Tuesday, May 4, 2010

October 29, 2009

Mwapoleni bonse mukwai! (a Bemba greeting of health)

Another cluster of months passed, another apology for the delay in updates warranted. It seems the longer I'm here, the less dramatic and noteworthy my activities seem, causing me to forget to sit down and write these mass e-mails and assure everyone back home that all is well and that you remain, as ever, in my thoughts. I'm not even entirely sure when I last wrote and am completely daunted by the task of trying to encapsulate months and months of events in one e-mail, so I'll restrict my recollections and try to be as concise as possible...

To start, the sheer amount of time I've been here in Zambia and the rapidly decreasing amount of time I have left in this beautiful country seems almost absurd to me. As cliché as it may sound, time has truly flown by and I feel myself trying to grasp on to every day remaining before I walk away from my life here and embark on the next step. With only 6 months left in my service, I'm now part of the most-veteran group of volunteers in Zambia. My 'intake' will become RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) in April and many of us, myself included, are already feeling a bit of anxiety about transitioning back to life in the States after all we've experienced and grown accustomed to here. More so than any adjustments faced during our initial months here in Zambia, having to readjust to a world once so familiar that will now seem completely new and in some ways difficult to understand will be a significant challenge. But, alas, I'm getting far ahead of myself. With a little less than a quarter of my total time in the village ahead of me, there's plenty to be done between now and then. These are just some of the most recent thoughts creeping into and occupying my head. I just feel, more than ever, that this whole spectacular, surreal experience is going to be over before I know it, which is strange to realize since it once seemed to be such a long time to be away - like the Grateful Dead said, "Such a long, long time to be gone and a short time to be there" (that's for you, Dad).

Looking back instead of forward, I once again have to reassert the fact that Zambia becomes more and more of a home with each passing month. I often think about how different and strange and sometimes scary so much of it seemed when I first arrived and in the initial months and compare that to the strong sense of familiarity I now feel towards the people and places here. Granted, I still see and experience things that surprise me on a very consistent basis, but
I've found myself increasingly connected to and in sync with the rhythm and energy in this little part of the world that I've so randomly been dropped into. Having a few visitors from home (which I'll delve into with more detail later on) really put this into focus for me as I saw how certain things are no longer novel or shocking to me, as when they are through unaccustomed eyes. It's hard to explain, but all I can say is that I like the feeling and never would have thought I could feel so comfortable in a completely different type of environment form all that we're so used to back in the States. Anyway, I'm certain I've touched on all these sentiments in past e-mails, but it's hard not to repeat myself a bit since this acute sense of awe seems to remain a constant part of the Peace Corps experience.

So, the past 7 months or so have most notably included brief periods of hosting family and friends from home, developments on big projects such as my village's community school and my work with certain farmers' and women's groups, a few trips to Lusaka (Zambia's capital)
for Peace Corps trainings, a trip to South Africa, and even some new additions to my mud hut family after my only roommate, Chimo the cat, had a total of 7 kittens in the past 3 months. All very exciting...

I think the biggest event worth elaborating on is my mom and brother's visit back in April. Now, to fully appreciate how much I was anticipating their arrival, imagine going almost 14 months without seeing any of your family members or closest friends, or anyone at all from your past, for that matter. Needless to say, it was a moment of pure, intense joy when I saw them at the airport and I hardly stopped smiling during their entire visit. We had quite an incredible time travelling around Zambia together, hiking around and gazing at the majestic Victoria Falls, going on 'safari' in Botswana's Chobe National Park, and simply enjoying being in close proximity to each other after over a year apart. The last leg of the trip included the trek up to my main stomping grounds in Luapula Province, including a few days in my village. No matter how hard I may try, I couldn't possibly express how amazing it was to have my mom and brother visit
the place that I've told them so much about and that has been my home for the past year and a half. Family means absolutely everything in Zambian culture, to the point where hardly anything is thought of in terms of the individual, only in the way it relates to and affects the collective whole of the family or village - a way of thinking many in the Western world could learn a thing of two from, I think. Anyway, this meant that, for my village, meeting some of my family members gave them a much more real sense of knowing me and solidified a lot people's connections to my presence here in Maloba Village. For my family's part, seeing the village for themselves, through their own eyes instead of only through my descriptions via letters or e-mail, provided them with a better understanding of my life and work here. It was quite surreal having my two, seemingly separate worlds collide and interact - a part of my experience here that meant more than words can say. I only wish I could bring each and every one of you here for a
visit, too!

Since then, the majority of my time has been spent further developing projects I started in my first year and elaborating on programs that were a bit slow at the beginning stages of my service. Not surprisingly, a lot of time and energy has been spent on building our community school, which has come with plenty of trials and tribulations, but a few triumphs as well. The project has brought more money into this small village than it's ever really seen, which brings plenty of issues with it. I've had a few moments of frustration as people in the community accuse each other of taking some of the money for themselves or not doing their fair share of the work, but I've tried to remedy these issues by facilitating constant communication through meetings and encouraging everyone to talk about their concerns instead of fostering rumors and misunderstandings. This has, for the most part, cleared matters up and gotten us all back on track with the work, which should be done within the next two weeks or so! The school looks really great - I've been so impressed with so many of those who are doing most of the construction. Using local materials and local knowledge, community members are able to build a beautiful school with their own hands. Overall, I'm incredibly proud of everyone involved and can't wait to see the school completed and full of kids learning and gaining skills so key to future development for this village. I've attached a few pictures of the school so far so those of you who contributed can see how it's coming along...

