I have notebooks full of stories from my life in Zambia; bits and pieces, little moving parts. The longer I live here, the more familiar everything becomes; what becomes noteworthy has changed over time.
But here are some stories, some flotsam and jetsam, that don’t fit anyplace else; they fit here. Just my life these days.
Late yesterday afternoon, I left school. It was the time of day when the older students gather en masse on our football field, running and shouting, partially obscured by the dust they kick up from the dead grass of cold season. A grade eight girl was standing along the path, shaking blood from her foot. My eyes zeroed in on her like twin teacher lasers, and I went to her side.
“Madame, I am fine!” she said, and grimaced. I made her show me the bottom of her foot, and swallowed hard; it had virtually been torn open by a rock.
“We must go to the clinic,” I said. “Madame, no!” she repeated. Blood pooled on the ground beneath her, and she hastily kicked sand onto it. A crowd, thirty girls strong, gathered around us. I had nothing–not a bottle of water, not a scrap of cloth. I unzipped my backpack. Lo and behold: a forgotten feminine napkin! I unwrapped it with a flourish, to the oohs and aahs of the assembled ladies. “Time for a quick chat about menstruation? NO: THE TIME TO FOCUS IS NOW,” I thought, and tried to get the student to simply apply pressure to the wound. She took it with a limp hand.
I ran to two teachers in a nearby classroom, who sent me off with a student teacher–and the student–to the clinic. It was closed, but the workers live in houses nearby, and we traipsed to each and every single one of them to find a nurse. The student’s face tightened with discomfort. It was a gorgeous night; the sun was setting, the air was cool, and late-flowering blossoms, bright purple, flowed over the fences. The choir was having practice in the Evangelical church. No one was home. Finally, we came to the house of a nurse who was in charge of emergencies; she was sitting on her front porch, surrounded by maize. “I am coming,” she said, expressionlessly.
Back to the clinic, where two girls joined our group for moral support. “Eeeesh!” they cried, as they looked at their friend’s injury, until we made them stop. The nurse decided that the wound was not serious enough to warrant “sutures”, and I stared at the wall. She cleaned and bandaged the wound, and gave her antibiotics. But then–hooray!–a shot; it was discovered that the student had not received a necessary vaccination the prior year. I walked with them to a different room, and the nurse prepared an undeniably formidable syringe. The student squeaked; my task, I saw, was clear. I thrust my arms in the air. “You can do it!” I shrieked. “Wooooooooo!” In went the needle, and we all smiled and laughed in jittery relief. The nurse locked up the clinic, and I walked back to the road with the girls.
“Let me escort you, Madame,” my injured pupil said shyly, and we walked together until she turned off to go home.
Tuesday, reading club. The children read (or simply examine) selections from the stack of books I fan out before them each week. (There is always an unexpected front-runner; last week, it was a book about snakes. Perhaps not so unexpected.) When they encounter a word they do not know, they come to me and make an inquiry. Explaining the words can sometimes be simple, and sometimes not. Bupe, a fourth grader, approached me with an open book, his finger planted on a page. “Madame,” he whispered. I looked where he was pointing. A chicken was putting the ingredients for a pizza into a refrigerator.
“Mozzarella,” I said, and sighed.
The teachers at my school wear three-inch strappy heels with an inch of mud on the ground, dresses tailored within an inch of their lives, eyeshadow applied with a perfect hand. In their company, I am the ragamuffin American woman; I look like something the cat dragged in, scratched, and dragged out again for good measure. One morning, however, facing down the prospect of a lengthy day, I put on a healthy swipe of NARS Semi Matte Lipstick in Funny Face™. (If you are reading this, have been accepted into the Peace Corps, have been accepted into the Peace Corps and will be serving in a country where you will live in a village without electricity or running water, and are wondering whether or not to bring your NARS Semi Matte Lipstick in Funny Face™, bring it. There will be days when you will need to call upon it, as upon a superpower, or as a friend.) When I walked into my classroom that day, a student looked at me and piped up cheerfully: “Beautiful, Madame!”
I beamed. My leggings were caked in dust a solid two inches above the ankle from my walk to school.
I recently Googled “thumb infection” at 5:45 a.m.
