Here is an adventure.


Nyambwezu Falls is a waterfall in the Mwinilunga province of Zambia, and when I saw it in its full, waterfally glory on Easter Sunday, it was a thing of beauty, an object of awe. Three friends–Hannah, Molly, Jenna–and I had traveled there on a camping trip; in the way of many travels here, getting there required getting lucky enough to hitch a ride. (The waterfall and its surroundings lay 16 kilometers and some change off of a main road.) After three or four hours, we hit the jackpot: an acquaintance of Jenna’s drove by, and agreed to take us the entire way. The four of us smashed our backpacks into the trunk of his car and climbed into the backseat (joining a gentleman who was already seated there). During the drive, we were asked if we were afraid of the snakes we might encounter. “Oh, no,” we laughed. We were tough as nails, we were.

When we were dropped off, we hiked through the woods for a mile or so, and then slowly began to hear a great rushing of water. We came out upon the Kabompo River, and an area proprietress of sorts ran to us from its banks and started speaking with Jenna in rapid-fire Lunda (the local language). We followed her over a bridge of springy sticks and down a steep hill with mossy, soaking wet rocks, which led out to a partial view of the falls. As we maneuvered our way down, packs of gear on our backs, something started biting our feet, repeatedly and without warning. And it hurt.


There is an ant here, essentially an army ant, commonly referred to here as mpashi. I had read about them before I ever came to Africa. My host father told me that if they came upon a chicken, they would leave only the skeleton. They sweep into an area in a raging mass, pillage, destroy, eat, then take their leave. When you hop on the internet for terminology to describe these ants for a blog post, suggested search terms include “african army ants eat cow”. Other volunteers had mentioned harrowing run-ins, from time to time, and a group had even been spotted near my home a few weeks prior (but vanished after my host family sprang into action with everything from laundry soap to a can of diesel fuel). Standing by the waterfall, our guide urged us to hasten back up the hill, and we did so, pitching camp alongside a path that led from the stick bridge. Three tents, Molly in a hammock, a fire in the middle. Time for dinner.


The next day, Easter. Pancakes on the fire, and then a trip back to the waterfall; those pesky mpashi seemed to be mostly absent. The water rolled and thundered, running at full bore because of rainy season, and we gaped at it and laughed with joy, soaked through in minutes. The spray was so strong that I had to tilt my glasses on top of my head to see.

Waterfall Shot

A rainbow literally encircled us where we stood, the sunlight fanning out on all the drops of water. What’s the word? “Scintillating.” It being Easter, I thought of the glories of the Lord. We clambered into a cave-like area beneath the falls, then climbed back above them and sat in the water, taking turns holding a bottle of cheap champagne in the current to cool it. Little fish nibbled our feet. We found a large, flat rock on which to lie down and dry off, and opened the champagne with an almighty pop that sent the cork flying. Later, I went down to the river and sat on the rocks, and washed my hair as the sun started to set over the water, and thought for a little while: about who wasn’t there with me to see what I was seeing; what I would tell them about how river water tastes when you drink it with iodine (not so bad–a little bitter); how, perhaps, sitting on the banks of the Kabompo with clean, wet hair, watching the river tumble by, cannot actually be described. It was a good day.


And then.


At approximately midnight, I woke up to screaming. If you hear this at midnight in the middle of your Zambian campsite, it means that something is wrong. I heard Jenna, one tent over–“Oh my God, oh my God!”–and Hannah, a few yards away and already outside, shouting to get out. The canvas of Jenna’s tent shuddered as she escaped it. I switched on my solar lamp, and shone it on the walls of my own tent. Climbing up the outside of its mesh windows, one after the other, at a smooth and relentless pace, were the mpashi. Then I turned the lamp onto the bottom of my tent. They had found a way in.

I grabbed my sandals from the corner and scrambled to unzip the tent door and rain fly. Once I managed this–the total and absolutely pressing need to get OUT of the tent NOW now now now now NOW NOW NOW NOW naturally rendering my fingers clumsy and nerveless to the maximum possible degree–I looked down at the ground outside my tent, where I would now have to squarely plant my feet and haul myself up, and saw that the grass was already glittering with a boiling thread of ants. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa. Jenna and Hannah called out to me–“You don’t have time to close your tent!”I swung my feet out and scrabbled to slide my sandals on, but it was already too late: they were on me. I rushed out to the path where Jenna and Hannah already stood, all of us yelling as the ants we had carried with us from our tents ran all over our bodies, sinking their mandibles into our skin wherever they could find purchase–feet, legs, hipbones, necks, each bite a horrible sting. It took about ten seconds before everyone was in their underwear, clothing torn off and thrown aside because it was full of mpashi. We took off down the path to the river near the stick bridge, and Jenna and Hannah climbed in the water to their shins. At this point, we realized that the mpashi had reached our heads and started to bite. Hannah and I began frantically running our fingers through our hair, pulling out ant after ant. (Through all of this, Molly remained in her hammock, suspended above the chaos, safe for the time being.) The moon was full, and bright as a floodlight, and we stood by the river and faced the fact that there was no more sleep for us that night, and that all of our belongings were now covered in ants who saw us as very large Pepperoni Bagel Bites.


