Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Heather C. Cumming, June 18, 2022

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:02 - Leaving the Peace Corps

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Partial Transcript: Okay, it is June 18th, so this is, um, interview number five that we've done.

Segment Synopsis: Heather Cumming reflects on when she left Zambia at the end of volunteering for Peace Corps, visiting landmarks along her way back to America. She says that she has no regrets from staying in Africa, and that returning to the United States made her feel a huge discrepancy that overwhelmed her. She talks about how Africa gave her a sense of purpose that felt absent in the U.S.

Keywords: Anne Frank; Cultures; Traveling; US; USA; Volunteering

Subjects: Africa; America; Kenya; Learning; Peace Corps (U.S.); Travel; United States; Vacations; Volunteers; Zambia

00:05:44 - Teaching in Nepal

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Partial Transcript: So randomly, all very random, um, this opportun-- when I was in the Peace Corps, a friend of mine had sent me a postcard from Nepal.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming discusses a time after her Peace Corps service when she volunteered to travel to and teach in Nepal. She talks about her rough experience living in a guest house, before being invited to move into a monastery. She says that she ended up teaching young monk boys, disciplining them and essentially becoming their mother figure.

Keywords: Customs; Himalayas; Traveling; Volunteering

Subjects: Buddhism; Children; Kathmandu (Nepal); Monasteries; Monks; Mountains; Nepal; Nunneries; Peace Corps (U.S.); Religions; Teaching; Temples; Travel; Villages; Volunteers

GPS: Kathmandu, NP
Map Coordinates: 27.717, 85.324
00:09:49 - Invitation back to Zambia

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Partial Transcript: Anyhow, there was a post office that was like, a couple of mountains away that my mail was coming to.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming talks about how, during her stay in Nepal, she received letters from her village friends in Zambia asking her to return and stay with them for life, which she decided to follow up on. She talks about how the Simwatachela people banded together to fundraise her flight back to Zambia.

Keywords: Fundraising; Sibooli; Simwatachela; Traveling

Subjects: Africa; Airplanes; Chiefdoms; Friendship; Nepal; Peace Corps (U.S.); Travel; Villages; Zambia

00:13:44 - Love and dedication to Zambia

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Partial Transcript: I'm going to ask you an awkward question.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming discusses why she believes that the Zambian people were adamant about inviting her back. She talks about having a deep interest in their culture and customs, which she expresses in ways such as taking their herbal medicine to alleviate pain. She talks about her thoughts on love, how love is the "pulse" of human existence, and how it is almost always interlaced with a strong need or desire for someone.

Keywords: Communications; Connections; Cultures; Family; Medicines

Subjects: Africa; Anthropology; Education; Empathy; Friendship; Health; Herbs; Love; Peace Corps (U.S.); Zambia

00:18:04 - Deep-rooted problems in rural Africa

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Partial Transcript: We've talked about a, um, a kind of cultural practicality that you've described that, um, you know, um, have given some wonderful examples about, or depicting.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming discusses the face-to-face culture of Africa and how she initially wasn't sure why the Zambian villagers were asking her to return. She says that, upon returning to Zambia, they explained to her the roots of their suffering, how lacking clean water in a harsh African environment is ultimately what causes their chronic hunger.

Keywords: Communications; Cultures; Customs; Naivety; Traveling

Subjects: Africa; Conflicts; Friendship; Hunger; Peace Corps (U.S.); Poverty; Suffering; Technology; Travel; Villages; Water; Zambia

00:24:03 - Obtaining water in Zambia

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Partial Transcript: So, now the problem has been very clearly defined, right?

Segment Synopsis: Cumming discusses the problems that rural Africans have run into time and time again trying to obtain fresh water. She argues that, while we often blame governments for the causes of suffering in these countries, it is usually a lack of water which is the root cause. She says that the Zambian villagers are culturally tied to their traditional land, which is why they don't move elsewhere.

