The return to Zambia has been so surreal. I remember the last time I was here I was 17, blonde hair, real chatty, big long limbs, goofy, and wildly insecure. Its funny how so much changes and still nothing changes at all. I remember being here and noticing the differences everywhere. Red earth, shoddy roads, headscarves, dancing and singing that brings tears to your eyes, huge aloe plants, babies strapped on backs, sticky white porridge for every meal, roadside stands. Africa from a safe distance. I remember thatched huts and children in bare feet chasing after our car as we’d drive by. I remember big smiles and throngs of affectionate kids tackling me and braiding my “slippery” muzungu (white person) hair that was so surprising to them. I remember doing presentations about Aids prevention in high schools but not quite getting it myself. I still don’t “get” Aids but I now know many more people who’ve experienced its crippling blow. Now I’ve stayed in places that it’s actually affected. I walked through communities that have been crippled by it. Drank their water, ate their food. Prayed with them, laughed with them, danced with them. Also “them” has become names of actual people. Lives that have now meshed with mine. Stories I hold in the safest places in my heart, as if I could put them in a place of reverence and safety that would somehow right all the wrongs in the world. Stories that would change your life if you were open to it. I implore you, for your own sake if for nothing else, open your heart to moments like these. Let it cut deep into your life, bleeding empathy and distain for injustice into every area of your consciousness. There is pain here. So if you choose read on, please try to feel that pain.
This is the story of my return to Zambia. I thought I knew something about this place, about Africa as a whole. But also I was excited to experience it as an adult, knowing that I’ve grown and that things are probably not just as I remember. I know now that I hadn’t really seen Zambia at all until this time around. This is because I didn’t get to know the people last time, I just observed them.
Last week I went to a place called Maposa. It just worked out for me to tag along this particular bluebird day, so I happily hopped in the car with a sandwich and a coffee. And a coke zero. And a bag of cashews. And off we went into the crystal clear sunshine of the Zambian morning.
We drove down highways past a long line of women on the roadside selling gigantic watermelons. I have since eaten at least two of these watermelons. It’s like an African drive through. You pull up, 2o kwacha out the window and a lady gives you a melon and you zoom off. I’ve never questioned McDonalds until now.
There are much more significant parts of my culture that I’ve started to question though, which actually says more than you may know. Because I really REALLY like McDonalds.
1) I’ve started to question the way we live. Living to work. Productivity and work ethic, now I look at commerce and I think “So what? I’m going to the park”.
2) I see the way we interact with each other at arms length until finally we are able to wade through the many masks and faces we all wear to actually get to the core of a person. It may seem strange but that’s not what its like in other parts of the world.
3) I’m sick of practical problem solving. Since when are people REALLY able to solve problems anyways? Look at foreign aid in Africa from the last ten years. Good job practical problem solving. Bad gets worse and we can’t understand why. It's because our culture is obsessed with efficiency and tact and all of it has nothing to do with the way things work around here. Transforming a life takes much more than money and meals could possibly provide, and the transforming of lives is exactly what suffering people need, in addition to practical things.
4) In western culture we think we know everything. We think we have things figured out because our quality of life is better. We’ve been “educated” so we walk into a situation and go “blah blah blah” until everyone is sick of us. We’ve got systems that hum along without us. The world hums along without us as we work ourselves silly, and then stressed out and wealthy, we wither away in sterilized senior homes with overworked nurses who can’t remember our names. We build systems not friendships. And the systems all fail us in the end. It’s ironic. And it’s inhumane.
5) Giving for us is only out of surplus. We sequester off a portion of our storehouses and think that makes us generous. We think it’s our ticket into heaven. On the African continent, good people give everything they have. I’ve witnessed it and received it. It’s an altogether different type of giving that I want to fully adopt. However I’m not sure I can fit a camel through the eye of a needle. Fingers crossed though.
So we drove to Maposa. The return to Zambia continues. And we went to visit a family of orphans that is being cared for and fed by a group of local women. Hands at Work then support this community based feeding point, which is what I’m a part of. Anyways, we walked to this little house and found this cute grandpa named Gideon. The kids were away but we stayed and visited with Gideon anyways. This family has been hit by tragedy but has been able to overcome it to an extent. They have no hospital anywhere close by, which Gideon says is a huge problem for the local people. He spoke excellent English because he worked for a manufacturing company when he was younger. Now he just farms his land and looks after his grandkids that lost their parents in 2009. We don’t know how they died. Although there’s obviously a great deal of hardship in this story I left Gideon’s house feeling encouraged. He and the children’s grandma have a home and a garden and a field of maize to sell. It seems as though these children will be alright for the time being. Thank God.
