After swear-in, Peace Corps Volunteers are hustled off to their respective sites around their country of service to begin their formal two years of volunteerism. For me, this meant a two day sojourn to the northern reaches of Zambia where I’ve been assigned to serve in the Mbala district in a remote village ~ 50 miles off the nearest tarmac (pavement). To say it is a rural area would be to flirt dangerously with understatement.
But, I digress. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, a PCV’s tour of service is broken up into several distinct segments. First, there is the trainee period, typically lasting between 10-12 weeks. Then, a PCT swears in and becomes an officially volunteer. Upon arriving at their site, they begin what is known as community entry (CE), which is a three month period in which volunteers are required to remain in their district and are encouraged to largely stay within their community. It is a kind of probationary period where freshly minted volunteers get to know their communities, spent time with their host families and counterparts, and generally try to integrate themselves into their site.
After this three months has elapsed, volunteers have more or less earned their chops and are able to resume a little more mobile of a volunteer life. This may seem surprising; after all, aren’t we here to live in our villages, teach important skills, and exchange culture? Yes, but you may be as surprised as I was to learn that most volunteers spend on average about 70% of their time in their village, and the rest of the time attending conferences, trainings, and camps, using their days at the provincial house (we are alloted four days per month), the occasional well-earned holiday, and the very time consuming travel to and from our sites to various parts of the country. The ratio of time spent in vs. out of one’s village is a topic of much discussion amongst volunteers. How much time away is too much? How often is it acceptable to leave your village? I know some volunteers who need to get out of their village at least once a week, even if it’s just to visit their neighbor for a few hours. While I won’t explore this topic further in this post, rest assured that we will visit it again soon.
So, back to CE. Thus far, I’ve been in my site approaching eight weeks, and I still have another six weeks to go before my probationary period expires (August 1st). First impression: I’ve been surprised by how hard it has been, both emotionally and physically. Moving into my site, I was struck with a fever, GI problems, and other maladies that didn’t retreat for three weeks. Finally, I was called into Kasama by our Peace Corps Medical Office (PCMO) staff for testing. While my blood revealed nothing (for a variety of reasons that I shall explain in a future post), I was treated for clinical malaria and recovered within a few days. This bout of illness and intermittant interruptions to being at my site were frustrating to say the least. It’s hard to integrate into a new community with a foreign language, and it’s a helluva lot harder when your body is revolting against you at every turn.
Emotionally, I was surprised at how woefully unprepared I was for the realities of Peace Corps life. In a few words: everything you read about how hard Peace Corps life can be is true. You do live in a fishbowl. You are hilariously underprepared to speak the language, even if you felt like a language champion at the end of training. For me, sexism appears regularly and it’s a daily struggle to push yourself to go to yet another new neighbor’s house and try to introduce yourself, often met by laughter, blank stares, or occasionally (and for me, very occasionally) an invitation to sit and eat nshima. Waves of homesickness, which I had not really experienced since the first week of training, wash over you at the most unexpected of times (for me, multiple times daily for the first few weeks). Your nearest neighbor may be too far to visit casually (mine is about 1.5 hours by bike down roads that are slowly becoming a mini-Sahara), and when you do get over to see them, you may spend the first two hours of your visit rambling aimlessly in suddenly rusty English feeling completely overwhelmed by the presence of a friend. You may have little to no network (cell phone service) at your site, and no fresh vegetables to buy to at least make something fresh for supper. In short: in’s hard. You may sit in your hut, tired of being stared at by the 30+ neighbor children, wondering to yourself, “Just what in the heck am I doing out here?”
As you may know, I’m from Alaska, land of the tough and rugged. I have lived in far more isolated places than my Zambian village, had less to eat, had to work harder each day in inclement weather, and have liked it. Once training was over, I thought to myself, “Well, that was the hard part.” I really was convinced that the remote “bush” living would be a much easier thing to adjust to, and I’m not sure I have ever been so gloriously and completely wrong. About two weeks in to my CE, I wrote to my friend Rob, “I’m really struggling to remember the reasons why I am here. I feel like maybe I’m not cut out for this.” It was an understatement. For the second time in my service (the first being the first week of training), I was considering the ramifications of early termination (ET). I waited in the dark of my hut, head in my hands, waiting and hoping for a response. Then, my phone lit up. Rob, who is stationed on the other side of the country, had written back.
He said, “If you weren’t having doubts, it would mean that you weren’t doing something challenging enough for you. I’m not sure if we will ever fully understand the reasons we came here. It was just something that called to us because we were supposed to go.” I read the message over and over again, so grateful for both my friend and the 21st century (texting is sometimes a good thing). He was right. As the founder of Peace Corps once said, “We do not do these things because they are easy, but because they are hard.” I’m here, I thought to myself, because it is hard. And I wanted to do something hard.
Since that night and my return from Kasama with a clean bill of health (well, except for the occasional Mr. D.), my CE has taken a turn for the better. I try to use my Mambwe as much as possible, and am slowly learning new words. My relationship with my host family is developing in a positive manner despite some lifestyle differences, and I’m learning to trust my neighbors and be thankful for the many children who come to greet me every day. I have begun to receive packages and letters from home, and have a basket full of shattered candy cane bits from a generous friend (though the breakage is courtesy the postal service) to help me remember those whom I love at home. My kitchen is stocked, my sheets are clean(ish), and I haven’t had to battle ants or termites in my house in at least a few days. I have much to be grateful for.
Before you arrive in country, they say that training is the hardest part of your service. Then, the day you swear in, they tell you that community entry is the toughest stretch. At this point, I’m more inclined to believe the latter. Community entry is definitely a time of trials, adjustment, and figuring out if you’ve really got what it takes to hack it out here. Thankfully, it’s also a time of growing relationships, finally having a home in your country of service, and learning panono a panono, bit by bit, about life in Zambia. Tough? Yes. Rewarding? Every day.