So Much Cute

It has been a long time since I’ve posted, and I apologize for the delay. Hopefully I’ll get back on track, updating you regularly on my adventures here.

Over the last few months, I have done very little fish farming work. People have been very busy with their maize crops, and don’t have much time or energy for thinking about aquaculture. Last week I did go to a village meeting to talk and ask questions, but that is basically all I’ve done.

I have started to sit under the Meeting Tree every Wednesday afternoon. It is near the school, as much in the center of as much of a town as we have, and it gives me a great way to chat with people as they walk by. My hope is that people will know to come there to find me if they need to ask a question or just want to talk. So far I’ve discussed religion, talked about gardening and fish farming, helped kids with math homework, and laughed at the cow boys trying to do cartwheels. It’s debatable whether it really counts as ‘work’, but sitting under a tree is sure a pleasant way to spend some time.

When I’m not watching the Cowherd Gymnastic Olympics, I’m usually out working in my garden. It is doing very well, and I’m enjoying plenty of zucchini, cucumbers, butternuts, green beans, tomatoes, and basil. I’ve begun to build the next bed, where I plan to plant my cool veggies, like lettuce, peas, and broccoli. It is very slow going, though, with the grass as tall and thick as it is. After a week of solid weeding, I finally managed to clear a 2 x 17 meter strip. Then it took three days of hoeing to turn the topsoil. Now I have several days worth of double digging and amending to do before it will finally be plantable. Good thing I have plenty of time on my hands!

I think that basically covers what I’ve been doing with myself since my last update, so now on to the adorable part of this story. First, on Wednesday of last week I became a grandmother, of quadruplets, no less. My black hen, Kwasiya, hatched out a set of four little black’n’white peeping cottonballs; just in time for Easter. Since I still do not have a chicken coop, the four chicks and mamma have been confined to my insaka, or cooking/chatting pavilion like shelter. I spent a morning covering gaps in the walls with chitenge, setting up food and water, furnishing a nestbox, bringing in bricks for a playground, cutting grass for scratching through, and generally turning my kitchen into a chicken heaven. When I put them in there, all five birds seemed pretty pleased with what they found, so I’m content. I plan to keep them penned for about 8 weeks, until the chicks have real feathers and can keep themselves warm and dry when it rains. I’m determined that all my chicks make it to chickenhood!

My second bit of adorable this week was courtesy of Christetta, the 2 year old girl in my host family. I was sitting on my stoop, coloring with my usual gaggle of children. ‘Tetta is too young to really understand coloring, but she loves to sit or stand on my lap. Sometimes we play jumping games, sometimes we make silly faces, and sometimes (rarely) we sit quietly and watch everybody else scrabbling for markers. This day she was standing on my lap and we were babbling to each other, not understanding anything the other was saying (her in Lenje, me in English). Every once in a while she would gently bonk her forehead against mine, and we’d laugh and laugh. Suddenly, she stopped talking and got a very serious expression on her face. She leaned forward, paused, and kissed my nose. Then, as my heart was melting like ice cream on hot tarmac, she bounced off my lap and trotted away. It was just about the sweetest thing in the entire world, and one of the best moments of my Peace Corps service so far.

So there you have it, your daily dose of “Aww…” I hope it gave you a warm fuzzy feeling. And, for the record, I’m smiling just telling you about it.

Victoria Falls Adventure

When I first found out that I was coming to Zambia, I’m a bit ashamed to admit that I had to immediately look it up on a map to find out where on earth it was. Then, as anyone else my age would, I went to Wikipedia to find out more about it. Most of the information washed over my brain without sticking, but I was thrilled to discover that Zambia is home to (part of) Victoria Falls. Those I’d at least heard of before. Did I remember that they are one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World? Not at all, but I recognized the name, and that was good enough for me.

 

I think I’ve explained about the first 3 months of Peace Corps service: it is a period known as ‘community entry’, and you are restricted from traveling outside of your district. This is to help you thoroughly explore your village and area and to establish a good relationship with your community. At the end of 3 months we have In-Service Training (IST) in Lusaka, and it is traditional to celebrate your newfound, post- community entry freedom by taking your first vacation. So one of my friends and I decided to spend a few days at Victoria Falls after IST. Coincidentally, two other pairs and one guy on his own decided on exactly the same thing, so Sunday after IST there were 7 of us making our way south to the falls.

