What I’ve Learned After 6 Months in Zambia

Fly In in Lusaka

Wow, I think I blinked. Or passed out for at least five of these six months because I truly can’t fathom having been here for half a year already!

27 months of service sounds like such a long time until three of them fly by during ultra-busy Pre-Service Training (PST) and the next three during boring as heck Community Entry (CE) when you don’t have any work to do but you also don’t know where anything is, who anyone is, or what the heck you’re doing out in the middle of the Zambian bush with no reliable internet connection (goodbye phone addiction).

I truly forget that I’ve done anything here yet until I look at the pictures of the people I’ve met and remember the things we’ve done and the crazy amount of new stuff we’ve learned. More has happened than I consciously realize and slowly but surely (panono, panono in the icibemba language), this place has become my home.

Six months ago today I got off a plane with a group of people I’ve come to seriously appreciate and rely on for support, encouragement, and sanity. Six months ago, I had no idea what I was getting into. These are a few of the many lessons I’ve learned since then:

1. Wherever you go, there you are

Swear In Day!

Peace Corps is not an escape. It’s not an exotic vacation where you can go and forget your problems and focus on doing a few good deeds, look awesome on social media, and then go home. You are moving your life to a new country. One with all the same problems and issues and good and bad habits that you had before.

Moving continents has not made me a clean eater who exercises, journals, and meditates daily while still being able to teach, be super social around my village, and do all the daily chores that take longer here without many of the convenient appliances we are used to in the States (I’m e.g. washing machines. They are miraculous, don’t take those for granted!).

No. I still stay up too late, need coffee to function in the morning, make whatever will cook the quickest for dinner, and use whatever connection and solar power I have to watch too much YouTube in my free time. This move hasn’t made me a better or a worse person than I was before.

Joining the Peace Corps is hard work, it brings out a lot of very high high’s and very low low’s, and it strips you down to the bare bones of who you are and why you chose this path.

I’ve learned more about who I am at the core of myself here than at any other time in my life. I have all of the time to reflect and none of the familiar context that usually molds me. It’s fascinating and scary and I’m so grateful for the opportunity of it. It hasn’t changed who I fundamentally am, but I do know more about who that is and why.

2. That “hustle culture” is seriously ingrained

Relaxing on a Sunday

Everyone says that when you join the Peace Corps you must get used to being bored. That the hardest thing for them to get used to was the slow pace of life and lack of productivity at all moments of the day. I didn’t think this would be a problem for me.

I’m a slow mover, ask my family. My nickname growing up was “three-toed sloth” and it’s kind of stuck so now I get presents with sloths on them and if someone see something with a sloth on it I’ll probably get a picture labeled “thinking of you.” Now, I love sloths and I have absolutely zero problems being the laid back, slow mover of the family. I thought the slow life in the village would be the easiest transition ever!

Wrong. We don’t realize in the U.S. how much of our self-worth is based around our productivity and getting things done the best and the fastest. Our work is how we define ourselves a lot of the time. I identify as a teacher. One of the first questions we ask strangers is “what do you do?” Growing up surrounded by this philosophy has it burrowed deep in our subconscious.

So when crazy busy PST ended (a time where my self-confidence skyrocketed) and we entered the three months of CE after our Swear In ceremony and had almost nothing to do other than meet people and find our way around, it threw me for a loop. I was going stir crazy!

Having nothing concrete to put on a to do list and check off was a new experience for me and I had no idea what to do with myself. I couldn’t define myself by what I was doing or accomplishing, and I therefore felt like I had nothing to be proud of. So, my self-worth that had been so high during the long, productive days of PST, plummeted.

It took most of the CE period and a lot of reflection on why I was feeling so down about myself to start raising myself up again. It just goes to show that even if you don’t realize it, the culture you grow up in has a significant impact in your life and shapes you through the years. This is quite honestly one of the most fascinating lessons I’ve learned so far (now that I’m recovering from it, of course).

3. You can form strong bonds despite language barriers

My host mom during PST!

The people here in Zambia are friendly. This was even stated in the job description when I applied, that the Zambian people are known for being very welcoming and friendly. Wow, I’ve experienced this to be true!

During PST we were all assigned to stay with host families, and this continues on into service though you tend to have more of your own space for privacy once you get to your site. My host family during training were one of the handful of families assigned a volunteer that spoke no English. A few basic words, but otherwise, none.

I remember being dropped off and having no clue what to do or who these people were, but we were going to be living immediately next door to each other on the same compound for the next 11 weeks. And we couldn’t even speak to each other to learn the most basic facts about the other.

I had about thirty minutes of survival Bemba where I was taught what to say when you meet someone for the first time and how to say “thank you.” That’s all I had and one of those phrases you can’t say more than once to each person, because then you’ve met them and the greeting changes to something I didn’t know yet.

This small (by Zambian standards) family became my lifeline and they are still probably the people I love most in this country. We smiled a lot, we gestured a lot, we practiced each other’s language, and we just sat in silence enjoying the company probably than anything else.

I cried when I left, they cried when I left, and we still call on the phone. My (very slowly) improving Bemba makes short catch up conversations possible and I’m planning a visit during the next school break. I still don’t know their favorite colors, but I know we care about each other very much and consider ourselves a family. And that relationship was created largely without language.

