Wake Up Call: I’m in Africa


After almost four weeks in Zambia, I am feeling a range of emotions. This past week, it finally struck me: I am in Africa. I know it sounds ridiculous – I have been here for almost a full month! – and where else would we be followed by children screaming “Chindele! Chindele! How are you?”

In America, because of our fast-paced and always-on-the-go attitude, days, weeks, and eventually months and years, go by before we even realize it. All of a sudden, time has slipped through our fingers; retrospectively, you realize things that, if you had just taken a little extra time to stop and notice, or cancelled that last thing on your list to stay and enjoy who or what was in front of you, you might not be as struck when you catch yourself actually “being in the moment.”

This same, sudden realization came to me when I was studying abroad this spring in Florence. It wasn’t until the last couple of weeks that I fully embraced the feeling that this place of living, teaching, and experiencing was my home. Something had shifted inside me.

Being in Zambia is nothing like I have ever imagined before.  Becoming used to the American, fast-paced notion of seeing the goal and not letting anything get in your way, making your destination the only stop along the way, and not letting other distractions hinder your success or accomplishment of a task, is something that I have mastered. When I see a goal, I put my blinders on and keep my focus until the end, giving it everything I have to get there as efficiently and as best as I can. Being in Zambia it all changed; it was no longer about the set goals and not letting anything get in the way, but more like slowing down and seeing what is happening around you.

This concept sounds so simple, and yet it took me what seemed like almost a month to understand. I feel so lucky to have been a part of the Education group. I love my team and don’t think I would have been able to get through this journey without them. Unlike me, they all had the ability to slow down and enjoy the moment, and to stop and see the happenings that are going on right in front of you. I am studying to be a teacher, so you would think I would go in knowing what to do in a situation like this, teaching literacy, but that was not the case.

Two nights ago I broke down at the moment of realization that maybe being a teacher is not what I am supposed to be. I am so head driven and so good at seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, that I miss the amazing little moments around me. In this case, working for two weeks and seeing a light at the end of this tunnel for the 6th graders, with various literacy levels, was something I felt like I would never be able to make clear. I remember coming home day after day wondering why I couldn’t see improvement, what I was doing wrong, why I couldn’t establish the relationships like everyone in the Ed group could. It took tears, and then some more to truly realize that this super speed life isn’t for all, and not something for me.

The thoughts ran through my head of, “should I even be a teacher? Am I even making an impact on these kids?  I have asked this student what her favorite color is three times and all she said is “yes,” why can’t you get through to her?” I started noticing that while I recognized the faces behind the convent gates that yell Stefen or Steph, I really didn’t know their names. Maybe if I were to take a few extra moments of trying to get to know those faces and feel like I was actually creating that bond, instead of moving on to the next thing. Bawling due to the realization that that’s not how they work and maybe that’s not how I should work either, hit me.

This moment of reflecting on myself and having that time to experience, the “now,” was something that literally felt like it needed to slap me in the face in order to see and understand the hard way (the tears), before the understanding of the good intentional way.

As I left again another place with another piece of my heart, the space left gives me to grow and gain that understanding I have been longing for, for understanding my self, realizing that I can be a good teacher and that I will with the help of this experience, and what the Zambian people are so good at: giving what they have and doing it in love.

Today was the day that I never could see nor wanted to see. I had to pack all the chitenges, baskets, and new Zambian engraved values into my backpack for the journey home. The bittersweet moment set in as we headed to the airstrip with hundreds of smiling and waving children screaming “Chindele! I will miss you,” and our new friends holding our hands as we approach the bush planes. I was excited to go, because I know that in less than a week I will be home with my families, but I’m sad because these kids start having their eyes filled up with tears, as they know their friend they have connected with in the past month is now leaving and probably will be the last time I see them again.

I look into their eyes one last time before I climb into the little 5 person plane and tell them to study hard and stay in school and to never forget to work hard and remember us. The little sad face looks a little bit at ease at the sudden memory that they know we care and that they will always be in our hearts.

As Donna Hatch says, “for every goodbye, God provides a hello.”

I am so blessed and so amazed at the opportunity I have had in Zambezi. Without having this reflection and sudden realization of “being in Africa,” I wouldn’t be able to say that I am learning more about myself. Throughout the long workdays at Chilenga Primary, growing as an individual, seeing the amazing sunsets, trying on every chitenge possible, and learning in ways that challenge me left and right, has been something I wish I could go on and on about. I never thought I would be able to say that “I served myself,” and not just others, and learning the importance of it, would be something I would say.

Mom, Dad, Up Chuck (Charlie), Big T (Tommy), Jeter Babes (pup), Oma, and all my family members, I am thinking of you all and pray every night for you. Can’t wait to share more of my stories, memories, and experiences with you.  Thanks for giving me this wonderful opportunity! Love you all, so glad to share my experience with you. Don’t worry I am taking lots of pics!

Kisu Mwane & Love you lots!


Stephanie Leonard, Class of 2016

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4 Responses to Wake Up Call: I’m in Africa

  1. Dennis Leonard says:

    I have enjoyed reading your blog, great job. I can’t wait to hear more about your trip and the new friends you have made in Zambezi. I am glad you really enjoyed your trip, I am looking forward to seeing you next week.