I went on a scouting mission back to the campsite, swinging my lamp low over the ground; I got a little too close to my and Jenna’s tents in my desire to see the extent of the damage inside, and my feet were swarmed in seconds. Hannah volunteered to walk through the tall grass alongside the campsite–come at things from a surprise angle–and try to see if she could reach our mostly dormant fire and have the time to build it back up to the type of bonfire that would show these mpashi, be it ever so briefly, that they were not the boss of us. (Please note: they were the boss of us.) She took my lamp and started off. Courage is this: a woman walking into very tall grass, barefoot, in her underwear, into an mpashi-ridden campsite to try and stoke a fire. For about a minute, she proceeded without issue. But as she neared Molly’s hammock, the bright circle of the lamp–till then, held perfectly straight–started swinging wildly, and Hannah rushed back to us. The mpashi, it seemed, had reached Molly. We watched as her hammock tilted back and forth, her light investigating, and a few minutes later, she was on the move. She had looked out of her hammock perch, she explained, and when she did, the sandals she had left sitting below were literally invisible, covered by a seething mass of ants. Then she saw them climbing the trees to her hammock. Then it was time to go.

We made a plan.


The next six hours went something like this:

  1. Appoint retrieval team for each campsite item; designate Light Holder, Thing Grabber (highly dangerous), Thing Skittishly Catch and Hurl
  2. Move into campsite, scouting the immediate environs of the object being removed for mpashi activity
  3. Grab thing, throw
  4. Grab another thing, throw
  5. Stop grabbing things and take off running because ants have started crawling over your feet while everyone screams “Abort! Abort!”
  6. Place thing in the “clearing zone” and remove every ant. One or two team members to hold the item, one to hold the light, everyone to turn their most unforgiving gaze upon the blanket/shirt/backpack/tent/sandals/book/leggings/sleeping bag and spot and crush ants without mercy, ants who flit over the surface of humans and objects alike like insects possessed.
  7. Flip the object over three times, because you missed at least ten ants on your first pass, bub
  8. Declare the item clear, and move it to the “clear zone” up the hill
  9. Check your watch at 2:30 a.m. Check it again five minutes later. It is now 4 a.m.
  10. Realize that the pots that held dinner are so overrun by ants that they must now be abandoned completely.



The sky grew lighter. All of our items were cleared, and we packed up quickly, ready to walk away. At this point it became cold, hard reality that we would be walking all the way back to the main road, 16 kilometers away, on no sleep with all of our gear, unless a miracle descended upon us and we encountered a car. Our adrenaline bore us along for a while, and the cool morning air was a boon. We passed a herd of cows in the woods (“Would the mpashi eat them?” we wondered aloud. “I mean, do they fend them off with their hooves?”), small, bright flowers we’d never seen before, the long, gorgeous shadows of the trees slanting through the early morning sunlight, a horde of ants carving a ludicrously enormous and orderly track across our path. (Us: “Aiiiiieeeeeeeeee.”) We had walked for nearly five miles (according to Molly’s FitBit) when we passed a home set back from the road…with a car. A shiny, well-kept car. Jenna approached and made inquiries while the rest of us watched from a distance, and when she turned around and gave us the thumbs-up–we had a lift–we felt the profound joy, the triumph over long odds, that one must feel after successfully landing a spacecraft on the surface of Jupiter. We slid into that car and sat down for the first time in hours like queens, and laughed with an airy disregard as we drove over the huge hills we would have been forced to climb.

When our savior dropped us off at the main road, we sank down in a grateful stupor. Jenna negotiated with a nearby woman across the way, and we got hot water for coffee, which we made and drank as we sat on the ground.It was about 8:30 in the morning; Solwezi was a three-hour hitch away. Life was a dream.


As it turned out, I didn’t arrive in my village until 7 p.m. that night, finally dropped off by my third vehicle of the day–a vehicle that had coasted off the road twice after its engine failed–walking as fast as I could through the pitch dark, trying to reach my house ahead of the terrifying lightning storm that was closing in all around, but that is a TOTALLY different story.




