Things I Learned in the Peace Corps, Part I

By the time this is published my Peace Corps service will have come to a close. I quit a $130,000/year (plus benefits! and equity!) job to come out here and work for free and it has been worth it. Of the Peace Corps’ three goals, only one of them is actually about providing technical help to countries in need, and the other two are about learning about people and culture. So here are my thoughts about what I learned (stretched out over two posts to cover the weeks I’m on COS trip; whoo COS trip!)

I of course learned a great deal about Zambia and by extension Sub-Saharan Africa. Maybe I shouldn’t say “of course” because so much of the history of this area is poorly documented, or the connections are poorly explained, or both, and learning about the history and culture of this place takes a special effort. It’s really easy to live here for two years and never ask why things are the way they are. I am especially glad I wound up living in the Mbala region, because there are so many different things here to lead you down rabbit holes of history and culture. It was a quick mention of the SS Good News that lead me to learn all about the London Missionary Society, the Stevenson Road, and how and why colonialism came to Northern Zambia. Poking around more leads you to the slave trade, and the revelation about how much the slave trade affected so many different aspects of culture and the distribution of people, even this far from the coasts. These days I tend to think that instead of turtles all the way down, it’s the slave trade, linking everything from the Bantu migration to the modern-day borders of Zambia and Tanzania. That’s a history that is hard to find until you look. I also love the pre-history of this place, reaching all the way back to man’s earliest uses of fire, and I love to think about the unbroken chain of people all living in this very spot.

In the modern-day, it is fascinating to catch glimpses into a national psyche that both prides itself on being a Peaceful Nation (how different is that from the American ethos?) while also being proud of their history of supporting the freedom struggles of other Southern African countries. Every time I go down to Lusaka, I pass the bombed-out Chambeshi Bridge which attests to the pain Zambia has felt for helping others throw off the chains of colonialism. Like all cultures, Zambia can be a mix of contradictions, both declaring itself to be a Christian Nation while having people sue each other over witchcraft in the courts, or watching the country reconcile pride in tribes and traditions while also being One Zambia, One Nation. Seeing what goes on in Zambia also gives insights into American culture, because a lot of the things an American might find distasteful about Zambia, from a lack of infrastructure to child marriage, weren’t all that weird in America not so long ago. Living in a foreign culture can do a whole lot to put your own in perspective.

The most significant parts of what I learned in the Peace Corps is really just an actual understanding of things that maybe I knew beforehand only intellectually. Before I came to Zambia I was aware that people lived on $1/day (I guess the more modern definition of “extreme poverty” is actually $1.90/day, adjusted for purchasing power parity) but I didn’t really know what that meant. Now I know what it is actually like to cook on a brazier. I know what it is like to get all your water from a stream that may or may not be muddy any given day, and is the same stream where people wash their clothes and small children. I know how much effort and time it takes to hoe ridges, plant the seeds, and spend a rainy season weeding to get the same amount of beans that sells for a few dollars at the market. I know how much it sucks to walk three hours to town only to be told to come back tomorrow and hike three hours back in the equatorial sun. Early on in service I found plans for a “low-cost” solar dryer that was supposed to only need $10 worth of parts. Now I know asking a guy to build that could be the same thing as asking him to not send his kid to school for the next year.

One thing I learned that is especially hard to glean from just numbers is the impact of infrastructure and its secondary effects. I think about the schools in Zambia a lot. Around me there are three schools, and none of them have water or electricity. They are all located 10-20 kilometers away from the nearest “big” town (Mbala) down dirt roads that can be downright treacherous in the rainy season. Besides the obvious difficulties of teaching subjects like “computers” in a school without electricity, the most insidious effect I think is how hard it is to retain teachers. Qualified teachers are, by definition, people who have gone to college and are used to Big City Living. Even if they grew up in a village, most don’t want to go back to living in a place where they fetch water from a stream. So the schools can’t retain teachers; as soon as they can, the teachers leave for jobs in town. This diminishes the quality of education these kids could possibly receive, all else being equal, and means it is impossible to maintain clubs or other empowerment projects long-term. Even things like administrative tasks are made harder. At a nearby school I have worked at, there is one government teacher (the rest are volunteer teachers from the community). Whenever he needs to do basic admin tasks, like print out tests, he has to go to the school board office in town, which means he has to spend the whole day there and the students are deprived of the one person at the school actually qualified to teach. Living here I have seen how the lack of infrastructure contributes to a cycle of illiteracy and poverty that would have been hard to understand if I had never witnessed it for myself, first-hand.