Life changing. That’s what Zambia was. That sounds very cliché I feel, to say that it changed my life. To give two weeks in a different country enough credit to rock my world in such a way that who I am would be startled, shaken so much that my foundations would be rocked and I would start to live differently.
There is so much that races through my head as I recount the past two weeks. The people. The smells. The tastes. The laughter lingering in the air, hanging off the tips of tongues, tying bellies in knots, shrugging off the homesick feeling. Laughter is a cure for many things. The songs. The shouts. The gleeful, bright eyes. The ringing tone of a foreign language gliding out of surrounding mouths. The hot, hot sun. The cold chilly nights. The fun, the heartache, the longing to change.
If I must detail this trip for you, let me start with the people. Africa has had a pull on me for a number of years. I was born in Cote d’Ivoire and spent the early years of my life there before our family fled to Europe where my mother is from because of a civil war. I admire my parents greatly for safely and soundly moving an entire family from one continent to another. Maybe my pull to Africa has been because that is where I feel like I am from, I don’t know, but it’s there. The urge to return, to help, to give of my time and see change, to explore its beauty, its culture, its roots.
The people of Zambia generally sport a rich, dark skin tone; half of what I am, I suppose. As you trek through the villages, it is the norm to greet every person you see. In fact, it is considered rude not to greet your fellow acquaintances. The culture is refreshingly warm and in stark contrast to the culture here in Ireland where passing people by on the street without a glance in their direction is the norm. In the inner villages of Zambia, it is tradition and considered respectful that women would wear long, loose skirts that cover their legs. For me, it was a bit of a culture-shock because I am used to the liberal western dress code.
The people who we met on the trip, who stayed at camp with our team were sweet dears. Both from South Africa and from Zambia. We got to mix with others who were outreaching, others who were passionate about God’s word, others who wanted to absorb Africa’s beauty and also make a change. I hope that I have gained some long-term friends on this trip, people I will see again. I think that being around others who are passionate ignites in you a spark and so I return home carrying a flame that was lit for me by my surrounding peers. Passion passes on.
Connecting with the kids in the villages we visited presented a challenge. How do you cross a language and a cultural barrier, reaching through with a hand of love? The first village we went to, there were two of us ‘white’ girls on our team. We stood and smiled at the little children, not being able to speak their language, not knowing for a minute how to extend a warm welcome apart from a lit up face and the one greeting phrase we knew they would understand: ‘Eni sha’. So we danced for them. We put ourselves on the line to look silly singing ‘Father Abraham’ and teaching them the Macarena and one of Shakira’s songs. They loved it. They then sang for us. We may not have been able to speak the same language but we could still communicate, extending the delicate question: ‘Will you be my friend?’.
On the last day when it came time for us to say goodbye they enveloped us in hugs and kisses on our palms. We do not speak the same language or live in the same culture, but love still reaches across those barriers in a supernatural way, joining our hearts together. My heart broke a little bit leaving the village that day.
Africa is so beautiful. The people are beautiful. The scenery is beautiful. I sit here now, the long, sprawling planes of earthy dust and thick bush taking a position in my memory, my mind’s eye. Africa has undone something within me. It has released a wildness, a rugged nature that will not be satisfied by a sane, comfortable life. I crave adventure even more now. I crave newness.
It was a thrill to adventure across seas and return to that vast continent. A continent rich in its’ own culture and history. Africa hosts many diverse inhabitants, each with different traditions. We got to taste some local food called shima and cassava. The locals eat it with their fingers. The shima had a similar taste to rice and was white but was not separated into grains. The cassava was like potato in consistency but not really in taste and was prepared for us by the locals on the last day we visited their village. It was an honour that they would prepare food for us. They also sang and danced with us on that last day and it made my soul happy.
