Any Peace Corps Volunteer invited to serve may be tempted to immediately begin referring to themselves as a volunteer (I certainly was). In fact, this is not quite accurate. We are actually trainees (PCTs) and must successfully make it through 11-12 weeks of rigorous in-country training before we may formally swear in as Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs). It is here in the midst of PCT that I find myself struggling to learn a new language, develop my fish farming skills, and adapt to a new culture and life here in Zambia.
Some current volunteers say that training is the hardest part of the Peace Corps service. Others warn us that the hardest part is yet to come during our first three months of living in our site; a period of time called Community Entry where we are not allowed to leave our assigned districts as we try to integrate into our new communities. Others say the hardest part is after one year, during what’s known as the “mid-service crisis”, while still others would argue the hardest part comes at the close of service as we face the prospect of returning to the United States. Personally, I’m sure all of these stages of service offer their challenges. Mine, however, currently reside in my pre-service training (PST). Let me tell you about it.
Week 1 – The Peace Corps Hustle
This week was hectic, especially as we were adjusting to the time change, new environment, bacteria, food, and people guiding our ever move. We were equipped with food, the first of many vaccinations, safety training, and cell phones. Then, we were rushed off to first site visits (FSTs). Upon our return, we got our first round of vaccinations. Sadly, we also lost our first volunteer this week due to medical separation.
Week 2 – The Peace Corps Shuffle
This week saw the two job sectors in our intake (LIFE and RAP) separated to our respective training centers, and each of us placed in homestays (Zambian host families). I’ll be writing a post about homestays in the near future, but the quick and dirty is that my homestay is fantastic and living with a host family is an excellent, albiet occasionally challenging, means by which to get to know a new culture and language. During this week we were given Trek mountain bikes and taught basic mainteniance skills to keep ourselves rolling through the mud and occasional nail, broken glass, or rocks. We also began language training in earnest (read: got our butts kicked trying to make sounds no English-speaking mouth was ever meant to pronounce) along with technical training. For we RAPpers, this means fish training. For dessert, multiple vaccinations: rabies and typhoid.
Week 3 – The Peace Corps Kerfluffle
This week, we worked. We learned to stake, measure, level, and dig ponds (“Don’t grab anything this week!” say my blisters). We also began to cover more cultural issues, such as women and gender equality, emotional and mental health, stress coping techniques, volunteer safety and security, Peace Corp’s approach to international development, and another round of vaccinations (more rabies). Perhaps most important, we had our first “language simulation”, meaning a practice test for our real exam during week 10-11. We also had a technical test covering the fish farming skills we had learnt thus far (species ID, fish anatomy and physiology, pond construction, site selection for a pond, etc.), though neither exam has much bearing on whether we are allowed to swear in (yet). These practice exams are meant to serve as a benchmark to help our trainers know how we are absorbin and utilizing our training. For me, fish are a cinch. This is fortunate, because Mambwe (my assigned language) is still showing me up. We have active classes and activities six days a week, and so this weekend we are bound for the national museum to learn more about about Zambia’s history and culture (my inner museum afficianado is already sharpening my pencil to take notes).
This week brought many frustrating moments for me (thanks, Mambwe), but also some unexpectedly sad ones. The LIFE group lost three volunteers to early termination (ET), which is the Peace Corps term for when a volunteer or trainee decides to call it quits and head home. Frankly, it’s generally agreed amongst volunteers and trainees that going home is much, much harder than staying in-country. I knew that PCTs often leave within the first few weeks, deciding that PC is not for them. However, I hadn’t anticipated how it would feel to lose someone I had come to know and feel close to. My good friend Andy returned to his home in Washington this week, leaving me feeling sad to lose a brother. But, the most importat thing for someone who ETs is that their choice to return home makes them happier/is better for them than the choice to remain here. For Andy, his heart was in Washington, and so though I’ll miss him dearly, I wish him fair and safe travels wherever his next adventure may take him. Our ZamFam has lost a few members, but those of us that remain grow closer by the day.
Week Four – Peace Corps Brings the Heat
This week was even more intense than the last. We began our first rounds of interviews with country staff. These interviews helped staff to determine our progress through training, learn more about our strengths and weaknesses, and potentially help place us into sites in the coming weeks. We also spent a day at home with our families learning to do chores and more about how the typical Zambian spends their time. We also had what is called PACA Day. PACA is the latest and greatest Peace Corps acronym for Participatory Analysis for Community Action, or in layman’s terms, talk to people about what their communities need and want. I have whole posts about foreign aid and development planned, but for now it’s important to know that much foreign aid, while well-intentioned, is executed poorly. The recipients of said aid are often not consulted about what they actually need, are great ideas and generous assistance is squandered when people are not able to use it effectively or appropriately. Peace Corps believes that their approach to putting people in at the grassroots level should be supported by a true and proper analysis of our communities (sites); thus, PACA. For me, this part of training is not only up my alley, but the street is probably named for me. I love to interview; I love to be a “particiant” in the lives of others; most of all, I love to try to understand things through the eyes of others and see how my presence and work can be meaningful to my host community.
For the rest of the week, we had more medical training (basic First Aid), our first introduction to HIV/AIDS in Zambia, sexual assault awareness and prevention training, politics and economy of Zambia, and our latest dose of language and technical training. March 5th also marked one month in-country for our intake; frankly, each day is both eternity and passed in an instant. They say time flys during your service, and it appears to be true in every sense.
So, what is training about? In a nutshell, it’s whole college semesters worth of language, skills, and training crammed into 11 short weeks. Training is hard. Training is intense. Training is essential. Above all (thus far – two more months to go!), training is a test of a trainee’s resiliency and adaptability. The best advice I’ve heard so far: let it go, and it will come to you. Except for Mambwe, which I’m still chasing down.