29 January 2014
My roots in Zambia (shallow though they may be) are firmly planted in the soil of Yuda Village. This small community outside Chipembi is where my Bamaayo, my Bataata, and all of their extended family and neighbors patiently taught me how to speak Bemba, cook ubwali, dance like a Zambian, and generally adapt to life here. It’s the host village where I spent 10 weeks during Pre-Service Training.
Today I returned Yuda. It was at once a reminder of how I got to where I am today, and a remedy for those feelings of loneliness and isolation I sometimes struggle with in my new home of Mfuba. I was honestly shocked at just how comfortable and content I felt, even after nine months away. It was like going home.
With all my medical tests finished and my neck lump greatly reduced (see “Medical Mysteries of Zambia”), I’d found myself waiting around Lusaka for the results of one last biopsy, with three days to go and nothing to do. Then suddenly I remembered: Chipembi is only about two hours from Lusaka. And since Peace Corps Zambia is gearing up for the next group of LIFERs to arrive next week, there are vehicles going back and forth to Chipembi nearly every day.
So I enquired, and, sure enough, caught a ride up yesterday afternoon. Today I borrowed a bike and rode out to Yuda, completely unannounced.
Since I arrived around 10 a.m., Bamaayo, Bataata, and nearly everyone else was out in the fields. No problem. I just walked out there myself with a small troupe of familiar-yet-shockingly-much-taller kids both leading and following.
I have to admit, on the bike ride from Chipembi to Yuda, I’d been a little nervous. Would they be happy to see me? Would I finally be able to have a real conversation with my host parents, who speak no English? Or would I stumble and flail and disappoint my ever-critical Bataata yet again? What if the whole visit consisted of uncomfortable silence?
I needn’t have worried. From the moment I emerged from the forest into their maize field, the joy we all felt was palpable. First Bataata, then Bamaayo, came running to hug me, and we could hardly stop. I was elated to find that quite a few of the neighbors were out there as well, helping with the weeding. It was a full-on reunion.
Ba Margaret immediately announced that they were done for the day anyway, and we all headed back to the vil. Along the way I enquired about the rest of the extended family, and my host parents exclaimed over how good my Bemba had become. (You can usually count on parents to exaggerate your accomplishments, especially when they haven’t seen you in a while and have conveniently forgotten your faults.)
Back at the house, Bataata showed me the moringa and msangu trees they planted while I was living there, telling me he thinks of me every time he looks at them. I was utterly touched, and felt bad for all the times I wanted to yell him for his impatience with my Bemba progress.
It wasn’t long before all the guys called me over to the shade of the mango tree to talk. Bamaayo, on the other hand, was rushing around the yard, clearly preparing to cook lunch. Oh no you don’t, I thought. This woman spent 10 weeks cooking and cleaning and fetching water for me, and no way am I going to let this happen when I can now do all these things perfectly well myself.
So I told Bamaayo I’d do the dishes, and by the way, I’d brought food to cook for lunch. So we left the guys behind and hung out in the hot sun together ‘til the dishes were done. (She still sand-scrubbed the pots; I did the rest.) Then I proceeded to chop up and cook all the veggies for the makings of a veggie-masala-dhal-type dish, while Bamaayo sat next to me, doing absolutely nothing but chatting and laughing. (Realization No. 1: Bamaayo’s knife, a dull lump of metal with no handle, gives blisters to anyone lacking her ultra-tough Zam hands. Realization No. 2: I didn’t realize just how awesome my Bamaayo is until I’d moved out on my own. Realization No. 3: I’d actually accomplished the goal that got me through the long days of Pre-Service Training – to one day hold a real conversation with Bamaayo.)
I even cooked the ubwali – the only time during the actual visit when I was genuinely nervous. (It’s stressful being entrusted with the national staple dish!) Thankfully, it turned out great. Whew!
We ate together, just the three of us, but I was glad Ba Margaret stopped by for a bit. Bamaayo and Bataata both proudly told her that I’d cooked the whole meal. They did NOT say whether they actually liked the food.
Then we went next door to visit with Ba Eunice and Ba Felix, Ba Samwell’s host parents. A steady stream of visitors came and went, including Yuda’s headwoman and my little sister Lucy, who appears to have grown six inches and is now in Grade 8!
We sat under the mango trees for hours, talking about my new home and my job and their crops and the borehole that’s still broken and Ba Rita’s now five-month-old son. I understood almost everything they said.
I felt a sense of belonging that’s rare in my new home in NoPro.
See, in Mfuba, I have a job to do and a slight guilt complex and a whole lot of people constantly asking me for things – or asking me why I do things in all the strange ways that I do things. My Yuda family, on the other hand, seems to have no expectations of me whatsoever. I think they were happy just to see me, and I felt that extremely rare commodity that I suppose some people come to expect from family: unconditional love.
In fact, everyone in the village kept thanking me over and over again – for visiting, for volunteering in their country, for practically nothing at all.
No, no, no, I said over and over. Thank YOU. You are the ones who took care of me when I had the skills and vocabulary of a three-year-old. You are the ones who taught me everything I needed to know live by myself in rural Zambia, with a level of patience I can’t even fathom. Without you, I could’ve never become a PCV. Without all the families like you, all around Chipembi, none of us PCVs could ever do our jobs well. YOU are the ones whom Zambians all over the country should be thanking.
That feeling stayed with me the rest of the day, even as I rode back to Chipembi in the pouring rain an hour before dark, having stayed much too late because everyone assured me that the storms were just passing around us and that it wouldn’t rain ‘til nighttime.
As I bombed down that old familiar, bumpy hill, I thought first of my old next-door neighbor Ba Samwell, whose dedication to learning Bemba rubbed off on me and inspired me to keep trying. We’d ridden into Chipembi nearly every day during PST, practicing our garbled Bemba along the way. My Bemba brother, he is as much family as my Bamaayo and Bataata. Everyone in Yuda had asked about him, of course, and I know we all wished he’d been there.
Then my mind drifted back to my Zambian family. I promised I’d come back to visit again before I return to the States. After all, I told them, I may live in Mfuba, but I was born in Yuda. It’s there where I can return to my roots.