This blog is intended only to recount my personal experiences with the Peace Corps; it is not intended to reflect the Peace Corps' official stance or the opinions of other volunteers.
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The contents of this Web site are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

In Which I Encounter, Battle and Defeat The Malaria Monster

Pain comes in many forms; it can bruise you or shock you, maybe tickle you or just make you hiccup. It can cause you to bleed; it can break your heart and leave you feeling hopeless for lengths of time.

Sometimes you can see it coming. Sometimes, it comes without warning.

My most recent experience with pain came in the form of a tropical illness, which was given to me by a gracious and rather parched insect in return for a few drops from my bloodstream.

Malaria, at the onset of becoming a Peace Corps volunteer, was filtering itself into every prophylaxis-induced nightmare, causing me to receive symptoms without yet having been bitten by a buzzing blood blister. Every medical meeting ended with an entire crowd of Peace Corps trainees staring into the middle distance, visualizing their inevitable bout with the disease after having just been loaded with horror stories and filled with medical jargon that just plumped us up like a jelly donut inviting the sweet tooth of every mosquito in a five-mile radius (fyi: mosquito do have teeth!).

There was some reassurance, however; “Just take your prophylaxis as directed and you will be safe” says the staff after wiping the budding sweat off their brows after finishing another animated horror story in which a volunteer lays in bed, writhing in pain, with no one to help them in the village, not eating for a week, stomach churning in pain, diarrhea flowing like Willy Wonka’s chocolate river out one end, and a steady stream of stomach acid and bile flowing out the other.

“You will be safe.”

So there were no two “buts” about it, I was going to take my magical pill every day, at the same time, and I will leave this country (having properly saved the world first) and return back to America without ever having so much as a twitch in my right eye which sometimes acts up every other month but it’s not really all that bad and, in fact, I enjoy watching the twitch in the mirror from time to time…but I digress.

Yet, after months of diligent pill-popping, proper hydration, adequate use of the mosquito net at night time, never staying outside around dusk and coating myself in bug spray from time to time; malaria drops in to say hello.

It happened just before sleep last Thursday night. That evening I had felt some minor back pain and my legs were sore. I thought the discomfort was the result of a wrestling match that happened earlier that day. On top of that, my stomach had been queasy the entire day, and I skipped supper, punched out early and laid down around 7pm hoping to just sleep off all the kinds of discomfort.

I woke up roughly four hours later with the most intense and all-encompassing pain I’ve ever felt in my entire life. My entire body was covered in cold sweat, which seemed to be flowing rather liberally from my pores and causing me to shiver. My entire back, head, both legs and my shoulders had just gotten the sledgehammer treatment, and no position seemed to calm down their aches. My stomach churned to and fro causing me to grip my torso and roll up in a ball which slowly adding my moans to the howls of the village canines barking at the moon that shone through the tent and onto my feeble, sick and suffering body.

It was late, and my friends who were in the hut next to the tent were fast asleep and I couldn’t yell loud enough to wake them up. Either way, Peace Corps medical doesn’t operate at night, so I had to deal with it for a few more hours until I could make a phone call. After the first hour, I managed to get up to pee, which only confirmed all the pain and aches and everything else as I hobbled around the compound trying to get back into the tent.

Morning came and my friends heard my pathetic pleas from the tent outside. We rang medical, and the assessments began. After three trips to the pit latrine and one trip to the side of the hut to puke, the cruiser sped down the village path to retrieve me and take me back to the house where I could be in a better setting to deal with such an illness.

Luckily for me, my friend Maggie was there to take care of me, bringing me water and taking my temperature and getting me to take my pills. The worst of all the pain and sickness and nausea only lasted the whole of Friday, and I think a lot of that has to do with my good friends who were able to get me to where I needed to be, and get the necessary things into my body to start the healing process.

