I have a home here in this country. It is less than five hundred meters from my parents’ house. When I travel from my house to places around and abroad, I miss the feel of tossing my bags in the corner of my house and sitting at my porch watching my family live their lives in front of me in my yard.
And my home isn’t in New York. In an apartment overlooking a yard with data and network.
My home is here in Sub Saharan Africa.
How can I leave this place after sinking my feet deep into its soil and planting the thread like fibers into its earth two years ago?
I have extended the two room house that Peace Corps had recommended for the village to build for me. The house had a tall ceiling, built by my host father who is a hardworking carpenter and builder. I painted my walls bright blue, with yellow, gold, and green accents. My floors are waxed and citenge fabric are framed and hung on the wall.
When I first came to this country, people wondered how I could live in another country for two years. How you can adjust to the place that is so isolating and live on your own in a home that is so different from an apartment?
I made a decision: to not expect a home but to make it a home. To do everything in my power to make it a home. To paint it mine, to build it mine, to create a space where I can escape to even in the village.
So once everything had its place that I enjoy returning to, I realized that my house was mine. My hammer had its own space and my books had its own shelf. It is stupid to find your home just because you put up a shelf. But what life was present during that moment is the important part. My host mother helped me paint my walls because I really wanted to show how talented women were. My host father helped me hang shelves because I didn’t know how to put nails into a mud brick walls without it falling down because of the weight. And my host father joked about the amount of books I brought. He told me that reading must be the greatest escape in this quiet village.
He was wrong. My escape wasn’t my book but my family. They listened to my complaints and understood my problems. They let go of their worries on me and it doesn’t burden me.
I made my home with my family. And laying here on the ground because I still don’t have furniture, allows me to see outside my door to the family that has taken me in. I hear English words that I have used and even Malayalam words I taught my family from my Indian heritage as the children rush around with my dog.
Cultural integration is my goal. My first goal in my service was to have a family here in this part of the world but what I didn’t realize was how hard it was going to be when I wake up and it is important to my goal as a future ambassador from my country to the country I serve to continue making peaceful connections and incredible relationships with the host nationals. It is important to teach your families and friends about your home family, your home town, your home state, and your home country but also about how different it was for you especially. How it was that you arrived in their world and what decision and choices your parents and friends and variables led you there. So when I worked hard for relationship with my village, I kept thinking of the future volunteers and how effective my service has been.
It was on my mind that I’d leave one day. Every sunrise and sunset, I would think about how I would deal with this and the truth is, I can’t deal with it. It will always be my home. It will always be where my feet settle and my heart lingered and instead of thinking of uprooting, I think of seedlings and cuttings where a part of my life will continue living without me. In their hearts, in their memories, and in their future, I was there and I will continue to live there.
But it doesn’t matter if the walls are sky blue, if the paint chips away, or if the lines of pencil that show how tall the children have grown fade away because I grew here, I lived here, and no matter how many sun rises happen without me, my last sunrise wouldn’t be the saddest one. Because I had too many days of life compared to one last day. So if nothing happens it means that an every day, normal daily life routine happened and that is just one fine to me.
This is a place where I don’t feel alone
This is a place where I feel at home.
And now, it’s time to leave and turn to dust………..
Out in the garden where we planted the seeds
There is a tree as old as me
Branches were sewn by the color of green
Ground had arose and passed its knees
By the cracks of the skin I climbed to the top
I climbed the tree to see the world
As I begin to explain the greatness of this country, the beauty of its resources and its grace, and as I begin to call this place a home, a resting place for my head, with a bed and almost over hundreds books read, a family, a nest, a treasure of love, great food, and routine, time woke me up and I saw that my time is coming to a close.
It hurts as 2016 started and I realized my Christmas with them would be my last Christmas with my host family. That after two birthdays, the next one would not be celebrated with an entire village singing my name. I see my close as my host mom cries seeing my house and thinking how any one else could live where I, Megha lives. How could she call someone’s name and not see my face, she says to me.
Its the brilliance of this program that the success is not in the tangible physical evidences but in the connections, the small glimpses of change and the brilliance radiates out because of our choice to give our time.
I remind people who have given their time up to help me that they are valued, loved, and are the change that Zambia needs. They are the nameless plenty who strive to work hard and wish to be recognized but will never be accepted. They are the ones who give me their time and instead of staring at the oddity of the foreigner, extends their hand and greets me. They are the brilliance that radiates out. The connection that would hold me to the end of my service and the flecks of light that will shine when I dust off the memory of my time here.
Time is that resource that is constantly available and coming towards us but always rushing away and swept out. It is constant as is change. And the beautiful thing is, giving my time to this community is the gift that we Peace Corp volunteers and any volunteers of any organization and any country give for our peers and friends of our community. Our community, the world.
Time is plentiful. It will. Even if it runs out for you, it is constantly there and giving up that phrase, “I don’t have time,” is the first step. Because taking that time, and making connections with people that transcend distance, space, and income is important. It is important because it is one more person who is on your side. Who could make a difference because you made a difference for them.
Because you said hello. Because you were patient with their flaws and thought them your own. Because you decided to come to a country and try your best, they will see that trying the best is beneficial. I didn’t accomplish everything I wanted. And it makes me regret a lot. But never do I regret my choices to try and work my hardest, no matter what had happened in the last year.
