Saturday, March 15, 2014

On the Nature of Humans...

Hello hello!  I am writing as I visit the provincial house after a few weeks back in the village.  Things have been busy, both positive and challenging in nature.  Our Nachibanga Health Post is being built quickly, which is wonderful to see.  However, I have learned through talking with many villagers about who is working hard and who is not.  One of our builders, the quiet younger builder, has been working nearly every day from sunrise to sunset.  The other builder (the one who was supposed to be "leading" the project) has barely been working at all, and makes constant excuses as to why he cannot show up for work.  He speaks down to people (and if we were in America the way in which he speaks to women would not be tolerated) and is incredibly negative.  We are running low on funds for the project (we are nearly out of cement), and we don't have enough to waste on paying a builder who is doing nothing.  I decided yesterday with some committee members that this builder needs to be fired.

But in Zambia, firing someone is not a clear-cut process.  Everyone is connected and related in some way, and I need to be careful.  I will have a meeting with the headmen and project committee to discuss the issue, which is going to be difficult as many underlying feelings will come up in the process.  At the end of the meeting, I will tell the headmen and committee that they need to call the builder and let him go, as this project is theirs.  I know that I am a very sensitive person, and I need to try my best to not get caught up in the feelings that will inevitably ensue.  This will be a big test of strength and personal growth, but I know that it is the right thing to do.  I cannot allow someone to take money from this project, which is going to benefit thousands of rural villagers. I also cannot pay two builders equally if only one is doing the work.

I have realized some important things in this process.  To trust people is a scary thing, but we do it because we need to.  We are all connected and need to rely on others to survive.  I personally trust because I believe that at our core, we as humans are inherently good.  However, everyone has different motivations for their actions.  Whether it is for survival, for love, for ego, for greed, we make choices in how we relate with others.  Some form mostly negative relationships, and many form positive ones.  As we get older, we hone our abilities to connect with like-minded people, people with similar spirits and motivations, but sometimes we must interact with people who we do not like.  We must find a way to maintain our stability, our sense of self, and our sense of purpose amidst these challenging interactions.

On a positive note, I made home-made peanut butter with my host sisters!  I bought a dollar worth of groundnuts (peanuts), roasted them, and then called Ba Judith and Ba Erin over to help me pound them with our wooden mortar and pestle.  It took about ten minutes of pounding, and the peanuts became peanut butter!  We didn't even need to add anything (just a bit of salt, and I also added a bit of honey) because the peanuts produced their own oil.  The kids came around to watch and taste, and my sisters told me they hadn't done this since their grandfather was alive.  It was a really meaningful passing-down of knowledge, and we also realized that we could sell peanut butter in the village once my family's groundnuts come up in April.  The 5kg of sunflower seeds I bought for my sister to plant are beginning to burst open into huge sunflowers, and next month we will press and sell home-made sunflower oil.  The fields of sunflowers we have in the village make me smile every time I pass them.

*Finally, we are looking for just a few hundred dollars of donations to buy a bit more cement to complete our health post.  If you are interested, please e-mail me: afeuchs@gmail.com.  We are also in the process of creating a village preschool at a venue which already exists, so if you would like to send over any children's books, toys, or coloring supplies, it would be much appreciated!  Please e-mail me to let me know, and you can send the supplies to:

Ashley Feuchs
Peace Corps
P.O. Box 630569
Choma, Zambia

Love and light!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

On Success and Failure...

I recently arrived back in Zambia for my final 6 months of service.  I had trepidation about returning as my family in America is going through challenges, and your thoughts and prayers for my mom's quick recovery mean the world.  I arrived at my clinic and met with the builder of our health post (my second grant project) to find that very little work has been done on our project.  I left absolutely everything in place for my village to complete the building, running around a month in advance to purchase all materials, appoint villagers and committees to oversee the work. I made typed lists and schedules for all 11 villages to contribute small amounts of work.  Though I understand that building takes a lot of time in Africa, I did not expect so little to be accomplished in my absence.  Our builder even vocalized the feeling of hurt he saw materializing on my face after hearing this news.

I reached my hut to find my bathing shelter completely destroyed by rain and cows, my outdoor "kitchen" knocked over, an infestation of wasps in my latrine hole, and an infestation of jumping flea-like biting bugs all over my hut (even in my bed!)  I spent the night awake getting bitten by these bugs, and was told to return to the provincial house so that my hut can be fumigated.  So I'm here, waiting, again.  It feels frustrating and disappointing.  I am trying to stay positive and find some gems of meaning.  This is what I have come up with:

-When you take big risks, the possibility of failure increases as well.  You need to be prepared for this, but at the end of the day if you give your whole heart, you must learn to accept that this is enough.  The success of my second grant project is really up to my community at this point, but my first project (Ndondi Mother's Shelter) was a complete success!  Mothers are now giving birth in this shelter, and the building has been incorporated into the community in a sustainable way.

