This and That

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.

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One evening, early on in my time in Zambia, I unlatched the door to my hut and walked out into the yard. I had two items on my agenda: brushing my teeth, and attempting to single-handedly crush the hardy battalions of enormous black ants that swarmed all over the walls of my hut after the sun set, attempting to gain entrance to my home. They had exoskeletons the diameter of horseshoe crabs; our enmity was deep, mutual, and proceeded without hope of reconciliation. Before I began this nightly ritual, however, I craned my neck back to look at the stars in Africa’s nighttime skies–then, as now, a staggering view, unnervingly beautiful, crystal clear. As always, my eyes searched out my favorite constellation, Orion’s Belt, but then I caught sight of something else entirely and halted, astonished. Poised above the horizon directly in front of me was the Big Dipper–but it was upside down. It spun and shimmered before me, a familiar face, but exactly opposite. I stared and stared. Here I am, on the same earth as before, but indisputably upon a different face.

It was one of many early moments in which I was reminded, forcibly, that I was no longer in Chicago. Or, as the saying goes: Kansas.

***

Home, I think, is people. I miss the curve of the front steps to my apartment, the lilac tree in the backyard, the walk home from the bus stop after work with my headphones in. But–obviously–I miss my sisters more. I have been living in Zambia for one year, which is the approximate amount of time it takes to get a little bit used to living anywhere at all (says me). There are obvious ways in which living here is different from living in America–and each time I gather my trash, put it in the pit behind my house, and set it on fire while small children dance around the flames, my world shifts on its axis afresh–but there are moments of unexpected strangeness that rear up and provide a subtle shock to the system. I was recently in the capital city after a workshop, and hit the mall, ostensibly to buy paint; however, once I walked in the door, the mental mechanism that whirs to life in the presence of shiny new things did so. With vigor. I went into a clothing store, gaping at all of the merchandise–the totality of the disconnect between village life, and the culture of the consumer that re-confronts you as soon as you set foot in Lusaka, can short-circuit your brain.

I picked up a leather boot–possibly one of the most useless items I could conceivably possess in my village–and gave it a once-over, for curiosity’s sake.  At that moment, for reasons unknown, my mind made the connection with all of the times I had committed this act in my life–picking up a leather boot, out shopping–with a certain time of year, a certain season. “It’s June,” my mind reminded me. “At home, everyone is finally wearing a tanktop.” I looked around, and suddenly grasped that I was surrounded by racks of coats, hats, scarves, sweaters. Here, it is cold season. In the mornings now, I can see my breath billowing inside my house, and light my brazier as quickly as my fingers allow, settling it inside my front door for the heat. I wear my fleece to school, and walk quickly. Last year, at this time, I had to wear gloves in the morning to bike; my hands were bright red with cold. Zambia, lush and green mere weeks ago, has started melting into a spare, brown landscape–equally beautiful, but different. The rains have stopped.

I put the boot down, and did not pick up another. Everything was backwards. The Big Dipper was upside down. It sounds strange to say that the realization that no one you know on the other side of the world is currently looking at leather boots could upend your sense of reality, of feeling at home, but there you have it.

***

The week of Thanksgiving, I came down with an unbearable double ear infection, and took a trip to the local hospital. (Me, to the examining doctor after he looked into my ears: “Do I have a double ear infection?” Him, wide-eyed: “YES.”) He told me that I would have to return to see him in three days–on Thanksgiving. “But it’s Thanksgiving,” I heard myself saying, in a wobbly way. “It’s important. I’m so far from my family.”

“We are all far from our families here,” said another doctor in the room, seated on the examination table, swinging his legs a little. He wasn’t wrong; no one there hailed from our part of Zambia. Their homes, their mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters, were provinces away. Their work took them where it would, as it does many Zambians–teachers, nurses, the man who drives the mining bus. They land far from where they began. I felt childish and spoiled–but I couldn’t stop myself from begging him to simply let me come back the next afternoon. Give me this one, doctor. It’s Thanksgiving. All the volunteers are gathered at our provincial house to celebrate together; I’m supposed to make the sweet potatoes. Let me pretend that everything is the same.