Because I have gained love from people who are not related to me. I am loved by people who see me as their own. They don’t need me to save them, or do their programs. They made a friend and I made some friends and we worked together to make a difference where we could. And that’s more than I could ever ask for.
Take time. You have a lot of it. Don’t say you do don’t because maybe it’s not really important to you. It’s there if you just try. It’s there, that brilliant radiance of humans capable of love and connection that goes beyond lines, borders, countries, and blood.
Malaria madness is a custom incentive program within Peace Corps to help fuel volunteers to promote and increase malaria prevention programs, health talks, net checks, and village participation into reducing malaria in Africa and especially in our specific provinces in Zambia.
This year and last year in March, we have worked hard to win as a province to win more points in each program. This year, I have done health talks in every public area and facility but also net checks of homes and distribution of nets.
Here is some information that can help you understand the problem and seriousness of malaria, brought to you by UNICEF.
• Of all people who die from malaria in Zambia, 50 percent or more are children under 5 years of age;
• 50 percent of under-5 hospital admissions are due to malaria;
• Malaria accounts for 20 percent of maternal deaths.
Though Zambia has made strides in malaria prevention and control in the last five years, it still kills more children under the age of five than any other disease or illness. Malaria affects more than 4 million Zambians annually, accounting for approximately 30 percent of outpatient visits and resulting in almost 8,000 deaths each year. Under five-year-old children and pregnant women are the most vulnerable, especially those in more remote and impoverished areas, with 35-50 percent of under-five mortality and 20 percent of maternal mortality attributable to malaria.
Combating malaria is vitally important in the battle to save young lives and protect children from losing their mothers.
Malaria is both preventable and treatable, but it is a complicated disease whose prevention and control requires multiple interventions. Preventing malaria requires creating a malaria-free environment, which means spraying the inner walls of populated structures (homes, schools, hospitals, businesses, and other institutions) with insecticides and always sleeping under insecticide-treated nets (ITNs). Other measures include environmental control to prevent the development of mosquito breeding grounds.
For those for whom prevention measures fail, prompt and effective treatment is imperative. Treatment begins with recognizing the symptoms of malaria, seeking treatment immediately at the onset of illness, and having access to community or facility based health care workers who have the knowledge to treat malaria at its various stages.
Malaria prevention and treatment is expensive. Only over the last 5 years, as a result of partnership between the Government of the Republic of Zambia (GRZ), UNICEF, the World Health Organization, the President’s Malaria Initiative, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Bank, and other partners has affordable ITNs been made widely available. In the past, nets were financially out-of-reach for poor Zambians, costing upwards of US$12 each. Free distribution and highly subsidized nets are now widely available, but need still outstrips supply. Currently 64 percent of households in Zambia own at least one ITN.
Drugs for the treatment of malaria are constantly evolving and improving. The new and improved medications are more costly and many hospitals and clinics face challenges in supply and logistics management. Despite having Global Fund and other approved resources for procurement of anti-malarial medications, occasional stock outs occur due to lapses in the supply chain. Further prior to 2006, most cases of malaria in Zambia didn’t get a confirmed laboratory diagnosis, as the capacity for diagnosis was low. In the last five years, the Ministry of Health and partners have introduced new diagnostic technology-rapid diagnostic test (RDTs), which can be used in remote rural districts where microscopic diagnosis is impractical.
Poor health seeking behavior among communities is another challenge related to low awareness about malaria. Mothers and caregivers sometimes do not recognize the signs of malaria in infants or they seek other types of treatment from traditional healers. While user fees for basic health services have been removed in rural areas of Zambia where the poorest children and families live, communities still face the dilemma of indirect health costs such as for transportation among others and hence delays in seeking care.
In partnership with the Government and under the National Malaria Control Programme, UNICEF supports a variety of interventions aimed at mitigating the impact of malaria on children and women. ITNs are periodically mass distributed at no cost to recipient households, while highly subsidized low-cost ITNs (costing less than US$1) are available at antenatal clinics for pregnant women and children under the age of five. Free nationwide provision of intermittent presumptive treatment (IPTp) allows pregnant women to receive at least three doses of Fansidar to protect them from malaria during pregnancy.
UNICEF also supports the Integrated Management of Childhood Illnesses (IMCI) programme, which aims to reduce child illnesses and deaths by focusing on the greatest threats to child survival. IMCI addresses the multiple layers of newborn and child health care by ensuring that common diseases like pneumonia, malaria, HIV, and malnutrition are treated at every level, from households to Government hospitals. IMCI stresses training for healthcare workers in the aggressive treatment of common childhood illnesses within the first 24 hours of its onset and helps train mothers and caregivers in household management of common childhood illnesses, malaria included.
• Significant progress has been made in malaria control with increases in access to treatment, ITN ownership and utilization, indoor spraying, and public education.
• Zambia passed the Roll Back Malaria target of reducing malaria mortality by half between 2000 to 2010.
• Zambia was among the first two countries in the region to programmatically introduce the new dispersible formulation of first-line anti-malarial drug Artemether-Lumefantrine (Coartem®) suitable for under five children in the weight range 5 to 35 kg.
• The percentage of households with at least one ITN increased from 38 percent to 64 percent between 2006 and 2010.
• Percentage of children ages 0–59 months who slept under ITNs increased from 24 percent in 2006 to 50 percent between 2006 and 2010.
