Living in the Village

Reading this week:

  • Into the Wild by John Krakauer
  • room full of mirrors: a biography of jimi hendrix by Charles R. Cross
  • Timeline by Michael Crichton
  • Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt

I am posted, like most volunteers in Zambia (especially agriculture volunteers) in a rural village. I have no running water or electricity from a utility. I have my own small hut (which I think is not actually that much smaller than my last apartment) and I take care of all my daily tasks myself. I have a host family here in the village, and they are willing to do things for me like fetch my water and cook my meals, but I think it is important to do a lot of that stuff on my own. First, it helps display gender equality – although there is some overlap, tasks like cooking, cleaning, and fetching water are largely considered women’s work, and by doing these things myself (as a man) it helps to break down gender roles. Second, I’m a adult and I don’t need to be babied, so there’s that too.

Water comes from the river that goes through the middle of the valley. It is about half a kilometer away, which isn’t too bad. Sometimes the river gets muddy, especially when they are irrigating the fields upstream, but it is usually quiet and clear. The local women carry the water on their head, but I usually wind up hefting it on my shoulder. Those women are strong, as you would expect – they have been hauling water on their heads since they were young enough to hoist a tiny bucket up there. To make the water safe to drink, the Peace Corps has issued me a filter. I also add a small amount of chlorine to kill any bugs the filters don’t get.

My bathroom (“chimbusu,” or “chim” as all the PCVs call it) is a small outhouse-like building. I am lucky enough to have a door on mine so I don’t have to chase out goats or chickens when I go to use it. Inside is just a hole in the ground, and you squat. Not the greatest feeling on old knees like mine, but you get used to it. Aiming is important.

I don’t have a stove and instead cook on a brazier. I use charcoal, and every day around 1600 (Zambia uses a 24-hour clock) I light my brazier to heat some bath water. I heat my bath water to boiling in a kettle, and then add some more cold water to bring it down to the right temperature. I carry the water and my soap over to my outdoor shower (olusasa) and bathe by pouring water over myself with a cup. It is pretty effective, and when it is dark out it is nice to look at the stars.

After my shower I get around to cooking dinner. I do most of the food prep inside my hut in my little kitchen nook, and then cook outside on my porch. I have a camp chair I like to lounge in. Once the brazier is going cooking doesn’t take too long. For dinner, I usually have fried rice, because I am lazy and a bachelor. For lunch, I usually eat with my host family (I tried to get them to stop feeding me, but that is apparently a bridge too far, and it is rude to turn down a meal in Zambia anyways). The local Zambians eat nshima, which is sort of like really thick grits. They eat it with “relish,” which is just anything that isn’t nshima. What the relish is depends on the time of year, but right about now we are eating a lot of beans and fish, which is good. The Zambians don’t use silverware – you take a lump of nshima, and then ball it up and then form a small scoop with it using your hands. Then you use the nshima to scoop up the relish. Keeps the amount of dishes down, for sure.

Besides my brazier, I also made myself a small pop can stove that I run off of methylated spirits. It is pretty good at what it does, but for heating anything big I wind up using a lot of spirits. It is perfect though for making some coffee in the morning in a small espresso maker I brought with me.

It was such a feeling of profound relief when I managed to make coffee in the village. It wasn’t the coffee itself, but being able to make it represented the first moment I was like “I think I can make it here.”

Laundry is done by hand here. The Zambians will do it entirely by hand, without even using a washboard, but I made myself a washing machine using two buckets and a plunger. I got the idea online. That works pretty well, and is a lot easier on my hands (like I said, the women around here are TOUGH). After you wash it in the bucket, you rinse the laundry in another bucket of water and then put it on the line to dry. Washing clothes takes a great deal of water and I wind up doing laundry about once a week. Clothes get dirty quick.

To power things like the phone I am typing this on, I have a few different solar devices. I have a large solar panel attached to a battery I use to power things like my laptop. To charge my phone I have a smaller portable solar panel, and then I also have a solar-powered light that provides illumination at night. I’m not able to operate hot plates or power tools, but the setup is plenty to keep my phone and kindle charged.

Transportation around the village is either by bike or by walking. My village is in a valley, so generally for shorter trips I am just walking. To get to my nearest town, which is about 12 kilometers away, I generally bike. The Peace Corps issues volunteers mountain bikes, which is just as well because we aren’t allowed to drive cars and we aren’t allowed to ride motorcycles at all. This is for safety purposes. The village grows some vegetables and a great deal of corn, but I do most of my shopping for food and items in the nearest town, known as a Boma. It isn’t a huge town, but there is a good selection of stuff and at least one pizza joint, so life isn’t too bad at all.