One Last Sunrise

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A mud house with two rooms, thatch roof, and filled with memories

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?

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where I cook my food and dry my dishes

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.

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the sun meets me in the morning

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.

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My first roommates

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.

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one day, I’ll have one last sunrise here

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

“To Build A Home”
The Cinematic Orchestra

You Can Be A Volunteer But You Can’t Do This Without us. 

Friends here in Peace Corps are not static. They are not long lasting, daily adventures, high school dramas, and lockers shared or roommates for life. We meet in a hotel, then fly on a plane, forced into many training sessions until we are sworn in as volunteers and we separate for the next two years. There, we are then pushed into a group that is in our province filled with volunteers of different ages of service as some are only 4 months away from completion, others are 9 months away, and the closest of age are nearing their half service mark as you have started the beginning of yours.

You will see your friends from training again. You are not lost from them forever but everyone notices the shift. You came in together and had experiences in the beginning but everyone’s service is different. Different by the village, the province, the area, and the moment. Timing of the country and its history and of the people even change your experience. 

And though projects maybe met with same conflicts, we grow differently. People you’ve met before leaves and the new friends that come in do not know who came before. 

Fades for you and begins for them. But when you meet it is with a fervor and a deep happiness to have met someone of your own. Someone who is understanding of what you face and evidence that living in a distant country is possible. Evidence that having different experiences that no one else can understand is actually a bonding reason to the tenth degree. 

I learned quickly coming into this that I could do it with people I came in with. But they too suffered and  we needed older volunteers to show is that traveling and existing as a volunteer could be more than surviving, even thriving. 

You can do this. Seeing older volunteers meet you and see them leave and then to meet new volunteers and say goodbye is a ritual. It is a mark of adaptation. That this is a journey that constantly feels uphill and isolating but a community of people who understands this path. 

At the beginning and at the end. 

You need us and we need you. 

Frustrations Can Feed On You

“Everyday here can be filled with the highest highs and the lowest lows.”

I remember reading that in my volunteer guide to Zambia from Peace Corps. I imagined my lowest lows but of course you will never truly see them unless you experience one.

I have yet to experience lows with my service. There were lows but not with Zambia. Frustrations are the better word for it. I seriously could look at my time here and see certain bumps by the side but so far, waiting and disappointment have been the two common frustrations I have had.

Since I applied, waiting is the number one requirement for a successful volunteer. Waiting to get posted. Waiting for the plane. Waiting for everything to begin. Waiting for training to end. Waiting to go to the village for three months. Waiting for three months to end.

That’s the frustration I am feeling lately. Community entry is this great process of integration and community that sometimes it can be pretty isolating after a while. I’m here for two years but I’ll be in and out of my village. But here first three months feel like a standstill after a while. Sand under my feet. Trapped. Doing the same routine day after day. Sometimes I wonder if it just me who can’t stand the monotony or maybe it is the fact that we are not allowed to leave our village. Visiting other volunteers is difficult for me without knowledge of transpiration or better word: unconventional means of transport around here. I would like to do as much as possible but waiting is all I get. Waiting for something to end or something to happen soon.

It is difficult to constantly be waiting for things to happen especially when you are supposed to be starting them. Which comes to my next frustration.

Disappointment.

Especially neighborhood health committees pocketing the money for food for the clinic workers who drive all the way there on a small motor bike for under five health check ups in the bush. NHC not knowing their his and assuming they are supposed to be paid. Assuming that our knowledge is not good enough to just be hear but we should provide money and medicine to motivate people to choose better health practices.

It doesn’t happen much but it happens in a way that bites me back. People don’t meet their end of their deal even though they seem enthusiastic in the beginning. They praise and laid and go crazy at the idea of more help but then when I expect them to provide their half of the help, they disappoint.

Life is busier these months for the village but these small frustrations get under my skin and stay burrowed making it hard for me to return to work with such people. But I have to press on with these people. Not all are like this but nothing ever goes to plan which is quite difficult for me to handle.

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Swear In

It was a late night for our intake as we hung out past ten but we all were planning for something greater the next day. We were gonna become volunteers.