• Percentage of pregnant women who sleep under an ITN increased from 24 percent in 2006 to 50 percent between 2006 and 2010.
• Further, 89 percent of pregnant women received at least one dose of malaria preventive medicine and more than 70 percent received two or more doses.
How Malaria spreads from people and forms inside the body is something I have been trying to teach as people in my village believe that mangoes bring mosquitoes or the green maize that grows in fields or witches bring it to children and people they have cursed.
Malaria is important to Peace Corps volunteers and an incredible way to continue preventing it is teach, teach, teach.
about the disease
about the course of treatment and importance of finishing the treatment to prevent resistance
about the high risk populations
and the use of nets and spraying of homes and buildings to continue prevention and stop malaria
Malaria can be prevented and it is important to continue spreading the knowledge to make sure we keep up the good work, Central Province!! And you can help too!
Good health for a child starts long before the child is born. In this concept of health, growing up in preventative, preparation first country where resources and officials have a public health sector that is widely used and implemented, the idea of a child’s health and nutrition is thought of constantly. From the moment of conception to TV and movies, it is a freak out mode to understanding, learning, denial, lots of angry IKEA moments, to finally acceptance and lots of wishing you napped more in your youth.
However, in many countries where public health and the insistence of certain “practices” or options for different birthing plans, or financial situations or birthing rooms or paint colors or naming the baby immediately are as new as the past 20 years, it is common for health to fail not because of lack of knowledge, or poverty but because of culture, and resources that are not there.
To implement policy and fine tune it after and management is a long process. Here in Zambia, women are used to listening to nurses but they are also used to being told to go home after two hours of delivery. There is no recovery room because there is another girl waiting for a bed to squeeze out and scream in quiet while nurses yell at you for not being prepared when being prepared was never in your lessons.
No one teaches you how to give birth or what a baby needs and that bleach is expensive and that babies need more than a bath bucket, towels, hats and crocheted blankets. That’s what they know because they watch their families and their communities prepare and deal with so many situations ad they come but never planning ahead. They have to. They do not have constant incomes or constant variables that help get constant yearly incomes that allow the same amount of maize to be grown and harvested and sold that allows for “planning.”
They are not victims. The mothers of my village are not ignorant, or stupid or no excuse for you to state the words, “these people are likes this especially those used to this poverty.” I don’t care what you think needs explaining on why they don’t follow the “good” book of advice that your mothers and health teachers have convinced you to do. But they are not those girls who do not care. They do not have the means to care because things are handled differently than our mothers have taught us and our society has shaped us into different people. I don’t think we are better but it is easier for us to be better.
We have internet at our fingertips. No one has to stand at the base of a tree on a hill. We have expert advice and incredible upload and download speeds that allow for constant chat and feedback that is immediate. We live in a world where if we do not get an answer back, we seek out an answer or a faster response. Complaint cards were because of us. Comment emails started from the first American who decided to speak our mind. But in the world, where comments were never possible and no solution arose but continuity and constant were the culture, these women have grown in this world of not expecting there to be more. There is no other site with a different opinion or another nurse close enough for a different method. There is one choice. Get help when you can, if you can. Done.
Nutrition is something you cannot prepare for when your food comes during certain times of the year and if and only if, the rain was constant, the soil was dry but mineral rich, the workers plenty, and the seed strong.
And when kale and Vitamin E is so unavailable unless it is part of the year, or when you have the great vegetables but you have to cook it well to kill the diarrhea causing germ that grow from the soil that would harm your growing baby. You cook constant foods that exist all year round that fed you and satisfied your hunger as a child. You didn’t know they were nutrient vacant, dense, but it was filling and it energized you and filled you up and fatten you. And here, FAT is GOOD. It is STRONG. IT IS TOUGH. IT is here ALL YEAR ROUND.
So a breastfeeding campaign to get mothers to sign to feed their children for six months straight on only breast milk is a challenge. It is important, yes but you have day care and pumps and refrigeration and affordable formula mix and you don’t have to carry your child on your back after carrying your child for nine months in your stomach for years to come. These women are the epitome of strength and to breast feed for as many times as required for six months is so incredibly difficult to ask for, not even do.
Breast feeding campaigns begin with education on the importance of a good foundation of nutrition and those who attend make the time because they want to lay down that foundation and those that do not attend are not rejecting the knowledge but instead accepts the evidence that everyone around them didn’t have six straight months of breast milk but still grew up fine.
They are not rejecting knowledge, nor are they bad mothers. They are change that needs to be seen and then only will they can see the benefits. So when I started this project, I thought one person who tried would be a great win. Instead I had six women under the age of 24 try for six months. Until the fifth month, were their mothers tried to integrate slight foods like porridge and peanut sauce and softened nshima and they trust their mothers that their children will be happier with different foods than watery milk that may also have stopped flowing.
Five babies grew increasingly to the notice of so many women who have seen the change. They see that they can try harder for their child and they are ready to try. To see for themselves that they can do as better as their counterparts have done. And the one who listened to old fashioned knowledge and didn’t ask more questions were asked why she lagged behind while her fellow friends excelled. She wanted to try, she said. Of course, she loved her baby but she was not wrong. She wasn’t that convinced as the others were but people could see the difference. She still fed her baby great nutrient rich recipes when he could eat and he caught up but it was shown that her life was normal before I came in. Everything she would’ve done without me teaching would’ve not been noticed or even considered wrong but what every mother does.