Outside the school project, I've continued income-generating activities with various groups in the area and facilitated a 3-week workshop focused on HIV/AIDS sensitization, basic business skills
training, and how to mediate the impact of HIV/AIDS on small-scale businesses and household income. In addition, I helped out with a training of a newer group of PCVs in August and assisted in coordinating volunteers while the Provincial Coordinator in Luapula was on a month-long trip to the States. I was also pretty occupied with LSAT studying in August and September in preparation for my trip down to South Africa to take the test in Johannesburg (the closest
LSAT test center to Maloba Village). Needless to say, it's been quite a challenge applying to law school from here, but I'm getting excited about the next step and going back to school and an environment of learning that I love and often miss. It baffles me to think how different a place I'll (hopefully) be in this time next year and how all this will seem in hindsight. I only hope the perspective I've gained here will prove to be useful as tackle law school and pursue a career in international human rights law.

My trip to South Africa reminded me of so many things I often miss about home and can't wait to get back to - hot showers, cold drinks, good food, real coffee, being able to just sit and be part of the energy of a diverse crowd, instead of constantly being watched and stared at...The trip (post-LSAT) provided a sense of ease and relaxation that I hadn't felt in a long time. It also provided some pretty incredible travel experiences and adventures, including lots of hiking around Cape Town, wine tasting in Stellenbosch, whale-watching and cage diving with Great White Sharks in the Indian Ocean, and visiting Robben Island to see and learn first-hand about aspects of South Africa's history that I had previously only read about in books. It was an exhilerating trip, giving me a chance to experience more of this region while I'm here and further igniting my fascination with and admiration for the people and places that make up this beautiful
part of the world.

The coming months will be filled with law school applications and work out in the fields as the rain season approaches and everyone prepares the land for this year's harvest. I'll do my best to write again before the end of the year in order to provide a less broad overview of activities on my end. Until then, please continue to keep in touch either via e-mail or snail mail. I continue to miss each of you with all my heart and wonder constantly how things are going on your end. Please know that you are all constantly in my thoughts and how grateful I am for all the support and encouragement I have been so lucky to receive throughout my time here - I truly wouldn't have lasted this long without it...

Mushale bwino! (Stay well!)


Saturday, March 7, 2009

PCPP Thank You Letter

To any and everyone who supported the Maloba Community School Project in one way or another,

In the midst of the unpredictable rain season, a clear, bright sky smiled down on the unfolding scene at the center of Maloba Village in the southern African country of Zambia on the morning of January 12, 2009. Not long after the crescendo of habitual dawn village noises began – a cacophony of rooster call and answer layered on top the steady rhythm of women pounding (thump, thump) cassava with mortar and pestle, short riffs of children’s laughter scattered in between – a soft silence momentarily engulfed and overshadowed the bustling activity of an African village waking up. Lelo ni lelo. Today is the day. Putting behind them countless days of walking, carrying tired feet and tired minds down a narrow path winged by leaning, snake-green grass for fourteen kilometers, to and from, to reach the closest community school, the children came here, under the tallest tree in Maloba – within sight of their own village, their own homes, their own mothers – to begin the new school term.

This is a world where the word “government” means little more than a slightly familiar face somersaulting by bare feet on a crumpled scrap of newspaper, dancing in a warm, afternoon breeze as men with machetes and hoes draped across their tired, angular shoulders and women with baskets full of cassava atop their regal heads make their way home from the unforgiving fields. It is a world where a simple obstacle like distance keeps a child from attending class, increasing opportunity, finding employment, battling poverty. It is a world where the simple factor of where a child just happens to be born determines his or her quality of life and whether that life will be one filled with the immeasurable gift of knowledge.

But on that promising Monday morning, there gathered under a tree a community bound together not just by the extended family ties that run throughout the village, but also by a common drive to give their children the kind of education they need and deserve in order to make a brighter future for themselves and for Zambia. They gathered to make this dream a reality themselves, with their own callused hands, without waiting for a day when those elected to build infrastructure can actually provide education for every Zambian child. They gathered because, through a window provided by the Peace Corps Partnership Program, they would soon have the means by which they could buy the materials necessary for building their own community school, from which further government assistance in the form of teacher training and instructional materials would be provided in the future. They gathered to start organizing classes and to start teaching, even when the only place to do so is under a tree, so that the school would be filled with the sounds of learning as soon as construction is complete. They gathered because contributors in America gathered, raising whatever funds they could for the Maloba Community School Project. They gathered because of you.

