When researching Peace Corps service long before I ever received an invitation, I was surprised at how little I found related to Pre-Service Training (PST). Training takes place during the first three months of a volunteer’s service, and gives a volunteer the essential building blocks upon which they build their service. While training is different for each country of service, and can even differ between intakes, here’s my summary of our third month of training in Peace Corps Zambia.
The third and final month of Peace Corps training feels like the last mile of a marathon. You’re excited, but you’re also exhausted. Your mind is bent toward all the upcoming exams, and still reeling from your recent return from Second Site Visit (SSV). In short, that last mile is a long, uphill slog, but the end is near. Here’s the last month wrap-up of training in Peace Corps Zambia.
Week 9 – Return from the Bush
Week 8 and 9 are dedicated to SSV, and the sometimes arduous journeys to and from our individual sites. SSV, which is summed up in (this post), is an important moment for trainees. It’s our first chance to see where we’ll actually be living for the next few years, and presents its own set of emotional and logisitical challenges when we’re left at our sites, surrounded by the unfamiliar. For the folks in the Mbala region of Zambia (we Mambwes), we traveled a good day and a half to reach our sites, and then another day to return to the provincial house on our way back to Lusaka. We learned about public transportation too, and had our first broken-down bus experience that turned our 10 hour trip from Kasama to Lusaka into a 17 hour trip. But, as you come to know in Peace Corps, things could always be much, much worse.
Upon our return to the training center, training kicked back into high gear. We recapped our visits to site (very helpful to hear about the experience of others, I found), had another few safety and security sessions and a wrap-up of our HIV/AIDS training. This last session was especially important, as we were introduced to Zambians living and working with HIV/AIDS. I was blown away by this session as it is tremendously brave for a Zambian to be public about their HIV status (it carries a lot of stigma), and I learned a lot about the realities of positive living with such a devastating disease.
Finally, we prepared for our LPIs, or language exams, with a mock LPI at the end of the week.
Week 10 – Testing, Testing
This week is the week. We’re talking all the cracker jacks, here. Monday began with picking up our bank cards (access to money!) and the exciting harvest of our fish ponds (a muddy but fun affair). Tuesday, we had our final language sessions before the LPI, and then our technical and safety and security exams. Wednesday, things got real. We began the morning with our LPI language exams. While we were required to pass all our exams with at least an 80% average, the language exam is the big kahuna. If you don’t pass, they hold you over for another week of intensive language training. If you still don’t pass, they consider sending you home. Thankfully, our group passed (much to the relief of our trainers, I’m sure) and we were all cleared to swear in. Thursday and Friday were dedicated to preparing for cultural presentations, bike assessments (consider me a fairly competent bike mechanic these days), and preparations for our big cultural day the next week.
Trainee ProTip: Language matters. Study, study, study.
Week 11 – This I Swear
Week 11 was our last week as trainees, and it still tastes bittersweet in my memory. We spent Monday preparing for the week, wrapping up our language and gathering our mountains of gear into more managable loads. Tuesday we completed exit interviews with PC staff, and I enjoyed some quality time with my host mom during our last night together. Wednesday, our entire group prepared an American-style feast, dances (both Zambian and American) and songs as a thank-you send-off to our host families for all they have taught and given us. At the end of the day, we were loaded up into cruisers to depart for Lusaka. It was tremendously hard to say goodbye to my host family, with whom I’ve become very close and consider them members of my own global family.
Thursday we spent doing our final policy and medical wrap-up sessions (read: don’t get hurt, call if you’re sick, and try to not to break and PC rules). We also met our new Peace Corps Volunteer Leaders (PCVLs), and generally had a good ol’ time during our last nights together as a group.
Friday was an emotional day. We finally swore in as volunteers, crossing that threshold from trainee to full blow Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). As I took my oath, I felt a certain sense of pride and dedication to my new role. I am a volunteer in the United States Peace Corps, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt so challenged, priviledged, or happy in my entire life. Leaving swear in, we spent most of the afternoon shopping for our sites, and I subsequently spent most of that time thinking of adjectives for stressful! Returning to our motel, we had just one last night together before the big goodbye.
At 5:30am the next morning we were all standing in the parking lot alternating loading the cruisers with spontaneous outbursts of song, crying, dancing, and at least 10,000 hugs. Parting with this new-found family has been one of the most difficult parts of service thus far, though what fortunate people we must be to love one another so much that parting is such a bittersweet sorrow. We’ll see each other again in three months at our in-service training (IST), and oh, what a reunion it will be.
Week 12 – Here We Go Again
24 hours after swear-in, we are all at our individual provincial houses, scattered far and wide across the country. The next few days consisted of shopping sprees as we try to outfit our houses and buy enough food to last us several weeks. Part of community entry means not leaving your district unless absolutely necessary (like for provincial meetings, for instance). My nearest major shopping center where I can find bulk goods is ~70k away, and so my priority was to get all those heavy items into the last cruiser ride I’ll have for a long while. Cement, kilos of rice, beans, dishes…anything that would be difficult to carry on a bike (but I’ll probably be doing it anyway within a few months).
Is the month they give you for posting enough? Yes, absolutely. We are reminded that our goal is to live as the Zambians do while still maintaining our health and safety. Will there be days where I eat nothing but rice and beans? Sure. Is this a bad thing? Absolutely not. The real integration starts this week when the cruiser drops us off and waves goodbye for the next three months. There we will stand, all alone but for our wordly goods and the new community which we now call home. Time to go fishing.