Friday, September 17, 2010

Anything but Familiar

I think that in many ways I was prepared for the beginning of September being a strange/difficult time. It is true that being here has removed me from the ebb and flow of life that I am used to. Here, September doesn’t mean changing leaves and the beginning of a new year. It means that the weather is heating up, that the students are in full swing in term three, that the rains will be coming in only two short months. Being separated from people back home can be easier when there is very little in your immediate vicinity to remind you of them, and life in Zambia really is a completely different world, a different reality almost. Still, the fact remains that back in New England, life is going on, people are starting school and jobs. The fall is here, which to me has always represented a new year, opportunities, excitement, family and friends. It’s so surprise to me then that my first bit of true disorientation has come. I knew there would be times when it felt like things were moving along back home without me. This is an inherent part of up and leaving everything you know for a year to live and work in a foreign country. Life goes on as usual without you, and it’s something that anybody doing this type of work must come to terms with. Still, I am trying to remember that it would be wholly unnatural to not feel this way from time to time, to not miss everything and everyone that I know and love when they are so very far away. I suppose the key is accepting these feelings, acknowledging them, and moving forward regardless. This is something I am learning to do, and it inevitably has made me stronger.

Work has slowed down a bit the last couple weeks. I’ve been attempting to develop a tutoring plan for all of our 31 students, focusing on the grade 11s (and on English and history) to help prepare them for the vital exams at the end of next year. There has been a lot of trial and error (I am not a teacher, obviously), and I think it will take some time to really fall into a groove with this element of my job, to feel like I am actually helping the students improve in their weaker subjects. It has been frustratingly difficult trying to arrange schedules with the schools (there are new programs starting at each of them, so it won’t be as easy to just show up for three hours and give extra help on a set schedule). I have also tried to be careful not to make it seem to the administration like I am giving KF students special treatment, so I have invited any other students along for extra help as well. Again, I am trying to be patient and realistic about what I can really do in this respect. Lately I have noticed a bit of a change in my relationship to KF’s students. It’s difficult to explain, but I really do feel that they are beginning to trust me. Opening up is one thing, but trust is vastly different. Students have confided in me on numerous occasions, and it’s these moments more than any other that snap me away from feeling homesick or nostalgic and back to reality.

Last weekend I felt the need to get away, so my friend Brandon and I hopped on a trip to the Lower Zambezi (a river valley about two and a half hours from the city). My friend Chileya who works at the magazine I mentioned earlier has a friend who owns a yet-to-be-opened lodge right on the river, which means we were literally the only tourists there. The drive out to the river was stunning…the road snaked around hills and mountains and eventually down into a valley, past tiny villages, random monkeys and baboons, and endless expanses of dry, dry vegetation. The road to the lodges leads up to the river to the north, and to cross it you have to drive your car onto a pontoon (a small, rickety ferry). As we are about to drive onto the dock the pontoon driver approached us, seemingly telling us that Brandon would not be able to cross with me. We looked around trying to figure out how he was supposed to cross (there were no other boats or bridges in sight), and began arguing with the man, all in vain. After about ten minutes we finally understood that they didn’t allow passengers in the cars (I later found out that this was to avoid unnecessary deaths in case the pontoon sinks…comforting, haha). When we finally crossed the river we drove down a dirt road for about a half hour, past enormous baobab trees and a massive banana plantation, and finally found the turn for Kwalata Lodge (the sign was painted on a tiny wooden post). After driving into the bush for twenty minutes, we arrived at Kwalata. The site was beautiful…right on the mighty Zambezi River (which forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe and leads all the way down to Victoria Falls), with plenty of grass and trees, a few chalets and tents scattered about, and a very small amount of people. The owner of the lodge, a guy named Regi, spent time in the States studying at Kansas. He is a pretty prominent businessman in Lusaka and is making an attempt to bring the sort of lodge/safari vacations that usually only target tourists to regular Zambians.

We spent the day sitting on the river, fishing, reading, and relaxing, which was unbelievably nice and exactly what I needed. When dinner time rolled around the owners of the lodge drove back with two goats for dinner. I decided to watch the slaughtering process out of curiosity (I rationalized it by thinking that if you can’t watch your food get killed then you probably shouldn’t be eating it). Sadly, the knife the lodge workers used was exceptionally dull, which clearly made the process more painful for the poor goats. Even more difficult to watch was the first step (before killing goats, the common practice is to cut off their testicles to avoid getting urine on the meat). Somehow I was able to stomach the whole thing (including the skinning process), and the goat ended up being delicious. As dinner was being prepared I sat by myself at the edge of the river watching the blood red African sun set over the Zambezi, reflecting on where I was, and eventually just letting my mind clear and take in the scene before me.

That night we sat around the fire with the lodge owner and his family, eating, talking, and playing music. Brandon and I started a random drum circle with some Zambian students that were at the lodge for a retreat (complete with bongos, guitar, and whatever pots and pans we could find). On Sunday we all slept in, made breakfast, and then went for a boat ride on the river. We spotted plenty of crocodiles and a huge group of hippos that seemed to be protecting a baby nearby (which meant they were staring at us with angry eyes until we passed by). The drive back to the city was quiet and peaceful, the sun setting slowly over the hills and mountains, the roads virtually empty. It was a much needed break, especially since the next couple weeks are going to be crazy busy. This weekend we are administering a test to 38 students who are applying for a scholarship starting next year, and after that we will be short listing students and conducting interviews at the homes.

It’s September, and my life is anything but familiar. It’s disorienting and perplexing, but in many ways terribly exciting. I knew the time would come when I things wouldn’t quite line up like I’m used to, and I am working through it. I am looking forward to getting back on track next week.


  1. is refreshing to read your blogs. I am so so proud of you! Your writing is absolutely awesome btw :) i know, from reading, and can only imagine things getting to be getting rough from time but, honestly, you are where you are suppose to be! This is an amazing opportunity from reading this blog I can tell you are taking it to it's fullest. Before you know it you'll be wishing you were back there and realizing that you didn't miss a thing in this town:) Keep up with the AMAZING work and just remember that we all love and miss you and we'll all be right here when you get back!! Oh and ps... Post some pics or something... I want to see those sunsets too!! Miss you jame!

  2. Thanks so much for the message Val. You are the best! Hope you are doing well.