Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Zambia
Few countries in the world offer the level of service we consider normal in the U.S. If you bring with you U.S. standards for mail service you will be in for lots of frustration. Mail takes a minimum of 2-4 weeks to arrive in Lusaka. Surface mail may take up to five months to be delivered and is highly unlikely to be insurable. Duty fees must be paid on all packages received; the amount depends on the value (or perceived value here) of the contents. Though not frequent, some mail may simply not arrive. We recognize that when we are thousands of miles from our families and friends, communication becomes a very sensitive issue. Advise your family and friends to number their letters and to write “Air Mail” and “Par Avion” on their envelopes.
Despite delays, we strongly encourage you to write to your family regularly, perhaps weekly or biweekly. Family members will typically become worried when they do not hear from you, so please advise your parents, friends, and relatives that mail is sporadic and that they shouldn’t worry if they don’t receive your letters regularly.
Long-distance telephone communication is available, though it can be difficult and frustrating, especially during the rainy season with its electrical storms. It is also expensive. A call from Zambia to the U.S. can cost about $4.00 per minute. Calling cards can be used on private phones with the assistance of an operator and costs considerably less. Many Volunteers use this method when they are in Lusaka or in their provincial capitals. Each of the Peace Corps Volunteer leader (PCVL) transit houses, situated in five provinces, has a phone, so it is possible to arrange a time to receive a phone call. Most post offices in the major cities have international services but only during their regular hours. Within Zambia, telegrams take two to three days, are cheap and are sometimes the best/only way to communicate.
Zambia has an improving cellular telephone network and offers a choice between three cellphone companies: Zamtel, Telecel and Celtel. However, coverage is spotty at best outside of Lusaka and the provincial capitals.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
There are several Internet service providers in Zambia. There are also a growing number of Internet cafes around the country. The cost of access varies but tends to be relatively expensive. Due to the nature and quality of the landline connections, all companies offer both digital and analog dialup numbers.
Computer and e-mail access are available at the PCVL houses. Internet access is also available and free at the Volunteer resource library in the Peace Corps office in Lusaka.
Due to the lack of electricity and potential for theft, very few Volunteers keep laptop computers at their sites. It is not recommended. If you do bring a laptop, make sure to insure it.
Housing and Site Location
Most Volunteers live in earthen houses lighted by kerosene lamps. Meals are cooked over wood or charcoal. Typically, Volunteer sites are in villages where there is neither plumbing nor electricity. You will have your own mud brick/thatch roof house, pit latrine, outdoor cooking area and shower area. Drinking/washing water may need to be carried from as far as 30 minutes away on foot. Some sites will be very isolated and the closest Volunteer may be 40 kilometers or more away.
Within the first week of arriving in Zambia you will have the opportunity to choose the language that you will be speaking. Volunteers from the various provinces do a presentation to help you decide. The associate Peace Corps director (APCD) of your program may offer advice based on the various skills and interest of individuals in your group. Your placements are made in cooperation with the training staff and are based on their assessments and recommendations regarding your skill levels in the technical, cross-cultural, and language areas. Your APCD can discuss particular preferences concerning a site. You will not be able to choose your site. Site placements are made using the following criteria (in priority order):
- Medical considerations;
- Community needs;
- Site requirements matched with demonstrated technical, cross cultural, and language skills;
- Personal preference of the Volunteer.
Living Allowance and Money Management
The local currency is the Zambian Kwacha (Zkw). Between 2002 and 2004, the value of the Kwacha has fluctuated between 4,600 and 5,000 Zkw per one U.S. dollar.
As a Volunteer in Zambia you will receive four types of allowances: a living allowance, vacation allowance, settling-in allowance, and readjustment allowance.
The living allowance covers your basic living expenses. The living allowance is reviewed at least once per year through a market survey to ensure that it is adequate. In Zambia, this is typically about $200 each month, and it is paid in local currency. This allowance is disbursed to Volunteers through locally established personal bank accounts on a quarterly basis. It is intended to cover expenses including food, household supplies, clothing, recreation, transportation, reading materials and other incidentals. By comparison, your local Zambian peers working for the government will be making about $90 a month.
A standard Peace Corps vacation allowance amounting to $24 a month will be added to your living allowance. This is also paid on a quarterly basis in local currency.
A one-time settling-in allowance, also paid in ZKw at an equivalency of roughly $160, is given to buy basic household items when you move to your site. In addition, a security upgrade fund, equivalent to $40, is added to be used for Volunteers’ homes.
A readjustment allowance of $225 is accumulated each month. One-third is given to you prior to your departure and the balance is sent to your home of record after you return.
When on official Peace Corps/Zambia travel, you will be given additional money for transportation and meals.
If you do bring cash for travel and vacation, only bring a limited amount because of the potential for theft. Cashing personal checks or checks family or friends may want to send is extremely complicated and should be avoided. Peace Corps/Zambia cannot facilitate any personal banking transactions.
