Sunday, April 22, 2012

Saying Goodbye

It’s not very often in our lives that we really say goodbye. We can say “see you later” or “see you soon,” or how about “catch ya on the flippity-flop.” Even if we do part with a friendly “bye!” we rarely use it in a permanent sense. Two weeks ago, we were picked up by the Peace Corps LandCruiser and driven out of our village. We said a permanent “goodbye” to our Zambian life. We don’t know if or when we will ever be back, and even if we do manage to visit, it will never be the same.

For the past month, we have been slowly saying our goodbyes to all our Zambian friends and family. We concluded projects, had final meetings, and even a farewell party at school with all of the teachers. As a gift, the school made Joey and me matching chitenge outfits to wear at the celebration. It was extremely thoughtful. We also enjoyed one last nshima meal with our host family. They even prepared a village chicken for us, which is a very special treat primarily saved for special occasions. We visited neighbors and handed out pictures and thank you letters to all of those who had supported us during our time in the village. After each visit, we concluded by saying a sincere “thank you.” I thought it would get easier after each family we visited, but it didn’t. All the people that we stayed with for 2 years have truly touched us and we will miss them. The relationships we formed will always be cherished.

We spent the last week of our Peace Corps careers in Lusaka saying more goodbyes to Lusaka Peace Corps staff and fellow volunteers. We started our service 26 months ago with 52 volunteers; 13 left along the way, 11 are extending for a third year, and 28 finished their Peace Corps tour. Yesterday, we participated in an official PC “ringing out” ceremony. Each of the 28 volunteers completing their service had the opportunity to “ding” a metal rim to signify the end of their service. It is a short and sweet ceremony and just like that, it is “goodbye” to Peace Corps Zambia.

We are saying farewell to more than our friends and family, we are also saying goodbye to 2am rooster calls, an endless blue sky, our dog, Danger and cat, Lenny, six months of straight rain, 6 months of dry heat, children chasing goats, long truck rides on bumpy dirt roads, 8pm bedtimes, mosquito nets, the Southern Cross, and so much more. It is hard to imagine any other experience coming close to this. In fact, I don’t know if I would want another experience like this. It has been a full journey, and new chapters lie ahead.

We are also ending yet another chapter of our service: this blog. Thank you to those of you who followed our life in Mkushi, Zambia over the last 26 months. And so, for one more time, “Goodbye.”

Musofu Skies

A cloudy sunrise with Danger on Cell Phone Mountain

Our American friends who stay in Lusaka, the Burke family, came to visit our last month at site

My last adult literacy class

Joey in his field

The school staff at our farewell pary

Joey and some of his closest farmer friends on our last night

Our neighbors, Martha, Lasty, and Taonga

Our last day in Zambia at the Peace Corps office after "Ring Out."

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Final Days

Three months ago, I was hit hard with a case of “senioritis”. I could just taste the fresh blueberries and smell the scent of Tide after a fresh load of laundry just out of the dryer. So why is it with one month left, all I feel is sadness? Of course, I am still excited to be home, but somehow I’m coming back with another home to think about and miss.

The past two years have certainly been unforgettable. We learned how to farm, how to how to teach English, how to speak Bemba and Swaka, how to start a library, how to become very comfortable using a hole in the ground, and, most importantly, how to eat nshima! But we’ve also learned how to work with people who are very different from us, how to give thanks with deed instead of word, how to sit in silence and simply appreciate company, and how to truly value the seemingly small victories in life.

With one month left in our beautiful village, all the frustrations just don’t seem to matter anymore. I’ve stopped looking at my watch as much. Maybe if I don’t know the time, it will slow down so I can enjoy these precious moments longer. I’ve started to journal daily. Maybe if I can write it down it won’t escape so fast. Mostly, I’ve been thinking about gratitude; gratitude for my Zambian family whom I will always cherish, gratitude for my dear husband who helped me through the whole way, and gratitude for a life-changing experience.

