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.

Make safe love

30 10 2009

A triple homicide. All women. One, actually, was  a little girl. Their maimed bodies were unearthed with missing limbs and various other mutilations. “Authorities suspect these killings were part of a ritual…” I shuddered and let the reporter’s voice fade into the chorus of traffic and street vendors rushing in the open window of the car. “Were they talking about Zambia?” Steph questioned Siwale as he drove. “Yes,” he said, “But that was in a different province.”

That was a few weeks ago.

Yesterday, as we drove home from town, we heard another unsettling report on the radio: a new study confirmed that gender-based violence is the second biggest threat to people’s lives in Zambia. Number one? HIV/AIDS.

I cringed again. And then I realized the unfathomably explosive nature of these two threats colliding. A billboard we had passed a few moments before seemed disturbingly fitting: Sex with me doesn’t cure AIDS!


Imagine this on the side of the road in the US

Sometimes I have to remind myself I’m in Africa. Sometimes it feels so comfortable to be here – so normal, so natural – that I forget the fact that this country, like many others, has a long history of rituals and beliefs that, while not blatantly evident all the time, still have a very real impact on many people’s lives.

Every once in awhile we pass a sign for a witchdoctor along the side of the road. Some people still believe that having sex with a virgin will cure their AIDS. Some girls are still taught that getting their period is really an evil spirit invading their body. Some people will mutilate certain (female) family members for the chance to bring healing or riches or power to their lives.

We did see this scrawled across some seventh graders’ notebooks. It was, presumably, their sex-ed lesson.


In case you can't read it clearly it says: MAKE SAFE LOVE AIDS KILLS

But, then again, I’m not sure I’d really call that much in the terms of progress.

No problem

28 10 2009

I love the start of my days here. I get up, open the windows in the front room, make some tea and then journal and read as I bask in the still silence of the morning.

Yesterday, that quiet was disturbed by the shrill rattle of someone pounding on our gate. I dragged myself out of my chair in order to investigate. An older woman was standing outside with a giant bag of potholders balanced on her head. It was almost 7:30, and apparently this was her second trip to the Service Center so far this morning. She had stopped by at 6, but the guard had informed her she needed to come back later.

She explained that she had an appointment. One of our local staff members had instructed her to meet her here by 8am. Hmm. That’s funny, I thought. No one from the staff is here yet. I made a few phone calls and apologetically explained to the woman that she would have to come back after 10. “No problem,” she said through a big, toothy grin.

No problem. I contemplated that as I turned to go back inside. We hear that a lot here. In fact, it’s probably the most common response we receive to any given request. And they’re not just saying it, either.

Shortly after 10, the lady returned for a third time. Without the slightest hint of annoyance at having been inconvenienced, she discussed a few questions with the staff before plopping down on the cold tile floor to chat with the other women as she sewed.

No problem. And it really wasn’t a problem. I’m sure she had plenty of other things she could have been doing, but she didn’t complain. It didn’t rile her up at all to have to make three trips – on foot – to the Service Center even though staff had told her they would be there to meet her first thing in the morning.

I’m not saying I’m going to start breaking appointments on a whim once I come home, but the whole mindset continues to fascinate me.

Which brings me to today. Today was a day set aside to do work. Today I wasn’t going to leave the Service Center because I had so much editing to do. Today I was going to get things done. Today was also the day the power went out and didn’t come back on for six hours. Today was the day both of my computer batteries were dead by 11am. Today I felt stranded and bored. And today was the perfect day to practice the outlook I have so often observed in the past month.

So, in the end, I discovered that despite the obstacles, all I needed was a slight attitude adjustment and, voila, today really was no problem.

Best seat in the house

27 10 2009

We were greeted by a strange and unfamiliar quiet as we drove up the dusty dirt road to the orphan homes today. No one was weeding the garden, no one was washing dishes in a tub out back, no kids were running around in the yard. The “father” from house number four emerged from his front door and greeted us. “Come,” he said, “all of the children are at the school.” As we tagged along behind him, he explained that there was a ceremony taking place. As it turns out, the Zambian Development Agency (ZDA) was donating 1 million kwacha (about $400) worth of textbooks to the local school.