It is also advisable to bring U.S. dollars because traveler’s checks are becoming harder to cash. Some foreign exchange posts do not accept $1 or $5 bills and you will receive a lower exchange rate for $10 and $20 notes. If you plan to travel outside of Zambia on vacation, some U.S. currency may be needed for airport fees, visas, and other expenses which must be paid in cash, in U.S. dollars.
Food and Diet
Your access to Western-style foods may be very limited, but you will soon become familiar and even enamored with nshima (cornmeal porridge), cabbage, and kapenta (fish), as well as other staple foods like local leaf sauces and smoked fish. Fruits, other than mangoes in season, are difficult to obtain and can be expensive; vegetable variety is generally good, but can be seasonally difficult, and meat is not easily available for Volunteers while at their site.
Ideally, mealtime should be a time of relaxation, but, in an unfamiliar country, mealtimes will, at first, be an unsettling challenge. The available food may seem strange in type and appearance; it may even initially appear to be unpalatable. Yet, you may feel obligated to demonstrate your friendliness and willingness to accept local customs by eating food that doesn’t appeal to you. You’ll need to stay within your comfort zone, but remember that the local cuisine, customs, and expectations are very different from your own. If you are not prepared to make some major adjustments in your lifestyle, you will very likely experience a great deal of frustration.
During pre-service training, you will have many opportunities to become familiar with what is available, as well as how to prepare and cook a wide variety of foods. Some Volunteers will lose weight during training. This is to be expected; it is not unusual to lose up to 10 pounds during the eight to ten-week period.
All Volunteers will be expected to travel in Zambia using local means of transportation as your Zambian peers do (foot, bicycle, bus, van, or train) starting during your first days of training until the end of your service. Rural travel is very limited and difficult due to the condition of the roads and public transportation. Every trip is an adventure. Transportation from your post to your provincial capital may be sporadic, may take a full day or more, and will generally be crowded and dusty. Volunteers may find it necessary to travel on trucks carrying produce or livestock or hitch rides on one of the district or community vehicles. It may take two days or more by crowded, public transportation to reach the capital city, Lusaka. Some Volunteers walk or ride their bikes up to 100 kilometers to catch a ride at a main road. Some roads are not easily passable by bicycle in the rainy season. All Volunteers will be provided with a bicycle and helmet. Riding motorcycles is prohibited.
Social activities will vary depending on where you are located. These may include taking part in various festivities, parties, storytelling, and sitting around at fire a night talking with your neighbors. Some Volunteers visit nearby Volunteers on weekends and make occasional trips to their provincial capital, although we encourage Volunteers to remain at their sites to accomplish the important Peace Corps goal of cultural exchange.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
One of the challenges of finding your place as a Volunteer is simultaneously fitting into the local culture, maintaining your own cultural identity, and acting like a professional. It is not an easy act to balance, and we can only provide you with some guidelines to dress and behave accordingly. While some of your counterparts may dress in seemingly worn or shabby clothes, this will be due to economics rather than choice. The likelihood is that they are wearing their “best.” A foreigner wearing raggedy, unmended clothing is more likely to be considered an affront than someone trying to “get closer to the people.”
Zambians regard dress and appearance as part of one’s respect for one another. They value neatness of appearance, which is much more important than being “stylish.” You are expected to dress appropriately, whether you are in training, traveling, or on the job. Not doing so may jeopardize your credibility and that of the entire program.
The following guidelines have been formalized based not only on advice from Zambians, but also on the experiences of current Volunteers.
Dresses and skirts should fall below the knees. Appropriate undergarments should be worn, including slips. Men and women should wear shorts only at home, when exercising, or when doing work where Zambian counterparts are also wearing them. If shorts are worn in public, they should be of “walking” length. Hair should be clean and combed, and beards should be neatly trimmed. Men should never wear a hat indoors unless custom in the area allows, and they should always be removed when speaking to an elder. Sunglasses should also be removed indoors.
More information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is outlined in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, although most Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal safety problems. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help Volunteers reduce their risks and enhance their safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Zambia. At the same time, each Volunteer is expected to take responsibility for his/her safety and well-being.
Rewards and Frustrations
The excitement and adventure of the Volunteer experience are, in some measure, due to its unpredictability. There will be unexpected joys as well as unexpected disappointments. You could find plans for a health clinic canceled at the last minute because the Ministry of Health has been reorganized. Your plan to dig a well may be held up by a quarrel between local groups over who is to do the digging or because the required materials cannot be delivered as scheduled. The official to whom you were supposed to report may be replaced by a successor who knows little about a scheduled project. Such variables can erode the enthusiasm, the patience, and the idealism of a Volunteer. Your success will often depend upon determination, patience, and the ability to find another way. A Peace Corps Volunteer always has to be able to come up with a Plan B and many times, a Plan C, D, or even E! A big part of Peace Corps is the challenge to remain flexible, energetic, and hopeful at a time when it would be easy to give in to cynicism or indifference. Accepting the community and being accepted by it is essential for success. In both your daily life and in your work, Volunteers must take care to avoid the appearance of superiority or arrogance that can be associated with an outsider bringing “change” and “improvements.” Volunteers find that as they live and work in their communities, they learn as much or more from the people of their host country than they share in return.