-When collaborating with others, you must be vocal about your feelings, both positive and negative.  You need to let them know if they have disappointed you.  You cannot just have this weight on your shoulders alone; it's not healthy.  If everyone is going to share in the outcome, everyone must also share in the process.

- The balance between patience and pushing, particularly when implementing projects in the third world, is important.  You may have to compromise your expectations, but you should not give them up completely.  You're there for cross-cultural exchange, for both learning and teaching.

... And that's what I've got for now.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Good and the Bad

I am visiting America in two weeks.  I do not know what to expect, how I will cope with clothing and grocery stores, lines where people do not push in front of one another, and transport that is reliable.  I do know, however, that a month away from Zambia is much needed for my spirit.  My days have become long and chaotic as I continuously try to motivate my villages to complete our health post, and as I set up all logistics for our projects so that they will hopefully continue in my absence.  I spent ten hours in town yesterday shopping for grant materials, waiting on a dishonest transporter who decided not to tell me that he had a problem with his tire after half of our materials were loaded onto the vehicle.  I fell apart after hour eight, slumped on the sidewalk, feeling completely taken advantage of for being a foreigner.  I felt like a broken china doll, my body shattered into a million tiny pieces.  I thought, "All I am trying to do is help!  Why is this happening?"  I realized that at the end of the day, there are both kind hearted and dishonest people in the world, wherever you go.  The situation was resolved, but I personally felt quite defeated.

I believe in the goodness of humanity, but it is inevitable to go through days when you encounter people who have a very different moral compass than you do.  My family in the village keeps me here, but there are always going to be reminders that I am not from Zambia.  I love this place, and I need to just re-charge my battery.  The hunger, the corruption, the environmental degradation... it all wears on you after a while.  You feel stuck, like you have so much knowledge but no way to change the larger systems that are causing the suffering you are feeling at the village level.  Grassroots development work is incredibly fulfilling because of the human connections and small victories that are possible... and some days it can also break your heart.  Anyway, love to all and I cannot wait to see some of you very soon!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

National HIV Prevention Convention

Greetings! I was invited to rapporteur Zambia's Third National HIV Prevention Convention with four other Peace Corps health volunteers, and it was quite an experience.  The Vice President of Zambia, Guy Scott, and the First Lady, Christine Kaseba-Sata, attended and spoke at the conference, in addition to notable representatives from organizations such as UNAIDS, USAID, CDC, WHO, and many others.  We spent much of the time running around note-keeping, compiling power-points, and helping to summarize presentations for the final resolutions presented by the National AIDS Council.  It was incredibly interesting to hear about all the projects going on in Zambia, what has been successful, and where the gaps in programs and funding exist.  While it was difficult to be reporting and to not have a say in the discussions taking place on behalf of our rural villages, we were able to make connections and see what kinds of discussions are being had at the national level surrounding HIV prevention, treatment, and care.  All in all, the experience was a rich one, and it was an honor to be invited to such a large national event!

Thanks to the most beautiful support system in the world, the funds have been raised for my final large, donation-based Peace Corps project... Nachibanga Health Post!  I am hoping to start the foundation with the builder and community early next week, and get things moving quickly before I head back to America for a few weeks to visit family and friends.  As this much-needed re-energizing time at home approaches, I am both excited and nervous... excited to see all of the loved ones who I have missed tremendously, and nervous only because the reverse culture-shock is going to be intense (with all the electricity, hot showers, movies, air conditioning, and fresh coffee just in front of me!)  Sending love to you all.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Shift in Energy

I have been so busy with work in the village and apologize for delaying this blog post.  These past months have been filled with the completion of our Mother's Shelter (well, near-completion, as the District Health Office has now decided that we need a larger veranda than previously planned), attending our midterm conference in Lusaka (where I got to see all of my friends with whom I first arrived in Zambia), and the start of our Nachibanga Health Post building.  I will write about the highlights of village projects and progress, and about a few of the people who have made these successes possible.

Ndondi Mother's Shelter:  It has taken 4 long months of biking up and down huge rocky, dusty hills under the 100 degree hot season sun, but we're nearly finished!  The building is complete and looks incredible, but I will feel even more fulfilled once I see mother's beginning to deliver at our shelter.  Two people worked tirelessly with me to direct the building of this Mother's Shelter.  The first is Mr. Muleya, a tall, middle-aged Zambian man who wears a bucket hat and always carries around his secretary notebook.  He is the man who first invited me to Ndondi village about a year ago.  At the time I was hesitant to embark upon a project that required a 3 hour round trip bike-ride from my home, but he and the Ndondi Neighborhood Health Committee showed so much commitment during my initial visits that I could not resist.  Mr. Muleya has shown up to every meeting, coordinated and facilitated countless headmen and large community meetings, and has never let me down.

