“It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.” - J.R.R. Tolkien
The story of life
Since leaving my parent's house in Pacific Grove, CA two weeks after my high school graduation in 2015, I've been swept away on many adventures around the world. My latest one: serving in the Peace Corps in Zambia, Africa from 2019 until the worldwide evacuation in March 2020. When I joined, I was at a breaking point. For years I dreamed of becoming a famous writer or book editor, going so far as completing a Master of Arts in writing at Lancaster University, England.
But the more I was out in the world traveling, the more passionate I became about humanitarian work and environmental awareness. Seeing other countries implement environmentally sustainable programs inspired me to join the cause. When I applied to Peace Corps, I allowed them to choose my station, as long as I was working in the environment or agriculture sector. Next thing I knew, I was off to Zambia spring of 2019 to work as a Linking Income Food & Environment volunteer to help continue the worldwide battle for environmental sustainability.
Service in Peace Corps exposed my rawest form; I was knocked down constantly and learned to persist through adversity. From personal growth to experiencing the world outside of myself, my service changed the way I see the world and inspires me to continue to make it a better place. Today, I am back with family in Juneau, AK where I continue to work remotely with Zambia through my nonprofit, Ukupapa.
There are a thousand ways to tell one story, I know I will never be able to fully capture my experience in Zambia. But I hope to spend my life continuing the conversation bridging the gap between all the corners of the world to create a worldwide community.
Images of the memorable moments
The memorable moments
As a Linking Income, Food & Environment volunteer, I was both blessed and cursed with a variety of paths my service could take. Anything from food security to income generating activities to conservation farming and agroforestry to environmental education to nutrition, all were fair game when it came down to developing projects and programs. However, Peace Corps emphasizes that volunteers do a community assessment and follow the needs of our villages. We are, after all, there to do work best suited for the needs of our local posts, not best suited for the needs of America.
After months of assessment and discussion with my counterparts and village headmen, we managed to start various projects such as building tree nurseries for woodlots to prevent deforestation, fish farming to increase food security and income, reuse of local materials such as making eco bricks from plastic waste and charcoal from maize waste, and a bit of conservation farming with rice, maize, tomatoes, fruit trees, and more. As someone with minimal education on agriculture and the ecosystem specific to Zambia, my main job was to facilitate these programs and connect the village with outside resources and materials needed to improve their work and education on these topics. I did this by working with local counterparts, i.e. Zambian Nationals or other organizations already experts in their fields and working with them to teach the villagers who otherwise wouldn’t have access to these resources. Utilizing my connections, I was able to start a fish farming education program at the local secondary school and a pine tree operation that are still progressing, even after I’ve left. Sustainability is key.
On a smaller scale, I practiced personal sustainability to influence those around me. As the only “white” person for miles, I was constantly watched by everyone in my village and outlying villages. It was hard to do anything without everyone knowing; that’s pretty much a fair assessment of the Zambian culture in general. As a rural environment, the sense of community is strong, and as an outsider, I integrated into their community simply by being scrutinized day in and out. So, I took that opportunity to share my own personal practices towards saving the environment. I started my own tree nursery to reforest the land around my house which caught on with my neighbors and the kids who hung around me all the time. Instead of burning trash in a pit (common practice throughout Zambia as there is no garbage truck to remove it from their sight), I started building eco bricks, plastic bottles stuffed with plastic waste which then can be used to build housing structures, chicken coups, fences, insakas, and whatever else. Using eco bricks and mud to build means anyone can have a chicken coup or goat house no matter their financial situation.
I thoroughly enjoyed working in the environment sector, especially learning from my counterparts still in Zambia that my influence has continued without my presence to this day!
