Zambia: Peace Corps Volunteers - Getting a Taste of Two Worlds

In many of Chongwe District's surrounding villages, two worlds have been brought together over the last two months and two diversely clashing cultures have blended.

This culture gap is what the late and youngest yet American President, John F Kennedy hoped to bridge when he challenged students at the University of Michigan in 1960 to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries.

His speech so ricocheted in the hearts of those who heard it that from it was birthed an agency of the federal government devoted to world peace and friendship.

Established in 1961 was the Peace Corps with the guiding principles to promote a better understanding of other people in the world on behalf of Americans; to promote a better understanding of Americans on behalf of other people and to help the population of interested countries meet the need for qualified peoples.

In 1993, Zambia became a destination for those Americans who wished to move away from their social isolation and embrace the ideas and cultural dynamics of people in other lands.

Adjusting to an entire new culture is what Peace Corps volunteers must be prepared for before they embark on a journey that will eventually make them view the world in a different light.

It's not just the sky - scrapers and flashy cars that the volunteers would not have the pleasure of seeing for another two years, but even the launderettes, hot dogs and burgers that constitute every day American life have to be given up for the simplicity of ordinary rural life in developing countries.

Aston Godwin had always wanted the opportunity to see the world and particularly to see Africa.

His chance came this year when he was selected as a Peace Corps volunteer and told that Zambia would become his second home for the next two years.

Originally from the state of Georgia, Aston knew that traveling to Africa would be the experience of a lifetime for him and would change his perspective of the outside world forever.

"I had always been interested in volunteer work and I always wanted the chance to make a difference in other people's lives," he says.

At Auburn University in the US, he studied politics but when he finally graduated in 2006, he suddenly lost interest in politics and decided to turn his long burning desire into reality.

For the past two months he has been living at Kakubo village in Chongwe with his newly adopted family, which numbered 12 when Aston joined them.

Chongwe has been the training ground for him as well as for other Peace Corps volunteers since two months ago as they received training on how to adapt to rural life.

He came to Zambia deliberately without any expectations he says but he has had a great experience so far.

"The beauty of Zambia and the generosity of the Zambian people is what I have fallen in love with since getting here," he said.

At the Peace Corps swearing in ceremony, Aston will be posted to Chibumbe village in Mkushi and it is there that he will be put to the acid test.

Saying bye to his adopted Zambian family in Chogwe will be hard but he will at least appreciate the fact that much of the survival language he now knows is because of them.

Since that first challenge presented to Americans in 1960, more than 190 thousand Peace Corps volunteers have served in 139 host countries to work on issues ranging from HIV/AIDS to information technology and environmental preservation.

To mark the close of one challenging chapter and the opening of another, Aston and his fellow volunteers were given the chance to cook American food for their adopted families in Chongwe in a show of appreciation to them for having kept them the past two months.

The event dubbed, the Culture Day Programme, took place at Chongwe's Chalimbana Teachers' Training College and the cooking which was done using braziers in the blistering Chongwe heat, produced a mix of foods ranging from hot dogs and burgers to curry and fried onions.

Some of Chongwe's mothers, fathers, boys and girls lined up to taste the food that their adopted children had made especially for them.

It was a bittersweet moment. Chongwe had become a home away from home for the American volunteers and now their brazier - made presentation was to mark a fitting farewell to their Zambian families.

Alexandra Chen, the youngest one of the Peace Corps bunch that was training in Chongwe, has had a hard time getting used to eating nshima twice a day though she has slowly been getting used to it.

It's not like she has that much of a choice considering she will be posted to a village in Lundazi following the swearing-in ceremony where she will be living for the next two years.

"Getting used to having nshima everyday has been a huge adjustment but I don't have too many options," she said.

Like Aston, Alexandra too has been blown away by the generosity of Zambians and has been learning Tumbuka to prepare her for her two-year stay in Lundazi.

Once every week she talks to her parents and sister in America when Zain accords her the chance she says.

"I manage to call and keep in touch with my family back home at least once a week and that's if the Zain network is functioning."

"So far it's not so much a wonderful world," she adds with a giggle.

Under a grass-thatched chalet, the Chongwe families gathered and listened to speeches by the trainees that were delivered in various local languages.

There was some tongue twisting here and there as the trainees read the speeches out, coupled with a little hesitation, then the clearing of a throat and finally a rapturous applause by the families in attendance.

Country director Cindy Threlkeld, presented certificates to the 'new' families and as she did so, there were bursts of ululation from various corners of the chalet let out by jubilant 'new' mothers.

One of those mothers was Agnes Kalunga who happened to have 22-year-old American Paul, as an adopted son.

Paul has been learning Bemba in preparation for his stay in the Northern Province.

Agnes said Paul had slowly become a part of the family and she had gotten so used to having him in the house that saying goodbye was not going to be easy.

"Paul was taught how to clean the house, wash his clothes and how to cook because every member of the family has to do their chores," she said.

Currently, Zambia has 200 Peace Corps volunteers in seven out of its nine provinces and this represents the largest Peace Corps contingent in all of Africa.

According to Ms Threlkeld, volunteers in Zambia have learnt that in life it is important to share who they are not just what they know.

She said one of the biggest challenges for the volunteers was learning how to enter a rural community quietly and with respect.

During its four-decade history, the Peace Corps has adapted to the issues of the times and in a world that is constantly changing, Peace Corps volunteers learn that they have to meet new challenges with innovation, creativity, determination and compassion otherwise they would have failed to achieve the mission of the Peace Corps.

In the various rural communities where they will be serving, Aston, Alexandra and Paul will help build fish-ponds, initiate community health projects and put their hand to the plough as they learn that in their new way of life, they must dig up the field if they are to have food in their bellies.

There will be no launderettes or fast food restaurants where they are going, but their training in Chongwe would have prepared them for even what seems to be such small changes.

The drone of drums beating filled the scorching mid afternoon as the trainees and their families formed a circle and danced away to traditional music.

It marked the end of their schooling in Chongwe and as their initiation was complete, it meant they were now ready to take on their real jobs in some of Zambia's numerous villages.

Ads by Google

Copyright © 2008 The Times of Zambia. All rights reserved. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com). To contact the copyright holder directly for corrections — or for permission to republish or make other authorized use of this material, click here.

AllAfrica publishes around 2,000 reports a day from more than 130 news organizations and over 200 other institutions and individuals, representing a diversity of positions on every topic. We publish news and views ranging from vigorous opponents of governments to government publications and spokespersons. Publishers named above each report are responsible for their own content, which AllAfrica does not have the legal right to edit or correct.

Articles and commentaries that identify allAfrica.com as the publisher are produced or commissioned by AllAfrica. To address comments or complaints, please Contact us.