Friday, February 3, 2012

My Field

"When a man journeys into a far country, he must be prepared to forget many things he has learned, and to acquire such customs as are inherent with existence in the new land …                                             For the courtesies of ordinary life, he must substitute unselfishness, forbearance, and tolerance. Thus, and only thus, can he gain that pearl of great price – true comradeship. He must not say 'thank you,' he must mean it without opening his mouth, and prove it by responding in kind. In short, he must substitute the deed for the word, the spirit for the letter." –Jack London

I couldn't find work. Or, more accurately, I couldn't find anyone that was the right combination of industrious and crazy to work with me. That's why I started my small demonstration plot. It was an attempt to prove my worth to the village and it was something to do. I didn't really have a clear strategy for my plot when I started because I hadn't really thought it through. I just started digging. I did what I was asking others to do: dig basins early to enable timely planting when the rains come in November.

Digging isn't easy. Especially when it hasn't rained a drop in 6 months and it's 90° at night. I started to understand why farmers generally treat October as a month of rest and why they weren't listening to the white guy telling them to dig early. Still, I kept digging. I did most of my work between 5 and 7 am to avoid the heat and to give myself the rest of the day to look for people that were the right combination of industrious and crazy.

When the rains came, I was ready and I planted maize. And I kept digging. A month later, I planted peanuts and soybeans. I stopped digging and I started weeding. Then I harvested 9 bags of maize, 2 bags of unshelled peanuts, 1 bag of shelled soybeans, and 1 bag of velvet beans – each bag is 50 kg. My plot was small – about ½ a football field – but my harvest wasn't.

Somewhere in between the digging and the harvesting, I found work. I had 9 people that were the right combination of industrious and crazy. I had my plot and their plots as demonstrations. I had bush-cred and I had the attention of farmers – most were industrious, but some were crazy.

That was all last year. This year I have work. I have 67 farmers employing the techniques that I demonstrated in my field in a total area greater than 100 football fields. I put a lot more time into training the audience that my field gave me. And instead of having farmers visit me at my field, I visit them at theirs to offer advice and encouragement. I am pleased by the results of my field.

There were plenty of reasons for me not to continue my field this year; I had work, I didn't need to prove my worth as an agriculturalist, I was busy with Peace Corps programs and Kilimanjaro, it's hard work, and I won't even be around to harvest it. But I didn't put much thought into any of that. I just started digging. I even coerced my visitors and my wife to help in the field this year.

It was a bigger undertaking this year than last. It's almost twice as big and everything is planted now; the maize, the soybeans, the peanuts and the velvet beans. This year, like last year, the field was partly about leading by example and partly about having something to do – not much else happens before 8 am. But I had work this year. I had farmers to meet with and to train and I had their attention and respect. Still, no one but my closest neighbors have seen my field or seen me working in it this year. This year my field isn't about that.

This year my field is about saying, "thank you." This year my field is about saying, "goodbye."

For the past two years I have been housed, fed and cared for by two of the most sincere, selfless, hard-working people I have ever met. My field is for them. When I go, the crops will be mature and almost ready for harvest. They don't need the food and they don't really need the money that selling it will give them. But for the past two years they have treated me like a son and my field will be a quiet and earnest 'thank you' from a son to his Zambian parents. It's a 'thank you' in a language they speak more fluently and more frequently than Bemba or English.

I would give them the world if I could, but for them, and for now, my field is enough.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Service-changers and Village Living

Part I: Service-changers

Whether by our own work ethic and merit, someone’s generosity, a superior’s snap decision, or some combination of factors, the projection or trajectory of our service in Zambia has been substantially altered several times in the past 21 months. This blog will highlight some of the major ‘service-changers’ that have improved our work and standard of living since we arrived in Zambia.

Service-changer 1: Our home’s location

We had no say at all in the first service-changers that we encountered in country, but they set the initial course of our service and are worth mentioning. On our 1st day in Zambia we were assigned a local language group, Bemba, which determined the region of the country where we would be based. Not long after, we were assigned our village. These are service-changers because no two sites are alike. There are cultural ties across all of Zambia, but each village is unique and comparisons from one to the next often fall apart below surface level. Had we been placed anywhere else, our time here would be much different.

