Freeloading in Zambia

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Goal #3

One of the primary goals of Peace Corps is to promote the exchange of culture and understanding between Americans and people in all parts of the world. It's an admirable goal, if a bit nebulous. Peace Corps does more than just give lip service to it, too - we've had several two hour sessions during training earmarked for the purpose of teaching us about Zambian history, customs, and traditions.

I'm not going to say whether or not I think these sessions are worthwhile. Yes I will - I don't. The most recent, though, is the singular exception. For this special session we separated into two groups - one for the women, one for the men. Anytime there is something that can only be said in the presence of people of the same sex you know that it's going to be interesting, and I wasn't disappointed.

One thing that I've learned is that Zambia has a VERY traditional view of gender roles (men putting food on the table, women cooking it), and that any public discussion or even acknowledgment of sex is FORBIDDEN. The purpose of this class was to give us fair warning about the whats, whys, and hows of gender relationships in Zambia, but it quickly veered off the path into something else entirely. I'm not sure if it's the result of years of repression, but our Zambian trainers (and admittedly some of the volunteers) were talking about the birds and the bees in greater detail than I've ever encountered in such mixed company.

I won't go into the same level of detail that we did in our class (you're welcome, family members). I will say only that Jebros - a married, 40-something Zambian language trainer - was at one point in the center of this circle of men, on his back, showing us the techniques Zambian women use to please the men in their lives. I'm no prude, but there were moments where even I was blushing.

So I ask myself, was this a necessary element in our cultural exchange? Do I now know more about Zambia and its people? In the eyes of Peace Corps, was that moment the point at which we can look at Goal #3 and say, "Mission accomplished"?

I believe the answer is yes on all counts.

The Break-in

As I previously mentioned, I am living with a family while during my training in Mwekera. After 5+ years of living on my own, it's not been easy adjusting to living on someone else's schedule. I have to eat when the family eats, I have to be to bed at a decent hour, and I can only bathe when she's got the hot water ready. I appreciate the food, shelter, etc., but this has definitely solidified my desire for independence. The fact that the Peace Corps staff have been treating us like H.S. freshman doesn't help things, and lately I have been getting the middle school urge to skip class and run away from home.

Last Saturday night, after a looong week of class, I took a well-earned break and did some drinking. It was nothing extravagant, just a couple of bottles of liquor (mmmmm, Ron Baccarat rum) some "crush" (juice concentrate) and some rousing games of ping pong. Only when we decided to turn in for the night did I realize the time - 3 a.m. Yee-ikes. I did tell my "mom" that I would be home late, but this was pushing it. "I'm TWENTY FOUR," I keep telling myself, "this is not something I should be worrying about." Well, Wyatt, right about now is when you should start getting worried.

It was late, I was drunk, and I needed to get in a horizontal position - stat. The front door was "locked" - meaning that a bent nail had been pushed over the edge of the door - so I had to knock. And knock again. And knock again, louder. I can't be sure, but I'm pretty certain that she was awake at this point. I was being loud, because I was not about to stand outside all night out of courtesy. If you don't want to be woken up don't lock the door, I'm thinking. I finally give up and start trying to jimmy it open.

The front of my house is a wall of planks nailed together (not unlike the market booths), and is semi-freestanding, so I decided to make a go of it and tried to push my way in. Keep in mind that my judgment might have been a bit impaired at this point. It was a controlled push, and I almost had the wall pushed far enough to the side that I could slip the door past the nail when 'crrrreeeaaak' - I pulled a plank off the front of the house. You all know the sound of a nail being abruptly pulled from a board, it's pretty unmistakable.

Whoops. So now I'm standing ashamed, afraid of the consequences, and with a light sweat on my brow from the exertion. Completely defeated, I start saying "Hodi, hodi, hodi," which is the Zambian way of saying "Knock, knock." She finally came and opened the door, and after a cursory apology I went straight into my room.

She never said a word about it.

Shacks and Sewer Water

I'm trying not to write exclusively about the nasty/deplorable observations I've made here, but an experience in a Zambian market is something I simply cannot resist expounding upon. The market in Kitwe - the city nearest to the Peace Corps training center - is particularly bad.

There isn't a permanent structure in the entire market. Every booth is constructed of wooden planks that are so rough that many of them still have bark on their undersides. I say "booth" like each one is a freestanding structure. Not the case. Each little shack/hole is built in such a way that it is entirely dependent upon the booths on either side of it to remain standing, and the whole outfit gives the impression that if one board were removed the entire market would collapse like a line of dominoes. To give you an idea, half of the market burned down a couple of weeks ago, and today it was almost entirely reconstructed. It's built like everyone is expecting to pick up shop and move to the next town any day now.

