Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A letter to the new intake.

Congratulations on being accepted into Peace Corps, and even more, to Peace Corps Zambia. My name is Caitlin, and I’m a volunteer in Lundazi, Eastern Province, working under the Community Health Improvement Project (CHIP). I’ve now been in country for 22 months, making me the intake which yours will be replacing, and meaning that exactly two years ago, I was in the same exact place you are now. It’s been a crazy ride, it’s absolutely flown by, and as slowly as time seems to tick through the days here, I can’t believe how quickly the days do turn to weeks and then months, to years. If you’re anything like me, serving in the Peace Corps has been a dream of yours and you’ve no doubt jumped through many hoops, stressed out a bit, and gave up other opportunities to get to where you are now- about a month or so away from leaving and embarking on this journey to the mysterious land of Africa. Maybe you second guess if you can really do this for two years- leave behind your family, friends, pets, job, car, flat screen tv, toilet, and other luxuries (yes, a toilet is a luxury!). I know I had doubts. That’s okay, that’s normal. Its good to sit down and assess if this is really right for you. Those things need to be considered because Peace Corps, and definitely Peace Corps Zambia, isn’t right for everyone. I’ll be honest, you definitely are going to miss out on a lot back home. Your first Christmas or Birthday alone in a foreign country might be really difficult. You’ll miss out on weddings, friends giving birth, and even funerals. You’ll miss concerts, parties, and just being able to hang out with friends whenever and wherever. You’ll miss out on strawberry margaritas with salted rims, on a hot summer day by the pool. You’ll miss being able to hop in your car and just drive- drive till you get tired, or run out of gas, or the road no longer runs smooth (and, trust me, roads will never run smooth here). I get it, you’re giving up a lot. But you’re going to gain so much more.
            Think of all the life you’ll get to live, all the things you’ll get to see, do, experience. All of the stories you’ll have to tell. Your friends back home won’t have those stories, those experiences. This is such a unique adventure, jump in and take the risk! Things back home will continue on as they always have; your life is going to change completely. And man is that the truth. When you return, even if it's for a short visit during your service, you will see how, while your world has drastically transformed, a lot of the life you left behind hasn't. You'll have a hard time fitting in again. You'll have a hard time relating to people. You'll have a hard time accepting that everyone seems so selfish, or naiive, or careless and wasteful. It's a really hard culture shock, but it's something that will make you a much better equipped person to deal with the world as it becomes smaller each day. You'll be ready to understand and embrace the changes in the world; you'll be able to care and relate more to how others suffer; you'll be able to live life more passionately, go with the flow, and problem solve with MacGyver-tenacity.
            Maybe you’re a female, like me, and your parents are absolutely terrified of you going to live in Africa, like mine probably were. I get that that’s a rational fear, but in America, we have such a negative, dark view of Africa being a dangerous continent, and it’s really not. There are definitely some countries here that might not be the safest, but people don’t just walk around attacking others, or passing out AIDs. Anything can happen to anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time. Ironically, I feel so much safer here than I would in most places back home. Zambia is rated in the Top 5 Friendliest countries; Zambian people are exceptionally warm and welcoming. This place has so quickly stolen my heart, the land has swiftly become my home, and the people briskly and indubitably have come to be my family.
            Safety and Security is Peace Corps biggest concern for us, and they do an excellent job of ensuring that, as much as they can. Their responses to concerns are timely and done in a really supportive manner. In the village, not only will PC have come and assessed your site and how safe that area is, but no doubt your community members will be there to look out for you and protect you to no end. I feel safe enough in my area to be out after dark and go running by myself down bushpaths I've never explored. I’ve never had anyone bother me at my hut, but my host family and I have all set up boundaries that people are aware of and respect. Village men know that if they’ve been drinking, they’re not allowed anywhere near me or my hut, and they honor that. The people here will help you; they will protect you. And if your village isn't the right fit for you, Peace Corps will step in and do all that they can to help you feel more comfortable, if not move you somewhere else.
            If it gives you and your parents peace of mind, take a self-defense class. I took Women’s Self-Defense and Street Tactics prior to coming, and its one of the best things I could have done for myself and my life, regardless of coming to Zambia. It’s something I highly recommend for all women of any age. It’s important to know how to protect yourself and keep a calm mind in the midst of chaos. I also carry a knife on me a lot, mostly when I’m traveling. Not because I feel the need to use it here, but better safe than sorry, right? Plus, knives are super handy. You never know when you’ll need to slice a mango, or cut some rope, or kill a chicken. Either way, do what you need to do to feel safe and comfortable, and assure your parents that you’re going to be fine. Other suggestions that helped my parents cope was to have them attend Parent Nights that PC and RPCV’s offered, to listen to other parents accounts of how they dealt with their child being in PC. Or, have them read other volunteers blogs. Reading Zam blogs really helped me prepare for what my life might look like here! 
          But aside from all the reading and all the preparing that you can do at home, my best advice is to jump right in. Let this experience be your experience, not any one elses. Don't try to shape it off of how your childhood babysitters' daughters' friends' cousins' experience was in Uzbekistan. Or what you read on some silly blog (like this one..). What you put into this is what you get out of it, like so many things in life. If you have an open mind and a positive attitude, and are ready for anything (and seriously, I mean ANYTHING), then you're going to do great here. Embrace Murpheys Law, because in Zambia, if things can go wrong, they most likely will go wrong. But that's okay, because it always ends up being an adventure. And you will always grow in more ways than one as a person because of it. You will learn things here that you never thought could be possible; that you were never really interested in, or ever saw having an interest in. I went from Silicon Valley girl to farmer and chicken-rearer within a year.. and I'm not even an Ag Volunteer! You will accomplish many great things. You will learn a new language, plus a few phrases in about 10 other African tribal languages. You will learn that the most basic of health care, making splints out of sticks or whatever you have around, actually works, and while fancy Western medicine and technology can be extremely convenient and helpful, it's possible to have a healthy and safe child delivery on the mud floor of a hut by candlelight. You will be able to come up with solutions to almost every problem imaginable, like mending your shoe with a piece of old bike tire tube and a fire, or using dirt from the ground to wash your pots when you're out of soap, or how to make pizza from scratch over a small fire.... The lists go on.
         You're going to sleep under the blanket of a million stars you never knew existed. You're going to have your entire night lit by the brightest, biggest moon you've ever seen, and realize that a few nights out of every month, you don't even need a flashlight to get around outside. You will witness the most astounding sunrises, along with the even more breathtaking sunsets which span across a seemingly never-ending sky. You're going to sit around the fires of your village at night, laughing with people who are so purely, truly happy. Who will sing you songs, feed you, offer you everything they have even when they don't have anything. You will be engrossed in a culture and a people so beautiful and rich that you forget that there is inhumanity in the world. You're going to travel throughout Zambia and many parts of Africa and find that it is a place that could never be explained with the right words or pictures, it's just something that everyone has to experience. Because it's so different. And it's so electric and full of life and love.

