Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Worlds Collide, Part 1

The thought of having friends visit has never felt real, even though I’ve known for months that Jess and Zack were coming across the world to see me. In many ways my life in Zambia has been a separate reality from everything I knew back home, something that disoriented me when visited the States for Christmas. Communicating with family and friends is helpful and necessary, but in the end there is only a certain point of understanding that can be reached…not because of lack of effort, but simply due to the fact that you can’t really understand Zambia unless you’ve seen it, experienced its bizarre yet strangely addicting contradictions.

The week before Jess and Zack arrived, KF received news that out of 20 Zambian finalists for African Leadership in Academy, 9 were from our program. This meant that, for the first time, Zambia would host a finalist weekend. ALA would be coming to Lusaka to evaluate all 20 students based on a number of team activities, group discussions, personal interviews, and examinations. The fact that ALA had never conducted a weekend here left them in a difficult place, and I and KF offered to assist in the planning process. This meant recruiting interview observers from the community, finding a school to host (which ended up being Leopards Hill, one of our partner schools, which boasted 6 of the 9 finalists), and, perhaps most importantly, assisting our students in the application process and preparing them for the difficult yet sure to be moving experience of an ALA finalist weekend. Prior to my friends’ visit I had worked hard to finish a good amount of work so that I could spend a substantial amount of time with them. But this is Zambia, and this is the reality of work with a small but ambitious organization. Work comes in waves, and sometimes, as with ALA, in tidal waves. ALA gave our students 2 weeks to prepare applications, which included longer essays, teacher and community recommendations, extensive financial and visa forms, and examination results. Having visited ALA in December, I understood the uniqueness of this opportunity, and the life-altering experience that an acceptance would be for any of our students. Furthermore, it would almost certainly be a triumph for KF, which has yet to graduate a grade 12 student and is in the process of navigating through the infuriatingly mess process of college and scholarship applications for disadvantaged Zambian students.
My boss was away in Europe, and I jumped at the opportunity to spearhead this process. KF sprang into action, and it was amazing to see how the essential gears that fuel this organization set into place. Our accountant volunteered to collect the financial and visa information from all 9 families, while our programs officer embarked on the surprisingly difficult task of acquiring effective recommendations from teachers, mentors, and other community members. I chose to help our students with the applications, as well as prepare them for the interview weekend.

Then Jess arrived. Jess is one of my best friends from Bowdoin, and is working in Guatemala City for Safe Passage—the organization that introduced me to international service and educational access while at Bowdoin. She had never been to Africa, but I was confident that she would embrace this experience in every way possible. Seeing a familiar face from my other life walk out of the terminal was more shocking than I had imagined; at that moment, I felt my two worlds colliding and meshing together in a way that I had never experienced. I felt exhilarated, and then, suddenly, eternally grateful. That I would be able to share my world with somebody very close to me, but more importantly, that I was fortunate enough to have best friends who would fly across the world to see me. After a long hug we walked out to my car, and I was already feeling giddy at the thought of driving her back to the city, about letting her into this life that has for whatever reason always felt so separate. We went to the Sunday Market at Arcades, met my roommate Oliver, and then headed back to my flat on the other side of town. Maxime (another Bowdoin grad) came over, and we sat on my porch sharing experiences, reminiscing about Bowdoin, and enjoying the cool April air as the sun sank lazily over the palm trees in my yard. Catching up with Jess was so important to me…we are both having very similar experiences, working for similar organizations, and have the benefit of sharing similar career goals, and it was fascinating to compare and contrast the social realities in our respective countries, to admit to mistakes and disappointments, and to share our successes and achievements.

I didn’t really give Jess much time to adjust (or to sleep…). She was in Zambia for the first time, and there was so much I wanted to show her. The next day we drove out to Chibelo Basic School, the small, underfunded, yet progressive school met where KF began. While waiting for our host, I took Jess to visit the Mwenes, a KF family that lives on the Chibelo campus (our student’s father is a teacher at the school). The Mwenes are a n unbelievably warm and generous family, and we sat with Mrs. Mwene and her two daughters for a while, Jess telling them about her life in the States and in Guatemela, and them teaching her bits and pieces of Nyanja and Tonga (Jess is a language guru, so she learned rather quickly.) After an hour or so Constance, a special education teacher at the Chibelo who worked with Oliver to lay the groundwork for KF, arrived. She took us around the school and told us the story of KF’s inception when our president was here as a Princeton in Africa Fellow, and then we headed to Kalikiliki, the compound in which most of Chibelo’s students live. Constance is an amazingly bright and powerful woman, and she spoke passionately about the struggling children and families that live in Kalikliki (meaning busy, in Nyanja), the many social problems that afflict Lusaka’s poorest communities, and the fundamental flaws in Zambia’s educational system. After that we took Constance to lunch, where she told us about her life, her husband who went to America and left her to fend for herself and her daughter alone, her goal to return to university and complete a degree, and her faith in the resiliency of her family and of her fellow community members.

