Africa... So What Is It REALLY Like?

I am SO excited to share a very special blog post with you all today! I am interviewing Kate to see what it's really been like to live in Chileshya, Zambia for nearly 2 years now.  

We have been on a lot of epic adventures together, and they are not over yet!

We are headed to Africa in March and I want to know exactly what I am in for! Plus, I know everyone else must be wondering the same questions, so let's ask her!


Let's start with a little intro from Kate.  

Who are you, where are you, and what are you doing (in a nutshell)?

Hi! My name is Kate and I’m zigzagging across Zambia.  For anyone who doesn’t know, I’m from a small town called Hartford, Michigan (Same as Melanie, as we grew up together). I completed a Bachelor of Arts in Social Science from Michigan State University in 2008, and a Master of Public Health from Rollins School of Public Health in 2015.  I moved to Zambia in June of 2015 as a Peace Corps volunteer (which came as no surprise to anyone that knows me), and I have had experiences from one side of the life spectrum to the other ever since.   I am now working to educate and implement programs around HIV/AIDS, malaria, and maternal and child health here in Chileshya, Zambia. 

Are there any other Peace Corps members there with you?

I’m all by my lonesome, at least when it comes to other Peace Corps volunteers. In total, Zambia hosts about 300 Peace Corps volunteers at any given moment (out of about 8,000 in the world!). This may seem like a lot but, even though they try to place us relatively close together, the sheer size of Zambia makes me feel very alone at times. My closest neighbor is about a 2 hour bike ride away, which really isn’t that bad as long as you have an ipod and a hand free to wave at every person you pass. My community thinks I’m a total freak since I not only live alone, but am also unmarried and childless. I’d never tell them that coming home to a quiet, empty house can be the most relaxing part of my day…and sometimes the most challenging.

What language do the people in your village speak?  Do you speak it?

They speak a language called Mambwe, which is a Bantu language (in the same language family as Swahili, which I also speak). I can speak Mambwe at about a 7 year old level…well a 7 year old who knows a lot about sexual health and malaria. During our “pre-service training” (the 3 month period after we first arrive in country when we live with host-families), we are given language classes. They focus on the technical vocab you need to do your job, and the basic cultural vocab you need to avoid social faux-paus. So while I can walk you through how malaria impacts a fetus in Mambwe, I might get lost when someone is telling me about their day. But I get by, and my village appreciates the struggle. As long as I can greet them, I’m fluent in their eyes.

So... what is your living space like?

I live in a house made of mud, but I promise it’s much better than it sounds! The mud has been mixed with sand and other naturally found items unknown to me, to make bricks that are molded and fired. They withstand the rain better than you’d expect, but if you brush against the wall too hard…a clump of dirt will indeed fall off. There is a good 2 inch gap beneath all my plywood doors, as well as the top of my walls and the roof where lots of little critters enter (sometimes we sing songs together like Cinderella). My floor is cement though and my roof is made from thin, leaky tin. I don’t have water or electricity, but I do have an ongoing battle with termites that eat EVERYTHING. Lastly, the question you’ve all been thinking, my toilet is behind my house, and yes, it is just a giant hole dug into the ground, surrounded by mud bricks and covered with a grass roof. 

Do you have running water?

Nope, but you’d be surprised how easy this is to adjust to! When I first arrived, I was fetching water from a small mud hole about a 20 minute walk away. However, through working with my community and the district, we were able to repair the borehole at the clinic. Now I just have to walk 2 minutes to get fresh, fairly clean water (although I still filter all drinking water). I’ve worked my way up to carrying a 10 liter bucket in each hand now, but also frequently bribe kids to do it for a sweetie. This mayyy seem like child labor, but they’re already fetching water all the time as part of their family chores, so doing it for “pay” is a treat! Plus they have the ability to balance buckets on their heads like it’s nothing – something my American neck was not trained to do. 20 liters of water will last me approximately 3 days, since I only use it for drinking, washing dishes, and bathing (bucket bathing is also not as bad as you’d imagine)! I do my laundry by hand at the borehole to avoid carrying the necessary water to my house.

What kinds of things do you eat?  What is your favorite Zambian "dish"?