  2. Katie McCann says:

    Ahh Stephanie you struck a cord with me. My experience teaching literacy at Chilenga as an aspiring teacher was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, as I’m sure you can relate. While serving in Zambezi leads to struggles and challenges for everyone, when those challenges concern your career choice the emotions run much higher. As I can tell by reading your blog, you’ve realized that this opportunity allows for personal growth on every single level, and you will leave knowing yourself better. As hard as the experience may have been, I can promise you will never receive better training for your life as a teacher. I am so proud of you and all the rest of the Zags who taught at Chilenga and I’m confident you each had such an impact on those students’ lives! Thank you for the honesty in your post Stephanie, and thank you for the photo!! It made my heart smile. (Hi Mr. J)

    Congrats to each and everyone of you on these past 3 weeks- you did it! Although I know the goodbyes are hard, enjoy the upcoming vacation portion of this beautiful journey. Try not to eat too much at the Royal Livingston. Trust me, your stomachs wont be happy. Also, you can never have too many baby elephant pics. Take an extra one for me!
    Josh, you rock. Thank you for making this trip possible each summer. I can’t wait to chat with you about this year’s experience- please give me a call once your back and settled in the Spo!!

    ALL of my love to each one of you,
    Katie McCann

  3. Michelle Brajcich says:

    Hello Zamily!

    Thank you for all of the lovely reflections over the past three weeks. I went to Zambezi last year and have enjoyed checking in on your blog daily and reliving some of the same frustrations, laughs, and moments of pure joy that I experienced last year. I cannot believe you are already departing Zambezi. I remember how difficult and seemingly unreal it was to walk back to the airstrip, let go of the hands clinching yours for the last time, and look down from a plane window at the town with which you were just falling in love.

    Saying goodbye was extremely difficult for me last year and something I continue to struggle with. Although many of us try to console ourselves as we say goodbye by saying we will see these smiling faces we have grown to love again, like you said, Stephanie, this is realistically the last time we will see our friends face to face. Leaving Zambezi, I struggled with fearing Zambians would perceive me as a tourist, flying into their life to take a look around and then abandon them to get on with my life. The mere fact that I had the luxury to choose to enter and leave seemed to impart some degree of inherent inequality. I would be lying if I said I have completely overcome this feeling. And yet, as the year has passed, I have come to realize that the seeds we sowed in Zambezi continue to blossom and did not die with my departure. Although I may likely not see many of my Zambian friends again, I believe that the experience we shared was not a temporary, isolated vacation from real life. I believe the moments we shared together continue to have a shaping effect on all of us and in this way neither of us has merely been a tourist in the other’s life.

    Over the past year, as I have continued to process my Zambian experience, I have realized that so much of my experience was rooted in and continues to grow out of feelings, not out of specific actions or events. As much as I wished I could take a vivid picture of every moment and remember every detail of Zambia, I knew and have come to the realization that this is impossible. Last week, I went for a run and as I smiled and waved at passersby, I thought back to my morning runs in Zambia and suddenly realized I could not remember how to say: “How are you? Fine” in Luvale. How could such a once vivid detail have faded from my memory? (Obviously, I rushed home and pulled out my journals to refresh my Luvale vocabulary). This experience helped me on my journey to realize that Zambezi does not need to live on in us through little details. It truly lives on in us is in our soul, through the way it made and will continue to make us feel. I may forget the words. I may even forget people’s names or what the route to the river looked like. But, I will never forget the warm feel of all the hello’s on a morning run, the welcome of singing voices, the compassion of the hospital workers, the unfettered joy and peace of sitting around a Dipalata campfire. For me, it has been the feelings infused into my soul in Zambezi that have helped me to overcome the “goodbye” and adjust to the return.

    One of the most difficult parts of the return is, as has been mentioned in previous blogs, the question: How was Africa? I think the mere fact that SO MUCH of the experience of Zambezi is captured in feelings makes it incredibly difficult to answer such a question. How can you convey feelings in words? I always coped with “the question” by attempting to explain little details of Zambian life rather than attempting to capture the core of the experience, because feelings were too daunting to tackle.

    Another difficult part of the return was and is, for me, wondering how to continue to live what we learn in Zambia. I did not want to forget Zambia and leave it as a blip on the timeline of my life. And yet, as others have mentioned, we cannot live a fully Zambian life in America. Although I still struggle with this dilemma, I have come to acknowledge the value of living a life founded on the feelings etched on me by Zambia. Even if I am not tackling the economic and social problems in America or Zambia, I can make improvements to my life by nurturing the seeds sown in my Zambia enriched soul – sharing the compassion, seeking unfettered joy for myself as well as others.

    Everyone processes goodbye in different ways. It will likely be hard for you as it continues to be for me. Over the past year, it has helped me the most to realize the importance of treasuring feelings over little details. Zambia lives on in our soul through the feelings it has permanently sketched on our hearts. I know goodbye is hard, but I hope you trust that Zambia will continue to live on in you. No matter how much you “forget,” you can never truly forget if you truly care and if you have truly “felt” Zambia. Have fun in Livingstone, be amazed by the safari (especially the highly underrated frolicking impalas), and take your time processing Zambia when you get home. It’s a task for a lifetime not a day!

  4. Brittany Olson says:

    Dearest Stephanie,
    I am so thrilled you’ve been able to participate in such a wonderful, life-changing experience! You are such a mature young woman and your ability to take a step back and look at the bigger picture, truly is a blessing! Not everyone has that ability. I know this teaching experience will stay in your heart forever and you’ll learn so much from it! I cannot wait to hear all your stories and I hope I can see your pictures, too! Safe travels home and I know your family can’t wait to wrap their arms around you! With love, Brittany

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