I was hichhiking from Ohio to Pensilvania, after having graduated college and gone sailing with my uncle.
My second ride was a rather hippie fellow named Josh. He used to grow hydroponic weed, but then, at 22, he and his girlfriend had a kid. After getting busted for drug running, he wanting to be a responsible father, so he gave up the marijuana trade and went into aquaculture, fish farming. If you gave a brief physical description of me: male, tan, in his 20's, rather skinny, long brown hair usually in a pony tail, a thin mustache and goatee, you would also be describing Josh. It was rather uncanny.Excerpt from Hitchhiking to Pennsylvania
There were definitely differences though, ideologically . He's more worried about natural, organic, and GMO free than the fact that he's consuming sugar water and inhaling tobacco smoke. Josh is also very into perpetual motion; I'm rather a fan of physics. But I did really enjoy our conversation on aquaculture and aquaponics. It was something that, given more time, I would have wanted to do at the tipi.
At this point in my life, I thought I was going to return to Ohio, help move a boat to Annapolis, Maryland, sail with my aunt and uncle to the Briish Virgin Islands, fly home, and then leave with Peace Corps for Vanuatu, an island in the South Pacific, to teach computer literacy... None of these events ever came to pass.
My and and uncle bailed on me and so did the Peace Corps. But it turns out that the US federal government can have more of a heart than my own flesh and blood, at times. My placement officer asked me something along the lines of, "Have you ever heard of aquaculture?"
And my response was, "You mean like aquaponics?"
This was a mere week after my ride with Josh, and with that, I was invited to the Peace Corps Zambia under the Rural Aquaculture Promotion (RAP) program.
Not wanting to get my heart broken by bureaucracy, once more, I didn't put too much research into my new assignment, with the exception of a book I bought myself for Christmas entitled Aquaponic Gardening, by Silvia Bernstein. Ever since I was little, I've been interested in closed-loop systems, but unlike bio-domes or perpetual motion machines, aquaponics systems actually work.
Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (growing plants without soil). The best applications for aquaponics is backyard gardening, especially in environments where water is scarce.
Brad's site was in Eastern Province, arguably one of the most arid regions in the country. At the beginning of Pre-Service training (PST), they don't tell you your sites, but they do tell you what language you will be learning and from that it was possible to deduce where you will be going. Along with Brian, Jonathan, and Melissa, I was assigned to Nyanja, the predominant language in Eastern.
With that set, now all I had to do was convince the RAP tech team to put me at Brad's site. My first ever interaction with the tech team was actually at fly in, when I told them I was interested in Brad's work, but I figured it could just be coincidence that I was in Eastern. As I later found out though, I was originally slated to be a Bemba speaker, but due more than likely to my request, I was switched to Nyanja instead.
The four sites, from north to south, were Morgan's, which Brian was destine for, Brad's, which both Melissa and I were gaming for, Holly's, who requested a guy but none of us wanted, and the rice site, which they were considering me or Jonathan for.
And then, before we knew it, it was time for the big day, site placement. They'd drawn a large map of Zambia on the floor of our classroom shelter and passed out blind folds. We all lined up and one-by-one they led us to our sites. Before I even uncovered my eyes, I knew where I was going. I was placed at Brad's site.
Two weeks later, the names and places of my assignment became a reality. All the Peace Corp Trainees (PCTs) were to spend a weekend at their site-to-be. Brad was there the first night, and honestly, other than the fact that he near yeld at the village headman, when he tried to talk to me about fixing the well, I don't remember much else about him. A few days later, we were staying at the same house in town and he spoke all of a handful of words to me the two days we were there. It was boarder line rude and a little baffling.
I had just spent the last couple of days inhabiting his life: living in his house, meeting those he had lived and worked with over the past two years, yet he cared not to approach me about any of it. To some degree though, I was relieved. I had bought a lot of the things off of him that he was to leave at the house, yet I had a lot of things I knew it was not wise to say.
His aquaponics work was incredibly disappointing. The project was highly under-researched. Brad used blue shipping barrels, and when I asked him if we was basing his work off of barrel-ponics, he responded "What? I've never heard of it." Literally the first result on Google that you get, when you search any logical combination of "barrels" and "aquaponics" is barrel-ponics. It's the preeminent aquaponics system in developing countries, and it was designed specifically for use in sub-saharan Africa. His systems are utter failures. They are either completely out of use or have simply become giant potted plants. Funding was not the issue. He returned more than enough money (nearly 25% of his total budget) that could have fixed all of the problems to Peace Corps, when his project was "completed." All of the massive mistakes that he made could have been solved with just a bit of research.
So why didn't Brad research a project before getting federal grant money for it? I have no idea.
There are three wells near my home. The closest is the well that Brad paid 700 kwatcha to have dug, so he could more easily water his garden. This never really panned out though because even at 10 meters deep, it barely holds 10 liters of water, on a good day in the Rainy Season. The second well is a meter deep, open air hole in the ground, that's dug in the dambo next to a stream, one kilometer down a steep hill from my house. This is currently where my/Brad's water comes from.
There's a third well, though. It's only about 200m from my house, on a straight and even path. It's cemented and lined and by my calculations has over 3,000 liters of water in it. It use to be the village well, but then, when the village moved, it fell out of use. By the time the village expanded back out to need use of it again, the water had soured and the bottom was full of sticks, lovingly thrown in by the local children.
Why didn't Brad just help clean out this well, instead of building an inferior new one? I have no idea.
Then there's Akran. One of his daughters, Dedra, is deaf. Brad apparently spent a lot of time at Akran's. He was his counterpart for the ill-fated aquaponics project. Yet, this eleven year old girl had never been to school, and there's a hearing impaired/special ed program less than 20 km down the road.
Why didn't Brad try to help get this girl in school? I have no idea.
Though all of these thoughts were my own in early May and on through June, I bit my tongue until now. If you know me, you know this is no small feat. But the conclusion that I've come to is that it does not matter. Though the only tangible work that Brad has done here is a farce, it's a farce that has led me here, to a beautiful site, to a caring host family, to motivated counterparts, and an amazing community, all within biking distance of Chipata.
There's nothing I can do to change what Brad did or didn't do, as a volunteer, but I can relish and be happy for what this odd path, from the roadside in Ohio, over nine months ago, to watching the sunrise over the distant hills in Kalichero has brought me. Here.
And so far, I love it here.