Today I took a bus from my Zambian village, Kikonge, to the city of Solwezi (from which this blog is being written, with the blessed assistance of a laptop and [relatively] uninterrupted internet access). On the windshield, the Nike logo and the words “The Travelers” had been pasted on; Zambian busses display a dizzying variety of such signage. (My favorite so far: “It’s A Long Story.”) We stopped along the road in different villages, taking on passengers. In one village, I glanced out the window, and saw a woman waiting by the road to board in a heated discussion with the gentleman who manned the bus door and packed luggage onto the trailer. Then I saw a goat lying on the ground behind her, front and back legs bound together. Another passenger jumped off, casually, and they picked the goat up between them and swung it onto the trailer, bleating, between suitcases and bags of coal. The bus drove on.
In June, I boarded a plane to come to Africa, because I joined the Peace Corps. This was an endeavor I thought I understood, mostly, which was my first mistake. I hadn’t been in Zambia for thirty seconds, looking around as we trudged across the tarmac of the Lusakan airport, before I knew that I knew nothing, and that despite being thirty-four years of age, I was–in point of fact–a drooling and helpless baby child for whom the American government had foolishly purchased a plane ticket and sent out of the country. Africa, to date, defies any description I might care to provide. Nothing I’ve read or seen or experienced could have prepared me for it. So I haven’t written anything until now; who am I to say? I spent June, July, and August preparing for village life, learning language and culture and food and dress and not to ignore the bike pedal wound on one’s ankle, a lesson I learned in a non-theoretical fashion. I also learned that I shake violently before, during, and after I kill large spiders, but that I am capable of killing them. I feel that this is important information for me to have.
Let the record state that these spiders are LARGE and BLOODTHIRSTY and OFTEN POSITION THEMSELVES close to the head of my bed while I sleep in an UNCOMFORTABLY PREDATORY fashion. The other night, it was not a spider, but a scorpion. I examined it in silence for a moment, recognized that this particular kill was above my pay grade, grabbed my flashlight, and fled through the dark to my nearest neighbor, where there is a teenaged boy. “Come, Madam, we kill it!” he cried, and we went back to my hut, where–as I said to my parents–he dispatched it with my flip-flop as though it were an ant. “Be careful!” I shrieked, because I am still getting used to Zambian children, who touch fire with their bare hands. Two weeks ago, my other young neighbor killed an enormous snake he found in his bed. The boys were screaming bloody murder at 6 a.m, and I shushed them, because I did not understand that they were, in fact, bloodily murdering a snake the length of a human adult. “It was a cobra,” everyone declared. Later that day, I was talking to some men outside my house, and said in my halting Kaonde that if I saw a snake, I would cry. “Hahahahaha!” said the men. Then, very seriously: “Shut your door when it gets dark.”
What are other things? Every day, I wake up because a herd of goats is plowing its way past my front door. I get up and build a fire so I can cook my breakfast. I haul water for drinking and cooking and bathing, or–in direct contradiction of the Peace Corps policy of sustainable development–I bribe children with candy to do it for me. I visit the school where I will begin teaching in January, and I make plans. Students come to see me; sometimes to visit, sometimes to ask for my soccer ball, sometimes to ask what “opposite” means. I worry. I ride my bike to the village medical clinic, and sit on long wooden benches with the staff, and we talk about all of the girls in the community being married off at 14, and what we can possibly do. (Answer: horrifically unclear.) The school is re-starting a food program for students, and it was decided at a meeting this week that parents will contribute maize, which will be boiled in the mornings and then mixed with sugar. The children will eat it in bowls from home.
“But,” I start to say, and then stop, feeling foolish. “But is there…nutrition, in that? Or does it just fill their stomachs?”
They smile at me as though I am a very promising fourth grade girl. One woman spreads out her hands.
“If there is food, at least the children will come to school,” she says, softly.
“Oh,” I say.
I also miss home. This feeling is sometimes bearable, sometimes unbearable. I was riding my bike to a language test in July, and my desire to have breakfast with my mother at that very moment was so breathtaking that I very nearly pedaled into a tree. (Let us be honest: I might have done that under normal circumstances.) Here is hard. Sometimes here is transcendent, and happy, a marvel, a wacky adventure, gumdrops and lollipops, but it is also hard, confusing, terrifying, and sometimes enraging.
“Does crying make you feel better?” one of my new friends, a male teacher, asked me. “Is it because women are the weaker sex?”
When I had been in Zambia for only a few weeks, I visited another volunteer in his village, and went to the funeral of a young boy who had died of AIDS. I believe he was eleven years old. It is difficult to overstate the omnipresence of funerals in Zambia; they are unceasing. The group I was with went and sat with the villagers as people preached and sang over the coffin, and then we were all on our feet and walking to the graveyard down a broad path. I looked to my right, and the coffin was being pushed quickly past me at that moment, lashed to a bicycle. Girls ran behind the coffin with flowers, singing. As we got closer to the graveyard, you could hear the wailing of the boy’s family. We stood grouped around the grave, all of us, and I looked across the circle and saw one of the boy’s classmates, a girl, silently weeping. The boys were expressionless. And I thought of all my beloved boys and girls in Chicago at my former school, the same age as these boys and girls, and I cried.
This is my friend Mwaka.