The wares being peddled in the market are similarly shoddy. The electronics stands have a complete selection of Sonny and Panasound boomboxes, and there is no shortage of fake shoes, shirts, watches, and sunglasses. My personal favorite was an Eminem t-shirt where the man depicted was CLEARLY not Eminem. Not even close. I figure if you're going to violate international copyright laws you might as well go whole-hog and at least do a decent job of it.

The people hawking the stuff are usually over-aggressive and relentless too. Initially I gave them the common courtesy of a firm "No," but I now realized that they only took this as a sign of interest in their products and now walk without acknowledging anybody yelling "Hey, Boss!" or "Mister, Mister, come here and look!" My personal favorite was the man wearing so many belts on his neck, waist and arms that he looked like the Michelin Man. Good thinking, buddy - why waste money on a booth when you can be mobile and follow your customers around?

The cherry on top is the river of sewer water running directly through the middle of everything. I'm not exaggerating - it really is sewer water. The sewers in Kitwe are all open, only in the rest of the city they run alongside the sidewalks in little canals. In the market it flows free between the booths, and the ground is muddy with it. Sometimes there is a makeshift bridge over the water, but usually it is just a carelessly arranged pile of timber that you have to nimbly pick your way across. Needless to say I deeply regret having worn my sandals today.

Don't misunderstand me though - I love the market. My favorite section is the salaula, which is a Bemba word signifying "to rummage." Anyone who knows me well is keenly aware of my love for thrifting, so this should come as no surprise. I make no notice of the blazing sun, stench of sewage and dried fish, or the mud I'm standing in when I have pile upon pile of someone else's old clothes to dig through. The "Fealy's Adult Book Store" shirt featured in the beard contest (and the shirt Brett is wearing) is a shining example.

I also bought all of my family's X-mas gifts there. Maybe I should punch holes in the box when I send them back so they have a chance to air out...

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Beard Contest

One of my fellow trainees and I are having a beard growing contest. I've been growing mine since September 8, he's been growing his since September 10. Comment to vote!

Also bear in mind that a mere two months ago I looked like this.

Amendment: His name is Brett, and he too has a blog that you should check out.

Saturday, November 05, 2005


All mail sent to me in Africa should now go to my permanent address:

Wyatt Ammon / PCV
PO Box 160073
Mwinilunga, Zambia

Please send postcards, I need wall decorations. Letters with postcards in the envelopes are even better, of course, and I'll never argue with a package.


I'm living with a family during training here in Mwekera. The Mususu household has fluctuated in size between 5 and 11 people, because Zambians traditionally have a sort of extended family exchange program. It's been an interesting experience, to say the least, but I'll focus my attention on the one member of the family that has (to my chagrin) been present the entire time. JONES.

Jones is five. He is a monster. He is the kind of kid that gets whatever he wants, whenever he wants it. Apparently it's possible for a kid to be spoiled even in a country where the average income is $200 a year. He pouts, he beats up his sisters and cousins (and they get in trouble if they cry, Jones is never in the wrong) and he thinks he's just about the funniest thing to strut the planet Earth. He will openly mock me in right to my face if he thinks it will get a laugh. I am not a fan of being mocked.

Case in point: When I'm at home I'm usually in my oversmall bedroom reading or studying or just trying to avoid everyone. He found out that if he asked me for my headlamp to go to the bathroom that I would give it to him out of sympathy (nobody should have to crap in the dark). It took about two times of asking politely before he decided that he was ENTITLED to my headlamp and came to me and said, "Give me your torch."

"No, Jones, you have to say please first."

"Give it to me."

"No. Say please."

"Give me the torch."

"Say please and you can have it, Jones."


This was obviously a very mature interchange, and it went on for about three minutes. Needless to say I was more stubborn than he was, but was also pretty disgusted with myself for having gotten into a battle of wills with a five year old. Hey, a man has to stand by his principles.


Welcome to Lunda. It means "the reason people suffer" - how fitting for a word that is EIGHTEEN LETTERS LONG in a language that has been so painful to learn.

Here are some other gems:

Munakuyitelekeshang'a. - You cook for him all the time.
Nakutiyang'a kuzenzalala. - I feel stupid.
Natiyi kusheta chanti, hekwawu nanwi swayi swayi. - I'm feeling a bit tipsy, maybe I drank too fast.
Kachi nafunti, ilang'a ching'a kujaha kamesha kanyanya chitachi. - I would've come, but I had to kill a kitten first.