Gathered in the shade of a few trees just behind the school, we joined a small crowd of people – mostly children in their ragged grey uniforms. In the middle of the group was a small bench where five older men were seated. This was the reserved seating section – occupied by the headman (kind of like a regional chief) and other elders.

Steph and I weren’t really sure what was going on at this point, but apparently the program had just started. We were ushered to the “front” where the headmaster of the school was seated next to three ZDA employees. We tried to insist on standing in the back, but instead we were introduced to all of them and then asked to sit next to the head of the local PTA. I was a little shocked and embarrassed but at the same time curious to see what all was going to take place. We were asked to stand and introduce ourselves to everyone – which just kills me. We just wanted to come hang out with the kids for a little while, and all of the sudden we find ourselves standing in front of a crowd of people, at a ceremony we have nothing to do with, telling them who we are. Ha!

Later I was thankful for our seat, because it was prime for taking in everything that happened. And it was all fascinating to listen to and watch. The whole program was laid out as the people from the ZDA prepared to hand the new text books over to the headmaster. Different groups of kids sang a few songs, a local male quartet preformed a song of thanks they had composed specifically for the occasion (which, as it turns out, no one knew was even taking place until the day before), a poem was recited, and then lots of people gave speeches.

The ZDA representative talked about how the donation came to fruition, and how excited they were to be able to give something to help educate the “future leaders of Zambia”. The thing is, government schools are only free until 7th grade. So books are provided up until that point, but then after that government funding doesn’t offer assistance. And, even in the lower grades, not all the classes have books – and in the ones that do everyone shares or only the teacher has a copy to work from. Needless to say, this was an amazing blessing for the little community, and there was a tangible joy in the air as they danced, sang, and celebrated the gift.

It was cool to see how thankful the students were and how receptive the community was. One of the ladies who spoke talked about how the kids needed to care for these books because “even their great-grandchildren would be using them”. Others talked about the value and importance of education and what an honor it was to help foster growth in their children and in their community. When the headmaster rose to give his speech of gratitude, be mentioned that this wasn’t the only blessing his school has received. He wanted to remind his community how thankful the students and staff continued to be for the one solar panel that was donated the year before. The one solar panel that powered one light bulb in one of the classrooms. “How wonderful,” he said, “that the children can come and work on their homework even after it gets dark.”

Again, watching people with so little give praise and thanks for what they do have left me humbled and in awe.

Some of the local kids watching from the side

Some of the local kids watching from the side

If looks could kill

24 10 2009

If looks could kill I would be dead a million times over.

Janela is eight. We’ve been hanging around the village enough that I recognized her as soon she walked in and sat down across from me. She greeted us with a shy smile. We asked her what grade she was in and to tell us about her favorite class at school. Her eyes slowly glanced around the room as she answered in Nyenja.

It was those eyes that killed me.

She looked down at her hands as the questions continued. Where did you live before you came here? What was life like? The words hung lifelessly in the air. Her body became stiff. But, even as she sat motionlessly on the couch, her eyes told a forceful, poignant story all their own. Her big, deep, sad brown eyes conveyed an indescribable depth of feeling as they cried out in horror and sorrow and pain. It was obvious that she was trying to smother it – she was fighting to keep the hurt buried deep inside – but her eyes betrayed her. Her eyes overflowed with all of the anguish that brimmed from inside her little heart and soul. The force of her gaze was overwhelming. The intensity in those two little eyes is something I will never forget. It pierced my heart and was almost too much for me to handle.

We quickly pieced together bits of her life from her adoptive “momma” before wrapping up the interview. Her mother was dead. She didn’t remember her or know how she died. Her father was a poor farmer who didn’t have enough to feed his children.

But Janela is just a child. She went without food for days at a time, yes, but her eyes cried out with so much more. The story they told didn’t end with a belly aching in hunger. The story they told was full of a deep, dark sadness. It was colored with shades of agony and pain a child should never have to endure.

I’ve seen the story they told being spun from the eyes of so many of the children here.
















