The process of leaving has become such a ritual that I’m not sure it’s hit me that I’m really going. The laundry is done, the music for a long flight loaded, the ticket printed, the decisions of what to take and what to leave behind have been painstakingly made. I was in Zambia for six weeks. In that time, the rainy season ended unexpectedly early and winter began to set on. The puppy and the four year-old who live at my hostel both grew a few inches. I got sunburned and tan and sunburned again, and my clothes look worse for the wear.
I thought a lot about how we perceive Africa in the United States, and how Africans perceive us. As is to be expected, I found some stereotypes to be true and others to be ludicrous. I got used to wearing the title mzungu here and I got used to the advantages as well as the missed opportunities it provided me with. Poverty is staggering in many parts of Zambia, but what is perhaps more staggering to me is that this poverty finds itself on one side of town, while on the other there are air conditioned shopping malls with imported South African wine and restaurants no one can afford. My research assistant lost both his sister and his new baby nephew in a Lusaka hospital last week, for reasons no one seems able or willing to explain. There are graves being sold on the side of the road here and men lying passed out drunk in wheelbarrows next to them.
There are kids playing on these same streets, turning the caps of water bottles into pieces for a game of checkers. There is vitality and vibrancy and they are unavoidable, even when covered with the layers of mud from these dusty roads. People take immense care with their shoes here; they are always shining. Clothes are always ironed. I go to people’s homes and somehow, there is always enough to go around. I learned a lot of names. I heard a lot of stories. I watched a man get tears in his eyes while he told me that his son’s name in Bemba means the softest part of his heart; the thing he cherishes most.
I’m not sure I ever learned to love Lusaka. It feels kind of nice to admit that. I think, in some ways, it’s a hard city to love. Its dividedness often makes it feel like several cities in one, and those several cities often feel like they’re separated by huge socio-economic (and often racial) lines. I think that despite overwhelming amounts of friendliness, Lusaka may be a difficult (but not impossible) place for foreigners to feel fully integrated into the local community in a way that’s more than superficial.
But I’m learning that you can still love your time in a place, even if you’re not sure you love the place itself. I loved mastering the crowded Inter City Bus Station, I loved the bad pizza we would line up for on Tuesday nights just because it was such a good bargain. I loved the ridiculously over the top music videos put out by Zambian artists, I loved the excitement that sets in when a road in town is paved. I loved how much it made people laugh when I asked how they were in Nyanja. I like that although they may be fleeting, friendships can form instantly. Despite having mixed feelings about Lusaka, I love Zambia itself. The mass patriotism that the African Cup victory inspired must have still been lingering in the air when I arrived. I think it was the people who made my time here so special: the families who welcomed me into their homes in the N’gombe and Garden compounds, and the fellow travelers/roommates at Kalulu who I cooked with, talked with, and explored with. I loved curling up in Zambia’s hot sun, I loved its lakes and rivers, the sunrises and sunsets, the corn roasted on the side of the road, the colorful chitenjes, the enormous avocados. Flying over Victoria Falls remains one of the most magical and majestic experiences of my life.
I’m learning that even if you do it again and again, goodbyes don’t actually get any easier. I keep creating homes for myself and then having to walk away from them. I’m getting tired, and yet somehow it is also unbelievable to me that I only have two countries left.
When I was planning my itinerary, I put two European countries at the end of it in part because I thought at this point I might be feeling a bit burnt out. After months of exploration in places that are drastically different from home, I thought it might be nice to be in countries at the end where the transportation systems, grocery stores, and cultures are slightly more similar to what I'm used to in the United States. With just Ireland and Iceland left, in some ways it feels like the hardest parts are over. (I’m sure I’ll find things to worry about in those countries too, it just won’t be finding clean drinking water and avoiding malaria). Besides the combined six weeks I spent in Germany & Copenhagen, I've been an obvious outsider in various places for the past eight+ months and have received a lot of attention for it. I'm looking forward to being able to blend in a bit more.
I’m spending a few days in London to recuperate, sightsee, and buy some new jeans before flying to Dublin on Friday (Ireland makes for project country #6). This transition feels big, because it feels like I’m moving closer to home now, chronologically and geographically. It’s exciting and scary and makes me overly emotional. Flights almost always make me tear up. I’d like to blame the movie selection or air pressure, but I think in all honesty, it’s just what saying goodbye is like.
Zikomo kwambiri, Zambia. I will miss waking up here.