Wednesday, January 7, 2015


I recently returned from two weeks on the island of Zanzibar.  It was magical.  Spice tours where we picked the spices and tasted them right off trees, snorkeling adventures involving huge waves and a tiny tipping sailboat.  Cobblestone streets lined with old historical buildings.  Mosques adorned with beautiful, intricately crafted windows and doors.  Markets filled with cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, vanilla and coriander, and colorful prints on Zanzibari chitenge and harem pants.  People selling Maasai anklets and bracelets, chai tea brewing on street corners, and incense wafting from the clothes of Zanzibari women.  My senses were overwhelmed in the best way possible.

We flew into Dar Es Salaam and took a ferry to Stone Town, which used to be a center of the spice and slave trades.  We took public transportation from Stone Town north to Nungwi, and then south to Bwejuu.  Riding the daladalas, or open but relatively comfortable trucks with cushioned benches, was the perfect way to see the trees and farms along the one main road.  I felt a bit like a nomad with my life in a backpack riding in the back of a truck, but I am now used to this.  The highlight of the trip for me was staying at Mustapha's Place in Bwejuu, a small backpacker's paradise which was designed by the owner Alessandra, an Italian artist/architect.  Hammocks and flowers were scattered about, an eclectic mixture of soul, reggae, and funk played at the main hang-out, and bonfires happened each night.

One night an older man with John Lennon-style glasses and an elegant older woman, who I presume were both from England, invited us all to join them around the fire.  The man lead us in singing songs from all over Africa, and the woman told fables about animals, the sun and the moon.  It was one of the most moving nights I have ever had, people of all ages sitting around a fire under the stars with white sand under our feet.  I almost didn't leave Zanzibar.

Now I am back in Zambia with a renewed perspective.  I do not know what the next few months will look like, but I feel empowered and energized to make decisions about work and about life that will make me happy and fulfilled.  Life is too short to wait for these things; you have to take them and own them.

Monday, December 8, 2014


It has been challenging to write since saying goodbye to my village a number of months ago.  The day I left Nachibanga is still clear in my mind; waking up before sunrise to pack remaining items into zambags, loading my belongings onto an oxcart to be taken to the big dirt road with my host nieces and nephews tagging along for the ride.  Being picked up by my friend in a canter truck, with Ba Judy and her husband Gladson traveling with me to Choma.  And of course in typical TIA (This Is Africa) fashion, getting stopped by road police for over an hour while all transport was halted for a reason I will never understand.  We did eventually make it to Choma.  Ba Judy had not been to town in over two years, so I decided to give her a little bit of spending money to have a nice meal with her husband before heading back to the village without me.  I gave my hugs, and watched them walk into town.  I felt sad, but I knew the feeling would settle in the months to come when I did not have my village in my daily life to provide me with companionship, challenges, and hilarious experiences that were too numerous to write down.

I visited America for a month, and then moved to Chipata to begin my third-year Peace Corps extension position with USAID/Feed the Future as the program's Field Coordinator.  Chipata is in the Eastern Province, nine hours from Lusaka (due to road construction) and a short distance from the border between Zambia and Malawi.  Chipata acts as a center of trade, commerce, and agricultural activity.  This large town, which is surrounded by mountains that I have hiked on Sunday mornings with new friends, is growing quickly.  My experiences in Chipata have been eye-opening thus far, as this is my first time understanding development issues from an agricultural standpoint.  Deforestation and soil degradation are critical issues impacting farmers across the country, and I am able to go out into the field with the numerous implementing partner organizations to evaluate new practices being promoted to hopefully mitigate the impacts of global climate change.  The increasingly dramatic delays in the onset of the rains (it is already December and the rains have not begun in Eastern and Southern Provinces) in addition to the rapid reduction in forest-cover across the country lend clear evidence to the potentially devastating effects of climate change in many developing countries like Zambia.

As Feed the Future's Field Coordinator, I have been given big and broad responsibilities with little direction on how to achieve results.  I am the only member of USAID's Feed the Future Economic Development team based in Chipata, and I work with partner organizations receiving funding from USAID.  There is a great deal of energy behind changing farming methods and adopting new technologies, and it is quite exciting to be a part of this movement.  It is challenging to be the only staff member of this type based in Chipata, and I make my own schedule based on the activities happening each week.  Some weeks I am out in the field almost every day, traveling along neglected dirt roads to villages and monitoring farmer fields and trainings.  Some weeks I am in meetings and compiling research or updates for the Feed the Future partners.  I am getting into the swing of things, and also realizing that being part of a close-knit team on a day-to-day basis is something I am ready for in the near future.