Since access to fresh anything is a big issue, I eat a lot of non-perishable things. Pasta and/or rice are the basis of my every meal – but you’d be surprised how creative things can get. Spices are the name of the game! I like to think I’ve mastered the art of cooking on a fire, and am able to whip up some mean banana bread. As for Zambian food, their staple dish is something called nshima and it’s eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s such a part of life that it actually serves as a greeting: “Mwalila” (Have you eaten/how are you)? “Nshima” (I’ve eaten nshima/I’m just OK). Maize (aka corn) is the number one crop in Zambia, and nshima is a direct result of that. Corn kernels are ground up into mealie-meal, then boiled in water to make a thick paste (kind of like grits, but thick enough that it holds a shape). This nshima is then used as a spoon of sorts (forgot to mention Zambians only eat with their hands), dipping it into the 1-2 other “relishes” (aka side dishes) that are served with the meal. The nshima is normally served scalding hot and while I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten third degree burns before, my Zambian family doesn’t even bat an eye as they scoop up whatever is on the menu that night. Kapenta (small dried fish), pumpkin leaves (my favorite), caterpillars (NOT my favorite), rape (an unfortunate name for a delicious leafy vegetable), flying termites, and beans are rotated out to provide a poorly-balanced diet.

Is there a local market or how do you "grocery shop"?

My community has a traveling market called a “munada” that visits from Tanzania on the 10th of every month. It’s essentially like a pop-up flea market, but sells mostly tomatoes, onions, dried fish, and clothes. If I’m lucky, I can buy buckets of mangos when they’re in season. Other than this one day a month, there is nowhere to buy fresh food in my community. We just started a community garden project to change that, but in the meantime I must make a 4 hour journey to the nearest town for basic groceries, and an up to 8 hour journey if I want to shop at a more Americanized version of a corner grocery store.

How do you get around Zambia? 

Slowly and painfully. Zambia throws a lot of challenges my way, but my number one stressor is transport. My site is actually one of the most remote in the entire country – I can see Tanzania from my front porch. So getting from point A to point B is a life accomplishment. I bike everywhere I humanly can, especially if I have programs in the bush as there is no other transport. I’ve crossed rivers, got caught in the rain, and peed in many a corn field biking to programs sometimes 35 kilometers away. As for cars, there are occasionally “minibuses” (vans that aren’t considered full unless you’re sharing a seat with at least 2 other people, holding a baby on your lap, and fighting off a pecking chicken under your feet…all while balanced on top of a bag of maize that’s being used for a seat), but for the most part I hitch-hike everywhere. This may seem sketch, but it’s just a reality if you expect to get anywhere, and a safe reality at that. For longer journeys, I normally take a bus (think greyhound, but then think Zambia on top of that image). For example, I live a solid 19 hours away from Lusaka, Zambia’s capital – and this is assuming the bus doesn’t break down more than once and/or blow a tire. First I have to get to our provincial capital via hitchhiking, which is about a 4-8 hour journey depending on my luck that day. Then I’ll stay at the Peace Corps office until I can catch a 13 hour bus to the capital with minimal “toilet” stops and gospel music blaring full volume the entire way.

Do you have regular access to a phone/internet/electronics?

My phone situation is an ongoing saga…meaning it’s constantly broken and being fixed by some man with a car battery on the side of the road. It’s probably for the best though, because since I don’t have electricity, charging electronics is nearly impossible. I have two small solar panels I can charge small things (i.e. my always broken phone and ipod off of), but for larger items (i.e. my also always broken laptop) I have to use the larger solar panels at the clinic. This becomes tricky when it’s not sunny or a woman is delivering at the clinic with me trying to charge my laptop in the corner. As you can probably assume, I’ve adjusted to living off the grid. Internet is non-existent, but on those rare days I have a working phone, data, AND cell service, I can chat on what’s app until the cell tower inevitably runs out of gas.

What do you miss most from home?

My dog and burritos. In that order. I guess my family and friends too, but only if they’re taking myself and my dog to get burritos.

So me and all of my readers want to come visit.  What should we bring and what should we leave at home?

Well obviously you should bring my dog and burritos. But once those items are packed, I’d recommend filling your extra space with a bednet (to protect against malaria), water flavor packets (for when you get some funky water), and diarrhea pills for the aftermath! Items I use daily include: a headlamp, hand sanitizer (hand-washing after the toilet is still a work-in-progress here – if a toilet is even used), multivitamins, and a really dorky pair of hiking sandals. People also love to see snapshots of your life back home, literally, so bringing a family album will provide hours of entertainment. The kids in my village can’t speak English, but they can list all of my family members in any given picture. Things to leave at home? Anything an “outdoor” store tries to sell you! You are traveling to Africa, not wrestling a lion. While I’m sure you can find a use for the pair of $120 flame-retardant, insect-repelling, water-proof pants they’ll try to sell you, you can just as easily find a use for a $3 Goodwill skirt (and not feeling guilty doing it).