Most of the crew

Most of the crew

It’s about a 6 hour drive (or hitch) from Lusaka to Livingstone, the city about 8km from the falls. To save you the trip to Wikipedia, Victoria Falls is on the Zambezi River, which marks the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. This means that, in order to see the entire, mile-wide waterfall, you must visit both countries, and you should consider seeing the falls to be a two-day adventure at least. There are also many other attractions in the Livingstone area, so our 4-day trip was pretty brief.

We all arrived on Sunday evening, and checked in to Jollyboys Backpacker’s Lodge. Again coincidentally, we had all made reservations at the same place: great minds think alike? Jollyboys does come highly recommended, and it deserves its reputation. The rooms are comfortable, the showers are hot (a luxury for those of us used to cold bucket baths), and the pool and lounge areas are fantastic. All of this adds up to make Jollyboys the place to stay if you are an international traveler on a budget. I probably could have spent the entire vacation just talking to the other guests, hearing tales of their travelling adventures, but we bigger, wetter plans.

Monday morning we headed out to see the Zambia side of the falls. There is a path along a spit of land running parallel to the face of the falls, and that was our first foray. Even before we could see the falls, we were soaked with mist and having to shout over the roar. It was a beautiful, sunny day, so there were rainbows everywhere we looked. And when we could finally see the falls, they were incredible. Torrents of falling water, spray blown around on the wind, rainbows haloing everything. Absolutely unbelievable. The best part of the path was the ‘Knife Edge Bridge’, where you had the falls in front, clouds of mist billowing up from below, and the rest of the river gorge behind. And rainbows everywhere.

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After our walk along the falls, we took a short, steep hike to the downstream section of the river, where we ate lunch and admired the falls from afar. There, the river makes a sharp bend, and the complex eddies cause interesting waves and currents. It was almost like being on the rocky California coast- we even found a bright purple crab in a crevice. Eventually we hiked back up, did one more short trail with distant views of the falls, and headed back to the lodge.

The next day we abandoned the falls entirely and did a walking safari in one of the nearby national parks (I told you there is a lot to do in Livingstone). Accompanied by a guide and a scout, we took some meandering footpaths through hip-high grass dotted with trees. Our first game sighting was a small herd of zebra, followed by water buffalo, impala, wildebeest  and one distant warthog. Then we saw the pride of the park: a family of 3 white rhino. There was a mother with her calf, accompanied by a dominant male. They were entirely unconcerned with us standing 30 feet away, frantically snapping photos. Their calm demeanor, and even their existence  is a tribute to the park’s anti-poaching  measures: the rhinos are under the eye of an armed scout 24 hours a day. After maybe half an hour the rhinos tromped off to find a tourist-less patch of grass, and we moved on, spotting some giraffes in the trees. All too soon our walk was over, and it was back to the lodge.

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Our last day in Livingstone we went to the Zimbabwe side of Victoria Falls. It was an expensive adventure, with a $30 visa and a $20 park fee, but it was worth every penny. The views of the falls were even more incredible than before: closer, clearer, and more immediate. Again we had a wonderfully sunny day, accompanied by flocks of rainbows in the mist. Again we were drenched within minutes. Again we were completely awestruck by the beauty of the falls. Words or photos just cannot do them justice- Victoria Falls is something you will just have to experience firsthand.

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The next day we headed back to Lusaka and our villages. But I am happy to say that, after 6 months here, I can easily point to Zambia on a map, and I have seen one of the most beautiful places on Earth. But don’t just take my word for it: I’d love to take you to see Victoria Falls for yourself.

Two Kitties to Kabwe

Some days I feel like my life has become one ridiculous situation after another: in 20 years I’ll be telling my kids ‘Stories from Africa,’ and they’ll be rolling their eyes and not believing a single word.

