The ABCs of Peace Corps


A is for Anya, or the title for young unmarried women in Chitonga. Whenever I’m wandering through the village people shout ANYA MWASEE after me, with Mwasee referring to the family I live with. It warms my heart every time, and it’s surprising how many people know me by this title. This week I ran 7k down the paved road and back, and people greeted me as Anya Mwasee the whole way.


B is for bafa, noun and also a verb in Peace Corps circles. A bafa is place where you take bucket baths. For most people this means a room with a drainage hole in the floor, but for me it means a roofless structure made out of tall grasses and floored with white stones. It’s lovely to see the stars when you bathe at night, less lovely to dump cupfulls of cold water over your head and hearing the mice squeak in the walls.


C is for chimbudzi. A chimbudzi, or chim for short, is a a concrete platform with a hole in it that you poop in. Squatting does wonders for your thighs. For a while I had bats living in mine, but then I started lighting my plastic trash on fire and shoving it down the hole and I think I killed them all.


D is for dysentery, the first disease I had that would have killed me on the Oregon Trail. How do you know when regular old miserable diarrhea turns into dysentery? When you start pooping blood of course! It was the most effective diet I’ve ever tried!


E is for eggplant. I will never touch another eggplant after I come home. They’re the only vegetable that doesn’t wilt or mold in less than 48 hours in Nkhata Bay heat. Since I can find eggplant at a market about an hour cycle away, I eat them way more than I like. By that I mean I eat eggplant every day. Eggplant and rice, eggplant and soya pieces, eggplant and nsima, eggplant and eggs…you get the picture.


F is for fish eagle, or Mkwazi in Chitonga. These impressive birds nest in large native trees along the lakeshore, and look and behave very similar to bald eagles back home. My favorite mating pair live in the cheif’s graveyard in Old Maula, in an ancient mango tree. I love watching them fly back in from across the big water.


G is for gule wamkulu, or the big dance. A UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Dance, gule aren’t found in Nkhata Bay but are common in south and central region with the Chewa tribe. When I was doing my training in Kasungu I’d see them all the time, men dressed in masks, straw costumes, halfnaked and covered in paint. They run around scaring people, dancing erratically and speaking in tongues. Last time I was hitchhiking south from Mzuzu I found myself waiting for a ride in Mzimba South, squatting next to a cornfield with my headphones in. I heard rustling behind me, and assuming it was a goat, didn’t turn around. All of a sudden a naked man with a red, wicked mask like a sunflower jumped out at me shouting gibberish. I let out a quick, high pitched scream, and then we just looked at eachother for a moment. I pulled out a twenty kwatcha note from my pocket and handed it over. “Zikomo, thanks” he said, and scurried away.


H is for hitching, a mode of transportation that is no longer allowed by Peace Corps Malawi as of June of this year and I in no way shape or form practice or appear to condone on this publicly accessible blog. But before June I hitched all the time. Here are my tips for hitching. 1: Be a woman, and 2: be white. If you’re in a group of a more diverse variety and happen to have a white woman with you, have her stand on the road out and extend her arm, flapping her wrist and hand like a dead fish, while the rest of you lie stomach down on the side of the road. When the nice, concerned mzungu or Malawian bwana stops to pick up the damsel in distress, the rest of your crew piles in before they can do anything about it. While in the vehicle, asking polite and interested questions about the drivers life (*cough cough brow-nosing) helps to increase the chance he will refuse your money at the end of the ride. My all time favorite hitching experience involved a goat, a priest, and a free bunch of bananas.


I is for immodium, the only thing preventing you from shitting your pants on the way to hospital. This magical substance is for emergencies only. It blocks up your butt for the several hours needed for you to take a bike taxi, minibus, another minibus, big bus, and then another bike taxi from your house in the village to the nearest IV Bag of antibiotics that’s going to take care of that nasty intestinal infection.