In the end, we rescheduled.

Taters

***

On Thanksgiving night, the volunteers gathered in the main room of our house, and we each shared what we were thankful for. At the exact moment we lined up at the table, plates in hand, ready to devour food that had been days in the making, all of the power went out (it happens. A lot). Candles were swiftly lit, and we spread out and ate in their wavering light.

When dinner was over, a group of us left to sleep at a lodge for the night; we carried flashlights and rocks. As we walked down the dirt road in the dark, unseen dogs howling all around us, I wondered what I would be doing at that moment in America, at meal’s end. Doubtless fighting my brothers for couch space for a nap.

***

Upon your arrival on a different planet, your mind goes to work, noting every difference between the old reality and the new, weighing and measuring the difficulties of accepting each and every one. I no longer recall the first time I saw a small child–and I mean aged four or five years–walking alone down a road, unaccompanied by any adult. But I have seen it every day since. In America, I would rush to that child’s side, ask where mom and dad were, raise the alarm. Here, the child is about their business. We greet each other and go on our way. I greet everyone–mothers, fathers, students, farmers, pastors, teachers–and everyone greets me. When I leave here, that will no longer be the case, and I will have to stop myself from asking after the families of total strangers I encounter on the sidewalk. I often miss the anonymity of an uninterrupted stroll down the street–here, my anonymity simply does not exist–but when it is returned to me, I will miss this give and take. If home is people, these people are my home now.

***

Since I have been gone, babies have been born, and friends have wed. My brother became a priest. (While I intellectually understood that this would be a very difficult day to be parted from my family, nothing could have prepared me for the reality, which involved spontaneously and openly weeping for several days at odd times and places, without warning, including in the passenger’s seat of a Lusakan taxi, as my driver drove me to my destination with an impassive face; cab drivers the world over, it is safe to assume, have often ferried weeping passengers.) I show the children in my host family pictures of my brother Nick holding my newborn nephew, Max, and their faces glow with appreciation; they are baby connoisseurs. It helps ease an ache, to share baby Max with my babies here. My friend Moni was recently married. On Facebook, in the background of a lovely picture of Moni and her husband, was my friend Laura, making a mischievous face at someone out of view. I sat for a moment, speechless with missing her. I had some long days of excruciating goodbyes before I left to come to Zambia, each harder than the last; it became difficult to remember why I thought leaving was such a good idea. I forgot that time helps; it softens the harder edges. And I forgot that a new place awaited me, which I would have to make my own.

One day, walking back from a day of teaching at school that could charitably be classified as a total disaster, I was caught in an incredibly heavy rain. “EVEN THIS, O LORD?” I thought, and trudged on, muddy to the knees. By the time I made it onto my family’s compound, I was in a miserable state. My host parents were sitting in their kinsanza, and gestured for me to join them. I dropped onto a stool, and out it came: what was I to do, I asked them, with my grade fives? They listened, advised, and soothed, in the selfsame manner as my real parents.  I was warmed and comforted, through and through. I was home.

I Teach.

This is my class.

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We begin each day in the same way; the same way that classes begin in classrooms all across Zambia.

“Good morning!” I say.

“Good morning, madame!” they say, rising to their feet.

“How are you?” I say.

“We are fabulous, thank you. And how are you, madame?” (“Fine” is usually the operative word in this section, not “fabulous”, but I took a cue from a fellow volunteer, and change the word each week; my students draw a new one out of a bright yellow cup. Let us find all the words to say that we are fine.)

“I am fabulous, also! Sit down,” I say.

“Thank you, madame,” they say, and sit. (Then we begin our deep breathing and stretching and vocal exercises.”Who is this hippy?” some of them doubtless wonder, every day.)

My students are the reason I came to Zambia; my students are loud, kind, funny, and quick. My students are also the reason I put down my chalk and simply walked out of class two weeks ago, crying. Teaching them is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.