I’m thanking you not just as a development worker who happens to live in a foreign country and knows tangentially about the problems facing the poorest of the poor in Zambia. I’m thanking you as a resident of Maloba Village, who talks and lives and laughs with these people every day, who fetches her water at the local well with the mothers of the village in the mornings and hears their hopes for something better, whose challenging days after long rides on her bike in the sweltering African sun are immediately made better by a smile from one of the children who will directly benefit from your contribution. I am thanking you, and so is Maloba Village, my home away from home.

Although raising the necessary funds for the Maloba Community School Project was only the first step, it was an immense step indeed. With your help, enough money has been raised to build a government-standard community school, consisting of two classrooms with a teachers’ office in between. The clearing of the school sight, the laying of the foundation, the making of tens of thousands of mud bricks, the cementing of the floor, the construction of the roof, and the painting of the walls will all be done by community members themselves. This will take months of intensive labor. This is how ardently Maloba wants its children to learn. But without the financial assistance your contribution and so many others have provided, they would still be waiting for their chance to work for development in their community. This is far from a hand-out, an ephemeral act of charity with no lasting effect. This is something that will fundamentally change life in Maloba Village. And on the morning of January 12, I was overcome with emotion at just how quickly and just how drastically it already has. In the now nine months I have been living in Maloba, I have never seen such excitement, such enthusiasm, such curiosity in the eyes of the children I have come to know and love.

On a more personal level, this project has highlighted for me something I have always known to be true but never completely grasped until living in a mud hut in a rural African village. Where I happen to have been born, where I happen to have grown up, the family I happen to have been born into, and the friends I happen to have met along the way are all priceless blessings that I should never, ever take for granted. In more instances than I can count, my heart has threatened to burst with warmth by the support this project has generated from people I know both directly and indirectly back home. So far away from everything I knew for the first 22 years of my life, forced to face the unfamiliar each and every day, you have made me feel connected, comforted, and strong. And for that, no words of thanks are worthy enough.

Lastly, along with all the joys and lessons I have the fortune to experience living in the far-out community of Maloba unfortunately comes a difficulty in frequently communicating with those of you so many, many miles away. Without a doubt, I will do my best to send along updates on how the project is progressing as often as I can from now until the end of my Peace Corps service in April 2010.

Twatotela sana (We are thanking you very much),

Sara Blackwell
Peace Corps Volunteer
Maloba Village, Zambia

March 1, 2009

Mutende mukwai! (a Bemba greeting of health and peace)

Once again, the amount of time between updates is inexcusable, a fact for which I will more than likely have to apologize for at the beginning of every mass e-mail for the entirety of my Peace Corps service. Rather than launch into an extended apology, however, I will simply plunge straight into brief accounts of the many activities that have composed life here in Zambia for the past 5 months or so and that have, as a consequence, resulted in my recluse-like behavior.

To start, the work side of things has been more hectic and fulfilling than I ever expected. It seems like there's always some new project to start or idea to build on, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have been placed in a community that aims to take full advantage of having a Peace Corps volunteer working and living in their area. It is a not-uncommon Peace Corps experience to struggle in finding the kind of motivation and enthusiasm that matches their own within those they are working and living with in the village, but I, thankfully, have more often than not been blessed to work with some of the most determined groups and individuals that I have ever met.

Some highlights from the past few months include a 'VCT Field Day', which I organized in October. This basically involved inviting one of the health clinics in my area to set up 'Voluntary Counseling and Testing' (VCT) for a day so that people could receive HIV testing along with some HIV/AIDS sensitization in the form of presentations by locally-trained peer educators. Acknowledging the power of football (or 'soccer' for all of you people in the States), I invited each of the 8 villages I work with to form their own teams to play against one another throughout the day. All and all, it was a resounding success, with over 300 people attending and everyone hoping to repeat the program every 6 months or so, which will definitely encourage the idea of periodic, continuous testing as well.

Being a LIFE (Linking Income, Food, and the Environment) volunteer, the past months have also been some of the busiest of the year, seeing as Zambia's rain season runs from early November until late March. This is pretty much the most important time of the year for rural farmers (aka absolutely everyone I live with in the village) as they spend all day, every day, in their fields, working for the best yield they can possibly manage, which will, in turn, determine how much income they will generate for that year. The main crops here in the northern part of Zambia are maize, cassava, groundnuts (what we call peanuts), and beans, though many people grow plenty of other things like pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and garden vegetables, mostly for home consumption. With pretty much their standard of living based on the success of each year's harvest, nearly everyone works physically harder during this time than I've ever seen anyone work in my entire life. Let me just say that I will never look at farm machinery the same way again. Farmers here basically take wild African bush and turn it into hectares upon hectares of organized, cultivated land simply with large hoes in their (extremely callused) hands. A traditional technique for generating high yields here is called 'chitemene', which is a slash-and-burn system that is one of the main contributors to deforestation in Zambia and is brutal on the soil. Part of my job is to promote conservation farming techniques that preserve the soil and incorporate trees into the farming system, rather than destroying them. To this end, I organized and facilitated a workshop in November where I gathered members of the many farmers' and women's groups I work with to discuss in detail many of the things we'd been talking about informally for months, such as minimum tillage, seed spacing and storage, agroforestry, composting, and natural fertilizers and pesticides. Not only was it incredibly effective to have many of my counterparts in the same room sharing ideas, but this was sort of a culminating moment for me in terms of how far my language and extension skills have come since the beginning of my service. Following the workshop, I implemented a seed multiplication project with all the attending groups, the basic idea being to give a small amount of various seeds to farmers who will return double the amount they were given of each type after harvest. This increased supply will then be given out to other farmers for the next season, growing and growing each year. In short, these many months have included a lot of time talking agriculture and working out in the fields with my counterparts whenever the pretty fantastic rainstorms don't keep us stuck inside.