For the last few weeks, we were eagerly awaiting this great moment as we prepared ourselves, bought icitenge outfits and filled ourselves in excitement.
I woke up so tired at five to get ready and eat breakfast at 6:20. They wanted us to be out early and ready for the ambassador’s house.
Changed into my citenge outfit and dazzled myself up, we were out of the door and into cruisers before I knew it. I found this design for my dress and I was excited to showcase it.
Yellow frill one sleeve dress with a citenge pattern on the bottom. True Bemba princess material according to my Zambian friends. My days have started to become more meaningful. I wasn’t going to be drifting anymore as now my actions have to have impact and purpose.
Today my purpose was to meet as many ambassadors and influential people at my swear in. To talk to them of the work I will do and to see what they can provide us volunteers.
We celebrated the ceremony with speeches in the local languages we all had to learn depending on our region of work. 60 People ranging in age from 21 to 56 clapped hard, presented cultural dances and swore their paths as peace corps volunteers under a bright sunny day.
As beautiful as it could be, we couldn’t stop celebrating. We made it and it was hard for many of us. But we are the capable of the Americans. The ones who can make hard decisions and can do something so frightening. We have already lost a few of our people since three months ago and we will still lose more. But we made it this far and that is what counts. Wednesday: arrived around 3pm and unpacked slightly. No furniture except my bed so pretty much separated luggage. Read. Watched tv show. Listened to music till I fell asleep.

Thursday: first morning in Lunchu. Dust in my bed. Need to put a citenge over my mosquito net. Body pillow was a great purchase. (go Meghan!)

Friday: swept the house like four times today. Dust just doesn’t go away. Need a Zambian broom. Western brooms can’t handle this much air pollution.
Sorry, have to go sweep, again!

Saturday: got my clothesline up and curtains up in my shower and bathroom. Beautiful white lace. Let’s watch it turn brown in the two years….
Put two poles for my tippy tap. It’s a large jerry can on wire connected to a plank on the ground with string. You step on the plank pulling the mouth of the can down to pour water into your hands like a hand washing station. Using village materials only for sustainability. Hand washing etiquette achieved!

Sunday: sick. Cold? Flu? Nope. Sneezing, congestion and fatigue. Yes. Stayed in bed. Family was worried. I need rest. Sneezing. All this dust!!!! Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Sleep. Sweep. Sleep.

Monday: woke up at 6:30. Damn!!!! Got up at 7:00. Made breakfast. Oatmeal and potatoes with green beans. Did dishes. Put out solar. Sweep and sweep again after the wind blows. Made my cooking area taller so I don’t have to crouch. Played with my kids and ran the rooster out of my Insaka. It’s a mud floor and he’s scraping to apart to make a space for his weft to lay her eggs. Nuh uh! Not here, you gigolo. Hate the roosters here. Gonna condition them to stay away from my house by throwing rocks whenever they come near. But they are too stupid to connect the dots. Can’t wait till I get my dog. Got some broken and old things I can fix up like a wicker basket I can use for….something. Gonna be the first Zambian hoarder. I mean it. I might have to fly in the crew of Hoarders. I keep everything and revamp it. I took a tin can with holes in one side, sewed citenge fabric over it and strung it onto my shower wall to be my soap and bottle holder. So I am a resourceful hoarder. 😉
Plans today: go out and talk to one person.

Tuesday: went to clinic. Village already has a great set up already. Every day in a week is a certain special day. Antenatal or post, etc. every second week they go to a certain village and set up under five clinic checks. Every last Thursday of the month is under five day.
Rained a thunderstorm and it scared the bajeezus out of me. First rain I’ve seen here and it’s crazy loud. I darted outside and marveled at this wondrous moment. I haven’t seen rain in so long. I played music and swirled around before rushing back into the house before I got soaked. People who came to see me laughed calling me, “Itenga. Kwati Itenga.”
They said I am like deep water. Silent and quiet and like itenga or deep water, you cannot see completely through unless you dive in.

I felt so touched to be known so well. Deep water is exactly what I am.