A week later, and I’m doing fine. Others haven’t had it so lucky. People writhe in pain for days, and never eat anything. I did lose weight, but I’m eating well and trying to gain it back. I still feel a little weak, but it’s not anything I can’t handle for now. Needless to say, I am thankful for that quick glimpse into the horrors of malaria, a disease that takes the lives of thousands of rural Zambians each year.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


The village is normal now.

Not the kind of normal in which everything is too familiar it seems like you’re doing them without thinking (believe me, I still have to think about what I have to do here); not the kind of normal where, when you close your eyes, you always picture yourself in that situation, that place (trust me, I’m still homesick); but the kind of normal in which you have totally and completely been able to live your life in your new home, without fears, worries or shame, among people and cultures that your mind has never known before, and you are comfortable and content with all the goings on in your current situation (and can still manage a chuckle after a really long siiiigh because you can’t get a damn fire started for breakfast).

That’s the kind of normal I’m talking about.

At least it’s the kind of normal that I feel these days.

I can wake up and count the spiders on my walls and the termite nests that have been constructed over night, and even though I have a solid frame of mud surrounding me, I can still feel the cold morning air filtering through the thatch that curls me up in bed for just a few more moments.

I like these new scenes that have become familiar to my routine.

I know that I have a set amount of things to do in order for me to consider my day “started”. I slowly (and I mean sllllooooowly) check off my mental checklist of things that I plan to get done that day; all the while, mingling and interacting, mixing and molding myself into a culture which shares no single parallel with the one that I used to know back “home” (America, of course).

I’ve begun to face “frightening” things with laughter (such as 12K bike rides in the dark, only to come up to your friend’s hut and have a welcoming party set up by a resident five-foot snake in the garden – I laughed), which I believe to be my favorite tool when coping with the differences I have to live with while here.
One difference, one non-parallel, however, is not only consistently new but always exciting and worth tagging as an adventure. Transport.

The main source of mobility here is the bicycle. Heavy, sluggish fixed-gear bikes, carrier rack jutting out from the back of the saddle (sometimes carrying, quite possibly, hundreds of pounds of….stuff), lumber along at a snail’s pace along the desperate, sandy, rocky and pit-fallen roads of the Zambian bush. My bike, a well-maintained Trek 3-Series; blue as the waters of Lake Malawi, sturdy as giant baobab tree, speedy and nimble like a cheetah chasing down a Chinese acrobat, speeds past the Zambian cyclists both uphill and down, and oftentimes my “vehicle” is referred to as the “Honda”. Whenever I park it, my Trek (which I’ve named “Blue Crush”) is immediately the center of attention. People poking around the gear shifters, admiring the handlebar extenders, squeezing the saddle to test for comfort, and what are those!? Shocks!?

I truly enjoy riding my bike around the village and my district; the sandy dirt roads are a fun change of pace from the American asphalt. The fun, on the other hand, starts when visiting friends in other places (considered AWOL so don’t tell on me ☺) in which making it to the tarmac road is just the first accomplishment, while sticking your hand out to manage a reliable hitch is the next.

Vehicles here come in a variety of assortments. There’s the taxi cab which is usually an old beat up coup which comfortably seats five (including the driver) but often times lugs around seven to nine people (not comfortably). All the while bumping along with an overfull trunk of luggage, and in my case, a bicycle. Those are always at a price, so wave those down unless desperate. The canter, preferred choice for shop owners and businessmen, is a large truck with an oversized cab. Sometimes packed to standing room only, speeding down the tarmac road, swerving around livestock crossings and chugging up hills. There’s the mini van, the cruisers (typically either a government vehicle – which never stop for you – or international tourists – which never stop for you), the pick-ups and motorbikes. These are your typical choices when trying to get from one place to another. And let me tell you, I’m not a gamblin’ man, but when eyeing those vehicles which I’m considering to take me from one place to the next, you can bet that I’m running odds through my head on which one will get me there the safest, but most importantly, the cheapest.

