I got on the other side.
I actually made it down several of those paths I kept seeing from the windows of the vehicles where I had been sitting and staring longingly at the beauty of Zambia. The first dirt pocked road I made it down ended at Yvonne’s house in Matero, a section of Lusaka.
That’s Yvonne there stirring the pot of nshima with her homegrown maize in the background. Nshima is a staple here in Zambia, and I’ve even had a turn making it over the coals of the brazier. My muscles were given a workout trying to prevent lumps from forming as I whipped that cooking stick around the pot. In the photo you can also see Sharon and Meshach who are about to play Uno with Yvonne’s younger son John and me when we walk in that door. The reason I managed to spend the night at Yvonne’s house and have her serve as my escort for a trip to Zambia’s Copperbelt region is because Yvonne’s brother Chungu Mwila is a student at the University of Southern Maine. My dear friend and colleague Alain Nkulu introduced me to him as well as Chungu’s sister and brother-in-law Sally and Maxwell Chikuta one hot day last summer, and because of those simple introductions made in Alain’s home in Portland, Maine, I have been invited into the lives of complete strangers. Alain, Chungu, Maxwell and Sally’s generosity reminds me of the epitaph I saw just a few weeks ago when I was wandering around a cemetery in Victoria Falls with the rest of my family. We happened upon John Neil Wilson’s grave and the words engraved on his tombstone moved us.
“Your name, your deeds will be as legible on the hearts you left behind as the stars on the brow of evening.”
That is my new desire–to live that kind of life.
We leave the next morning, Yvonne and I. We cram into the minibus along with workers from this area of town headed into downtown Lusaka. We buy a ticket for one of the big buses going north to the Copperbelt to visit Chungu and Yvonne’s aunt and uncle. And hours later when we land, we are somewhere near Kalulushi in the bush.
It is like arriving in a novel. It is quiet: complete and utter peace. Water is drawn from the well. Lemons and mangoes grow on the tress. The two live without money. Chungu’s Uncle Charles is using the limbs from trees to build a drying rack for the dishes. The “rope” he uses comes from the fiber of the bark of a tree. Chungu’s Aunt Bana Mpundu is cooking in one hut with the vegetables she has grown and the chickens she has raised. Charles worked for the mines and was put on “early retirement” 20 years ago while still a young man in his fifties (my age!). He was given enough money to buy the house and the family existed on just the little that remained for over a year. That is the last time there has been a steady course of income. Occasionally they sell fruit from their trees or crops from their garden on the roadside, but mostly they live there “by God’s grace.” Both of them glow, literally radiate an inner light that appears borne of contentment. The kind the rest of us keep chasing, but here it is. Just quietly sustaining itself without any gadgets or distractions. I am completely and utterly happy in this place of dignity and self-sufficiency. This is the Outdoor Experience I have been wanting. And the next morning, I do not want to leave, but there is a mother who needs to see her daughter.
Yvonne and I head to Chingola. I do not realize it, but we are on the bus with a pal. Yes, I have become one of those people my students have told me about. I am driving in a crowded minibus with a chicken. My chicken. Like all the children on all the public transportation we’ve taken, the chicken is well behaved, but I don’t know if this will save him from what I am concerned will be his fate when we arrive.
We arrive in Chingola and I go down another deeply rutted dirt road. Yvonne is a mother happy to see her daughter Loveness again. We spend the afternoon at Chikola Secondary school with Loveness and her friend Matilda, and I watch very talented teenagers sing in the chorus, dance and play drums in the culture club and recite poetry in the drama club. I am back in a familiar venue–the company of adolescents. The evening is spent back at the house with (another) Sharon and her son, more nshima and dancing.
Later in the week, I am invited to Mtendere, another section of Lusaka, to visit at the home of Naomi, a life long resident of Lusaka who works for my niece. She and I have spent time talking during the day as she makes the house sparkle, and I am honored by her openness. Naomi’s family welcomes me and I am struck by how easily everyone speaks to me and tells me about how even with a Secondary School diploma it is difficult for a young person to obtain a job and stay employed. We sip coke and I listen to the stories very different from the ones of the students I work with in Portland, Maine. Yet, like many young adults, there is hope and optimism for change.
Everywhere I have gone I have been greeted by friendly, giving people willing to talk and tell me their stories. I am told Zambia’s country slogan is, “The Real Africa,” and I have seen a genuineness here. There is no pretense. Life is lived in the here and now.