I will say that it is strange to be a visitor when I am out in the field because my life was based in the village for over two years.  I arrive and leave from field visits in a shiny vehicle, returning to my home with electricity (most of the time) and running water.  I can't make villagers see me in the same way my village saw me, and at times I find myself wanting to say, "Hey, I lived in the village for two years! I don't need a special chair, I can sit on the ground and I will be fine! In fact, I want to sit in the dirt and have your kids play with my hair!"  On one visit, a few young girls sat next to me while their parents were learning about improved farming techniques, and I couldn't resist teaching them the alphabet by writing in the sand.  I miss these little things, and it is difficult to come and go in this way.  All I can do is appreciate the time I had in Nachibanga and know that my values and passions have been more clearly defined during my time in Zambia.  I am learning about the type of work and life I crave, and I feel stronger in my convictions.  

Monday, September 1, 2014

Love and Celebration

My village knows how to celebrate.  Three-hundred people dancing and smiling, Bamaamas cooking for their villages around orange fires, making barrels of chibwantu (traditional maize drink) to sustain everyone from evening to morning to the next sunset.  Words of genuine gratitude were spoken.  There were tears and goodbyes.  There was a moment, after hours of speeches, songs and skits, when all eleven headmen with whom I worked to build our community health post lined up to face me.  They each thanked me individually, touching their hearts with one hand and shaking mine with the other.  I knew every one of them well, and I realized what these two years were for.  If nothing else, it was about the meaningful connections I made with people in my village and the moments of community collaboration that happened when we were working together.

A week later when it was almost time to leave Nachibanga, there were a few important people to whom I wanted to give gifts and sit down with for just a few more moments.  One of these people was the 72-year-old headman of Chinene village, who worked tirelessly day after day to build our health post, sometimes with only my sister Ba Judy and our builder to help.  There was a funeral in his village right before my departure, and though I spread the word to my friends in the village that I would love to see him if he had time, I accepted that I would not see Basibbuku (headman) Chinene before I left.  As the sun was going down on my second to last night, I saw a small older man walking up the hill towards my house being lead by my host sister.  It was Ba Chinene, and I unconsciously yelled out loud, "You're here!!! I'm so happy!"

This kind of thing tends to happen in Zambia, when you want to see someone and just when you accept that it may not happen, you pass them while biking, see them on a bush path, or find them walking to your home.  I offered him a chair, and we sat down.  I gave him the collaged card I created, the photo I printed of him holding a shovel mixing cement in front of our half-completed health post, and the solar flash light I decided to give to him as a small token of my appreciation.  He read the card silently, and spoke words of gratitude in Tonga. He reflected on our hard work together, and on his initial surprise at how a tiny woman could work like a strong man.  He then paused, looked at me with his blue eyes affected by cataracts, took my hands in his and said in English, "I will never forget you. Never."  My heart felt like it broke into a thousand pieces at having to say goodbye to Basibbuku Chinene, and simultaneously felt full of love. Love for this whole experience, for the people and places that have served as my home and my life for the past two years.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Letting Go

The process of letting go is almost always painful, particularly because it involves great amounts of change.  When this letting go is of connections to people or places, most of us become fearful.  We build communities, and when we leave their protective walls we feel raw and lonely for a time.  We may feel a loss of familiarity and our sense of belonging.  Simply put, letting go can be terrifying.

Although we can eventually transform feelings of loss into realizations of maturation, freedom, and growth, we have to sit with the scary and unknown consequences of change for a time.  I will admit that I am currently in the throws of this process.  How in the world do I move on from these two indescribable years in my tiny village in rural Zambia?  How will I say goodbye to an entire community of people whom I consider my brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, and my best friends?  How will I thank them all?

I hope that I sufficiently express the love I have for my niece Maya, the first baby I ever named whose smiling face has made even the hardest days worth it.  When she comes running up the hill to my hut from playing with the goats and eating dirt just to give me a hug, I wonder if she feels me melt.  I do not know how to fully appreciate my sister Ba Judith for pushing our clinic building project day after day for the past seven months, through illness and family obligations and an infinite number of village funerals.  I do not know how to thank my sister Ba Erin for taking me into her hut during thunderstorms, or for killing five of the six poisonous snakes I have encountered either in my hut or hiding in my bag of charcoal.  I do not know how to show the 72-year-old headmen of Chinene village how much it warms my heart to see him building our health post with his tired back and over-worked, calloused hands.  It feels like there are too many people to thank, and not enough ways to thank them.