It is rainy season in Zambia, and–at least in my neck of the Zambian woods–the rains have been torrential. (Last week, falling asleep during an evening storm, I jolted awake to the sensation of water pouring onto me and my bed from a leak in the roof. That was a long night. Peace Corps is a comprehensive master class in these types of moments; moments where the answer to the question, “Who is going to fix this problem right now?” is “You, pal, and nobody else.”) One Sunday night in January, it began raining at 10 p.m, and did not stop for twelve straight hours. Late the next morning, my host brother gave a light tap to one of the posts holding up the roof of my porch. “This is going to fall,” he said. A few hours later, sitting inside my door, I watched as the roof did just that. It collapsed to the ground instantly, in an orderly fashion, as if on command. It was upright, and then it wasn’t. I was leaving a voice recording for my friend Tyler at the precise moment the roof came down, and in the message you can hear the sudden susurrus of the plastic roof cover rustling over its bamboo backing, then the faint creak and thump of the posts hitting the dirt. Then my voice, almost monotonally: “My entire roof just fell down. I have to go.” (Listening to this is, admittedly, hilarious.)


I ran outside, where chaos had promptly ensued, and we hauled the roof a few yards away and maneuvered it onto the grass. There were discussions about what to do next; about sending some of the boys to cut down trees for new posts, about how swiftly it could be reassembled.

When I finally made it back inside, I had missed a call from my father, so I called him back. As I stared at the back of my closed door and listened to the continued uproar just on the other side, he told me that my Grandma Syberg, his mother, was going to pass away at any time. Literally one day earlier, I had returned to my village after journeying home to America for the funeral of my other grandmother, my mother’s mother. Grandma Brune.

I re-read what I just wrote, and I still find myself unable to believe this.


One grandmother was at the end of a long decline; one grandmother battled the baffling recurrence of salmonella poisoning. Their moments of crisis came at the same time, and my family had to find their way through. My mom and dad. And when my dear Grandma Brune passed away, thanks to my wonderful parents and brothers and sisters (and the Peace Corps) I was on a plane to America almost immediately. Solwezi to Lusaka, then Lusaka to Nairobi, Nairobi to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Chicago, Chicago to St. Louis. A woman on the plane with me to St. Louis gave me her Girl Scouts fleece, even though I told her that my sister-in-law had brought a coat for me, because it was 3 degrees in Missouri. I was wearing flip-flops, and had very little idea of what I had packed. It had been 90 degrees when I got off the plane in Kenya.

My father and brother picked me up from the airport, and we went to my grandmother’s house. My aunts and mother and cousins were putting together a collage of pictures. She’d had a good life. I leaned my elbows on the table and cried. (“Everyone’s done it,” my aunt said. “It’s the house.” Our beloved grandfathers passed away within three months of each other ten years ago, and an older, widowed friend of my mother’s told her [and I’m paraphrasing] that people moved on when they stopped waiting for the person who was gone to walk through the door. I have thought of that many, many times since in my life.)   The wake was the next afternoon, the funeral the morning after that. When we got back to Indiana, we went to the rehabilitation center where my Grandma Syberg was staying after her emergency surgery. I cannot describe the profound relief I felt to be able to go straight to her side, take her hand, and tell her that I loved her. It was not a chance I had believed I would have. (Have you told your grandmother lately that you love her? Go tell her, you.) There were more visits to see her in my remaining time at home, and the day before I flew out of Chicago, I saw her one last time. There was a meeting with her surgeon later that morning, and all looked well. Progress was being made. The universe had swept in, knocked us over, but miracles were happening. It was going to be okay. I flew back to Zambia. I traveled to my village. My father called.

There was no bottom to how I felt that afternoon.


My friend came from America to visit in December. When we arrived in my village, my host father happened to be at the road with his truck, and we piled in with all of our bags for a ride. As we drove towards our family’s home, two different men called out to him, and he called back that he would return after taking us to my house. When I asked him what was happening, he explained that he was helping to gather wood to build a coffin. “Who has died?” I said. A sixteen year-old girl, of AIDS. I asked a few more questions. No, her parents were not alive–they, too, had died of AIDS. She left behind two small children. It was unclear who would take them in.

It is quite literally impossible to recall this conversation and not to think: who am I to grieve this much?