I'm happy to finally be learning my second language, but I never would've guessed it would be one so random and completely dissimilar to English. Oh yeah, and useless unless you're living in the middle of the bush in Africa.

Chidihohu (oh well).


Every meal in Zambia is virtually the same. There are the "relishes" - the meat and vegetable of the meal, and nshima. The 'meat' is usually kapenta (dried baby fish), beans, eggs, soy pieces (believe it or not), or very occasionally chicken or beef. Interesting selection. The 'vegetable' is rape, cabbage, sweet potato leaves, or cassava leaves. Imagine stripping the leaves off of a branch and frying them up until they're a greasy, stringly blob of green substance. I am not exaggerating when I say that this is an exhaustive list of the foods eaten in Zambia. I enjoy eating, so this lack of variety has been a bit of a problem for me.

The difference between eating here and eating in the US is that we eat for pleasure. They eat out of necessity. The finer points of flavor and texture seem to be lost on Zambians, if it's salty and provides the bare minimum of nutrients it's good enough for them. This fact is most apparent when you look at the filler food of the meal - nshima.

Nshima was described by the Peace Corps in my useless information packet as "corn porridge." In reality it is the consistency of grainy modelling clay. It is flavorless, colorless, and as far as I know virtually nutritionless. It's corn flour mixed with water and boiled until it gets that perfect rubbery texture, and is served as a gigantic (sometimes half of a soccer ball sized) mound. It is served so hot that the center of this mound is approximately the temperature of the Earth's core. No utensils are used. You grab your little lump of food substance off of the mound, roll it into a ball in your hand, and pinch up some delicious relish off of your plate with it and put the lot of it your mouth.

I have no real problem with nshima. It's like vanilla ice cream - the flavor (or lack thereof) is so inoffensive that you can't actively dislike it, you just prefer tastier things. Zambians, however, have an unhealthy obsession with the stuff. They think that it alone is what gives them strength to make it through the day, that it is delicious and soon there will be Zambian restaurants peppered all over the US, and that an ability to pack it down by the kg is a sign of virility. The truth of the matter is that they eat so much nshima that they have little room for any more substantial food, which serves the dual purpose of ensuring that they get full and that they'll be able to stretch the little meat they have for a few more days. Sad but true.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Out of Time

Strange how you go to foreign land and suddenly have so many things to say but every time you're on a computer you have such a laundry list of things to do you have no time to share them.

I'm writing now only to say that I will write more later. Don't abandon me yet.

Next week, I promise. Lots.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Pestilence or Potato Chips?

The seven month Zambian rainy season is beginning this month, and I've been enjoying some fairly strange weather. It goes from 90 and hot during the day to a cool 60 at night. It goes from a cloudless sky to overcast in a matter of an hour. The wind can gust at 30 mph all morning and it will be still as a church by noon. The rains, though, have brought the most interesting phenomena.

We got our first rain on Sep. 28. It was a short shower, and according to the Zambians was a "fluke." We got another rain this week, and I can tell you that there was nothing flukey about it. It downpoured, the dirt roads turned into raging rivers, and the tin roof of my house sounded like it was being pummeled by hail. It was two hours of sheeting rain then nothing. The sky was clear an hour later. But that's not the weird part.

The next day the sky was filled with what I thought were a bunch of moths. These insects were flying everywhere, hitting you in the face, running into walls, and flailing about frantically for no apparent reason. All of the chameleons came out of hiding, the village dogs were going nuts, and the chickens were pecking their heads off. These bugs were prime pickins, and everything in site was eating them up by the dozen. I asked one of our trainers what the deal with all the moths was and she replied casually, "Oh, the termites always migrate after the first big rain."

Did you say termites? I've always thought of termites as detestable creatures that live in rotting wood. The African version is an apparently winged creature that builds 20-foot mounds of clay all over the countryside.

There was another thing that I never realized about termites that I was clued in on. The trainer said equally casually, "If you fry them up they taste like potato chips." I had to call B.S. on that one, but she persisted saying, "Oh yeah! The village kids will be gathering them up all over the place." She wasn't kidding. Some people even get sacks or baskets and put them over termite holes to catch them as the stream out in a black cloud.

I didn't get the chance to try them, but if I had I probably would've passed on it. But I've been hearing stories from volunteers about how they thought caterpillars tasted like bacon and how they have been using their imaginations to try to add some variety to the HORRENDOUSLY MONOTONOUS Zambian diet, so in a couple of years I might just try to tell you that if you mix dirt with a little oil and salt it really doesn't taste that bad. If that day comes please feel free to slap me into my senses.