Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Heather C. Cumming, May 21, 2022

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:02:19 - Struggles During Training

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Partial Transcript: And I had said in the first interview that I went into this knowing I would do whatever it took.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming says one of the hardest things for her Peace Corps journey was taking away all the things that she had thought defined her, like he way she dressed. She recalls showing up to training on the second week in what she thought was a cute outfit, and she was taken aside by two female trainers who told her that it was culturally inappropriate and said that she could not wear the slip dress that she was wearing. Cumming says the dress code in Zambia was similar to India where shoulders should not be exposed and absolutely nothing above the knee. She claims that despite her rebellious side, she decided to go change. She also explains that the change was similar to prison where your options for everything are cut down to 1-2 things.

Keywords: Clothing; Outfits; Prison; Style; Taboos

Subjects: Choices; Culture; Fashion; Peace Corps (U.S.); Personality; Society; Training

GPS: Zambia
Map Coordinates: -13.133897, 27.849333
00:12:00 - Language in Zambia

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Partial Transcript: Then the other thing of training was this idea that we had to learn our local tribal language, and we were assigned in groups depending on the province we'd be in.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming says that they had to learn the tribal language of the province they were in. She explains that while the national language in Zambia is English, they had 71-72 different tribes there with 7 major languages among them. Cumming says that she struggled learning the Tongan language, and that if you didn't pass the language test you would be sent back to the U.S. Cumming says she barely passed the test, and that while she now uses the language daily she still struggles a bit.

Keywords: Language; Language tests; Office hours; Tribal Languages

Subjects: English; Grammar; Learning; Peace Corps (U.S.); Teaching; Tonga language (Zambesi); Tribes

GPS: Zambia
Map Coordinates: -13.133897, 27.849333
00:18:56 - Parts of Training

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Partial Transcript: And training was every moment from 7:30 am, you're with the other American volunteers with the--you have project specific training.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming gives a rundown of what her training looked like. She says they would be in training all day starting at 7:30 AM. She states that one of the trainings was project based, and they had to train for the LTM radio project. Cumming says that they had medical training with the Peace Corps Medical Officers. Cumming says that a British-South African doctor taught her things that she still uses today.

Keywords: Doctors; LTM; Markets; Programs; Projects; Radio

Subjects: Africans; Americans; British; Peace Corps (U.S.); Training; Volunteers

GPS: Zambia
Map Coordinates: -13.133897, 27.849333
00:19:52 - Race in Africa / Racial issues in Africa

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Partial Transcript: South Africa was colonized by the Dutch--you know that.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming goes into Africa history, talking about how South Africa was originally colonized by the Dutch and their clash with British colonizers in the Boer War. She says that there were many people of different races and ethnicities involved, and claims that to this day, there are still issues between native Africans and White South Africans. Cumming states that her driller told her that a white African isn't even white anymore, meaning that despite racial identifiers, they are still African and share their customs and culture.

Keywords: Boer War, 1899-1902; Caucasian; Customs; Drillers; Locals

Subjects: Africans; British; Culture; Dutch; South Africa; South African War, 1899-1902.; South Africans

GPS: Africa
Map Coordinates: -8.783195, 34.508522
00:21:42 - Bringing American Values to Africa

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Partial Transcript: So one of the things you've said to me, in the past, about when we talk about your--your non-profit, and the work that you do, which were going to talk about--um is that you very much carry on Peace Corps principals.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming explains that John F. Kennedy had a significant friendship with the president of Ghana during his presidency and she believes that ultimately started peace Corps. She says she believes world peace is through love and that is how we make progress in the world. She claims the Peace Corps sends volunteers into these villages of Africa with little money to be ambassadors and bring the most important parts of what she considers the American value system to be: independence and gender equality.

Keywords: Gender equality; Non-profit organizations; Partnerships; Principles; Progress; Relationships; Sustainability

Subjects: American; Ghana; Independence; Kennedy, John F.; Peace Corps (U.S.); Volunteers; Women; World peace

00:28:43 - Promoting Gender Equality in Africa

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Partial Transcript: The essence of gender equality--platonic, non-romantic relationships between men and women that is a value of a highly advanced system.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming explains that women volunteers in the Peace Corps are often found working with men as most of the women know little to no English. She says that this platonic relationship between the volunteer and the African men, brings in American values of gender equality. She claims that in these villages, typically the only relationship that exists between a man and a woman is a romantic one. Cumming says that by introducing a non-romantic relationship to these villages can be difficult because that concept doesn't exist to them, but it is important to get the village women to trust female volunteers so they can bond and their projects can become progressive.