This is not an easy question. But it has come to mind again and again in the past month. Death and life here are completely intertwined, equally acknowledged, equally possible from day to day. I have almost never returned to my home here from a trip of any length without being informed of someone’s passing. A brother, an uncle, a mother. A colleague’s cousin drowned in the Solwezi River. A car accident happened down the road. The day after I spoke to my father, I told another teacher what was happening. He had two family funerals to attend that afternoon. At each meeting I go to at my school, the person offering the opening prayer–no matter who it is–thanks God that everyone in the room has lived through the night to see another sunrise. Nothing here is assumed. Do we pray this same prayer of thanksgiving, in America? This is not a prayer I have heard before.

“Death is a part of life here,” the teacher said to me as we talked, calmly, in reference to my grandmothers. “But they did not die here,” I thought, mentally correcting him in the most literal sense, and then wondered what I meant. And then thought, for the millionth time here, the trillionth, about the unfairness, the imbalance, of it all. Of how little any of us understand these mysteries. Of what death can mean in a different place. Even thinking this particular problem through feels like a betrayal of someone on one side or the other. I’ll save you the suspense: it is not given to us to know these things. All I can say is that grief is real, in America and in Zambia, but that here, perhaps, you are forced to endure this human rite more often.


Peace Corps allowed me to leave my village for some days to be with other volunteers after I told them about my second grandmother’s imminent passing. My wonderful host family knew what was happening, and had very kindly offered their condolences, but I needed to be away–being in the village, waiting for the second phone call, surrounded by people but still alone, had become torture. The day I planned to leave, I packed up a bag to stay with a friend, walked outside, and tried to shut the door. It wrenched out of the frame in an explosion of concrete, wood, and mud brick.


I put my bag down, trying not to let out the scream I could feel building. My host father rushed back from the fields to try and fix the door, and I held boards for him as he hammered and sawed. When Peace Corps staff arrived late in the day to examine the damage, they deemed that the door was still too loose for me to sleep there that night–but did I trust anyone to sleep there in my place, to watch my things? The ultimate question. I told them that I trusted my thirteen year-old host brother, Benny, with anything. And so that is who guarded my house: an eighth grade boy. We drove off in a pounding rain. When we got to the Peace Corps house for volunteers in the provincial capital, about thirty minutes passed, and then my sister called me. My grandmother was gone.


Some months ago, a young grandchild of our family, who I had never met before, passed away. I was told that it was diarrhea, and that the mother and remaining siblings were coming to stay with us for a time. When I went to bed, they had not yet arrived. But hours later I awoke in the darkness, and heard all of the women of my family together on the opposite side of our compound, keening and wailing wildly in the night, and realized that the grieving mother had come.


Life continues, in spite of all that can happen, and expects us to continue with it. All I wanted to do in the world was get back on a plane and come home again, but I stayed here. I wasn’t there. I video-chatted with my family at the wake, talked to them every day. I stayed at the Peace Corps house and tried to push through it, and my friends helped. I went back to my village after the funeral, because it was time to get back to work. And work helps. I told my students why I had been gone from them for so long, and explained that both of my grandmothers had died. Their young faces turned solemn. “Oh, Madame, we are so sorry,” they said, and I nearly wept right then and there.

I have a stack of mail from Grandma Syberg in my box at the Peace Corps house, sent throughout my time here. One envelope did not arrive for months and months; she specifically asked if it had come, because in it she had included some brochures from her own trip to Africa. When it finally arrived, there was an official stamp on the bottom: “Missent to Jamaica”. I have never seen a funnier notification from the post office. I’m so grateful I got it. But then, there was love in every letter.


My grandmas have pride of place in my house now. All of my Zambian family knows their names.



A year and a half ago, my parents and sister drove me to the Indianapolis airport in a driving rain. It was 5 a.m., still dark out, and I hadn’t slept in two days; I was turned inside out with exhaustion and nerves and anticipation. My weighed and re-weighed suitcases, 50 pounds apiece, were with us in the car, full of everything I thought I’d need to live in Zambia for 27 months. At the airport, we said goodbye. (This is a moment for which you can never prepare, even if you believe otherwise. In the moment, you are in a free fall.) I flew to Philadelphia, where the Peace Corps preparatory staging would be held for a day before we started our journey to Zambia.

In the Philadelphia airport, however, none of that had yet begun. I walked to the baggage claim area with my old life behind me, and my new life still ahead (at least until I reached the hotel). I belonged to no one and no place for about thirty minutes. Neither America or Zambia had a claim on me; it was easily one of the strangest moments of my life. Stranger, even, than a few days later, when I actually landed in Africa and set foot on it for the first time, and knew–without yet knowing how–that everything was probably going to change now, forever, or that it should.

A month ago, I came back home, and saw things from the other side.