The second man is the son of the Ndondi senior headman, whose Tonga name I unfortunately can never seem to pronounce correctly.  He is the chairman of the Neighborhood Health Committee, so I always just call him 'Ba Chairman.'  He is a softspoken, humble man with chipped front teeth and a sweet, kind smile.  When asked to be the next headman he turned down the position, fearing that he would not be able to be as involved on the school PTA and clinic health committee.  Anytime we encountered issues during the building process, he calmly thought through all possible solutions until advising us on the most feasible and effective option.  Ndondi villages really owe these men so much appreciation for voluntarily pouring their energies into this project.  I am so grateful for their hearts of gold.

Nachibanga Health Post:  I was hopeful but realistic just a few months ago, thinking that this project would not be possible.  Now we have completed the digging of the foundation for a small health post in my village.  A few things happened to push this project along.  About 6 out of 10 villages were initially on board with the project, working day after day to mold bricks.  Then the district came in to promise food relief, as it is now the annual hungry season, exacerbated by the poor rains and maize harvest last year.  The deal is that food will come from the government in exchange for the villages working together on a community development project.  The villages unanimously chose our health post project, and now all 10 villages are working together before the rains become heavier to mold bricks, dig the foundation (both of these stages are now complete), and haul pit sand, river sand and crushed stones to the site.  I have never seen so many villagers coming together in this way, every single day.  Yes, this has been incited by the promise of bags of maize to make it through hungry season.  But villagers are also seeing their power to create development and change in their community. 

This health post will allow thousands of villagers to travel much shorter distances to access health care and treatment.  It will alleviate congestion in the large Muzoka clinic 5km away.  And most importantly, it seems this project is influencing villagers to take more ownership of their community's health and development.  The power of community is unfolding right before my eyes, and it is indescribably magical.

*To donate towards building materials for our Nachibanga Health Post, please visit:  http://www.peacecorps.gov/donate
and enter our project #: 14-611-001
We are racing the rains, so if you are able, please donate any amount as soon as possible.
Sending love and light to my support system back home! 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Some Thoughts On Development Work...

Recently I have realized that a large part of the "trudging through mud" feeling I am experiencing after 14 months of service in Zambia has to do with the nature of community development work.  When I explain my frustrations to those at home in America, the common question is "why do you think these things are happening?"  And every time I am asked this question, I am at a loss for words.  The reality is this: I still do not know.  After 14 months of intense community development work, I still do not know much.  I have to admit that to myself at the end of every day, which is exhausting.  I do not know why villagers either fail to show up to meetings, or show up 3 hours late.  I do not know why the majority of men won't wear condoms, why 13 year old girls are getting pregnant, why so many women giving birth at home wait until the last minute to decide they are in an emergency situation.  I do not know why the builder of our mother's shelter is working incredibly slowly and failed to show up to our weekly meeting... after I biked a total of 3 hours up and down dusty hills in 95 degree weather to meet with him.  I do not know why, after I raised the money to fix our community water pump, our village has yet to form a water pump committee and neglected to tell me that one of our pipes has a fixable leak (I thought it was drying up).  Deflection of personal responsibility, I guess.  The 'it's just okay' mentality. 

It is the moments with my host family that keep me here, to be quite honest.  It is the feeling that I have more love to explore with them.  I do not want to give up on them, this village, or this work.  I have glints of hope each day that the tiniest ounce of change can happen in my village.  I still have that unexplainable intuitive feeling in my heart and in my gut that I am still supposed to be here in Zambia, doing what I am doing.  One of my volunteer friends recently told me that I need to try not to take disappointments in my village so personally.  I am working on taking disappointments less personally, but I know that it's not in my nature to just not care.  And I hope that one day, this aspect of my personality and approach to life-long community development work will help to facilitate change, big and small. Maybe taking community development work personally means that I am meant to do this work, because I believe deep down that the people with whom I work have the ability to come together to create change and improve their lives.  I believe in the power of community, and I hope that even this belief is what it takes to keep on keeping on.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Mid-Service Blues

I just spent the best ten days of my life with my first visitor to Zambia.  The ten days were like a dream; we spent time jamming with musicians in my village, visited Victoria Falls, saw elephants within an arms-reach crossing the road, and took time to just breathe and reflect.  Now I am back to the village for the second half of my Peace Corps service, and the truth is that it is difficult.  My heart hurts a bit as I miss the people I love in America.  I miss home.  I miss the ease of transport, I miss access to electricity and running water, I miss the anonymity of walking down a street as another American instead of the white muzungu (foreigner).  I miss access to various vegetables, washing machines, and new technology.  I know the second half of my service is filled with exciting happenings, like helping to post the new volunteers to their villages, our mid-service conference, Camp GLOW preparations, a month-long trip home to the states for New Years, a trip to Bali at the end of March, the completion of our clinic's mother's shelter.  And yet, I long to be back in the states.  I know things will pick up, and I also know that when I complete my service, I will miss Zambia.  So I will push through, and I will do everything I can to stay inspired and present in my village.  Sometimes we must do things in the present that are both painful and beautiful at the same time, and this is one of those times in my service.  Sending love and light to all those at home who are supporting me, inspiring me, and loving me as I continue my service in Zambia.