***

Before I started teaching my current class–fifth grade, English language–I gave them each an assessment, developed by other Peace Corps volunteers. One by one, they joined me in an empty classroom, and I tested their ability to speak to me in English, to recite words from flashcards, to read stories and answer questions. Most vibrated with nerves; some (mostly girls) clapped their hand over their mouth with embarrassment until I gently moved it away. The most advanced students sat utterly still, their mouths quirking with joy that they tried to suppress whenever I said, “Very good.” Younger students gathered outside the windows to watch, whooping and scattering when I walked outside to shoo them away. I took notes on everyone, marking down possibilities. (For one amazing girl–who coolly demolished the entire assessment as though she read the Oxford English Dictionary in her spare time–I simply wrote: “OH MAN.” When I was done, I divided them into groups–the superstars, the children below them who were getting there, or could; the low-level learners.

I thought for a moment, then wrote down a heading for one more group: “Cannot spell their own name.”

***

Here are presuppositions one might have about a fifth grade child: they can spell their own name. They know the alphabet. When presented with the words “the” or “and”, they are able to identify them. Take those presuppositions away, and try to teach them English. Try to teach seventy of them English at the same time, with no textbooks. (And seventy is nothing; I know volunteers who teach ninety, one hundred.) Try to get them used to your American voice, to wrestle with your vowel sounds. Try to teach them to pronounce the word “ocean”, when they don’t know what an ocean is. “But. The Atlantic?” you say, perplexed. You draw America, Africa, and the Atlantic on the board, and turn around to confront a sea of impenetrably confused faces. Well, then. Back to the beginning.

***

There are children to whom understanding comes as easily as breathing, and there are children who do not know the alphabet. They literally sit side by side, and it is my job to stake out a place between them. I teach a lesson about adjectives, and feel supremely confident that I have made my case clearly, then mark my students’ notebook exercises at the end of class and reel at some of their answers. What have I done wrong? Did I speak too quickly? Assume too much? My use of the local language in class becomes inevitable at times, when the gap between the English they know and the English I want them to learn is too great. I have watched them in other classes, and they are quicker to process in the language they live. They are supposed to learn everything in English. On a recent day, I entered class after a social studies lesson. The teacher had written a moderately lengthy paragraph on the board about the economic and trade practices of Zambia–in English. I asked the students if they understood what it said; they nodded their assent. “But who can tell me?” I asked. A long pause followed, and everyone looked at me with silent apology.

I erased it.

***

I wasn’t supposed to teach seventy students at once. I was supposed to teach two fifth grade classes, separately. I cannot describe the feeling I had the day I walked into class and was confronted with the fifth grade class entire, and tried to adapt my pretty little lesson plan. (Wo) man was not meant to teach so many, nor children to learn four at a broken desk. But there have been days where twenty hands are thrust in the air–“Madame! Madame!”–and I could levitate off the ground from happiness, all of us in this together; you could drop an anvil on my head and I wouldn’t feel it. I remind myself of that the next day, when I break up a fistfight in the back of the room, and students eat guava at their desks and pitch it out the window when I catch them. (And those are the least of my concerns.)

We’ve all cornered the market on a rough day at work–this is universal–but I have never had quite so many days where I wondered how on earth I was going to return the next day and meet with success. “I am a failure, attempting the impossible,” I said to my family in America one day, and then I am sure–courtesy of the emotional rollercoaster that is the one facet of the Peace Corps experience upon which you can utterly rely–that the very next day my heart burst and overflowed as I watched the light of understanding fill a student’s eyes.

***

My students do not have textbooks. They come to school with one pen and a motley collection of raggedly-wrapped notebooks, and some come with less than that. The most recent iteration of the Zambian school curriculum requires that students take computer classes. My school does not have working electricity, let alone computers.

One day, during a class referred to as “Expressive Arts”, the fifth grade teacher tried to delineate the difference between a drawing and a collage by writing the explanation on the board. English was their next class, but I was so tormented by the bone-dry paragraph that confronted me when I walked in the door that I couldn’t begin teaching until I addressed it. I asked them if they understood the difference between a drawing and a collage. They did not. I rummaged through my bag and emerged with a few scraps of colored paper and the glue stick I use to make my teaching aids for class, and hastily concocted a collage standing at my desk; I made a house. When I lifted it up to show them, they understood. “Ohhhh!” they said. I longed for a warehouse full of old magazines, sturdy paper, and Elmer’s Glue. Why didn’t I think of this? Why didn’t I remember collages? They should know about collages. And oceans. Sculpture. The president of Liberia. They didn’t know what Italy was. I have to tell them everything I can remember, everything I have ever learned.