Our prayers need our flesh to back them up

22 10 2009

The wind rushes in the open window and I let the force of it knock my head back. The landscape is a blur, and I halfheartedly take note of everything that flashes by me from the backseat of the tiny Toyota. I feel depressed. My heart is heavy, and the weight of my sadness threatens to crush me.

The utter poverty that surrounds me, the sickness, the brokenness, the despair: these things, unfortunately, are not the source driving my gloom.

I’m in Africa. People are dying of AIDS. Kids are begging for food. Women are being abused. Girls are being raped. Men are abandoning their cars along the side of the road because the country has no fuel.

And I feel sorry for myself. It’s an unfortunate phenomenon, one that I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand. But, even in the midst of everything I am experiencing, I can find reasons to be self-absorbed – to focus on how I’ve been wronged and the things I feel life owes me.

That was last week.

That car ride was, obviously, not the highlight of my trip so far. But, as I sat there traversing a range of selfish emotions, I experienced a real wakeup call. I don’t want to be self-centered, but sometimes the feelings well up from dark places I rarely even admit exist. And as I tried to refocus my heart and remind myself that my purpose here is to serve, a whole new mob of questions struck me.

In his book, The Holy Longing, Ronald Rolheiser says that, “Our prayers need our flesh to back them up.” So I started to wonder what, really, is my prayer for the people here? I can hope and wish and pray a million things, but if I don’t take any corresponding action my words and desires quickly prove worthless and empty.

That realization has caused a bit of a challenge for me.

Since we got here, Stephanie and I have felt, to varying degrees, that people view us as an endless pool of money. At first they were subtle about it, but now they just blatantly ask us for cash. And these are people we have been building relationships with – people we consider our friends.

For the most part, we say no. It’s not that I blame them for asking; a lot of it stems from cultural differences. They very much live in a “what’s mine is yours” world. So if someone has something you need, there is no shame in asking for it.

But is it good if we simply give them money whenever they ask? A micro-financing program for women, a school for orphans – these are tools that will empower people. What message are we sending by endlessly offering handouts, though? My logic said: not a good one.

But as I sat in awe of my own ability to be selfish, I started to question my motives. Is this just another instance of me looking out for my own best interest? What do I hope for my new friends? I know I want them to be provided for, for all their basic needs to be met. Is my refusal, then, a hindrance to those desires? Are my hopes for them echoing off hollow walls before falling back on my own deaf ears?

It’s not an easy line to walk. I’m still left wondering if I’m justifying inaction instead of putting my full weight behind my prayers. And I’m not sure there is a “right” answer. But it has opened up a whole new plane of thinking for me in terms of taking action and having the bravery and courage to dream big.

The reailty of AIDS

20 10 2009

Propelled by an insatiable chocolate craving, Steph and I made our way through Kalingalinga to a service station yesterday to see what we could do about calming our sweet tooth. When we arrived, the entire lot was bumper-to-bumper with abandoned cars. Apparently the fuel tanks have been held up at the border and the government isn’t doing much to cut the red tape. So, with no gas to be had, people simply park their cars as close to a pump as possible – and then leave.

All of that to say that, today, Siwale had to sit in line for over five hours to get half a tank of gas. Since no one seems to know when the fuel shortage will be cleared up, we decided to make the most of our time in the bush.

With the “father” from one of the homes translating, we sat down to interview some of the kids. It was fun to watch them giggle as they talked about what they would like to be when they grow up, but the deep sorrow in their eyes as they reflected on their pasts was painful and piercing. It was incredible to pull them aside one by one and hear their stories. Here’s a glimpse of a few of them:

First, there was James. James is a pensive 13-year-old, and it is evident that he has experienced things in this life that are far beyond his years. He and his nine-year-old brother, Kauya, are both HIV positive. Five years ago, they lost both of their parents to AIDS. They had been living with their grandparents in a nearby village. Their grandfather did nothing to support the family, leaving the lame grandmother to fend for the five children. School was out of the question, and they often went several days at a time without food.





