Sometimes Peace Corps, or at least the average Peace Corps experience, doesn’t quite work out the way it’s supposed to. You’ll find renditions of these abnormal experiences scattered throughout the worldwide web, most often as the search results for ‘bad Peace Corps experiences’. When I was preparing to apply to Peace Corps, I searched and read those horror stories with rapt fascination. Many of my peers asked me, “Don’t bad things sometimes happen to PCVs?” I always responded, “Yes, but bad things can happen anywhere.” I knew coming into my service that Peace Corps does its best to keep their volunteers safe. A prerequisite, surely, to a productive two years of service. But, I also knew that bad things do sometimes happen. I just assumed they would never happen to me.
Until they did.
Today I want to add a new facet to the many renditions of negative Peace Corps experiences that you can find online. I am telling you this story for two reasons: one, because one of the goals of this blog is to share with you the Peace Corps experience (Peace Corps’ 3rd goal) – good, bad, and the ugly. Two, because my personal experience as a volunteer is a related but separate part of telling my readers about the lives and character of the people of Zambia. This blog is not a true ethnography of anywhere I travel, or any person I meet; the best I can relate to you are my own observations and personal understandings of my little space and little time in the world. Nothing I say is the gospel truth. I preface this story with this little diatribe because so many of those Peace Corps horror stories preach their experience as just that: the truth. But please, dear reader, understand that it is just their truth, just as this story is just mine. That fact doesn’t demean or lessen their or my experience, nor mute the intense emotions associated with them. Rather, I mention this to give room for your own experience, be it now or in the future. If you have found this post because you’re looking for the worst experiences that can happen in the life of a PCV, please make sure your curiosity for my experience doesn’t eliminate the possibility of having your own.
The following story takes place at the end of May as I was returning to my village from medical leave. I’ve chosen to wait a few months before sharing it with you to allow both myself and my family time to digest this experience and see it in the context of a bigger picture. I hope you will do the same.
The light was growing long in Mbala, and I knew I had to make a choice. Either I would have to stay the night in Mbala and begrudgingly spend 50 kwacha on a room and meals, or try to catch a last ride out to my village. I started waving down taxi drivers, asking if they knew of anyone leaving for Kaka Village this late in the day. I struck out over and over until finally one man pointed me toward the other end of town. One last Canter truck leaving for Kaka Village, and it was leaving now. I gathered my bags and hustled to the platform just as the truck arrived, already loaded down with passengers and cargo. I threw my Zambag full of food and books in the bed, then hauled myself, my backpack, and my precious tray of 30 eggs up into my lap, and away we went. The truck sped down the dirt roads, and for once I felt a little relaxed using often unpredictable transport alone. “This won’t be so bad,” I thought, admiring the stunning views of the foothills and mountains separating Mbala from the Kaka area.
Twenty minutes into the ride, we picked up our first passenger. He was a tall, lanky man, blind in one eye, and apparently drunk. He immediately sat as close as possible to me, wedging himself in between me and the Canter’s Amaguys. Amaguy is the slang term commonly used to describe the typically young, rowdy men who load the trucks, collect fares, and act as conductors to the trip. They are known as being obnoxious to female foreigners, and sometimes drunks, but usually they’re harmless. As the truck picked up speed, the new passenger started shouting at me in a combination of Mambwe and Swahili, none of which I could really understand. He started out loud and slowly grew to be obnoxious and intentionally noisy. Another young man in the truck who spoke a little bit of English eventually leaned over and told me, “He is shouting because he knows it will confuse you.” Irritated but determined not to let him get the better of me, I ignored him and tried to enjoy the sunset over the African savanna. Thankfully, he disembarked about half an hour into the trip, and I breathed a little sigh of relief. Drunk passengers on Zambian transport tend to focus their harassment on the solo Mazungu (local term for “white foreigner”) female, and it was nice to once again be traveling in peace.