My job was not to tell them they did something wrong but to help them see that they can do better and realize that they have choices. Not just to do what is done but to choose between and grow from the freedom of choice.
The halfway period comes with many questions and discussions.
The chance to assess your past year.
The time to readjust for the next year.
The place to see where you have grown and the areas you wish to invigorate.
This past year was a struggle for a standard. Standard for my clinic to stick to. Standard of work hours and what I am “supposed” to do. A standard was difficult to adjust to and make and keep the same. I am always fighting and starting from the beginning. With projects and people and I forget a year has passed.
A Project in Process: Maternity Ward
As a community with many issues with maternal and infants, we assessed a need for a maternity ward.
But first we need support.
So we started the meeting with the district. As a community that is already slow with an environmental health officer’s house. We have not shown a great deal of evidence of work in our village. But our heart is strong and we are pushing faster. Even our nurse has applied to push this along.
We had another meeting this week to help us start the project to get the backing of the district health office. We started going house to house to collect give kwatcha per family to buy cement for a foundation.
During these door to door meetings, I will also be talking and trying to complete this year’s malaria prevention challenge: 10,000 bed net challenge. While teaching about malaria and mosquito nets, I hope to have checked as many nets as I can.
So far we have less than twenty houses with about two to three bed spaces checked so far.
Every part of the village is led by a headman under the charge of a chief. And we have agreed with them that each would buy two bags of cement. The headmen had a deadline and those who did not give by that date, would have their subjects in their zone charged for coming to the clinic.
I did not like the latter agreement because then mothers and children suffer but the village knows it’s people best because the subjects forced to pay started to push their headmen to be proactive.
Their subjects will benefit from this maternity ward and completion of the environmental health officer’s house. And the headmen should be involved in their community and subjects’ lives and well being.
We will start making cement blocks soon to start this maternity ward. And the community enjoyed seeing their contribution put into an actual development than wondering where their money has ended.
I will take pictures once things start moving and show the whole process. I am also writing a grant to help aid this and move this faster. And that also I will talk about in the future.
The change in kwatcha
As peace corps volunteer, we do not get paid in dollars. We are paid in the local currency. As we came into country, five kwatcha was to one dollar. Now it is up to twelve kwatcha to an hour. Everything has doubled. As we buy more things, supplies, and teaching tools for camps, workshops, trainings, and personal use, everything has doubled. It has caused great trouble on our part as workers in the village who earn such a pay. But we still strive cause our job is so important to us. Volunteers still buy as much as they can for their students and their trainees. It’s the fact that we as volunteers do more.
The stories of what we do despite hardships like these are my point. Transport, money and especially volunteers to help are the top problems and we still go over and beyond for our work.
All of us have great kids who make us laugh right outside our door steps.
All of us have great success stories that we see and can bring tears to our eyes.
We have inspirational women in our stories and men who work hard for their communities.
We have great moments of success and long roads of struggles and volunteers don’t stop.
We don’t stop. Peace corp volunteers are a special group of people who does not let struggle ruin their experience. Nor do they throw away a second of joy as null and void.
Chitenge Designs and Business Plans
I sketch a lot in my time off. Especially dress designs. I also love to join tailors in their work and get inspiration from the cloth they are working on.
However, my designs are now being noticed. Since most are American style designs and not conservative traditional African dresses, more students are liking the designs. I started to help teach a few girls and guys interested in designing on how to use a sewing machine. With a pedal run machine like the one my grandfather used with a huge Singer script painted on the top, it was reminiscent and also great as these children wanted some chance to draw and design their own designs. I told them not to design the chitenge but use the colors to create different suits and dresses.
It was beautiful watching them work. I let them keep their designs and gave them some sticky tack to let them hang them up on their walls for more motivation. I want them to keep drawing. Arts and music are important to individuality and expression and the lack of them is hard on a community. Celebrations cannot thrive without them obviously. But how they disappear after youth and expression is diluted to join the real work of early marriage, parenthood, and working long hours is a tragedy.
I don’t know how I’d exist with my blues and classic rock and the always best 90’s hip hop. To exist without the starry night by Van Gogh giving me reason to find a sky just like it and in my search I have seen skies in many places and every one is better than the last and still magnificent.
Cooking again but with real class
Matzo Ball Soup with Soya pieces, Garden Carrots
Matzo ball soup mix mixed with water boiling with garden vegetables and soya pieces for chicken was a delight when windy days wear you out. It’s so easy to make but you need to either have matzo meal to help make the soup dumplings.
Chile Carrot Coconut Curry with Rice Noodles
This was a spicy dish cause I cut up serious chiles into here. Coconut milk help soothe it and plain rice noodles were delicious with carrots and curry.
Banana Mango Masuku Applesauce with Granola crumble
Making applesauce is so easy in a pan and adding an over ripe mango and banana took it to a new level. I then took cereal granola and toasted it on a pan with pecans and topped the sweet sauce with it.
I got to cook so much while I was here and I am proud that I didn’t have sacrifice my hobby and one of the greatest pleasures of my life to “survive” out here. I still make cookies and breads. I make stews and fried food. I make cakes with avocado instead of butter. Chia powder instead of eggs. I
Still make stuff off the top of my head missing only one or two ingredients so still close. But cooking on charcoal outside, blowing to keep the fire hot and then keep constant heat or lower it when the coals are too much.