Yesterday was a day like that. My goal was simple: get my 2 cats neutered. It’s a strange request here, especially for cats, but I did my research and found a vet clinic that would do it for me. I made an appointment for 10 AM Tuesday morning, called and double checked that everything was in order, and made sure they knew what I was coming in for. That was a bit of interesting English to English translating:
‘I’d like to get 2 cats neutered and wormed’
‘Ok, that will be 30 kwatcha (~$6)’
‘Really? For everything?’
‘Yes, that covers everything.’
‘Even getting them fixed?’
‘Fixed?! What’s wrong with them?’
‘Well, they’re both males and I don’t want them to fight…’
‘OH! You want them castrated!’
Once all of that was taken care of, however, the real adventure began.  This vet clinic, the closest one that can do surgeries, is in Kabwe, which is a 20 minute bike ride and an hour’s hitchhiking away from my hut. Not a problem for me to travel alone, but a serious challenge with two cats.

So last week I bought 2 large plastic picnic baskets to use as cat carriers. Tuesday morning around 7 I called the cats inside and put them each in a basket, tying the lids on tightly. Tom (my adult, orange+white swirled cat) got strapped to my bike rack. Squeak (the grey+white tabby kitten) got to ride up front on the handle bars.

I started off around 7:30, trying to bike gently and hit as few bumps as possible. Both cats were, of course, yowling at this point, so whenever I’d pass someone on the road I’d get confused looks. ‘Mapuss?’ or ‘Makitty?’ they’d want to know, ‘Mwaunka kuli?’ (Where are you going?) ‘Ndilaunka ku Kabwe. Ndiyanda misamu a Mapuss’ (I’m going to Kabwe. I need medicine for the cats. Funny: I don’t know ‘castrate’ in Tonga…)

About halfway to the main road, I realized that Tom had suddenly gotten very quiet. I looked back, and his basket was empty. I turned around, and a farmer working in his field near the path told me that he just saw ‘the orange one’ jump out.

I guess here I should explain that Tom is a very talkative cat, so he’ll usually let you know where he is if you call him. I spent a few minutes walking back along the road, calling and listening. Pretty soon I heard him, and crawled into the bushes after him. He was not about to let me catch him and put him back in that basket, though, so he ran down the road into another clump of bushes. I followed him there, and he ran away again, but never so far that I lost track of him. After about a half hour of this he, amazingly, decided to let me catch him, though I had to crawl deep into a thorny acacia bush to do it. He went back in the basket, and this time I made sure he couldn’t get out. Then we continued on to the main road.

At the roadside I left my bike with a shopowner and, toting my baskets full of cat, flagged down a ride. The people that stopped for me were a very nice couple from Lusaka who were headed to Kabwe for the day. We spent most of the ride talking about all of the languages you find in Zambia and how people from different tribes manage to communicate. They dropped me a few blocks from the vet clinic, and headed on their way.

At the clinic, I found out that the surgery wasn’t actually going to be done there, but at a clinic just out of town. A man from the other clinic came to escort me there. First we walked to the taxi area, getting many strange looks at the meowing baskets. I even had one lady ask if they (the cats) were to eat. Finally we caught a taxi with a few other people going in the same direction, and headed out of town. The taxi dropped everyone on a small street, and it was a short walk through some seedy alleyways to the clinic. I definitely had a few thoughts about kidnappers and muggers, but when we got to the clinic it was clean and in a nicer area of town, so I was put at ease.

After the fun of getting the cats there, I’m glad to say that the operations were entirely uneventful. The vet was very competent and friendly, and at about 2PM I walked out with 2 very doped up cats, both dewormed and de-testicled.

I got a (free) ride with a taxi back into town, then rode with a group of businessmen headed to Lusaka back to my bike. The ride home was much quieter, and there were no daring escapes, to my great relief.

It was about 4 by the time we got home, so I had the entire afternoon to watch my poor cats staggering drunkenly around my hut (the kids thought it was pretty entertaining, too). I’m happy to report that today both cats are back to their normal energetic selves, and neither seems to hate me at all. I do have to say that this endeavor has seriously cut down on my ability to threaten them when they misbehave. ‘I did it once and I’ll do it again!’ just doesn’t make much sense when you’re talking about castration.

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.

