Hakuna Mto Usiyo Na Nyoka: There is no river without a snake

America: The land of the free.

This is what my Zambian friend tells me anyway. As I stand in the stationary isle of a supermarket in Lusaka, I can’t help but feel uneasy when our Zambian friend, Dominic, tells us that he thinks the U.S. is the best country because of the freedom that people have. I look around at the six other faces in this circle that we have created in the middle of the isle, and I wonder if my peers feel the same uneasiness that I am feeling. Discomfort because I love my country, but there are also things that I deeply disagree with. Discomfort because I feel guilty for having these feeling about my own country, especially since I’m from a town that holds the flag high and celebrates American pride with a rodeo each year. Discomfort because even though I have these feelings, I typically choose not to acknowledge them. Discomfort because I am fortunate and live a privileged life in Spokane.

What are the odds that after Kelen and I had this conversation, we were the first two students to post on the blog? It must be meant to be. When I first heard that I would be the second student to write on the blog, my stomach dropped. Right away my mind went to thinking how in the heck am I supposed to write about everything we are experiencing right now, when I haven’t even had time to take a deep breath and let it sink in? Today is our fifth day on this journey, and I have not yet reached 6 p.m. without feeling absolutely wiped out. I don’t think it is because we are physically doing a lot (except we quickly found out that walking on the sandy roads is not as easy as Mama Katendi makes it look, as she is constantly having to stop to wait for us to catch up) but rather each day feels more like a mental and emotional roller coaster.

While on our two-hour flight from Lusaka to Zambezi yesterday, I felt a sense of freedom that I have never felt before. My limbs felt light, and I had this corny smile that I couldn’t wipe off my face. I felt so blissfully happy, but right away I noticed that I was trying to prepare myself for this feeling to wear away, because I thought it was too good to be true. This isn’t me. I have never been carefree or have had a simple life. Even as a child I was high maintenance and a burden to others. I still vividly remember those specific nights crying to my mom at the age of five, asking her if I will really just be gone once I die, or when I used to be so scared to sleep over at a friend’s houses because I wet the bed at an ungodly age. Not only can I still vividly relive each of those moments, but it is still something that I frequently hear from others. Worrier. High maintenance. The baby. Spoiled. I hear these words, and I don’t feel like they define who I am, but at some point I have internalized them because if others think it is true than they must be right. This has been a problem for me most of my life. I don’t trust myself and I am always trying to be someone different. Someone better. Those of you who didn’t know me as a kid are probably shocked to hear this. Most people now would describe me as confident, kind, and maybe a little wild. I have learned to be a master of hiding my emotions and only showing those that I think others approve of. I am constantly pushing myself to try new things and be adventurous because part of me thinks I am incapable and still doesn’t trust myself.
Yesterday Kelen, Elly, and I climbed to the top of a water tower while waiting for our bush plane to come pick us up. I first watched Kelen gracefully grab the slanted piece of metal and hoist her body up while quickly maneuvering to the ladder, which started about 8 feet up from the ground. I knew I wanted to try. I followed Kelen steps, almost to the ladder, but not nearly close enough to let go and try and reach up. I had somehow gotten my body in a position that did not feel natural, and I could not convince myself that I could make it up without falling and breaking something. I looked to my friends with panic on my face, half expecting them to tell me to give up and come down, but rather they encouraged me, trying to help talk me through different ways to reach the ladder. I paused, took a deep breath, told myself I could do it, and I went. The next thing I knew, I had reached the top. My stomach was fluttery, and I was out of breath from the excitement, but I did it. I reached the top, and I felt like enough.

As I am sitting on my bed under my mosquito net, listening to the rooster’s crow and children sing, I still am in disbelief that this is my life. Why me? How did I get this opportunity to be here in Zambezi to hear people’s stories and do life with them? When little Grace grabbed my hand yesterday and told me that she loved me and asked if I would be her friend, why did she pick me? Sometimes I wonder if I am still that anxious little girl trapped in her own body and mind–afraid of the world and incapable of achieving my dreams. But then I remember that I am just me, and that is good enough. Yes, there are times when I get anxious. Yes, there are times when I don’t feel like I am enough. Yes, there are times when I get upset… But there are so many other times when I feel just right. I am doing this life, and I am doing it big because I don’t want to miss out on an opportunity to smile and share a moment with someone.

Kisu Mwane,
Jessica Wilmes

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12 Responses to Hakuna Mto Usiyo Na Nyoka: There is no river without a snake

  1. Katie Barger says:

    Wow, I read so much of myself in your words. I actually found my heart beating fast as I looked at that picture down the ladder and asked myself if I would have followed those two crazy chindeles up the water tower. While I’d like to say yes, I really don’t know if I would have, especially since it is so early into the journey. But you did! You are already saying YES before you’ve even arrived to Zambezi. That is something to be really proud of. You’ve always been one to carry yourself with a sense of wisdom and grace, and I look forward to learning more from you in this blog and when you return. You are enough. You are enough. You are enough.
    All my love, Katie Barger

    P.S. This picture of you in the sunset made me tear up. You are both so beautiful.
    P.P.S. I hope you all have a great time at your home stays and I also want to wish you good luck and patience at your first Zambian mass!!! I hope you all dance a lot and get to hold a baby. Kisu Kisu Mwane.

  2. Abbey Martin and Joe Johnston says:

    Hi everyone!
    Joe and I are at Crafted in Coeur d’Alene, and I just gave the nastiest glare to our waitress for “interrupting” our reading of all the blog posts 🙂
    Thank you guys for your heartfelt words and honest exploration of self and purpose and existentialism. It’s making me teary eyed…and proud.
    My love and care and respect to each and every single one of you. Care for one another and create beauty.
    Abbey and Joe.