I had been told, by other volunteers who had journeyed home and returned to Zambia, that it was easy to get used to being back in America. This is true. If you have lived in America for most of your life, and Zambia for a year and a half, you will adjust. And everything in America is easy. EASY. If you want something, it is there. Anything you can think of. Whenever you want it. I would walk into a Walgreens and goggle at the shelves. I mentioned Chinese food on the night of my arrival, and–in less than an hour–I was eating it, because someone had delivered it to me. In my old neighborhood, there are two new coffee shops in the same short stretch of buildings across the street from the train station. You can go to one, or go to the other. Or to the coffee shop down the block a bit. Up to you. The electricity never went off. The train I took to Milwaukee departed on time; my best friend bought her ticket on her phone as we sat there to show the conductor. I never waited in the cold for so much as ten seconds to attempt to hail a taxi–everyone used Uber. There were many kinds of everything.

Truck Stop


I drank a glass of water directly from the sink. I did not have to pump the water from a borehole into a 20 liter container, carry the water home, pour the water into a filter, and wait for it to be clean. I just drank it. Let me just say something that bears repeating: this is a miracle. It is a daily miracle every single time we turn on a faucet and clean water emerges, water we personally did nothing to procure and which appears like magic, water that will not make us sick, water for everything we need. Some months before I came to America, the borehole near my home ran dry because of the lack of rain this year. My water supply was drawn from one of several holes in the ground throughout the village. When the children went for my water and brought it back, I had to be sure to ask where it came from; certain sources yielded water that could absolutely not be drunk, but which I could use for washing dishes and clothing. When I left for my trip, my host brothers had begun digging a deep hole on our family’s compound, hoping to hit water. When I returned, the rains had returned as well. The borehole is working again. Last week, I swung my can to and fro on the short walk down the path past my house to the borehole, filled the can joyfully, and practically skipped home with the heavy load. Simple as pie.


One rainy afternoon in Chicago, walking down the street with a friend, I passed a teenage girl and her younger charge, perhaps her brother, and thought of Zambian children their age. (This happened each and every time I saw a child in America.) They were comfortably dressed, wearing full backpacks, chattering away, and I abruptly realized that they were as far removed from Zambia and the daily lives of their peers there as it was possible to be. There was no overlap between the world of America and the world of Zambia, in that moment. Zambia was not even a glimmer in their eye. They did not know that it existed, what life there entailed. Earlier this year, when my school in Zambia was performing their annual tally of student information–numbers of boys, numbers of girls, et cetera–I learned that my school has 100 students who are orphans. How could I assume that these two American kids would be able to comprehend such a thing? Conversely, America looms so large, so vast and perfect and unknowable, in the minds of my Zambian students that they could scarcely frame a question when I inquired if they had anything they wanted to ask the American students I would be seeing. They came up with two: how much did bread cost in America, and were there waterfalls?


Things that were wonderful about America: meeting my new nephew. Walking back to my old apartment early one evening and smelling the catalpa trees on the corner. Autumn. Seeing my old co-workers, and being reminded that they are my friends for life. A used bookstore. Dinner with my parents. Dinner with my best friend. Beer lists.

Things that were hard: realizing that life continues on for everyone, whether or not you are there to see it. The bite of memories you put behind you, awoken by being back in a specific place. Realizing that it may be possible that you will never be able to truly be fully at home again.


At the end of my trip, my parents drove me to O’Hare to fly back to Zambia. I remember looking out the window as we drove down the highway, thinking: are you really going back? You are here now, back in the place where everything is known. But this thought was fleeting. At the airport, waiting at the gate, I felt like drinking an orange juice, so I bought one. When I landed in Dubai for my layover, I drank a glass of chilled white wine, ate dinner at an American chain restaurant, had a latte at a Starbucks. When my plane landed in Zambia, it was easily in the mid-nineties. The heat poured off of the tarmac. I made my way inside and hauled my suitcases off of the ancient baggage carousel, then walked over to the one ATM available in the tiny vestibule you pass through when departing the airport. It was out of order. I went outside, and a taxi driver approached me. We haggled over the price, then departed together. He picked up his sister on the way. When I arrived at the house of the friend with whom I was staying, there was no power or water. The next morning, I boarded the 5 a.m. bus to Solwezi. My seat was broken, and my feet rested on top of a toolbox (until I begged some men to move it). The door to the bus was only partially attached, and the driver had to secure it by tying it to the railing on the inside steps with a rope.

And when I made it back to my village, and walked onto my family’s compound, and saw all of my host brothers and sisters come running–my Stan, and Ernest, and Emma, and Benny, and everyone–and greeted and kissed and hugged, and talked to my host father and caught up on the family news, and began to unpack while Stan sat on one of my suitcases and pretended to read a Dostoevsky book I had brought with me, I was completely, profoundly happy.