Hitching

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…

Jimmy the Donkey

Practically all of the animals in Zambia are free-range, which seems to lead to an unending parade of strange, irritating, or comic encounters. I’m constantly chasing chickens, goats, and cows away from my dishes or laundry or simmering dinner. Most of the young boys in the village seem to have a full-time job keeping livestock out of maize fields and gardens, and more than once I’ve seen people chasing a goat which has swiped something vaguely edible, like a pair of trousers. We often have to run the cows out of our compound, where they come to eat any mangoes that are within tongue’s reach. It always seems vaguely out of place to me to see an 80lb child running after a full grown bull shouting ‘eway!’ (Bemba for ‘you’, somewhat disrespectful). It makes me think of the old joke about calling a 1000lb gorilla ‘sir’.

While I’ve gotten hours of entertainment and frustration out of all these others, my favorite of the roving animals is Jimmy the donkey. I have to admit that Jimmy holds a special place in my heart partly because of his name. My name is ‘Jaime’, which is apparently a difficult one for Zambians to say. So frequently I’ll cause confusion when I introduce myself, and they think I’ve said ‘Jimmy’. “But that’s a man’s name!” is the most common response. So I’ve taken to introducing myself as “Jaime. Almost like Jimmy the donkey, but not quite.” Everybody seems to know Jimmy the donkey. Technically he belongs to my family, but he’ll wander miles around, braying mournfully and looking for other donkeys. There is nothing more pathetic-sounding than a lonely donkey; the braying is almost like uncontrollable sobbing. Occasionally my family will try to restrain him by tying him to a tree. This usually stops him from wandering, but makes him cry even more. And eventually he gets tired of standing and walks off. Still tied to the tree. Today he was meandering with about 10 foot of tree branch dragging behind him on a rope.

So Jimmy is my favorite because he makes me laugh and he doesn’t try to eat my laundry. And if he’s tried to walk through my front door a few times, who’s to blame him? I should learn to keep my door closed.

Chicken Run

I have had a busy, exciting week, and it is a relief to put up my feet and tell you about it.

I helped two farmers to stake, or lay out, ponds, and two others to select sites for new ponds. In all cases, I got a lunch of nishima and relish for my troubles. Nishima, the staple food here, is a thick corn pudding about the consistency of mashed potatoes. You eat with your hands, and use small lumps of nishima to pick up morsels of other food, called relish. Relishes can be sauteed vegetables, like cabbage or rape, or meat, usually cooked with tomatoes. I was served fish, goat, and chicken, and they were all delicious. It is very gratifying that people think my help is valuable enough to deserve a meal as thanks.

Though starting my fish work was exciting, my biggest accomplishment this week was to get the chickens in my area vaccinated against Newcastle’s disease. Newcastle’s is a big problem here, and can wipe out over half of the chickens in a village each year.  This is a big deal when people ‘store’ wealth in their chickens. A family’s chickens are like a bank account- if they ever need cash, they can always sell a bird, and the hens hatching chicks acts as a sort of interest. So losing a flock to disease can be disastrous. Knowing this, I had been in contact with Loveness Muntemba, a field agent for the Department of Veterinarians, to organize a vaccination day. Everyone was interested in getting their birds vaccinated, so we spent all of Friday biking from house to house, vaccinating birds. We managed to do about half of the households in three villages, with a promise to return and complete the ones we missed. It was a very productive day, and we were both very pleased.

My favorite part of the whole process was the catching of the chickens. Each family has anywhere from five to thirty birds, all free range and pretty wild. The Zam-proven method for catching a chicken is with a thundering herd of children. We would sit, amused, watching two or three kids sprinting after a single bird. They would corner it, one would make a swipe, which the chicken would usually manage to evade, and they were all off again. Eventually they would manage to snag it, and the triumphant child would swagger over to us, holding his or her prey. The other children would at that point be after the next unfortunate bird. We had one very proud little boy, maybe 5 years old, present us with an armful as big as he was; he must have been carrying six chickens.

After watching the kids yammering up and down after every single bird, it was almost a shame that all we needed to do was drip one drop of vaccine in an eye, and the chicken was free again. But the children were having a ball, the adults were enjoying the entertainment, and the chickens were no worse for the wear. What more could you ask from a day’s work?

