Village life in upcountry Zambia
Cinyanja words still ring in my ears and roll off my tongue. During the recent hot London summer I donned my chitenge (sarong) and chitambala (headscarf) and moved through my daily routine with the imagined sounds of a Kunda tribal village filling my head like a spirited melody.
Last April, my family – me, husband Judah, sons Sam and Jordan (then aged 15 and 11) – packed a limited amount of personal luggage plus a large duffel filled with school supplies – solar calculators, pencils, paper, stickers, educational videos, and baseball equipment and headed to Heathrow. We were bound for Zambia and our first overseas volunteer experience.
Being Americans living in London for the past five years, we have been privileged to travel to extraordinary places with a frequency that we could not have imagined from our former home in Larchmont, New York – skiing in Austria, hiking in Spain, peering at hippo dung in Botswana, swimming on the edge of Victoria Falls. These opportunities, in contrast to our ever-growing appreciation of the plight of so many world citizens, made us feel an urgency about giving something back and introducing the boys to the world in a different way.
Together, the four of us developed a ‘wish list’: The boys wanted to help with their hands – building, harvesting – and connect through sports. Judah and I wanted a real-life organic experience, not an overly orchestrated schedule of events and activities, and not as part of a big group. We all wanted an intimate experience through which we could learn about a new culture and teach about ours. We hoped to make but a small difference, perhaps to touch the hearts of others and bring home something special in ours.
For months, we researched countless organizations offering volunteer trips, but did not find what we were looking for until we contacted our friends at Aardvark Safaris. Two years earlier, Richard had planned our first African adventure. It was a perfect experience in every way thanks to Richard’s knowledge, ability to listen and willingness to pay a house call to map out our itinerary. If anyone could find us a village, Aardvark could… and did. In just a matter of weeks, John introduced us to Jo Pope of Robin Pope Safaris (RPS) in Zambia who in turn connected us with Kawaza Village, home to the Kunda tribe and the Kawaza Village Tourism Project. And thus began our odyssey, one that tested and demanded, yet delighted and charmed. It featured probably the first ever game of American baseball played on Zambian soil and a late-night walk through the maize fields, during which we learned that not everyone knows that there are no elephants running wild in England or that the moon shines over us all.
We left the comfort of Nkwali, on the edge of the exquisite South Luangwa National Park, one afternoon after lunch. We had spent two days at the RPS camp getting acclimatised and waiting for lost luggage to be located and delivered from Johannesburg. A truck was loaded with our belongings, a week’s worth of bottled water and mosquito repellent (necessary companion to the essential supply of anti-malarial pills), and four intrepid travellers looking forward to getting to the village, our home for the next week. Accompanying us was Masumba, an RPS guide and as gentle, gracious and knowledgeable a man as they come.
Travelling into the bush over mud roads riddled with potholes that, according to Masumba, can get so big they often hide crocodiles during the rainy season, we had first-hand exposure to the extremely under-developed Zambian infrastructure. One of the potholes almost swallowed our truck and this was just the beginning of our education.
It took a few days to settle into the village rhythm. The intense heat and challenge of basic tasks taken for granted at home made for arduous and exhausting days. Sam announced one morning as he emerged from the long drop (loo) that using the formula for falling objects he had learned in science class, he was able to determine that the long drop was 10 metres deep…you figure out what he was getting at. Our mornings often began with such conversation since the process of getting ready for the day – being awakened at 4am by the village rooster (and every village rooster for miles around in synchronized intervals), extricating oneself from mosquito netting in a double-occupancy hut strewn with the clutter of travel, using the long drop (shirt pulled up over nose…mandatory) – was the first of many daily challenges that had us seeing life in a whole new context.
Our days were filled with school visits, visits to neighbouring villages, playing with the local children and just living village life. Throughout our stay we were cared for by members of the village tourism project committee who made clear in their gracious way that our well-being and enjoyment of the village was their number one priority. There was hot water ready for us every morning so that we could bathe in the open shower huts; rice prepared when one of the boys wasn’t feeling well; an immediate smile when I insisted on doing woman’s work (carrying hot water atop my head or sweeping outside our huts each morning). An incredible generosity of spirit made us feel welcome despite a vast cultural gulf.
So many memorable moments will stay with us forever. We witnessed Judah, born, bred and bar mitzvah-ed in New York City, addressing the local Anglican Church Palm Sunday service with a palm frond crucifix hanging from his neck. We found ourselves explaining the concepts of a lift and buildings with more than one floor. We left Jordan at school in the afternoons happily playing football with his new friends, few of whom spoke English beyond “What is your name?” and “How old are you?” We picked maize and helped build the granary in which to store the harvest. I learned Elizabeth’s story of how she gave birth to her five babies by herself in her hut.
The boys coped with much less food than they are accustomed to (thankfully our large supply of granola bars and peanut butter brought from London filled the holes) and found that teaching their beloved game of baseball to the local children was as rewarding (if not more, although they might not admit it!) as chatting with friends online. And somewhere in their memories they have stored the image of the local football team bicycling one and a half hours to get to a big match, playing barefoot in the hot sun and then bicycling back to the village after their win.
In retrospect, we think of the overland journey to Kawaza as a metaphor for our challenging adventure… a bumpy but exhilarating ride. It is not for the faint of heart, or for those who prefer to be close to a flush loo, but an extended visit to Kawaza will feed you a dose of humanity for a lifetime. We were given so much more than we gave and for this we are eternally grateful to our friends at Kawaza.