My First Scoop

Life Lived and Lessons Learned in Zambia

I lived in Zambia as a Peace Corps volunteer for three and a half years (2003-2006). This is my first attempt at summarizing my time there in writing. For those of you sick of my “One time in Zambia” stories, I apologize ahead of time.

The toughest job I’ve ever loved

I spent my first two years in Zambia as a Community Health Educator in a catchment area of over 4,000 people from 35 different villages. My job basically consisted of working with counterparts at the area clinic and with seven Neighborhood Health Committees, each made up of about 15 people from different zones in the catchment area. I assisted in forming the committees and then trained three of them in basic health care (malaria, HIV/AIDS, water and sanitation, child health and nutrition, family planning, TB, and maternal health). These committees were then responsible for teaching the rest of the villagers the skills I had passed onto them. I also helped conduct needs assessments in several villages and found that access to clean water and latrines was a major problem, especially in the more remote villages. Together with the committees, we wrote a proposal to the Zambian government which funded the building of a bore hole and the construction of over 30 latrines and bathing shelters.
 We also held seminars on fixing and maintaining the borehole and the importance of clean water, latrines and bathing shelters (no point in building them if people don’t understand why they should use them or know how to fix them when they break!).

After my 27 month contract was up, I decided to extend for another year. I moved into the closest town and focused more on working with local NGOs and the Ministry of Health. Over the course of a year, I saw an HIV/AIDS organization grow from 10 members to over 300. I saw people who refused to believe they were sick, get tested for HIV, start ARVS and begin giving testimonies to others who used to be in their position. I saw a women’s group begin a new Income Generating Project and help send orphans back to school. I also saw the Ministry of Health form a strong relationship with and gain a better understanding of Peace Corps and how we could work together to improve the area communities.

As the first volunteer in the area, my work with the clinics, the health committees and the NGOs was only a small part of my job. Most of my time was actually spent introducing the community to Peace Corps and getting the community used to living with a muzungu (foreigner/white person). I did this by holding meetings in all of the surrounding areas, going to churches, schools, football games, and most importantly just being around to talk to, and listen to, people. This was not easy. Ahhh…. Integration.

Integrating into my area required a huge deal of patience, understanding, respect and most importantly, humor. It was an everyday, every minute activity. For the first few weeks… ok, months… ok, it never really ended… I got pointed at, laughed at, talked about and questioned (You’re 23, single and don’t have kids? Will you marry me and have my kids? Do you have rice in America? What does your hair feel like? How do you dance in America? What church do you go to? Will you give me your money, shirt, food, camera?) I watched many kids run from me screaming in terror while their mothers would catch them, force them back to me and laugh hysterically. It wasn’t that funny… really…. I had to fight the idea that I was rich and had tons of money to hand out. I had to show people that I could learn to fetch water, wash clothes by hand, eat the local food and speak the local language. I did it, loved it and believe it was worth every second.

As time went by and people saw how I was handling the village life, it got easier and easier. I made sure not to spend too much time at home alone. When my neighbors shelled groundnuts, I helped. When I was invited to church, I went. When there was a football game, I was there cheering the village on. And of course, when the women sat around gossiping, I listened (Did you know that so and so’s husband has 2 other wives and she has 3 other kids with a guy from this other village and their one son is the boyfriend to this girl whose family owns 80 cows and whose dad goes to the Methodist church in town? And that girl isn’t even a good cook and never goes to the fields. They should break up and he should date that girl from that other village whose mom teaches at the school and owns that land over there with all the cotton...). Making myself visible proved to be the most valuable way to spend my time.

There’s a celebrity aspect to being the first white person living in an area of over 4000 people. Everything I did was watched, remembered, and shared with the rest of the village (before I even knew anyone knew). Andrea went to the bathroom 8 times last night (not unusual), Andrea cooked rice this morning, Andrea is wearing a new skirt, Andrea fetched water today, Andrea goes to the Catholic church with so and so, Andrea doesn’t eat pork but likes beans, Andrea likes to heat her water before she bathes, Andrea rode her bike all the way into the bush and so on and so on... If I gained a few pounds it was noticed and I was congratulated. Yes, I said congratulated. I was often told how fat and brown (tan) I was. My response? A big smile followed by a “Thank you, Zambian food is sooo good and the sun is so bright!” None of those things seem too crazy or exciting to me, but it was news there. And so be it.. I guess I do lead an exciting life!

