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“Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind’s mirror, the world […] If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe [diverse] races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real. Torturous advances won over generations can be lost by a single stroke of myopic president’s pen or a vainglorious general’s sword.”

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

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“The white man’s god is just like the white man. He thinks he is the only god, just like the white man thinks he is the only man. But the only reason he is god instead of Nyame or Chukwu or whoever is because we let him be. We do not fight him. We do not even question him. The white man told us he was the way, and we said yes, but when has the white man ever told us something was good for us and that thing was really good? They say you are an African witch, and so what? So what? Who told them what a witch was?”

-Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing

Video

Ted Talk: Don’t Misrepresent Africa

As I was selecting pictures for a September-November photo dump, I realized that I was (subconsciously or intentionally, not sure which) not including pictures of people within my community, particularly children. I do post pictures of people, but it’s been limited and in this case it was like I was specifically avoiding those types of photos. It led me to question why that was.

I think a thing that’s always worried me about this blog is that it’s probably the first thing people at home have really heard about Zambia, or, if they have, the only opportunity for a well rounded view. I had a woman repeatedly tell me how brave it was that I would go to a place so uncivilized as the vague, homogeneous Africa. So from a very early point in my service I’ve felt a lot of responsibility to present things in a way that are fair, and do people in Zambia justice.

The second part has been kind of on my radar as more and more images of short-term mission trips by various people pop up on my Facebook newsfeed. In them, there is usually a young white person, surrounded by a throng of smiling black children (who, of course, everyone assumes are orphans) and a sea of comments about how great it is to helping them, those anonymous children used as a backdrop. Which makes me think of the time a girl in college jokingly told me that she wanted to “adopt an African baby and then return it when it stops being cute.” A close PCV friend of mine summed it up really well the other day by asking “do people see pictures of our kids and think we’re taking mission trip photos?”

When photography first came to be, many cultures feared it would steal your essence, a notion that is laughed off today, but is it really so far off? You put this image of yourself out into this world, and it stops being you. “You,” the image of you, becomes whatever other people want to see, what they think “you” are. And is it fair for me to throw images of my community members out into this world without them fully understanding how much the world will warp that image? To me, people in my community have dimension and reality. When pictures are posted by me, they become flat, malleable to whatever the viewer wants to see (or, perhaps worse, what I want the viewer to see). Comfort ceases being himself and becomes “that little African boy Nick posted.” A friend’s house stops being beautiful or well-made and becomes something that wouldn’t fit American standards for a dwelling. I stop being being a random guy bumbling through life and become this disgusting white savior trope, a whitewashed lead in a story that isn’t mine. Sometimes it feels like a lose-lose.

While this TED Talk focuses more on journalism photography, I found it to ring very true for me. I think it gave me some food for thought on proceeding, and I hope it will for you too.

Highlight Reel: December 2017

Cute and Flirty: This month, I co-directed Camp GLOW for the Lundas! While at camp, in between sleep deprivation and emotional turmoil, I de-stressed by dancing with the kids. As far as I know, people in Zambia aren’t very aware that I don’t dance like a typical dude, but I think I was extra femme for this camp! Either way, I got a lot of compliments on my dancing (I think more for my enthusiasm than my actual skills).

Something I learned from my community:That people like me! They really like me! I had been very unsure of this, but we had a praise wall at GLOW and I got some very sweet messages in my box. It’s nice to hear from people that they see you trying! I was very touched.

Something my community learned from me:At GLOW (yes, all I did this month was GLOW) I led a mentor session on facilitation skills, and group sessions on alcohol abuse and goal setting/future planning. I’m probably most proud of the facilitation skills session out of anything I did in the whole camp, because it was so visible that mentors took it to heart and were practicing those skills with the girls. My alcohol abuse and future planning sessions all incorporated a small group component, and the mentors slayed in regards to facilitating discussions and encouraging participation!

Shower Insights:I made the difficult decision to leave CAT Crew, the HIV committee in was a part of since August. Essentially, I’ve been out of my site a ton, and I just felt like I wasn’t adequately able to do both roles (of committee member and volunteer) well. So I’m gone! Which (tying it back) I guess gives me more time to shower at my site, or at least attempt to repair it before it inevitable collapses into my toilet.

Something That Didn’t Totally Fail: A good friend and I co-directed the Lunda volunteers’ Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) this year! I for some reason thought that it would be fun to write the grant for and co-direct a camp, and I was wrong! That was definitively the most stressful thing I’ve done in Peace Corps, if not my whole life. Case and point, I went from smoking an occasional cigarette to blowing through two packs in two days and then weaning myself off through mass amounts of coffee (which I almost never drink normally). But you know what? The girls and mentors got a lot out of it, and I’m really proud of them! I’m also so grateful to Steph for running an awesome camp spite of me!