Gettin’ Down to Business

I’ve been here for a month now, and several of my loyal readers have asked me how the tilapia aquaculture is going. That’s my job here, after all: to promote small-scale, sustainable fish farming in rural Zambia.

Well, the answer is that I haven’t really started yet. The first 3 months spent in your village is a period called ‘Community Entry’, during which Peace Corps encourages you NOT to work on your project much, especially in the beginning.  The idea is that we Americans tend to jump into working right away; that we would start digging ponds just as soon as possible. But in Zambia, people value relationships over productivity (crazy, I know…). Even if I don’t manage to do a single thing in my 2 years here, as long as I am friendly and a good person, my village will be happy to have had me. So Community Entry is a time to start building friendships and working relationships with anyone and everyone. My job for the last month has been to bike around and introduce myself to all of the local headmen and headwomen, to attend cooperative meetings, and to chat with people I pass on the road. Very little in the way of fish.

This week, though, I made a big step in starting my aquaculture work: I held a village meeting. The idea was to introduce myself (again!), talk a bit about Peace Corps, and explain what I hope to do here for the next 2 years. I did my best to speak in Tonga, which always makes people laugh. I have to remind myself that they are not laughing at me, they are laughing because they are surprised to hear a white person speaking Tonga. I managed to explain myself pretty well, but needed help translating when people started asking me questions afterwards. At the end of the meeting I had a list of about 12 people interested in fish farming. Some already have ponds and some are just getting started, but they all seem enthusiastic.

So next week I may have a fish story to share!

Warning: May Contain Watermelons

This week has been pretty momentous: I got 2 marriage proposals during a trip to town, I made a toddler scream with the horror of my pale visage, and I have been having fun with, you guessed it, watermelons.

On Monday, I was biking home from a meeting of the farmer’s cooperatives in the area, and I saw an oxcart coming the other way down the road. Oxcarts are not exactly precision-handling vehicles; they are steered by thumping the ox with a stick to tell it to turn. So, I pulled over to the side of the road and waited for it to pass. It slowed down a little as it got nearer, and I waved to the four people inside. As is passed, a boy jumped out, handed me a watermelon, flashed a thumbs-up, then ran and jumped back into the cart. I barely had time to say ‘Ndalumba’ (thank you). And that was it. I’m still confused about why it happened– I didn’t even know the boy– and where the melon came from. The cart was empty except for the people and (apparently) one watermelon. Has word gotten out that I love watermelon? Had they stopped by my house to give me a melon, and I wasn’t home? Do they keep one watermelon in their cart, just in case of emergencies and muzungus? I may never know. (a muzungu is a ‘stranger’ or ‘white person’)

In honor of the 31st, I tried to explain Halloween to my family. It is a pretty strange holiday, so I wasn’t too surprised when it took several tries to explain. First they thought that kids went to door-to-door passing out candy. Then they thought adults went door-to-door giving kids candy. Finally I managed to clear things up.

They were very interested in my description of jack’o’lanterns, and wanted to see one done. Since pumpkins are not in season now, I decided to try carving my oxcart watermelon. I cut the top in standard pumpkin-carving fashion, then cleaned and ate the insides with a spoon. I used a small kitchen knife to carve a dopey face, and sat it on my porch. It got many strange looks throughout the day, but nobody stopped by to ask about it (though the chickens did keep trying to eat it). When dusk came, I lit the candle and sat out on my porch. The neighborhood kids came crowding around, excited by my ‘face melon.’ One drew a cartoon of it in the dirt. Nobody had ever seen anything like it before, and they thought I was ‘so smart’. I think in a few days, when I have a new watermelon stash, we will all try carving together. Then we can all be so smart.

My last news for this week is that I have a new addition to my menagerie: a kitten! He is a little grey and white tabby, and about as spunky and adorable as anyone could want. He is a fierce hunter of crickets, though I hope he graduates to rodents soon. Right now he is only about as big as a rat, but with time I’m sure he will keep my hut vermin-free. And until then, he can just purr on my lap all he wants…