My Peace Corps Syllabus

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Just some of the things I’ve been reading in my hut….

  1. Wind Up Bird Chronicle- Haruki Marukami
  2. Let the Great World Spin- Colum McCann
  3. Brooklyn- Colm Toibin
  4. The Thing Around Your Neck- Chimamanda Adichie
  5. Half of a Yellow Sun- Chimamanda Adichie
  6. Purple Hibiscus- Chimamanda Adichie
  7. Blood, Bread and Poetry- Adrienne Rich
  8. Sister Outsider- Audre Lorde
  9. Sputnick Sweetheart- Haruki Marukami
  10. 1Q84- Haruki Marukami
  11. Homegoing- Yaa Gyasi
  12. The Girls- Emma Cline
  13. Improvising Medicine- Julie Livingstone
  14. The Black Body in Ecstasy- Jennifer C. Nash
  15. Talking as Fast as I Can- Lauren Graham
  16. Granta Book of Irish Contemporary Fiction
  17. Poisonwood Bible- Barbara Kingsolver
  18. Between the World and Me- Ta Nehisi Coates
  19. Truth and Beauty- Ann Patchett
  20. This is the Story of a Happy Marriage- Ann Patchett
  21. Autobiography of a Face- Lucy Grealy
  22. A Fine Balance- Rohinton Mistry
  23. Three Strong Women- Marie NDiaye
  24. Swing Time- Zadie Smith
  25. Modern Lovers- Emma Straub
  26. Vacationers- Emma Straub
  27. Difficult Women- Roxane Gay
  28. The Meaning of Michelle- 16 Writers on the Iconic First Lady and How her Journey Inspires Our Own
  29. We Love You, Charlie Freeman- Kaitlyn Greenidge
  30. Underground Railroad- Colson Whitehead
  31. Moonglow- Michael Chabon
  32. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?- Kathleen Collins
  33. Self Portrait as Exit Wounds- Ocean Vuong

 

Representing America When America Just Made a Huge Mistake

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The role of a Peace Corps volunteer has become a lot more complicated this week. We are representatives of the American federal government. Part of our job description is sharing American values. I’m not so clear on what those are anymore.

America elected a person who directly threatens my queerness. This choice validates the actions of predatory men that I, and every woman I know, have encountered. It brings the suffering of my Jewish ancestry into focus like never before. It devalues and endangers most of the people I love. And here I am in Zambia, a Peace Corps volunteer.

Some volunteers wish they could be home right now and some are scared to ever return. We’re overwhelmed by Facebook. We see many in deep mourning and anger and fear as well as plenty of white people posting about shiny happy superficial things as if nothing happened.

What does it mean to do international development work in the midst of this nightmare?

How do we make sense of working abroad when our own country is failing? Is that selfish?

What can I say to my colleagues when they remark in astonishment, “How are some Americans so horrible that they would elect someone so horrible, someone who doesn’t like us blacks”?

Do I crush my students’ dreams of going to America one day and tell them they are safer in Zambia?

I certainly hope that the perception of international development work as well-meaning altruistic twenty-somethings off to save those poor African [or insert any developing nation here] souls is forever disrupted. Where my attention lies now is soaking up what I can learn from my host country. I need to continue working alongside capable individuals who are different and accepting them, tolerating them, but most of all newly appreciating how much they accept and tolerate me. What can they teach me about peace? How do they view democracy? What are the ways that they support and protect each other? How can I take these lessons home to America?

I’ve learned that my Zambian village can have five churches with a vast array of beliefs coexisting in a small, close knit space. I’ve witnessed that government schools in this Christian nation can teach their children about Muslims and Hinduism with no judgment. I’ve had conversations in which Zambians were shocked at our level of gun violence when somehow they’ve been able to run a politically stable country with hardly any gun ownership, let alone violence.

This is not an “everything is going to be okay” moment. Everything is already not okay. And it won’t be for a long while. But this is a time to reevaluate why we do the work that we do and why it matters.

Unpacking “Africa”

When we think about Europe, it’s easy to discern that France is different from Ireland, which is different from Romania. Europe is familiar to Americans. Let’s also not forget that when we picture Europe, that image often comprises of cafes, museums, and white skin.

What comes to mind when someone says, “Africa”? A safari? A desert? Vulnerable women? A kid you can rescue by donating $1 a day? Drums? Disease? Black skin.