After the people there, my next favourite thing was the scenery. So many trees flanked the pothole infested roads and there was sand everywhere. Sand that looked white upon appearance but that latched onto skin in a grimy black nature. The sun was something else and left a golden, glowing sheen on my already sallow skin. It glistened off everything and created sparkles in the cool blue water. On the way to and from one of the villages we visited, we would pass a lake. A long vast, blue lake. It was breath-taking. The two jeeps transporting us would stop in a particular spot in front of the lake while our drivers searched for signal and we had a chance to exit the car and absorb the beauty of the vast stretch of water. The trip was filled with precious, delicate moments like these; twelve days just jam-packed with new experience and adventure. It was during one of these days when we were stopped at the lake that I experienced my first African sunset, well first as an adult anyway. Could I even describe to you the beauty and magnificence of this red splendour. The sun was a red ball in the sky, soft and glowing. I have always been impressed with the sky; it’s unreachable glory, it’s boasting enormity, but at that moment the large quality of the expansion above our heads paled in comparison to the beauty of the sinking red wonder. In a matter of minutes it dove down into the horizon and disappeared, leaving a sprinkling of awe in my heart, and a couple of pairs of eyes that had come alive. The beauty of creation is unmatched.
Another of my favourite moments was on the day after we had arrived at base in Mongu. We were given a tour of the facilities that have been built up over the years there; they have 8 homes for children, each with a live-in mother and an aunt who comes and visits. We got to go in and have a look around one. There was a bedroom for the boys and a bedroom for the girls. Nothing fancy but it was cosy. They have a school and a clinic as well and it was on our climb up a sandy hill to look at these that we, when we turned around, were treated to a delightful view of the extensive African planes. My oh my. They dominated the viewpoint for miles across and in the far-off distance they collided with the blue horizon. It was stunning.
Our experiences during the day were incredible; connecting with people and absorbing the wonder-filled beauty around us. When night time came though, and the early dusk approached, shrouding us in darkness, the fun was only beginning. We had no street lights like we would here in Ireland but we made use of headlamps strapped to our heads. Each night, after a day of visiting villages a campfire would be set up in a nearby field and locals would come and gather around. There was such excitement in the air. We sang and danced, led by a lively group of local translators who would sing songs in Lozi, the local language. Energy rushed around the campfire, the crackling flames lighting up gleeful faces. The singing and dancing was followed by storytelling from the Bible and then some people would get up and share about their lives. The bright, burning fire, voices raised in song, happy feet jumping around; all these things are etched in my mind, bringing forth in my heart a desire to return, to be back among the rich culture and open planes. To be driving through the bush again, branches whacking heavily off the jeep, bouncing up and down in the middle seat as we sped on our way to another village.
The way of life across the ocean is enormously different to ours. The children who happily sang, danced and played with us were dressed in clothes that some of them would wear for a long time without having a new set to change into. The babies would have flies resting on the inner corner of their eyes and would not shoe them away, but accept them and just lie there. Their bloated bellies provoked a question of how much nutrition they absorbed daily. But yet, they are the same as us. They have hopes, dreams, strong characters and personalities. They are children. They have sass, they misbehave, they love, they are in need of a healer. I think that I would have walked away with a heart more broken if we had not been there to share Jesus with them. We serve this vast God who can do unthinkable, unimaginable things and so if the lives of these little humans (and bigger humans too) are laid in His hands, I have confident assurance that their futures are extremely bright. Yes, we should help them, we should donate. Yes, they have physical needs that should be met and I want to be a part of that, but knowing that their future and present times are secured in a hope that doesn’t fail is what I find very exciting. The God we serve here is the same God they serve across the ocean. He will work wonders.
In all that, I long to be there but I am here, and so right now, here is where I will make a difference. I will tell people about Africa, my eyes alight as I remember its wonders and I will savour each memory that was delicately made. I think that being back in the sprawling sandy continent where I was birthed has deposited something in me; something that will change the way I live life here in Ireland. Thankyou Africa for changing me, for letting me interact with your beloved people, for letting me experience your wild beauty. Thankyou God for sending me.