When I received my post assignment from Peace Corps, I had to google “Zambia.” I knew the country was in Africa, but in all honesty, I was ignorant to their culture, food, language, religion, and lifestyle. For me, that kind of lack of knowledge makes me excited: there so much to learn! I knew people who tried to learn the local language or seek out Zambian food or research the culture to its core, only to arrive in country and realize everything they Googled was misleading. I took a different approach. I landed in Lusaka with nothing but a backpack and the knowledge that I was going to make the most of it. Let the culture wash over, no preconceived notions about anything. Well, I had one preconceived notion. Peace Corps had emphasized that all tattoos and piercings would be shameful in Zambia, a Christian nation. So, with that in mind, I packed only long sleeves and pants to hide my body art. Only, upon arrival, no one cared. Sure, tattoos were uncommon but not shamed or hated. In fact, many people loved to look at my arm tattoos and I even had a Zambian tattoo me, twice.
I always approach a new adventure with the mindset that I’m going to be surprised. One thing that surprised me was Zambian food staple: nshima. A maize or cassava mixture that when cooked with water comes out like thick grits. We’d then roll the nshima into a small ball and eat with relishes such as meat, soya, or vegetables. Everything was eaten with our hands. The relishes were typically whatever was grown in the garden that season and changed often. Meat was rare, it was a delicacy to eat meat. If we had meat, we’d have to slaughter the animal ourselves. Then, we’d have it for every meal until the entire animal was consumed. There was no refrigeration, so meals were whatever you could find in the garden or at the market for the day. Meals were served family style yet divided amongst the genders in the family—men ate with men and women ate with children.
Zambia is a heavily Christian nation. Even in impoverished communities, I would find several churches and congregations. The churches were the best place to integrate, connect with people, and make announcements. Zambians treat going to church like millennial Americans treat going to brunch. They dress up to show off their nicest clothes and catch up on the latest news. I was not raised in any religious capacity, but I attended a few church meetings to introduce myself to the community. But after attending a Biblical Baptism and everyone pointing at me saying “you’re next,” I started taking my trips to the market on Saturdays and Sundays.
One thing I found essential to Zambian culture was the chitenge, or kitenge. For context, it’s similar to a sarong, but thicker fabric and uniquely vibrant. Chitenges were used as skirts for women, they would never leave the house without it, or to hold babies on their back, or as a towel, or to pick up a hot pot. The most beautiful and useful multi tool, I also carried one with me everywhere I went. And when it was time for me to be presentable in front of headmen or the Chief—boom, chitenge wrap.
When I received my acceptance to volunteer in Zambia, Africa, the phrase Peace Corps used to describe the assignment stood out to me: the quintessential Peace Corps experience. It is exactly what people imagine when you say you’re off to join the Peace Corps; living in a mud hut in a rural community, no electricity, no plumbing, cooking over an open fire, and no fellow American for miles around. I sought this lifestyle. I dreamed of immersing myself so deeply, I’d come out the other side lost in the “modern” world. I wanted to be as remote as possible.
I arrived at my site, nervous beyond belief with a half-assed knowledge of Bemba (local language of my region) and took one hard look at my home for two years. I was terrified. Peace Corps “guarantees” a few small comforts: a secure living space with a roof (about 10m x 10m), a decent chimbusu (the brick structure with a hole in the ground where we relieved ourselves), an insaka (outdoor cooking area also used for gatherings), and a dish rack. At first glance, I knew I was shafted. The mud and brick hut was crumbling, my insaka was caved in, the grass thatch roof was shredded, and the chimbusu was small, even for me who stands at 5’2” on a good day. Thankfully, I had a sturdy looking dish rack.
I had that dish rack for a day.
The kids, bless their hearts, were so excited to see me, they danced around and jumped all over the dish rack welcoming me to my new home. It was beautiful, I felt so humbled by their joy—then the dish rack collapsed from under their dancing feet. Ten kids hit the ground with a smack. In a split second I thought, “oh no, I’ve killed the kids” and “damn, that was my only nice amenity.” Suddenly, the kids bounced back, circling me with giggles and shrieks of joy and everything was forgotten.
Unfortunately, my living situation never truly improved. During the rainy season, I was constantly gathering rain water inside my hut, mice plagued my house and ate through my food buckets, I was never able to use my insaka for cooking and nearly started bush fires cooking on the ground, and I was constantly battling cockroaches from crawling up my leg as I went to the bathroom. I did, however, get a new dish rack! And yet, while I cried myself to sleep often when rain dripped on my face and mice pooped in my food, I sit here now wanting to give up every convenience in America just to be back home.