Wednesday: it has been one full week in my village. Damn. Time goes by fast here. Went to see headmen but they were dealing with some family court cases going on in the village. It was trivial stuff but deeply believed by my village.

The court cases took up most of the time so the headmen asked me to come next week. They told me to set up an appointment but then my counterpart explained it is because they want to be ready to give me a chicken or gifts. Some complained corruption and other words but Violet dismissed their worries. She lied saying I’m a student just studying and teaching our village with no medicine or money and only here to help. To tell the headman is to make sure the headmen know who is in their village. Violet takes care of me greatly and I felt so proud and secure when I heard her talk. She knows what I do and what the village needs: sensitization. She doesn’t ask me to be any more than that or has wild expectations.
How great of a person to work side by side with?!
We cycled back together after an unaccomplished day but that day I finished my tippy tap. My hand washing station was finished and I was so thrilled. Violet was thrilled as well saying how clever we are to use village materials to make this. She used it four times before she asked for some lotion for her dry hands while I laughed hard at her excitement. 42 with five kids and still a child at seeing marvels.

Throughout my week, so many proverbs came to my ear. Violet is so wonderful at proverbs I carry a book around to make sure to keep them safe and close to my heart.

When it rained, she said it was the opening of the sun for the hot season. Not a proverb but she continued to say, “The rain today only highlights the shine of the sun in the morning.” The pain today only makes the happiness later worth it.

Riding our bikes to the headmen started off horribly. Violet’s bike gain broke three times before we stopped at a neighbor and she took theirs. Two proverbs this time. For the broken bike she said, “You start the day with a good idea but you end it with a bad one.” Laughing at our change of plans and road, we realized our plans always will change. After we took from or neighbor on a moment’s notice, she laughed at my confused face wondering how long prison sentence is in Zambia for theft. She said, “remember this, Mapalo. Before your family and relatives receive news and come for a funeral on your home, your mutuko (nearby relatives or neighbors) come first.” She continued to explain. “When you wail and cry before your relatives come, your neighbors come and take the body inside. They cook and clean when you are too much in grief to do anything. Until you relatives come, they are your family. So be friends, great friends with your neighbors. For they are the relatives you call in need.” With that she tapped the bike. “I like a mile from this family but they are still my neighbors. A mile away and they are still family. So I can just go to their house and request an egg or flour or a child to help me or a bike to move on my way without anything given in return. That is a true Zambian neighbor.”
How incredible is that relationship? Neighbors bonded on trust and familial duty. A village is a family who looks after one another as best as they could, try to avoid conflict and take care of each other’s kids. Family is always right next door, Ba Violet continued.

When introducing me to the headmen, they asked if I eat Zambian food. He laughed and answered,”Yes! The visitor of the monkey eats what the monkey eats.”

When I told her about the hand washing station, she was so eager to see it immediately. She said, “If you are to follow the teacher, you must do what the teacher does.”

Even The World Inside Our Minds Can Learn to Spin The Other Way

It has now been week five and my entire world had changed. Five weeks. Only a few weeks and I have had three homes and a future one that I have imagined a million times over in my head.

Getting the site announced was as if my dreams spilled out in front of me and woke me up, having been knocking on my door the whole time. This week started with the news and so far I have not been disappointed. My village is incredibly large and needs a lot of work with malaria. Shona people in the village do not take medicine except for salt in their water. I am going to be exceptionally busy.

We came into Suwilanji Gardens lodge these past two days. A beautiful lodge 45 mins off from Chongwe in Lusaka with sweeping flora and bamboo bridges. Sculptures of monkeys, toucans, and dolphins littered the landscape with great open spaces and cement building filled wall to wall in graffiti art. In front of my hotel room were two ponds as large as lakes with water lilies closing in daylight and open at midnight.

After a hot shower and a warm bed and getting my friend Casey to finally see Toy Story 3 (yes, she cried and it was worth it), we woke up to a hot breakfast and our host family arriving on a bus. I met my host mother wishing to stall every moment. I am a first generation volunteer. My village did not have a volunteer ever but they know what we are. Except knowing is different from experiencing. Knowing what we do can only mean assumptions and expectations that we are not able to meet.

