I’m typing while sitting on the porch of my hostel after a rainstorm in Lusaka. Around 1am last night it started thundering and the downpour didn’t stop until an hour ago. It’s Saturday morning and everyone here is slowly getting up; sleepily walking down a gravel path to the outdoor sinks to brush their teeth and pulling on green Zambia football jerseys in honor of St. Patrick’s Day.
I came back to Lusaka on Thursday evening after a sweaty and crowded bus ride. The majority of this week was spent outside the small township of Petauke in the Eastern Province. I stayed there with the Lachman family who live and work in Covenant College, a pastor training school. The students there range from their mid twenties to their seventies and come from all over Zambia (and even some parts of Malawi and Zimbabwe). Over meals of nshima and truck rides to the boma (Petauke’s center is still referred to the “boma”, which refers to an area with colonial government offices), I talked to many of the students about their families, about tradition, and of course, about names.
My host Katie and her son Elijah, demonstrating one of the chitenje's many uses.
There’s a lot that came out of this visit, and a lot of notes on names that I hope to spend some time unraveling and writing about this week. In the meantime, images of the east are clear in my mind. These images are from a very different kind of Zambia than I’d seen in Livingstone or Lusaka.
To get to the Eastern Province, you cross the Luangwa bridge and the landscape (and roads) change dramatically. We winded around mountains and hills and I felt the tiniest bit like I was in Vermont. The drive is a pretty remarkable one. You simply head east on the Great East Road from Lusaka and pass by tiny villages with straw-thatched roofs and children carrying water who stop to wave at the cars passing by. The road is filled with the kind of images that I think most people envision when they think of daily life in Africa. The majority of the Eastern Province feels like that. It’s a place where there is no power three days a week, where you have to be careful going outside after dark because of snakes, where you don’t see any women wearing pants.
Bridge to the Eastern Province
I got invited to visit a makeshift preschool in one village nearby that was started by a Zambian man. He volunteered to teach kids ages four to seven who don’t have any other educational opportunities nearby. Some of the people working at Covenant College got involved and are helping him learn teaching strategies. On the afternoon I visited, the preschoolers were taking turns in groups playing with materials that had been donated. They drew circles with chalk and kicked around a soccer ball. Everyone is so scared that the ball will be stolen that the teacher carries it home every night and brings it back every morning, tucked under his arm.
The recently built school building.
There are so many orphans within this preschool class that there is a system of differentiation. The teacher casually mentioned the “double orphans” and the “single orphans” in the room and I didn’t hear much of what else he said because I became fixated on these group labels; on what it means to be in a place where such categories are necessary. A place where there is taxonomy for tragedy.
Eastern Zambia is not the only place in the last year where I have been a witness to people living in very desperate circumstances. There are plenty of people living in similar situations in Lusaka as well. And Indonesia, and India, and Morocco, and many American cities, for that matter. I have little patience for travel blogs that make the atrocities of poverty seem like new or foreign things. I am very sick of the western travel takeaway message that shouts, “Look at these other people living their lives; they are poor but they are happy.”
This not only romanticizes poverty but also overlooks what I think is a rather basic human commonality. Of course people have found ways to be happy, or at least appear to be happy. I don't think there is a way of living otherwise.
And just because someone finds delight in their baby’s smile, and fresh avocados, and the pleasures of daily life does not mean that they should stop there and also not want a comfortable bed and an internet connection and new clothes and their kids to have an education. Everyone has the right to want for something more.
I’ve tried to avoid using terms like developed and developing on my blog. I’ve tried to avoid evaluating the countries I’ve been to by those terms. I don’t believe there is some kind of imaginary spectrum where the endpoint is the same for everybody. But I will say that there are a lot of people in Zambia who want a lot of things that are impossibilities for them. And a lot of these things are what I would consider basic human rights.
I’ve become good friends with a woman named Stephanie who is doing research on water use in Lusaka. She’s interested in how people prioritize among daily tasks like bathing, laundry, cooking and cleaning when there’s a shortage of water. Stephanie talked to one Zambian woman about how she made decisions about using water in her home, particularly in times of need. The woman gave her a long list of things in her house she needed water for, and things there was often not enough water for. She told Stephanie how she would give her children baths, and then if there was enough water, she and her husband would then take them. At the end of the conversation about these basic tasks she added, “If I had more water, I would like to plant some flowers.”