Service-changer 2: Computer in the bush

Less than a week after we moved to our present home, a door sized solar panel, a 90lb battery, an inverter, and a laptop were dropped at our door step. This is an obvious service-changer. All of it was purchased and delivered by MSU and the Food Security Research Project to allow me to complete my thesis and to facilitate further research, data collection and analysis while living in the African bush. I did not expect to even have a computer in Zambia, but the system has been incredible. It changed the depth of my research and the type of things I could accomplish here, and it allows us to charge our phone, ipods, cameras, lights, etc. on a regular basis. We even have movie nights!

Service-changer 3: Shower

Showers are a huge upgrade from bucket baths. We put one together from an old 20 liter water jerry, a valve and a cheap shower head. We shower every night, usually with water slightly warmed by the sun. We stay cleaner and just feel better because of it and the benefits are more than skin deep.

Service-changer 4: Second hut

It took about 11 months of organizing and lobbying our community, but after about 4 days of real work, we had a second hut/kitchen/den/guesthouse. As you can tell by all of the “/”s – almost as many as a young Kordell Stewart in his day – it’s a multipurpose room and the extra space has been great. We use it mostly for storage and food preparation/cooking, but it’s a great place to read and a good change of scenery from our main hut (turns out 14 sq. meters shared by two people can get a bit cramped). Unquestionably the best part of the room is the veranda where we can be found most days around 6:00 pm sitting, watching the sunset or the occasional evening storm roll in.

Service-changer 5: Mattress

Zambian foam mattresses are fine. Joy and I slept very comfortably on one for over a year, but despite our diligence in rotating and flipping it every week, it caves badly to the middle, which can be uncomfortable for two people when it’s 92° at night. But thanks to a well-timed phone call and request by Joy to Peace Corps HQ, we now have a spring mattress complete with a box-spring. Now we sleep like champions in all weather – but, 92° is still way too hot to be trying to sleep.

Service-changer 6: (content deleted by editor)

Service-changer 7: Gas stove

Most Peace Corps Volunteers in Zambia spend 1/3 of their day cooking and preparing food. For the things that we’re trying to accomplish over here, that is just too long. So, after about 3 months of cooking all our own meals, Joy and I worked out an arrangement with our neighbors so they bring us two portions of their nshima dinner every night and in return we supply them with cooking oil or salt or whatever they might want contributed. This arrangement cut our food prep time in half, but we were still spending up to 2 hours a day cooking lunch (usually just rice or pasta) over our small charcoal cooker. This past July, we invested in a gas stove with two burners that halved our meal prep time again. We no longer have to make/borrow fire twice a day, nor do we have to wait for charcoal to burn properly. With the twist of nob we have a roaring cooking fire. And we can control the heat, which is another huge advantage over fire cooking. The stove frees up more time for work and more productive pursuits, and it definitely makes everyday living a whole lot easier.
We started in Zambia with nothing but the essentials – a 3.5m by 4m mud hut and a toilet – and over the past 21 months we have afforded ourselves these service-changers: simple luxuries that have improved our quality of living and have made working and living in the Zambian bush a bit easier. Which takes us to…

Part II: Village living

When I was 19, working at summer camp in Northern Michigan, falling in love with Joy, and reading the grandiose development schemes of Jeffrey Sachs, I decided that I was going to be a Peace Corps Volunteer someday. At the time I thought I would be an African villager. Eat what villagers ate, work as villagers worked and live as villagers lived. I would make my home in the village and over 2+ years, I thought, I would serve the community and, in the process, learn a great deal about village life and development work and how I could, in the future, effectively work to improve the lives of those that need it most. That whole last sentence, as it turns out, is entirely true today, but, even before I left America, I knew that my plan to be an African villager and strip down life to the bare necessities (Baloo shout-out) and experience life as they know it was fatally flawed. I don’t flatter myself by calling myself a villager. Even if I lived exactly the same life as anyone around me and held the same standard of living, it still would not even be close. There are too many structural differences: differences in upbringing, in culture, in education, in exposure to the world, and the truly fatal difference that makes sure that no Peace Corps Volunteer ever has been nor ever will be a villager, a way out. At the end of this crazy, wonderful, challenging experience, we leave. It’s an option, a safety net that no villager has. I saw this structural difference before we moved, but I see it and understand it better every day that I’m here.