Hero of the Month:Mr. Business for holding down the fort and killing those mice while I’ve been away.

Villain of the Month:The Peace Corps assigned dentist who keeps telling me that a recent dental issue can be fixed with buying a new toothbrush. I have bought four different toothbrushes lady, it ain’t that.

Highlight Reel: November 2017

Double feature! In the interest of catching myself up, I’m posting a photo dump and highlight reel on the same day [waits for applause]. Thanks for being patient with me!

Cute and Flirty: I recently bought three ducks, and currently have two (the travel to my house from their farm was sadly too traumatic for one of them). I absolutely adore them! They live in a little pen between my house and garden, and I just love watching them waddle around. Are they as entertaining as chickens? Nah, but they’re more chill and don’t eat all the seeds I plant. Pictures coming soon!

Something I learned from my community: I attended a Food Preservation workshop in late November, and while I was finding a counterpart my host mom decided to show me her own Food Preservation techniques. One of my favorites was how to preserve extra mafu (leafy greens), which I have a huge problem with. With onion greens, she hangs them up to dry, and once they’re browned, she pounds them, adds salt, and you’ve got yourself some delicious onion powder! It’s amazing, simple, and delicious! Why am I here again?!

Something my community learned from me: During Grassroots Soccer with my Grade 5s, I decided to add some LGBT sensitization into the mix. I was nervous, because the existence of queer people in Zambia is adamantly denied in rural areas, much less gay rights. But, during a session about gender roles, we were discussing the difference between gender and sex, and I saw a window. We defined “sex” as “male or female” and gender as “man or woman.” Then, we talked about babies who are born with both male and female genitalia, and added “intersex” to our definition of sex, meaning both male and female. Then, we added “transgender” to the definition of gender, and I explained that while “inter” means “together,” “trans” means “going from one thing to another” (thanks mom for teaching me vocabulary from classical roots!). Then, when we went into gender roles, I explained that while gender is an identity, gender roles can change depending on culture, and I explained that in some American cultures you can still be a man or woman if you date people of the same sex. I was really proud of how respectful both my Zambian counterparts and my kids were during the lesson, and it led to a lot of questions about gender norms in different cultures (ex: the difference between men wearing skirts/kilts/etc., men performing in drag, and males identifying as women). It made me really happy to share that part of myself in a subtle way, and has motivated me to do more of this kind of work!

Shower Insights: I’ve been thinking a lot about what I joined Peace Corps for and what I originally wanted to get out of service. I noticed recently that I’m a lot angrier and reactionary than I used to be (I’m sure a couple people will laugh at that), and I don’t think that’s helping myself or my community. So, I’ve decided to check in with myself every month and ask myself “am I being the kind of person I wanted to be here? Am I doing the kinds of work I wanted to do? If not, is there anything I can do to change that? If I can’t change it, is it beneficial to me or my community to stay in Zambia?” When I tell people this, many get worried, but it’s been really helpful to assess where I am and where I want to be. And I think, because of it, I’m moving forward in a way I’ll be happy with looking back.

Something That Didn’t Totally Fail: I am finally done teaching Grassroots Soccer to my basic school’s Grade 5 class! We taught the program with the 5Bs this month, and I think it’s safe to say that having a class every weekday for two months was a little too much to for my two voluntary counterparts (who are both in college). Fortunately, the deputy headmaster filled in when needed, and the kids learned a lot. Phew!

Hero of the Month: Latrice Royale for providing a beautiful visual example of drag queens and blowing the minds of my kids!

Villain of the Month: Army ants! They took over my garden and I couldn’t weed anything without being swarmed and bit. These things will kill any animal and when they enter people’s homes people just move out until the ants have hunted everything. Bugs Life lied to me!

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“You have to look! […] That’s another one of our rules. Closing your eyes isn’t going to change anything. Nothing’s going to disappear just because you can’t see what’s going on. In fact, things will be even worse the next time you open your eyes. That’s the kind of world we live in, Mr. Nakata. Keep your eyes wide open. Only a coward closes his eyes. Closing your eyes and plugging up your ears won’t make time stand still.”

Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

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“In that hideous water, bodies floated past. Some were alive, calling out. A searchlight revealed a boy halfway up the anchor chain of a battle ship. Sailors dumped oil on him and he slipped back into the water. 

On the deck of the ship, three new French citizens looked back at the burning city, ablaze from end to end. The fire would continue for the next three days, the flames visible for fifty miles. At sea, sailors would mistake the rising smoke for a gigantic mountain range. In the country they were headed for, America, the burning of Smyrna made the front pages for a day or two, before being bumped off by the Hall-Mills murder case (the body of Hall, a Protestant minister, had been found with that of Miss Mills, an attractive choir member) and the opening of the World Series.”

Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex