Thursday, October 20, 2011

Releasing Energy

I know…a new blog post has been a long time coming. My reasons, well, I’ve been wanting to post an honest, frank discussion about the challenges I face here in Zambia…from a cultural perspective that includes the stress of living amongst Zambian people and the unhealthy aspects of PCV culture (which are coping mechanisms for dealing with cross-cultural stress). However, I want to keep this blog positive and for sometime, I’ve been struggling with how to present this without it being an all out bitchfest.

Let me start by saying that living and working in a completely foreign culture is difficult beyond explanation. If you’ve never tried, you likely won’t really get it. Still, let me attempt to explain. First…imagine being the only person of your race within a 20-mile radius. Not only are you a different race, but the contrast of skin color is night and day, literally. You cannot hide. When you walk down the street everyone stares, everyone wants to talk to you and you are always being judged.

To illustrate, I often find myself on my bike cruising from Chiparamba back to Kasosa and waving like Miss America to every man, woman and child that I pass. “Jenifa, Jenifa, How are you?, Bwanji?” rings in chorus from every angle, or so it seems. In these moments, I imagine myself as Jennifer Anniston (Yes, Jennifer Anniston, Screw you! Ok!) riding her bike down some ordinary American street. Harangued from all sides by admirers or people that just  want the satisfaction of her acknowledgement. And, instantly, I understand the life of celebraties…and why sometimes they snap, punching the cameraman or morbidly commit suicide by overdosing on prescription drugs. Here, in Africa, I am a celebrity. A B-lister, mind you, but when I get my radio show (more to come on this), I’ll shoot right up to the A-list. Bam!

Now, imagine, that your color represents a culture that conquered and stole people and resources from the native residents…or at least their ancestors. And, imagine that the reformed colonialists tried to compensate for it by giving money and resources but little training on how to cope in this hybrid African/Western culture. When people see me, they see money and privelege.

One of the more bizarre requests for a gift came from Gabriel, the headman of Majuku. After talking at me for 30 minutes about keeping my promise to help his village, he suddenly pronounced, “I want jeans. Tell your father to send me jeans.” I blinked, confused. “I’m sorry, what? You want my father to send you jeans?” I said this very slowly so as to not add to the confusion. “Yes, jeans. They have very nice jeans in America.” Ummmm…ok. My response was to blubber about maybe if he visits me or I visit home…blah, blah, blah. What I was really thinking was, “WTF?!? I traveled 24 hours by plane, am living in a mud hut, and you want jeans from me!?”

More commonly, people ask for money. Just yesterday a grown man sighted me and immediately said, “Patsa ndalama” or “Give me money.” I despise this request beyond any other…and the worst part, even though most people don’t ask, they’re thinking it. I feel resentment and guilt all at once, because these people are struggling with their identities, their confidence and to feed their families. I want to fix it, but really, I can only show the ones with the proper motivation that all they need is in their hearts, minds, hands and land. The resources are here; it’s only a matter of seeing their land and people as valuable and taking the risk to try something new.

And, lastly, imagine you live in a mud brick house in the middle of a village. Everyone knows everyone. Nothing is truly secret. And, as I said before, without a doubt, all eyes are constantly on you. Lucky for me, I enjoy the physical labor of drawing water and carrying it home, the romantic aura of candlelight and the adventure of learning how to cook over fire with limited ingredients. But, for some, this primitive lifestyle only adds to the stress of being on display. The villagers love to watch the “muzungu” (foreigner) struggle to manage, and they laugh at us in a completely different language.

Recently, I was at a friend’s house for a visit and, more specifically, to learn the fine art of cooking telele (a traditional okra dish). Telele is one of those dishes that every man I meet wants to know if I know how to cook. At first, I thought this was some strange sort of sexual innuendo, but I quickly surmised that these men were sizing up my suitability as a wife. Well, GDit, I thought, if I ever want to get married, I must learn to cook telele! During my lesson, I was asked to imitate certain tasks. One of which was to crush raw peanuts into a paste using a beer bottle as a rolling pin and a large flat rock as the crushing surface. My friend deftly and quickly demolished the peanuts. I, on the other hand, awkwardly held the bottle, rolling it across the surface making something more like ice cream sprinkles instead of a smooth paste. My attempts elicited a cacophony of squeals, cackles, hoots and hollers followed by a barrage of unintelligible Nyanja. With a big, shit-eating grin, I continued until my host graciously offered to finish the job. She was done in what I imagined to be a record 5 minutes.

Are you getting the picture? I’m not sure the word stress adequately describes the insane anxiety and mood swings that are a part of my daily life. Well, okay, I was always a bit moody, but now, I just have a good excuse to be bipolar. The weird thing is, most of the time, I don’t even realize I’m stressed until I walk out of someone’s yard and start bawling uncontrollably without an apparent cause.

In this particular incidence, I held the pooled water in my eyes just long enough to pass two leering children, after which, rivers began streaming down my cheeks. I needed to hide, fast. I stumbled blindly across an empty maize field and parked myself under a mango tree…I hoped hidden from prying eyes. Not two minutes afer starting the real sobbing, I heard my name and a woman locating me to my friend, Vi. She came, hurriedly, not knowing what she was falling into…I could not control the hysterics. “Go, please, go! Nifuna ndheka (I want to be alone).” Vi, “Don’t cry. Stop crying. What’s wrong?” Through the fit, I hiccupped that “I didn’t know and I just need to cry right now. Please, don’t tell anyone. I don’t want them to worry. I’m not mad at you. I’m going home now.” And, exit stage right, leaving a bewildered 18-year old Zambian woman wondering if the muzungu had lost her damn mind.

The majority of PCVs cope in three ways, smoking, drinking and eating. Some use all three. Some focus on one or two. Regardless of the chosen crutch, there are two aspects to these activities that I see as universal. One, we gorge. We smoke a lot; we drink a lot; we eat a lot. Period. For me, I don’t smoke, but boy oh boy! can I guzzle some booze. Sometimes, I’m amazed at how much I fit into this tiny body without losing complete control. I might get sloppy, but I always hold it together. However, I still get the self-loathing hangover that follows the day after and the unhealthy marshmallow puff weight gain that follows the week after. I DO NOT LIKE, but it’s so easy to let myself enjoy the moment with the few people that understand my frustrations and loneliness. As for the second aspect, we take up activities we never did at home. Some start smoking. Others eat foods they rarely consumed in America, but now, they crave them. For instance, peanut butter. Of course, I ate peanut butter, but I’d buy a jar and it would last for six months. Here, I can go through one in less than a week. I’ve even watched a PCV eat an entire jar in one day!

I remember one night at the Peace Corps provincial house when I partook in a shameful double-whammy gorge. We have a slew of talented bakers in our PCV community and for someone’s birthday, one of the top bakers created a delicious carrot cake topped with a butter-cream icing. My gorge buddy kindly brought me a piece of cake which I sucked down in about 30 seconds, after which he let me pick at the crumbs of his second helping. But, that’s nothing! Later in the evening, oh, say 2AM, I found myself alone in the kitchen, pre-bedtime, cramming cake straight from the pan into my cookie monster possessed mouth. “NOM, NOM, NOM!” I even found myself sticking my finger in the pan to scrap stray icing from the side of the pan. So not like me! Oh God, and the self-hatred that followed the next day…you see, it’s not that I think eating cake is bad. It’s not, but the lack of self-control and moderation is clearly out of character, at least, for me.

I’m fascinated by this phenomenon. Why? Why do we partake in these clearly unhealthy coping mechanisms? Honestly, I believe a lot is peer pressure…not in the sense that someone’s looming over me cackling and crooning, “Drink…Eat that peanut butter/cake…yesssss…you deserve it!” No, I mean in the sense that we are lonely in this new world and looking for connection. I guarantee I’m not the only sad PCV that scooped cake straight from that pan. These are quick, easy ways to make connections and introduce commonalities into a group of people that would NEVER have crossed paths outside of Peace Corps. So, we smoke and bond; drink and bond; eat and bond. And, I’ve decided I'm OK with it. This is the Paddle being completely open and honest. Life is tough here, and there are bad days. When we are in our villages, we are deprived of the comfortable, easy social interaction we share with fellow Americans, people of our own cultural background. If when we get together, we want to enjoy life and release some energy, then so be it. For me, the goal is to find a good balance, and I’m slowly on my way.

Law #11: When necessary, enjoy life and release some energy.

I will be featuring some pictures and descriptions of Mshawa Basic School in some of the next posts. I'm working with them and want to raise some money to buy more standard school books for the children. Stay tuned...


  1. I'm leaving in January for PST with the RED group. I appreciate this raw look at pcv life!

  2. Hey, Jenny! This is such a candid description of what happens to every PCV, and probably anyone who genuinely attempts to fit into a different culture! Thank you for sharing. I'm so impressed at your ability to step outside of it - I wish I had been able to do so. Your maturity is going to be an amazing asset through this new journey. Ten years later I'm still not exactly sure what all those encounters of undeserved privilege and material requests have done for me, except that maybe exposure to them helps maintain a humility. I hope you are well and that you develop true friendships that move beyond the differences. Take care, Kelly Biedenweg