Ain’t No Pro like NoPro!

It’s official: I’ll be living in Northern Province, site of higher elevations, cooler temps, and lots of water! No time for a big post just now, but I will be living in Mfuba Village, halfway between Kasama and Luwingu, 7K south of the paved road. I’m told my village has 108 families, and strong women. :+)

Me and my fellow PCTs Amy, Zach, and Adam took the 12-hour drive up to the Peace Corps Provincial House yesterday with current LIFE PCVs Chandra and Nick. And it was a riot! We even sang along to Ace of Base and lots of other hilarious music, reminding me of my WildCorps days in the desert! So I’m stoked that we’ll all be in Northern Province together!

PCTs Amy, left; Zach, second-from-left; and Adam (behind me) in the Peace Corps Land Cruiser on the way to the NoPro Provincial House with current LIFE PCVs Chandra (eyes closed) and Nick (up front).

PCTs Amy, left; Zach, second-from-left; and Adam (behind me) in the Peace Corps Land Cruiser on the way to the NoPro Provincial House with current LIFE PCVs Chandra (eyes closed) and Nick (up front).

 

Zach & Chandra rockin' out.

Zach & Chandra rockin’ out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The NoPro yard. Yep, those are hammocks on the left - and a tree swing! I am home. :+)

The NoPro yard. Yep, those are hammocks on the left – and a tree swing! I am home. :+)

Anyway, the provincial house is awesome, and today we head out to visit another volunteer at her site for a few days. Then on Monday I get to visit my site for the first time! Hoping to post a photo or two after that, but we’ll see …

Yep, ain’t No Province like NoPro!

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Fun on a Sunday

While we were taking photos this past Sunday, Ba Margaret and Bamaayo spontaneously burst into a clapping game that Lucy and Libby then proceeded to teach me. They’re standing in front of the family garden – mostly corn and squash.

My Zambian family!

My Zambian family!

Back row L to R: Bataata (looking very debonair. See why he’s so intimidating?); Ba Margaret, one of my very favorite neighbors (she’s the one who drums and dances!); and Bamaayo, my favorite woman in Yuda Village by far, with her big grin that I love!
Front row L to R: granddaughter Libby; me; and granddaughter Lucy, who helped me out a TON with her English skills my first couple weeks.
We’re posed in front of the nsaka, or family gathering place, where everyone eats and visits. Everyone put on their Sunday best for this photo, and Ba Margaret even cut flowers from the yard so we could all have bouquets!

“I will eat you” (Zambian cultural tips Part 2)

22 March 2013

For weeks, instead of saying, “I am eating, I will eat, I have eaten, etc.,” I’ve been saying “I am eating you, I will eat you, I have eaten you.” Since everyone laughs at everything I say, I wouldn’t have realized it but for my awesome language teacher, Ba Golden. However, even though he constantly corrects me, the difference is so slight that I still say it sometimes. Then the other day I told him I would cook him. He just about fell over laughing. I said at least I was becoming more civilized. And now I have something to say to any children who become too annoying.

Ba Golden, the most fun, enthusiastic Bemba teacher you could ask for.

Ba Golden, the most fun, enthusiastic Bemba teacher you could ask for.

If you want to avoid constantly shaking hands (or the very creepy, palm-tickling handshake that men hear actually use – and not as a joke – if they want to have sex with you), you can instead place a hand on your heart (my preference) or cup your two hands together repeatedly. I’m really liking this for people I don’t know so well.

The size of the holes in ifimbusu (pit toilets) varies greatly. Often it’s not possible to pee and poop at the same time. This requires great control, aim, and skill, all of which I am learning well as my own icimbusu hole is quite small (maybe 5 inches across?) I shudder to think of getting diarrhea, though …

Mbushi (goats) can be a major hazard. One night this week, someone’s mbushi got out overnight and demolished my family’s bean field. The next, they demolished a neighbor’s watermelons. Everyone is upset about this, but apparently it’s fairly common, and neighbors will pitch in to make sure everyone has enough food. Though I can’t help but wonder how this impacts food availability in the community as a whole …

Ifitenge rock! These are the colorful fabrics used almost universally as skirts by women here. They can be used to carry water. (Zambian women curl them up on their heads as a stable base for carrying water; I wind mine through the handle of the water jug and sling it over my shoulder. So now I can carry 10 liters of amenshi – as much as my 13-year-old host sister carries on her head but not as much as my Bamaayo carries on hers.) Zambians also use them for: carrying babies and anything else you can think of; as towels; to filter water; and to keep their nice clothes clean when cooking and cleaning. I also use mine under my yoga mat and as an instant hand towel, right there around my waist.