Keywords: Bonds; Fluency; Gender equality; Language; Professional; Projects; Relationships

Subjects: Africa; America; English; Equality; Gender; Men; Peace Corps (U.S.); Society; Trust; Values; Villages; Volunteers; Women

GPS: Africa
Map Coordinates: -8.783195, 34.508522
00:37:26 - Being a Western White woman in rural Africa

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Partial Transcript: The way that I can be with these women is--in a way that is so interconnected to be because they understand my position in their society.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming says that the women in these rural African villages often treat her as a man because she is a Western White woman. She explains that they also see that she is a mother who loves to cook and washes her own clothes, which makes them see her as embodying both gender roles. Cumming claims that because of this they see her as one of them, which helps their own internal progression. Cumming says she has witnessed women with abusive and alcoholic husbands come into their own power because of the inspiration she's given them.

Keywords: Abusive husbands; Drunkards; Laundry; Washing

Subjects: Abusive men; Africa; Alcoholics; Cooking; Mothers; Rural; Society; Villages; Western; White people; Women

GPS: Africa
Map Coordinates: -8.783195, 34.508522
00:39:07 - Medical Training

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Partial Transcript: The--th--the real strength of the training--the Peace Corps training was the medical part.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming says every volunteer was given a briefcase full of medical supplies ranging from plastic gloves to syringes and medicine. She says that during this time, they did not have cell phones and people rarely used email. She explains that if you had an issue you couldn't fix on your own or was Malarial or potentially HIV positive, you would have to travel to the nearest town and find a phone to contact a Peace Corps Medical Officer. Cumming recalls her own medical issue where she walked through rain water and noticed her foot was extremely swollen. She says luckily she was in the city so she was able to call the Peace Corps Medical Officer and was able to get treatment from the medical house in the city. Overall, she claims that the medical training was genius as they instructed them when to contact them, and what they should be taking. She says it also taught them cultural implications of actions like kissing a man in the village and understanding the term rape.

Keywords: Breifcase; Communication; HIV; HIV-infected persons; Medical Kits; Medical training; Termites

Subjects: Cell Phones; Culture; HIV-positive persons; Infection; Malaria; Medicine; Professional; Rape; Training; Villages

GPS: Africa
Map Coordinates: -8.783195, 34.508522
00:52:42 - Going to Peace Corps Site

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Partial Transcript: He said to me "Heather, do you want me to go with you when they drop you at your village?"

Segment Synopsis: Cumming says when she was getting dropped off at her site, her friend went with her for moral support because she was scared. She claims she only had her two bags and plastic tubs, and an allowance that she would use for her bath, pantry, clothes and dish washing. Cumming remembers that they got stuck in the mud and got lost on the journey there.

Keywords: Leaders; Moral Support; Pantries; Plastic tubs; Villages; Washing (Laundry)

Subjects: Africa; Baths; Communities; Housing; Marigolds; Peace Corps (U.S.); Travel; Volunteers; Zambia

GPS: Zambia
Map Coordinates: -13.133897, 27.849333
00:57:47 - New Housing

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Partial Transcript: Very diligently and proactively we got there and--um parked the land rover next to the--of course my house wasn't done because the community contribution.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming says that Peace Corps requires the community to create a local house for the volunteer in exchange for their service. She claims that her house was not finished when she got there so they put her in a home on a local families compound that she remained in for an entire year. She states that she loved it because she had a local house. Cumming says the father of the house was not there, but she was assured that he wasn't a polygamist, which would've greatly affected her if he was. She explained that she loved the family she lived with and they were Seventh-Day Adventist, and they were very committed to each other and also vegetarian.

Keywords: Compound; Contribution; Family; Housing; Local; Seventh-Day Adventist Church; Villages

Subjects: Communities; Father; Home; Polygamy; Privacy; Zambia

GPS: Zambia
Map Coordinates: -13.133897, 27.849333
01:04:26 - First Feelings after Site Placement

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Partial Transcript: So this is the story you know about the peanut M&M's. I survived on the stupid peanut M&M's for like--what 2 or 3 days before the family was like "you know you're going to get sick I think you need to eat".

Segment Synopsis: Cumming says that the first few days of being on her site, she was in shell shock and could only eat Peanut M&M's. She claims her local family tried to offer her local food and was worried she would get sick. She claims she had shocked herself because she didn't believe she would actually do this.

