Merry Christmas!

This last couple of weeks have been incredibly relaxed, with plenty of free time for me to fill. Since the rains have started all of the farmers, which is everyone in my village, have been busy plowing fields, planting maize, and hoeing weeds. All of this agriculture leaves little time for fish farming, which puts me somewhat at loose ends.

Most mornings I spend a few hours in my garden, and the afternoons are whiled away coloring with the kids. All in all it has been a very laid-back time, and it has been easy to forget that the ‘Holiday Season’ has been in full swing back home. Christmas here in Zambia is certainly different from our American version of the holiday. Except for in the big cities, shops do not decorate, radio stations do not play endless carols, and people are not compelled to buybuybuy. Christmas is a special day to go to church and have a good meal with your family, but the maize still needs planting and the weeds still l need hoeing. Along with most of my village, I spent Christmas morning pulling weeds in my garden.

In the afternoon everyone bathes and puts on their new Christmas clothes, then heads to church for the Christmas service. There is singing, of hymns rather than carols, and dancing, and lots of chatting afterward. Lastly everyone comes home for their Christmas meal, the definite inclusion of meat making it special. And that is Christmas: no gifts and no overindulging on rich foods. Very different from how we celebrate back home.

For my part, I did make cookies on my brazier, put up a paper chain in my hut, and pull out a new coloring book for the kids to make the day a little bit special, but otherwise it was much like any other. It was definitely the most mellow Christmas I’ve ever had.

So Merry Christmas from Zambia! I’ve certainly enjoyed my non-American Christmas experience, but I think it, like most things in life, could be seriously improved by about 10 pounds of toffee.

To Build a Garden (and entertain a village)

Putting in a garden can be a challenging and rewarding endeavor. Not only does it give you something to do with your copious spare time, it also provides you with fresh vegetables and your neighbors with hours of entertainment. Follow this step-by-step guide and you’ll soon be reaping the benefits of your very own garden.

Step 1: Get some land
This is likely to be the most time-consuming part of starting your garden, so be patient and start early!  Remember that most of the land in Zambia is controlled by traditional leaders, so you may be making a visit to your headman with your request. There is plenty of free space to go around, but it can take time and persistence to be allowed use of an actual plot, rather than enthusiastic but vague promises of land. If you are very lucky, your fish farming counterpart will have more land that he can use, and he’ll happily give you some. And after months of gentle reminders (“After we stake your pond today, maybe we can find a spot for my garden!”) you will finally be shown exactly where you can start digging.

Step 2: Planning Your Garden
This step is very quick, but will completely mystify your neighbors. Mark out where you plan to put your garden beds using pegs and string. Make sure you think about how to efficiently arrange beds, and try for a certain amount of right-angleness in your corners. Be sure to cheerfully answer questions from passers-by about WHY you might want to plan ahead, rather than just jumping straight to the digging. Also be sure to get help from the bands of roaming children: they’ll be thrilled to help you with your measuring tape, especially if you let them reel it in.

Step 3: Digging Your Beds
This step is hard work, and will cause even more confusion in the people around you. First you must hoe all of the weeds out of your bed. This will take an entire day. You should expect a young man or two to slouch over, just to watch. Don’t worry: this is completely normal! They are just surprised that a white person can do physical work. When you go home, people will ask if you have planted. “Not yet: I was digging my bed.”
The next day you will loosen all of the topsoil in your bed, again with a hoe. Try not to feel silly straddling the bed, swinging a hoe and trying to not re-compact your soil. The group of young girls watching will be happy to let you practice your Tonga on them, as long as you don’t mind the giggles. When you go home, people will ask if you have planted. “Not yet: I was digging my bed.”
The next day you will manage to double-dig half of your bed, and you will notice an improvement in your hoe technique. To double dig, remove a small area of topsoil from the bed. Loosen the exposed subsoil and mix in manure. Then move topsoil from the next small area onto your loosened subsoil. Loosen that exposed subsoil and mix in manure. Do this until your arms fall off, and you’ll be done for the day. Take short breaks and talk to the boys herding cattle. Ask them not to walk on your nice, fluffy soil. Have them ignore you. When you go home, people will ask if you have planted. “Not yet: I was digging my bed.”
The next day you should double-dig the other half of your bed. This is a great day to chat with a neighbor in her nearby garden. Talk about what you’re going to plant, and then try to explain a what a cantaloupe is. Saying that it’s like a watermelon, but orange and tastes more like a papaya or mango will only earn you a very puzzled look. Promise to give her one to try if you can get them to grow. When you go home, people will ask if you have planted. “Not yet: I was digging my bed.”