I will be working toward building a foundation for a maternity ward and then starting a grant foundation for also donations to help our cause as soon as I can. This is hopefully the biggest and largest project Id be undertaking and I would be grateful if you can take the chance to tell as many friends and family about this great project. Who gets a chance to see where their charity really go to when it comes to donations? And this opportunity will benefit a real community in dire need to protect their women, teach, and prevent so many deaths.
I always believed that this choice of mine was a brave choice. I saw myself as the rising tourist who always watched the entire world now given a chance that I earned to go out there and make the entire story of my very own.
For the first time, everyone saw the bravery in my decision to live out here. To choose to be the outcast of my culture and the inspirational person I always wanted people to see. I was like, “Finally! I am living the dream I always wished for.” Instead of making the many steps and ‘one day knowing it will come true, I was there.
I was on track.
But the prices I have paid…
To this day, I can say that I am a different person. This choice made me strong. It made me talk to different people. I have become headstrong, confident, and goal-oriented. What people said didn’t matter and what people thought of me did not phase me.
I have grown under this experience. However, I lost so much more and sometimes I wonder if I deserved such a price or if it was worth for all this loss?
To get an idea, I have lost friends. I have lost people who I have been with most of my life. Some even didn’t say a final goodbye. And others…their goodbyes were too painful and I wish they left like a ghost with a whisper and a soft gust grazing my face.
People don’t wonder about sacrifice. How much of your life have you had to let go? Friends that tell you that you aren’t part of their life any more because they are in the next phase of their lives and I am still growing. Or I am still this or they are not. Or that because they do not understand me anymore or that I am different.
Life skills you gain versus the relationships you’ve fostered. That is the main issue I am going through.
My family has constantly shown me that support is always there when I call but they also fade into their own lives and effort is too difficult when daily life gets in the way. It is so easy to get me all the way over here in Africa. To forget what I do and what am doing. And then to grow without me…. is normal.
Even married couples grow apart. Friends grow apart. Life in America versus a life in Africa = two different perspectives. Inside jokes, growth, personality…so much is different. I should’ve expected this. Then why does it still hurt? Why does it feel I lost so much of my roots and the relationships that keep me grounded?
I have to do things on my own now. I have less support and people to run to and I am not saying this is difficult. Being here has helped me gain that confidence and strength but without relationships, I am alone. Strong and confident but alone.
Maybe I’ll make lasting friends one day. Or more friends again. Or be happy. But it all seems like a possibility. People here are wonderful and I have served and worked my best but I felt uprooted. I feel lost, looking for nutrients and something to hold on. I don’t feel good.
I feel this as a question of sacrifice for ourselves. Do you feel ready to change your life? Do you feel ready to give up what you love the most to change who you are to the point where it feels as if the sacrifice hurt more than it gave? Are you okay with feeling unhappy about your choice for as long as it can hurt you and make you feel as if that doubt will never fade?
We will grow through this. At least once, we will feel lonely and tired and frustrated. We will feel scared. We will talk to ourselves. We will feel as we will never laugh as we did every again, ecstatic and breathless and in moments where it feels as if the happiness and thrill will never end. We will feel as if happiness will never seep into our pores and linger everyday, ever again where we feel an air of reassured bliss.
Will we ever get those relationships again?
New experiences may scare you. New challenges that force you to let you go will frighten you. It frightened me. However, the choice I made changed me. It changed me into the woman I always wanted to be. An independent, grown woman with charm, a beautiful smile, and a beautiful heart to go with it. I made great first impressions but sometimes if I didn’t, who I am shows through and wins people eventually. And I don’t worry as much or not frightened as much because I am strong and sure that it will get better with my own help.
Not only does my life have brightened but my personality and mind have brightened. I know what I seek in my life.
I can see in myself and find strength and brilliance more than I have ever in my life. I know who I am and what role I play in this world.
This experience has given me a chance to find so much. And even if I have it not completed, it is farther than I have ever reached in the past.
This is the face of bliss. The joy that she gets from me coming home and the feeling of seeing her would never be in my memories if I didn’t jump. I lost so much. Friends, loves, life, and growth with people I love. I lost so much I cannot even believe I went through. Tears and pain and aching hearts. Wishes I wanted so badly that finally came true were pushed aside because I’d just rather be happy. For one day, for one day, feel that bliss again. That feeling of happiness soaking in your pores, seeping into your spirit. I lost so much.
I lost some peace and gained fear. I gained uncertainty and anxiety. I lost a team to run to when that anxiety and uncertainty mixed with fear. I have a mirror that I remind myself of all I have went through and how much I’ve grown.
I am not afraid. I am stronger than I am afraid.
Look at these faces. I don’t think I can convince myself until I leave this experience that I have gained more than I have lost because right now it seems like I am alone. But looking down at these shows how much you gain when you let go of what you have lost. Let go and let more of the new but beautiful rain down. Make space for the tomorrow filled with uncertainty, both good and bad.
In Zambia, when I joined Peace Corps, I was the only female Indian American in the entire country from America.
The critical part of my service was the feeling of loneliness and small attacks that kept coming at me no matter how much I represented myself as a girl from New York, and born American. It was always something else before me as a person.
A small attack. About my culture or comment that seems harmless but actually, it always represents my gender and race in a condescending or dismissal of my true personality.
It is called microaggression.