This is a picture of the last meal I had before I came back to Zambia.


It’s Time To Talk About Zambian Kids

A few weeks ago, I sat in my doorway at dusk, eating the meal I’d made myself for dinner. As I finished it, my seven year-old neighbor walked by, firmly grasping a live chicken with the grip of an expert. Earlier, she’d sat with me on my porch, watching me crow with victory as I managed to flip over my sandwich without splitting the bread. Now she glanced at me as she passed, giving me a friendly, professional nod.

Just a couple of gals cooking.


Zambian children cook, build fires, fetch water, sell brooms at the bus station. They stand along the main roads at intervals, holding aloft live chickens for sale to passing cars, or mushrooms, groundnuts, pineapples. They come to school with no buttons on their uniform shirt, and discreetly hold the front together. They don’t come to school at all. They climb the mango tree in my yard, and knock the unripe fruit to the ground with a thud. They twist my hair around their fingers, and examine its color with undisguised curiosity. They help me hoe my garden with bare feet, and smile at me politely when I beg them to watch their little toesies around the hunk of metal they are beating into the ground. They laugh at me when I dance. They laugh at me when rats get into my roof at nightfall, and I run outside with a broom and a lamp. They make affronted tsk-tsk noises as they watch me swing my cooking brazier to heat the coals, and briskly take it out of my hands to do it properly.

They also watch me. They watch me walk and talk, cook, text, go through suitcases to find the shirt I want to wear tomorrow, wash silverware, breathe in and out. No move is unscrutinized. “Bye!”, I eventually have to say. “It’s time to go.” They leave reluctantly. “KIDS,” I want to say, sometimes. “KIDS, PLEASE, I JUST WANT TO READ THIS YEAR-OLD COPY OF THE NEW YORKER I FOUND WITH MY DOOR CLOSED.” I recently set aside most of a Saturday to sit down with a book I’d been wanting to read for some time. For hours, I heard their voices in the yard, wondering what I was doing in there. Four or five times, I opened the door and poked my head out. “Bena kutaanga,” I said (“I’m reading.”) “Ohhhh,”they said, with confused resignation. Ten minutes later, they were back. And how could I blame them? Watching me bumble through my days is entertainment at its finest.


Zambian children conjure up toys out of nothing. Spare tires. Sticks. Wire. They make sturdy, fully functional jumping ropes from flower stems and vines. I gave my neighbor a piece of bright yellow string, left over from tying up my mosquito net, and five minutes later she had secured it to a branch and was running through the yard, whipping it through the air with joy. I recently saw one of my host brothers, Stan–a maniacal six year-old with a heart of gold–dragging along approximately ten tree-length branches he had lashed together and draped with tin cans. I feel certain that this represented a car. (Every day, I look at Stan and say: “Stan, I love you.” I love Stan. Sometimes I cannot believe that fate kept me from Stan for so long. Stan locked me in my house last week, and after I convinced him to let me out, and stepped outside, I told Stan that I loved him. [Then I told his mother.])

The family I stayed with during my training included a nephew, Gift. One day, he and a friend constructed kites out of sticks and a plastic bag they found on the ground. These were precision instruments, and they worked perfectly. I told him about my friend Emily in America, and how she made kites, too. He painstakingly built a new kite from start to finish, pausing from step to step so I could photograph the whole process for Emily; he wanted her to learn from him. When we were done, we ran through the yard and let the wind catch the kites and fly.

Gift has, I believe, a mother but no father. He does not go to school, but instead herds cows. He is around 10 or 11. His English is incredible.

photo (15)


Very often, a conversation with a child reveals that they have only one living parent, or none. This comes to light after the preliminaries–what is your name? How old are you? In what grade? Where do you live? Friendly questions, proffered with a smile to put the kiddo–to whom you initially seem so completely other–at their ease. Then they tell you that their mother is dead, or their father, or both. “I’m so sorry,” you say. For what more can be said? I have had a thousand conversations with American schoolchildren, but I have never had this one. There is no way to prepare for it, be it the first time you have it, or the fiftieth.


I was in a friend’s village, and we were sitting with her host mother on a mat outside her home. A girl of four sat on the mat with us. One of her eyes was weeping a white substance. The sun was very low, so it was difficult to see what the issue was. After the girl scampered off, my friend’s mother said: “She is positive.” She meant that the four year-old girl had AIDS.