I recently had a Peace Corps friend who is at the beginning of his service visit my village.  I showed him our building projects, our new preschool, and introduced him to my HIV support group.  He met my Baneene, my host sisters, and my little nieces and nephews.  He witnessed the heartfelt connections I have with my village, and his visit made me realize something important.  My village and I have been thanking each other every day for the past two years.  We have done this through working tirelessly together building a health post and a mother's shelter.  We have lent each other cooking oil and candles, and we have spent afternoons sitting and talking out our problems under mango trees while shelling beans and cobs of maize.  We have planted and harvested vegetables in the same garden, and we have waited out powerful storms under the same grass-thatched roofs.  We have made each other laugh, and we have danced to the same music with chitenge around our hips.  Some days we have annoyed each other, yelling too loudly under the mid-day hot season sun, and some days we have disappointed one another.  But all-in-all, we have shared our lives, inspiring and loving one another unconditionally for 27 months.

I do not know if I will see my village in a year or in ten years, but I do know that we will always feel gratitude for the time we have shared and hope to share in the future.  I can't make false promises that I will be able to call my host family every month or visit every few years.  The beautiful thing about letting go, however, is that it doesn't have to be a black-and-white, permanent kind of change.  It may be letting go of a certain type of relationship, allowing it to grow into something different and new.  It may be taking a step back for a time, from a community or even from family, not to leave forever but to explore a more expansive sense of home.  I trust that as long as I bring a positive perspective to the process of change, I will always be ok.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Ba Stanley

Ba Stanley, the man who built my new hut almost single-handedly after my first hut flooded, visited me the other day.  I welcomed him to sit with me on my veranda, and we spoke about this year's harvest, about his garden, about his plans for re-building his home with iron sheets instead of grass in the coming months.  We spoke about his neighbour who fell ill, he thinks most likely because of witchcraft (yes, this is still a strong belief in my village, and I try to work with this aspect of traditional culture instead of fighting against it).  Then, he began speaking about the end of August...

Ba Stanley is one of the most hard-working, humble, honest men I have ever met.  Each of his words, spoken slowly, softly yet deliberately, seem to hold strong meaning.  He turned to me and said, "Ba Ashley, the day you leave, I will cry.  The whole village will cry.  You have really done something with us here.  We are now moving and developing."  My heart dropped.  I explained that I would cry too.  I explained that I would stay in touch, though I do not know how easy this will be (my family rarely has their phones charged, as electricity is far away).  I told him that it was now time for the village, along with the next volunteer, to continue pushing the work I started with them.

I know that I will be forced to cope with some difficult realities when I leave Nachibanga.  I will have little control over the development of my village, over whether it continues or slows.  I cannot dictate what type of relationship the next volunteer with form with my family.  And I have no idea when I will see my village again.  All I can do is soak in every minute of these final months: continue laughing with Ba Erin when her sixteen-month-old Maya runs after me with two different oversized shoes on her feet; press sunflower oil from the seeds I planted with my family five months ago; and burn the images of mud huts scattered between dusty rolling hills that I see each time I go for a run or a bike ride into my memory.  I did not know that I could feel this much love for a place and for a community. I had no idea that a family could extend beyond blood, beyond the borders of the place and culture into which I was born.  All I can do is feel grateful for it all.

Thursday, April 24, 2014


The sun decided to sleep for five days.  April is supposed to be dry and full of sunshine in order to dry and harvest the maize; instead, the Earth decided to rain and freeze.  In Zambia, I have acquired the perspective that if one day is difficult, the next day, a new day, will balance out the previous one.  But we had to wait, shivering under covers and huddled around fires.  I read Kerouac, went through weeks of thought in just a few days, and then sweated out yet another fever.  But mostly, I felt the weight and transformation of these last months in Zambia take root in my body.

For the first time in my life, I do not know exactly what is coming next, and I am actually at peace with that reality.  In fact, it feels quite freeing.  There's no reason to be scared-- I am twenty four years old with the whole world to continue exploring and experiencing.  I have a new-found trust that my spirit and the beautiful, supportive people around me will lead me well.  As long as I continue feeling passion, love, gratitude, and curiosity, all will be ok.

In Zambia, I have learned when to push through a hard day, biking around from clinic to village meetings from sun-up to sun-down.  I have also learned when to just take it easy, stay in bed an extra hour, take time to go for a run or simply weed sweet potato fields with my family.  I have learned how to be sick by myself, how to be lonely and even scared in my mud hut by myself.  I have learned to laugh at the men who try and harass me in town.  I have learned that my village will do absolutely anything to protect me.  It is all really indescribable, the things I have come to understand about myself and the world while living in this little village across the globe.

Our health post challenges are slowly working themselves out.  Our project committee is finally taking more ownership of the building process, and it makes me happy to feel a bit of weight taken off my shoulders.  Our pre-school plans are coming together, our HIV support group is strong and so enjoyable to work with (I even went to a meeting last week with a fever just because I knew the group would brighten my day).  All in all, I am doing my best and letting go of the things I cannot change or carry alone.  Development takes the strength of an entire community.

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.

Love and light!