I’ve managed successful (and by that I mean free) rides from many drivers, who are just in need of some company during their several hour ride from one nowhere to the next someplace. Easy small talk and confused language barriers are all they’re asking for, and I can always manage a simple request such as that. Some drivers request for a few beers before take-off, or at least buy them some when we arrive; in which, the easiest response, is that “I’m a strict Christian and don’t support drinking, and that I’m also broke and have a very important meeting I need to get to and you need to get me there fast fast or else I can’t get my work done!” … of course I’ve never used this response, but believe me that it’s clever enough it just might work.

Normalcy, in its many colorful, disturbing and fascinating forms, has been entering my new and complex little world and doing it’s best to stick. It’s still hard for me to ascribe the word “normal” to the herd of baby pigs running and squealing through my yard during my quiet morning coffee break (I call this act “Pigadilly Circus”), or my adoring swarms of young “fans” that gather around my fence to watch me pick at my toes or let out a nice yawn as if I were some sort of display at a zoo or an imported circus freak. “Normal” might not be the word I would use when thinking about how I sometimes wake up with my mosquito net flat on my face because the mice in my roof like to chew the ties I have holding it up; don’t they have any amount of integrity for a double hitch knot?

But the fact is, this is the village, and this is Zambia. This is normal. This is what I signed up for; so as long as these crazy things keep happening, and as long as I still have a little wind left after my long siiiiiigh, I’m just going to chuckle. And carry on.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Community Entry: Village Life Begins

On April 27th, I was officially posted at my permanent site, where my humble mud and grass hut sits in the middle of a small village called Chisadzi, in an area known as Naviluli. Nestled in the mountainous and absolutely gorgeous scenery of Eastern Province, my new home of 84 families (within the confines of 46 huts) is absolutely welcoming and comfortable. I’ve been there for a little over a month now; learning the community, meeting the people and authorities, visiting the schools, playing soccer; as well as simply learning the way life works out here, such as walking to a borehole to fetch water, cooking over a coal fire, bathing from a bucket and doing whatever it takes to not let the rampant activities of my new rodent roommates drive me completely insane.

After a couple of weeks of anxiousness, confusion and several short bouts with denial and apprehension, I began to get into the swing of things. I organized my hut by hanging things on the walls, I have a cleaning routine which involves moving everything around while I sweep the dust and dirt and debris out of the hut, I wash my dishes three times daily, I start heating up my bath water at 16:30 (no later than 17:00) then I’m cooking dinner by 18:00. I have three jerry cans for water (two 20 liters and one 10 liter), and that fifty liters of water can do my washing, bathing, cooking and drinking for about two days. I do my laundry bi-weekly.

It’s an extremely simple life, yet the families here work harder than any American ever will. There is an extreme difference behind the aspect of work when comparing Americans to Zambians in that, Americans live to work, and Zambians work to live. In the fields by 5:00, I’m normally alone when I wake up and start my morning routines. My compound is empty and I know that it’s cotton-harvesting season, so they won’t be back for a while, not until well after lunch. So there isn’t much for me to do when I’m sitting alone. I will keep myself busy with small household projects, like fixing the windows or figuring out how to hang my utensils, or maybe design a bookshelf to build someday. I read a lot, which is a nice way to pass some time. The local children like to hang around my place and just watch me in whatever it is that I’m doing. On weekends I hop on my bike and head for Chadiza (20K away), the namesake town of the district that I live in, which houses shops, a post office, schools and general “town like” atmosphere; a nice contrast from the village life. The other three volunteers in the district usually meet me there for cold sodas and snacks and it’s just nice to get away and speak some cohesive English for a little while. We share phone calls from home as well as packages and recount each other’s week in our comfortable “down town” area.

So this will be my life, for at least a couple of more months, which is how long this “community entry” period is supposed to last. In this time frame, work is very limited, but volunteers are more focused on learning the communities they’ve been assigned to, as well as look for the areas which have potential for development and begin the project planning stages. In August, all the new volunteers from my intake will reunite in Lusaka for 10 days at an In-Service Training (IST) period, in which we gain more specific skills to the ideas that we’ve collected during community entry. Once returning after IST, the work officially begins.