          And aside from the Zambian family that you will surely have a tearful time leaving after two years, you're going to gain a Peace Corps family as well. The volunteers that you meet in Philly before you fly out will be your backbone and support through the first 3 challenging months of training (just get through it!!!), and they'll be there standing with you at the end when you ring that final bell, and collect your Pin of Service. The volunteers that are in your Province, of all programs, will be your lifeline and your teachers throughout your service. And the volunteers that are in your district, your closest neighbors, will likely become your closest friends- as you'll get to bike to eachothers sites, camp together and share all your joys and frustrations of life at your hut. The Lusaka staff, another extension of family, is amazing, sweet, and knowledgeable. You will always be able to reach out to them, and they will provide for you, sustain you, encourage and console you throughout your 27 months here.
So cheers to you, CHIP '14. You are about to embark on the odyssey of a life time. I hope that you enjoy it and come to love this country as much as so many of us have and do. Because once Africa is in your heart and pumps in your blood, it will be a part of you for your entire life. 


  1. This has absolutely made my day! Some days I think about how much I'm going to miss my family, and the rest of the days I franticly go over my to-do list to make sure I have everything taken care of before I go. But you reminded me that I'll have everything I need and more! I can't WAIT to get to Zambia! Thank you thank you for this inspiring post!

  2. Aw, you're welcome! I'm glad you enjoyed. I know that packing is totally insane and frantic, but it'll all come together and it will all be fine :) Just remember to enjoy all of the things you love while you're home!! From the scenery, the technology, the efficiency, the food, and of course your friends and families!!! Good luck, and see you soon!

  3. With tears in my eyes, I'm speechless, Caitlin! This is the best post yet!
    Go Cougs (and Vandals)!!