Keywords: Cultures; Customs; Naivety; Simwatachela; Traditions; Volunteering; Water wells

Subjects: Africa; Chiefdoms; Conflicts and trends; Countries; Families; Hunger; Nations; Peace Corps (U.S.); Poverty; Volunteers; Water; Wells; Zambezi River; Zambia

GPS: Lower Zambezi River, ZM
Map Coordinates: -15.727, 29.314
00:31:31 - Starting a donation program

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Partial Transcript: Okay, so, um, this is in 2007, 2007.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming talks about her experience setting up a nonprofit charitable organization to help fund the construction of water wells in Zambia. She talks about her lawyer who helped her obtain a 501(c)(3) and explained to her the history of King Leopold II colonizing indigenous Africa.

Keywords: 501c3; Donations; Fundraising; King Leopold II; Leopold the second; Nonprofit; Tax laws; US; USA

Subjects: 501(c)(3) Group (U.S.); Africa; America; Charities; Colonization; Conflicts and trends; Family; Fund raising; History; Lawyers; LeĢopold II, King of the Belgians, 1835-1909.; Nonprofit organizations.; Peace Corps (U.S.); Taxation; United States; Water; Zambia

00:37:46 - Escapism and African artists

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Partial Transcript: So, the way that all this timing went on was serendipitous, just like timing is always serendipitous, but we just can't see it when we're going through it because we have to suffer to some degree while we go through things.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming reflects on how, during the stress of the project to provide water for her village, she would often visit Victoria Falls as a way of escapism and mental healing. She talks about meeting local artists and promoting their materials to tourists there. She says that working with the artists gave her more to focus on alongside her water project, and that it positively affected her creative side.

Keywords: Crafts; Escapism; Tanga; Traveling; Victoria Falls; World wonders

Subjects: Africa; Animals; Art; Artists; Arts and crafts; Natural wonders of the world; Nature; Peace Corps (U.S.); Tourists; Travel; Victoria Falls (Zambia and Zimbabwe); Villages; Water; Zambia; Zimbabwe

GPS: Victoria Falls, ZM
Map Coordinates: 17.925, 25.862
00:41:45 - Art camp opportunities

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Partial Transcript: So all this stuff is sort of, how can we say, uh, tapping at different parts of my brain.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming talks about how she received an opportunity from a friend to merge her interest in art and her volunteer work by traveling to Sierra Leone. She says that the war-torn reputation of the country drew her interest, and that traveling there from Zambia proved to be much more difficult than one would assume.

Keywords: Art camps; Flights; Planes; Traveling; Volunteering

Subjects: Africa; Airplanes; Art; Ghana; Nigeria; Peace Corps (U.S.); Sierra Leone; Travel; Trinidad; Volunteers; Zambia

00:44:14 - Traveling to Sierra Leone

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Partial Transcript: So, um, I'm all excited, and, and I loved her famous last words to me.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming discusses her long trip to Sierra Leone, starting from Zambia and first heading to India. During this, she talks about making a return trip to Nepal where she was invited to become a professor. She talks about how she got terribly ill while traveling, and how she met her future lover in Sierra Leone.

Keywords: Art camps; Traveling

Subjects: Africa; Art; Artists; Education; Freetown (Sierra Leone); Health; India; Kathmandu (Nepal); Nepal; New Delhi (India); Peace Corps (U.S.); Sierra Leone; Teaching; Travel; Zambia

GPS: Freetown, SL
Map Coordinates: 8.465, 13.231
00:51:33 - Sierra Leone civil war

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Partial Transcript: So I, while I'm putting together this project in Zambia, I'm also putting it together in Sierra Leone.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming talks about the Sierra Leone Civil War and the devastation that this caused for the country. She talks about the horrific events surrounding the war, such as how child soldiers were created through forceful use of narcotics.