An assortment of ifitenge for sale.

An assortment of ifitenge for sale.

I love Bemba more and more, lately for the following words: bwangu bwangu (quickly), ukutontonkanya (to think), ingolyolyo (pigeon peas), makumbi makumbi (blue, and also clouds), and katapa katapa (green, and also cassava leaves). These words are just so fun to say! Tellingly, there’s no word for “privacy” in Bemba.

Bembas eat monkeys; Nyanjas eat rats. This is all part of the teasing that goes on amongst the various tribes of Zambia, especially the Bembas and Nyanjas, who are the two biggest groups. The other day, rats got into my parents’ hut and nibbled into a couple apples. I told them it’s too bad they aren’t Nyanjas, or they could just eat the rats! Sadly, Bembas traditionally won’t touch a rat but will eat monkeys instead. This is the stereotype, of course, but my Bataata assured me it’s true! And of course they howled with laughter at this observation from me. (It’s also too bad they don’t eat frogs; there are tiny frogs EVERYWHERE, but I’m totally OK with that.) Lately my daily goal is to do or say something that makes my parents laugh so hard they almost (or actually) get tears in their eyes. I usually succeed.

See also: “Zambian cultural tips.”

Ups and downs … and ups!

Originally written March 12 or so …

Ten days ago, I was crying in my hut. I’d hit my first low. Interestingly, the Peace Corps has developed a fully researched chart of when and why pcvs experience emotional “ups and downs” throughout their 27 months in country. My low did not coincide with the chart. It coincided with my own ego – and maybe my Bataata’s, too.

In the two days leading up to this, I’d had my first real doubts about whether I can really handle this for two years. And by “this,” I mean constantly being surrounded by people. I think of myself as a very social person, but I never realized how much time I spend by myself at home. This is not yet home. This is the land of constant visiting, of overly friendly people. It’s also the land where Ba Terri does not yet have a firm grasp on the language.

Bataata. Intimidating, isn't he?

Bataata. Intimidating, isn’t he?

So when Bataata decided to try to teach me ALL the parts of the body in one fell swoop (he has high expectations and likes to do this sort of ad hoc lesson in his free time), my brain was already on overload. As he grew increasingly frustrated with my obvious incompetence, the voice of Ba Samuel, my fellow PCV and next-door neighbor here in Yuda village, drifted across the yard. He was speaking Bemba to his Bamaayo.

Samuel is picking up the language faster than anyone else, and he’s a great study partner and friend. But Bataata wants ME to be “number one,” – something he states frequently. I am more like number five. So Bataata said, “Ba Samuel is learning bwangu bwangu (quickly). Ba Terri is learrning panono panono (slowly).” That was when I lost it. Had to excuse myself and go cry in my hut.

Eleanor, Ba Henry, Jacob, and Bashimpundu, playing some awesome music.

Eleanor, Ba Henry, Jacob, and Bashimpundu, playing some awesome music.

Then, in typical fashion, the next day turned out to be one of the best I’ve had here. We had the first of our weekly Zambian music and dance lessons. Aside from the cultural aspect, we’re also going to perform for our host families at the end of training, and at our swearing-in at the ambassador’s place in May! Jacob, our resident clawhammer banjo player, had brought his instrument in, so at lunchtime he was playing old-time music, and before long a half dozen of us – Zambians and Americans – were playing this fantastic, energetic traditional Zambian music with sticks and drums and a homemade Zambian banjo. The collision of musical styles was awesome!!

Then of course we had the actual Zambian music/dance lesson at the end of the day, and it was hilarious! All the local staff gathered to watch and dance with us, and they were cracking up at our attempts to shake our booties in the Zam way.