I am asked often what the day to day life in Peace Corps looks like. It’s different for everyone; Peace Corps is what you make of it, or so they say. In my experience, every day was a battle. According to my neighbors, I was always sleeping in. I woke up at 6 am every day. But by then, most farmers had left for the fields, so I’d do my chores until meeting with them in the afternoon.
I started my day by cleaning whatever mess creatures left in my house in the night, sweeping away the dust and droppings. In Zambia, most people—I’d go so far as to say everyone—in rural villages cook over coals in a brazier. Some days, I could light the coals in a couple minutes, other days it could take up to an hour. Then I fetched water from the well in front of my house. When that well dried up, I’d go to my neighbors, say good morning, and fight off their dogs while I drew water from the well. Then I cooked breakfast, as that is the most important meal of the day for me, and boil water to have in my thermos the rest of the day. By then, the kids were done with their household chores and would come over to me and help with mine: fetching more water, washing dishes, doing laundry, watering the garden, cutting the grass with a slasher, pulling weeds, etc. Then we would sit on the front porch and they’d color, play drafti (checkers type game), or kick around their village rigged soccer ball while I read or prepped for meetings. By lunch, I would kick all the kids out and start the brazier process all over again.
Around 2pm, my neighbors would come back from the fields and we would all sit under the shade and relax. If I had a meeting for the day, I attended that. If not, I would simply hang out and attempt communication with anyone who wanted to try. But if no one was around to chat, I would wander into the bush behind my house where the fields were. Back in America, I loved to hike in the wilderness as a pastime. And even though it scared the neighbors watching me walk into the bush and out again with no purpose, I kept up that habit. Before dinner, I sometimes visited Ba Rebecca’s house, greeting everyone I passed, such is the culture in Zambia. Ba Rebecca and I would talk about what new projects we wanted to do then gossip about the goings on in the village. If she wasn’t home, I’d check Kanchindi’s house at the school. Then, I went home, wandering past my neightbors' houses to find my cat, Stella, to feed her. Most nights I wouldn't find her, she'd wander back on her own. Then, depending on the sunset, would either cook or go to bed. Since I had no electricity, I did not like being outside after dark. Sometimes drunk men would approach my house and knock on my windows until Ba Florence chased them away. And then, I fell asleep to the sound of a thousand crickets.
In my life, I’ve traveled to many parts of the world from Southeast Asia to Europe to across America. I prided myself in thinking I didn’t have a comfort zone, that I could take whatever the world threw at me. Oh, how humbled I would become. Transportation in Zambia is an adventure in and of itself. The main transport in Zambia are cars or buses, but in some areas there are small airports and sometimes, you have to take a boat or canoe. Buses would be packed to the nines with people, babies, goats, chickens, luggage, what have you. I’ve been coughed on, sprayed with breast milk, harassed, had things dropped, chucked, and tossed at me trying to get from A to B. Not all roads are paved, in fact, the majority are dirt roads covered in rocks, logs, potholes, people crossing, children playing, and goats, cows, and chickens trying to avoid death. Bus rides took hours, sometimes over two days because they broke down constantly. Once, a trip from Kawambwa, where I lived, to Mansa, where the PC house was, took several hours when normally it takes three. Our minibus broke down six times to the point where I almost hitchhiked back to home. A friend of mine took the same route once and was on the bus for 10+ hours. Time is not strict in Zambia and you’ll learn that quick the moment you step on a bus.