This post is a plea to move away from an all encompassing “Africa” rhetoric and toward one that celebrates individual countries within a vast continent, each deserving a separate identity, and many that are more developed than parts of the United States.

The common and hollow misconception of Africa is far-reaching and perpetuated by every form of media. It used to include me. For Americans, particularly white Americans, saying you’re going to “Africa” is sexy. It implies adventure, roughing it, exoticism, being cultured, and changing the world. That stock portrayal of “Africa” is not wholly inaccurate. There are hungry kids with distended bellies. There are lions and elephants. There is violence.

But I live in Zambia, one of the poorest yet most peaceful countries in Africa. It’s colder here than Vermont today. Christianity has unified this place, a place with more languages and tribes than I can remember. And while I sit by the fire in the woods, in Morocco tourists are taking camel rides through the desert. In South Africa, they have sushi and gay bars and racial tension.

Unpacking “Africa” does not mean we should all buy plane tickets and wanderlust our way over there right now. It’s about resisting conflation and recognizing stark distinction. It’s reading books not only written by white people. It’s introducing our children to more than The Lion King and Things Fall Apart. It’s toning down the sympathy and looking for assets. It’s transforming what we don’t know into thoughtful questions instead of stereotypes. It’s using the framework of cultural difference rather than hierarchy.

Why I Need Music, Especially Now

IMG_20160517_164101Instead of living in a mud brick house in Zambia and working at a school with not enough books (or really not enough of anything besides dedicated students), I could have been living in an apartment in New York and working for a snazzy record label or publicity firm. That was the plan. That’s where I thought I’d be a year post graduation. But I made a different choice. Not because I didn’t love the music industry- I did, and I do. Maybe I’ll even go back to it at some point. I knew that despite my love of music, I needed to have some sort of immersive service experience, so I went for the extreme and landed in rural Zambia. I also knew that music could still be a big part of my life even if it wasn’t my job.

When I was working in music, I learned so much about what goes into us getting to discover our favorite artists, like why certain artists appear on the iTunes homepage, what it means for a song to be featured on an episode of GIRLS, or the importance of NPR Tiny Desk concerts early on in an artist’s career. But now, living in Zambia, away from Spotify and festival season and reading my Twitter feed full of music blog updates every morning, I’m experiencing the influence of music in a new way. I’m noticing new things, appreciating new things, and feeling new things.

We take a lot for granted in the U.S., including easy access to music. I hadn’t realized what a fundamental constant it was for me to know about and be able to listen to any new music as soon as it dropped. Or how privileged I was to be able to see most of my favorite artists on tour, even to meet some of them, and to write about them. Without all of that for the time being, I’ve been latching on to any semblance of that comfort, invigoration, and in fact, necessity I can find in Zambia, while watching others around me do it too.

Music has been incredibly grounding for me in the past year away. It’s like a familiar friend in the midst of an environment where although I’ve adapted a great deal, I am always being tested and where nothing will ever feel completely normal. One of my friends told me that music can make us feel at home no matter where we are in the world. That sentiment has resonated every time Hozier sings me to sleep at 7pm because there’s no electricity and I think back to the cathartic experience of seeing him live at the 9:30 Club. And when Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ “Home” serendipitously tends to come on my iPod just as I’m reaching the final stretch to the village after the 20km bike ride to get groceries. Or when any Chvrches song plays and I remember the time I served them bagels.

In addition to recognizing my reliance on music in Zambia, I’ve been touched watching Zambians display an equally, and maybe more deeply rooted, connection to music. For the most part, they only need the radio and themselves. My host mom seems the most at ease and relatable to me when she comes home singing the songs from her church choir. The students in Grade 1 all the way up to Grade 9 become frankly euphoric every time I or one of my friends teach them a new song. When they see me with my iPod, the joy radiates just from the chance to put in the ear bud for a few seconds, regardless of if they can understand a single word. Dancing doesn’t require the radio (although that helps) or anything other than people’s voices singing the song and their hands clapping the beat. When the radio occasionally is on, playing the same Justin Bieber song, they’ll say me, “Madam, shaneniko!” (Madam, dance!). Adele’s “Hello” has already been translated into several Zambian local languages. But the moment I’ll never forget is when six year-old Aggie Chulu asked me, with the most certain look on her face, if my name was Emily Beyoncé.