Microaggression is a term coined by psychiatrist and Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce in 1970 to describe insults and dismissals he regularly witnessed non-black Americans inflict on African Americans. Eventually, the term came to encompass the casual degradation of any socially marginalized group, such as the poor and the disabled.
It has also been seen as being “rooted in racism, sexism, or discrimination based on nationality or sexual orientation. It can be delivered casually or even unconsciously.”
This process comes from people who seem as if their words are harmless, completely coming off across as simple remarks and not at all attacking the real problem: the root of racism or discrimination or sexism. It is an easy way to say or ask if the person is another race while also sounding as the person is inclusive into society. Sometimes it is placed under the shadow of “learning about different cultures,” even though we are not their token resource for our specific background.
Psychologist Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership”.
He describes microaggressions as generally happening below the level of awareness of well-intentioned members of the dominant culture.
According to Sue, microaggressions are different from overt, deliberate acts of bigotry, such as the use of racist epithets, because the people perpetrating microaggressions often intend no offense and are unaware they are causing harm.
Micro aggressions are known to be subtle insults that direct towards the person or a group of people as a way to “put down”.
He describes microaggressions as including statements that repeat or affirm stereotypes about the minority group or subtly demean them. They also position the dominant culture as normal and the minority one as aberrant or pathological, that express disapproval of or discomfort with the minority group, that assume all minority group members are the same, that minimize the existence of discrimination against the minority group, seek to deny the perpetrator’s own bias, or minimize real conflict between the minority group and the dominant culture.
So in my case, as an Indian woman, Zambia is the not the first place where who I am was defined by the culture I came from. Countless moments of asking about my culture before even I have a chance to say to my own name. People would hear my name and wonder,
Wow, how did that happen?
In conducting two focus groups with Asian Americans, Sue identified eight distinct themes of racial microaggression: Alien in Own Land: When people assume Asian Americans are foreigners or from a different country.
Ex: “Where are you from” or “Why don’t you have an accent?”
Ascription of Intelligence: When Asian Americans are stereotyped as being intelligent or assumed to be smart. Ex: “Wow, you’re really good at math, can you help me?” or “Are Asian Americans this good when it comes to school work?”
Then the concept comes around to how Indians are so smart and creative that there are few negative connotations to the Indian race. People see them as model citizens with no problems with white people or racist people. But that is another concept.
Denial of Racial Reality: This is when a person emphasizes that as Asian American doesn’t experience any discrimination, implying there are no inequalities towards them.It correlates to the idea of model minority.
It even goes down to sexuality. Do you know how many times men in my life have asked or said,
I’ve never been with an exotic woman.
You are the first exotic woman I’ve ever had sex with.
I’ve never had an Indian.
It feels as if I am being checked off on someone’s list. Every time I hear, I remember how my only given talent was my erotic sensual self with an innate history in my genetics for Kama sutra.
Exoticization of Asian American Women: It stereotypes non-white Americans in the exotic category. They are being stereotyped by their physical appearance and gender based on media and literature. One example is Asian American women portrayed as the submissive or obedient type; they are also seen as Dragon Lady or Lotus Blossom. On the other hand, Asian American men are portrayed as being emasculated or seen as nerdy, weak men.
Invalidation of Interethnic Differences: This emphasizes homogeneity of broad ethnic groups and ignores interethnic differences. The claim “all Asian Americans look alike” was identified as a main assumption for this theme. Similarly, thinking that all members of an ethnic minority group speak the same language or have the same values or culture falls under this theme.
Pathologizing Cultural Values/Communication Styles: When Asian Americans’ cultures and values are viewed as less desirable. For example, many people from the focus group felt disadvantaged by the expectation of verbal participation in class, when Asian cultural norms value silence. Because of this discrepancy, many Asian Americans felt that they were being forced to conform to Western cultural norms.
Second Class Citizenship: This theme emphasizes the idea that Asian Americans are being treated as lesser beings, and are not treated with equal rights or presented as a first priority.
Ex: A Korean man walks into a bar and asks for a drink but the bartender ignores the man and serves a White man first.
Invisibility: This theme of microaggression focuses on the idea that Asian Americans are invisible in discussions of race and racism. According to some focus group members, dialogues on race often focus only on White and Black, which excludes Asian Americans.
Race or ethnicity
Social scientists Sue, Bucceri, Lin, Nadal, and Torino (2007) described microaggressions as “the new face of racism”, saying that the nature of racism has shifted over time from overt expressions of racial hatred and hate crimes, towards expressions of aversive racism, such as microaggressions, that are more subtle, ambiguous, and often unintentional. Researchers say this has led some Americans to wrongly believe that racism is no longer a problem for non-white Americans. An example of such subtle expressions of racism is a white person being white.
According to Sue et al., microaggressions seem to appear in three forms:
micro assault: an explicit racial derogation; verbal/nonverbal; e.g. name-calling, avoidant behavior, purposeful discriminatory actions.
microinsult: communications that convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity; subtle snubs; unknown to the perpetrator; hidden insulting message to the recipient of color.
microinvalidation: communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person belonging to a particular group.
Gender and sexuality
Women, including trans women, report experiencing gender-related microaggressions.[not in citation given] Some examples of sexist microagressions are “[addressing someone by using] a sexist name, a man refusing to wash dishes because it is ‘woman’s work,’ displaying nude pin-ups of women at places of employment, someone making unwanted sexual advances toward another person”.