As an avid traveler, I took every opportunity to see the country. I traveled all around Luapula, down to Livingstone (two days journey), and to Northwestern (three days journey.) At the time, I was dating another volunteer in Northwestern. Looking at a map, our sites were maybe 100 miles apart, but dividing us was the Congo, strictly forbidden to us to travel through. So I had to travel south and then north again. While I was there, the province was being evacuated due to “ritual killings,” a story for another time. Peace Corps told me to make my own way to Luapula as quickly as possible. So, my adventure began. I got on a bus to Central Province, from there I would catch the next bus to Mansa. However, the first bus broke down three times and I missed the connecting bus. I then found someone willing to bring me a bit more north, so I went. Then the car took a turn I didn’t recognize and when the driver refused to stop, I jumped from the car when he slowed for a moment. It was getting dark; I was still about five hours from my destination. I knew a volunteer’s site between where I was and my destination and I thought if I just get there, I’m safe.
In short, I didn’t get there. I wandered the road looking for a hitch, waving any car down that passed. The sun was setting, cars were no longer frequent, and I thought hard about making a shelter in the bush and sleeping it out. Suddenly, a truck driver from Tanzania stopped for me. I told him my situation and he drove me to the nearest town with a lodge. Say what you want, I have never met a more accommodating people than the people of Southern Africa. Terrified as I was of it getting dark, I never feared for my life. That night, I hung out with the lodge owner, fell asleep, and continued my hitchhiking back to Mansa. I speak the truth when I say, I never want to hitchhike in America and yet, I had the greatest experience hitchhiking in Zambia.
The Peace Corps program is designed to get volunteers’ feet in the door regarding cultural integration. They do this by placing volunteers with host families during training, host families during service, and requesting a person from each village to become their immediate counterpart. My experience, however, was slightly different. At the time, Zambia hosted the most Peace Corps volunteers over any other country where PC was present. Some volunteers slip through the cracks. I was one of them from the start. Upon my arrival, the staff had my name down as both an environment volunteer and a fish farming volunteer, two different programs arriving in country at once. So, when it came to my training living situation, I was lucky enough one of the families offered to surprise host me along with another volunteer. And honestly, I couldn’t have asked for a better situation. My bamaayo (mother in Bemba) was one of the strongest, hardest working, and kindest souls. I became close to the two daughters (or bankashis, sisters) in the house and still keep in contact today. They taught me how to fetch water from the well, how to do laundry, how to cook Zambian food over a brazier, how to speak Bemba slang, and many other life skills I needed for surviving in a rural village. Lastly, the other volunteer at my homestay became one of my best friends in service and still is to this day.
After training we are sent to our sites, our home for the next two years. Yet again, I found myself without a host family. Many volunteers become so close to their families they’ll address them as “my mom” and/or “my dad”. Some volunteers will not cook for their entire service because their families will feed them. Upon my arrival, I quickly realized my service was going to be different from the majority of volunteers. I had no host family, just a house sitting apart from other family complexes. My “host” lived about a half mile away from me across town and I was never invited to meals. But I made the most of it. My neighbors became somewhat of family to me. Ba Florence, the matriarch of the compound to the right of my house, took it upon herself to become my unofficial security guard, and during dangerous times, was my saving grace. The kids in the compound to my left became some of my only local friends, visiting me daily to draw or bring me small stray animals or fetch my water to help with my chores. While a family wasn’t “given” to me and it took a while for anyone to trust me, by the time I was ordered to evacuate, I’d never felt more part of their family.
Lastly, while we are given a counterpart to start, it is up to volunteers to build their own relationships with locals to help implement programs. The counterpart assigned to me, Ba Rebecca, considered me a daughter, walking by my place weekly to make sure I was comfortable. Then, I became close to the teachers at Kalamba Primary. They invited me to hang out with them, eat meals with them, and even took me on a trip to Lumangwe Falls, a local landmark gem. One of the teachers, Kanchindi, became a great friend of mine, helping me with any and all programs, even if he wasn’t an expert in that field. Then there was Ba Andrew, a retired health counselor who would walk six miles round trip almost daily just to have conversations with me about religion, politics, world news—everything I was told not to talk about with locals, but I couldn’t deny him or myself the scintillating conversation. Unfortunately, when the evacuation order arrived, Ba Andrew was the only one missing, and I was unable to say goodbye.
