Again, I’ve waited a long time before attempting to write another post…patience might have to be accepted in this case. I believe where I left off from my last post was promising to describe my experiences of swearing in, being posted and some more unique cultural experience. I’ll do my best to do justice to my experiences over a few simple words.
Finishing training felt like such a relief, except for the scary feeling that nothing was about to prepare me for what was to come. Before being posted to site, you spend a few days shopping because it will be one of the few opportunities for a cruiser coming directly to your site. Normally, you must walk, bike or if lucky taxi to your village. It is extremely nerve-wracking trying to imagine all the things you will need in the village to survive. I took this challenge as an opportunity to minimize and be economical with my things and learn to live with less. The next scary task was taking it all to my site, hoping I didn’t forget anything because I would be in the village for three months. I can’t begin to describe the feeling I had when watching the cruiser leave me alone with my family.
As much as Peace Corps try to prepare you for language, nothing prepares you to suddenly be living somewhere where no one understands you and you don’t understand them. In my case, it’s even a bit more extreme as a volunteer because in order to streamline training I was taught a generic form of the language spoken in the major cities…but in my village they speak a dialect that is similar in structure but has an extremely different vocabulary. When the cruiser left me with my family, I could hardly understand a word that was spoken to me. They could piece together what I was trying to say, but I was always left lost and confused.
I’ve slowly been getting better at local language, but there were and still are many days that leave me in tears from the frustration and constant teasing from family and villagers. I learned to find the sympathetic listeners to spend my time with and to ignore the teasing. Instead I just speak as much as I can even if it is poorly spoken. The women in my family are amazing and spend a lot of time with me sitting and interacting, therefore have been a great help in language. They have also been wonderful at including me in traditional ceremonies and events in the village. I’ve been to one wedding so far and three different girls coming of age ceremonies. The later being far more fascinating.
When a girl comes of age in the village, she spends an entire month in a dark room not being allowed to speak or leave. This is taken as a time for women to pass along knowledge of how to behave as a woman and future wife. Men are strictly forbidden from interreacting in these ceremonies. The ceremony that I was allowed to participate has been the dancing later in the evening.
The first time I was taken to a ceremony I had no idea where I was going or what I was about to do. We walked up to a hut that had loud drumming and I was instructed to clap before being allowed to enter. The room was completely full of women, mostly undressed from the waist up. The women all screamed and yelled excitedly when they saw me. I was shown where the girl was sitting. She was only wearing a skirt and her head was bent down as she sat with her legs spread wide on the floor. She is not allowed to speak or respond to anyone during this time.
All the women took turns dancing in front of the girl. First on the floor in front of her and then standing. I wish I could describe better the amazing amount of hip action these women achieve, but it’s unbelievable. As I was sitting and watching, suddenly one of the women drumming yells at me exclaiming ‘akazi!?’ (meaning woman). Without warning she reaches down before I have time react and grabs one of my breasts. I was wearing pants and my hair was pulled back in a pony tail and I apparently appeared like a man at first glance. Once she realized I was indeed a woman, the yelling and excited screaming continued. I was even allowed to attempt dancing in front of the girl, which got a lot of laughs and smiles.
Peace Corps service is very self-driven. You are completely responsible for setting your own schedule and making sure work is found and completed. So far in my first couple months I’ve been focusing on creating a healthy routine and getting the hang of the lifestyle here. I’m getting better and better at lighting and cooking on my charcoal brazier. Today I made two trips to the borehole to fetch water with a 20L bucket on my head (the little girls no longer feel the need to help anymore, although the little kids still love to carry my empty buckets for me). I now have friends in the marketplace and in the boma (town). I’ve visited most of the surrounding villages in my catchment area.
The hardest part of my routine is learning to do nothing…I’ve never spent so much time just sitting on a mat doing absolutely nothing. It’s a good chance to practice language, but it’s hard for my motivated and anxious personality to get used to. I’m also pretty sure that my family thinks I nap and sleep most of the day. Since all relaxation time is usually spent around others, they find it unusual when I say I’m going to my room to read and relax alone.
Going to the boma in and of itself is a huge learning experience. The amount of attention I get for being a muzungu (white person) is sometimes overwhelming. Wherever I bike into town the children yell ‘muzungu’ and/or ‘how are you’. In the boma people constantly come up to me and ask for money or follow me. The sexual harassment is especially tiresome. I get marriage proposals constantly. Men constantly call me sweetie or the like to me. Most of the time I can laugh it off and make a joke, but sometimes it’s very upsetting.
The gender roles in Zambia are clearly defined. The women all wear chitenge (a piece of cloth wrapped around the waist), or skirts. The thighs are considered an extremely erogenous zone and showing them is deemed inappropriate. Women and men both have tasks that specifically placed on gender. Men fetch firewood, while women tap water. The men sit on chairs and women are expected to sit on the floor.
The differences are more apparent to me when I have had male volunteers visit my site. I am generally treated as a special guest, but when male guests come, I am treated a bit differently. Most men don’t ask for my name and generally refer all conversation to the male volunteer. Even when I respond to a question, they sometimes refer the conversation back to the other volunteer. It’s going to take some time to break the stereotypes, but I’ve been slowly trying to do my part. Maybe I’m too forceful for the change, but I make my male friends always help me with ‘female’ designated tasks like sweeping, fetching water, and cooking. While I always try to participate in ‘male’ designated roles.
I feel that I have so much more I could say, but I might leave it for another post. I’m almost done with my 3 months of community entry now and have had a lot of growth happen in even this short period. I can’t imagine myself after 2 years here. My next post I’ll try to go over more in my village and possibly work I’m trying to accomplish. By the time I get around to posting again I will have most likely just returned from In Service Training in the capital as well as a fun trip through Tanzania by train and a week lying on a beach in Zanzibar with a few friends.