After that I put Jess to work…we went to the office, printed out materials for the essential meeting I had planned with our ALA finalists, and headed out to pick some of them up. The point of the meeting was on the applications and on the Interview preparation process. Jess was incredibly helpful, and it was so nice to see her automatically being welcomed into the KF family. Our students absolutely loved her, and felt comfortable around her right away. These students have defined my experience here. They have impacted my life in a profound and permanent way, and seeing the ease with which my friend connected with them meant more to me than I can express. After the meeting, Jess and I drove some of our students back home, taking an eerie shortcut through the Lusaka night over dusty, pot-hole laden dirt roads that wind through the compounds. One would think that would be enough for someone’s first day in Africa, but to top it all off, we went to a Passover Seder at the Grassroot Soccer House (which was a great way for her to meet many of my closest friends).

The next day we went to the Tuesday vegetable market, bartered like crazy, and acquired all manner of fruits and vegetables for dinner. After stopping by Kamwala (a busier market near town) for some chitenge (Jess wanted to make a dress, I wanted to make a bag for my bongo). We grabbed lunch with some friends at my favorite local nshima restaurant (which serves all sorts of local vegetables, game meats, and more). Then we headed back home and prepared for dinner with Steve and Alla (fried pumpkin with brown sugar, fresh salad with tomatoes and avocados, mango chutney pork). There’s something inherently refreshing about shopping and making dinner with fresh ingredients from the market, something I will greatly when I leave Africa.
Wednesday was full of errands…dropping off chitenge at the tailor (a toothless man with an ancient sewing machine and an umbrella parked outside a shopping complex near my house), getting a goodbye present for my roommate who was leaving, and packing my things so I could move out the next day (they really did come at the busiest possible time!). I also brought Jess to two of our schools, introduced her to some of the teachers and staff. Everyone took to her right away, and Mrs. Lungu, who was about to embark on a trip to Spain, was eager to get Jess’s advice (she had spent a full year there studying abroad). Again, I remember feeling so relieved at how easy all of this was…somehow, it was beginning to feel completely and totally natural, as if Jess had been living in Zambia for months.

That night we went to a goodbye dinner for Oliver at Mahak (our favorite rundown Indian restaurant with famous for its all you can eat, who was leaving Zambia the next day. It was unfortunate that he was leaving in the middle of all this craziness…Oliver had been such an important part of my life here; we came in at the same time and went through much the adjustment process together. I was fortunate to have him here. I know he will be a close friend for the rest of my life, but it was still strange and difficult to accept that the first of my core sources of support here was leaving. I had to leave soon after we arrived to pick up Zack, who was getting in that night. I have known Zack since the third grade, and he has been my best friend ever since. For me Zack is one of the people who, no matter how long we go without speaking, somehow things never change. And the randomness with which he decided to come was strangely fitting…one day I got a message saying…”when would be the best time to come see you?” A week later he forwarded me his flight itinerary. That simple. Zack is currently on an epic trip across the world before he starts medical school at Cincinnati, and a first trip to Africa (and any developing region) was first on his list. On the way there I got a call from him saying that he had cleared customs and was all set (which was weirder than I had expected…to hear Zack’s voice on a phone in Zambia). I rushed to the airport and picked up my best friend. Again, I felt this wave of gratitude and disbelief. I felt like things were coming together, that pieces of my very disconnected life were being fused together in an unexpectedly intentional way.

We launched into conversation, driving down the pitch black road toward town. Again, I didn’t give my friend much (or any time) to adjust, driving straight back to dinner, where Zack met all of my friends and listened, exhausted, to silly yet heartfelt goodbye speeches.

The next morning I woke up early to bring Oliver to the airport. The sun was rising, and we had one last epic car ride to Springsteen’s live version of Atlantic City in New York. It was hard to say goodbye, but I was lucky enough to have my best friends there waiting for me at home.

Zack was jetlagged, and unsurprisingly, awake at 7 am, so we went for a run down my favorite tree-lined path down Independence Avenue past the State House. I told him everything, about my life, about Zambia, about my kids, about the frustrations and joys I had experienced over the past 10 months. When we got back to the house Jess was awake, so we took a walk to the only café in Zambia that sells bagels, enjoying the bright sunlight easy lull of the late Lusaka morning. I still had work to do, so I enlisted Zack to help. We met Edna, Bwalya, and Gaella in Garden Compound to collect applicants and visit some of my students families at their homes. Zack and Jess got along with my students so easily, and it was wonderful introducing them to the families and communities that had come to define my life here. There was a moment I remember when Zack and Jess were crammed into the back of my SUV with two of my students as we navigated the bumpy and treacherous dirt road (perhaps moving a little too quickly, considering we were bobbing up and down uncomfortably). Everyone was laughing and joking (mostly at my expense), and I suddenly couldn’t help but feel like this unpredictable yet steady logic that had come to define my post-college life was somehow there, in that car, with two of my best friends in the entire world, and three of KF’s most unique students. Somehow it all made sense, my life and all of its contradictions, its bumps and unexpected turns.

We spent the rest of the night moving out of my house into my new place, making copies of the students’ applications to hand out to a Zambian volunteer for review, and packing for Livingstone and Kariba. The week had been absolutely packed, and it would only get busier.

More to come…

1 comment:

  1. It's great that you got to share your experience with your friends. It will mean even more when you get back and want to have people who understand what you have been doing.