The Amaguys, deciding their work for the day was over, began drinking. At first, it was a few sips of something clear and sickeningly sweet smelling from an old soda bottle. “Nothing to worry about,” I told myself. I scooted to the far side of the truck bed, clutching my eggs, and tried to ignore a tower of buckets digging into my spine with every rib-cracking bounce of the truck. As it began to grow dark, the drinking intensified and I began to grow nervous. It was now dark, and I knew we weren’t yet anywhere near my final destination. I braced myself for the thought of walking an extra hour, alone and in the dark, with my heavy bags to my home village several kilometers futher on from the Canter stop in Kaka. “No matter,” I thought. “I have a headlamp and it’ll just be another one of those Peace Corps stories. I live in a pretty safe area. I’ll be fine.” My inner monologue steeled my nerves some as the truck jolted along at a breakneck pace, every now and again slamming to a near-hault to creep over a bridge or through a washed out portion of the road.
The amaguys were, by now, boistrous and rowdy. They were shouting some conversation back and forth, every now and again returning the conversation to the sullen white woman with the phrase, “Muzungu!” My patience and emotional fortitude were rapidly wearing down. The most obnoxious of the men began reaching out and grabbing my arm. “Awe,” I said, the first time. NO! This rapidly progressed to every deleterious term I knew in Mambwe, and then eventually in English, too. Finally, he reached to grab me and screamed “Mazungu!!” in my face, spittle flying. I yell something back that started with “Go,” rhymes with duck, and ends with “yourself”, throwing his hand off me. I’m ashamed to stoop to insults and profanity, but fear drives me past my better judgemenet. He slurs the profane phrase back in my face, swaying drunkenly with the truck. He repeated the dirty phrase for the next five minutes, laughing and clearly not intimidated, playing with the intonation of English he didn’t fully comprehend. I cursed myself silently. “C’mon, Hannah,” I coached myself. “Hold it together. Now is not the time to start exchanging some ugly culture.”
Another twenty minutes go by and I’m struggling to find something positive to focus on. I think of my Peace Corps friends, think about curling up in my sleeping bag when I finally reach home, and try hard not to think about why I’m in the back of this truck, dealing with these drunk creeps, when I could be just about anywhere else right now. “This is Peace Corps,” I think, “this is what you wanted. You knew there were risks, and now, you’ve got to suck it up and deal with it.” I look up at the crystal clear night and think about the stars. I find the big dipper and try to spot the north star, something to guide my thoughts home. It’s too low on the horizon and I can’t spot it. I begin searching for something else familiar to distract myself from the truck and the dropping temperature when one of the men shouts my name. “Ba Hannie! We are not going to Kaka. Where are you going?” I stare at him, sure I’ve misunderstood.
“We are going to Kaka,” I shout back. “This truck is going to Kaka.” Truer words are rarely spoke, I think.
“No, the driver does not want to go. It is too late. We are going to Pompela Village. It is very far,” he shouts back. Panic rises in my chest. Suddenly, the truck slams to a halt and we are sitting at a junction in the road. People begin to disembark, and the driver jumps out. He begins to explain in Mambwe that they are not going to Kaka. I try to respond, but my limited language skills fall far, far short of asking how the Hell they could just change their minds and leave me here on the side of the road, having no idea where I am. Finally, I give up.
Does anyone here speak English?” I shout. The door of the cab of the truck opens and a young man jumps out. He comes to the bed and says, “What is the problem, ma’dam?” I explain the situation as the crowd of drunks grows around us. Men are offering to take me by bicycle the remaining distance which most people are approximating to be between 10 and 20 kilometers. I want to go home so badly, but I know jumping on a bike with a man I don’t know isn’t the right choice. The English speaking man finally speaks, “I am a teacher at the school just 2km from here. I am also new to this place. There is a teacher there, a female, who could help you. Shall we go?” I struggle with the decision. Staying with an unknown Zambian even further down this road? The idea seems wrought with complication and potentially a dangerous night in an unknown house. Finally, I try my trump card. Money.
