Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Out of the vill for 3 weeks!

For the past 3 weeks I've been out of my village. The first week I had to renew my visa to stay in the country while I wait for my official work visa. I ended up staying at the provincial house here in Mansa for the 4 nights we are given each month. We made pasta, cheesy bread, popcorn, burritos, etc. We watched movie after movie, lazed around, and enjoyed the end of community entry.

The next week, all of us from the RAP 2012 intake traveled down to Lusaka for IST (In Service Training) for lectures and discussions with our trainers, counterparts, and other staff. Overall it was quite helpful and gave at least me some good ideas and motivation to get back to the village and start some new projects. In the evenings we headed out to the malls and did out shopping, movie watching, and discovered some all you can eat buffets. They weren't expecting to host dozens of volunteers who just spent 3 months in a village eating the same foods week after week. We got our money's worth.

Finally, after IST, a group of us from Luapula headed east to Malawi for a bit of R&R. Nkhata Bay was our destination, with a stop over in Chipata, where the Eastern Province Peace Corps house is located. They have 2 grocery stores! Whoo! We started off early in the morning and made it in about 8 hours with 3 hitches and a taxi. Turns out the taxi driver we ran into is one of only a few taxi drivers I've met who charges us a fare price and is on time. On our way back to Lusaka a week later I asked him to pick us up at 5:30. At 5:29 he beeps his horn outside.

Crossing the border into Malawi and traveling up country was quite an ordeal. First you have to exchange your money, since you have to get up there where there aren't any ATM's. So you pull out some Zambian kwacha from the ATM in Chipata, then head to the border. As soon as you pull up at the gate to cross into Malawi, a dozen guys bombard the taxi trying to get us to change currency with them. We finally ended up yelling at them all to shut up, we'd pick one of us to exchange money, quote a price, and wait til someone took the deal. Turned out not to be as much of a mess as it looked like, but still quite stressful. So here's the conversions we had to deal with. 1,000 Malawian kwacha is worth about 3 USD. 1 USD is worth about 5,000 Zambian kwacha, or 5 Zambian rebased kwacha, because they just changed their currency, dropping three zero's. So, we were dealing with 4 currencies. But, these guys we were exchanging from weren't from the government, they were in it for the money, so they had to make some money from the exchange, which meant I had to do math so we wouldn't get ripped off. Overall I think we came out quite well, despite their complaints of not getting $50 or $100 USD bills. Whatever.

So we head into Malawi and book some taxis that constantly complain about the price we agreed on, begged for money in advance because they don't fill up their tanks before they get a fare, etc. I could write a book about how much I hate taxi drivers around here, but I'll just say it's a miracle I didn't end up in prison for attacking any of them.

Long story short, we made it to Nkhata Bay, to Mayoka Village. The Bay is actually the site for a small segment in Planet Earth, a series on the Discovery Channel, that highlighted the uniqueness of Lake Malawi. Lake Malawi hosts over 2,000 species of African Cichlids found only in the rift lakes. They are sought after by pet stores because of their unique colors for freshwater fish, some being bright blue, some with black stripes, some yellow, and even others red. It's quite a sight to see. I managed to go scuba diving 3 times, including a night dive, where dolphin fish “hunt” with us and follow our torch lights to find prey that didn't find a good enough hiding spot that night.

Mayoka Village is a great place. Built on the side of a hill, the whole place reminded me of Neverland, I wished they had zip lines to take us everywhere. Bats would fly through the trees, shy but curious monkeys would stop by and peek at us, and sometimes a random crab would take off running across the dining room.

We arrived on a Monday, and saw that every Tuesday they took anyone who wanted to go out on a boat trip to go rock jumping, snorkeling, beach volleyball, and fish eagle feeding. We crammed about 20 of us on a tiny boat that struggled the whole way along the coast to an inlet a few kilometers away. About half way there, the boat captain stopped the engine and began whistling. He picked up a fish he had brought with him, waved it in the air and whistled again. Far off in the distance, a white spec dove off a high limb and coasted along the water. The captain threw the fish into the air, landing several meters from the boat. The white spec had now grown into an African Fish Eagle (looks quite similar to a Bald Eagle) swooped down and grabbed the fish with its talons just like you see in all the pictures and videos. We kept heading down the coast and ended up in a small inlet with some rocky walls. We took a quick stop to climb up a big rock to jump off, then headed to the beach for volleyball.

Our stay ended way too soon. But after being gone for 3 weeks, I was glad to start heading back to my village. 13 hitches later, I sit in the provincial house typing this entry. Tomorrow I'll head back to my hut and begin village life again, pumping my water and watching the sunsets on my porch.


I've had several people ask about the work I'm actually doing here. I guess I haven't mentioned much about that yet. So. I'm a Rural Aquaculture Promotion (RAP) volunteer, which means I'm promoting the use of fish ponds and growing fish as a means of food security, a source of protein for children or vulnerable groups like people with HIV/AIDS, and a source of income and jobs.

My village has a local group of farmers that was set up in 2007 as a fish farming group. The previous volunteer in my village helped them out with 4 fish harvests and just before he left he applied for a grant from PLARD which was awarded, but stalled with the paperwork. For most of community entry I was calling/texting/emailing back and forth to track down what needed to be done and how to get the money to my group. In fact, for most of me service I will work as a liaison between my farmers and their needs, and what different NGO's and government offices can supply/support.