So for now, I’m just a villager. I live in a house that looks like everyone else’s. I get my water from the same pump the old women in my community do. I walk down to the shops to chat with the men, just like any man would do in the village. I attend the traditional ceremonies and laugh and dance just like the rest of them. I eat local foods, I attempt the language but most importantly, I love the life. I have convinced myself that the living aspect of these next two years will be simple from here on out. Once the work begins, who knows how the spectrum will change; but even so, if it does change, for better or for worse, I will still remain a villager just like the rest of them.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Late Update, But An Update Nonetheless

First and foremost, I sincerely apologize for waiting a good nine weeks before taking the time to write a blog entry since my arrival in Zambia; it should be a simple understanding, however, that the internet, and computers in general, are not only hard to come by, but also stressful in their performance and capabilities. I hope to cover as much as possible, in a nice brief format to get you up to speed as to what has been happening here in the “real” Africa, or so they call it.

To start things off, I’m on my second day as an “official” Peace Corps Volunteer! Five days ago, we had our swearing-in ceremony at the U.S. Ambassador’s house in Lusaka. Not only were the grounds gorgeous, and everyone dressed up in their new local, traditional formal wear (my host father tailored me a traditional shirt to wear, it was a surprise and I was touched), but also the ceremony itself was amazing. I was selected, along with five other volunteers, to write speeches for the event, and I was chosen to give the closing remarks and thank you’s in the local language (Chinyanja). After taking our oath, our group of volunteers sang the American National Anthem and then the Zambian National Anthem to close out a rather touching ceremony. It feels good to finally be apart of the organization that I feel like I’ve been waiting forever to work with!

But before all of that, we had PST (pre-sevice training) in a small city near Lusaka. In Chongwe, we were each assigned to a host family in small, rural villages, where we ate local foods, learned daily house chores, practiced our language skills and began the general integration into Zambian culture. My host family, the Kayumba’s from Kapomangoma village, were so much more than I could have asked for: Andrew (Father/”Atate”), Esther (Mother/”Amayi”) and eight siblings (4 brothers/”Abale” and 4 sisters/”Alongo”). They were enthusiastic to invite me into the family from the moment I stepped off the cruiser and began to set up my little mud hut. They spoke wonderful English, which made the transition fluid and helpful, and as I started to learn more Chinyanja, they eased into their natural tongue and I followed suit. It was really hard to say goodbye to all of them, as they were just so helpful, kind and patient with me; unfortunately, on the last night, I was suffering from food poisoning and instead of enjoying my last meal with the family, I was puking my face off in and around my hut. But I manage to keep in touch with them and am already looking forward to visiting them throughout my service.

As for the other people in my intake, I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect, diverse and inviting cluster of individuals to be around. Although now, we have split up into our project and language groups, all in their respective provinces around the country, but I am fortunate enough to have been placed with whom I consider my “best” friends out of the intake. The odds of that happening are incredibly slim, but the three people who I’ve spent the most time with over the course of PST are now my village neighbors, and the moral and emotional support that I’m going to be needing will now be so much more accessible and encouraging. It only helps me to look forward to the next two years of work and living.

I know this is a short update, but having skipped so many opportunities to post leaves me to keep things in brief for now. Otherwise, I’m in good health (although roughly ten pounds lighter) and I’ve managed to trim my hair once so things are being kept under control. I’m still motivated and ready to begin my service. I do miss lots about home and hope everyone is doing fine where they are. I’ll most likely be putting up monthly updates from here on out, since I’ll be having good access to quality internet when I visit the provincial house, so keep your eye out! Maybe pictures soon too…..who knows.

Love and miss you all!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Soooooooo ready to go

I'm a little tired, so this post will be brief.

I'm in Philadelphia right now, and just got back from the clinic where I received (surprisingly) only one shot (H1N1). Luckily my arm won't be too sore and carrying my bags won't be as much a chore as I thought.

