Her computer sat dark in the corner of the small office, Chelsi hastily glanced at it. She had promised Marissa it wouldn’t be a distraction but she couldn’t help it weighing on her mind. Her employment in Washington DC that summer was dependent and just 20 minutes before the start of her Peace Corps interview, while brushing up on some info she was hoping to impress Marissa, the recruitment officer, with the screen had frozen and gone dark. ‘At least it hadn’t happen two hours before while I was studying for my last final’ she had thought. But the whole thing still left her rattled, and distracted.
“Is there anything you are unwilling to eat or are you willing to amend you diet to adjust to the foods available in your host country?” a small blond woman asked from behind a computer.
“Ummmm….” Chelsi’s mind raced; ‘is there anything I’m unwilling to eat?’ Images of the diversity of foods that she served up for herself flashed through her mind. “Can you give me an example?” Marissa was sitting beside the blond woman, instructing her how to conduct interviews. And though she wasn’t the official interviewer, her presence commanded attention.
“For example, some perspective volunteers are strict vegetarians and would like to continue. And though it’s possible continue your vegetarianism as a volunteers there are some countries where eating meat is a dietary staple or to refuse meat when it’s offered is an offence. Would you be able to adjust your diet? Or is there anything you just will not eat?”
‘Oh,’ Chelsi thought, she thought about rabbit haggis, one of her favorite foods. Boiled liver, lungs and heart, mixed with par-boil oat-grouts and warm spices, gently tucked and tided into the stomach before being poached… “Blood? I have a hard time eating blood.”
Marissa let out a laugh. “You can put the response in like this.” She took the computer mouse from the blond woman. It seemed reasonable to Chelsi, she knew there were tribe in east Africa who drank cow blood; she wasn’t totally thrilled about the prospects of going to Africa anyway.
“How about food variety? Would you tire of eating monotonous foods?” The blond woman read straight from the computer screen.
“For instance,” Marissa began to clarify, “there are some place where people might eat nothing but boiled yams, three times a day, every day. How do you think this would affect your morale or your ability to complete your Service?”
Before coming in to the interview Chelsi had worried about her background knowledge of International Development and the history of Peace Corps and what she knew about the countries she was interested in serving and how her experience was relevant. But this? “I think I’d be able to adjust.” Food and drink where some of her greatest loves on earth; ‘but what am I supposed to say?’ she wondered. ‘I don’t want to be passed up because I’m perceived to be unwilling to eat boiled yams every day.’
Marissa continued, “Because some people, once they’re in country, they find it to be an added stress to be separated from their favorite foods, comfort foods. And though it might not be the sole reason a person chooses to terminate early, it can be a significant contributing factor.” Chelsi remembered now reading deep in one of the Peace Corps manuals about volunteers who left early. One such volunteer, leaving the South Pacific, sited that the salt not pouring easily from the shaker was a contributing factor in his decision to leave early.
People had told her, ‘the application for Peace Corps is really self-selecting’. She was starting to understand what that meant. She nodded as Marissa spoke and the blond woman put her response into the computer. Chelsi used to moments to let her thoughts wonder to the tasks that would still be left for her after her interview. Almost as if it were a cue, her phone, tucked in to the deep pocket of her backpack began to ring. Her cheeks flushed with embarrassment and her blood began to boil. She knew who it was and who it wasn’t. Outwardly, she tried to keep up the appearance of being focused; as she had promised.
“How do you feel about missing out on big life events happening here at home?”
“27 months is a long time. There will be weddings and births and maybe even deaths, which you will likely not be able to partake in while serving as a volunteer. Do you think these events will affect your ability to complete your service?”
Zambia is not known for its food and for good reason. She peered in to the serving bowls that where being offered; a bowl leaves covered in salt, a bowl fry swimming in oil, and large pot full of corn flour boiled and beaten until stiff.
“Sit, sit, sit. You must stay for nshima,” David insisted. David, a man of about thirty, was her newest fish farmer and being just a ten minute bike ride from her house she visited him and his family frequently. She really like his grandmother, she reminded her of Ba Eness back in Chongwe, obviously old, but still feisty.
She understood the sentiment of offering her food, it was time for the meal in the evening and she was hungry but the potential for food-borne illness and hypertension or that another family will not have their fill always made her hesitate. David’s mother brought out a stool for her, though everyone else was seated on the ground, and told one of the children to fetch water so she could ‘wash’ her hands. She never really got a choice in the matter. She sat and a basin of water appear beside her. Around the food still sat Grandma, Sister and a few children, none of them more than three. David, continued pasted her to join his father, brother and older sons on the other side of the house under the chinzanza.
“Nshima! Tujanga! Tujanga!” Grandma exclaimed with a smile. “Muja?” David and his family were Luvale by tribe, not native kiikaonde speakers and Grandma was the greatest evidence of this, but Chelsi thought the two of them stumbling through kiikaonde together was always great fun.
“Ngyuka, Bamaama. Ngja nshima.” She rinsed her hands in the water basin. But are my hands really cleaner? Was the rhetorical question she was always asking herself. Her hands went from being covered with dirt, to being covered with water straight from the well and she would now use them to put food into her mouth that other hands, some cleaned, others uncleaned, had touched. She inwardly sighed, trying to imagine it as a way to increase the diversity of the microflora in her gut.
Grandma’s cheeks were rosy, wrinkles falling from them and rounding her chin. Her eyes were big and sparkled as she smiled. She was clearly the source of the Kiombo Family look. Chelsi was starting to find that she could identify some people by family without knowing how they were. “Muteeka nshima?”
“Ee mwane. Nteeka nshima mu nzubo. Natemwa kubiika na cassava.” Chelsi reached out and pinched off piece of nshima about the size of jaw breaker.
Chelsi laughed, “Ee mwane,” and showed off her skill. She used her finger to push the stiff porage against her palm while rolling it with her thumb forming a smooth ball. She pushed the ball to the edge of her fingers and used her thumb to make a depression in the ball. Grandma watched intently. It wasn’t until recently that Chelsi had realized that though Chelsi was eating nshima with just one hand as she had been told during training, she had developed a different technique from her Zambian hosts. She contributed it to early on, spending so much time focusing on not making a mess, she wasn’t watching how other be people were going about eating without making a mess.
She balanced the red-blood cell like shape on her thumb and ringfinger and dipped it into the boil of sautéed leaves, Chinese cabbage leaves she guessed by their look. She reached around some leaves with her middle and index finger and held them against the nshima. She popped the whole thing into her mouth.
“Twasanta,” she replied chewing.