The grant is to help set up the group to be more sustainable in their fish farming endeavors. This includes mainly setting up brooding ponds. Brooding ponds are one of 3 types of ponds I plan to help set up with the group. Traditionally they have only had one type of pond. They bought fingerlings (baby fish), stocked their ponds, fed them, harvested them, and saved the fingerlings to stock for the next harvest. This method works for a while, but is unsustainable for a couple reasons. Mainly, after a while the fish stock will become inbred and will lead to smaller less healthy fish. What I plan on doing is setting up brooding ponds, which have healthy adult fish breeding continuously, supplying my group with hundreds of fingerlings each month. Some will be used to stock another type of pond, a grow out pond, which is used only to grow the fish. Left over fingerlings can be eaten or sold as additional income. The third pond will be a holding pond, a small pond where we place fingerlings to be held until we can stock them (or sell them).

Integration is another way I hope the grant can help out with the group. A lot of the money is for building a better fence around the 20 ponds the group has dug. Inside this fence is enough room to add chickens and pigs, as well as plant some crops which will help feed the fish and create income. The manure from the animals will be added to the compost cribs in the ponds, allowing algae to grow, which the fish eat. The animals will be added to the growing list of things to sell as additional income.

I have started having meetings with the group on Friday mornings. The first meeting 2 people showed up a half hour late to tell me there wasn't going to be a meeting because everyone was getting their fertilizer they had been waiting for for a couple months. Other times it's lightly raining so no one shows up, or there is a funeral so nobody can work for a couple days. But this is their culture. One big thing that has been strange to realize here is that everything that sounds weird to me or that doesn't make sense, makes complete sense to everyone living here. I find it hard to believe entire villages completely stop working in their fields, give away all their animals to give as gifts and eat, and spend literally days sleeping outside near the house of a funeral. But to them, it's completely normal and nobody questions it. So when I complain that nobody worked on the fish ponds when they said they would, it's me that looks strange. But I'm learning and patient. I've got the time if they are willing to listen, so I'm here.

For the next few months I hope to get the fingerlings to the ponds. Right now, the group is clearing out the ponds, which had become a bit overgrown for the last few months. They will begin filling the ponds and getting the correct water levels, as well as start feeding the ponds. Like I said, the compost cribs will house all kinds of organic waste, which breaks down into nitrogen (mostly), which algae grows from. Something like 70% of these fish's diet is algae. But, we have to start early and get a good algae “bloom” before we get fish, so they have something to eat when they arrive. I'll know it's ready when there is a nice green color in the water.

Other than fish farming, volunteers pick up “secondary projects”, basically anything in their village they want to do to help out. Some hold after school groups, work with women's groups, help with HIV/AIDS awareness, etc. I'm hoping to try to set up some tree nurseries, since goats eat any baby trees in my village. There are literally no young mango trees. I'm starting to plant some Moringa trees, which are great to have around since you can eat pretty much the whole tree if you wanted. The leaves are super nutritious, and so are the seed pods. Plus, they start seeding as early as 8 months after planting. I'm also going to try and promote living fences, like the one I set up around my garden. In March, meetings will start for ELITE, a camp for boys I'll be helping out with that teaches leadership, gender equality, farming techniques, probably sports, etc. I don't know what the acronym is for, but there is a similar camp for young girls called GLOW (Girls Leading Our World).

I'm also part of a malaria net study, I think it's partnered with the CDC or something like that. I can't remember if I've mentioned it here on the blog or not. Basically nets have been handed out in this part of the world for years, but they aren't really sure how long they last. Some nets are supposed to last a certain number of years before they need to be replaced, but no one has ever really tested it in the village setting. That's when Peace Corps comes in. We're here, and we're here for a while. So they handed out nets to different households around our villages in both Luapula and Northern Province, Zambia. Every few months, volunteers head out to each family, take a look at their net, and count the number and size of holes and location, then ask a few questions about the usage of the nets and things like how and when they wash them. Hopefully, after the study, the companies will know better how long the nets last, which will help save them time/trouble/money and dispense the nets more effectively.

I'm also hoping to get the community involved in creating some form of a community hall. I was originally thinking of applying for a grant to get a nice building built, but the more I think about it and speak with people about what works best for development in places like this that have been getting free hand outs for generations, giving them one more thing may not be the most sustainable solution. Instead I'm thinking of trying to convince my community the benefits of building their own, something that they can call only theirs. I think if they build something for themselves, they will be more willing to keep it up, since it would be more of a source of pride. That's my thinking anyway. But I think it will be a good thing for the village, since there is no market or place to meet anywhere. If farmers want to have a meeting they will sit under a tree. If it's raining everyone stays at home. Having a central place for meetings and getting out of the weather, as well as being able to sell extra fruits from the garden I think will be a great thing in my village.

I'll keep you posted on all my going's on.

Also, for everyone who's sent a package or letter, thank you so much! It really means a lot. It's great to hear about what's going on back in the states, as well as snack on beef jerky or M&M's (and especially sriracha).

Finally, here is a map I drew out of my hut/compound. The chicken house will be built hopefully this month. I'm planning on naming all my chickens. If you come to visit me and one of the chickens has your name on it, you get a free dinner!


  1. Do other villagers pass through your area to get to the Dambo or water pump? And if so, do they treat the area like it belongs to you or as a public thorough fare?

    1. All paths are pretty much fair game, unless you've got a fence or something, which most people don't around here. There is a better path to the dambo if you are coming from the village, so most people take that, plus it's the main path across the dambo. Me and my closest neighbor to the right are the furthest towards the dambo, so there's not much traffic to the water pump. It's pretty isolated and I don't get much traffic through my area, which is fine with me!