I was so energized and excited that I sailed home on my bike. When Bamaayo asked how my day was, I found that suddenly Bemba was pouring out of my mouth. (kind of like how being drunk always seemed to improve my Spanish) I told her about the dancing – and demonstrated – and she loved it! (actually, it seems Bamaayo loves anything I do. She is always laughing with me, telling me how strong I am (ha!) and how good my Bemba is. She is by far my favorite person in the village.) anyway, she started dancing with me, and she was good!

Now word has gotten around, and women randomly come up to me and say, “I hear you dance?” I hit it off with one of our older female neighbors (the women here are where it’s at. Always working their butts off, but chatting and laughing all the while.), and she told me she dances AND has a drum! Then she said she’d bring the drum over on Saturday afternoon so we can have a dance party! Things seem to change often here, so I’m trying not to count on it too much, but Bamaayo has continued to talk about it, so I think it’s gonna happen …

Long story short, I’m stoked to be here all over again! Who cares if my Bemba is still totally ungrammatical? I’ll learn while dancing and making music – multitasking like the women do. And by the way, I recently surprised Bataata by telling him all the parts of the body over dinner. :+)

Lack of connectivity

Blogging via my Web-enabled phone isn’t happening (it’s too old, apparently), and Internet access at our training site in Chipembi is nonexistent without a complicated, cell-phone-connected device called a Dongle. So I’ve just been writing blog entries as they come, and I’m now posting a bunch all at once. (It’s probably best to read from the bottom, starting with the 20 February “18K” entry.)

I’ve dated them to avoid confusion, but after these first few – which I was too excited NOT to write – I may go back to disconnected for a while.

Oh, and photos may be a long time coming with the Internet slowness. I’ll try to upload two or three some time soon, but no promises …

A final note: if there’s something you really, really want to know about my life here, drop me a line and I’ll try to include it here at some point.

The trouble with amenshi

1 March 2013

Last Sunday, I went with my Bamaayo (host mom) and two of her granddaughters, Lucy and Libby, to get amenshi (water) from the borehole, a hilly 15-minute walk away. Bamaayo carried 20 liters on her head; Lucy and Libby, ages 13 and 11, carried 10 liters each – also on their heads. I, weak little muzungu that I am, carried a 5-liter bottle – mostly by hand.

Of course I COULD have carried two 5-liter bottles, but they only had one. I did practice putting it on my head, but I never could get it balanced there. And I did switch out with Lucy a few times, but she thought my carrying 10 liters by hand was ridiculous, so she made me switch back after a while.

Carrying water. Bamaayo is in the foreground, balancing 20 liters on her head.

Carrying water. Bamaayo is in the foreground, balancing 20 liters on her head.

As I walked down the road with them – and several other women and girls carrying water on their heads – I couldn’t help but wonder how I’d wandered into this complete stereotype of Africa. Beautiful women balancing large loads on their heads, with perfect posture, in the heavy afternoon sunlight.

In this context, it kind of kills me that my Bamaayo insists I bathe every day. At first she offered me bath water TWICE a day. But I refused the morning bath right off the bat, and she now seems content with the once a day. I have been told repeatedly by current PCVS that my host family considers me a guest, that they’re happy to bring water for me, it’s really not a big deal, etc., etc.  This really seems to be the case, too.

And of course it’s fantastic to dump cupfulls of water over my head after a sweaty bike ride home at the end of the day. Then again, Bamaayo also insists on heating the water (over the charcoal fire), so I continue sweating as I bathe. I’ve already told her I prefer cold water for bathing (I learned how to say this specifically so she would understand, but my language is so awful that I’m not sure if she did.), and she’s toned down the heat a bit, but I think the definition of “cold” varies greatly between a Montana resident and a Zambian.

Anyway, most days I use only half the water she gives me. (The exception is when I wash my underwear.) However, this still hasn’t stopped her giving me lots of water – and then tossing on the ground whatever water I don’t use! Clearly, this is something I need to let go of, but it’s tough to be sitting in class all day, knowing that my 60-something Bamaaayo is making multiple trips to the borehole just to be nice to her guest.

