Letter to my successor

My successor is already preparing to come to Mfuba Village – without even knowing it.

As I write this, he or she is packing bags, saying goodbyes, and going through all the excitement and anxiety I was feeling two years ago.

Next week, this person – along with the rest of the LIFE 2015 intake – will board a plane bound for Lusaka. This person won’t know until late March that Mfuba will be his or her new home, but the stars are aligning nonetheless.

If I could write a letter to this person, here’s what I’d say:

Mwaseni kuli Mfuba! (Welcome to Mfuba!)

You have no idea how lucky you are. An infinite number of random coincidences (or fate, depending on your persuasion) have brought you here, to arguably the best Zambian village you could ever hope to live in.

The Mfuba Cooperative, serving up ubwali.

Others will tell you that I’m just biased – that all PCVs come to love their villages, regardless. But that’s not entirely true.

Some PCVs struggle with unmotivated communities, a lack of good counterparts, theft, kids who don’t respect them, or neighbors who are just plain mean to one another.

I’ve been blessed with the opposite. And now you are, too.

Don’t get me wrong: Mfuba and its residents have their flaws, which you’ll discover soon enough. As an American, you’ll find all the same frustrations you’d find anywhere else in Zambia.

But don’t worry about all that just yet.

First, embrace the excitement and enthusiasm that this wonderful community will soon shower upon you, as they did upon me and my own predecessor. Try to speak Bemba even if language isn’t your forte, play with the kids even if you don’t like kids, and dance even if you feel shy.

Dancing with Ba Memory.

Dancing with Ba Memory.

They’ll love you for it.

Mfuba is the home of many patient Bemba teachers, children who are ridiculously respectful and helpful (most of the time), and adults who will embrace you as one of their own.

Obed (foreground) and Boke are rarely happier than when they get to help me with some chore.

Obed (foreground) and Boke are rarely happier than when they get to help me with some chore.

Welcome to your new house. I’ve tried to fix it up as best I could, and it’s a pretty cozy place if I do say so myself. Try to embrace all your visitors and not hide inside with all the windows closed too often, but do it when you really need to.

The big poster on the wall translates: "Welcome to Mfuba!" It was left for me, and it'll be waiting for you, too.

The big poster on the wall translates: “Welcome to Mfuba!” It was left for me, and it’ll be waiting for you, too.

The loungin' spot - for when you need a break.

The loungin’ spot – for when you need a break.

Welcome to your very own field. I hope I’ve left the soil in better shape than I found it in. I also hope you’re a better farmer than I was. But if you’re not, don’t worry: you can’t really “fail” at farming here, as long as you keep trying and keep greeting everyone who walks by while you’re working.

In fact, this is true of anything you do here.

Welcome to the Mutale family. Or the Kasonde family, or any other family you choose to adopt. There isn’t a family I’ve met here who wouldn’t be overjoyed to share ubwali with you on a regular basis.

I hope you come to like ubwali. It can be the thing that binds you to your new neighbors and lifts you up when you’re feeling down.

I also hope you get to know the kids. They are some of the kindest, funniest people I know, and they will love you forever if you give them just a little of your time.

The best part of my job.

The best part of the job.

Welcome to life as a third-generation PCV. You’ll often be compared to me, and to the first-gen PCV, Steve.

Don’t listen to any of it.

It doesn’t matter what Steve or I did or did not give, did or did not do. It doesn’t matter if your habits or your food preferences or your tree-planting skills or your Bemba vocab is better or worse than ours was. As long as you come with good intentions and are willing to laugh at yourself, they’ll love you.

Work hard, because your neighbors will expect it of you. But don’t be too hard on yourself, and don’t work yourself into the ground.

Remember what they tell you all through training: “Relationships first, work second.” Because it’s true.

Maybe most importantly of all, don’t listen too much to me.

Partly because I often didn’t follow my own advice. I sometimes snapped at people for no good reason, chased kids out of my yard, threw myself into too many projects, worried too much, isolated myself, forgot to step back and laugh at myself. In spite of how amazing Mfuba is, I created problems in my own head and had plenty of bad days anyway.

But mainly because, who cares what I think? I’m on my way out.

Mfuba is your home now.

I ask only that you try your best, every day, to be a good person, and to remember that this village is full of good people, too.

Lead with your heart, and you will find yourself welcomed in every way.

