Highs and lows: a retrospective

Here I am. Community Exit. My last three months in Mfuba Village. A time for wrapping up, and for reflecting.

For me, that process began earlier this month, at our COS (Close of Service) Conference, where everyone from our intake got together one last time – all 36 LIFE and RAP PCVs who flew into Zambia together on February 13, 2013 and have made it through almost two years of the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.

We attended all the usual Peace Corps administrative sessions, this time meant to prepare us for leaving our villages, leaving Zambia, and returning to the States – or to wherever else life might take us.

But mostly, we shared stories. Stories encompassing all the human emotions you could possibly imagine, jam-packed into these less than two years that sometimes feel like a lifetime. Stories that caught us up on one another’s lives. Stories that reminded us: we’re all in this together.

Watching the sunset at IST, in the early days of our service, with three of my best friends: me, Adam, Samuel, and Ryeon.

Watching the sunset at IST, in the early days of our service, with three of my best friends: me, Adam, Samuel, and Ryeon.

Those stories – and the love and emotion behind them – reminded me of all the things I love about this big, beautiful, utterly chaotic country. And all the things I love about this big group of beautiful, utterly chaotic PCVs.

In one of those official Peace Corps sessions, we got together in small groups to write up four lists: “Things We’ll Miss,” “Things We Won’t Miss,” “Challenges,” and “Successes.” I was glad that in our group – and I think overall – the “Things We’ll Miss” outweighed the “Things We Won’t Miss.” Challenges and Successes were about equally represented.

Personally, I realized that a lot of the “Things I Won’t Miss” are minor things, of little consequence, while most of the “Things I’ll Miss” loom large in my mind. Especially the people. The first words that came out of my mouth when I was asked what I’ll miss were: Boyd and Stephen (aka Bwalya).

Things I'll miss: Ino, Agri, Obed, and Katongo.

Things I’ll miss: Ino, Agri, Obed, and Katongo.

Things I'll miss: the PCVs and staff of NoPro

Things I’ll miss: the NoPro Peace Corps crew.

Almost everything I’ve considered a “Challenge” during my service has been largely or entirely in my own head.

Life is funny that way. We look back at the hard times and notice how they made us grow. We remember our struggles and laugh – or at least smile, glad that THAT’s over! Any traveller knows that the worst experiences often make the best stories – after a bit of time has passed.

In that spirit – the spirit of reminiscing, story-telling, and appreciating all aspects of the Peace Corps roller coaster – I offer up here my own four lists.

Things I’ll Miss                                                             Things I Won’t Miss

Daily chaos                                                                 Misunderstandings

Zambian family and friends                                    Amaguys hassling me in town

Ubwali                                                                         Gender inequality

Communal eating and sharing                               Always being “other”

Everyday inspiration                                                Stress

Spending time with the kids                                   Being surrounded by hordes of kids

PCV solidarity                                                            The phrase, “Ah, we blacks.”

Public singing and dancing                                     Being “on” 24/7

Wild fruits                                                                  Jealousy among neighbors

Bad music on buses                                                  Bad music on buses

Living outdoors                                                         Rats in my house

Biking everywhere                                                    Bats in my house

Big rain storms                                                          Termites in my house

Hitch-hiking                                                              Transport in general

Street food                                                                  Littering

Fetching water                                                           Hot season

PCV friends

Slow pace of life

Speaking Bemba

Constant learning

Challenges                                                                     Successes

Lack of alone time                                                Personal relationships

Begging                                                                Cultural integration

Guilt                                                                      Sharing new ideas

Lack of set work schedule                                   Camp TREE

Gender inequality                                                 Camp GLOW

Zambian government                                         Farmers adopting Conservation Farming

Finding balance                                                   This blog (in spite of formatting issues)

Broadness of the LIFE program                          Cross-cultural connections

Isolation and loneliness                                       Mfuba’s community demonstration field

Self-doubt                                                           Sticking it out

Anger and judgements                                Being called “Bemba beene beene” – a “true Bemba.”

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The missing shoe

A group of young Mfubans has just departed my yard, and, yet again, there it is: the lone shoe.

One left-behind shoe. Photo courtesy of Cody Heche.

One left-behind shoe. Photo courtesy of Cody Heche.

I’ve no idea to whom it belongs.

Pink flip flop, rubber boot, or black plastic women’s flat, it could have arrived with most any of the kids who’ve just left. Style, size, and intended gender of footwear, like that of most clothing in this hand-me-down world, is only sometimes related to the actual size or gender of the owner.