Now that he lives in the orphan home, James said he likes to play football (soccer) and cards with his friends, and he enjoys current affairs at school. He wants to be a mechanic. Kauya is playful and smart, and he spends his free time crafting toy cars from wire and plastic bottles. He wants to be a truck driver when he grows up. While we are there, Kauya is pulled aside to eat dinner before the rest of the kids. Both boys are able to receive some medication, and, whenever possible, they are given special meals that offer them a slightly higher level of nutrition as they fight to stay healthy.

He's not an easy one to get to smile

He's not an easy one to get to smile

Such a cutie

Such a cutie

Susan is 13. She is sweet and shy. Her father died when she was an infant. “I was never told the cause of his death,” she explained. Even though her mother is still alive, Susan was selected to move to the home because of the deplorable conditions she was living in. She and her siblings (who have all since been sent other places – she’s not sure where) were forced to do heavy work in the fields and were often whipped for not working hard enough. She was enrolled in school, but most of the time her mother refused to let her attend because she needed to work.



Now, Susan says she likes everything about school. “Learning is good for me,” she bashfully reported. She loves art and drawing, and wants to be an art teacher when she is older.

So shy and sweet

So shy and sweet

Justin is nine. His father died in a traffic accident with he was seven, and his mother died in a similar accident three years before that. He has two brothers and a sister. One of his brothers lives with his grandparents and he never gets to see him. The other lives with other relatives just up the road, and Justin is able to see him at school.



Justin’s favorite subject is English. He likes it because he knows it will help him learn to communicate with a lot of different people. He helps take care of the vegetable gardens and flower beds around the house, and he says he likes to help with the cooking because it’s fun to taste-test the food before everyone else gets to.

He's full of smiles

He's full of smiles

Lister is a shy five-year-old when she is around us, but watching her interact with the other children it is obvious she has an opinion and is willing to share it. She, also, is a double orphan because of AIDS. After her parents died she was living with her grandmother. Each day she was forced to get up at 6am and go out to the fields to look after the cattle and goats. No matter the weather conditions, Lister remained in the fields for over 12 hours. She was only given one small meal in the evening before being forced to make a bed on the ground out of a few sacks. Did I mention that she was only five?



Lister is excited to start school next year because she thinks it will help her be disciplined. Until then, she enjoys playing football and jumping rope with her friends.

She plays it off like she's shy, but she's got attitude

She plays it off like she's shy, but she's got attitude

The stories continued. Orphan after orphan joined us on the couch and shared a piece of their lives. And while the characters changed, the plots remained eerily similar. AIDS was, more often than not, a major player in each account. One of the mommas explained that, each year, the kids return to their previous guardians for a week or two in December – it’s a way for them to stay connected to whatever family they have left. Apparently, many of them have been crying for the past month, begging to not be sent back.

It’s hard to believe that these are the “lucky” ones. These kids in tattered clothes with heartbreaking stories are the ones who have been plucked from horrendous situations and been given a fighting chance – if such a thing exists here.

I’m still not done processing everything we heard today. I’m not sure I ever will be.

Life is good

18 10 2009

At three in the morning Stephanie and I made the unanimous decision to sleep in today.

So, after a few hours of solid rest, I got up, made some eggs, took my tea, and had some quiet time on our porch. It was amazing to feel the breeze as I read and reflected. Then, as I  sat in silence, the sounds of the city flooded over the walls around our house. A pastor’s voice boomed over a loudspeaker. Dogs barked, kids screamed, and footsteps rushed down the ally.

The wind eventually carried a few small voices into the mix of noise. They became louder and stronger, and, eventually, I could distinguish the words. It was children singing, and I quickly recognized the song; I’ve heard girls singing it many times.

Oh oh oh oh, my God is good-oh. He gives me plenty, plenty. Oh oh oh oh, my God is good-oh…

Hearing people with so little continuously sing with joy and thanksgiving for everything they do have is an indescribable reminder about truth and the reality of what really matters in life.

I’m going to go scrub my laundry in a tub outside with a hose before hanging it on the line to dry.

God is good. Life is good.

And, with Sunday-night-movie-night on the horizon and the smell of popcorn in the air, I feel incredibly blessed as I prepare to embark on the second half of my stay here.