Keywords: Crimes; Traveling; Volunteering

Subjects: Africa; Atrocities; Child soldiers; Civil war; Communities; Conflicts and trends; Drugs; Families; International courts; Liberia; Peace Corps (U.S.); Sierra Leone; Villages; Violence; Volunteers; Wars

00:55:24 - Child soldiers from Sierra Leone

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Partial Transcript: So needless to say, these guys, who at this time weren't much younger than me, um, a lot of them were like, finishing grade five, and they were in their late teens early twenties.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming talks about the boys in her camp who were surviving child soldiers from the Sierra Leone Civil War. She talks about the erratic shifts in their behavior and the in-fighting between them. She questions whether or not they can really be held responsible for their actions during the war due to the circumstances of being drugged.

Keywords: Adolescents; Art camps; Collateral damage; Issues; Morality; Nonprofits; PTSD; Teens; Trauma; Traveling

Subjects: Africa; Boys; Camps; Child soldiers; Conflicts and trends; Drugs; Education; Narcotics; Peace Corps (U.S.); Philosophy; Post-traumatic stress disorder; Responsibility; Schools; Sierra Leone; Teenagers; Travel; Wars; Young men; Zambia

00:59:14 - Starting a family

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Partial Transcript: I went back to Sierra Leone a few times.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming talks about her "unofficial marriage" and when she first learned that she was pregnant. She discusses traditional African marriage and the overwhelmingly positive reception towards the news of her child. She talks about the reactions of both her daughter's father and her own father.

Keywords: Commitments; Cultures; Customs; Family; PTSD; Traditions; Traveling; US; USA

Subjects: Africa; America; Art; Artists; Children; Families; Individualism; Introverts; Marriage; Painting; Peace Corps (U.S.); Post-traumatic stress disorder; Pregnancy; Sierra Leone; Spouses; Travel; United States; Writing

01:06:15 - Water conditions

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Partial Transcript: So, I can't separate the timing of when the-- the 501(c)(3), we got it just before I gave, just be-- just before, um, how did the time work--

Segment Synopsis: Cumming talks about how a friend helped fund the first water well for her project. She reflects on a time during Peace Corps when her mother came to visit her in Zambia and emotionally broke down after witnessing the conditions of the water that the villagers had. Cumming says that she requested the first water well be constructed in her village.

Keywords: 501(c)(3); 501c3; Fundraising; Sibooli; Volunteering; Water wells

Subjects: Africa; Families; Fund raising; Missionaries; Peace Corps (U.S.); Poverty; Suffering; Travel; Villages; Volunteers; Water; Zambia

01:10:10 - Raising a child in Africa

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Partial Transcript: So, the first trip back to Africa when Radiance, my daughter, was seven months old, we didn't have the water well, but she was exclusively breastfeeding.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming discusses what she learned from fellow African mothers about raising a child. She talks about the importance of breastfeeding and how it can be used to help the child's immune system fight off infections depending on the area. She mentions how, when her daughter became old enough for table food, she traveled back to America to give her proper nutrition, later returning with her to Zambia when the well was complete.

Keywords: Cultures; Customs; Doctors; Medicines; Peace Corps; Traveling; Water wells

Subjects: Africa; Biology; Breast milk; Breastfeeding; Diseases; Health; Malaria; Motherhood; Mothers; Parenting; Pediatrics; Teaching; Travel; Villages; Water; Zambia

01:14:49 - Village water well

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Partial Transcript: So, when we got back and she was eating table food, there was a water source.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming talks about the water well in her village and how popular it is among the surrounding areas, mentioning how people from other villages will sometimes come discreetly at night and take water from it. She explains how the wells are maintained, the general costs of construction, and the partnership with Engineers Without Borders.

Keywords: Agreements; Cultures; Customs; Donations; Drilling; Fundraising; Partnerships; Sibooli; Traveling; US; USA; Universities; Water wells

Subjects: Africa; America; Charities; Committees; Communities; Contracts; Drilling and boring; Engineers; Engineers Without Borders USA; Fund raising; Maintenance; Peace Corps (U.S.); Travel; United States; Villages; Water; Zambia

01:18:44 - Community contributions

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Partial Transcript: Okay, I need you to zoom back out, I want you to zoom out and take me through water wells 101.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming discusses the community aspect of creating and maintaining a water well. She talks about the emphasis that she put on community contributions, inviting as many villagers as possible to help her with the project. She talks about how villagers banded together to create guest houses, gardens, etc. that would benefit the community.