Keywords: Candy; Greetings; Host families; Languages; Local foods; Peanut M&Ms; Shell shock

Subjects: Culture shock; Peace Corps (U.S.); Tonga; Zambia

GPS: Zambia
Map Coordinates: -13.133897, 27.849333
01:12:59 - Connections to Zambia

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Partial Transcript: I want to get at, what--is this connection--like--like--what--how did this connection develop with this particular place.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming says that Zambia is such a sacred place full of non-violent people, and she believes they will never have a war there. She claims that the country is shaped like a heart, and in many ways she believes it is the heart of Africa. She states that they have many animals that have gone extinct in other places, and Victoria Falls, which was extremely important for her personal journey. Cumming questions how anyone could be at peace when they are at constant points of starvation, but says that Zambians are resilient, resourceful, adaptable, and have a relationship to nature or the divine.

Keywords: Non-violence

Subjects: Africa; Resilience; Starvation; Tribes; Victoria Falls (Zambia and Zimbabwe); War; Zambia

GPS: Zambia
Map Coordinates: -13.133897, 27.849333
01:20:14 - Peace Corps Project / Humbling Experiences

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Partial Transcript: When I first got there, we had a little binder, and our primary project we were required to do and mine was with the Zambian Ministry of Education called learning at Tennga Market or LTM.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming says her primary project was working with the Zambian Ministry of Education and doing something called Learning at Tennga Market. She claims that Peace Corps gave them all a little binder that gave them instructions on what they should find out about the community and who to meet with. She explains that she would meet with these groups and have them write or draw out what they are doing as a group and their goals for the future. Cumming recalls asking a women's group to do the activity and she found out they did not even know how to use a pen.

Keywords: Drums; LTM; PEN; Tennga Market

Subjects: Communities; Drawing; Education; Peace Corps (U.S.); Women; Writing; Zambia

GPS: Zambia
Map Coordinates: -13.133897, 27.849333
01:29:28 - Takeaways from Peace Corps Experiences

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Partial Transcript: And I think that's what I got out of it was--I am literally a tool for you, how do you want to use me.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming says that overall, she realized her whole experience was about learning. She claims that her job was to be a resource and tool for everyone and provide service for the people in the community.

Keywords: Experiences; Service

Subjects: Learning; Peace Corps (U.S.); Resources; Zambia

01:30:12 - Simwatachela

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Partial Transcript: This is Simwatachela--as they say Simwata-challa, and in American English we say Simawatachella.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming says in the entire Chiefdom of Simwatachela, there are allegedly over 400 villages with a population of 10,000, but she thinks its closer to 6,000-8,000. She claims that most leader positions are passed down ancestrally, but some members of parliament are chosen.

Keywords: Headmen; Parliaments; Simwatachela

Subjects: Ancestors; Chiefdoms; Farmer; Legislative bodies; Population; Tribes; Villages; Wealth; Zambia

GPS: Simwatachela, Zambia
Map Coordinates: -17.566670, 27.016670
01:34:13 - Cultural Differences / Struggles Coming Back to the U.S.

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Partial Transcript: Um, I would say the sharpest contrast, and the one that hits my daughter and I the hardest, which is what would we call culture shock is when we come from that setting.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming says she was shocked by the fact that Zambians show up to her office wearing the best clothing they have. She claims that people see her project as the opportunity that they might have so they show up wearing their Sunday best. She states that they often come wearing suits with holes in the elbows, pants that are too short, and with no shoes, and she knows that those are their best clothes. Cumming says these people are very real about their struggles and joys and they see through you so you cannot lie. She states that coming back to the U.S. after seeing that, you realize how hard it is for other societies to be real, human, and to be able to look someone in the eyes. She claims she feels much more valued in Africa and being in the States is hard.

Keywords: Suits; Sunday best

Subjects: Capitalism; Culture shock; Society; United States; Zambia

GPS: Simwatachela
Map Coordinates: -17.566670, 27.016670
01:42:24 - Barter System Benefits

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Partial Transcript: Barter in Africa I think is a different topic for a different day, but at the core of rural African is a barter system.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming explains that the bartering system that Africans use takes what what you're good at or what you produce naturally and shows how people naturally share that. She claims that in exchange others will share what they have with you, and that is a strong point for Africa and Africans. Cumming explains that Africa is in poverty because of colonization, which tried to implement a capitalist system which doesn't work there.

Keywords: Bartering systems; Capitalist systems

Subjects: Africa; Africans; Barter; Capitalism; Colonization; Poverty; Rural; Sharing

GPS: Africa
Map Coordinates: -8.783195, 34.508522