After following up with a lot of the Conservation Farming workshop participants, I decided that a similar type of interactive program focused on basic business skills would be beneficial to a lot of people in my area. It may be hard to wrap your head around, but illiteracy and a poor education system overall has resulted in most of the people I work with lacking skills in basic record-keeping of costs/sales, calculation of profit/loss, product-value addition (e.g. making and selling peanut butter instead of just raw peanuts), and long-term planning. Seeing as I'm aiming to start small-scale income-generating activities with a lot of these groups and individuals, these skills are key if the projects are to be successful and sustainable. In any event, another workshop was organized in January and was equally successful, laying a strong foundation for IGAs we hope to work on in the future.

My biggest undertaking above all for the last 5 months, however, has been getting the Maloba Community School up and running. Due to the overwhelming and simply amazing support we received from so many of you in the States, we raised double the amount of funds we were aiming to raise, totaling approximately 40 million Zambian kwatcha (around $8,000). This basically means that we now have the opportunity to build a community school of a standard that will almost guarantee further investment and development from the government in the future. In other words, the sustainability of the project has greatly increased due to the additional funds, a fact that we are all so ecstatic about. Instead of going into many of the details of how the project is going so far here, I've attached a thank you letter I wrote to any and everyone who supported the project in one way or another, so please read it if you get the chance.

Aside from all that, I truly cannot believe that it's now been a little over a year since I left what was once my only definition of home and found an extended one here. This also means that it's now been over a year since I've seen many of you, which simultaneously saddens me and reassures me that, if the last year is any standard by which to measure time, I will once again be seeing many of you before I know it. This past year has brought more emotional ups and downs than I thought humanely possible, but I can say without reservation that it has been one of the most memorable and formidable years of my life. Zambia has truly felt like a home away from home when I needed it most, including through the death of both of my truly heroic grandfathers since I left home. Fellow Peace Corps volunteers and the friends and family I have made at the village level have been such a source of strength and inspiration throughout my experience, for which I am eternally grateful.

I'll end with my routine plea that you continue to send e-mails and letters, which are all read and re-read with appreciation and affection. Any updates are extremely appreciated as I spend many very quiet nights in Maloba Village filing through fond memories and simply wondering what everyone back home is up to and how they are doing. Hoping you are all happy, healthy, and loving life... Love and miss you all madly.

Tukesamonana (We'll be seeing each other),

Friday, February 6, 2009

September 16, 2008

Muli shani bonse!

As I sit down to write this, it hits me that it's been about 4 months or so since the last time I found myself here, sitting down to send one of these mass e-mails. As a result, I feel like it's only appropriate to preface this update with two statements: 1) I sincerely and profusely apologize for the delay. These periodic e-mails are my only form of communication with many of you, so I'm sorry that I've been so out-of-touch; and 2) Entirely too much goes on in a matter of 4 months here or anywhere else in the world for me to sum it all up without burdening you with what would most likely be the longest e-mail you've ever received, flooding your inbox, and prompting you to either delete it or only give it a brief skim, making the delayed update only a waste in the end. So, the following will merely be a recounting of major recent events in my Peace Corps experience, leading to inevitable generalizations and lapses in narration. Hopefully this task of drastically condensing my life without being able to go into details will prompt me to simply write more often in the future, seeing as it would allow me to avoid all of these disclaimers and limitations.

So, let's see, the most obvious question is: where to begin? Life continues to go relatively well for me here in Zambia. September 20 will mark 7 months since I moved to this beautiful country and 5 months since I became a resident of Maloba Village. Not only have I never lived outside of the United States for this long, but I've truly never had life pass by quite as quickly as it has these past few months. I'm happy to say that I've emerged from my "Community Entry Period," the first 3-months of service in the village, relatively unscathed and ready for 21 more months. Peace Corps encourages volunteers to take this period as time to assess community needs, familiarize yourself with the area, and simply adjust to village life. For someone like me, taking the time to just adapt and observe before diving right into a packed work schedule isn't the easiest thing in the world, but I understand and deeply appreciate Peace Corps' organic, from-the-ground-up approach to development.