Despite these differences, I still wanted to live, in some capacities at least, a village life. Living in the village and maintaining a comparable living standard to those around us has been eye-opening and we’ve learned more than I could ever write. We started at the base level and have slowly increased our quality of living, as I mentioned in part I, and we certainly don’t flaunt our stove or our battery. In fact, I don’t think more than our 3 closest friends and neighbors know that we have them – it helps that Zambian homes are very private and usually only a place to sleep. But one interesting thing I’ve learned by living here is that we don’t get any real respect for living in a mud hut and carrying our water from a well. For the most part, villagers just think it’s weird – even the ones that are eager to work with us. From their point of view, why would we choose this lifestyle? Most villagers would not choose this way of life if they had any say in the matter. So it’s strange to our neighbors and friends that we have other options, yet still choose this difficult lifestyle – if only temporarily.

And so, we are very grateful for the small and gradual improvements to our lives that have made us more patient and more energetic towards our work. We view these as improvements to our home. We may not ever be villagers, but our home is in the village, and we continue to work to benefit the lives of those around us in whatever modest ways that we can. We love our home.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Olsens and the Goebs Do Tanzania

We recently returned from an exciting holiday in Tanzania with our friends Eric and Paul Olsen. For many months, Joey and I had been planning on making the ultimate hike up Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. It worked out well that Eric and Paul could join us. On October 4th (Joey’s birthday), we boarded a train in Kapiri, Zambia and spent the next 55 hours slowly chugging along to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The train was an adventure in itself! We all shared a small, first-class cabin on the old rickety train. The quarters were tight, but we managed to get through it by looking out the window, enjoying a cold soda now and then, playing cards, and reading. It really was a beautiful way to see Zambia and Tanzania. We arrived at midnight, October 6th, and met our Mount Kilimanjaro guide, Victor. We spent the night at a small lodge in Dar es Salaam and woke the next morning at 4:30 in order to catch the 5:30 bus to Arusha. Of course, we did not know about the one hour time change, so after a frantic wake up call from our guide telling us we were late, we ran out the door and barely made the bus.

After arriving in Arusha, a ten hour bus ride later, we had the evening to walk around and explore. We ate delicious street food, learned to greet in Swahili (Jambo! = Hello), and Joey and I enjoyed small cups of cowboy coffee for less than $0.06 a cup. How we wish Zambia had a coffee culture!

The following morning, October 8th, we started our climb! We drove 2 hours to the park entrance for the Machame Route, near the city of Moshi. We spent a few hours sitting around waiting to pay park fees and getting our gear sorted out. It was a bit hectic, but we managed to start the 4 hour hiking day around 1:00pm. The first day of hiking was through beautiful rainforest. Of course that meant rain, but we were all prepared with pack covers, raincoats, and rainpants. We did not, however, anticipate rain for the whole rest of the trip. The next 4 days brought rain, sleet and snow while we hiked through many different climates and slowly made our way up the mountain. Although the weather was poor, we enjoyed the landscape around us as well as soaking in the “Kili culture.” For each one of us, there were 2.5 porters carrying our food, tents, and extra supplies. It was amazing to watch these porters pass you with a pack on their back and another huge tarp full of supplies on their head. We also spent each night at big camps with over 400 people. It was pretty amazing. The last night, summit night, we left camp at midnight and hiked 7.5 hours to Uhuru Peak, reaching 5,895m. Although it was cloudy and snowing, it was a full moon and at one point I caught a glimpse of the full moon just over the peak. It was a breath-taking site. We then hiked back down to camp through 3 inches of snow and arrived at 10:30am. We had a short rest, ate a small lunch, and continued to climb down 3 more hours to our last camp. However, the rains were heavy all day, and by the time we had reached our last camp there was not a dry spot to be found on anything or anyone. We rallied together and decided to keep climbing down instead of spending another night on the mountain. After another 3.5 hours, we had reached the base of the mountain. What a day! That night, October 12th, the four of us slept at lodge in Moshi and enjoyed pizza and ice-cream for dinner. Mount Kilimanjaro had been a challenge, but we had all made it back down safely. It was a wonderful adventure, and each one of us took away our own unique experience.

