“If You Liked It Then You Should’ve Paid Five Cows For It” and Other Misunderstandings

Early on in PST, my volunteer intake gathered around to discuss how things were going in our home-stays. To my host family, volunteers were old news, and as a result I was a bit spoiled in regards to cultural whiplash. However, a female volunteer expressed being uncomfortable that her host family had discussed how many cows to sell her for, announcing that they would sell her for five. Hearing the prospect of being sold, in tandem with some pretty pushy assertion of gender expectations, this was reasonably a cause for discomfort. However, come to find out, in the Tonga majority area of western Central Province, using cattle as a bride price isn’t an uncommon practice, much as engagement rings are common in western culture. Cattle are also often used as banks, so what her host family was trying to say was essentially “you look like a million bucks.” And so the train of cultural misunderstanding left the station, the hydra of languages reared its heads, and I, distracted by trying to come up with a snappy blog post title, began to mix metaphors.

Flash forward to the present day (July 19th, 2017), and miscommunication has only increased. As shown with the example of the five cows, communication is extremely multifaceted and complex, and we often take this for granted within our own cultural norms. Metaphorical show of hands, how many of you have gotten frustrated at a non-native English speaker’s inability to communicate to you, or even been frustrated at the cultural ineptitude of people from different areas in the states (cough, people standing on the walking side of the escalator in the metro)? Can’t they just learn? Coming from the opposite perspective, yes, we can, but chovu chovu (slowly). Communication has so many components: culture, language, social status, education, etc., it can be hard to navigate!

For example, I’ve been doing door-to-door surveys in an attempt to meet everyone in my community and feel out what things people think are most important. The time of day I conduct this has had the unexpected bonus of familiarizing me more with the village women, who were largely non-participatory during my community meetings. In one particular village, I’ve also been trying to scope out a counterpart to take with me to beekeeping workshop in September. The plan was to add a question in about learning to farm honey, gauge interest, and then see how much experience they had with bees (I knew there weren’t many beekeeper in my area, but sometimes people “hunt” for honey by harvesting from wild hives). Sounded simple enough.

Wrong. Almost every time I asked the added question “would you like to learn about farming honey?” I would get a weird look and a “nehi mwani” (no thanks). Keep in mind that people generally say yes to every question I ask about wanting to learn out of politeness (not great for quantitative data, but it opens up conversations). I started to get really confused, because honey is a great supplemental income and people love sweet stuff. So, I started prying, and kept getting the answer “kosi” (there are none). What?! I have seen bees in my village and know from a volunteer up the road that there have been swarms! Why do they think there are no bees? “Mulong’a nyitondu kosi” (because there are no trees). This is even more confusing, because we’re not in the woods, but this particular village isn’t short on trees, and I know for a fact that quite a few are preferred honeybee forage.

I eventually went home to my host dad to ask him in English, and got the same response: “we don’t have.” Being comfortable enough to argue with him, I said “no, you definitely do have!” But here’s the kicker, when I rephrased and used the word “mpuka” (bee) in lieu of “wuchi” (honey), I got a totally different response from him. Yes, bees usually swarm at the beginning of the rainy season, there used to be a wild hive down the road, and he’d be very interested in learning more about building a box. And, when I learned that, I went back to survey the rest of the village using the “mpuka” and got the same level of interest as my host dad, identifying a counterpart right away. 

Why was it so critical to talk about bees instead of honey? I have no freaking idea! But, I did realize a few other things. First, when talking to women, the answer was always no, because beekeeping is considered a male profession. By using the pronoun “enu” (you, which I meant as plural but can also be singular) it seemed to direct towards individuals instead of the whole household, so they said no due to that cultural norm. Second, the level of understanding of the environment is completely different than mine*. My area is largely considered not to have good trees, due to the larger prevalence of trees elsewhere in the district, and has even been used for reasoning as to why there are no wild animals here (hint: it most certainly is not). There was also an added level of misunderstanding from me in their answers, in that “kosi” could also mean “I don’t have,” depending on the sentence structure, meaning that they don’t currently keep bees, which I may have missed mulong’a nahoshang’a chilunda chanti chanti (because I suck at conversational Chilunda).

So, what started out as a disheartening experience (I was considering dropping out of the workshop), became a great learning experience for me, and is honestly the main reason I’m doing the GD survey at all. I’ve been able to pick up much better on the social dynamics of my villages, I’ve picked up some handy vocabulary, and I have figured out how to reword things to get the answers I need. 
For instance, I had the question “what do you like about your village?” which was super confusing to everyone and usually resulted in talking about livestock. After some trial and error, I found that explaining that I was because Peace Corps saw something in them, and how much I wanted to work with them, then asking them if they agreed before blindsiding them with “why?” I got some great responses. Aid and development work focuses on the negative so much, sometimes it’s important to explain “no, you’re doing good stuff, I want to know what it is!”

