…and back again

9 11 2009

Sunsets in Africa blow me away. The sun looks enormous and perfectly round, and it seems so close that I imagine I could reach out and touch it. That was the backdrop for my final night in Zambia. We were walking back from one of the orphan homes in Kalingalinga. The sun was inching its way down, and I was arm-in-arm with Esther, the oldest girl from the house. She was singing quietly as we walked. All of the kids had decided to escort us home and they were running, laughing, and singing all around us as we made our way down the street.

Just minutes before I had been sitting on the floor of the house having my hair braided and listening while the children sang to us. Sitting there it was hard to believe I was leaving – I was so content and so happy.

But, morning came. It took three cars to get all of our stuff to the airport because between the two of us we had 12 suitcases (I am not ashamed to say I flirted our way through customs in Chicago – I couldn’t even see over the cart of luggage I was navigating around the barriers so, needless to say, they had more than a few questions for us).

It took a long time at the Lusaka airport to get through security, check-in, and immigrations. Jan made it through with an opened bottle of water, and we’re convinced we could have gotten just about anything we wanted on board the plane. Not necessarily a comforting feeling.

When we arrived in London I was overwhelmed. The doors of the terminal swung open and all of my senses were assaulted simultaneously. I felt exposed under the bright lights. The shiny surfaces were dizzying. The smells from the perfume counters threatened to make me gag. The sparkling Christmas decorations throughout the shops seemed even more gaudy and excessive than I had remembered. It took awhile to adjust.

And I’m still adjusting. But it’s good. Chicago greeted me with a stunning fall day (seriously, fall is my absolute favorite time of year and this day was perfect – anyone who lives in Michigan can thank me for brining this nice weather back). As we crossed the Michigan boarder the sky was streaked with oranges and pinks and yellows – a different kind of sunset than I’ve seen in the past two months, but gorgeous all the same.

I’ve been in Grand Rapids for just under 48 hours now and, other than to sleep, I’ve only been home for about two of them. I’ve been busy, but it has been SO amazing to catch up with the people I love. Sitting on my friend’s front porch tonight talking and taking in the beauty of fall, I almost felt like I had never left. But I did leave, and it was good, and I know that this trip opened my eyes and my heart further than I ever could have imagined.

So, while I brace myself for a week of being poked, prodded, and otherwise tested at various doctor’s offices (because, really, nothing says welcome back like a trip or two to the hospital), I’m glad to once again be physically surrounded by my safety net – and I am truly excited for everything life has in store!


Every good thing must come to an end

4 11 2009

I have an amazing network of family and friends. I miss them. There are plenty of things about home that I don’t miss, though. This list includes my cell phone, my car, my hectic/full schedule, and my desk. I, surprisingly enough, don’t actually miss having a shower or normal grocery stores or ice cream, either.

But there of plenty of things I am going to miss about Africa. This list includes (but is not limited to):

  • The kids
  • My new friends
  • Buying fritters (aka fried balls of goodness) from our neighbor for 10 cents on an almost- daily basis
  • The constant sunshine
  • “Do it like I do”
  • The bush
  • Goats running in front of cars (it’s really pretty funny)
  • Chitenges
  • Beating Siwale at things
  • Seeing The Esther School
  • Playing in the dirt
  • Jumping
  • Sunday night movie night
  • Zambian bus rides
  • The overall friendliness of people
  • The pace of life
  • Buying Talk Time
  • The morning breeze
  • Visiting clubs
  • The singing
  • Mango trees in the backyard
  • The sunsets (and the sunrises, even though I was only up for maybe three of them)
  • The purple and red flowering trees
  • “No Problem”

This continent is kind of addicting. I’m sad to leave, but I am grateful for the privilege of living with the people here for a short time. I can’t wait to come back…


Alice making fritters outside her home



Saying goodbye to Siwale






After the whole jumping thing, I challenged Siwale to see who could hit a rock further with a stick


He looks like his is golfing; I totally won

Normal does not mean good

3 11 2009

As the sun starts to dip in the sky, I feel the heat of the day offer a parting nod before retiring for the night. This is my favorite time of day. No matter what side of the world I am on the air seems to present a reassuring quiet as afternoon slowly slips into evening.

We are driving away from Chongwe, and I take a deep breath and drink in as much of the breeze and the sunset and the African plane stretching before me as I can. This is the last time I’ll be making this trek. I had, just minutes before, said goodbye to the kids knowing that I won’t make it out here again before I go home. It was so sad, but I was, at the same time, so insanely happy for the opportunity I had to spend time with them.

When we got there today all of the older boys were standing in a line stretching. They had crafted a football (soccer) field and were completing a regimented warm-up routine. The younger kids watched from the sidelines and shrieked with glee as they attempted to mimic all of the boys’ actions. As they run laps, I joined the cheering squad and started an impromptu game. We danced and sang and ran around while enjoying a good laugh about nothing in particular.

When the match finally started, it quickly became evident that they didn’t actually have a ball. Kids here fashion balls out of plastic bags. This one also included some string – so by Zambian standards it was pretty high-tech.