With no delay, we jumped on a bus back to Dar es Salaam on October 13th and continued our travels to the island of Zanzibar the following morning, October 14th. After a pleasant 2 hour ferry ride, we stepped onto the dock and felt sunshine! It was a beautiful day. We checked in to our hotel, just 300 meters from the dock, and spent the afternoon walking around Stone Town. That night, we joined several other tourists for “Night Market.” This is where the local fishermen come and make seafood kabobs for sale. It is a magnificent site with over 20 stations all selling local seafood illuminated by kerosene lanterns along the shore of the Indian Ocean.

On October 15th, we got on a small bus and drove 1.5 hours north to Kendwa, Zanzibar. We stayed at a popular place for travellers, called Sunset Bungalows. The next 3 days were spent swimming in the blue, warm ocean waters, snorkeling around the local reef, and even some local fishing. It was truly paradise.

Finally the time had come to return to Zambia, which we were all happy to do! Vacation had been incredible, but it was time to go home. We boarded the train back to Zambia on October 18th, and arrived in Mkushi on the 20th. We spent 2 nights showing Eric and Paul our closest “city” and then said goodbye to Eric. Joey, Paul, and I returned to our village on October 22nd and it was back to work.

It was a trip of a lifetime. I feel grateful we had the opportunity and ability to take time off to climb one of the seven summits and relax in one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, while at the same time enjoying the company of 2 dear friends from home.

Now that our batteries are recharged, the next month will be full of work in the village. We had our first big rain storm on October 28th, which means it is almost time to start planting in the fields. Soon all of Zambia will be out working in their fields. Joey held a training for his 8 lead farmers this week about how to properly apply herbicide to your field as well as how to start a musangu tree nursery (nature’s fertilizer if grown in your field). Eric, Paul, and Joey have also spent many hours out in Joey’s field digging basins for this year’s crop of maize, groundnuts, and soybeans. I am finishing up a long-term project of putting in new shelves at the library as well as taking inventory and labeling each book. I have also been working hard on school clubs, including our girls’ club (today we are celebrating by preparing small skits and poems about what we have learned as well as a soccer match) and an HIV/AIDS club teaching pupils basic information about the virus as well as how to make good life choices to stay healthy.

Happy Halloween to everyone! I received some candy corn in a package which I will be sharing with my pupils this week!

Waiting to board our train in the Kapiri train station

The view from our train window going through Zambia

The three boys playing "ball" on the beach in Zanzibar, Tanzania

Sunset over  Kendwa beach (located in the northern part of the island)

Breakfast in the "mess tent" on Mount Kilimanjaro

Joey and Paul with Mount Kilimanjaro. (If you look closely, you can see Joey is checking the Bears vs. Lions Monday night football score while Paul eagerly awaits the results.)

The four of us!

The view of our last camp taken after summiting and climbing back down.