One of the most challenging things I faced in Zambia was racial adversity. I’m Thai American, Thai on my mother’s side and European white on my father’s. Racism is no stranger to me growing up in America; however, I’ll admit I was not prepared for what Sub-Sahara Africa threw at me.
Many countries in Africa have a difficult history with colonialism. It’s no secret and it is something Peace Corps volunteers had to be cognizant of as a westerner coming over to “teach people things.” I never took that approach, there was nothing I knew better than anyone in Zambia and in the end I learned more being there than I ever had in a classroom in America or England where I went to graduate school. What I didn’t realize or researched before the plane landed, was Africa’s difficult history with the Chinese after many of the Western countries left. China brought many businesses over to Zambia and used the locals for cheap labor, not unlike what America did to the Chinese. So, much animosity was bread against people of Asian descent, simply because they hadn’t been exposed to racial diversity quite yet.
I couldn’t step outside my house without one comment from someone who had never seen someone like me before. Automatically, I was called “China” or screamed at simply because I looked Asian or hear kids speak to me mimicking “Chinese sounds.” Within my village, we were able to subdue the harassment, I had my counterparts and neighbors on my side after explaining to them my race and how I was born in America not Asia. But traveling around the country was sometimes difficult and frightening. On buses, sometimes they demanded to see my passport but not ask any of the “white” volunteers. Traveling to Tanzania, I was detained longer than my fellow PCVs because they thought my passport was fake, I must be from Korea or something. There were times I nearly gave up on my service after hearing slurs yelled at me in towns and public transport.
It is always difficult to interact with people that, upon first glance, we have little in common with. Yet, I consider my shortened service a success. Now, there are Zambians who understand racial diversity from America and, also with Asian countries. Likewise, coming back to America, I’ve had conversations dispelling ideas and stereotypes of African nations. It’s a step towards a better world.
It started as a girl’s trip. Myself and my two best friends, Danielle and Maddie planned a trip to Kasanka National Park for the largest fruit bat migration in the world. Raymond, a guy in our intake, asked to join. He lived in another province, Northwestern; so, where it took us a few hours straight shot bus ride, Raymond had to stay the night in Serenje then hitchhike to the park.
As we waited at the park gate for Raymond, we played our favorite card game, Liverpool rummy and ate amasukus (known in English as wild loquat) bought from the villagers on the side of the road. Some locals watched us, curious what three muzungus (foreigners) were doing sitting in the dirt. Then, a big truck drove by and slammed on its brakes. Out popped Raymond and we all cheered, the truck driver cheered, the guard at the gate cheered, the locals who sold us fruit cheered, everyone cheering for different reasons. I believe, subconsciously we knew we were about to have the most beautiful camping trip of our lives.
We splurged for the bougie campsite, not by choice, every other spot was booked. So when the canter dropped us off at our safari tents, already furnished with beds and lamps, a beautiful outdoor shower and toilet we didn’t have to squat over and an out door kitchen with a fridge, all over-looking a lake, we nearly cried. Overspending suddenly felt worth it, we were spoiled. At this campsite, I had the feeling the staff were used to dealing with westerners with loads of money, not dirty Peace Corps volunteers crying over a bucket hung from a tree that spouted water on us. We were used to bucket baths, scooping water with a cup onto our bodies. Having water rain down on us in a bamboo structure was the most glamorous thing we’d done in months. The staff kept asking us what we needed, but in the end, all we wanted to do was drink wine, play games, cook, and stare into nature.
The night we booked to go “view the bats” was gorgeous. It had rained a little in the morning, it was cool during the day, we cooked and napped and prayed elephants would come to the lake (they didn’t). They picked us up in a canter with another group of volunteers and though we came separately, we all knew each other. They drove us about thirty minutes into the bush and after a ten-minute walk we were at a clearing. There, we waited.
Our tour guide thought maybe we wouldn’t get many bats; it was towards the end of their migration anyway. But we waited, it was a beautiful place to be in, nonetheless. The sun started setting, pinks, blues, golds, reds, the sky was our light show. Frogs hopped along the grass. Trees glowed in the sunset. The crickets let out high-pitched hums. Then, they arrived. Gradually, more and more bats covered the sky until it was nearly black from just their flight. I could have stayed out there all night. We hardly spoke, listening only to the screeches of the bats. Our tour guide said, “with the sunset and weather, this is the best viewing of the migration I’ve ever seen.” I put my arms around my friends, and I knew, nothing would ever top that moment.