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One Day in Milombwe

May 20th, 2016
5:00AM
I wake up not because of an alarm, but because I hear roosters. I get up to go pee in my very own little hole in the ground, not forgetting to bring my glasses and headlamp. Then I climb back under the mosquito net, relishing in that last hour before I have to make an appearance, before I become a spectacle for the day. It’s this bizarre in between period where, no, I’m not in America, yet the reality of being in Zambia doesn’t quite sink in. I can be in the dark and imagine warm cider doughnuts at the Union Square green market.

I check my phone, the bridge from my village life to my other life and find WhatsApp messages from Hannah, one of the volunteers who keeps me sane in Zambia, and Jen, one of my friends who keeps me sane from America. I think about the book I’m currently engrossed in, The Poisonwood Bible. This is an appropriate choice because a Baptist American family goes to the Congo, Zambia’s neighbor, for a whole different kind of service. A main character, Leah Price, says that if she tried to write down everything she did in a day, she’d run out of paper before breakfast since there are so many caveats required to adequately explain village life to an audience that isn’t there. I feel you, Leah.

6:00AM
It must be time to get up because Lyla, my disabled cat, is meowing. She got attacked by a dog a few months ago, the vets saved her life, but she still can’t walk. For some reason, taking care of a disabled cat seems to suit me. And let’s be clear, I need her as much as she needs me. So, I give her some food and she hobbles over to devour it.

I also need food immediately, thus I begin with the left over couscous from last night. No microwave. No refrigerator. Just straight from the bowl on my counter. I remember when my mom used to cook couscous with chicken, corn, and olive oil, none of which I have at the moment. Couscous won’t be enough to sustain me though, so I walk down to my host family’s yard so Priscilla can give me some hot coals to start my fire. I’m still in my pajamas and hair a mess, at this point having given up on being a “together” looking American. They get it, I’m not. As Priscilla prepares the fire, I do one of my favorite activities- playing with her baby brother, Cal. I play/hold babies so much that my community is convinced that I want to have lots of them right now. Not yet, folks! Now that the fire is ready, I put on the tea kettle to heat up water for oatmeal.

7:00AM
My phone dies, which means with this overcast day, I won’t be able to solar charge my phone anytime soon.  But every time I get anxious about this phone, I remember that, hey, I have a smart phone. I have not one, but three solar chargers (yes really, three). It’s time to bike to school, so I throw on the cold season usual- flannel, maxi skirt + leggings, and TOMS shoes. Today’s agenda at school is handing out last term’s exam results and disappointing parents.

Any kid under the age of 7 who sees me along the way shouts, “How are you, Madam???”. The older kids are over it by now. My bike brakes are barely functional these days, so I walk down the first hill. Here comes the dilemma- do I walk through the river and freeze (it does get cold in Africa, you know) or walk over a dilapidated log bridge and maybe fall through it into said freezing river. This morning is particularly brisk, so I struggle over the bridge with my bike, make sure to greet the woman washing clothes in the river, and just as I step off the bridge…I trip and twist my ankle in front of my friend, Ba Patricia. She offers a sympathetic, “sorry, sorry,” and internally, “that white girl is so clumsy.”

I’m headed off again and see a group of students. Roster, who is in my class, is holding a bag of lollipops, meaning that she’s selling them. I stop and buy one, knowing that it won’t do much to improve the village’s perception of me as “probably 19 or so years old.”

I get to school, pass by the teachers’ housing compound and see my star boy student, Kennedy, sweeping his yard, a job that is typically reserved for girls. My feminist brain goes straight to, “Yes! Gender!” or in a Zambian accent, “Gendah!!”.

8:00AM
We’re supposed to be here at eight, but I’m the only one besides my head teacher. No surprise there. We wait for another teacher to bring keys to the office where most of the exam results are held. Slightly important.

My best teacher friend, Morgan, shows up wearing a full on graduation cap and gown. I completely fail to hide the confusion on my face. “Oh, today has to do with examinations. I thought it made sense.” Because he’s my friend, I find this endearing and no one else seems to think this outfit is unusual.

The group of female teachers arrive with the keys and food for lunch, including a live chicken. I don’t take a second glance because in rural Zambia, if you want to cook a chicken, you better find one and kill it first.

Since I’ll be here for the day and my phone is dead, I set up my solar charger next to the shelter that used to be there to feed children but is now serving as a voter registration booth.

9:00AM
Almost exclusively women come to pick up the exam results. There are a few men, but the scene is definitely dominated by head wraps and colorful chitenge fabric, and babies on backs.

