Peace Corps is a 27 month lesson in learning just how much you don’t know. Accompanying that lesson are many side dishes of patience, humility, and occasional doses of bitter frustration. But, just as Peace Corps is sometimes a recipe for emotional stress, it is also a crucible, boiling away everything but that which makes you resilient and, slowly but surely, the better version of yourself.
“Swilizini,” my yamiyo (mother) says. “Try again.”
I grit my teeth in frustration. The end of a long hot day is resting heavy on my shoulders as we plod through my evening lesson in Mambwe, the Zambian Bantu language that is slowly but surely getting the better of me. My host mother is testing both my pronunciation and resilience as we work to speak each other’s languages. All I’m managing is to wear out her seemingly endless patience.
“Ya Hannah,” she says, encouraging me. ” Vwongini: ing’anda.” Say: house.
“Ing-and-ah,” I say.
“Awe (ah-way), Ya Hannah,” she says. “Swilizini. Ing-aun-da. Ing’anda.” She makes the sound somewhere between her tongue and sinuses. It’s death by glottal stop. I try again.
“Ing’aaanndaaaa,” I say, pronouncing the entire thing in my nose. “Ing’aanda. Ing’anda!” I pronounce the apostrophe, practically swallowing the word and regurgitating it just enough to be heard at the last second.
“Ahh lalalalalala!” she says. “Sile ningo Ya Hannah!” Just fine.
“Mambwe is very hard, Yamiyo,” I say, exhausted and ready to resign from the lesson. “Awe, panono panono” she says. No. Bit by bit. “To try is to learn, and you are trying.”
And I am trying.