Other gender- and sexuality-related microaggressions include the sexual exoticization of lesbians by heterosexual men, linking homosexuality with gender dysphoria or paraphilia, and prying questions about one’s sexual activity.
Transgender people are often misgendered (labelled as having a gender other than the one they identify with), among other forms of microaggression.
People from the LGBTIQ+ community have reported experiencing such microaggressions from people within their own community. This is because others make assumptions on their lives based on their own experience and understanding. While not always intentional, people commit anti-social behaviours based on these misconceptions, resulting in people feeling they are the victim of microaggressions.
The following have been proposed as “microaggressable:
Assumptions of inferiority
Denial of sexism
Traditional gender role assumptions
Denial of individual sexism
Denial of denial
What we feel from microaggression?
Recipients of microaggressions may feel anger, frustration, or exhaustion. African-Americans have reported feeling under pressure to “represent” their group or to suppress their own cultural expression and “act white”.
The common problem in our own Indian American groups is the distinction between white Indians and actual Indians where our culture is reduced by any person not only white people and we have to suppress our own cultural expression and act to the dominate culture that surrounds us.
Over time, the cumulative effect of microaggressions is thought to lead to diminished self-confidence and a poor self-image, and potentially also to mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and trauma.
These systems pile up. Moments like these either end in a forced smile or an eruption of anger that forces everyone to think I am a crazy ethnic girl pulling out my race car or gender card or even my bisexual card. No matter what I feel as if I have to fight to be a city girl who loves good music, really fashion, wrapped hair and art and writing and then after a proud Indian-American strong bisexual feminist.
I do not mean everytime I hear these statements, that I am going to pull out my speech and scream and yell because people who go through micro-aggression do one common thing: take it in and give a false smile. But it adds up, to the point where I am in tears or I am angry or I am making jokes of my own culture just to feel as if I am at least part of my own joke.
When someone asks me instead of where I grew up but instead goes for the source of my skin color,
“When are you going back to India?”
“Sorry, I’m going back home. To Brooklyn.”
Jokes sustain me longer than keeping it in. But afterwhile, I explain my joke or I cry or I scream. That is when the stereotype of angry feminist or angry woman or in the cases of Black men and women, the “angry black woman.” We call something out from the countless amounts of microaggression in our daily lives from the subway down to the corner store to every interaction we have with a person, not from our culture, gender, or “group” and then when we break, when we are weak and can’t take no more,
we are called bitches, and angry, and wrong, and noisy.
Moments like these either end in a forced smile or an eruption of anger that forces everyone to think I am a crazy ethnic girl pulling out my race car or gender card or even my bisexual card. No matter what I feel as if I have to fight to be a city girl who loves good music, really fashion, wrapped hair and art and writing and then after a proud Indian-American strong bisexual feminist.
I am Indian, bi and a woman but Indian, bi, woman is not ME.
So my advice is this for those who don’t understand what to do.
Struggles are not something people like writing about. But it has to be said.
I wish I was a spectacular volunteer that solved all of my village’s problems and was easily and efficiently doing and making strides that were not possible before my arrival.
Every choice I make has a snowball effect consequence(s). Every program is not something that will last. It is a win for now. It is a high and incredibly exciting to be busy but then it ends and all you helped is local and static and done.
My girls club ended the last month. Three of my girls still got married or are in the process of getting set up. Two of them skips school to help harvest for their parents. And some of the parents don’t like the little girls learning from the Amercan without older students to buffer.
My Neighborhood health committee nearest to my clinic was forced to dissolve. My clinic staff was forcing people out and trying to get new people elected. Except there is no one who enjoys or even wants to do the volunteer work. Why volunteer for no money? Why be hungry and miss lunch to tally and weigh the babies of mothers who walked since five to the clinic for their children? People especially from the committee has seen me working a lot with Violet and now comes up to me faking interest and asking for books and saying they’d be coming around to pick them up so I would choose them to accompany me to a workshop and be reimbursed greatly by Peace Corps.
My mothers are all I work for. My clinic staff do not care. Especially about education. No one cares about working for the benefit of all except for Violet. Except that even she has a family and gets into gossip and fights with reluctant staff. I am lost most days. Feeling like an ultimate failure.
I remember the moment I knew I wanted to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. I was ten and a woman in the grocery store had a patch on her backpack. I asked her what it was and she told me that she lived in a village far far away and helped people with getting clean water. I asked her why they couldn’t buy the gallon water that we had put in our carts. And she said, “Imagine coming every day for water to clean your clothes, to wash the dishes, to take a shower, and for water to drink but the water was dirty and filled with germs.”
That’s what started my wish to one day earn that patch. To live and love an area where I can live like my neighbors and experience their culture whilst helping them. I remember the countless opinions I heard when I first applied to the moment I left.
You are a crazy girl.
I could never do that.
How can you live in a village?
They must at least provide electricity or running water. You’re American! How could they not give you things you are used to?
I heard African languages are hard.
What if you get attacked or robbed?
But what I remember most where the volume of the following remarks and the emotion behind them.
” I almost went abroad too, you know.”
“Oh, I always wanted to do something like that.”
“I always wanted to travel and be strong enough to live on my own in a far away place.”
“We almost did something like that. “
“I almost applied to the Peace Corps.”
