Saturday, August 29, 2009

Field trip to Copperbelt Province

-- July 29, 2009 --

WOW! The Peace Corps certainly doesn’t waste any time getting our feet wet! After only four days in Zambia, the trainers split us up into small groups and sent us out into the bush to live with a current volunteer for a few days. What an adventure! My group of six trainees (plus our Host Volunteer, a driver, a stowaway Training leader, and luggage/food for everyone) all got stuffed into a single Land Rover for a ten-hour drive out to Copperbelt Province, where we received a brief but enlightening taste of life as a PC-Zambia volunteer.

Tight squeeze in the back of the Land Rover

Living conditions here are pretty spartan - I can see why Zambia has a reputation as the Peace Corps' most remote outpost. Volunteers live as one of the villagers, which usually means a small thatched-roof, mud-brick hut with no electricity or running water, using a pit latrine, cooking over an open charcoal fire, and taking bucket baths with water drawn from a well. Our site visit was no different.

Camping outside our host volunteer's mud-brick hut

THE 'BUSU!!! (short for 'icimbusu', the Bemba word for toilet)

But despite all the conveniences of my technologically superior Western upbringing, it's been surprisingly easy to adapt to this new Zambian lifestyle. In fact, the slower pace and lack of technology has in many ways been quite rewarding. Waking and sleeping with the daylight hours just feels so much more natural than those 1am college nights. And after a hard day's work under the scorching African sun, I actually really look forward to a crisp, refreshing, beneath-the-stars bucket bath. I've found that a book reads just a little bit better when its words are flickering in the candlelight, and I’m still discovering new possibilities in the world of one-pot cooking. I must admit I’m even becoming a fan of squat toilets (The genius of their design is that only the bottoms of your shoes ever touch anything dirty - imagine the wonders this could do at those appallingly-filthy gas station bathrooms back home)!

The highlight of our trip, however, was the day we spent meeting some of our host volunteer’s fish farmers. He made a point to introduce us to both his “good” and “bad” farmers, and the contrast was eye-opening. At one extreme was the farmer who designed and built his own two ponds, maintained them perfectly, and even developed his own farm integration system to irrigate his crops with excess fish-pond water (super-fertilized fish pond water works wonders on a maize crop). With the extra money he earned he’s managed to build a new house and put his kids through school. He also developed an appreciation for reading and wants to start a local library.

Checking out the local fish ponds!

On the other extreme was the farming co-op, which in theory wanted to have fish ponds but was unwilling to put in the work necessary to build and maintain the ponds. Instead they spend their time trying to secure free handouts, supplies, and labor from passing non-profit organizations. In the short term they benefit greatly from all those free goodies, but once the donors leave they are back in the same hole they've always been in. This co-op farmers had developed such a dependency on foreign aid that they'd lost sight of their own ability to generate income through hard work and an open mind. It was very disappointing to witness, but it’s a big problem here in Sub-Saharan Africa, where there are a ton of aid organizations spending a ton of money, but relatively few groups who have the skills and perseverence (emphasis on perseverance!) necessary to turn that money into truly sustainable improvements in the lives of Africans. That's why I'm in Peace Corps :-)


  1. Awesome blog entry!!! Thanks for sharing your experiences!!
    Sounds like you are physically adapting extremely well to the new living conditions.....which is amazing to me. Mattawan people must just be tough!!
    Really liked the pictures....couldn't help but notice a few dogs running around. I hope you'll get the chance to get one. Seems like they would be good company and maybe keep unwanted critters away.
    Good luck with the fish farmers.......LITERALLY if you teach a man to fish....!!!
    SO proud of you, Mark Loehrke

  2. I hope you don't get sunburned in that Zambian sun!

    They really threw you into it huh? It's interesting to read the contrast between the "good" and "bad" farmers. I guess ideally you should try to help people help themselves.

    Thanks for the pics. :)

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