When I was preparing to come to Peace Corps Zambia, I found that there are a plethora of “Day in the Life of a PCV” posts out there. At first, I read them with fascination, completely hooked on every activity.
5:45am – I wake up.
My thoughts: Wow! They get up so early! They must be so productive!
6:00am – Start cooking breakfast.
My thoughts: Wow! I wonder what they’re eating? How do they cook? How long does it take?
7:00am – Fetch water.
My thoughts: Wow! Fetching water! So rugged!
I know. I am a Peace Corps dweeb.
In truth, the day-to-day life of Peace Corps volunteers is, not unsurprisingly, much like day-to-day life in America. We get up, we do what it takes to eat, bathe, and clean up. We work, we sweat, we come home, we relax. We have days off, we travel, we come home and panic about how much work we have to catch up on. See? Just like at home.
Well, almost. Peace Corps life, while much like life at home in some ways, also has its dramatic differences. I think a lot of people really wonder: just what are you doing over there aside from your assigned job? Today, instead of the hour-by-hour breakdown of my daily routine, I want to give you a glimpse of what fills my days, and what I’m doing the 90% of the time I’m not knee deep in a fish pond.
It’s all about the routine. In Zambia, I rarely use an alarm clock. Instead, the roosters on my compound go off around 4:30am, and continue pretty steadily and increasing incremental volume until around 6:00am when I am awake and just procrastinating getting out of bed. First order of the day: eating. Like many volunteers, I try to organize meals around what will involve the least amount of dish washing and water consumption. For me, this is generally oatmeal with powdered milk, soy protein, and sugar (or honey if I’m feeling extra indulgent). On the mornings when I have a wild hair to do something crazy (and have extra time), I may whip up a batch of pancakes.
After eating, it’s usually time to haul water. I use about 60-70 liters of water a week, all of which must be hauled by hand (or head) from about 50m away at my new site (more about my recent site change to come). Then, I have to treat and filter my drinking water. Next, I may glance around and find mouse poop, dead insects, or any number of other deceased night invaders. My roof is also made of wood, which naturally invites termites to slowly turn it to dust. Thus, there is a fine layer of termite evidence all over everything. Plus, it’s dry season right now and silty-fine dust wafts through every crack in my hut. Time to sweep. And sweep and sweep and sweep. Where did all this dirt even come from?
Finally, it’s time to dress myself for work and head out to a fish farmers. Or maybe I’m going to the market to buy some vegetables. Maybe I have a meeting, and everyone is likely to be two hours late. Either way, these work related activities can take up a good chunk of the day, and as a rule it’s always longer than I expected it to take.
By mid-afternoon, the sun is hot and it’s time to get some chores done in preparation to cook the evening meal (I usually take lunch with my host family). This means dishes, laundry if I’m getting desperate for underwear, taking a bath if I’m feeling extra ambitious, and hauling the water to go with those activities. Laundry must be hung to dry, and it can take a few hours to hand scrub sweat stains out of T-shirt sleeves. As the sun creeps lower in the sky, I might fire up my brazier and swing it for a while to get the coals nice and hot. Then, cooking. It’s takes a long time over charcoal. Finally, just as the mosquitos are coming out, I’m ready to eat and fire up my tablet for some pre-bed blogging or letter writing. I’m usually ready for bed no later than 8pm, 9pm if I’m feeling really rebellious and want to stay up late to finish something (I know, we’re a bunch of night owls over here).
So there’s a day in the life of a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Zambia. And this is just a village day. House days are different. Conference days are really different. Travel days are different in that they involve a whole lot more sitting and gnashing of teeth. Each of us do the same chores and daily routine activities that we did back in America, but here, these things can take half the day instead of a few minutes. Take laundry for example: instead of wadding up my dirty clothes, tossing them in the machine, pouring in soap, and walking away for 45 minutes, laundry here can take hours. I have to first haul the water, get the clothes soaked and soaped, scrub until my knuckles are raw, do a whole rinse cycle in a different bucket, then wring everything and hang it to dry. While you learn little tricks to cut down on the time consuming nature of these activities (like soaking your clothes in a bucket of water and soap overnight), maintaining ourselves at our sites takes a lot of our time and energy.
Our work, which can vary with the season and day of the week, takes up the other large bulk of our time. Scheduling and announcing meetings can mean trips to see several different headmen, knocking on doors yourself, or finding the town crier to get an announcement out. If it rains or there’s a funeral, your whole daily plan might fly out the window and you have to start rescheduling things all over again. In trying to describe why work moves so slowly here as compared to American standards, I ask you to imagine this:
You’re trying to build a house, and so you’re inviting all your neighbors to come. They all live five kilometers away, and you only have a bicycle. You have no idea when they’ll be home, and you all have cell phones but half of them are dead and the other half are out of minutes to call. When you finally notify them of when to show up, they are three hours late. One doesn’t show because he had a funeral to attend, no one has eaten breakfast that morning, and one of them thinks he has malaria. You asked them to bring tools, but two forgot, one brought a saw instead of a hammer, and the others thought you were providing everything. You go to get your own hammer and the head flies off on the first swing. All of the nails were stolen. And then it begins to rain.
The house may someday get built, but it’s not going to happen all in one day. Or even in one week.
Day to day life here is full of little joys, little disappointments, and lots of the regular things we did back home, but now we do them Africa-style. In Peace Corps, no one day is quite like the next, and if you ask me, that’s the best kind of daily routine.