J is for njoka, which is pronounced like the “n” isn’t there. There are two times when you shout “JOKA” in the village. The first is when you actually have a snake in your house, and the second is when you want your neighbors to kill something that terrifies you but is commonplace to them so that if you shout its name you wont get the reaction you want. Scorpions for example. I’ve had two snakes in my house, the first was a green one that I opened all the doors and let slither away. The second was a real black mamba, and I made the women come and kill that mofo. Our doctor’s advice if we get bitten by a black mamba? Don’t call me, call your priest.


K is for kusambira, which the iwes in my village shout at me at 6:30 every Saturday morning when they want to go to the lake. These lake days will be my favorite memories from my service. A little swarm of village kids running and splashing around the shallows with me and my dog in tow, like some cross between camp counselor and big sister. They’re filled with tossing the Frisbee and freeze tag, sending kids to the borehole to fill up my water bottle or collect mangos when we’re tired and hungry. They’re perfect days, up until the point I have to drag the kids out of the water and shout at them “I AM NOT YOUR MOTHER, WE ARE LEAVING NOW” to which they respond “just five more minutes” and I always give them five minutes more.


L is for labola, meaning dowery or bride price. This is a custom for the Tonga people which is sometimes nice, like when a Peace Corps volunteer a few years ago married a Tongan woman and presented her parents with a traditional cow, and sometimes not so nice: like when abused wives have to pay their husband back their labola before they can leave him. I had my chief, Ama Damba-Cheole, quote me for labola not to long ago. This was her rational: I get 1 cow because I’m college educated, 1 because I’m pretty (*read white), 1 because I speak good English and Tonga, and 1 because every woman starts off with one cow. But then, minus one cow because I’m old (24!!!) and minus one because I’m a notoriously bad at cooking and keeping my yard swept. Bottom line: I’m worth two cows.


M is for mzungu, or white person. It’s a bit of a slur aimed at white people which means someone with money. Malawians can also be mzungus if they’re wealthy, well educated, or well traveled. It basically means someone arrogant or snobbish. I have a 5-8km perimeter in my village where people call me by either my name or my dog’s name, outside that I have strangers and children shouting MZUNGU in my face all day long.

One time I was having a really terrible day and was buying strawberries in the market in Lilongwe to cheer myself up. A man selling a basket full of pineapples started harassing me in the most low-key way.

“Hey, hey you!” He shouted. “You, my wife! MZUNGU!”

And I lost it

“how dare you talk to women like that! Don’t you have any respect! How would your mother feel if she heard you talking like that! I am a PERSON! I AM NOT A MZUNGU! I LIVE HERE!” I screamed, high-pitched and nasally, throwing my pointer finger in his face as I ranted in unintelligible English. He dropped his pineapples and they went rolling down the hill, past the sketchy bridge and into the Lilongwe river while people all around the market gawked and laughed.  It wasn’t very Peace-Corpsish of me, but damn it felt good.


N is for ndigwira nchitu, or “I work”. I most commonly say this when people ask me what I’m doing in malawi and I respond: “ndigwira nchitu ku district forestry office, ndi ulangize nge viengiwa, or I work at the district forestry office as an environmental adviser. When I’m having that same conversation with Americans I just say, I do tree stuff, fish stuff, stuff with orange fleshed sweet potatoes, and some empowerment stuff with girls in secondary schools too.


O is for ORS, Oral Re-hydration Salts. It’s gods gift to PCVs for hot-season and hangovers. As a volunteer on lake shore I drink ORS more than most people, because it’s hellishly hot and the wet environment (or questionable hygiene habits) leaves me susceptible to higher than average bouts of diarrhea. They come in nice little sachets from the PC Doctor, but you can also whip up homemade ORS in a pinch. Take 2 tb sugar and four tsp salt and mix into a liter of water. It tastes awful, but makes you feel great.