A rubber boot left in the crook of a tree.

A rubber boot left in the crook of a tree. Photo courtesy of Cody Heche.

And, like most other personal items, kids will exchange shoes on a whim.

It’s not uncommon to see both children and adults wearing a different shoe on each foot. Maybe one half of the pair has disintegrated beyond repair, seams blown out entirely, rubber too far gone for yet another fix-it job, sole worn completely through to daylight.

This shoe may have been purposely abandoned.

This shoe may have been purposely abandoned. Photo courtesy of Cody Heche.

More often, though, one shoe is simply, momentarily or permanently, lost.

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Photo courtesy of Cody Heche.

At first, it seemed strange – beyond belief, even – that someone could forget ONE shoe. Could simply walk away with only one REMAINING shoe, and not notice. And that this phenomenon could be so common that, in Mfuba and across rural Zambia, one can find lone shoes scattered across such varied locales as forests, schoolyards, and rooftops.

Photo courtesy of Cody Heche.

Photo courtesy of Cody Heche.

(My PCV friend Cody pledged to photograph every left-behind shoe he came across during his service. He gave up, after less than one year in Zambia, because the sheer number of lone shoes in need of photographing was taking over his life. This project of his was what first inspired me to write this post.)

But after a while, the reasons behind the phenomenon of the left-behind shoe became apparent.

Simply put, no one here is accustomed to wearing shoes. Many kids don’t even have a pair, and only borrow from friends to play or to dress up.

Even adults, who invariably own at least one pair, if not two or three, are typically much more comfortable going barefoot. It’s how they grew up, too.

Ba Allan Mwango carving wooden cooking sticks. He owns a few pairs of shoes, but rarely wears them around the house.

Ba Allan Mwango carving wooden cooking sticks. He owns a few pairs of shoes, but rarely wears them around the house.

When playing any kind of game that involves running – from organized netball or bola (aka “soccer”) to kids’ games such as the dodgeball-like “bonga!” – children and adults alike will instantly ditch their shoes. It’s just easier to run and jump barefoot than it is while wearing cheap plastic shoes.

Almost everyone on the Mfuba football team plays barefoot.

Almost everyone on the Mfuba football team plays barefoot.

Shoe-free zone at the Camp GLOW tug-of-war contest. Notice all the left-behind shoes in the background!

Shoe-free zone at the Camp GLOW tug-of-war contest. Notice all the left-behind shoes in the background!

Those who own a decent pair of shoes or rubber boots will sometimes wear them to work in their fields, so they don’t accidentally hack off a toe with a hoe or an ax or step on a sharp tree stump. There are a lot of stabby seeds and weeds out there, too, as my own softie feet can attest, but most five-year-olds’ feet are tough enough that I don’t even see them flinch.

Katongo getting a splinter out of his little brother Agri's foot.

Katongo getting a splinter out of his little brother Agri’s foot.

Rural Zambians will also wear shoes to protect their feet when walking long distances.

But it’s also common to see people walking barefoot with a pair of shoes in their hand or on their head. Sometimes this is because the shoe owner has reached a podiatrically difficult part of their journey: a rickety log bridge, for example, that’s easier to grip and balance upon without shoes.

Woman walking across a dam with a baby on her back and shoes in hand.

Woman walking across a dam with a baby on her back and shoes in hand.

More commonly, the shoe-carrier is going to school or church or somewhere else important and wants to keep those nice shoes from getting dirty or worn. Within 100 or so meters of the destination, he or she will transfer the clean shoes from head to feet.

(Zambian adults are, in general, about 87 times cleaner and more presentable than any PCV you’re likely to find. The kids are about as filthy as any kid in any country who goes barefoot and wears just one set of ragged clothes day in and day out, though their parents do try.)

Muddy feet and muzungu feet. (The former are Stephen and Boyd's.)

Muddy feet and muzungu feet. (The former are Stephen and Boyd’s.)

With the transient nature of footwear here as background, it’s no longer so surprising when I find a stray flip flop on my akantamba (outdoor dish rack) or on the roof of my nsaka.

Photo courtesy of Cody Heche.

What’s more surprising is how anyone manages to keep track of their shoes at all.

DIY fun

23 December 2014

On my way home from the field this morning, I came upon a group of kids sitting amidst a big pile of freshly stripped leaves and flowers.

“What are you making?” I asked.

“Shoes!”

