There is a certain quality to life that before coming to Peace Corps I had never fully appreciated the value of.
Every day, I live and work with families who struggle to find the means to eat; parents who stand worrying over sick children, powerless to do anything against diseases like malaria, cholera, and inexplicable fever and diarrhea; farmers whose livelihoods depend on crops prone to infestation, incliment weather, and unaffordable inputs; teachers who teach 50+ students in one classroom; clinic workers who treat an endless stream of preventable disease, but without the time or resources to educate their patients properly. In no uncertain terms, life in Zambia (and all across the developing world) is difficult and unpredictable to a degree that is nearly unfathomable to any who aren’t immediately living it. Sometimes the struggle is simply heart-breaking. For those who work in international aid and development (PCVs included), it can seem an insurmountable battle; that no one person or agency could possibly do enough to truly make positive change.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, I have certainly felt that weight. It hangs off me every morning when I ride my (expensive, American) bike to my farmer’s ponds, and they walk, without breakfast, to meet me. I am lucky to be working on a project that has direct, tangible results. It makes my conscious lighter to know that if I can teach a man to raise fish, I can literally feed him for a lifetime. But, what about today? How can I feed this man – his wife, their children – today? Each day is a complex web of priviledged guilt, crushing expectations, and limitations that magnify all other factors. When I come home at night, exhausted and despairing, I am reminded of a quality of life everpresent in Zambia and that I have encountered all across my travels into the impoverished places in the world.
Now, before you go about rolling your eyes, hear me out. I use that word – hope – without any irony, cheesiness, or appeals to romance in the roles of development workers. I use it because it defines so clearly the spirit of those who live without, teetering on the edge of ruin and poverty, subject to the whims of nature and their governments. My farmers teach me daily of the importance of hope. What would their lives – my life – be without the hope that tomorrow will be a better place? They work day in and day out trying to get by, but they work with me because they believe that I represent that very idea that makes each furrow of maize planted worth the effort. When I first realized my association with such a powerful idea, I was repulsed. I am not your hope, I thought. I did not want to be the person to shoulder their dreams and desires. Now, I realize that their belief in me isn’t a set of expectations, but rather an opportunity, a level of faith, and an offer of friendship. They have proven this through their monumental efforts to rescue me from a bad living situation in my village, and I now look forward to each and every day of my service where I can bring a little hope into their lives. Maybe it will be through teaching them to save seeds; maybe it will be a well-developed pond and a rich harvest next year; maybe it will be a recipe for oral rehydration solution that will save a child from illness.
But, I’m an American. In America, we believe in big things. Big dreams! Big accomplishments! Big stories! Returning home from my service with a handful of stories and photographs of my time in Zambia is, I hope, enough to bring about a bit of understanding of the lives and spirits of Zambians within my American culture. Moreover, volunteers often struggle with question, “What am I doing here? Is it enough? Am I making any meaningful change? I hope so.” I have asked myself this question a hundred times over. What big thing am I doing here? Friends have written to me, admitting their own question of, “Just what is Hannah doing over there?” It’s a good question. And it’s one that can keep you up at night (especially if that night is spent on the floor of your outhouse retching your guts out). When I talk about my blogging with other volunteers, sometimes people question the time and effort spent writing about my otherwise very ordinary life. While a blog such a this obviously addresses Peace Corps’ 3rd goal, it can seem like time spent away from actual work. So, what am I doing here in this digital cyberspace besides filling your inbox with weekly stories of big spiders and pooping in holes?
While I’m not a religious person, I firmly believe that if you ask a question loudly enough, it will be answered. I want to share you with you now two stories that have firmly established my belief in hope.
Last week while visiting a certain Mr. Scott (dear friend and neighbor), two of his village women cornered me and asked me to come visit with them that evening. I joined them in their insaka (outdoor cooking area) later that night as they stirred giant cauldrons of maize mush. We started in to the usual niceties, and then the usual teasing about why I’m not married with children (specifically Scott’s children, but that’s a different post). Then, the conversation took a new turn. One of the women leaned in close, wide-eyed child latched onto a breast, and asked me just how it was that I don’t have children. Did I not have sex (not possible in their minds, since when a man and a woman share a hut, such as I do with Scott when I stay with him, not having sex is unthinkable)? Did I have some secret means of avoiding pregnancy? Did I have the illusive family planning pill? I was stunned by such forward questions. I explained, cautiously and in my very best broken Mambwe, that I use an IUD for birth control, but that family planning pills are available at local clinics. They shook their heads. They didn’t have access to a clinic, and their husbands want a child every year and so wouldn’t ever buy such pills for them. I felt the drop in my chest; another roadblock to a better life that these women didn’t know how to overcome. Then, I thought of the little tuck shop just up the road from Scott’s hut. Run by a woman, what harm could their be in asking her to stock the pills? I asked the women if they would feel comfortable buying the pills from her if I asked her to stock them, and they rabidly agreed. We would buy!
With that, I set off with Scott determined to get these woman some access to birth control. We struck out on our first tuck shop, but the owner scurried after me as we left and pointed our search to another smaller shop where the proprieter produced a box of birth control pills from behind the counter. Bingo! I bought a pack for 5 kwacha to use for demonstrations, and then subtly stopped by each woman’s house. They have them. They nodded discreetly, and agreed to come by Scott’s house later for a crash course in birth control. A few hours later, I was describing taking the daily pills in broken Mambwe with the kind help of one of the women’s broken English. They left the porch that night excited and with pledges to take the pills correctly. I will start tonight! I smiled into the dark after them. Scott and I talked about the day’s events as we fell asleep that night; we had done something tangible – every volunteer’s goal. But perhaps more importantly, the women we helped now had both the pills and something more intangible but equally important:hope. They could now control an important piece of their lives and hope for a better future where their stomachs haven’t morphed into deflated beach balls after 10 pregnancies. They can hope to send all their children to school, and feed them all during the hunger season.