in Xhai-Xhai. We were like children when we finally arrived at the beach, running to the water through the sand with the energy, it seemed, to swim all the way to India. Someone from above smiled down on us when we scored our own beach house for what amounted to about 10 US dollars per person per night, complete with air conditioning, kitchen, grill, shower, and our own private stretch of beach. Needless to say, we extended our stay in Xhai-Xhai by a few days and found it hard to tear ourselves away from that paradise and brave another round of transport to Tofo. We cooked lobster for Christmas, along with prawns and even shark on other nights. We bought the shark while walking along the beach, intentionally in denial of the fact that the very location where we were swimming was obviously where it had come from… A couple of Mozambiquean teenage boys offered to skin the shark for us, and I can safely put that meal on my ‘top ten most delicious meals ever’ list. 

Most vacations I have gone on in the past two years have not been ones that have championed rest and relaxation. From sandboarding in Namibia to snorkeling in Zanzibar, I have tried to take advantage of the all the adventures that sub-saharan Africa has to offer. Mozambique was beautifully different. You couldn’t help but just chill out and soak in the beauty all around you. I went on long walks on the beach, swam in the crazy ocean surf, read my book in the sand, and most nights my friends and I stayed up late into the night, looking up at the stars and out at the endless abyss of the ocean, having conversations you can only ever really have over a campfire; on the beach; in the middle of nowhere.

Reluctantly remembering we are 25 years old and have a duty to get crazy on New Years Eve, we said goodbye to our perfect little haven in Xhai-Xhai and hitch-hiked to Tofo. If Xhai-Xhai is the epitomy of r&r, Tofo is party central, serving as a popular New Years Eve destination for both Mozambiqueans and South Africans. We found ourselves in a tent city in the sand at a backpackers on the beach. It felt a bit like Woodstock Tofo-style. I say this with the realization that I am making a gross generalization…but stereotypes exist for a reason…and white South Africans are small-doses people for me. I actually can’t really stand them. They remind me of the epitomy of racist, southern, conservative ignorance, and they were inescapable in Tofo. I won’t go off on a tangent, but I will say that I fear for the future of South Africa whenever I meet white South Africans in my travels. Again, I know I am generalizing here, but if I never meet another Afrikaner…I’m ok with it. However, I did witness something on the beach in Tofo that gave me hope for humanity. There were two Mozambiquean boys, probably about 8-10 years old, making jewelery on the beach to sell to tourists. I was resting in the shade about 10 yards from where they were working. There was a white South African boy of about the same age sitting with them. He was learning how to make the jewelery, and would run off with one of the boys to the beach whenever they saw potential buyers. I overheard one of the Mozambiquean boys give a bracelet as a gift to the South African boy. For the next two days these three boys were inseparable, playing together around the beach and in town. Racial differences seemed not to exist, and economic, social, and cultural lines were blurred. In a place where one is constantly reminded of their skin color, I found hope for the future of Africa in these children; blame it on the part of me that, through all my frustrations, still knows a solution exists in this crazy world when it comes to hate and discrimination.

New Years Eve Day some of us decided to snorkel with whale sharks. They are the largest fish in the sea; incredibly graceful, beautiful creatures. And we were able to swim right alongside one of them! Of course I had to talk myself out of a freak-out the entire two hours…oceans and sharks are two of my biggest fears. Sharks are actually way out of my league…I’m afraid even of fish. But I can now add it to my list of things that were fun to do exactly ONCE.  There was a live reggae band performing on the beach as a full blue moon rose over the ocean on New Years Eve. I’ll never forget what it felt like to welcome a new decade (and the year I get to come home!) in such a beautiful setting. I’m a lucky girl.

Transport from Tofo back to Johannesberg was anticlimactic, just the way I like it. We had one more day at the mall there, and I flew out of that magical airport knowing that the next time I will be there will be en route to Americaland! As I’ve said before, the familiarity of returning to Zambia always makes me feel as if I’m returning home. But I can’t deny that I’m excited for the day when my home makes sense to me.

Speaking of which, it looks like I’ll complete my Peace Corps service at the end of April. The new country director in Zambia seems to be blanketly denying all applications for an early close-of-service. I applied to leave one month early due to finishing work early in the village. Oh well, what’s one more month when I’ll have been here for 25 already? I’ll see all the people I came to Zambia with next week at our close-of-service conference in Lusaka, where we should receive our final ring-out dates so we can book our flights home. And when I say ‘ring out’ I mean it literally. Before we leave the Peace Corps office in Lusaka for the last time, we hit a metal tire rim with a stick, symbolizing the official end of our service. This is of course accompanied by nostalgiac and uplifting speeches, hugs, and sometimes tears. I promise to shout it on the mountaintops once I know the date I get to partake in this ritual.

I hope everyone enjoyed a warm and cozy holiday season, wherever you may have celebrated. I heard there was a lot of snow, and still is! Take care, and much love from Zambia.

~Happy 2010~



Thursday, December 17, 2009

and may all your christmases be white

Happy Holidays! I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…but waking up to rain and mosquitoes…and white sand beaches I guess? I’ll be celebrating the birth of Jesus in Mozambique this year. Home is where I really want to be, with snow and decorative pine trees. But I can’t complain. I’ll be traveling with 6 friends to the beautiful Mozambiquan coast of the Indian Ocean. Mozambique was colonized by the Portugese, and we are all looking forward to delicious food and lovely architecture. There is supposed to be a full blue moon on New Years Eve, which promises to be unforgettable in and of itself. We’ve decided to fly by the seat of our pants even more-so on this vacation than others. As it turns out, booking anything ahead of time in Mozambique is next to impossible and actually an incredibly shady process. It fits nicely with the whole ‘lack of forward thought’ theme of my life in Africa. We are planning to show up with tents and just kick it on the beach. I only pray that I’ll remember the reasoning behind these laid-back plans when they begin to play out…

Myself and 5 other Peace Corps volunteers living in Mpika district put on Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) last week. I would like to begin with a few overarching themes (or maybe more appropriately, lessons learned) for the week: 1) Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong. (Why does this continue to surprise me?)