Although I'm far from fully adapted to daily life in the village, I can say with confidence that Maloba has truly started to feel like a home to me. As my Bemba proficiency continues to increase and my familiarity with the dynamics of the community grows, I'm feeling more and more like a thread in the woven fabric of daily life here, instead of on a different plane entirely. It's difficult to put the subtle progression of my integration here into words since it's not any sort of sudden, grandiose ephiphany, but more of a complilation of small occurences and observations. I know I will never stop being somewhat of an outsider here -- a reality of the insurmountable disparity between my experience of the world and that of my fellow villagers. But having a child absentmindedly place his hand on my knee when sitting next to me, like I've seen so many children in the village do with their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers...how can I explain? What words express that moment when something so small means so much, especially when you've spent every moment of every day grasping for a sense of belonging in a world so different from the one you come from? All I can say is that, though I have a long way to go, the gap between me and my community is slowly getting smaller, allowing more room for connections and relationships to form in spite of a plethora of differences, making me hopeful and resilient in a world where so many claim that this kind of common understanding is impossible, that conflict is inevitable.

In terms of work, my first 3 or 4 months involved spending a great deal of time meeting with individuals and various groups, finding out what they've been working on, what they hope to work on, and what sorts of challenges they face. Along the lines of my project's objectives, I've met with many lead farmers and farmers' groups in my area to talk about organic gardening and conservation farming, as well as starting a garden of my own to demonstrate some of these techniques. I never had a garden of my own back in the States, and I have to say that it's been a lot of fun and even therapeutic getting my hands dirty and watching things grow. Aside from that, I've spent a lot of my time with women's groups, giving talks on nutrition, going over basic business skills as a foundation to start small income-generating activities, learning how to cook local dishes, and sometimes just getting together to sing and dance. In fact, the women in my village and I get together almost every Friday afternoon to dance for about an hour or so. I have yet to figure out if this is simply for fun or if they see these as much-needed dance lessons for me, but it's one of my favorite times of the week nonetheless.

August proved to be one of my busiest months yet, involving almost 3 weeks out of the village. We're not allowed to travel for our first 3 months of service so, seeing as this period ended for me on July 30, I took my first vacation at the beginning of August to neighboring Tanzania. As luck would have it, my dear friend from college Sasha was traveling with her father and younger brother throughout the East African country and I was able to meet up with them for a few days of safari in Tarangire National Park. With my modest volunteer budget, getting to them cheaply from Zambia involved a 3-day train ride and a 10-hour bus ride, but traveling in it of itself proved to be one of the best parts of my trip, providing many interesting experiences and encounters along the way. Traveling alone was never something I had done or would have had the ambition to do prior to Peace Corps, but living by myself in the middle of a rural African village has upped my comfort with solidarity, to say the least. I never expected to see someone from home so soon in my service, so seeing Sasha and her family was more exciting than I can express.On top of that, taking guided tours both by car and on foot to come face-to-face with incredible wildlife in its natural environment was an experience I'll never forget, inspiring both awe at the beauty of nature and sadness at just how rare these animals have become. Plus, having hot showers, soft sheets, and amazing food when I've been living in the village was indescribable. I can only imagine how enjoyable these simple pleasures will be after more than 2 years.

Straight from Tanzania, I made my way back to Zambia and headed to Lusaka, the capital, for a week of "In-Service Training." Taking place after our "Community Entry Period," these sessions focused on evaluating how our service has gone so far and discussing some activities we might want to implement in our villages in the future. This was the first time many of us from my training group had seen each other since being posted to our respective villages, so it was a busy and exciting week, with a lot of catching up to do. Sadly, Zambian President Levy P. Mwanawasa passed away during that week, prompting a lot of commotion and mourning in the capital. Since the Vice President is an appointed, not elected, position in Zambia, there will be another presidential election this month. Fortunately, Zambia is a very peaceful and politically stable country, so none of the complications that often arise with elections in developing countries are expected to result, but it's a very interesting experience being here during this significant time in Zambia's history.

Coming back to the village after such an extended time away was simultaneously exciting and difficult. Towards the end of my travels, I was very much looking forward to getting back to the people and places I now have as my base. At the same time, seeing friends from home and spending time with fellow volunteers reminded me how much I miss the people and places I can relax and be myself with and leaving me only wanting more. After about a week or so, however, I easily got back into the rhythm of the village and have busied myself starting what looks like will be the biggest project of my service -- building a community school for the Maloba area. The closest school is currently over 7 km away, so the children in my village and adjacent villages walk this distance twice a day, every school day, resulting in significantly low classroom attendance, participation, and performance. Under the current Ministry of Education guidelines in Zambia, if a community builds their own school building, the government will later provide additional resources such as teachers, desks, books, and other classroom materials. So, we're submitting an application to the Peace Corps Partnership Program, which will set up a website and help us generate funds for this much-needed project. In fact, this is what has brought me here to Mansa, my provincial capital, this week, where I'll submit our application for review.