***

I want them all to have glue sticks. I want them to have scissors and glue sticks, their own packs of markers, bright white notebook paper, rulers, textbooks. Textbooks. They learn without textbooks. I could get them everything they needed. I could buy out the store, replenish the paper, acquire stacks of scissors. But when I go, the supplies stop coming.

And there lies the central issue, the question, the rub, of anyone’s service: is that the best way for me to help? What is?

***

I did walk out of class, and I did cry. This is difficult to address, but it is important to be honest. I have a notebook filled with admonishments written to myself: “I must be patient with them.” When you imagine teaching in the Peace Corps, you imagine a sun-dappled classroom, students and teachers working together with mutual trust and respect and understanding, nary a ripple in the water. The reality is that kids are kids; that some of them do not know better, be it in Zambia, America, or Denmark; that, if you are an American woman, and you teach a class of seventy fifth graders in Zambia, and everything about you is different–your voice, your skin color, your habit of standing on the stoop outside the classroom and firmly tapping your watch with a smile for them to come back when their break is over (when seemingly no one has ever, ever required that of them before), your expectations for their punctuality and their respect for the classroom, for learning, for you–and a student is scared or insecure or eleven years old, or has no living parents, or hasn’t eaten since yesterday because there was no food, or has been stumbling to school sick with malaria every day, and weeping in the back of the classroom until you press your hand to their hot forehead and make them go to the clinic for medicine when their own parents will not, or cannot spell their own name, or has been caught inexorably in an education system which repeatedly fails them on every level that can be imagined, again and again and again, they will let you know how little they think of what you are trying to do. They will ignore your rules, imitate the sound of your speaking voice with breathtaking mockery, refuse to write down your notes in class, laugh at you when you say hello. You will be struck dumb with astonishment. And when you have not slept the night before because something that sounded like a regulation basketball with claws for feet kept landing on your roof, over and over, and you are thinking of your mother, who is 8,000 miles away, and who you miss each day with the pain and constancy of a toothache, and your entire fifth grade class caterwauls and shrieks their way through the first fifteen minutes of class when they should be learning, steadfastly ignoring your every attempt to focus them on the task at hand, and then collectively hoots with laughter when one of your most difficult students insults you to your face, guess what? You cry.

***

The very next day, the same students will raise their hands again and again to answer your questions in class, backs straight; catch your eye miserably, watching for the signs that you’ve given up on them; they will wait for you to pack up your things at the end of class so they can walk you home.

Try, try again.

It’s The Little Things

One day in August, while still in training, I was taken to Lusaka overnight for a quick trip to an orthopedic doctor (I had badly sprained my knee a few weeks prior, in keeping with Zambia’s determination to rain bodily harm upon my luckless head. Imagine, if you will, lying on a mattress on the floor of your hut at night, your knee the size of a basketball, with no ice, your leg propped up on your backpack in lieu of anything sturdier. Boohoohoo). Anywho, a friend with a banged-up elbow accompanied me, and we spent the next twenty-four hours in dizzying style in our nation’s capital–eating pizza, drinking wine, bathing via shower instead of bucket. After our morning at the doctor’s office was complete, and before we hastened back to training, we stopped by a local mall and picked up some lunch for the road. (If you find yourself in Lusaka, Zambia, visit Mint Cafe, and order a Southwestern Wrap!)

Thirty minutes after I was dropped off at my home, I was chasing away a herd of goats with a stick who wouldn’t stop knocking my host family’s dishes into the dirt from the wooden drying rack and licking them.