Twice a year, my district puts on a bike tour of Kawambwa to teach various topics to a multitude of villages. As PCVs in Zambia, we were required to cover HIV/AIDS and Malaria work, no matter our job description. So, we banded together visiting other volunteers’ homes to put on fun and educational programs about HIV/AIDS. The trip itself took seven days and I biked a cumulative 160+ kilometers, roughly 100 miles. We traveled to the furthest post in Kawambwa, a place so remote we had to pack our bikes onto canoes to cross a river before continuing the journey. From there, we traveled back down to Kawambwa town, stopping at any site along the way.
The programs were a huge success, partially due to the spectacle we were: a group of six “white people” traveling across the district by bike to talk about HIV/AIDS. At each place we worked with counterparts, healthcare workers, and teachers who could bridge the gap between our languages and cultures. With their help, we broached topics such as safe sex, condom demonstrations, stigmas about the disease, and child marriage. It was, simply put, a beautiful trip. I was able to see parts of Zambia no tourist ever will, eat meals with wonderful families, laugh and play football (soccer) with the program participants.
For the programs, we drew activities from Grassroot Soccer, leveraging the power of soccer to educate and inspire at-risk youths in the district. Topics such as STI and HIV risk factors would be broken down into a footwork soccer game. For example, the more risks you take (dribbling the ball quickly would be like not wearing a condom), the more likely you are to contract the disease (or hit the cones). At some sites, tons of people showed, even if we didn’t have enough resources for them to participate. We reached hundreds of Zambians with the help of our counterparts.
After the bike tour, I become more known in my district. Months later, I was approached in the market by a young man who had participated in our program 50km away. He recognized me and asked when I’d be back for more programs. Of course, while I planned the next bike trip, I was unable to keep my promise to the boy because we evacuated before we could start the next bike tour. The trip was exhausting, but we ended I never felt more mentally and physically rewarded in my life.
Zambia is made up of several provinces and Peace Corps sends volunteers to five of them. As a country, we’re one of the last Peace Corps posts that still have Provincial Resource Centers, a house in the capital of each province where volunteers can stay four days a month to use the office space, showers, kitchen, and even watch a movie if the power is on.
I was placed in Kawambwa District, Luapula Province and these places will always hold my heart. Luapula is one of the northern most provinces bordered by the Congo and Tanzania and my site was in the most northern district of it all. From Lusaka, it took fifteen plus hours to travel by bus—if we’re lucky and nothing broke. Luapula is known for its lakes, rivers, waterfalls, and intense rainy seasons. Everything where I lived was bright green, lush, a complete jungle. Ntumbachushi Falls was seven miles from my front door. I thrived.
Many Peace Corps volunteers find comradery in shared suffering, and the forty-ish volunteers in Luapula became my family. In Bemba, ‘ulupwa’ means ‘family,’ so we changed our name to Lualupwa to show that we truly cared for one another, and I never felt more at home. When I left the bush and came to the house once a month, it almost felt like a family reunion seeing volunteers from different parts of Luapula I normally would not see. But I was even more lucky. Within Luapula, I was placed in Kawambwa District, the district with the highest concentration of volunteers in the country. At evacuation, there were fourteen of us. And we were an extremely close-knit group. I couldn’t go into the boma (the biggest town with a marketplace) and not run into another volunteer. As much as I loved my isolation and submersing myself in Zambian culture and my village, knowing I had love and support from other people experiencing the same things as me was truly a gift. Oftentimes, we’d meet to shop at the market together, hangout and relive stress. We’d gather for birthdays at the waterfall or bike to each other’s villages for collaborative programs. Even in the worst times, there was always a shoulder to cry on.