Well, I think that's more than enough recap for one e-mail. I really will make a greater effort to send more frequent updates in the future and not let life whisk me away here to the point of detachment. I've found that receiving and writing letters has been one of the best and most personal ways of keeping in touch, so please continue to send news along that way, in addition to e-mail (in case you've misplaced it or don't yet have it, my address is Sara Blackwell/PCV, Peace Corps/Zambia, P.O. Box 710150, Mansa, Luapula, Zambia). Hearing from you truly makes me feel closer to home and gets me through the moments of loneliness and homesickness. Unlike the frustrating experience of slow Internet connections and high Internet cafe fees, writing letters is the only other thing besides reading to do in the village once the sun goes down, so I guarantee a letter in return if you send one my way.

Hoping that each and every one of you is healthy, happy, and enjoying life.

Miss and love you all madly,

June 7, 2008

Mwashibukeni bonse!
It's been just over a month since my last e-mail -- a month of a new life in Maloba village that has so far been a daily adventure in adjusting to my new home and learning countless things about village life, about what it is to be a Peace Corps volunteer, about Zambia, and about myself. Like all of the e-mails I have written since arriving in Zambia, I have no idea exactly where to begin. So, I guess I'll just start at the beginning...
I was driven out to my site in the early morning of April 30, the anticipation and anxiety escalating exponentially with every kilometer. The moment that we pulled up to my mud hut to the moment when the Peace Corps staff drove away is now only a blurred memory of excited smiles and shaking of hands and unloading of supplies and overwhelming emotions. During training, one of my favorite Bemba phrases that we learned was "Lelo ni lelo," which means, more or less, "Today is the day." When I stepped out of the Peace Corps truck and greeted my fellow villagers, this was the first thing that popped into my head and out of my mouth, which is now a running joke in Maloba as villagers greet me with this phrase almost every day. The moment that every Peace Corps volunteer can vividly recall -- when the Peace Corps vehicle drives away and you are left there, on your own, to start your new life -- can truly not be put into words. I will just say that it's a moment I will never, ever forget.
The first few days went by incredibly fast as I busied myself with unpacking and settling into my new home -- my first time ever living completely on my own. I was lucky enough to inherit some furniture from the previous volunteer, which made moving in a lot easier. I have a lot of space as far as mud huts go, with a sturdy grass thatched roof and a small front porch where I spend a lot of time reading and writing. My compound consists of my hut, a small open shelter called an insaka for cooking and hanging out in, a small garden area in the front yard, a bathing shelter, a "icimbusu" (pit latrine) behind the house, a grass-thatched fence that winds around the front of the yard, and mango, orange, papaya, avocado, and guava trees galore. I live very much in the middle of the village, with lots of people continuously walking by, which is the kind of setup I was hoping for as some volunteers live somewhat separated from the rest of the village -- great for privacy but not ideal for socializing. My closest neighbors are Kingford and Georgina, along with their 6 children who are my new best friends. Kingford is a fairly successful small-scale farmer who speaks pretty good English and has quickly become one of my closest counterparts in the village. On the opposite side of my house lives Mambwe and Lucia and their 3 small children. Mambwe is finishing Grade 12 -- Zambians of all ages are at various levels of their education due to school fees starting in Grade 8 that can delay progress for many years until money is available to attend -- and is therefore gone the majority of the time, coming home about once a month. Lucia has been struggling with malaria for the past few weeks. Seeing her struggle to care for the young children alone and ill breaks me every day.
Everyone in my village has been more than welcoming, and I am so appreciative of their enthusiasm and eagerness to have a volunteer in their village. Since moving in, I have become progressively busy, meeting with various groups in my village and in surrounding communities. As I may have explained in a previous e-mail, my site is about 1 km from a local protected forest. The Forestry Department under the Zambian government has set up local committees to manage the natural resources available in and around the forest, so I have been busy meeting with these groups to introduce myself and do some needs assessments to figure out how we can work together during my two years here. I've also been meeting frequently with various women's groups, doing soya demonstrations to talk about nutrition, planning potential small-scale businesses for them to generate some extra income, and doing lots and lots and lots of dancing. I was fortunate enough to be invited to and attend a "banachimbusa" within my first few weeks, which is a traditional event where all the women in the community gather for an all-night (from sunset to sunrise), women-only dance to initiate those in the village who are about to get married. This was simply incredible, a priceless cross-cultural experience that I learned so much from and that I will carry in my memory forever.
My neighbor Kingford and I started a garden out by the local dambo, planting cabbage, spinach, tomatoes, onions, squash, rape, peppers, and marigold to implement organic farming techniques as a demonstration for other members of the community. The use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides is an unfortunate and expensive trend among the majority of farmers here in Zambia (and throughout the world), so Kingford and I are excited to create a demonstration plot where others can come and learn about the use of natural, environmentally-friendly fertilizers and pesticides made from the resources that are in abundance in this beautiful country.
Between these activities, I spend my time cleaning, cooking, washing dishes, doing laundry, fetching water, and other daily activities that take substantially more time and effort here than they do in the States. Overall, I'm managing very well and love the village life more and more each day. I must admit that the first week or so was tough. Having never lived on my own before and having only a limited vocabulary in the local language resulted in some difficult moments of loneliness and frustration. And I can't even express the intense longing to talk to all of you back home during those first few days. Peace Corps volunteers always talk about how it takes getting used to just being with yourself so much and with your own thoughts, but how refreshing and enjoyable this becomes. Day by day, I feel this transition and am beginning to truly cherish the opportunity to be free from so many distractions and to just have time to think -- to really think -- and just appreciate where I am.
I'm now in Mansa, the provincial capital, where all the volunteers in Luapula province have gathered for a few days to meet and go over updates and information from the Peace Corps Office in Lusaka. I'm headed back to the village tomorrow -- a trip that consists of about an hour car ride and then a 4-hour bike ride on dirt roads. I'm biking more than I ever have in my life, which feels great and is an amazing way to see the country. I'll be returning to Mansa around July 4 to celebrate our American holiday with other volunteers and will send another update around that time. My Internet access will most likely be about once a month from here on out, so please don't be concerned if you have not heard from me again for quite some time.
Please know that although I don't have the time or Internet cafe funds to respond individually to your e-mails, I love and cherish each and every single one. I'm writing letters as much as I can and prize each letter and package I receive, so please continue to communicate with me this way as well. I love and miss you all with all my heart.
Tukamonana (we will meet again),

