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Former St. Anne's student now a Peace Corps volunteer

Joe Wenzel, 24, shows a map of Africa depicting Zambia - his home for the last 18 months during his stint with the Peace Corps. Wenzel is the son of Cleo Wenzel, teacher at St. Anne's School. He gave a presentation about his experiences to his alma mater on Wednesday, Jan. 7.

You might say traveling is in his blood.

With an older sister who taught in Honduras, a younger brother who lived in Australia, another brother who volunteered in Latvia, and two parents who took the family on trips in the U.S. and Canada, it was only natural that Joe Wenzel, 24, would have that yearn to see the world.

Wenzel, the oldest son of current St. Anne's School teacher Cleo Wenzel, gave a presentation to his alma mater on Wednesday, Jan. 7 about his work as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia, Africa.

Dressed in his adopted tribal shirt, "Ba" Wenzel used slides and objects to describe his life in a primitive village, which is a 40 minute bike ride away from the nearest store.

"Zambia is the most bush country that the Peace Corps is involved in," Wenzel explained. "We're pretty far out there."

His background includes growing up on a hobby farm and earning a biology degree. So he first spent two months of training in his area of specialty: agriculture, forestry and environmental education.

"My job is to teach the villagers how to make compost, do beekeeping, gardening during the rainy season, fish farming, build and use fuel-efficient stoves out of clay brick and ash," Wenzel explained. "Anything we can to try to take the pressure off the forest."

After learning what to teach, he then had to learn how to teach. Learning to communicate with the villagers necessitated four hours a day in Bemba language lessons. The title "Ba," for example, is akin to "Mr." in English. He also spent three days with the outgoing volunteer to learn the ropes.

Life in the village was drastically different from what he had known. He had two living quarters: a 13x15 enclosed hut and an open "insaka" - an extra living space for entertaining visitors.

"Everything is communal property there," Wenzel said. "But I wasn't used to people walking across my yard, so I planted a live fence (hedge) around 'my property.'"

Some of the other things he had to adjust to were getting water from a communal well, taking baths in a bucket, redoing his insaka when it blew over in high winds, and protecting his books, sleeping mat and roof from termites.

However, Wenzel said the biggest challenge for him has been being the "minority" in the community.

"Being the only white person when I'm in a country that is 99 percent black, I get stared at a lot," Wenzel said. "Since I'm an American, they give me the best chair instead of the ground and make sure I have enough food, but they also think I'm rich so I get asked for money a lot."

As a Peace Corps volunteer, he gets paid $250/month for living expenses. He admits that he isn't becoming wealthy in this job, but he manages to save some each month.

With the money he saves, he plans to take a backpacking trip with his younger brother before settling down to find a job after his two-year service is through.

Although he is 21 miles from the nearest Peace Corps volunteer, he did find a "westernized" friend in a town nearby.

"It's nice to talk to someone about movies and things," Wenzel admitted.

However, he is not totally cut off from western civilization. He said his parents call him on his cell phone every Sunday.

"I have to stand on a bucket in my kitchen to get the best signal," Wenzel laughed.

After describing the Zambian staple of nshima (balls of dough shaped into scoops to dip into relishes), a student asked Wenzel what the first food was that he had when he came back home.

"Lasagna," he said without hesitation.

Wenzel said the experience has given him a new view to life.

"It's a little victory if I get one farmer to plant soybeans or one family to use a stove we built," Wenzel said. "When I left the U.S., I was out to save the world. Now I'm making small victories, and I'm happy with that."