I manage in Bemba to tell some parents that their 15 year old can’t read. I tell them that we’re giving the kids medicine on Monday and they need to eat something before school, doubting that it will happen, anticipating a bunch of sick and fainting kids. Not a single parent questions that we’re distributing this medicine to the children. It’s medicine, it’s meant to help. My top student’s mother asks, “What are her problems?”. Well, one problem is she’s way over qualified to be at this school.

12:00PM
This is the time we give up on the rest of the parents, usually about half, who aren’t going to show up. This is when we start complaining that lunch isn’t ready. I can’t just leave. I’ve lived here long enough to know not to pass up a free hot meal. With meat!

As we wait outside, thinking about food, Mr. Ephraim Kunda shows up. He’s the captain of the village soccer team, my former women’s group counterpart, a parent, just an all around solid human and village leader. He tells Morgan and I that the men from the team are at last ready to be serious and help us with work for the sports grant. They’ve committed to coming tomorrow on their one day off to clear a volleyball court and demonstrate their commitment before we buy the sports equipment. Phew. I’d been getting discouraged with this project, but standing by while Morgan and Ephrain discussed things like, “this needs to be a partnership,” means *hopefully* we’re back on track. I walked around the soccer field with them and three other men, was firm with these men, they listened to me, and it felt f*cking great.

1:00PM
Finally, finally lunch is ready. There is much debate to make certain that each plate has an equal share of meat, we wash our hands, skip the usual prayer because we’re so hungry, and inhale that oily, salty chicken and nshima, paired with the unfortunately named vegetable, rape.

The seating arrangement is segregated by gender, not due to any official rule about how teachers should sit, but that’s how everyone feels most comfortable. I watched closely for the first teacher to finish and wash his nshima hands, so as not to draw attention to the muzungu who doesn’t eat enough.

2:00PM
On my bike ride home the sun is out, and as a result, my bridge vs. river dilemma isn’t a thing. Through the river I go. I return home to, “Ba Emily babwela!” Emily is back! Lyla is eager to escape the prison that is my house and expand her domain a whole extra two feet onto the porch, and shit on it too.

When I get home from the chaos that is school, all I want is some peace and quiet. All I want is my bed and my phone and my book. Within five minutes, two host sisters emerge, wanting my attention, scolding me for not washing my dishes or sweeping (they’re 9 years old). Those tasks need to be done but I use the excuse that I’m tired to get them to scram. It doesn’t last long though.

I update Jen on the day over WhatsApp and get jealous of the food she’s eating in Brooklyn. I send her a photo of me on my porch and it isn’t until then that I realize I’ve been wearing two different earrings all day. Oops.

4:00PM
My most cherished time of the day. I sit on the porch, intending to read or write, but ultimately just space out and take in where I am. Stare at the trees. Recognize how normal it’s become for cows to run through my front yard.

My host sister, Clarice asks me for salt. I’ve grown more of a back bone now that I’m almost through month 12 and say no. She saunters away, insisting that I’m greedy in Bemba. But because she’s nine, she’s back in five minutes and we’re friends again.

6:00PM
This is another favorite time in that when the sun goes down, I go inside, close the door, close the curtain on today’s performance as a Peace Corps volunteer, and have the first real alone time since I woke up at 5:00AM. I have bowl of oatmeal #2. I do have other food options but, eh. I top it off with a mug of Tazo chai that is nothing short of orgasmic and also full of memories. I’ve started cooking inside in order to avoid the inevitable hungry kid staring and asking for food.

I’ll go to sleep soon, since without electricity, there’s not much to do. I sit here writing, thinking, wow, when I try to articulate my daily life in Zambia it sounds a little crazy and absurd, but spectacular. Just when I believe it all can’t get any weirder, my cat flinches, and there’s a rat climbing up my wall…

