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.
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.