Every day, I–and my host family, and families everywhere in Zambia–sweep the yard. The debris can vary, dependent upon the season, but it is generally a standard-issue mixture of leaves from my mango tree, sticks, rocks, dirt, and the scraps of trash my little brothers have strewn about. I sweep it clean. The next day, it has all returned, down to the last particle. I sweep it clean. The next day, it has all returned. I sweep it clean.
Sweeping my yard is one of my favorite things to do in Zambia.
Lusaka, at the shopping mall, finally, finally buying paint to cover the faded, sherbet orange walls of my house. I pick an emerald green swatch, “‘Jungle”, and lean over the counter. “That one,” I say emphatically, grinning. The man tells me to come back in ten minutes, and when I do, I see that the freshly mixed paint in the can resembles nothing so much as green Pepto-Bismol. “That’s not what I asked for,” I say, startled. “It will dry that way,” the man says, and looks away. We stand in silence for a moment, and then I hoist the can and walk away to pay for it.
Afterwards, I treat myself to dinner at Mugg and Bean, a South African chain restaurant. A new cocktail menu is on every table, and I order a Strawberry Basil Mule. A few minutes after I place this order, the waiter returns.
“I’m sorry,” he says, in a soft, courteous voice.”We are out of all of the ingredients.”
A month or so ago, I removed the lid from my water bucket after it had been filled at the borehole, and recoiled as though baby snakes were stacked inside. “Yikes!” I probably cried, because the water was so cloudy with dirt that I couldn’t see through it. While it has never been as bad as that first time, the reality is that my water now always has a moderate amount of dirt in it. I wait for it to settle to the bottom, then dip the cleanest water from the top to put into my filter. The rest of the bucket must be used judiciously until I get to the bottom, at which point the remaining water has all but transformed into mud, and at which point I remind myself that I am still a woman with standards.
I recently read a book where the character drank a glass of water directly from the tap, and literally marveled at a world where such an incomprehensible act of magic existed, as if I had not personally committed such an act one million times over.
“I’ll be!” I thought. “They just walked up to the sink.”
Hitchhiking from Lusaka to Solwezi in April. The final leg of the journey is the Chingola road, a stretch of road between Solwezi and Chingola so riddled with holes, so nearly destroyed, that an hour-and-a-half journey takes at least three. The turnoff onto this road is where you stand to try and catch your ride, and it is the last word in barren, gravelly desolation; always a moment, without fail, in which I question my life choices. There is a police checkpoint, and little else.
On this particular day, I had made it to the turnoff far later than I wanted to, as the sun was beginning to set; I hitch I rode in from Kitwe to Chingola took a “quick” detour to a dairy farm on the way, which–while amazingly reminiscent of an American dairy farm in its particulars, verdant, bucolic, and all of the other words used to describe green hills covered with grazing cows–was a very stressful delay which tested all of my diplomatic skills to their furthest point. But how to argue with a man who just wants to take a look at a few head of cattle, being in the neighborhood? In any case, I stood on the road and stared at the cars driving below me out of Chingola, silently willing them to turn left; 95% of them continued driving straight, into the Democratic Republic of Congo. The sun got lower. A bright blue minibus careened around the corner, packed to the gills with ladies, gentlemen, and luggage, and an empty seat in the shotgun position. Saved. As we drove through the twilight, the driver regaled me with the entire plot of an American action film he had watched the night before–had I seen it?–and guided the vehicle around every hole at top speed. The passengers in the back began to grumble, and he slowed down almost imperceptibly, then sped up again. He began to describe a horrible car accident he had been in a few years ago, and showed me the long lines of surgical scars running down his arms. “I was in the hospital for a year!” he said. I casually took hold of the door.
When night had fallen completely, we pulled off the road for gas. By this, I mean that we stopped at a place where we could purchase gas in certain amounts from plastic containers on display. The passengers grumbled again–why didn’t he get gas beforehand?–and I looked out of my window into the almost total darkness, at the people I could very dimly see passing by, their surprise at seeing me in such a place, at such a time. Music drifted across the road from a shop. I knew I was on the Chingola road, but I didn’t know where, and I was on my own. It did not occur to me to feel concerned. A year ago, my circumstances would have been unimaginable. But now it was a Friday night in Zambia, and I was alone, and suddenly happy, and heading home.