Actually, I think that one theme suffices. Pretty much the entire week was in reaction to this theme. What can you do when you are fully aware of the prevalence of Murphy’s law in your life?

Just a few examples:

**Absolutely nothing was prepared when we arrived at the recreation center. There weren’t enough mattresses, sheets, blankets, and absolutely no sense of organization on the part of the manager of the place we were paying to rent.The center was ‘creepy guy’ central. Men with nothing better to do were just hanging around the recreation center we rented out the whole week. On that note, apparently renting out a center only means renting out two rooms. Everyone else in the center can feel free to blast music and talk really loud. And poke their heads into your space every 5 minutes, ignoring all signs to keep quiet and not enter. The water couldn’t be turned off. Faucets were leaking and bathrooms were flooding. Of course 2 days of absolutely no water were interspersed throughout the week.

**The teachers who came with the students (1 teacher and 2 students from 5 different villages) demanded allowances for being there; allowances on top of the transport, rooming, and meals that we provided for them. One student also expected to be paid to attend the camp. 1 teacher and 1 student decided to leave the first day due to the fact that we weren’t paying them to be there, even though it was clearly stated in a letter drafted to them weeks before the camp began. When the teachers began to demand money, we met with all of them and gave it to them straight; They weren’t going to be paid to attend the camp. The camp centers around equipping teenage girls with the skills and confidence necessary to overcome the many obstacles they face growing up in a patriarchal society. If the teachers weren’t willing to stay and be involved in the empowerment of these girls, we would pay them the transport money to leave right now. But if they chose to stay, they would have to be involved and show that they care. Most chose to stay because they lived so far away, not because they recognized the need to empower young women in their village. I find it difficult to think of a time in my life when I have met a more entitled group of people. The 4 teachers that chose to stay continued to cause problems for the next 5 days.

**We had one session on condom use, and sat down with the teachers before the session to address any issues they may have with teaching abstinence, condom use, and birth control. Zambia considers itself a ‘christian nation’ and churches and schools preach abstinence only. However, when most women are becoming pregnant when they are 15 years old, clearly people are engaging in sex outside of marriage. The World Health Organization has done studies that show that when young women are taught about birth control through abstinence as well as the use of contraceptives, they are more likely to choose abstinence for themselves more often than if they are taught abstinence only. It was not the intention of Camp GLOW to morally judge these girls for choices they make when it comes to their bodies, but to make every option available to them and allow them to make their own decisions. Although the teachers agreed with our intentions prior to the session, during the session they told the girls that sex outside of marriage is sinful, that they should read certain Bible verses, and basically that they were terrible people if they didn’t abstain from sex. They even told the girls that using birth control at a young age can cause you to have problems conceiving later in life. We found ourselves openly arguing with the teachers during the session.

So what do you do when everything goes wrong? Do you freak out and throw in the towel? Not here. Or you wouldn't last very long. When you live in Zambia, you cling so strongly to the smallest things that go right until you are white in the knuckles.

First of all, our caterer was amazing. We had delicious meals prepared for us every day, and for the most part they were ready within an hour of when they were supposed to be, which in Zambia means they were on time.

Most importantly, the 9 girls that stayed for the week were unbelievable. It was great to see Zambian teenage girls be able to be teenage girls around each other. They bonded throughout the week and really opened up to and accepted one another. They were so much fun to be around, and were always smiling. We had some pretty unforgettable dance parties. There were 2 18-year old girls we had attend the camp as counselor-types. They slept in the same room as the younger girls and got to know them on a more personal level. They facilitated a session on rape and sexual abuse with the girls (sans Peace Corps volunteers and teachers) toward the end of the week. Following the session, all the girls wanted to go to VCT (voluntary counseling and testing) for HIV at the local clinic.

During the session itself, 5 out of 9 of the girls revealed that they had been raped. Some had been abused by cousins, some by complete strangers. Only one of the men had been put in jail. What these girls face on a daily basis either breaks them or makes them stronger. When over half of the girls in a group of intelligent young women who have shown to be leaders in their communities have been sexually abused, something is incredibly wrong. I wish I could keep Zambian men away from these girls for the rest of their lives. I wish their society would protect them against constant harassment from men who could never hold a candle to their strength. I wish that older women in the community supported the younger generation, and gave them hope that life doesn't have to be this way. But the most I can do is do all that I can to equip these girls, in 5 days, with the tools and skills to stand up for themselves, to realize how incredibly strong and beautiful they are. The most I can hope for is that one aspect of the camp really sunk in; that just one girl gets her boyfriend to use a condom; that just one girl feels she can report her teacher raping her to someone she trusts and not feel blamed; that just one girl fights to continue her schooling. Change is incremental. All it takes is one girl realizing the potential power she holds, and helping other women around her to do the same, for this country to change. You just have to plant the seed...

Thank you so much to all who donated money to Camp GLOW. Without your help, these 9 girls would have missed out on an opportunity to change their lives. It is impossible to be sure that they will take everything they learned back to the village with them and put it into practice. All you can do is try. Story of my life in the Peace Corps.

Happy Holidays! I wish you all a healthy and happy Christmas surrounded by those you love.

Best wishes in the new year!

Love from Zambia.