Am I the master of communication now? No; just the other day I accidentally implied that I would be starting a school at my house and was greeted the next afternoon with 20 kids while I was outside washing my underwear. But, I’m getting there! Chovu chovu. 

*This isn’t to imply that people in my community aren’t aware of environmental issues. Climate change isn’t just some far-off thing to them; it’s present in their lives. That being said, the type of awareness is different, and the lense with which natural resources are viewed is different. 


“When I woke up in that shed, I thought nobody’d ever had it as bad as me. But the thing is, slavery’s not a new invention. And solitary confinement- did you know, in America we’ve got more than twenty-five thousand prisoners in isolated cells? Some of them for more than twenty years.”

Emma Donoghue, Room

How to Eat Pineapple!

It’s pineapple season, y’all! And in Ikelenge, “land of the sweet pineapple,” this means that there’s makondi nankashi (a f***ton of pineapple). Fortunately for me, everyone has been super generous, and I have been gifted a lot of pineapples whenever I do meetings or field visits (also by my host family, because I live on pineapple farm). So, I’m a BIT of an expert on the matter of eating pineapple now, and thought I’d spread my maana (wisdom) and explain the three main methods I’ve observed during community entry.

Method One: The “Copa Cabana”

Step 1: select your pineapple

Step 2: cut the top off of your pineapple

Step 3: grab a spoon

Step 4: dig in and enjoy!

Potential problems: Although Method One has been observed being performed with languid ease, the non-experienced pineapple eater will find that it’s f***ing hard to eat a pineapple with a spoon.

Troubleshooting: Stab the insides of the pineapple repeatedly (works best if done after attempting with spoon only, so as to build up rage). Drain/drink juice so as to get a better look at how jacked up the pineapple now is, as you desperately attempt to rectify the situation. Upon giving up, discretely hide the remains of the pineapple in trash pit upside-down so that it appears to have been fully eaten.

Attempts: 1

Method Two: The “Ice Cream Cone”

Step 1: select your pineapple

Step 2: firmly grasp it in your hand

OPTIONAL STEP: cut off the spikey parts of the leaves to make a better handle

Step 3: cut off the base of your pineapple

Step 4: peel off the sides with your knife while maintaining hold on top

Step 5: slice off bite sized pieces at your leisure

Step 6: dig in and enjoy!

Potential problems: it is possible that, in an attempt to be cool like your village compatriots, you will try to skewer a piece, using the knife as a utensil. With this attempt, you will almost surely slice open your lip, and will receive a whopper of a canker sore several days later. More likely is that you will lose roughly twenty-five percent of your pineapple by being too eager with your slicing, and failing to grab falling pieces as both your hands are full.

Troubleshooting: Accept that you’re a big fat loser, and don’t try to be cool ever again. Another option is to use a duller knife. Discreetly cover the fallen pieces with dirt so that it appears to be fully eaten.

Number of attempts: 12

Method Three: The “Fruit Salad”

Step 1: select your pineapple

Step 2: place your pineapple on a clean surface

Step 3: cut off the the top of your pineapple, following suit with the sides and base until fully peeled

Step 4: cut into cubes

Step 5: place in a dish and serve

Step 6: dig in and enjoy!

Potential problems: Method Three most likely requires the use of several clean dishes, of which you may not feel like cleaning for just one lousy pineapple, and is also the messiest of the methods. Additionally, Method Three is lame, and reminds you of Betty Draper sadly staring out at the 1950’s suburban wasteland, wondering what it’s all for as she prepares the pineapple for some racist garden party.

Troubleshooting: use dirty dishes. Alternatively, don’t wash your dishes after. Use this method as an opportunity to drift into existential melancholy or, if ennui isn’t your thing, try and imagine how Don Draper would describe this moment in an ad pitch for canned pineapples.

Don Draper: This device isn't a spaceship; it's a time machine

Attempts: 5


“Any road followed precisely to its end leads precisely nowhere. Climb the mountain just a little bit to test that it’s a mountain. From the top of the mountain, you cannot see the mountain.”

Frank Herbert, Dune 

TED Talk: ‘My Invention That Made Peace With Lions’

The first TED Thursday! I know you (the empty space I’m pretending is viewership) have been waiting with baited breath. I’m gonna start things off with a youth-led one before I head off to an environmental education camp volunteers hold with youth in our communities later this month. I love this video because it showcases the ingenuity of local knowledge, as well as the brilliance of young minds everywhere! Poaching and inter-species resource competition is an extremely relevant topic in Zambia, and people like this inspire me.