Today we get a little rest, then some meetings and I'm sure another night out.

Last night, most of the group went out for a nice dinner (paid for by our lovely government and I assume, some of your tax dollars. So thank you, that steak was delicious!) and then some of us went out on the town for drinks, parlor games and bonding. I've been lucky enough to already make a great group of friends. We're all in the same boat, and we know that having a close group of friends is going to be important. So we shared stories, lots of hugs and laughs, and we're all looking forward to spending time together over in Africa.

It's easy to see a lot of the anxiousness and apprehension wearing off as we're all getting to know each other very quickly. Coming from many different walks of life, we all have a lot to teach each other in the coming months, and we're all looking forward to hearing stories, sharing memories and probably a few tears along the way.

But I'm overdue for a nap. So I'm going to lay down before heading out with my new friends for a good lunch. Tonight we will most likely go out and stay out, since we have a bus to catch at 2am heading for NYC. From there we will board a plane and begin our trek to Zambia (!!!).

Just know that I feel like I'm truly ready to begin this adventure. I know that I have a great group of like-minded kids here and we're all ready to support each other with anything we need; and I'm going to need it, since I wasn't able to bring my guitar with me :( Turns out it would have cost a pretty penny to get it overseas, and although extremely disappointed, I'm confident that I'll be able to bide my time with more writing and reflecting since I won't have my favorite outlet to accompany me.

Missing you all already.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Two two two two two two two weeks.

It's about that time, isn't it?

Time to start double checking all those lists which have been piling up on my desk, on my desk top and in my head.

The other night I haphazardly threw a few pairs of shorts in my suitcase, just so I could say that I started packing; a rather uncharacteristic thing for me to do, since I tend to leave everything to the last minute.

It's two weeks to this day, that I will be boarding a plane headed to Philadelphia to meet with my fellow volunteers and begin the whole shebang of preparing ourselves for Zambia. I have had the pleasure, already, of meeting a few of them online; casually chatting and slowly making friends the digital way. It's such a comfort knowing that I will already know someone before I even leave my family and friends here in Lincoln, and I'm sure they feel the same way.

Not really quite sure what I want to say in this entry, but I do know that my leaving is all that I can think about.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

So here I am.

Sitting in a coffee house in the middle of America, avoiding the ice and snow that surrounds every building; caking the streets like fondant on the world's most depressing confection. Huddled in heavy winds, our cigarettes last as long as the candles on a 10-year-old's birthday cookie.

Yet unlike the bleak and blistering winters of Nebraska outside, the weather within me is warm and content with anticipation that I will soon be leaving this place, and within reach is my new life; albeit, a life I am confident will be stressful and lonely, challenging and foreign; it surely won't be a life without plenty of rewards.

I've been to Zambia once before.
It awed me with it's vast landscapes and scenic drives, it thrilled me with it's natural wonders and humbled me with it's extremely likable population of hospitable people. But out of a five-month, ten-country trip, it was hardly the country that I thought I would return to first. Over three years ago I was there for a short while, and in less than three weeks I will return to live, work and help a country that touched me so simply in exchange for unforgettable memories and the value of knowing I am a part of a bigger and more global picture.

It's all a little bittersweet though.
Sitting with my friends, having a beer and listening to music, playing music on a stage or going out for a night on the town, I'm realizing that I'm going to be without a lot of the things that make my life ... well, my life right now.

I'm realizing that I'm not only preparing for an adventure, I'm also preparing for a new way of living; a humbler version of myself, possibly. A modest human experience. An opportunity to grow and appreciate what it means to be alive.

I'm not sure what direction this blog will take when I actually start to make regular posts, but I'm hoping to share stories of the people I meet and the places that I visit. I want to share the stories of accomplishments in myself (assuming I experience any), and above all, just make sure all of my family and friends know that I'm alive and well :)

Looking forward to the future. And I will miss and be thinking of home often.
I already feel that.