We walked to the next home feeling happy and hopeful because it seemed like this community was doing a great job gathering around orphans and looking after them. After many disheartening visits to suffering orphan families, visiting Gideon's house was a breath of fresh air.
Meandering through thick bushes and tall grass, I heard in the distance sounds of children laughing and playing. I expected another family getting ready to eat lunch, so it caught me off guard to find a yard littered with trash, and a group of kids running around and yelling at each other between two door-less and decrepit shacks. It was like walking into “Lord of the Flies”. Potato sacks were strung together to cover gaping holes in the crumbling bricks in an attempt to keep out the dust and wind. Three children came forward from the rest, covered in dirt and wearing especially tattered clothes. I noticed the youngest boy hiding behind his older brother. This little boy hadn’t had a haircut in some time, which is a good indicator that he doesn’t have a mother looking after him. He looked confused, his eyes darting around from stranger to stranger. His head wobbled from sensory overload and our eyes caught. “He’s autistic”, I thought immediately, and he quickly averted his stare, unsure what to do with a foreign face. “This is Benny”, said the local care worker who had led us to the house. She pulled him closer and explained that she’s the only person who bothers much to look after these three. Benny’s hands fidgeted as he bit his lip and stared at the ground. Their parents have abandoned them and gone to Kitwe. The father returns from time to time with a bag of maize meal, but they hadn’t seen him in a couple months. The oldest boy was 16, a really handsome kid named Jacob. His shirt had one button left. Embarrassed he tried hiding his one shoeless foot as he explained how he’s had the same shoes for a long time and the right one burst because his foot has gotten too big. Now he has no shoes for school so he doesn’t know what to do. He hopes he can fix them, or that the teacher won’t notice because he’ll get thrown out. School is free in Zambia but you have to be clean and presentable to attend. I have a hard time understanding that children may not be able to go to school because they can’t afford a bar of soap, however that is a definite reality here. I liked Jacob right away and could tell he’s a bright kid with good social skills. We started talking about school and I asked him what his favorite subject was. He said math, but we found out later he hadn’t yet learned multiplication. Also I noticed Jacob was really small for his age, a good indicator that he hasn’t been getting enough food during his first growth spurt. This may impair his stature for life. He’s got a good face though, amazing smile and big dimples that brought his whole face to life when he laughed as I sputtered out broken Bemba like a clown.
The middle child is a girl named Constance, she and Benny are both 13 and they are fraternal twins, though Benny has an obvious mental disability impairing him and a misshapen foot that prevents him from walking to the feeding point. Constance is beautiful and their shack has no door, which makes her particularly susceptible to sexual predators if Jacob can’t protect her. It’s possible she’s been abused already because children in such vulnerable circumstances are often an easy target for opportunistic evil. Should they miraculously receive food packages or housing supplies, these things might be taken by neighbors. Basically nothing is easy for kids like this, without parents and without any semblance of security they are left prone to suffer.
I’ve talked to a couple people from Hands at Work here in Zambia, truly amazing people who have come out of all kinds of difficult backgrounds, not unlike the horrors I’ve just described, and together we’ve made a plan to get Jacob school shoes and to make sure that a meal goes home to Benny who can’t walk to the feeding point. These local people have stood up to fight for a different future for children like Jacob and Constance and Benny. But still. I can’t help feeling that whatever they are able to do for this family, it won’t be near enough. The needs of these three kids are so far beyond any human help that can be offered. They need these practical things too, obviously. They need a house that’s safe and waterproof for starters, a reliable food source, water (for heaven’s sake), and some sort of income for clothes and just to keep their little family afloat. And mostly they need parents, people that actually care they exist. The fact that their parents are alive and willingly abandoned them makes it more difficult for social services to intervene, though that service is functioning poorly at best. But these kid’s problems are so much deeper than that. It’s a whole different level of atrocious. On every plane of existence they face obstacles far too big to overcome without some sort of divine intervention. So please, for these three people that have cracked deep into my heart, pray. Pray hard.