“Can you ask the driver how much it would cost for him to drive me to Kaka Village tonight? I will pay,” I say, quietly. The man translates and the driver shakes his head, speaking rapidly in Mambwe. I catch “no” and “too late”. Damn. The man turns back to me and repeats what I already know back to me. The men offering me the bicycle are swaying with the effects of alcohol, and I know I have just the one option.
“Can you call your friend at the school?” I ask. The man pulls out his phone and dials. A moment later, he puts it back in his pocket. “Ah, I am sorry, but she is not answering. Maybe we can go and find her there?” I shrug, resigned to the least dangerous option. “Let’s go.” The canter jolts back to life and we creep along for another 2km. My fear is rising and I know I am approaching my limits for rational thought. What will happen if I can’t find a safe house to sleep? Ugly, horrific words and ideas begin to creep into my mind. Rape. Assault. Imagining Peace Corps calling my parents to notify them of some unforgivable act after finding me in a ditch the next day. I think about jumping from the truck and finding a place in the weeds to sleep, but hestitate at the thought of all the poisonous creatures I’d be bunking with. Fear is taking over, and I know I need help. Now. I pull out my phone and start dialing friends. I need help. I dial Scott, but can’t connect. I need help.I dial my PCVL, but can’t get through. I need help. Finally, I call a fellow RAP volunteer in Northwestern Province, Rob, giving silent thanks to the cell phone gods to have coverage at that moment. Rob is a close friend and was fortunately enjoying a night in his BOMA with other PCVs.
“Hey,” he answers. His voice is a balm against my panic.
“Rob, I’m in trouble,” I say. I rapidly explain the situation, mindful of my dwindling talk time. “There’s nothing you can do, but I need someone to know what’s happening.” I feel a deep and stabbing pang of guilt, knowing that I am sharing this stressful time with someone half a country away, and that his being helpless to help me will eat him alive. But, I know it’s time to phone a friend and activiate a safety net for my unknown wearabouts and I appear to by out of options. “I’m so sorry to call you like this, but if you don’t hear from me again tonight, please call someone and trigger the alarm. I’ll text or call you again as soon as I know where I am.” I am shouting over the roar of the drunks, the drunk laughter of the Amaguys, and trying to focus as I bat away grabbing hands with one arm and hold the phone with the other.
“Okay, uh…okay. Call me as soon as you know anything,” he says. I can hear his alarm, though he’s holding it all together for me. I hang up, and try to focus my thoughts as we approach our destination.
The amaguys use their last moments with me to crank the harassment up to previously unseen levels. I get a chance to use my newly learned word. “Incindikay!” I shout at one of them, and even in his drunken haze he removes himself from my presence. The phrase literally translates to “respect yourself” in Mambwe, but taken in conversation indicates a very strong suggestion to politely go and preform lewd acts with oneself. It’s a popular phrase amongst Peace Corps women in this very situation. His friends begin to mock him – “The Muzungu said incindikay!” – and just as his confidence has rebuilt itself, the truck stops and I am hustled from the bed with my belongings. The English speaking man dashes off down a dark path, promising to return with his teacher friend, and I can only hope that he is coming back. My phone rings and it’s my PCVL. Rob called her, I think to myself, answering the phone. We have a rushed conversation about my situation. I give her the village name, and tell her I’ll call again as soon as I know more. Hanging up, I feel a wave of gratitude wash over the panic. I am so thankful for my support network. Somehow knowing that they are thinking of me and waiting to help makes the whole situation a little more bearable. The driver and Amaguys begin to press me for money, demanding obscene prices for an unfinished job. I take a cue from another strong female volunteer I’ve watched deal with Amaguys and offer only what the ride was worth, ignoring their protests for more. Just as the panic begins to well in my chest, the man comes back from the bush, tailed by a young woman with an infant strapped to her back.