P is for PCMO or Peace Corps Medical Officer. They’re the person you text if you cut your hand open on a nsima pot, break out in hives from African tick bite fever, you have a fever and need extra encouragement to take the malaria test you know they’ll make you do, or your worried that your farts smell so bad it may be clinical. One of the funniest things I’ve seen was a PCV with some skin infection issues showing us the one-year long WhatsApp photo collection of her face responding to various allergens.


Q is for quitting. Quitting is something I think about all the time. Whenever I’m sweating profusely at night in the tent I’ve erected in my backyard because being inside is intolerable, or eating beans and rice for the seventh meal in a row. I fantasize about sitting in coffee shops and picking out cute outfits without bothering to check if I’ve covered my knees. Sometimes I daydream about how I’ll line my cubicle with chitenje fabric and listen to NPR on my commute. But when it comes down to it, I know I can’t quit. I have too many people here in Malawi, and I’ve made a commitment. But I’ll never complain about salad or snow ever again.


R is for radio, your only connection to the outside world. The only upside to colonialism is the BBC World Service’s availability in rural Africa. I’ve got a tiny battery operated radio that only functions in a very specific location in my house, and that location shifts every day. But when I tune in I feel like I’m back home, getting the news and fascinating podcasts on various topics from all over the world. Unfortunately Trump is mentioned just about every day now, but I also get my snippets of pop culture from those old British men on the radio. When Beyonce came out with her pregnancy announcement on Instagram I heard about it on my little radio, in my nyumba, in the village.  God save the queen.


S is for salt. I never put extra salt on my food before Malawi, now I drown my food in it. Is it the heat? Is it that American food is so processed that I’m simply compensating here? Can you develop a sodium resistance, and you have to keep upping your dosage? Or is Malawian food simply flavorless? Whatever the reason, I should probably start watching my cholesterol.


T is for Tonga. The funny little language with 200,000 speakers that I speak pretty darn well. It’s the most useless skill I’ll ever be proud of. I love shocking people who are talking openly about how they’re going to rip me off when I snap back in Tonga. Every pet I own from here on out will have a Tonga name. Takulondiani!


U is for umampha. My counterpart always “English is wide, Tonga is narrow”. Umampha therefore means: Good, fine, healthy, fun, funny, safe, not-broken, and well-behaving. Umampha_cha, with the cha being negative, and umamphacha meaning: bad, unhealthy, boring, stupid, unsafe, broken and dumb.


V…Google Malawi right now.


W is for witchcraft, a very real thing in Malawi. I know people who have been caught in enchantments while trespassing in rice gardens, who tell the future, who channel ghosts, impregnate their wives in Malawi from South Africa, who can levitate tables, and even be reincarnated as animals. Don’t tell Malawians that you don’t believe in witchcraft, because then you’re probably a witch.


X is for the lack of an X-ray machine in Malawi and the enormous Peace Corps budget of flying volunteers to South Africa for sprained ankles.


Y is for years of your life that are dedicated to Peace Corps. I came into Peace Corps when I was 22 and will leave when I’m 25, but I feel like I’ve aged ten years in that time. While all of my friends are off making money, going to grad school, or even starting families, I’ve been squatting in a mud house in the Malawian bush. Sometimes I feel like I’m behind the curve when I think about how much I’m missing, and that I’m never going to catch up. And then there’s the sheer damage I’ve done to my body in Malawi, all the cut and burn scars, not to mention whatever the hell being on two years of malaria prophylaxis is doing to my liver. But I also think that I’ve grown up a lot. I learned here that humans are capable of handling exactly as much as they have to, and that in the grand scheme of things my problems are pretty insignificant.


Z is for zebra. I have a picture of me and my old horse, Oliver, in my house. My favorite kid Alimony looked at it and said, you have a very beautiful zebra.




2 thoughts on “The ABCs of Peace Corps

  1. My favorites are B, C and F. I’ve come to appreciate my bucket showers also. But instead of mice, I got spiders. Your bat eradicating abilities are resume worthy when you get back to the States. Your reflections for Y resonate. I’d take the Peace Corps experience over babies and grad school debt any day! Thanks for writing.


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