What Peace Corps (PC) Is(n’t) for Me

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PC is not me coming to save a village. PC is me learning more from them than they ever will from me. PC is an inexplicable job description. PC is only partly about being a teacher. PC is trying not to disappoint my host family too much by not going to church. PC is sitting on my porch with my sullen but sweet host sister, pretending her mom isn’t calling in the distance. PC is failing miserably at every house chore. PC is not being perceived as a flawless white person. PC is experiencing enormous privilege as a white person. PC is people standing so I have a chair. PC is the school letting me do pretty much whatever I want. PC is appreciating my polygamist host dad and the time he walked my bike six miles to get it fixed. PC is not always knowing why I’m here. PC is sitting in my bed, wondering why I’m here, then a kid I never met shows up for help on his English homework. PC is showing my students American money for the first time. PC is working at a school that runs out of chalk and food. PC is feeling lonely and surrounded by love in the same hour. PC is reading more books in 10 months than I did in the last 5 years. PC is frogs living in my house and I don’t care. PC is the termite build up in my shower. PC is getting to witness a baby’s first steps. PC is finally owning a plant that I haven’t killed yet. PC is not running a bunch of programs by myself. PC is helping to make connections and facilitate discussions and watching the community do its thing. PC is suddenly knowing information about bike derailleurs and maize harvesting. PC is the kids you reference when you say, “Eat your vegetables, kids in Africa are hungry,” are sitting on my porch while I cook. PC is sometimes getting mad at hungry kids. PC is Googling “How do you know if you have bed bugs?”. PC is being confident that the community cares about me not just as a volunteer but as a human. PC is not me going off to save the world. PC is, I think, being part of the world in a new way.

A Letter to My 8 Months Ago Self

Dear Emily,
Go to Whole Foods or Trader Joes right now. Eat everything. You really don’t understand how spoiled you are. Soon you’ll have to bike an hour just to buy bread or fruit or pasta. And those stores won’t have a prepared food section. Eat all the cheese and ice cream. Soon refrigeration will be out of the question except for special occasions.

Listen to Spotify as much as possible, maybe even when you’re sleeping. And Netflix. Even if you think you’ve watched too many Gilmore Girls reruns, you haven’t.

Enjoy your shower. Cherish it, actually. Appreciate how there isn’t always some sort of visible dirt on you. And you have a dishwasher. Lucky b*tch.

When you’re packing, stop stressing about what clothes to bring. Take out half the clothes and fill that space with more granola bars, grated parmesan, and tampons.

When you’re on the 15 hour plane ride, that’s probably not the best time to rewatch My Sister’s Keeper. You might have a meltdown in the tiny bathroom.

And when you have your first meal in Zambia, don’t embarrass yourself and eat the nshima with silverware. That’s absurd.

Don’t freak out when the men come to fit you for a bike. In no time you’ll go from an anxious, only-on-vacation-if-you-have-to biker to a full on, mountain biker. The dirt roads at home that were “too rough” are main roads compared to the bush paths you’ll frequent every day in the village.

Don’t worry that every minor irregularity in your body is undoubtedly malaria and will kill you. That being said, if you feel like you have to go to the bathroom immediately and your stomach is making noises, run. Even if you have to use a stranger’s toilet or the bushes behind a police checkpoint.

Before you leave, wear all of your short dresses and skirts. Every day. In Zambia, any thighs or knees showing will make you feel scandalous, naked, and like your host family is going to rush into your house with a Bible.

Phone anxiety is going to be a big part of your life. These are some questions that will occupy your mind- How much battery is left? How long will it last? What’s the best plan for solar charging today? Will there even be sun? Will the cows trample over my solar charger?

You’re going to experience more moods in one day, sometimes in one hour, than you thought possible. You’ll push through though and be a relatively stable human.

The first time you see corporal punishment it’ll shock you and make you want to run away. But months later when it happens at your school, to your kids, you’ll know that the only thing you can do in that moment is walk in after it’s over, break the stick in half, throw it outside, and say, “I don’t like sticks in my classroom,” then start teaching about multiplying integers.

Washing pots with dirt is going to sound crazy and counterintuitive, but the village women and girls know what’s up. Trust them. Let them laugh at you and your flimsy sponge.

Get a cat right away because not only will she be a necessary companion, but the longer you wait, the more mice will terrorize your sleep. And when she gets pregnant and starts delivering her 6 kittens in your bed in the middle of the night when your solar light is dying, a frantic Wiki-How search will explain everything.

You’re going to be the muzungu (white person) of the village. You’ll always be the muzungu, even if you get a gold star in integration, even if they call you Emily. Keep in mind that the term is far from insulting and often it’s just a means of identification. And when it does carry weight, those implications are overwhelmingly positive. Girl, you’re a privileged other.

Lastly, take a good look around at what your life is like, what you’re like. Because once you get to Zambia you’ll have moments every day when you’re astonished, seriously blown away, by how drastically all that has changed, how much you’ve changed, and how, for the most part, you’ve grown very accustomed to that immeasurable change.

On Leaving and Coming Back Again

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Thrilled to have electricity (when the power doesn’t cut out), a real shower (when there’s water), and good food (mainly cheese).

Hoping my cat doesn’t run away/get eaten by dogs/starve

Writing what we’re thankful for on slips of paper. Mine are books, friends, and cheese. Of course.

Hitching with a man from Zimbabwe who listens to Lionel Richie.

Excited and nervous to see friends after three months apart.

Everyone getting sick because of the good food (mainly cheese).

Overwhelmed by all the Americans, by their loudness, but also by my love for them.

Speaking Bemba to every cashier in Lusaka because I miss it.

Swimming in a pool for the first time in ages and feeling free.

Having a three hour conversation with Zambian teachers about the politics of the word “muzungu” and the importance of greetings.

Yearning for the routine of the village. Scared to go back to the routine of the village.

Learning that the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Zambia is more complex than I had thought.

Wondering if the women’s group is meeting while I’m gone. Probably not.

Eating Thai food and Indian food and Lebanese food and pizza and gelato.

Realizing that all Peace Corps volunteers talk about is sex, food, and poop.

Spending the night in a castle and finding out quickly that the bed is covered with bugs.

Traveling to Malawi in a canter with 25 people and inevitably getting stuck in the mud.

Listening to my iPod and remembering that as a friend once told me, music can make you feel at home wherever you are in the world.

Skinny dipping in the lake on our last night.

Thinking about going back to the village and only being able to wear shorts in my house.

Going to a terrible party that to my surprise is too hippie.

Not so inconspicuously standing next to the lodge owner in a group, knowing that this close proximity means free cocktails.

The bus breaking down on the side of the highway. Days later the taxi also runs out of gas.

Seeing elephants, leopards, giraffes, and monkeys up close, not in a zoo. The monkey steals our toast.

Anxious thinking about the phone anxiety I’ll have when I only have solar power again.

Spending my first Christmas without family in a village with friends, eating cheese, drinking wine, and witnessing traditional (and sometimes violent) dancing.

Looking forward to going back to the village. Nervous to go back to the village.

Meeting Esther, our Zambian saint lady, who saved us from the swarm of taxi driver harassment.

Hitching with Simon, having a frank conversation about gay marriage and abortion, disagreeing about everything, respectfully, stopping for pizza along the way.

Arriving at the provincial house, reuniting with my laptop after 5 weeks of travel and watching the entire second season of Homeland in a day.

My host mom calling and putting all the kids on the phone.

Being motivated by that call and slowly becoming more ready to go back to the village and get to work.

7 months down, 20 to go….

On Being a Privileged Other

When I decided to join the Peace Corps in Zambia, there were of course a lot of questions. The most common ones had to do with geography: Where is Zambia? That’s in Africa, right? Can you show me on a map? Are you looking forward to serving in Zimbabwe? Or is it Gambia?

The questions that I found more intriguing and complicated were: What an incredible sacrifice, will you be ok without running water and electricity? I don’t know if I could take two years and live like the people there. How do you do it? Please don’t get raped, okay? Is it really hard being the only white person?

What was missing from these questions was the fact that me being here is a privilege and also that moving to a country that is mostly populated with black people who don’t have money does not mean that I’m all the sudden more in danger than I was in America.

It is easy to recognize that compared to the Zambians in my village, my life in America was filled with opportunity and money. That’s not interesting. The thing that keeps me up at night, the thing that I continue to experience every day in stark and unsettling and fascinating ways is the manner in which my privilege shapes how I am treated and how I live in Zambia.

I am by no means “living like the people” here. Just because I’m cooking over charcoal or going to the bathroom in a hole doesn’t mean I’m living like them. I’m living with them and I’m learning from them, but in order to live like them I wouldn’t have my own house, the government wouldn’t be paying my expenses, I would be eating a fraction of what I am now, I would probably already be married with children, and I certainly wouldn’t have white skin.

My privilege doesn’t disappear because I’m in Zambia, no matter how much I try to integrate, no matter how much I “sacrifice.” Rather, my privilege is amplified.

In Zambia, I am an other. Everything I do is a spectacle. Despite my best efforts, I will always stand out. But contrary to most people who experience otherness in the world, otherness that results in violence, abuse, and inequality, I am a privileged other. With my otherness comes respect, curiosity, and an assumption of wealth and intellect. Yes, there is inequality, but I’m on the opposite side of it. I’m benefiting. And perhaps most importantly, my otherness is temporary.

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