Perhaps I can console myself with the fact that I seem to provide endless entertainment to Bamaayo and Bataata both. They laughed uproariously when I used various barnyard animal noises to learn from them the words for goat, chicken, etc. in Bemba. Ditto – only more so – when the goats found my delicious, prized guavas and ate them, and I then tried to explain. Heck, I provide a good show any time I attempt to speak Bemba – and I DO entertain with the guitar most nights.

At least I’m useful for something around here. Maybe one day I’ll be able to carry my weight in amenshi, too.

Zambian cultural tips

Actually written 1 March 2013

Not long after I arrived in Zambia, I’d planned to do a post based on the “cultural tips” sheet we’d gotten upon arrival. Things like, women sit on the floor or on a mat, while men get chairs; all dating is expected to end in marriage; never-ever let anyone see your underwear (you can’t even hang it on a line outside to dry); and never-EVER let anyone see your knees or thighs – especially if you’re a woman. That sort of thing.

Now, however, I’ve been here long enough to have some tips/observations of my own.

  • Every handshake is a secret handshake! Greeting is a huge deal here. I’ve been told that greeting someone is acknowledging that they exist, so if you don’t it’s like you’re saying they don’t exist. And when Zambians greet, they pretty much always shake hands. And it’s a secret, fraternity-type handshake, which I love. Apparently the type of secret handshake varies by region/ethnic group, so so far I only know the Bemba one.
  • Nshima! Typically made with maize (cornmeal), but sometimes cassava and/or sorghum, nshima is THE national dish. It’s made into thick, sticky lumps for lunch and dinner, and cooked as a thinner porridge for breakfast, which is my personal favorite way to eat it. If a Zambian hasn’t eaten nshima on a particular day, he or she will claim not to have eaten at all – regardless of whatever else has been ingested. In iciBemba, nshima is “ubwali.” And I eat ubwali two or three meals a day, every day. A few days ago, for dinner, there was no nshima, and I was shocked. But I guess I’d been getting a little sick of it without realizing it. (It’s fairly tasteless – sorry Zambian readers! – but I’ve been told that’s not the point. For me, it’s pretty much just the vehicle for effectively getting the other food items into my mouth. Yes, I eat with my hands.) Because when I was presented with white rice and fried potatoes, instead I was absolutely elated. I scarfed that down like I would never get it again – which I might not. Despite my effusive praise of the meal, I have had nothing but nshima since. :+)
  • They say you learn a lot about a culture from its language, and if that’s true, here are some insights into Bemba culture. For example: the word muti means “tree” and “medicine. Mailo means yesterday and today; there is no way to distinguish the two except for context. Mweshi means “moon” and “month”; it’s also used to refer to menstruation. Finally, ukutandala is used to mean “to visit” and “to walk,” since, if you’re walking in a Bemba village, it’s pretty much assumed you’re also visiting. The way the bush paths are laid out in the villages, you walk through everyone’s yards on your way to anywhere. And you greet everyone along the way. Pretty sweet, huh?
  • Owning a bike is a serious status symbol. Since I now have a brand-new, $400 Peace Corps-issue mountain bike, I am WAY up there on the social ladder.
  • Never speak to an elder – or any adult really – with your hands in your pockets. It’s disrespectful. Unfortunately, by the time I found this out, I’d been disrespecting people left and right. I’m sure I do it in other ways I’m not even aware of. It took me at least a week to consistently remember to call everyone “Ba” as a sign of respect. I am “Ba Telli,” since Bembas can’t seem to pronounce R’s. My Bamaayo is Ba Lucia, and my Bataata is Ba Longwe.
  • One of the most popular songs currently on ZamPop radio is about a man who’s debating the merits of hiring a prostitute vs. jerking off. It is absolutely infectious and terrible in equal measures. My neighbor’s 12-year-old son likes to sing it as he’s pounding maize flour. (Anyone ever heard that Maroon 5 children’s choir remake? Only this is worse.)
  • Great quotes I’ve heard: “The buttocks of men are like pumpkins.” Basically meaning they’re not that exciting. Women’s buttocks, however, are VERY exciting. (A woman told me this, by the way.) “Time is made in Africa; it’s spent in Europe.” “Life is a dance.” And finally, “all lost time is always found later on.”