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Taking root

Here’s a novel formula for agricultural research:

Take one Peace Corps Volunteer who’s been farming in Zambia for just over a year, and give her a research team of 70 rural Zambians, not one of whom has more than a Grade 9 education. Ask these Zambians – who know farming inside and out, and have watched this PCV flail and bumble her way through planting her own field for two seasons – to trust said PCV.

Posing with part of the research team.

Posing with the research team.

Mix in a well-meaning but desperately underfunded government agricultural research station, seeds of questionable viability, and directions and record-keeping instructions in English (which only one member of said group of Zambians can read). Then convince these 70 farmers to take time away from their own fields – their main source of food and income for the entire year – at the height of planting season, to plant new crop varieties in strange, unfamiliar ways.

Add a generous dash of the confusion, bickering, and general chaos that accompany any large group trying to work together.

With this recipe, it is nothing short of a miracle that the Mfuba community pulled off planting its first demonstration field this week.

The demo field: cassava stalks on the left, soybeans on the right, beans soon to come in the back-left corner.

The demo field: cassava stalks on the left, soybeans on the right, beans soon to come in the back-left corner.

In all, the farmers tilled more than one hectare of land and planted: 1) two new varieties of faster-growing, higher-yielding cassava; 2) seven new varieties of beans; 3) one new variety of groundnuts; and 4) soybeans – all in a more precise manner than any of them would ever use in their own fields.

Members of the Kutemwa Youth Club and the Kashalyashi Women's Co-Op tilling the new field.

Members of the Kutemwa Youth Club and the Kashalyashi Women’s Co-Op tilling the new field.

We’d first applied for a demo field in June 2014 – not long after 10 local farmers took a tour of the government-run Miasamfu Agricultural Research Station – and still we almost didn’t get the necessary seeds and instructions.

Yet somehow, despite many delays and obstacles thrown in our way, we did it.

The end results of this experiment are supposed to be: 1) a good harvest that ensures these new crops will be multiplied and planted again next year; 2) encouraging farmers to try some of these new methods to improve crop yields and soil fertility in their own fields; 3) teaching farmers how to keep records – of when and how much they plant, what methods they use, and what works best; 4) crop and income diversification; and 5) collecting decent scientific data for Miasamfu, which gave us the instructions, data forms, and seeds.

As one might expect when such a broad undertaking proceeds with so little support or technical expertise, mistakes were made.

The cassava cuttings we received were a little old – no one knows exactly HOW old – so re-sprouting rates have been less than spectacular.

Because we received the soybeans and soybean inoculant so late – just days before I left for a long-planned vacation – Ba Allan and I had to make do with teaching just one of the groups in advance about the required planting methods, as well as how to use inoculant – which only three farmers had ever even seen before.

On planting day, they were on their own, with Ba Allan in charge. There was a misunderstanding about the printed directions, so one plot was planted with way too much fertilizer, and most of the little seedlings there burned and died.

But when I returned to the village and saw all those cassava stalks poking up, and most of the soybeans up and growing, I can’t even explain how happy I was. This is a PCV’s dream: to live in a community of people who are motivated enough to work in his or her absence.

Then this week came the planting of the beans – seven new varieties, plus a local “control.” This time, I made sure to be there. Though I’m not really sure how much difference it made. Ba Allan still did most of the directing.

Ba Allan measuring out exact plot dimensions for each of eight bean varieties.

Ba Allan measuring out exact plot dimensions for each of eight bean varieties.

It was only then that I truly appreciated what he had pulled off in getting the cassava and soybeans in the ground at the end of December.

The bean planting was utter chaos. Everyone talking at once as we tried to explain procedures. Ba Allan and Ba Bernardi directing careful measurements of planting spaces, using only sticks and string. Lining up the farmers – one person per ridge – to follow a moving string and plant seeds exactly every 10 centimeters.

Planting beans in Mfuba's conservation farming demonstration field, where precise planting is key.

Planting beans in Mfuba’s conservation farming demonstration field, where precise planting is key.

There was a lot of accidental stepping on the string and confusion about whether the men holding it on either side had in fact moved in sync.

Don't touch that string!

Don’t touch that string!

And we’re not done yet. There are still growth data to be recorded; fertilizer to be added; and, of course, the harvest.

I hope that these new methods will bring some benefit to Mfuba – that the farmers have learned something that proves useful in their own fields. And that we provide Miasamfu with some decent data.

But I’m trying not to be too attached to the results.

I have no crystal ball. No way to see into the future, to see whether this demo field will have a lasting impact. All I have is my faith – in an entire community willing to come together and put their trust in a crazy farming experiment.

With that kind of commitment, who knows what might take root?