May 18, 2018, 09:45 hours
The bush plane we are in slowly begins to descend as we approach the Zambezi airstrip. I look over the metal roofs, tall green mango trees, and the golden brown sand that coats the Zambezi streets. We fly over the single paved road in Zambezi and I turn around to Sanna in shock. Our eyes lock with a look of “what were we thinking?” Our bush plane makes a sharp turn toward the gravel airstrip and my eyes begin to fill with tears. I look down and see children from all sides running as fast as they can to the single airport building. A pit drops in my stomach and I feel goose bumps form over my skin. I turn back to Sanna, a single tear running down my face. The corners of my mouth stretch as far as they can, showing the most uncontrollable smile I’ve experienced. Our plane smoothly lands, and I feel overwhelming waves of shock, excitement, love and joy. A few minutes later, our plane is parked and we are exiting through the small cubby doors. The sole of my Chaco sandal hits the hot rusty red gravel road and I look up to see a swarm of children running my way. I turn my head and notice the Chilenga school choir singing, “We welcome you” in a soulful and loving melody. I would soon learn this to be a common sound in Zambezi. That moment was filled with emotions of overwhelming love, joy, excitement, homesickness and fear of the unknown.
Before embarking on this journey, I inevitably conceived expectations and predictions about what I would experience while in Zambezi. From the moment I stepped out of the bush plane, my experiences failed to meet those expectations, and at other times exceeded those expectations.
Before arriving in Zambezi, I had many conversations with friends who had previously gone on the trip. From their stories, I expected I would meet many friendly and wise adults that I would form authentic and long-lasting relationships with. I imagined that I would stay in touch with them over the occasional email and frequent Facebook message. A week into being in Zambezi, I realized that my expectations of forming authentic and vulnerable life-long friendships with adults in just three short weeks might have been too ambitious. I spent most of my days at Chilenga teaching 6thand 7thgraders. I began to feel down on myself as I watched my fellow Zags making friends and finding their “person” in Zambezi. I questioned my ability to make friends and sometimes wondered whether I was more surface level than I thought. I struggled with the language barrier and finding appropriate questions to ask. I was confused because of the hospitality I experienced and how I didn’t see that transferring over into my relationships. As the weeks went on, I continued struggling with this. I was creating meaningful relationships, but they weren’t as epic and deep as I anticipated. I had to re-evaluate my situation and find meaning in the relationships I had created. I had to remind myself that I am enough, my hard work was enough, and most of all, my reflections on these experiences and the lessons I was learning were enough. I was reminded that, similar to at home, it takes me awhile to form deep relationships. I am good at socializing with new people, but it takes me awhile to call people “close friends”. Contrasting that, I also learned, that it is possible to connect on an authentic level with someone within three short weeks. I learned that people are inherently interested and curious. I learned that merely saying “hello” could lead to an hour-long conversation in the market. I learned that no matter how hard I try, I don’t control the narrative and I can’t force relationships, but I can choose to engage and do my best to know people on an authentic and meaningful level.
From talking to the same friends that had been to Zambezi, I expected the people to be very kind and caring. However, those expectations were far exceeded. From the moment my Chaco hit the road Zambezi, I felt a form of love and compassion I had never experienced. At home, it is typical for people to be polite in public and for us to express love toward those we are close to. However, in Zambezi, I felt an inexplicable form of love from the people I interacted with. The mamas worked endlessly all day to put food on our plates and to wash our clothes, but not once did I feel anything but love from them. The tailors welcomed us into their shops with warm smiles and curious conversations. The parish at Our Lady of Fatima Church hosted us in their homes, put on events for us, and honored our work and presence in the community. The teachers at Chilenga spoke with us warmly and enthusiastically as we shared stories of our families and learned from the differences in education at home and in Zambezi. Our students admired us and worked so hard to adapt to our teaching style as we adapted to their learning style. They greeted us each day with a smile, a hug, and a unified “Hello Madam, how are you today?” The people I passed on my daily walk to the market would first stare, and then greet me with a welcoming “Musana mwane” or “hello.” The Zambezi community had no reason to approach us with such love and grace, but they showed me that you don’t need a reason to love someone. As cheesy as this may sound, the Zambezi community showed me that that loving isn’t an action, it’s a lifestyle.
June 8, 2018, 06:04 hours
Ten of us haul our bags into the back of the white Land Cruiser. We have grown accustomed to the tight quarters and bumpy roads of Zambezi. What was uncomfortable and squished three weeks ago now seems like a daily routine. We are oddly quiet on our short drive from the convent to the Zambezi airstrip. The journeys we have gone on in the Cruiser often involve loud signing and boisterous laughs. This morning, our journey was silent. We were greeted at the airstrip by a group of people that three weeks ago were complete strangers, but this morning their faces seemed more like family than anything else. Three preteen boys approach us as we unload our oversized backpacks stuffed with new chitenge and woven grass baskets. I approach them, unsure of what to say, because I know that for the first time in my life, when I say “goodbye,” I really mean “goodbye,” not just “see you later.” A simple Zambian handshake and hug with cheek taps on both sides is enough to communicate my gratitude and love for these people. “Jackson,” I say, “thank you so much for being a great friend and for showing me around the market on my first day. I will always remember singing Justin Bieber songs with you.” He looks at me and giggles as if he knows exactly what I am talking about. “Yes,” he says, “I will remember.” I break our eye contact to the sight of Mama Katendi frantically carrying two bags and a winter coat as she paces down the long gravel road toward us. “Hello Mama,” I greet her with a big hug. “Ah,” she sighs, “I can’t believe you have to leave.” Mama walks away to greet the rest of the group and I lock eyes with Grace K. Our teary-eyed contact and warm embrace nonverbally communicate our mutual despair that our time here was quickly coming to an end. As we boarded the bush plane I was filled with love, joy, sadness, and tears because of my amazement at the impact the Zambezi community has had on me during the last three weeks.
p.s. Mom, Dad, Christian and Lorena, I miss you loads and can’t wait to see you in just 6 short days! Please tell Howie I say hi and that I miss him dearly. Also, if you could stock up on vegetables that would be much appreciated.
p.p.s. Our group safely arrived in Livingstone, Zambia, today. We are excited for the adventures of the next five days and look forward to sharing many stories when we return home.