Bemba!

21 February 2013

Nasambilila iciBemba! Today I found out that I will be learning Bemba – probably the most commonly spoken language in Zambia. (Sorry, Lee, it is NOT a click language. It’s a Bantu language, and none of those utilize clicks so far as I’ve heard.)

Now, if I’d learned I would be studying Nyanja, or Tonga, or Tumbuka, or Lunda, I would’ve known exactly what province I’d be living in for the next two years. However, us Bemba speakers have no idea.

I could be in Central Province, which borders Lusaka Province and is one of the most populated, accessible areas. (Though I’m learning that words like “populated” and “accessible” are all relative. Eastern Province, where we did our First Site Visit, is THE most densely populated province outside Lusaka, and it sure didn’t feel that way.) I could also be in Northern, a sprawling, sparsely populated province in the northeast that has the country’s coolest, rainiest weather, as well as lots of waterfalls, crocodiles, and hot springs. Or I could be in Luapula, one of the most remote areas in the country, pushed right up against the Democratic Republic of Congo. Luapula, apparently, is also the capital of juju in Zambia. (This according to our Zambian trainers.)

Anyway, many of my friends may be able to guess that I’m hoping to ultimately be placed in Northern Province, or at least in Luapula, but I’m trying not to be attached to that idea. I’m learning that ANYWHERE in this country will be amazing in its own way. (I hadn’t expected much from Eastern, and it was fantastic on our first site visit.) So I’ll just have to wait patiently and see – good skills to have for the coming years.

In the mean time, I’m now finally living with my Bemba-speaking host family! In the tiny, tiny village of Yuda, northeast of the boma (town) of Chipembi, where I’ll be biking in about 7 kilometers one way each day for technical skills training. It was a bit of a whirlwind getting in this evening, and I botched all the introductions I’d hurriedly learned only an hour previously. But my Bamaayo (mom) and Bataata (dad) are warm and welcoming and hilarious! They both ran up and gave me huge hugs when I arrived.

I’d guess they’re both in their 60s, so their kids are all grown, but one is 18 and still living in the family compound, and one lives just across the maize field. Two of their grandchildren, Lucy, age 13, and her four-year-old sister, Lonia (sp?), came over for the evening. Lucy, who is in eighth grade and studying English, was my language/communication savior, and I am already totally indebted to her – not to mention totally enamored of her. Lonia is terrified of me, but Lucy is one cool kid. Her English is definitely not great, but of course she already speaks Bemba, Nyanja, AND Tonga, so I’m guessing she’ll be fluent way before I’m fluent in Bemba. I’m pretty sure the whole family speaks all three of these languages, maybe more, but they’re all trying to speak just Bemba to me – as they reminded several neighbors who stopped by and greeted me in Nyanja.

During dinner, they were throwing new words at me left and right, and I had to excuse myself to get pen and paper. Of course, I still had to take a break from writing, as I was using my hands to eat nshima, beans, egg, tomato, and a common leafy green with the unfortunate name of rape. (Luckily it – and anything else green – is called “musalu” in Bemba.) All delicious.

They were perplexed when I turned down the chicken wing and reiterated my vegetarianism (which our Zambian PC trainers have assured me is not in any way rude in the context of our host families, who are being paid to host us). However, I have learned a great way of gaining acceptance as a vegetarian. Kenneth Kaunda, Zambians’ beloved first president, is a vegetarian! So all I have to say is, “I’m a vegetarian, like KK!” And suddenly there is a flash of recognition and laughter. Apparently, if KK can do it, so can the muzungu.

When 18K is a long way away

20 February 2013

I feel like I’ve finally seen Zambia! And like I finally have something worthwhile to write about.

I just returned from three days in Eastern Province, in the small village of Chimutanda, about 18K north of the nearest town (that’s boma here), Petauke. Being just 18K from the country’s main eastern road may not seem very remote, but it sure did after we spent a solid hour driving down the narrow, rutted track that serves as the road to Chimutanda.

Looking across the soccer (aka bola) pitch at the homes of Chimutanda.