Step 4: Planting Your Garden
This is the last step before simply watering, watching, and waiting. Make sure to do this step on the rainiest day available: every accomplishment is more impressive in the rain. First, loosen your topsoil one more time, mixing manure in and shaping the surface of your bed. The manure is best when completely soggy and full of biting ants. Finally (!) you are ready to plant. Enjoy digging in your beautiful, aerated soil as you plant your poor sprouting potatoes and ginger. Talk to another neighbor as you sprinkle seeds in neat rows, trying to explain what basil tastes like. And when you get home, people won’t ask if you’ve planted: they’ve been inside their dry house all day and didn’t even see you leave.


There are 3 main ways to get around Zambia if you cannot drive, and Peace Corps doesn’t even allow us to think about driving.

First you can take a large, air-conditioned coach bus. This works well if you are trying to get from one large city to another and have plenty of money to spend on comfort, which rarely described the way a volunteer is traveling.

Second you can take a blue bus. These are privately owned and operated and don’t run on a set schedule or route. They will stop anywhere to pick up a new passenger, and will sit at a popular stop and wait until they are (over) full. They are relatively inexpensive, but are hot, crowded, slow, and frequently not in great repair.

Third you can hitchhike, which is inexpensive (or free), and really seems to be the Peace Corps Volunteer’s transport of choice. I should say here that Peace Corps “highly discourages” hitchhiking, but that every volunteer I’ve talked to hitches extensively, so I sure hope I don’t get in trouble for telling you all about it.

This week, for example, I had to go to Kabwe (about 60km) to get an extension on my visa. I rode my bike to a market on the main road and left it with a shopkeeper there. I stood by the road and waved my hand up and down (the hitchhiking signal here. A thumbs-up will just get smiles and thumbs-up in return).

The first car that stopped was a nice van driven by a gentleman from England. He was happy to take me as far as he was going, about halfway, for free. On the way we got to talking, and he told me that he was retired now, but had worked for 30 years for an international aid organization that evacuated people out of areas of conflict in Africa. So he had managed the logistics to get people out of Syria during the conflict and Rwanda during the genocide. He’d lived in more than 8 African countries, always during the times of most turmoil. Now he is living in rural Zambia and giving rides to poor volunteers headed to Kabwe.

We parted ways when he had to turn off the main road, but I was quickly picked up and rode the rest of the way in the back of a pickup truck with two soldiers in the Zambian Army. One was from Southern Province, and was thrilled that I spoke Tonga. He had 7 years left in a 20 year service, and was looking forward to retiring and becoming a soybean and fish farmer. We spent most of the ride talking about fishponds. The driver graciously dropped me off right at the door of the Immigrations office, and my journey to Kabwe was complete.

I spent a few hours in Kabwe, taking care of my visa and shopping for exotic things like whole wheat flour and spices other than salt. Then I headed to a gas station on the southern side of town and started my trip back. At this point it was getting late and the afternoon rain was starting to move in, so I was grateful when a woman driving a nice SUV stopped for me. She works for the Department of Education, and we discussed the trouble with getting teachers to work in the rural villages. Many, understandably don’t want to live and work with no electricity and no running water, so it is difficult to hire teachers for village schools. She said that the way to remedy the situation is to develop the rural areas so people are willing to teach there. Unfortunately, development is a slow process, and it will take time to get the schools fully staffed. So I guess I’d better get moving on those fishponds: that’s my contribution to development.

She dropped me off at my bike about an hour before dark, and I raced home to avoid 3 converging thunderstorms. I only got a few drops of rain on my ride, but about 5 minutes after I walked in my door the sky opened up and it started pouring.

So that was my trip to Kabwe, and I never would have met such interesting people riding a blue bus. I think as long as you are careful to choose the car and driver that look safe, rather than just the first ride that comes along, hitching can be an interesting way to travel here.

But perhaps I won’t tell my mother…