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Out of Africa...
Robert Sather, MF

Finding "The Way": An African Sequel

Bob Sather wrote a wonderful article for The Graduate College e-newsletter a couple of
years ago while a master's student in the Peace Corps International program in Zambia.
Moved and curious, we asked him to share the sequel to the story of his effort to improve
a community’s standard of living and the strategies that helped him do it.

Bob and Anyways

We affectionately referred to the African Sakamboi as "Mr. Anyways" because when he spoke to Peace Corps volunteers this was usually the first word he uttered in any given sentence. I proudly counted myself a member of this dedicated group from 2009 to 2011 in Zambia, representing both the Peace Corps and the newly christened NAU Master’s International program. Mr. Anyways was my counterpart, mentor, and sometimes savior as he patiently guided me along a difficult journey in our mutual attempt to relate to cultures so radically different from each other. Now I was concluding my time there, and we were saddened but proud that we had come to know each other and reach common ground with our problems and obstacles. We both knew that this small African village would forever be different and would prosper thanks to our exchange.

Fish Farming

The focus of my Peace Corps mission was to find a way to make a difference for his people, and we eventually succeeded in our goal of creating fish-farming aquaculture programs. The importance of this cannot be overstated. These people earn approximately one dollar per day raising maize. One fish pond can double a family’s annual income. This is life changing.

Imagine for a moment, as an American, doubling your annual income for the year. This notion that there must be a way, subtly suggested by his nickname, was prophetic in terms of his view that we must find any method we could to succeed. In the end I began to simply address him as "Mr. Way," and he would respond with a bright smile.

Establishing Trust
Initially there were trust issues. Imagine me, a musungo (white man), arriving in a completely foreign culture located in the remote bush of Africa and proposing changes in lifestyles that have existed for thousands of years. One strategy I used was to find something that they respected and use it to demonstrate my dedication. I learned their language, and that made a difference. In Zambia there are 73 languages, and most people know five of six of them. Our village language, Kaonde, was challenging, and as I struggled to communicate the villagers began to help me, especially the children. As I struggled through my public speaking engagements, which were terrifying, we began to relate to the power of words together. In these terms I realized I had earned a measure of trust when later we named one of our cooperative groups "Twotale," which meant "we come together as one." Although not complete, I felt I had taken a step toward full acceptance.

Trust, which was so vital to my success, was not completely isolated to the local villagers' perceptions of me and my mission. There was the matter of Zambian government officials from the Ministry of Fisheries that did not see me or the Peace Corps as a viable entity to help the people. In fact, I was ignored in the beginning, which was puzzling to me. I realized it was logical, though, as I thought about it. Why would they come running to me just because I arrived from America, possibly giving the impression that I might usurp their responsibility? I had to find a way to influence this department to interact with me because we needed supplies and equipment.

I solved this by appealing to higher levels of the Zambian government, a tactic I learned from 20 years working for the U.S. federal government. I wrote a letter to the national director of fisheries and offered to assist him in applying for a Fulbright scholarship to study in America. He was highly enthusiastic, and I subtly threw in a request for him to encourage, if you will, his subordinate official to visit me. The next day the local fisheries agent was at my door. This is a good example of lessons learned about how government works. I was on my way.

Bob and Fisheries Agent

Attracting Volunteers
The question arose at this point about where Mr. Way and I could find people to become involved in fish farming. It seemed they would not come, or would not follow up if they did make contact with me, once they realized there was hard work involved. I could not influence them directly, so I decide to go another way. Every village has a headman or chief to whom the people listen. Most everyone had several to many children, and I do well with kids. We became notorious for our squirt gun fights and my use of them to fetch water for us all from the well, paying them back for my English lessons in the village. Eventually the old chief learned of the affection between the children and me and took notice. When he understood my goals and the lack of participants, one day out of the blue he made an announcement for people to come.

Curiously, the proclamation he made was not subtle. He simply walked into his yard and at the top of his voice began to holler up into the air, encouraging his neighbors to come to my hut. It was like magic; they began to appear by the score to get into my program. I was impressed. Our co-op was created the next week, and we began digging ponds soon after. My thanks went out to the children, without whom none of this would have happened. Sadly, my most helpful child water bearer, the chief’s son, died of disease a few days after we left the country. Hopefully he realized in some way that he had helped his fellow villagers.