When I heard this in the course of a year and sensed the lingering regret behind these words, I knew what I was doing was right. It’s not that “almost” was never in my mind. Though this was my dream, I was afraid. What Indian girl raised and groomed to only be a doctor wouldn’t be afraid?
Trust me, that fear never dissolved. I just learned to live with it. To be prepared because fear is just doubt and strength is certainty. I was certain I was strong enough to do this and that I would come out stronger still.
From the plane in Lusaka, I have eaten food I have never heard of and saw villages always helping out their neighbors. Houses of mud bricks baked in the sun and sand near the river to cement it down. I have ridden a bus without a door, open to the dirt road with seats to fit two, seated by four.
I boiled every bit of water, added chlorine, and then put into a filter. Diarrhea was a common nuisance as traveling always messed up my digestion. “Have you joined the club?” is the joke passed down from the volunteer elders meaning if we have crapped in our pants yet due to illness. I struggled and still struggle to learn Bemba and find my way around this entire village. People begged me for money, harassed me for my gender, and judged me for my upbringing and the luck that I was born in America, unlike their children.
Rats ate through my clothes and skitter in the night. My ceiling is dried straw and black plastic to keep out rain which it doesn’t do well. I am so broke I cannot even get books to read on my Kindle to last quiet nights. If there is no sun to charge my lights, I am asleep or in bed by five, not even able to cook without seeing my way. I’ve killed an African squirrel with a broom, about 30 camel spiders with one hand, and is still blessed to not have yet encountered a snake myself. I’ve see pregnant women come for delivery but then go to their funeral the next week, leaving their children. I’ve went to the weddings of girls young enough to not even know Justin Bieber if they were back home who would eventually have their first child in a few months time. I also seen some of those babies not survive, especially a toddler who fell into a pot of oil.
However, I’ve seen more in darkness as the lights of stars blazed out with the streak of the purple indigo Milky Way stretching out a yawn before me. I’ve seen moons bright enough to light my path. I’ve hiked to a man made dam where I slept in a tent with my best friend and talked about all the dreams she wished for her children who were my age. I’ve fished with my host father, almost waist deep in a sweeping river. I’ve seen waterfalls hidden in the folds of the village lands. I’ve been to a girls vs. boys football match that when the girls won, their coach was hoisted up and carried off on her back as she exclaimed, “I’m going off to sleep; I am not needed here anymore!”
I travel on oxcart to far off meetings, walked for funerals, and rode in vehicles and buses I am always surprised turn on. I’ve drank sugar can juice squeezed manually with ginger and lemons while I got fish caught right in front of me and grilled with onions and tomatoes. As I ate my fifteenth foot of sugar cane and mangoes, my neighbor’s son came and asked me for help with his English homework, and I am quite sure his teacher gave him high marks the next day. I’ve tasted cinnamon straight off the tree and felt the yellow dye of turmeric stain my fingers right from the roots.
I was given a country where English was spoken in its veins and where soap was just “soapu” and if you really try, you can communicate and laugh in a conversation where barely either side speaks a language fully. Where children’s laughs are easily earned and they run to you every day as you return home. Where women can have immense amounts of physical and emotional strength and are the epitome of “the strong.” Where ten year olds lead the brigade against HIV and community truly means come over whenever and a meal is always available to you.
This year I have made friends I could never imagine myself to have. A forty-two year old tailor who is as opinionated, kind, and dedicated as me. And it’s great that she has no patience for pathetic excuses like me. I am also the spoiled baby of a family who always gives unconditional help, love, and protection while really trying not to ask for much.
I have met girls I would have never met in America and odds brought us together and for one, especially took us apart. Doesn’t mean she is forgotten. Not a twenty-nine year old Texan with more energy and life in her eyes than I have in my body. I would never met a proud and strong Arizona citizen who never goes without her UA hoodie and her taste for margaritas and tomatoes with her eggs in the morning who can take my jokes and give smack back. Or a girl from Cali who exudes excitement and a love for Mexican food and motivates me every day to try new recipes, new methods of coping, and new ideas of projects while also inspiring me with her own work.
I’d never think I’d meet a mother of four so happy to be accepted by the Peace Corps after the past she had. Especially a woman who makes my day, any day she happens to be in my life. Or a veteran who is so passionate about Africa and its histories, languages, and stories that has so many gut wrenching unbelievable navy stories for a whole night of laughter amongst our peers. I would never have met such a strong woman in our program coordinating director or commander in chief as I nicknamed her after losing three of her siblings in a year and still working to answer our pleas, and questions, still believing in the work we do.
In this year, I met a little girl named Asha Chanda who was small enough to fit on my forearm in August at the age of 2 and with my help by teaching supplemental feedings and nutritional recipes, weighs more than her three year old cousins by about 4kg and hovers over them with a good three inches. I can no longer throw her in the air or carry her as she has now gained weight and is healthy.
However hard it gets and stuck I feel, I have gained so much that most haven’t. Memories of people who get me to constantly stare in awe and moments of speechlessness I will never be able to replicate or forget.
I know after 27 months, I will arrive home with no more money and less baggage than I left with. Possibly in debt if I plan to rush off to the next part of my plan.
But in this one year, my riches include a home away from home, another family who knows my name in this world who misses me every time I leave, a Zambian dog of nine months who annoys me and wins my affection every day and no word like “almost” in my dictionary.