April 29, 2008

Mwashibukeni bonse! (Good morning everyone!)
I am now officially a Peace Corps volunteer! After 9 weeks of Pre-Service Training, I've made the transition from trainee to volunteer after our Swearing-In Ceremony last Friday. I'm now in Mansa, the provincial capital of Luapula, getting ready for the culminating moment in the Peace Corps experience when I'm dropped off alone in my village to start my two years of service. The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of events and I can't even begin to describe my excitement about settling into my mud hut and getting to know my community. It feels like only yesterday that I stepped off the plane in Lusaka with absolutely no idea what life would be like the following day, let alone for the next 9 weeks, and it is truly baffling to look back and think about all I have learned and experienced between then and now.
Since my last e-mail, we wrapped up training with an intense schedule of language and technical evaluations, including a 45-minute language assessment where we individually sat down with an instructor and carried on a conversation in our local language to the best of our abilities. Needless to say, these were some stressful times, but I'm happy to say that everyone in my training group reached the required fluency level of intermediate low or higher. This means that no one will have to stay for more training, which sometimes happens when their language skills aren't quite what Peace Corps requires before dropping the volunteers in areas where English is scarce. I have to say that the last few weeks of training were quite difficult after we had all briefly visited our provinces and villages a few weeks back. Sitting in a classroom after seeing where I will be living and meeting some of the people in my village was not easy since I have been wanting nothing more than to begin getting to know the members of my community and to dive right into the work I have been trained to do for the past 9 weeks.
At the same time, I truly valued every last minute I had with my host family and fellow trainees -- people I have grown incredibly close to and who have given me such strength and joy for the last 2 months. In addition to each of you, I now have even more people to miss when I'm in the village! But, I'm fully aware of how lucky I am to have so many people in my life to miss in the first place. Thinking ahead to the next 2 years often results in an intense juxtaposition of emotions -- fear of the unknown mixed with excitement for unexpected experiences; sadness about the distance between me and all those I care about back home mixed with extreme happiness at the thought of how fortunate I am to have such support back in the States; being acutely aware of how different life is from all I have known for the past 22 years mixed with an increasing connection to my current surroundings...the list goes on and on. In short, being a Peace Corps volunteer involves a roller-coaster ride of emotions, but not a day goes by when I don't feel completely present and alive -- a feeling that is hard for me to describe, but that I am sure to now chase in all that I do for the rest of my life.
The past week has been bittersweet as we celebrated the end of training and bid our host families and each other goodbye before heading out into the bush. We hosted a "Cross-Cultural Day" last Wednesday for our host families, cooking some American dishes and performing some of the Zambian songs and dances we have learned so far. Both my bataata and bamaayo (father and mother in Bemba) came and I gave them each a tree I had planted at the beginning of training for them to add to their gardens. We were picked up from our home-stays and taken to Lusaka the following morning, which ended up being quite emotional for me. As I've mentioned in some of my other e-mails, I could not have asked for a warmer welcome to Zambia than that provided by my host family and I will very much miss seeing them every day.
Our Swearing-In Ceremony took place in Lusaka last Friday, with the U.S. ambassador to Zambia and some of ministers for the Zambian government attending. For the ceremony, a few trainees were selected to present a speech in the local language they have learned and I was lucky enough to be one of the trainees selected! Since this can sometimes be a bit boring for members of the audience who are learning or know languages other than the one being presented, I decided to write and present a poem in Bemba, which went over very well! All in all, it was an amazing day, one that I sincerely will never forget. We were all shipped out to our respective provinces the morning after the ceremony and I've been at the Peace Corps provincial house for Luapula province since then, gathering all that I need to furnish my mud hut, feed myself, and basically live the village life.
Tomorrow is the big move-in day! I will not be back in an area with a computer until June, so please don't be worried by my lack of communication over the next month or so. I will write again as soon as I can, and please continue to send updates on how you are doing and what's going on back home. It means the world to me to hear from all of you.