Esther and earnings

One example of a strategy that worked for me, and incidentally illustrates very well how the Peace Corps functions, centers around crossing gender barriers. I felt that if I could teach a woman to farm fish, it might serve to influence more of the men to participate. I managed to convince a single mother who was struggling to become part of the cooperative and have a pond dug. The impression Esther made was beyond reproach. She was the first to harvest, and with government officials looking on she proudly displayed her profit and sent a message to the men that she could do this. I was immensely proud of her. Mr. Way was ever present in this venture and was living up to his name.

Perhaps it was simply luck, if one believes in that, or perhaps just good karma. At one point a mining company began to explore the possibly of having a copper mine in the area. The people came in droves to apply for jobs. Most didn’t know how to interview, much less work, for a company, which was unheard of in that remote region. I learned that applicants were attending interviews in a slovenly manner out of ignorance, not dressing well or anticipating the questions they might be asked. I saw this as an opportunity and began teaching interview skills. The people I spoke to were astonished at this but took to it readily, dressing up and learning to answer common interview questions. All of these stood out from the other hundreds who did not know anything about a professional interview. All were hired, to my great satisfaction.

A defining moment late in my time there occurred when I was visiting a fish-farm operation I was developing for a local village headman. Upon finishing, I had begun to travel my usual route back to my village home when I was redirected to a different path. On the way I noticed an enclosure with straw walls and a goat-skin flag on a pole. As we passed I was stopped and given an invitation to enter. I was curious as to what this was. When I went in I saw ten frightened, naked boys around 11 to 13 years old sitting quietly as if waiting for an event to happen. Each exhibited a serious, contemplative disposition that signaled to me that something important was going on here. There were men ministering to the boys with a no-nonsense approach.

Then I saw the knives and sharpeners and realized that this was the circumcision camp that I had heard about. It's essentially a rite of manhood that all male villagers must endure. Surprisingly, when I asked the boys about their feelings towards it, each one expressed that this was what he had been waiting for all his life: to become a man. All said they were not afraid, although I doubted this from the looks on their faces. I could tell by the head-raising and chest expansion that they were full of angst, yet were ready and willing to brave the experience.

Anyways'son, Gashon

One boy said to me, "I want to get my new clothes so I can be a man and look other men in the eye and tell them what I intend to be." To explain, the tradition is that before they go to camp all their clothes are burned. When they emerge, their parents have to provide them with new clothes and shoes. I asked this youngster what he planned to be. He said, "I want to be the president of Zambia and help the people have food to eat." As the act of circumcision was performed, this knowledge made it a little easier to witness.

I was told by Mr. Way that I was greatly honored by being invited into the circumcision camp. Apparently, no white man had ever seen it before in that village, which dates back in excess of a thousand years. I was deeply gratified to be judged worthy to experience it.


Bob and Fish Pond

In the end we managed to build a successful beginning to a program that is being continued by subsequent Peace Corps volunteers. I correspond with them regularly to keep things progressing. I was gratified that our fish farm cooperative was able to develop a sustainable system of a dozen or so ponds for the group. Villagers harvested about 25 kilograms of fish per farmer. This resulted in an income of approximately 500,000 kwacha ($150 USD). The financial implications of this are vast if our ultimate intent of five to ten ponds per farmer is reached. One of my personal goals is to return to Zambia to do what I can to ensure this end.

I feel that the villagers and I found "the way" by positive example and behavior, which is always more influential than words. These things take time, and Mr. Way would no doubt agree. Recently he wrote me a letter saying that everything is going well. His desire is to come to America and bring his son with him (the boy from the circumcision camp who wants to be president). I encourage this; affording it, however, is another matter.

As a graduate student, at least I’ve understood the point of all this learning. To make a difference. I hope I have.

—Robert Sather, MF, NAU Peace Corps Master’s International program in Forestry, 2012. See the Peace Corps website for information on the Master’s International program.
(Photos here and the central cover photo courtesy of Bob Sather.)