Was she going to talk about a bore hole?

Or grant money?

Was the village waiting for me to do the work?

But they found me walking and there she was. Silent and humble with a face as nervous as the one I put on that morning. She asked me my name and with nerves acting on our words, it was a hard introduction. Violet Machaya is her name. With five children especially girls impressively in high school and her oldest past 12th grade, she was a mother who valued education. I was happy listening to her speak wishing for her second daughter to also finish school. Most girls here stop school at sixth grade or eighth.

Here was a dedicated mom. Reminded me of my mother always lecturing the importance of education.

I was disappointed at first as she was a quiet person. I am a quiet soul as well but I love loud people. I love excited and eccentric people. I enjoy large families and unique children with character and personalities. But it was also one day.

That day the workshop covered policies to village work and how people in Zambia work on zamtime. Set up a meeting at ten hours and they’ll only arrive by twelve or thirteen hours (1 o’ clock).

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Great dedicated hosts stood up and talked about their incredible hopes and with great speeches, we met each other’s hosts. It seemed so exciting watching everyone click with their future family.

I talked with my host mother the next day and she had changed. Calling me by my name, Megha and then Mapalo, meaning blessing in Bemba, we took pictures together, and talked about our village in depth. From
problems to extent of outreach to many topics about SSV. I want to work with women and youth especially hoping to empower women and girls to start careers.

We talked further setting up an action plan for our first three months in community. Integration is two part process and with my family’s help, it will help to be considered part of the village before I get pulled out in December for in service training (IST). And then, it will be difficult to integrate. Not impossible but difficult.

More sessions of policies reinforced or values of sustainable development but this is only one citizen of a village. How would they change the behavior of the all? They will be my link. My strongest link while many villagers will still believe I bring only money.

Except in moments, Violet talked about her wishes. She said her village sent her with wishes for developed buildings but she wished for only one thing: for women to come to the clinic instead of birthing babies at home.
She then said that she realized that after the workshop all wishes coming true were not plausible. She looked at her sheet evaluating the workshop and answered,

“Development does not happen with quick fixes to environment but with change in the heads of people.”

Peace Corps changes more than just your own world and your own comfort zone. It changes even the minds of those you are sent to change even before you arrive at their doorstep.

Attitude Counts

Living life out in another country broadens and stretches your inner tranquility. It pushes you to be incredibly different and react different.

Traveling is not changing addresses or food habits but having the right attitude. Having the attitude that strives after defeat, that cares for each and every one more than yourself and to see the silver lining instead of the dense fog overhead.

Zambia is no different.

One month.

One month I have been here and attitude is the one thing I am proud to have brought in my suitcase.

One month and I have been robbed.
One month and that same day, my host sister passed away with mysterious malaria like symptoms.
One month and I have cried. One month. It was enough.

Zambia did not wait for me to be ready or for me to get used to Zambia.

Zambia did not wait or surprise me before I began to love my host family and my loving sisters.
Before I helped take care of my host sister’s child.
Before I compared the life of a twenty two year old traveler out of college and a twenty five year mother of three year twin boys and a seven month old baby boy with smuggled nuts in his cheeks like a squirrel.

I loved them and shared so much with my family than I ought to. I lucked out with my homestay. I am so lucky and in one month, I fell.

After that horrible twelve hours, the last thing I wanted to think about was the girl who stole money from my window. Money can be returned. Jewelry can be remade. But losing a sister I actually loved…

Be careful of wanderlust. A drug so powerful can break you and force you to push yourself and your bank account. But if you have the right attitude, you can ride its highs and brave it’s lows.

This week has been too hard on me. And sometimes I cry at night for her. I cry for being so helpless and then when I think that there was actually nothing I could’ve done. She was 25.

Attitude counts. In twelve hours, Zambia has tested me and through a flu, I had to mourn. Zambia has tested me but I will brave this.

I’ve packed light but I sure as hell packed well.