Joey picking out his kabob at the "Night Market" in Stone Town

Stone Town as seen from our ferry over.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


On September 20, 2011, Zambia held their Presidential Election. The winner of the previous election, held in 2006, was decided by a mere 35,000 votes. Unfortunately, the victor only held office for a year and a half before a tragic stroke. The serving Vice President, Rupiah Banda, took over office and has been the President for the past 3.5 years. The runner-up from the 2006 election, Michael Sata, wanted another shot and decided to run against Rupiah Banda this year. After 3 days of waiting, the final results came out Friday morning, September 23. Michael Sata was officially announced Zambia’s new President and swore in that same Friday. The total race was not as close this year, a difference of around 188,000 votes. From what I have gathered, as a whole, the country was somewhat surprised at the outcome (most people believed President Banda would be sure to win another 5 year term) but the country has remained peaceful so far and seems to be embracing the change well. Joey and I were both able to watch on TV as President Banda gave his final speech which was delivered with great poise and gratitude for his people. Sata is sure to bring change to Zambia, and we are all hoping it will lead to a better Zambia.

On the home front, Eric and Paul Olsen have been with us for just over a week now. We picked them up at the airport on September 15th and came right up to our village that same day. The four of us have been enjoying euchre games, digging holes in Joey’s field, crosswords, and playing lots of soccer! Paul has been a great help with cooking and Eric has been an outstanding dishwasher! It has been wonderful to have so much time together in the village. Next week we will be preparing for our trip to Tanzania where we will have the opportunity to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and visit the island of Zanzibar (off the coast of Dar es Salaam). We will certainly put up lots of pictures from this adventure in upcoming posts.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Exploring Malawi with Brother Nate

On August 6th, Joey and I headed out for the airport with our friend Bill, to pick up my brother Nate. We were are all excited to see him, and ready to begin our adventure! About 1 km away from the airport, Bill’s tire blew out. Darn. I hopped out and hitched a ride into the airport to make it in time for my brother’s arrival, while Joey and Bill changed the tire. As it turned out, Nate’s flight was delayed 30 minutes and Bill and Joey had plenty of time to still make it to the airport and greet Nate. This incident seemed to set the tone for the rest of the trip: constant adjustments and things working out.

Now Joey and I are used to the way things work over here, but to bring along my brother on a total of 5 days of travel on stuffy, crowded buses from Lusaka to Mkushi to Northern Malawi and back down to Lilongwe, Malawi was a big jump. Nate handled it well and experienced transportation as a Peace Corps Volunteer living in Africa. We had reserved bus tickets given away, scheduled buses not show up, and a bus that was so crowded we all had people practically sitting in our laps. We were even following the news carefully, as the people were planning demonstrations to be held country-wide. However, as they always do, things worked out and we made it to our destination safely!

We spent 6 lovely nights on Lake Malawi while staying at Mayoka Village. We rented a stone cottage built right into the rocky cliff above the water. We enjoyed snorkeling almost daily (many aquarium fish come straight from Lake Malawi), time exploring the Lake on an old row-boat, watching a pair of fish-eagles feed right next to our boat, eating lots of home-made pizza, and spending most sunsets on our private porch overlooking the water and working on cross-words! We also explored the local town, Nkhata Bay, and pick up a few souvenirs. We even found a place that served milkshakes in town! However, after we asked how they made their milkshakes, the man replied, “We use bananas and milk.” Well, that was enough for me, I passed. However, Joey decided to try it and it really did turn out to be warm milk and bananas mixed together.

Before our beautiful get-away to Lake Malawi, we spent 3 nights in our village. Nate attended my adult literacy class, observed Joey’s maize cob burner demonstration, visited my school, and got to read in our wonderful hammock! We also made bon-fires every night while eating a local nshima dinner. Time in the village is always our favorite part of having visitors because we get to share the home we have created and the work we are doing.

When our 2 weeks together was up, we made our way down to Lilongwe for a night before Nate’s early afternoon flight the following day. Before Joey and I had left the states, my grandmother had given me the contact information of a young American woman living in Lilongwe who was from her hometown in Maine. So, we called her up and met for dinner! It was fun to meet up with another American and share our different experiences in Southern Africa. On August 19th, Joey and I sent off Nate in true style: a taxi that was just barely running, with a cracked wind-shield and only 2 working doors. As always, we made it to the airport and Nate took off without a problem. The 3 of us had a wonderful adventure together and it is a time we will never forget!