Two back-to-back 8 hour flights then a 7 hour drive, and I arrive at an NGO near Katete, Eastern province Zambia. Just before Christmas. I’m there to be a ‘volunteer’, though in truth I suspect I gained more than I gave. Tiko is a backpacker lodge but has many local people working there to maintain the lodge, tend the gardens, feed any visitors.
Here a short story I wrote when I’d had time to relax into the welcoming embrace of the people who became my friends, who nurtured me with warmth and laughter. A culture where people greet you in the morning while holding your hand and looking you in the eyes. A culture where I plan to spend a lot more of my remaining life.
The centre of the lodge is the Verandah, tin roof, walls coming up to about four feet on every side, then open to the air. This is where you can work if you’ve got some paperwork to do, or sit & read, or plan the treehouse we’re making for the kids, eat lunch or evening meal, meet any visitors passing through, watch lightning displays at night. And most important, talk to people, get to know them, and they me. Become friends. Cement friendships. Slowly realise how much I grow to love them. (The housekeeper, Alice, who’s in this first story, is the mother of Ketty, my lovely little deaf friend who I sponsor through specialist school – see that project on Ulingana.)
So I give you a flavour, the mood, in which my stories were written. I hope you enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed writing, sitting there on Verandah, or sitting on the ground under bougainvillea blossoms while the seamstress sits next to me making tiko souvenirs for the occasional tourist that’s breaking their long journey between Victoria Falls and the safari parks, venturing for a brief moment into the Zambia that’s not in the brochures.
Saint Francis of Tiko
I’ve stopped regarding the christmas decorations as anything out of the ordinary. Hanging motionless in the heat shimmer of midday 40 degrees. We’re all languid in this heat, slow walking as if we’re the funeral procession for the chicken that Agnes carries in by one wing, resignation to it’s impending execution in it’s one visible eye.
At the other end of the chicken spectrum, Ruth makes me an omelette for my lunch. It’s the best I’ve ever tasted; today-fresh ingredients but the magic ingredient is her smile. A few weeks back, before I arrived here, some Americans were staying. By all accounts they were caricature tourist Americans. Hard to believe such a species would roll up in these parts but there you are. Very overweight, a bit loud etc. They decide to go up to Mfuwe to visit the game park at South Luangwa, a couple of hours drive so they’re making a weekend of it. The safari lodge where they’re staying has some self-catering accommodation so they want to take food with them as they’ve enjoyed the mountains-of-eggs-with-everything breakfasts that the kitchen staff happily provided for the amply waist-lined. And so, the morning of their departure, they tell Ruth, ‘We’ll have 4 trays of eggs’. A tray contains 30 eggs, so that’s 120 in total. Ruth responds, her eyes on the copious girth in front of her, ‘Do you want your eggs fried, or boiled’. Her mind is a book I cannot read so I make no guess as to her guile, or lack of it!
Ruth and Edison (chef) run a pretty amazing operation, a tight ship, when it comes to the kitchen. Cooking in the villages is done on open fires outside (under a shelter in the rainy season). At the lodge there are several charcoal braziers, on which I’ve seen them cook dinner for about thirty or forty people! When I get to know them better, they let me into their domain, the courtyard behind verandah where those braziers sit under the lean-to tin roof, and I cook alongside them a few times, always accompanied by laughter. Laughter at little things. Also they laugh at my strange ways, my muzungu ways, but it’s with the affection that a grown-up would have for a child learning their ways and customs. And I laugh with them for pleasure of basking in their warm good humour.
Let the rains come soon! This heat saps the strength and dries the land to a powdery dust that gets everywhere. But there’s water in the borehole; enough so that every morning before the heat becomes too brutal, we can water the germinating seeds and already growing vegetables. Except this morning. Zambian electricity is a random thing; trying to win us over by the ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ principle. So without the borehole pump to feed the taps we must wind up buckets from the wells over and over until the shallower ones start to run dry. I’ve taken on my own bit of garden where I experiment with high protein crops; lentils, quinoa, plus some other veggies and even some honeydew melons. If we could get quinoa to grow, it would be a great way of providing balanced protein to the carb-heavy diet here. I’m learning how to use the traditional hoe to dig the beds I need for planting. It’s hard work, and only increases my respect for the women who do a day’s work at the lodge, then go and cultivate their fields in the evening.
Does everything happen for a reason? I am lent a book by an Italian poet; stories of St Francis of Assisi. He has a dream, where a great Lady appears to him and somehow he realises that she has a mission for him, for his life. He is the son of a nobleman, but in his heart he knows his destiny lies elsewhere. The lady of his dream he realises is Lady Poverty; she is the symbol of the paradoxes that Francis reads in the Gospels. Richness in poverty, life in death, strength in weakness. These people live as if such a Lady is their Patron Saint. I give the book to Ruth to read when I’ve finished it. She, like everyone here, knows I’m not a christian, but they understand that I know, as do they, that we are all tied by the thread of common humanity, and the love that is the nature of that common thread. They are amused, then intrigued and full of questions, at the sight of me doing early morning yoga and meditation on the secluded ‘blue lizard terrace’.
Alice can’t plant her groundnuts, maize and cassava. The ground is too dry. It’s God’s will if the rains are too scanty this year. It will be God’s will that they all grow hungry. Not rumbling belly hungry, but malnutrition hungry. Stunted children hungry. Brains that lack the nutrition to imagine a way out of grinding poverty hungry. I think Alice doesn’t function on the same level of blind faith as many here. There’s a fierceness about her I love and admire. She looks like she’s ready to go upstairs and beat on some rain-god heads if they don’t get their act together.
Some five minutes after our conversation, it comes. A deluge. Crashing immense noise; millions of tons of water hurled downwards by those demented rain gods. Thunderous crescendos threatening to burst through the tin roof; sense of hearing at saturation point. The trucks hammering along the Great East Road between Malawi and Lusaka raise plumes of water fit to drown the cyclists and pedestrians that are the highway’s constant companions. Except that they’ve all disappeared; diving for cover to avoid a drenched battering from the elements.
Happy planting Alice.