I’ve been trying to start a mental shift as I get ready to go home, and a lot of my thoughts have been focused on preparing to return to “normal” life. It’s crazy to realize that my normal looks nothing like most of the rest of the world. My normal says I want things now. My normal refuses to be inconvenienced or to entertain any state of discomfort. My normal says I deserve to be at ease. My normal says if I want something I should have it. My normal says I should do what I can to make sure I’m happy. My normal says I should do what I can to get ahead. My normal is all about me.

But there is nothing that makes my normal better. And there is certainly nothing about it that makes it right. Normal does not mean good. I think I regularly confuse the two; I think a lot of us regularly confuse the two.

My normal says a ball made out of plastic bags isn’t good enough – it’s unworthy of a second thought. But a ball made out of plastic bags did the trick today. A ball made out of plastic bags was teaching kids initiative and leadership and teamwork. And a ball made out of plastic bags was bringing joy.

It’s easy to say, “Well, yeah, that’s good enough for them. It’s good enough for there. But things are different here.” Which is true – things are different. We have a different standard. But that doesn’t make it right or good or even worthwhile.

It’s easy to do what’s normal, but what does that accomplish? I think normal breeds complacency and apathy and self-righteousness. I too often let it cloud my vision and convince me that there is value where there is in fact none.

It’s an interesting thought-process to traverse as my time here comes to an end. A range of emotions wash over me as I react to the thoughts swimming in my head. It’s hard to describe. So tonight I’ll simply watch another African sunset. I’ll let that be my normal. I’ll let that be good.


high knees


part of the cheering squad




waiting for the match to start


some of the little guys decided to run laps, too




playing "do it like i do"


they do crazy dance moves and this is all i can come up with for my turn 🙂


they have mad skills


the ball


about to score

I have a lot to learn

2 11 2009

I love Spanish. I could sit and listen to native speakers for hours. I love the way the words form on their tongues and then roll off their lips and drop effortlessly into the air. The sound of it captivates me.

And while I’m far from proficient, I also enjoy learning it. I understand the logic of the grammar and I appreciate the order and the rules. I get the language.

It’s different here. Sometimes, even though we are all technically speaking English, I’m pretty sure I don’t understand the “language” of Africa. The sounds aren’t always sweet, and the rules aren’t always straight. I have a lot to learn.

I’ve got some of it down, but most of the steps continue to elude me. I think I am beginning to grasp a given system and then the rules seem to shift without warning. And I’m left wondering if I’m supposed to hug and touch both cheeks, grab my right elbow with my left hand and bow, or do a shake-pound-shake routine when I greet someone. Seriously? I still can’t even say “Hello” right?

Today we made our way to the airport to pick up my boss (she’s in town for a few days). One of the first things she said to me was, “I’ve got a book for you to read.” It’s a phrase I’ve heard often in the past two years, and it usually means I’m about to gain new insight and my thinking is about to be challenged. And, not surprisingly, this time it involved learning more about the cultural language of Africa.

Just paging through it I’m already overwhelmed.

As it turns out, when people here ask for money and I say no, their default conclusion is that I’m simply not generous. (Great. So half the people I’ve met here think I’m a selfish tightwad.) It stems from the idea of communal living. If I have something you need, I’m expected to give it to you even if it means I won’t have any left for tomorrow. When tomorrow comes, someone else will in turn provide for me.

Then there is the issue of pride. It’s culturally acceptable to, literally, do anything you can to protect your pride. So much so that even saying “I’m sorry” after making a mistake is abnormal, because admitting you did something wrong means you might lose credibility (unfortunately I know people at home who emulate this mantra with a much lesser degree of dignity). So, in lieu of a formal apology, people will randomly leave you a gift and then that’s that. Case closed. No more discussion. They’re sorry, you should accept the apology, and your relationship should be restored.

And if someone has a problem with you, don’t expect to hear about it from them – that might disrupt the peace (apparently this one doesn’t apply to drunk men who think I’m taking their picture). They’ll have someone else talk to you about the issue and it’s expected that things will be worked out quietly through the chosen mediator – never face-to-face.

And then there are compliments. If you pay someone you are not intimately connected with a direct compliment they will automatically assume you are cursing them. (Again, I shudder to think what some people must think of me!) Compliments have to be given to acquaintances in a roundabout way. So, for example, if someone were to say, “I want you to give me your shirt,” that’s really their way of telling me they like it. And, while I’m sure they wouldn’t mind if I did, they don’t actually expect me to give it to them. So, again, if I simply say “No,” I am, of course, being rude. If I were to say, however, “If I take it off to give it to you I’d be cold,” then the compliment is considered accepted.

Oh man. I’m not even done paging through the introduction.

It’s definitely an interesting dance to partake in. It’s like your partner knows the routine but the only moves you’ve got are set to a totally different beat. And so when you make your way to the floor it seems like the steps are always changing and the tempo is totally off. It can be confusing. It can even be frustrating. And yet the unfamiliar tune has its own strange appeal. It’s a melodic reminder that my way is not right, it’s simply my way. And when I take the time to stop and listen, there is, in fact, goodness and wisdom in the rhythm and the motion – whether I can keep up with it or not. And even if I never get it, my life is richer for having stopped to pay attention to the sound and for stumbling through a step or two.