I have struggled with the concept of “everything’s relative”during my time here. How can that be true, when one child’s parents are both dead, and one child’s parents are not? How can that be true, when this child had one meal today, and this child gets money under her pillow from the Tooth Fairy? How can that be true, when this child has a fully-staffed emergency room team waiting in the wings for any medical need, and this child died when he pulled a pot of boiling water onto himself from the fire? I’m not trying to be reductive. Life is difficult for different reasons. My life is hard now in ways that it was not before, but the reverse is also true. It’s not a contest. There is no place without complexities and pitfalls, poverty, broken hearts, bad faith. But on one point I feel clear: the daily life of many an American child is a soft-edged paradise in comparison to the lives of children here. This is one point of comparison between home and Zambia I am willing to draw to the fullest. The children I see here are happy, lively, inventive, loving, and run through a big green world. They can also die if they get diarrhea.


Last week, Stan’s mother came to tell me that our neighbor Eunice’s niece had died. “Oh, no,” I said. “How many years?”

“Five years,” she said. Here, we both paused.

“Do you know how?” I said.

“I don’t know,” she said (a common reply), and started to walk away. Then she turned back.

“There was blood,” she said, and coughed to illustrate. She motioned with her hands to show the blood coming out of the little girl’s mouth. Her family rushed her to the village clinic, and she died there, and no one knew why.

And that was that. There is no more to the story.


One day, I was showing my host family children some pictures on my camera from America. We came to some old shots from an Easter egg hunt. I had even recorded a brief video, and so we watched it together. I explained what the Easter Bunny was, and that it brought candy to children in the eggs. Their faces were blank with disbelief. I literally felt embarrassed. At one point, a child wandered by onscreen with a bag almost overflowing with treats. “She has a lot,” said the eldest in the group, Benny, and the rest made noises of wistful acknowledgment.

I decided right then and there that there will be an Easter egg hunt on this compound this year. Oh yes: there will.

The Ward

A few weeks ago, I wandered into my neighbor’s yard; there was a bowl sitting on the ground which contained the bottom half of a goat. “Goat?” I said, conversationally, because there were hooves, and my neighbor confirmed that it was.

Goat II

We made lunch plans, and as we stood there, I looked down and realized that her young son had taken the large knife on top of the goat and was kneeling over the bowl, busily sawing away with his tiny hands. I made a sound that landed somewhere between “scream” and “gurgle”, and she casually surveyed what was happening. “Ohhh,” she said, half-heartedly trying to manufacture concern. I no longer remember how we got the knife away from him, but we did, and his mother said, “African children are strong”, her tone matter-of-fact, explanatory. The knife was a plaything, a toy car; it was only I who saw anything amiss, the thin line that lies between fun and missing fingers.

(On a sidenote: I did come back the next day for goat, and as I seated myself on the floor, she whipped the lid off a bowl to reveal a pile of goat intestines, lungs, and other sundries. One of my hard and fast Zambian rules is that I must at least try the food that is offered to me, and so I took one bite of lung, and contented myself with the rest of the meal. The broth was pretty good. If you are thinking, “I wonder if goat lung tastes like a tire that has been submerged at the bottom of a lake for many years and recently hauled to the surface by a grizzled fisherman,” you are correct. Some things you only need to try once. My neighbor is a lovely woman, and it was incredibly kind of her to invite me to her home.)

It is difficult to explain how close injury and illness feel here, how constant, and how perhaps that is partially what renders a mama calm, cool, and collected when her two year-old  plays with a knife; she knows it could be worse. I went to my village’s clinic on Monday, and stayed through the morning rush (they’re closed on Sundays). A group of women made their way to its front porch from the main road, babies and children on backs. The head of the clinic had me sit and watch while he saw the first patient–a seven year-old boy, drifting in and out of consciousness in his mother’s arms. His temperature was 104 degrees. The clinic has not received its supply of malaria tests in some time, but he was diagnosed with it anyway, and they laid him down on a bed behind a small screen that shields patients from the front door, slid an IV needle into his arm, hooked him up to a bag of fluids, and started his medication on the spot. He had been sick for three days. I was in the way.

I walked back into the room they call the maternity ward. When I say maternity ward, I mean that there are beds, and a small table covered in forceps. They had almost lost a mother there, a few days prior, but she lived. On the walls were large pieces of paper covered in instructions, written in faded marker, in case of emergencies during labor and delivery. One sign was headed “MANAGEMENT OF P.P.H” (postpartum hemorrhage).

The first instruction: “1. Shout for help.”