***

I was recently largely away from the village for weeks and weeks–disorienting weeks–from the beginning of November until the beginning of January. Peace Corps trainings in Lusaka, travel, schools closed for the month of December, and so, so much more combined to keep me out of a hut and under the bright city lights for a long time. I went out to dinner. I drank a cappuccino. A few rainy days didn’t mean that my phone would die because I was unable to recharge it with my solar charger; it was just rain. I had electrical outlets. Water came from the tap, quick as thought. There were toilets. Away from the village for a while, it can become a concept again; it’s so different from the life you lived before, perhaps, that it takes time for the hard facts of living here to become a part of you. In theory, I remembered how much of my mental space was devoted to water: how much water do I have? How much do I need today? Tomorrow? Do I have enough water in my filter to drink? Do I have enough water to do my dishes? Bathe? Cook with? Am I going to wash my clothes today? Because you need water to do all of those things, water you must draw and carry yourself, and so you must weigh every drop. (Especially when the path to your water source is flooded by the rains, rendering it an ankles-deep-in-mud disaster–less than advantageous when moving full 20-liter containers.) Now that I am back in the village, water has resumed its place as a central preoccupation.

Crystal Light drink packets REALLY help, though.

***

In theory, I also remembered waking up at 5 a.m., because even if I was asleep, Zambia was not; telling myself that I would go back to bed, but instead watching the line of light grow stronger beneath my front door, and then climbing out from beneath my mosquito net with the motivation of coffee, which can only be made and consumed after building a fire first. Even out of the village, there is (more or less) no early morning coffee shop by which to blithely drop before you start the day. A few weeks ago, two friends and I invented a game called “Starbucks” while waiting to hitchhike one morning.  We stood on the side of the road with our backpacks and, in between trying to flag down passing vehicles, we ordered lattes and breakfast sandwiches from each other. And those cake pop things. And I don’t even like cake pops. It is as though someone at Starbucks said: “Let us repurpose the melted remains of birthday candles and put them on a stick, and see if the American public will eat them.” “CHALLENGE ACCEPTED,” said the American public. And yet, when you are hitchhiking in Zambia in a coolish drizzle, you would eat a cake pop. You would eat that cake pop as though it were the bread of life, and wonder if there were more.

***

(A word on hitchhiking. It is an inherent part of the culture here, although I still never, ever believed that I myself I would do it. I started off with a few small jaunts, short distances, usually with other people. Then, in mid-December, I visited a friend in her village, far from where I live. She lives some distance off a main road (the “tarmac”, so called). I had to make a decision; I could travel to the nearest town with a bus station, buy a ticket, and proceed northwest, or I could hitchhike the whole way, hours across the country–most of the day–alone. And that is what I did. It was a long and exhausting day, occasionally unnerving, and weirdly exhilarating. I followed directions from a friend and texted her to check in from hitch to hitch, connecting the dots across the country. It felt like a game. I met all manner of Zambians–including a missionary couple driving my last hitch, who told me that they had stopped for me because the Lord had told them to, for which I was devoutly thankful. And I kept thinking: “Well, here you are, doing this. Wait, you’re doing this! Aaaaaiiiiiiii!”

My parents were less enthused.)

***

I have only been in Zambia for seven months, but I know that living here is an exercise in doing what you have to do. If I want water, I have to go and get it. If I want to drink it, I have to clean it first. If I want to cook my food, I have to build a fire. If I want clean clothes, I have to set aside hours for scrubbing and rinsing and hanging them on the line. It is mostly silly, for example, to complain about what I don’t have here to eat or drink, no matter how much I might miss certain things (you know, like $5 Burger Night at Dunlays with a La Fin du Monde beer, and a skillet cookie if it’s been a bad day, because I don’t torture myself thinking about that meal once a week! Ha ha ha! Aaaaaaa!) I have food to eat, and my friends and family send me care packages with all manner of treats and love. There are lessons to learn about instant gratification in this place, about embracing what I have, about making things work; I want to learn those lessons, hold onto them, remember them when I go back to my real life. I will never complain about doing my laundry again, as I order my Chinese takeout, and wait for the dryer to ding.

***

While I was visiting my friend, we walked through her village to the market. The day was very warm, and one of the shopkeepers had a cooler with glass bottles of cold soda.

It was delicious.

Soda Pop

It’s Zambia.

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.”

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.

***

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.

My Friend Mwaka