You don’t need words to show you care about someone and to make them feel welcome and at home. I learned how generous and kind people can be from my host family and I feel so lucky that they were the ones to introduce me to this welcoming country.

4. I’m more addicted to tech than to indoor plumbing and wiring

While I thought the slow village lifestyle would be easy to adapt to, I thought life without running water and electricity would be much more challenging that it has been. As I write this we are in the midst of rainy season and I’ve got rows of buckets and basins under my roof collecting all the water running off of it. Running water, village style.

I brought a small solar panel for usb electronics from the States and when we arrived the Peace Corps gave us a solar powered light that can also charge anything with a usb connection. Rainy season means I’m not always at a full charge, but I usually have enough to get by.

The hard part comes when my phone battery is running low. I don’t think I ever realized before how addicted and how reliant I am on my phone. It’s my connection to home, to friends around the world, to fellow PCV’s around the country, to staff here in my province. It’s my only source of news, the only thing I ever feel like turning to for entertainment, my camera. Wow. I can’t seem to stay off my phone.

It’s been a slow process, one I’m still going through, to find hobbies that don’t rely on technology again. I used to read and draw incessantly, missing meals and sleep to keep turning the pages. I lost most of the things I used to do pre-internet for fun. Zambia has given me a perfect opportunity to rediscover what I like to do outside of binging Netflix and YouTube.

I’ve been taking a few hours in the afternoon to cook really good meals (curry is currently my new fave!), I’ve been teaching myself how to knit again, my sister and brother-in-law gave me a sketchbook for Christmas and I finally remember how much joy the act of sketching brings me. I haven’t sat down to create something physically with my own hands in literal years.

I still have to actively fight picking up my phone every spare second of the day, but progress is being made.

5. People are good

Central Province Volunteers

Watching the news gets me seriously down on the future of humanity a lot but going outside and living my life here continually shows me how awesome people can be. My bad moods are toast in the face of my students excited to greet me, the ladies in the market telling me I’m getting fatter (a compliment here….), my coworkers at the school wanting to trade ideas about problems we’re facing in our classrooms, my host family popping in to make sure I’m not starving or sick or lonely, and my community always welcoming me in for meals or a chat with open arms and great big smiles.

I’ve met some good friends from around the country while waiting for rides on the side of the road,  had some amazing and enlightening conversations with strangers in the market or a checkout line, and been blown away by the hospitality and generosity of almost every person I come across.

Harassment is a problem anywhere you go, especially as a single woman, but I’ve personally had minimal experience with this here and when it does, I’ve had my host mom or some random ladies nearby chew out the perpetrator fiercely and at length! For the most part I get honestly curious people who just want to have a conversation with a foreigner for a moment and ask some questions before moving on.

My family struggles to find adequate protein sources or any kind of variety of relish (any food that you eat with shima, the staple at every meal) and yet they are constantly trying to feed me and fatten me up. My aunts one compound over worry when I tap water because they don’t want me to fall down the well. My coworkers are constantly checking in and asking if I need help or offering their time to show me around because they don’t want me to feel lonely or overwhelmed.

I am surrounded by acts of caring and simple kindnesses every day and am inspired by the joy they find in the everyday routines of life and in being together. I’ve found myself a good place here in Zambia and am forever grateful for this lesson they teach me through their actions every day.

6. Hike your own hike (but it’s okay to ask for help)

My walk to school is gorgeous

I like proving that I can do things for myself, therefore I tend to be a very independent person and I hate asking for help—especially for things that really matter. It feels like giving up or admitting defeat and I inherited a stubborn streak ten miles wide from both sides of my family that won’t usually let me do that. I have learned here though, quite strongly, that there comes a time when you just can’t do something without leaning on others or talking situations out with someone.

It’s so easy to compare your Peace Corps service to those that have a large social media presence and while I don’t fall into this trap in my life back home, here I sometimes forget that social media is their highlight reel, not their everyday life and very rarely their challenges.

It’s also easy to start comparing yourself to the other Volunteers in your intake, in your Province, or your closer friends from around the county. This also leads down a path to destruction because we are all faced with incredibly different situations, resources, and needs in our individual communities. No two services look the same, no matter how close you live to each other and that’s the beauty of this experience.

I’m grateful that I reached out to my friends here before I got too lonely to bear, that my host family here does their best to understand the emotions and changes that I’m going through, and that I can admire what my friends are doing without being jealous of their projects or feel like an inferior Volunteer because I’m not doing the same things or seeing the same kind of progress. I’m glad I see all of us feeling the same things, facing some of the same successes and challenges (albeit in different ways) and that I can also see us coming through them together. The community here is something I’m glad to be a part of and will forever appreciate!

Wow, that turned into a very long post! If you have read this far you are a beautiful human with the patience of a saint, and I appreciate you and I thank you!

As always, if you have any questions for me about anything please feel free to leave a comment below or head over to my About page to send me an email. I also am getting better at responding to DM’s via Instagram in a timelier manner.

Whatever you’re doing today, have fun with it, enjoy the journey, and I wish you a joyful day! See you next time.

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