Looking across the soccer (aka bola) pitch at the homes of Chimutanda.

I and three of my fellow Peace Corps Trainees (PCTs) were there to visit current PCV Gordon, who lives in the village, for our First Site Visit (FSV), meant to show us how actual PCVs live. In preparation, we’d learned a few useful phrases in the local language, Nyanja, my favorite of which were “Mwaoka bwanji?” which is their version of “good morning” but literally translates as “how did you wake?” and “Mwachoma bwanji?” which is “good afternoon/evening” but more literally, “How are you surviving the day?” The latter seemed most appropriate to me in this hard-working but sun-drenched province.

Just the drive there was stunning, as we drove along the base of the Muchinga Escarpment, which boasts a number of sheer cliffs. We passed South Luangua National Park, where we saw three baboons crossing the road! Soon afterward, we crossed the mighty Luangua River itself. We couldn’t take photos from the bridge, however, since Zimbabwe bombed it back in the ‘60s, so now it’s heavily guarded from any perceived spies. As we approached Chimutanda, we passed a whole bunch of rock outcroppings. Think Joshua Tree NP, only with lush vegetation and the occasional dambo (wetland). However, this is the wet season, and apparently it looks a lot more like JTree come July-November.

Me, Bailey, Michael, and Zach atop one of the many rock outcroppings in the area. Notice the solar panel on a roof below.

Me, Bailey, Michael, and Zach atop one of the many rock outcroppings in the area. Notice the solar panel on a roof below.

We got our first real taste of village life when we set up our tents in Gordon’s yard. At least 50 people turned out to watch, and I’m pretty sure we looked like aliens to them. Only hours later, while I was playing my guitar on the front porch, a man came up to me, shook my hand, and said a whole bunch of things I didn’t understand. Luckily our host, Gordon, intervened and talked to the guy before sending him on his way. When I asked, “what was that all about?” Gordon said casually, “He was asking if you were a witch.” Yep, juju is alive and well throughout Zambia. I immediately wondered if this would be a problem for me, not to mention why I seemed like a witch, but Gordon, who is quite Zen after a year in the village, said, “It’s best not to think too much about these things. You’ll be fine.” And I was.

Gordon's house (right) is right in the middle of things, facing a main path and right up on his neighbors. He has to cross this path to use the chimbu (toilet).

Gordon’s house (right) is right in the middle of things, facing a main path and right up on his neighbors. He has to cross this path to use the chimbu (toilet).

Later that evening, several dozen local children gathered in the shadows across the way from us and sank – loudly and beautifully – for at least a hour. Gordon says they do this a few times a week; apparently it’s just part of how they play. Sweet!

Other highlights included a scramble up to the top of one of those big rock piles for views of the village and the hills to the south, and making peanut butter by hand. And I’m not talking about using one of those grinder things they have in health food stores. No, Gordon had bought a bag of raw peanuts (groundnuts – though they were already shelled), and we brought them over to the headman’s wife, who taught us how to roast them over an open fire in a small, hand-held pan; pull off all the skins by hand; separate the skins from the peanuts by winnowing with a woven basket; and finally pound the heck out of the nuts with a giant mortar and pestle until we had some of the most delicious peanut butter ever. The mortar, incidentally, was a three-foot-tall, hollowed-out log that stood up on one end so you could pound its contents with a six-foot-tall wooden pestle.

For the record, I tried every one of these tasks (I was the only one of our group who did), and everything I did elicited howls of laughter from men, women, and children alike. I have a long way to go in acquiring Zambian homemaking skills.

Pounding groundnuts to make peanut butter. I love all the Bamaayos' different, brightly colored ifitenge in this photo.

Pounding groundnuts to make peanut butter. I love all the Bamaayos’ different, brightly colored ifitenge in this photo.

One of Gordon's neighbors sifting out the larger groundnut pieces to pound again.

One of Gordon’s neighbors sifting out the larger groundnut pieces to pound again.

One of the best parts of our visit – rivaling the amazing singing children – was when, on the last day, we walked to another, much smaller, village (maybe 400 people, vs. maybe 1,500 in Gordon’s village). We were there to meet two local women’s groups and the headwoman. Yes, woman! This is relatively common, though certainly not the rule. Her name was Grace, and she was both cordial and beautiful. Gordon said she’s also one of the best village heads in the area.