  3. Jeffrey Dodd says:

    Hi, Jessica.

    Though I haven’t had a chance to really get to know you, I find your post eerily familiar. And your vulnerability admirable. Thanks for sharing so deeply, so early. I hope you and Kelen get a chance for another post at the end of your trip; I can’t wait to see how the weeks shape you both. I wish I could tell you that the days will somehow become less emotionally turbulent. They don’t, but you will get even better at processing and integrating what they hold.

    Anyhow, best wishes, and thanks again.

    I’ll leave by sharing this Mary Oliver poem. It’s powerful, and I wish I had heard it when I your age.


    by Mary Oliver

    You do not have to be good.
    You do not have to walk on your knees
    For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
    You only have to let the soft animal of your body
    love what it loves.
    Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
    Meanwhile the world goes on.
    Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
    are moving across the landscapes,
    over the prairies and the deep trees,
    the mountains and the rivers.
    Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
    are heading home again.
    Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
    the world offers itself to your imagination,
    calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
    over and over announcing your place
    in the family of things.

  4. Emily Handy says:

    Living in Zambezi with anxiety is no easy feat, but it sounds like you are already conquering it. Your burdens can also become your graces here – that’s the beauty of this place.

    Good luck on your homestays, friends! Eat the food they give you – some of it will be delicious and some of it will be scary. Godspeed in Zambezi Mass, there is literally no advice I can give you.

    Taylor – Hunter and I are both sending you all the love in the world. You’re where you’re meant to be.

  5. Blair Zykan says:


    It’s so great to be reading daily thoughts from Zags in Zambize again. It’s Elly’s Dad writing. Loved hearing about the water tower adventure and the photo at the top. Please tell Elly I’m thinking about her, and can’t wait to see more pictures of you all having the time of your lives. Enjoy!

    Blair Zykan

  6. Amy says:

    We love reading the blog each day. Each of you help us get a glimpse of all you are experiencing. Enjoy it all!

    I can’t wait to hear about attending mass. I’m intrigued!

    Blessings to you all. Love you Momo❤

  7. Sophie Anton says:

    This post is so vivid and beautiful! Jessica, thank you for sharing so many moments with me the past few years where I couldn’t help but smile because of your lovely spirit! I can just picture you finding so much to smile about in Zambezi and sharing your infectious joy throughout the journey! I’m sending my love and good thoughts to you. I hope you know that you are more than enough and I’m full of gratitude knowing that I can call you my friend. And don’t worry about the sandy roads! You will eventually be able to walk beside Mama Katendi after numerous walks on the road! Good wishes to you all!

  8. Riley Ramage says:

    Jessica – The way you are able to be so open and vulnerable with your anxieties and fears about this place is so inspiring to me. Thank you for putting words to the feelings that so many of us have experienced, especially on those terrifying water tower ladders! Continue to find ways to test yourself and say yes to things that seem scary.

    Kelen – Wow wow! Thank you for being willing to share your experiences so early on in your trip. It makes my heart so happy to hear how all of these experiences are landing on you and I’m inspired by the way you see the world around you. You have so beautifully articulated the importance of challenging oneself, especially in a place like Zambezi. I am so incredibly proud of you.

    Taylo, Ellychoochie, and Maddie Lebrun– I am holding you all so close to my heart and keeping you in my prayers as you take on the trials and triumphs of everyday life in Zambezi. I cannot wait to hear the words you will soon share with us and see the ways in which you are being pushed to grow and learn about yourselves. I wish I could be there to see how beautiful Zambia is on all of you. Love you love you love you.

    To the rest of my Zags in Zambia – I hope that homestays were challenging and fulfilling and incredible. Enjoy church tomorrow (or this morning, I guess) and continue to soak in every moment of this surreal experience.

    Kisu mwane,
    Riley Ramage

  9. Brittany Wilmes says:

    It’s good to hear your voice in these words. Your post put a smile on my face—you’re asking yourself the hard questions already and challenging both your (perceived) limitations and your sense of self. Journeys like this one you’re on are difficult but always worth it. I can tell you know that already.

    Reading your post, I thought of this quote from Rilke:
    “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

    We are all so proud of you. You are always a blessing, never a burden. Sending my love to you and all of the Zags in Zambezi. Give Kris a big hug from me!


  10. Moira Andrews says:

    As always, it’s wonderful to hear from that beautiful heart of yours. I miss you. Thank you for sharing your honest feelings with where you are, where you are from and where you are going. Keep spreading that joyful and bright smile. You are where you are meant to be.
    Love you lots,

  11. Justin O'Farrell says:


    All I can say is thank you. Thank you for the honesty and the depth that you shared with this post. As a cheesy metaphor, I hope you continue to climb those towers. I know you’ll continue to learn so much throughout this trip and I can’t wait to hear about the ups and the downs. You rock. I love and miss you.

    Justin O’Farrell

    PS I think I commented too late, so I hope you still see this!!

  12. Kathy Wilmes says:

    Jess – so happy to hear about your adventures thus far. I do have to admit that the water tower made me a little bit nervous…. I am so happy that you have this wonderful opportunity to immerse yourself into the Zambezi culture along with your fellow classmates and friends. I will admit that I resisted the idea for quite some time, but honestly it was out of fear of the unknown. I enjoyed reading your post but want you to know that you are one of God’s greatest blessings in my life and never a burden. Ever.

    Can’t wait for you to bring all of your stories of adventure home with you.

    Love you so very much!


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