Onto something a little more serious - Where is the nearest medical center and what happens if YOU get sick or have a medical emergency? 

The nearest place to receive basic (and I mean basic) medical services is our rural health center, which I can see from my front porch. However, since these services are (at the moment) so basic and not provided by a qualified healthcare provider, Peace Corps does not allow me to use this health center for personal needs. If I am sick, I’ll be picked up in a Peace Corps cruiser and taken 5 hours away to the nearest hospital. If someone in my community is sick, they’ll wait it out for as long as possible, then go to the rural health center where they’ll be given little more than ibuprofen and malaria medications (assuming those medications are in stock). If I have an emergency, I’ll be picked up in a Peace Corps helicopter and taken to Lusaka for a transfer to top-of-the-line care in South Africa. If someone in my community has an emergency, they’ll wait until a mini-bus is headed to the nearest town (sometimes a 48 hour wait for a 5 hour drive) or they’ll get lucky and the ambulance that serves over 70,000 people will be available to take them (assuming they have the funds to pay the transport and medical bills once they reach the larger hospital).

So what on earth do pregnant women do then?

 The Zambian government has a huge campaign to encourage women to deliver at health centers, as currently only 47% of births nationwide are attended by a skilled health worker. This statistic is next to nil in my community. Traditionally, most women deliver at home with the help of untrained women, but it is difficult to manage hygienic settings, let alone deal with any complications that may arise. The general thought is that delivering at a health center means sterile conditions, trained medical providers, and access to an ambulance should an emergency occur. However, this is not the case currently in my community. While we do have the equipment to deliver babies, we do not have the healthcare provider. At the moment, if a woman shows up at the clinic in labor, another untrained woman in the community is called in to assist. She certainly has experience with child birth, but she is still not a trained professional. I’ve witnessed people inserting herbs into a woman's cervix and uterus as well as people literally sitting on the stomach of the delivering mother, in order to push the baby out. While this may seem shocking that the healthcare staff allow such things to happen, they too are untrained. At this moment, the Chileshya Rural Health Center only employs 2 janitors and someone trained to test water samples, none of whom are any more qualified to deliver a baby than said untrained woman. We need a nurse desperately for these women, their children, and the future of this community.   

Malaria is another thing your village struggles with. So, what happens if a child contracts malaria? 

According to UNICEF, of all people who die from malaria in Zambia each year (8,000), 50% or more are children under 5 years of age. Furthermore, 50% of children under 5 who are admitted to the hospital are due to malaria, and 35-50% of children with malaria will die. These statistics are harsh to read, but even harsher to live. A few months ago, my community and I painted a malaria mural on the wall of our clinic to teach about transmission, treatment, and prevention. On the day of its unveiling, community members from the entire region were invited and we had many activities planned. As people started to trickle in, I noticed a lot continuing on the path past the clinic. Upon further investigation, they were attending a funeral of a 4 year old girl who had passed away due to malaria that very morning. We canceled our event, and everyone went to mourn. While this greatly impacted me, the village did not seem phased. This is certainly not to say they are cold or heartless, but malaria deaths like this are so common, they have grown to be expected. Caregivers of children frequently delay seeking care at the clinic, as there are no qualified healthcare providers to accurately diagnosis and treat their children. The current clinic staff do their best, but mistakes are frequent due to their lack of knowledge and, all too often, dangerous malaria symptoms go unnoticed. Combating malaria is vitally important in the battle to save young lives and protect children from losing their mothers, and a nurse is best suited to achieve these goals.

A big thanks to Kate for taking the time to answer all those questions with her limited internet/laptop time!  Learning a bit more about her lifestyle right now is so fascinating!  It is just another reminder of how blessed we are to have what we have. 

It is clear that this village is in dire need of some help to get a medical professional within their reach and we CAN help them! 

If you would like to help bring a qualified medical professional to Chileshya (the village Kate has been living in for nearly 2 years)  hit the button below to donate on the Peace Corps website. Your donations will help build a house for the nurse so that she can live in the village directly next to the clinic building.  You will receive a receipt for tax deduction purposes.  


EDIT - This project has now been fully funded!!! AMAZING!  Thank you to ALL who donated! <3