The moment we walked into the village though, people began following us like we were the pied piper. We first went to the home of a man who speaks a little English (the only one there who does), since Gordon has worked with him on some projects, and he took us to the headwoman’s yard. By then we’d already shaken hands with and said “Muli bwanji” to at least a dozen women, and about as many children, but many more had followed us. We were told to sit down on a log/bench under a big shade tree, and the women brought out a big reed mat, where the women’s group leaders sat. Grace greeted us, and then so did a few dozen other women.

They then proceeded to ask us, via our translator, every question you can possibly imagine.

For a bit of background, Zambians apparently are VERY direct. They will ask you all kinds of personal questions, or point to you and say, “You are wearing a bra!” (Since, of course, they don’t. This actually happened to me in Gordon’s village), or “Muzungu!” (“white person!”) with no malice whatsoever. They are just genuinely curious, and, let’s face it: we may as well be from outer space compared to the life they’re living.

Anyway, the questions began with names, then “What year were you born?” When I said my birth year, a woman standing way at the back came running (really – running) up to me and gave me a huge hug! Apparently this was her birth year as well.

The topic then turned to, “Do you eat nshima?” When I was first learning about Zambia, I read that nshima, a type of corn porridge, was the national staple dish. I cannot stress what an understatement that is. Nshima is what binds Zambians together. EVERYONE eats it, regardless of tribe or religion or ethnicity or whether you’re rich, poor, rural, or urban. Of course we said, “Here we eat it!” but they still seemed a little shocked when we said that we did not eat it at home.

Other questions included: “What’s your religion?” “How many children do you have?” (Not, mind you, DO you have children?) “Are you married?” “Would you marry a Zambian?” (insert howls of glee when we all said we’d consider it), “Are there Africans in the United States?” “Is there racism in the United States?” And the kicker, “Is it true that in the United States, two men or two women can get married?” They had apparently heard this during their last presidential campaign, when one candidate was accused of supporting homosexuals. (Another aside: any gays among us PCVs have been advised to NEVER tell Zambians that they are gay. Even if they have made really good Zambian friends. Being gay is completely, utterly horrifying to Zambians, and apparently this feeling is so strong that just saying you are gay would probably result in your forced relocation from your village – or maybe even your having to leave the country. I shall no longer complain about being thought strange for not having children.)

Anyway, these are all, of course, questions you just wouldn’t ask a stranger in the States. But all along the way, our translator assured us that they were just curious, and even though there were definitely some looks of consternation at our answers – about which we were totally honest – all these people continued to be so warm and welcoming, it was amazing. After a while, WE got to ask THEM questions. It seemed that we got much less clear answers from them, since there were by now at least 200 people there, all mumbling and exclaiming and interjecting. However, my favorite response was to this question of mine: “What happens here if a man and woman are married, and the man cheats on the woman?” The woman who had run up and hugged me instantly began pounding her left fist into her right hand, and everyone else exploded with laughter. If I lived in that village, I’m pretty sure me and that woman would become great friends.

Of course, all along the way was the issue of poverty, which came up when they asked how much was a plane ticket to the States; when they noted that both men and women here will sometimes have two partners – their husband/wife, plus someone on the side who can give them extra money; and when one of my fellow PCTs, Bailey, a Texan, proclaimed that her family ate lots and lots of meat as their staple food dish. (Here, as in most developing countries, meat is an expensive luxury.) It was hard, for me at least, not to feel that pervading sense of rich American guilt. Shockingly, though, I didn’t sense any animosity at all from them. It was quite unlike being in Central America, for example, where there are actually tourists around (none in these villages, trust me) and electricity with which to watch television.

I have never in all my life been in a country where people are so blatantly overjoyed to see me. Even when we had to make a trip to the massive grocery store at the crazy rich-person mall in Lusaka, the woman bagging our groceries said, “Welcome to Zambia!” as if she were working for the tourism board.

I continue to be shocked, amazed, and humbled by this friendliness, which challenges my American cynicism at every turn.