It takes a village to raise a muzungu
I met some of the most amazing people during my time in Zambia. Despite the difficulties I may have faced when I first arrived, it was really the people I surrounded myself with that made my experience what it was. Zambians are known for their hospitality and I was lucky enough to be a recipient of this. Every place I visited, I had people coming to greet me and wanting to show me the real Zambia. They offered me food to eat, places to sleep, treats from their gardens, and most notably, lasting friendships. But, not only did I gain friends, I gained a family: a grandmother, a mom, a dad, 8 siblings, and eventually 3 nieces.
Rachel, my best friend, was the oldest of the girl siblings. She taught me everything I learned about living in a village. After watching my pathetic attempts at washing clothes, starting a fire, cooking local food and carrying water on my head, she (thankfully) intervened and (patiently) taught me the tricks of the trade. When I first arrived in the village Rachel was 8 months pregnant (still fetching water, cooking, sweeping, and washing clothes). She gave birth in May of 2006. I remember that night like it was yesterday. Racheal become a mom and I became an aunt.

Theresa was the cutest baby in all of Zambia. No joke. She was born white as white can be, so I always accused Rachel of having white boyfriend. She would hit me on the arm and tell me to be quiet. That’s how Rachel and I were- always giving each other a hard time, while teaching each other the ways of being a 23 year old in our own cultures.
Theresa was not always a healthy baby. She fell sick quite often when she was little. “Malaria, malaria, malaria” they would tell me. I made sure she had a mosquito net, but if it was used is another question. Rachel would take her to the area health clinic and to the “village doctor” whenever she would get a fever or stop eating. Pills from one place, local plant roots and herbs from the other. She grew up a lot slower than the other kids, but she still was a smart little girl (she knew who to go to when she wanted a candy!). The day I left Zambia, Theresa cried all day long, only being soothed by a cold coca-cola from the market.
Theresa passed away in November 2007 at the local mission hospital from a rare form of throat cancer . She had apparently been sick for while, but there was no one at the clinic to diagnose her and no one to take her to the hospital. All I could do was send money over for the funeral and wish I could have been there to get her to the hospital faster. Even so, there wouldn’t have been much they could’ve done for her.
I sponsored Rachel to go to the local boarding school and she recently graduated from high school. I was able to visit her at school several times before I left Zambia. We would hang out with the other girls in the dorm room (about 20 bunk beds with two girls to a mattress) while they showed me pictures in magazines, told me about boys they were “dating” and cooked me the little food they had with them. In the last letter I got from Rachel she told me she now wears “trousers”, something only the educated, town girls do. It made me laugh. I look forward to seeing her in a few weeks when I go back to visit.

Wrapping it all up
Living in Zambia was a roller coaster ride of thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Good, bad, frustrating and rewarding.
I came up against many challenges over the years (getting people to come to meetings WITHOUT bribing them with drinks and food, listening to termites eat my house, repeatedly fixing my leaky roof in the rainy season, getting rid of my tapeworm (?!)), but I survived them and became stronger because of them. I made plenty of mistakes and I learned from all of them (note to self: make sure the grass of my bathing shelter is thick enough, or the neighbors WILL be able to see me naked). Looking back, I know the stress I experienced was always temporary…although not easy to remember in the moment when I ate something that didn’t agree with me and had to start a 2 hour bike ride home through the bush while watching a storm fast approaching with a flat tire on my bike! It kept life exciting. In return, I was rewarded with lifelong friends, cherished memories, and unique experiences.
I know that my experiences in Liberia will be very different than my time in Zambia but there are many things I learned in Zambia that I will take with me to Liberia. Simply put, I will expect the unexpected, keep an open mind and pack my sense of humor.