“This is my co-worker. She will keep you tonight,” he explains. I don’t give it a second thought. Picking up my belongings, I begin to follow her away from the truck. I pause, and yell back, “Sir, what is your name?”
“I am Moses,” he yells back, climbing back into the truck.
“Thank you, Moses. May God bless you,” I say, at a loss for how to thank this man for my rescue.
“Goodnight,” he says, but his parting words are lost in the roar of the truck engine. I turn to follow the woman back to her house. She speaks to me in English, and her speech is excellent. “I am Ester,” she says. “What are you doing here?”
I explain myself and my bizarre night-time presence in an unknown village. She is a teacher at the local school living alone with her young son while her husband works in Luapula. She leads me to a nice house away from the road, and as I open the door a wave of heat washes over me. “It’s so warm!” I exclaim, realizing that I have been shivering with nerves and chilled sweat. The house is nearly barren, with a living room empty but for a disintegrating reed mat on the floor and a school desk upon which papers are piled. In another room is a burning braizer, the source of the delightful heat, and a heap of pots and pans. The other room is her bedroom, which she offers to me. I look inside and see a full sized bed, complete with frame and mosquito net.
“It is okay,” I say. “I can sleep here in the living room. You must sleep in your bed with the baby.”
“Awe,” she insists. “I have sent other children to bring a mattress. We will sleep here in the sitting room. You must sleep in the bed.” I try again to argue, but the decision has already been made. “Someday,” she says, “maybe I will be in your land and you may then give me a place to sleep. This is the way in our culture.”
I feel near tears with gratitude. She has rescued me from a night sleeping in a ditch, or worse yet, staying with the canter to meet some unknown end. I am so thankful. I eat one of the buns I had purchased earlier in the day with some jam, and we make general small talk about being new to the Zambian bush. I try to give her some of my food as a means of thanking her, but she refuses. I offer money, and she only shakes her head. Finally, I rip paper from my journal and fold her son a paper crane, desperate for some way to show my thanks. He plays with the symbol of peace on the floor while she grades papers by candle-light.
Settled and safe, I call my PCVL back, and then Rob. I explain my new situation, and reassure them both of my safety.
“I’ll be okay tonight, and I’ll let you know my plans to get out of here in the morning,” I say to Rob, trying to relax my voice to calm him. I can hear the questions in his voice, but he’s not asking for details just now. “Thank you so much for helping me.”
“Of course,” he says, audibly relieved. “I’m just glad you’re safe. The call ends. Before long, the stress of the night and warmth of the house make my eyelids heavy, and I crawl into bed and pull the mosquito net down around me. As I fall asleep, I am warm with gratitude to a degree previously unknown to me. I am safe but for the kindness of strangers, and that knowledge and my faith restored, even if only a little, puts me to sleep in moments.
Afterward: after a friend read this story, he asked me, “So, what’s the moral?” When I first recorded this experience, it didn’t occur to me that this story should have a written moral or take-home message, though the real-life experience certainly did. This account happened early in my service and though it was scary at the time, much of my fear was based on the unknown and the unfamiliar. Now, three months later, if a similar experience were to arise, I think I could handle it with a greater degree of resiliency and would walk away annoyed rather than frightened. Experience is a harsh but wonderful teacher, and I learned my lesson about transport in Zambia from this one. I think it’s also important to note that though female volunteers experience a lot of harassment and harrowing situations in Zambia because of male attitudes and behavior toward women, it is never fair or reasonable to draw conclusions about all men from a story like this one. Most of the men I work with are trusted friends and colleages, and those that aren’t are usually easily brushed aside. However, gender and sex relationships in Zambia (and most of the developing world) remain a tricky topic that I will leave for a future post.
Also, 27 out of the 30 eggs survived this adventure; a victory all in itself.
Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”
― Paulo Coelho, Alchemist