April 5, 2008

Mwapoleni bonse!

Hello again from Zambia! It's been a few weeks since I've been in contact with the majority of you, so I thought it was time to send out another update. My Pre-Service Training has gone by extremely fast -- I only have about 20 days left until my Swear-In Ceremony, where I become an official Peace Corps Volunteer, and move into my village where I'll be living for the next two years! There's been so many new developments and adventures since I last wrote that I have no idea where to begin...The majority of the weeks have stuck to our basic training schedule, with language classes in the mornings, technical training in the afternoons, and cultural training on Thursdays at our main training center. We've all seemed to have grown pretty accustomed to finding our ways around Chongwe, the town outside of Lusaka where we're living and learning during training, and the constant routine of it all has often produced a strange sense of normalcy in a place so different from anywhere I've ever called home before. In terms of daily life, it's almost difficult to think of what to write about -- not because it has been uneventful and not because it hasn't inspired any kind of reflection, but because the adjustments that once seemed so major have mostly become second nature and it's now more of a luxurious surprise than an expectation to have accommodations like electricity and running water to perform daily tasks. To say the least, it's been quite a surreal experience -- I find myself constantly balancing an intense sense of awe at my surroundings and an increasingly strong sense of familiarity with the people and places I have interacted with so far.

I'm happy to say that life with my host family has continued to be endlessly enjoyable, with each day bringing progress in my ability to communicate and connect with them. My Bemba is coming along, panono panono (bit by bit), and it's so exhilarating to just be able to have a 5 or 10 minute conversation without resorting to English. An official "Home Stay Day" was reserved for us to spend with our host families a few weeks back, which ended up being one of my favorite days here in Zambia so far. I spent the majority of the day following my host mother around, learning (through broken Bemba and many, many gesticulations) the art of sweeping out mud huts, cleaning pit latrines, bargaining at the chaotic local market, and preparing some typical Zambian dishes. I have to say that Zambian women are some of the strongest individuals I have ever encountered. I am in constant awe of their incredible ability to do pretty much all of the physical tasks around the house, and all with a baby strapped to their backs. Remnants of blisters and the beginning formations of calluses all over my hands are testimony to the difficulty of the work that the women here do every day for their entire lives, and I can only hope to leave here having developed a fraction of their strength and resiliency. When I'm not biking around from training session to training session, I spend a lot of time helping the family harvest their fields of groundnuts (peanuts), which is their main source of income. As a LIFE (Linking Income, Food and the Environment) volunteer, I'm learning all about conservation farming, agroforestry, composting, beekeeping, environmental education, etc. and it's been priceless having a Zambia farmer as a host father to get a first hand account of everything I'm learning about in my technical classes. I can safely say that I truly feel a part of the family at this point and will be very sad to leave them at the end of training. Getting to know them and feeling myself increasingly connected to them has definitely been one of the most enjoyable aspects of Peace Corps so far, and there are so many experiences -- learning with my host mom, discussing both African and American politics with my host dad, hearing all the children laughing in the mornings and singing in the nights -- that I will carry with me for the rest of my time here, if not for the rest of my life.

The past week has actually been spent away from our host families after we found out our site placements last week. Site placement is basically a culminating moment in training where we finally find out which village we will be placed in for our two years of service. Considering the fact that up until this point we had no idea where in the country our new homes would be, we were all incredibly excited to find out this information, to say the least. So, no I can finally say that I will be living in Luapula province, Samfya district, Maloba village! My site is actually the exact site I had my eye on and 3 of my closest friends I've made during training are also placed in Luapula as well, so I couldn't be more excited. After finding out our placements, we all packed up and prepared to head back out into the bush to briefly visit our villages and see where we'll be living. The drive out to the site was amazing, and I couldn't stop grinning from ear to ear as we made our way through the lush greenery and past the breathtaking lakes and rivers of Luapula. The main road out to my area runs right along Lake Chifunabuli, with Lake Bangweulu right beyond a small strip of land. Lake Bangweulu is the largest area of water in Zambia, with white sand beaches, beautiful blue waters, many fish, crocs, and hippos! When we arrived to the village, we pulled up to the mud hut, garden, and small compound that will be my new home and found almost the entire village gathered in the front yard! Greeting everyone and finally putting a tangible image to what I have only imagined in my head for months and months was a lot to process, and it was a moment that I am sure to never, ever forget.

I'm now in Mansa, the provincial capital of Luapula, meeting other volunteers in the area and setting up logistics like a bank account. Here's my new mailing address!

Sara Blackwell, PCV
Peace Corps/Zambia
P.O. Box 710150
Mansa, Luapula

I continue to miss all of you very much and think of you often. Please don't hesitate to send e-mails (or letters!) my way. Although I don't get to a computer often, reading about what everyone is up to back home makes me endlessly happy. Hope you are all doing well!

Shalenipo! (Stay well!)