Thursday, February 19, 2009

Home Again, Home Again

As most of you probably know, I am back home in Maine now. I ended up leaving Zambia fairly quickly as I was offered a job in Kenya that I decided to take, so in order to have as much time at home as possible I had to rush to finish up with the CDC and Peace Corps and then head to Maine. It was a whirlwind last couple of weeks, so much so that I still feel like I haven't had a chance to entirely process what my experience in Zambia meant to me and what leaving it has meant as well. Hopefully that will come later, though I don't have all that much time as I am leaving for Kenya on the 27th.

I have told some of you that I have seen that I am going to try to write out some stories from my time in the village before I head back to Africa. There were some things I wanted to write about but never managed to get to, so hopefully telling some people will keep me accountable. First though, I wanted to say a little bit about what I was thinking as I left Zambia.

I usually like telling stories to illustrate a point I'm trying to make, as it spares me the difficulty of coming up with an original thought, so I'll do the same here. More than a year ago I was sitting with ba Saya on a lazy, hot Saturday afternoon in the shade of the big Mango Tree in his yard, as was our custom, trying to elude the grip of the intense African heat. His wife, a bubbly, plump, brown-skinned woman, a pure Bemba from Kasama who called me "my son" and made me smile just to look at her, was sitting on the porch shelling Maize slowly into a wide and shallow woven reed basket. Collins was sitting on a short, roughly-carved wooden stool next to ba Simbaya and I who were perched precariously on dilapidated bamboo chairs. Shadrick, the youngest son of about 14, was wandering aimlessly about the yard while the only daughter, Chipo, assisted ba Saya's wife.

We talked occasionally but mostly we sat in companionable silence, which very much counts as doing something in the village. I had spent a lot of time at ba Saya's place but had never really taken the opportunity to examine his house thoroughly; as a government employee, he was one of the wealthiest people in the village and therefore had one of the nicest houses. It was a rectangular, concrete building that once had been painted blue around the base and white higher up, but now the faded paint was peeling off everywhere, leaving ragged, star-shaped patches of bare concrete speckling the walls. The slanted, corrugated tin roof was rusting, the piece of chitenge cloth hanging in one of the doorways was frayed and faded and billowing slowly in a light breeze. The other doors were manned by heavy, chipped and battered slabs of wood, one of which had cracked in the middle allowing the bottom part to swing independently of the top. Around the house, the yard was displaying an entirely typical Zambian village scene: chickens pecking and scraping at the hard-packed dirt of the yard, goats clomping impudently through on their way to make someone's life miserable, piles of shelled groundnuts drying on a reed mat on the ground, a brazier full of sparking charcoal burning to the side. Here, of course, were all the signs of what the West would consider poverty at first glance, but there was something else as well. I leaned back in my chair and looked again: the mother chatting quietly with the daughter who was languidly picking out twigs and small stones from the shelled Maize, the son strolling out of the yard to run an errand for his father, Collins sitting on his small stool to my left playing idly with a piece of bamboo, Saya to my right watching his wife and daughter in between his short spells of dozing off. It was then I felt a stab of an emotion I never expected to feel out in the village: jealousy.

By nearly every conceivable measure, I was far better off than this man who lived in a rusted, peeling paint concrete building in the middle of Africa; I was born and raised in the U.S., that mythical land where most people own cars and go to school and have more than two shirts and live in massive houses with electricity, running water, microwaves, televisions, toasters, DVD players, ovens, etc., etc., etc...even my living allowance of $250 a month put me on an economic level beyond him. And yet here I was envious of him, which seemingly made no sense; there were probably very few people in Zambia who wouldn't leap at the chance to have grown up with the privilege and wealth that I did. But that was the case, I was jealous and feeling the truth of the lessons we're all taught from a young age, about how unimportant material possessions are compared with the importance of home and family. Ba Saya was in a safe place where he well and truly belonged, something I hadn't felt since I had left the U.S. more than a year earlier, and wasn't to feel for another year. Home, and all that it means, was more than 6,000 miles and seeming worlds away from me.

The difficulty of being so far from home is doubtlessly what made the experience as special and meaningful as it was, yet there is also the constant, building pressure, the alienation, of being someone different. It's one of the reasons Volunteers form such strong friendships so quickly--being with another PCV means you're not different, there's someone else like you there and, together, you can face all the people who think you're strange, can joke and commiserate with one another when people laugh at your white skin or your hair or your clothing or your accent. Similarly, it's one of the reasons that PCVs, when they make it to the provincial houses after a stay in the bush, lay on the couches and watch hour after hour of movies, or devour four month old gossip mags, or want to simply sit with other Volunteers and listen to Americans talk--they want to reconnect to the culture where home is, where they feel smart and competent and normal.

So, finally, after two and a half years of feeling consistently out of place, of feeling different and strange no matter what I did to not be so, I am in place and not (as) different and strange. I am home, and don't need to feel jealous of ba Saya any longer.

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