Home

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.

IMG_1648

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.

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.