Keywords: Community service; Contributions; Cultures; Customs; Donations; Fundraising; Teamwork; Volunteering; Water wells

Subjects: Africa; Bribery; Charities; Chiefdoms; Communities; Countries; Education; Engineering; Fund raising; Geology; Nations; Necessities; Partnership; Peace Corps (U.S.); Poverty; Villages; Volunteers; Water; Zambia

01:30:56 - Corrupt workers

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Partial Transcript: So, that's the community contribution part, now there's a geology part.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming voices her frustration with the Asian workers hired to drill wells in Zambian villages, saying that many were incompetent and cared more about money than providing humanitarian aid. She talks about how, when she and her daughter returned to Zambia during the COVID pandemic, she used her funding to search for a competent driller, not wanting to support the corrupt workforce.

Keywords: Contributions; Coronavirus; Covid; Donations; Drilling; Fundraising; Land; Nonprofit; Water wells

Subjects: Africa; COVID-19 (Disease); Communities; Conflicts and trends; Corruption; Drilling and boring; Engineers; Engineers Without Borders USA; Fund raising; Geology; Interviewing; Interviews; Poverty; Racism; Sierra Leone; Villages; Water; Zambia

01:37:42 - Finding a driller

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Partial Transcript: So very randomly, and, and the, the-- Likumbi, Likumbi and I still joke about this because we don't know how this happened.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming talks about how, after a string of bad luck with incompetent and greedy workers, she found a driller from Zimbabwe who was very efficient in digging wells for the people of Zambia. She talks about his persevering nature, the process behind his work, and how she considers him to be a close friend.

Keywords: Choma; Contributions; Drilling; Fundraising; Likumbi; Lusaka; Peace Corps; Simwatachela; Traveling; Water wells

Subjects: Africa; Artists; Choma (Zambia); Communities; Corruption; Drilling and boring; Friendship; Geology; Granite; Health; India; Lusaka (Zambia); Peace Corps (U.S.); Quartz; Rocks; Sierra Leone; Travel; Villages; Water; Wells; Zambezi River; Zambia; Zimbabwe

GPS: Choma, ZM
Map Coordinates: -16.771, 26.992
01:46:30 - Installing village irrigation systems

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Partial Transcript: And he said it's a done deal.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming explains the irrigation systems that she worked to install using the newly constructed water wells. She talks about how her driller was against the idea of constructing a typical drip irrigation system because of its lack of practicality and confusing nature to the local villagers.

Keywords: Drilling; Drip irrigation; Farming; Fundraising; US; USA; Water wells

Subjects: Africa; America; Communities; Drilling and boring; Education; Fund raising; Irrigation; Peace Corps (U.S.); Teaching; United States; Villages; Volunteers; Water; Zambia

01:50:55 - Systems and design elements of water wells

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Partial Transcript: Okay so, the hole is drilled, what, what next?

Segment Synopsis: Cumming discusses the design of water wells, explaining the importance of making one deep enough to fetch water year round, but not deep enough to make pumping impossible. She describes the functions and utilities of PVC pipes and handpumps, and clarifies the distinction between traditional wells and the newer water reticulation systems.

Keywords: Drilling; Handpumps; Machines; PVC; Pipes; Pumps; Volunteering; Water pumps; Water reticulation systems; Water wells

Subjects: Africa; Drilling and boring; Engineering; Engineers; Groundwater; Irrigation; Peace Corps (U.S.); Piping; Structures; Villages; Volunteers; Water; Zambia

01:58:25 - Issues with locals / Trust and respect

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Partial Transcript: So, talk about-- so how many-- since you have started, how many wells have?

