Last month our summer travels took my partner, Merv, and me to Zambia to
visit our daughter Jane Wallis who is a PeaceCorps health care worker. Together
we went on the requisite safaris and saw extraordinary wildlife, but the most
impactful part of our trip was the visit to Jane's village where she has been
living and working for the past 14 months.
Jane’s village is deep in Southern Province, an hour from the town of Choma.
The village is off a bumpy dirt road amidst fields and brush, and consists of several groupings of huts - each grouping belonging to a family - and all within a stone’s throw of each other.
Jane resides in her own brick hut, no larger than a typical bedroom, with a door and one small window. She also has her own chimbuzi (better known as an outhouse) and chisambilo or bathing shelter, both a short walk from her hut.
Her host family lives next door in a similarly sized hut - except that it houses four people - her host mother and father, their nephew and their youngest son Junior.
The chikuta, an open-air thatched shelter, is where all cooking occurs over a wood fire - the main dish being a thick sticky cornmeal concoction called nshima. Nshima is the staple at all meals, and the children are unfamiliar with the concept of having any variety when they eat.
A second nearby thatched structure is where eating and socializing occurs. The meal begins with the washing of hands with water poured from a pitcher held over a bowl. This water is in turn dumped into the garden – nothing goes to waste. The nshima is shared from a communal platter, taken with your hands and molded into a round hunk, which is then eaten with a "relish". Relish is typically sautéed rape or cabbage, Zambia’s two staple vegetables. Jane’s “family” slaughtered three Guinea fowl in honor of our arrival, but this was a luxurious, generous and costly “gift.”
No one in the village owns a car. They walk, bicycle or hitch-hike to get around. There is neither running water nor electricity so all activity starts at dawn and concludes at dusk. Precious water – for cooking, bathing, clothes-washing, drinking - is collected 2 kilometers away at the borehole. ids manage to transport two 50-gallon containers strapped to the back of a bicycle IF they are fortunate enough to own one. Women balance water jugs atop their heads. The borehole is also a center for socializing while waiting your turn at the water pump.
Dinner dishes are washed by hand with water from a jug, and laid atop a wooden rack to be dried by the sun. Clothes are scrubbed by hand and hung out on lines to dry, but beware as lone cows enjoy chewing shirts and trousers.
Guinea fowl, goats, chickens, roosters, dogs, cats and a solitary pig run free. At dusk, herds of cattle trudge by in a well-ordered line heading home to retire for the evening.
Dozens of locals stopped by during our stay to welcome us and talk for hours. Many spoke English and we enjoyed learning about their lives and the then upcoming Zambian presidential election which they take very seriously. They also had opinions about our election madness.
While Jane speaks the native language Tonga, she is encouraged by the mothers to speak English so the children can learn. Before bedtime, Jane tells them fairy tales in English with one of the older girls, Jatrine, translating to Tonga. The little girls loved the colorful ribbons that adorned the gifts we brought for Jane, tying them in their hair and posing happily for photos. A box of Tootsie Roll pops made for a special treat.
The entire extended family, young and old, clamored for us to snap their photos. They were overjoyed at seeing the result on the camera screen. With no mirrors to hand, this was the way they could actually see what they looked like.
The smiling children of all ages play together; volleyball, soccer, tree climbing. They share a single coloring book - with one child coloring one page and a second coloring the one opposite, then passing the book to the next pair of kids. Simple pleasures.
Junior, the son of Jane’s host family, proudly shows us his menagerie of 30 small cows and elephants he has sculpted with dirt and water and spittle. From somewhere he has found a small toy axle with wheels to which he attached a length of cord to create a cart for two of his mud cows. He plays with them for hours on end.
An existence so foreign from our lightning fast pace in NYC where emails must be returned in split second fashion and phone calls scheduled in order to fit into each other's over-scheduled schedules. Tick tock. Chop chop. Not enough time to do it all. But is there? The trip has made me take stock. What is the nature of happiness? Is a slower existence more rewarding? If we allow space to reflect and just be, do we eliminate anxiety and stress? If we don't know we are missing something, would we miss it? There are no snap answers but our time in Zambia caused me to pause and realize how circumstance has landed me in this time and in this place of privilege and plenty. And that even so, there are still lessons to be learnt from a small group of people in a village halfway around the world in a place where the sun provides the only light.