It is summer at home, but it is winter in the Southern Hemisphere. Here in Zambia they are burning the fields after the harvest. The whole country is burning, and the sky is brown with haze. We walk the sand path that takes us from the missionary compound that houses western visitors to the traditional village of Luampa. Small tongues of flame still flicker alongside us in the brown stubble that stretches to the horizon. Waves of harried insects wash across the path, fleeing the fire, and I feel as if I’m walking through the end of the world.
I am fifteen years old, one of the youngest in our summer group. We spend our days in the village, building an ugly but sturdy cinder-block house for the Luampa seminary teacher and his family. The teacher is African, like his students, and I wonder how he will feel about living in the only dwelling in the village that isn’t a thatched hut made of sticks and mud.
I grow a bulging knot of muscle in my right forearm from scooping gravel and mixing concrete with a shovel. On work breaks I walk through the village; I pass huts and chicken coops on stick stilts, and women pounding cassava root into flour.
One woman stands in wait for me, every day, at the doorway of her hut. She stands with a fist on her hip and wears a brightly patterned chitenge tucked around her waist over her button-down blouse. She has a wide smile, but the glint in her eye does not look warm.
“Mwa hinduka!” she greets me. According to our training manual, this means something like “How are you today?” And every day I answer in her language with the polite reply, “Fine, thank you.” Every day when I say this, the woman throws back her head and laughs. I don’t know why she laughs; I’m sure my words and accent are right. It’s not like I’m trying to speak German, with its weird sounds my mouth isn’t used to making. The joke’s on me, only I don’t know what the joke is.
On workdays we carry all of our tools the mile to the village. We carry them back to our house for lunch, back to the village after lunch, and back home again when the day is over. It seems like a lot of extra trouble, but the missionaries who live here year-round, the ones we’re working with, tell us that the locals’ ideas about ownership are more communal than ours. Anything we leave might be borrowed and not returned. If we need it, we take it with us.
I should fall right asleep at night after all the hard work, but I’m a light sleeper, and there are ten girls in our bedroom. We sleep as far away from the walls as we can, away from the dozens of big, flat spiders. They look like they’ve already been stepped on. We try not to disturb them so we don’t have to see the way they slide around, like someone is pulling them along with a magnet on the backside of the wall.
By the time I put the spiders out of my mind and tune out the snoring and the rustle of sleeping bags, the drumming starts. It thuds constant and deep, far off in the bush. It’s a harvest festival, we are told, with fires and dancing and drinking strong homebrew for two weeks straight. The missionaries say two or three people die from the alcohol every year, something I didn’t even know could happen. The thumping follows me into my dreams.
One day the women of the village come to our compound and cook for us. The western-style houses have kitchens, but the women build fires in the back yard and prepare the food there. They stir massive steaming pots of nshima, a white porridge made from the cassava root I’ve seen them pounding. It looks like Cream of Wheat, but the gummy taste makes me think of the poi I ate when my grandma took me to Hawaii. The nshima is served with chicken, the hairy stubs of feathers poking out from its thick skin. I am unnerved by the sight of claw-like feet in the serving dish. I feel terrible that I am eating their chicken and even worse that I am not properly appreciating it. The people in the village only eat chicken – or any meat – about once a year, and they’ve given it to us.
We sing a few worship choruses as a thank-you for the meal; we sing in unison, and we do it with enthusiasm, but I am embarrassed. The choruses are the popular songs in our churches at home, but to me they sound like the sappy poems high school girls write in their notebooks about the boys they like. I prefer the old hymns with their rich words and melodies, but I sometimes think I’m the only person my age who wants to sing them.
To our astonishment, the women ululate in reply, a chorus of wild, piercing sound. Then they sing for us, in parts, swaying and clapping softly in time with cupped hands and sweeping arms.
On Sunday at church, the sun on the tin roof makes the building an oven. I can taste the smell of the unwashed bodies packed in so close, and I try not to gag. The African preacher’s sermon goes on and on, and so does the singing. The entire congregation, down to the smallest child, sings in harmony – and full out, in that nasal way that carries forever. This is what the singing in heaven will be like, I know. The kingdom of God is coming, but it’s already just a little bit here.
A bag is passed for the collection as we sing. Later in the service the bag comes around again.
“Why did they take the offering twice?” I ask, once we’re dismissed.
“One time for the church. One time for the poor.”
That surprises me, because the people in this congregation are the poor. This is the first time I’ve seen people give out of their poverty, like the widow in the Bible who puts her last two copper coins into the offering box.
I enjoy every day of our trip, but by the time our six weeks are up, I’m ready to go home – and not just because I want to sleep in a bed and eat a hamburger. It’s tiring to have to think about how I do everything. I don’t want to offend anyone. And I don’t like the feeling of sticking out.
On our last day in the village, we pose for photos in front of the house we’ve only just finished. Being in the village without working makes it feel like the last day of school.
The night before we fly home, our team celebrates with dinner at the Inter-Continental Hotel in the capital city of Lusaka. We girls want to dress up, so we wear the chitenges we’ve bought as souvenirs. We’re nervous because we haven’t learned the knack of fastening the fabric so the skirts stay put. The Zambian women make it look effortless, but I wrestle with mine for twenty minutes before I give up and tie it with an unsightly knot.
It’s not until I use the bathroom and have to undo all of that hard work that I regret my choice of outfit. I hastily re-tie my chitenge and step out of the stall just as two Zambian women walk into the room. One of them looks at me. “Oh no,” she clucks, shaking her head. “That’s all wrong. Here, I will show you.”
She takes two steps towards me and pulls the chitenge right off, leaving me in the middle of the restroom in my blouse, underpants, and sandals. I am mortified, but I try not to show it. I tell myself it’s no worse than getting undressed at the doctor’s office as she puts her arms around me to wrap the fabric and then tucks it in, fussing with it until she is satisfied.
“That is better,” she says with a smile.
I look down at the woman’s handiwork. It’s a little lumpy, and I’m not confident that I will still be wearing the skirt by the time I get back to my table. I want to redo it, but I’m afraid I’ll run into my benefactress in the restaurant after I’ve changed what she’s done.
Before I can decide, the bathroom door opens, and another Zambian woman walks in. She looks at me and shakes her head. “No, no. I will help you.” And she yanks my skirt off and sets to work. I am once again exposed, then wrapped, then tucked. I thank the woman and wait until she leaves to inspect what she’s done.
As far as I can tell, the chitenge looks exactly the way it did when I tied it in the first place. It’s funny, but it’s discouraging, too. On my last night in the country I wonder if the people here have always seen me in the wrong, even when I thought I had things right.
Back home in California I’m not as comfortable as I expected to be. My idea of normal has shifted. I’m overwhelmed by how new and clean everything is and by how many choices I have. It takes me a while to get over how short girls’ shorts are.
I didn’t know I would miss the dusty dirt of the village that stuck to my work boots. I miss the children who’d pass by our work site, walking home from school carrying huge bundles of sticks on their heads, laughing and chattering. I miss the adventure of living in a country that has crocodiles and cobras and baobab trees and tsetse flies, and I miss the songs so different from my own.
At first I think I’m homesick for Zambia, but that can’t be right. I loved it, but I was never at home there. No, I am homesick for a place I haven’t yet visited. There is a longing stirred in me by the smell of a brush fire and the beating of distant drums, a longing that points me to that other country. The singing that filled the church on Sunday morning was a peek at it.
Someday I will travel there, and I’ll see my teammates and my Zambian brothers and sisters again. We’ll sing a new and better song together, and we will all be home.