Segment Synopsis: Cumming recounts the time a contractor of hers had issues finishing a well project due to superstitious complaints from the community. She says that, while she was at first arrogant and angry with her contractor, she became understanding when she learned firsthand how resistant the people of the village were, before eventually moving the well to a different site. She mentions how her contractor later established a new village and sent her pictures online.

Keywords: Cultures; Customs; Donations; Drilling; Superstitions; Water wells

Subjects: Africa; Beliefs and cultures; Charities; Communities; Conflicts and trends; Contractors; Drilling and boring; Peace Corps (U.S.); Poverty; Sierra Leone; Understanding; Villages; Water; Zambia

02:07:06 - Root cause of death in Africa

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Partial Transcript: And then, this is some months ago, I get an email from the guy that's basically my counterpart who's also working with the contractor, the local guy.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming reflects on when she received the sudden news about her contractor's death due to meningitis. She explains why she believes dirty water to be the root cause of death in Africa, mentioning how open water sources are fertile ground for diseases like malaria. She says that people with diseases like HIV can still live long lives, but the lack of nutritious water keeps rural Africans from recovering.

Keywords: Drugs; HIV; Illnesses; Issues; Medicines; Problems; Vaccinations; Volunteering

Subjects: Africa; Diseases; Health; Malaria; Malnutrition; Meningitis; Peace Corps (U.S.); Poverty; Vaccines; Villages; Volunteers; Water; Zambia

02:10:33 - Water wells in Sierra Leone

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Partial Transcript: So anyhow, um, our water wells in Sierra Leone are hand-dug.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming talks about how the wells in Sierra Leone, discussing her idea to pour cement into the wells to filter more purified water at the cost of less water overall. She talks about the water committee system and how she wants to make sure that nobody has special privilege over anyone else when it comes to obtaining water.

Keywords: Cultures; Customs; Digging; Drilling; Headmen; Volunteering; Water wells

Subjects: Africa; Cement; Committees; Communities; Engineering; Irrigation; Sierra Leone; Structures; Villages; Volunteers; Water; Wells; Zambia

02:15:24 - Diversity of African communities

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Partial Transcript: My job is working with every community under one structure, like one system.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming talks about how all of the village communities, despite sharing one democratic model, all have distinguishing features. She explains the some of the different cultures, religions, and personalities found throughout each tribe and their chiefdoms. She says that every disastrous event throughout the project has led to its growth.

Keywords: Contributions; Cultures; Customs; Diversity; Donating; Fundraising

Subjects: Africa; Charities; Chiefdoms; Communities; Countries; Democracy; Food; Learning; Nations; Peace Corps (U.S.); Religions; Villages; Water

02:18:33 - Impact

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Partial Transcript: So, take me through the success story.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming explains why she feels like her work in Africa is never truly enough, describing it as an impossible job with no ending. Despite this, she says that enough time has passed that she can now acknowledge the impact that her project has had, making lives for the villages much easier and developing them over time. She discusses how important water is for Africa and other struggling nations, arguing that access to food and water in these places is true human development.

Keywords: Development; Donations; Fundraising; Governments; Perspectives; Simwatachela; Traveling; US; USA; Volunteering; Water wells

Subjects: Africa; America; Charities; Children; Communities; Countries; Humanities; Impact; Nations; Peace Corps (U.S.); Poor; Poverty; Travel; United States; Villages; Volunteers; Water; Wells; Zambia

02:27:30 - Income and living expenses in Africa

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Partial Transcript: So, I would like to add, um, something that I always leave at the end of my presentations.

Segment Synopsis: Cumming explains how she has zero income and that she dedicates all of her funds to the project. She talks about how inexpensive living in rural Africa is and compares the percentages of project expenses versus living expenses. She mentions that only artisans and contractors are paid in cash, while everyone else in the project is a volunteer paid through support.

Keywords: Budgets; Donations; Expenses; Fundraising; Traveling; Volunteering; Water wells

Subjects: Africa; Artisans; Artists; Charities; Contractors; Peace Corps (U.S.); Sierra Leone; Travel; Villages; Volunteers; Water; Wells