Minus shows off the sandal she made.

Minus shows off the sandal she made.

Leaf shoe detail.

Leaf shoe detail.

Some were also making bundles of “money.” The shoes cost 10 kwacha, I was told. Doro added: 5 kwacha if you want just one.

Doro tying up bundles of "money" while Obed looks on.

Doro tying up bundles of “money” while Obed looks on.

(With the rate at which kids lose shoes around here, Doro may have just found herself a great market niche.)

I’ve written before about what great recyclers rural Zambian kids are. They use all kinds of things that Americans might call “trash” to make miniature cars, houses, stores, board games, and almost anything else you can think of.

In the land of no television, video games, or tablets, kids in Mfuba make their own good time.

Girls make dolls out of banana tree stems and jump ropes out of old bits of rope, twine, icitenge, you name it.

Doris helps Minus braid her doll's hair while Jess watches with her own doll. The dolls are made from banana stalks.

Doris helps Minus braid her doll’s hair while Jess watches with her own doll. The dolls are made from banana stalks.

Boys make slingshots out of sticks and old bike tubes. (Though this isn’t all just for fun. They use those slingshots to kill rats and to hunt birds for dinner, and man are they good shots!)

Martin and Fabby show off their bird-hunting skills. (The slightly bloody bag Martin's carrying contains the dead birds.)

Martin and Fabby show off their slingshot hunting skills. (The slightly bloody bag Martin’s carrying contains dead birds.)

Kids of both sexes make hats, tiny furniture, and the ever-popular “machines” out of almost any forest product you can think of.

Mika shows off a tiny chair she made by weaving grass.

Mika shows off a tiny chair she made by weaving grass.

There is a seemingly endless variety of games one can play with some combination of sticks, seeds, rocks, fruit, and lines drawn in the dirt. Some are board games you sit and play; others involve hopping on one foot, throwing rocks, or balancing things on one’s body.

Cila hopping on one foot across lines drawn in the dirt while playing "Eagle" in her yard.

Cila hopping on one foot while playing “Eagle” on a hand-drawn dirt grid in her yard.

Throw in some bottle caps or a ball made out of plastic bags, and the possibilities for DIY fun are endless.

Playing with a homemade ball at the school.

Playing with a homemade ball at the school.

It’s hard not to romanticize this kind of creativity and unfettered imagination. I really think these kids are better off without all the store-bought toys and electronics we push on American kids. They’re using their brains in ways that many American children don’t. And they are having a blast, shrieking with laughter, oblivious to the world of shopping malls.

Cila, Line, and Donna play a singin' game on my front porch. Minus is in the middle.

Cila, Line, and Donna play a singin’ game on my front porch. Minus is in the middle.

Now, I guarantee that the kids of Mfuba would clamber for store-bought toys and video games if they were available. They huddle around Mfuba’s rare, fully charged phone screens – and my camera display – enraptured.

But, for the most part, they live in a consumerism- and electricity-free bubble. In my nearly two years here, I have seen exactly two store-bought toys: a stuffed animal, and a small wind-up toy car. The former was found along the roadside. The latter was purchased from the once-a-month market in Lubushi, 10Km away. It broke within weeks.

To be fair, those leaf shoes probably didn’t last the rest of the day. But here’s the beauty of DIY toys: they can be made all over again tomorrow, and the making will be more than half the fun.

Is the Peace Corps worth it?

To make up for my two-week silence, here’s a wonderful post by a wonderful fellow Zambian PCV blogger – about a topic that, as he says, plays over and over in most PCVs’ minds. I’ve often considered a post on this subject. But Matt has written so eloquently about it that now I don’t have to. It’s also a great introduction to his awesome blog.

Fishing in Zambia

At some point during their service, nearly every Peace Corps volunteer reflects back on the past month or year or two years and asks themselves the million-dollar question (er, well, in my case, the $280/month question):

Is it worth it?

Is the Peace Corps worth it for our host countries? Does the work we do really make a difference? Is bringing Americans to live in underdeveloped communities worth constantly provoking the jarring contrast between privilege and struggle? Is it worth the potential to incite jealousy and resentment, worth the possibility of engendering false hope and unfulfilled dreams?

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And is it worth it for us volunteers? Is spending two years of our lives here worth the infinitesimal gains we may make, worth the three steps back for every one step forward? Is it worth the job opportunities passed by and the friends’ weddings and grandparents’ funerals and annual family Christmas feasts…

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