Before beginning Peace Corps training, one of my greatest anxieties was in living with a host family during pre-service training (PST). I had never lived with a host family before, and being someone who values independence to the nth degree, I was nervous about how restrictive my life would become living at someone else’s beck and call. While each and every Peace Corps Trainee’s (PCT) host family living experience is different, mine has been overwhelmingly positive (though not without frustrations). Though I am now done with PST and moved to my site, my experience with my home stay has been one of the highlights of my service. Today, I want to share a little bit about that part of Peace Corps service with you.
This was my compound.
Zambians tend to live communally with multiple family members and generations sharing a common piece of property and outbuildings, known locally as a compound. I first saw the above view when the Peace Corps cruiser dropped me and my bag off one hot afternoon shortly after we arrived in our training communities. To say that I was not nervous as all get out would be to flirt dangerously with falsehood. My yimayo (host mother) and yakaci (host sister) greeting me with calls of “Ahlalalalala!” and hugs and kisses on both cheeks. I laughed awkwardly, and followed them as they showed me to my hut.
My hut was a simple but delightful affair. It is about 10 X 15 feet of clay bricks and mud walls with a tin roof covering the two small rooms that comprise the inside living space. In one room, a mattress on the floor and my mosquito net monopolized most of the space, while in the other room I had a small stool, a small collapsible writing desk, and a water filter. I hung my clothes on lines strung from the ceiling (it keeps the termites and other crawlies out), and swept my floor twice daily to keep up with the constantly accumulating layer of red dust that blows in through the cracks and screened but glassless windows. This description really does not do the loveliness of my home justice. I was quite comfortable, and wanted for few comforts in my little hut.
My yamiyo and yakaci welcomed me into their lives with tremendous generosity and kindness. As they showed me around the compound, my mother gushed in her limited English, “This is your home. You are welcome, you are welcome.” For the first day or so, my family was nervous to leave me alone. They explained my eating schedule, and then would sit and watch while I munched my way through peanut butter and jelly. Let me tell you now: it is difficult to try small talk in a foreign language with a mouth full of peanut butter.
Peace Corps tells host families that they are responsible for nearly everything concerning your life when you first arrive. In Zambian culture, guests receive the utmost respect, and PCTs are considered guests during our stay (though fun fact: there is a Zambian proverb that states, “After one night, a woman is no longer a guest.”). During training, our Zambian host mothers do our laundry, cook our meals, clean our huts, and generally wait on us hand and foot. Now, to be waited on generally makes me viscerally uncomfortable. I very much like to look after myself, and it was a struggle in the first few days to find a balance with my host mother between my need for independence and her far superiority in scrubbing perpetual dirt stains out of my trousers (pants are underwear in Zambia).
Despite those initial challenges (you’ll spend the first few weeks feeling like a child), living with a Zambian host family during training was a delight for me. My mother drilled me in the evenings in language practice (she speaks Mambwe, Bemba, and Nyanja), and made me a much better Mambwe speaker for the effort. She also chastised me if I came home late, scolded me for spending too much time with male volunteers in the evenings (“Ya Hannah, boys do not only want to talk!”), and generally worried over me like a mother hen. Trousers dirty before school? I’d be forced to change my clothes. Not feeling too hungry at dinner? I’d be harassed into eating at least one more lump of nshima before being allowed to leave the table.
These things may sound annoying, but they became very endearing over time. My mother and I came to respect and eventually love each other very deeply over the three months I was there. Parting with her before swear-in marked an especially difficult day of my service, and I look forward to visiting her next time I’m near the training center. Are all host family relationships like this? Certainly not. But, much of your relationship with your family is up to you. So, here are a few tips I picked up to help make the most of your home stay:
– Hang out with your host family. It’s tempting to spend all your time with other volunteers, especially when everything is scary and new, and then later boring and tedious. Taking the time to struggle through conversations, cook together (make them American food!), and just sit listening to the radio late at night will pay off in the long run. You will come to know them as people, not just strangers and caretakers, and they will come to know you as the person that you are.
– Don’t come home drunk (often). During training, you’ll most likely have the opportunity to blow off steam with fellow volunteers. A few beers after training may occasionally turn into a riotous after party, but don’t let the party follow you home. Many Zambians, especially mothers, don’t imbibe in alcohol, and it will make them very uncomfortable to deal with you while you are intoxicated. This is a blanket statement that certainly doesn’t apply to all families, but take it to heart that an overabundance of alcohol will likely hurt rather than help your host family relationship.
– Come home on time. Your host family is held accountable by Peace Corps for your safety, and it will worry them to no end if you don’t show up by the time night falls. As a woman, it felt very restrictive to me for my mother to always insist on a male escort after school, and to not be allowed to wander around at night (something I felt very comfortable with in Alaska). There will be times that coming home on time will not be possible; in these instances, communicate with your family. Keep your phone charged and loaded with minutes (TalkTime) so you can always send a quick text letting them know where you are. You’ll find that this communication about your wearabouts will follow you throughout your service as a strict requirement. Frustrating? Yes. Restrictive? Yes. Essential for your safety? Yes, yes, and yes. So, stay in touch.
– Try to exchange culture, but not all of the culture. Your host family will likely adore learning all about American culture, even if they’ve hosted a dozen other volunteers before you. Some of my favorite memories are watching my host mom try deviled eggs and canned Alaskan salmon for the first time. We sang together, hauled water together, and practice both our English and Mambwe as we developed a means of communicating with one another. But, there are some things that Zambian families won’t appreciate, no matter how American it might be. Be careful of your music selection, which Peace Corps rules you choose to break (inevitably you’ll break some), the hours of your noise pollution (especially if you have “night time guests”), and what sort of trash you choose to throw in your very public trash pit. One could argue that to censor our culture is to not give a true picture of Americans. I can’t argue against that, but I will say that our culture is not infallible (just as Zambian culture isn’t either), and during your short three months with your host family, it is worthwhile to leave behind the most positive impression of yourself and American society as you are able.
So, enjoy your host family experience as much as possible during your training. They will ultimately shape your ability to survive in the village, and the skills you learn wtih them will last you the next 27 months.