About two weeks ago, my other neighbor began experiencing abdominal pain. This went on for several days. Her normal genial stoicism vanished–no one knew what was happening to her, at the clinic or otherwise. Long story short, I accompanied her to the closest hospital with an ultrasound scanner, around thirty miles away, in the hopes that it would shed some light on what was happening to her insides (and because I am a pushy American, and because I was worried, and because I did not want her to go alone). How to describe what happened next? We sat together in a waiting area, and when her name was called, we went into a small admitting room, where a man questioned her about her symptoms and recorded her responses in a small notebook. They spoke quietly. Then the door flew violently open, and a man and a woman staggered in carrying a girl in their arms, bleeding from her head and crying out in pain. They dropped her onto a small table in the corner without ceremony. I blinked. They spoke a few brief words of explanation to the man from the hospital, who tutted with disapproval. When we left, headed to a different part of the hospital for more testing, it was explained to me that the girl had fallen out of a mango tree from a great height.

My friend could not get an ultrasound: the only person who knew how to operate the machine was on leave. She laid on a bed in the “female ward” and wept. I sat with her. The mango tree girl was brought in and laid on a different bed. Her head had been wrapped in gauze. We waited; they were going to get a doctor. It was quiet. But then two men walked in with purpose, and donned gloves, and before I could grasp what was happening, they were putting the mango tree girl’s head back together. A male nurse went to and fro with what appeared to be bowls of scissors. Her family rushed in, en masse, and held her body down on the bed, and she screamed. She screamed like I have never heard anyone scream in my entire life, and do not want to, ever again. I was frozen in place. At one point I looked at the faces of everyone standing around the bed, and they wore identical expressions of disgust and horror. I made myself look at the floor.

When they were done–it took ten minutes to stitch her up, and not the ten hours it felt like–one of the doctors walked over to my friend and I, and greeted us cheerily. (I actually saw him again later in the week, and asked about the mango tree girl. “She was very uncooperative,” he said, smiling. “Were there any anesthetics?” I said, faintly. “Oh, no!” he said.)   He examined my friend, and decided she had appendicitis, and that she would be given antibiotics and painkillers. My arms crossed, and I felt the pushy American in me rising up unstoppably.

“My father had appendicitis,” I said, “and he had to have an operation.”

That was not necessary, I was assured, unless the symptoms came back. There was no way to get an ultrasound to check, however. There may have been a time in my life when I felt more helpless, but I cannot currently recall it. We kept talking. Many, many more things happened, and I pushed. I went back to my village.

My friend is in the capital now, where there are private hospitals and ultrasound machines with someone to operate them, and read the results.

When I look at my arms and hands and feet now, I see blisters and cuts and burn marks. Here is where I grip my cooking brazier and broom. Here is where the pot handle scorched a line into my palm. Here is where I split my knuckle on a lump of coal. Here is where I sliced my hand open on a piece of grass. Here is where a nail scraped open my bicep. On my right foot, there is a scar from where I dropped the sharpest knife I own onto my foot as the sun was setting, gave myself a puncture wound, and frantically washed and bandaged it and then cleaned all the blood off my floor with bleach by the light of my flashlight. It was a month before I could walk without limping.

One night in late August, I was eating fish with the father of my host family; the fish, caught from the dam adjacent to our home, was full of bones from head to tail, and tricky to handle. I pulled some of the meat away with my fingers and put it in my mouth, and when I began to swallow, I froze: a fish bone, moderately sized, was hovering in the back of my throat, too far gone to to spit out. It went down.

“I swallowed a fish bone,” I said to my host father, and drank water and ate more dinner to try and push it down as spiky waves of pain started radiating through my chest. I went back to my hut, and the pain grew. I ate bananas, one after the other. I went online, where everyone said the same thing: go to the emergency room. I looked around blankly. It was 9:30 p.m in the village of Chikonkotoo, Zambia, and an emergency room was not forthcoming. I talked to my parents and the Peace Corps, and went to bed on a wing and a prayer. In the morning it was worse, and the Peace Corps whisked me to a hospital in the capital for a chest x-ray. The bone was gone, but my esophagus had not escaped unscathed, and it hurt to eat for some time. It felt silly, all of it; silly that I hadn’t paid attention, silly that swallowing a fish bone could create such a panic, that it would either be just fine or puncture my lung, and that I had no way of knowing which was which right away. Silly that it was so scary. But it was.

My friends and family know that I have made a rule for myself in Zambia: if I am doing two things at once, and one of the things can hurt me or kill me, I have to stop doing one of the things. Distraction is a luxury I am not permitted, because I am especially prone to becoming lost in thought, and can lose thirty minutes thinking something through while a pot of water burns itself down to steam. Dinnertime is especially fraught–knives, open flames, the fading sun. My personal injury rate has gone down significantly since the institution of this rule.

But my life is not that hard.