The February before evacuation, I traveled to Northwestern Province to visit a boy I was dating. While there, he broke off our relationship. After the three-day arduous journey home, two volunteers in Kawambwa came to my house to stay with me during my emotional turmoil. I then fell ill with a coronavirus (not COVID 19) and was bedridden for nearly a week. They both extended their stay to care for me, cook, plant trees, clean, and make me laugh. Believe me when I say, I would do anything for the humans of Luapula.
It was like a tidal wave. I watched as PC country after PC country issue evacuation notices. The countries to the East were the first to drop. Then when I saw South American countries issuing evacuations, I knew it was coming. COVID-19 had yet to make a presence in Zambia, one or two cases were showing up in outlying countries, Namibia, Tanzania, and then, South Africa banned foreign work visas and travelers. That’s when I knew it was serious. South Africa was our last resort hospital, when volunteers became too ill or broke a bone or needed surgery, they were flown to South Africa since Zambia didn’t have all the resources. If they cut off our medical care, then we had to leave.
When I received the email, it was 7am in the morning. Essentially it read, “pack up and be in your provincial capital tomorrow.” The way the bus system worked where I was, that meant I needed to be in the main town that night to catch the 4am bus to Mansa. I felt numb, I couldn’t fathom how I was going to say goodbye to my friends, counterparts, neighbors, my cat, or the place I learned to call home. It was raining that morning. Cold and wet. Miserable. I walked a mile to Ba Rebecca’s house. I knew she could help me best. But when I arrived to tell her the news, she cried. Then I cried. Then her grandson cried even though he’s six months old and had no idea what was happening. Next thing I knew, half the village was at my house helping me clean, pack, and say goodbye. I walked to the school, broke the news to everyone and cried in front of a classroom full of kids I’d just started teaching. The headmaster offered me a ride to town, which I accepted but it cut my time in the village short by 6 hours. But there I was, packed with my essentials and letting my neighbors take whatever else they wanted, and I was gone.
It took over a week to travel from my rural village in Zambia to my parent’s home in Juneau, Alaska. A few of us got stuck in Ethiopia for a night, which I was happy for. I’d traveled there before and it was a familiar transition to stop is Addis Ababa, a final goodbye to the life I had known. To this day, when I think of everything I left behind, I’m hurt. But, in the grand scheme of everything terrible that is 2020, I’m thankful I had the opportunity to even know Zambia for a short year.
My work with Zambia did not end with the evacuation. I kept in constant contact with many of my friends and coworkers in Luapula. While in Mansa, Peace Corps employed a man name Ba Francis and his wife Ba Loveness to work at our Provincial Resource Center. They worked for PC full time, while also running a children’s home called Busalo. Busalo was designed to aid children orphaned by HIV/AIDS through sustainable education and care. When a parent or both parents died, kids are not taken away, they stay with their extended families. Villages, after all, are close-knit enough that everyone can pitch in—as they say, “it takes a village.” However, with the HIV/AIDS pandemic, money and resources become outstretched that some families cannot take on more than their own children. So, in comes Busalo. This place is not an orphanage, the kids cannot be fostered or taken away from their home communities. But rather, Busalo provides education, food, some shelter, and materials needed for these kids to grow up with the same opportunities as other kids.
As part of funding, Ba Francis would tailor bags for the volunteers, whatever design they wanted. However, one design was loved by all—the Banana Bag. Upon arrival in America, many friends of RPCVs commented on the bags and wanted to know where we got them. After the evactuation, Ba Francis and Ba Loveness were let go and without funding or a job, Busalo school halted. Well, with demands in America and our connection with Ba Francis, three Luapulans and myself collaborated our knowledge of business, marketing, and design and created Ukupapa, a nonprofit selling Ba Francis’s bags in America and donating the profits to Busalo. We’re hoping to raise enough money to get the school funded once again. It’s a start-up, still in its early stages, but it’s given us, Ba Francis, Ba Loveness, and the school a sense of hope in these trying times.
You can learn more at ukupapa.com or on Instagram @ukupapa_shop.
Some fragments of life
Every life composes a song or two