The air keeps rushing, switching from cold wind to hot sun as the clouds move across the sky. The clouds are thick, greys edged with white today. Not storm clouds yet, but ones that aspire to be so menacing.
I sit in my chair and read.
My clothes hang on the line, it’s been a three day process to wash them. Two days ago the weather was perfect: bright blue skies, thin clouds floating past. But there was no water. The mechanized pump and spigots that World Vision put in to replace our old, regular borehole, have not been functioning so well and water has been spotty if at all. So I waited.
Yesterday was a storm day. White sky in the morning, clouds already crowding a sky awaiting the afternoon storm. But there was water, so I washed, giving my clothes a quick scrub before hurriedly clipping them up on the makeshift line I string up between corners of my fence. A hasty hour or two in the air with spots of sun peeking through got them almost dry before the storm, as expected, came.
Now today I sit, watching the southeast for the storm. My clothes are swaying in the occasional wind, slowly drying in the reluctant sun.
I sit in my chair and read: now Artemis Fowl, now The Wheel of Time, book seven.
The clouds to the southeast are thick, but that doesn’t indicate rain. They are thick but in layers, like strips of grey and greyer cotton lining the sky. The clouds I’m watching for, though, are the deep blue singularity of a storm. The middle-of-the-ocean blue that darkens and greys and intensifies as it slowly creeps over the sky.
I keep sitting in my chair, reading: now Looking for Lovedu, now Mao II.
I keep watching for the clouds. For the slow rumble that will indicate thunder, that will indicate t-minus thirty minutes until the rain. I’ll be able to watch it as it encroaches, swallowing the fields, making its way over the trees until it reaches me. Until I hastily bring in the clothes,the solar panels. I will fold up my chair, retreat with my book inside as the rain starts sputtering over me and the air goes cold. I’ll light some candles and huddle under my sleeping bag on the couch as the the rain swallows any plans I may have had for the afternoon. That’s what I’m watching for.
In the meantime I sit in my chair and read.
I sit in the alternating sun and cool, I watch the fluff of the clouds overhead, I watch my Saturday progress and measure the time through pages read in my book.
There are certain things that take a day that is just okay, that is fine but not bad, not special, nothing more. There are certain things that take this day and make it a day that will mean something. That does mean something.That makes you feel something, feel special or noticed or appreciated.
It is a unique feeling to feel missed. To know that your presence meant something to someone. To know that they are happy just to see you again, just to feel you back, because they noticed that you had left. You left a hole when you were gone. I can’t help but crave that feeling, to relish it. It makes you feel that your presence is more than ordinary.
Or is it just that they noted you. Really felt that you were there to begin with.
I pull my bike up to the church for my women’s group meeting, and three women are walking up at the same time. They see me, they smile. Their step quickens, if ever so slightly.
Shikenu mwani! They say, smiles crossing their wrinkled yet ageless faces. Shikenu mwani!, they sing, shikenu mwani! They sing, crossing over to envelop me in three double embraces.
Shikenu mwani! Mwafunta! Twazangalili! You have returned! We are so happy!
Just that moment. Remembering their faces, their hugs, their joy at meeting again. Remembering how much I truly love working with these women. I love working with them because they care. They care about the projects, about learning, about the fact that I have come to teach them, about making projects work, together. They care that I was, am, and will be here. They are so excited for my return.
I can’t wipe the smile from my face throughout the meeting. Seated on the simple wooden church benches, they actively turn the small talk towards the meeting, they inform the others that their meeting is started, and we begin discussing their ground nut cultivation project. They want to plant one field this year, and use the proceeds form that field to buy more seed to grow soya bean next year. This is their idea, not mine. They care. They want to make this work. They want to continue working, they are excited, so excited.
And now I have spaced out, because their Lunda has sped up in their excitement and they are talking over each other, and collecting their ideas and writing down who has donated and collecting any money that is left to collect and finishing each others sentences and I have lost them in their emotion.
I smile. One notices, stops them, shows them I have lost them. They slow, bring me back to their conversation, explain their excitement.
I smile, I can’t stop smiling.
Some days can be made so great. A few words, a feeling, a smile. A group of women that never stop surprising me. Returning to site and knowing that it is for a reason. I smile.
It’s late morning, mid May. I’m frustrated. I sit in my house. I feel like I’m going to cry. I’m so sick of feeling like I can’t get anything done, like it is impossible to get things right, like I am alone in my village with nowhere to go. It’s just one of those mornings. One of those mornings that later on, when something goes really well, I will think back to, and think about how I spent so long thinking that nothing would ever go well. Thinking in hyperboles about how time was going to slow down to a thickly slowing standstill.
Things here come in hyperboles. Things are wonderful, until all of a sudden you feel like you are going to break. I count down the days until I have something exciting to look forward to, and all of a sudden, a month later, I don’t know where the time went. These spots come in waves, and sometimes it’s hard to realize that they always get better; they really always do.
And its hard to admit those tough days. Tough weeks. When things feel like they’re never going to be right again. When things feel like they are never going to work. No matter what you do. Sometimes we feel like we can’t talk about them. Like we shouldn’t talk about them, like we shouldn’t admit to them. Like once we do, everyone will know we’re a failure. We’re not strong enough. When really, these tough times are what make the experience out here real. They make it more than just a dream, an idealistic image of what we want to accomplish. They make it something tangible that we learn and grow from. That changes us in ways we never thought it would.
One of the tough things here is that volunteers tend to shy away from talking openly about their tougher experiences. We put a bright face on it all, show off the wins, hide the losses. And so we think that we are the only ones having a tough time. We think that we are the only ones going through a slump. I talk about it with a friend or two, they remind me to just wait, that it always gets better, just wait for the day where I will get that win again.
A day that I get excited because I can finally have a meeting, that I can finally get something done.
And then no one comes. I sit on the ground in the shelter outside, reading my book, greeting the people as they come by and they don’t stop. I know they are not going to stop, to sit down, to be part of the program today. Because today will be written off as a failure. And I am upset for that failure.
But I also know that that failure is okay. That failing every day for a month is okay. I don’t think I knew that in the same way before coming here. I don’t think I realized, too, how even though I know it is okay I am profoundly upset by it. By the idea that I can’t seem to get through to the people how much I want to work with them, if they will only find the ability within themselves to come and ask me for help.
But then, when I have given up, there is that one meeting that works. Where the mothers come two and a half hours late, but I am still sitting there with my Zambian counterpart, and we have written off anyone coming, but all of a sudden three mothers show up and sit down beside me and pull my diagram that I have drawn over to them and start listening to what I have to say. And they start coming up with their own ideas.
We want them to start collecting eggs from the chickens running around in their yard. And they ask how to build a home for the chickens and I show them the sketch. And they ask how many eggs, and I tell them. And they start talking: if they sell some and save the money, they can buy more chickens. If they sell some fritters they can use that money, too. They can pair up and work as a team. They can make this idea that they came up with just a few weeks ago into a reality.
“You can form a women’s group,” I say. They look at me. “You can start an official group to do this, too. Make it a real thing, not just a few of you keeping chickens.”
They make plans. They tell me they are going to start collecting supplies in two days. They can’t understand how excited I am, how this is the first time I have had people motivated to work on something, how even just the three of them starting this project is more than any other village has accomplished.
How they have not only learned what their kids need to eat, but they have realized that they like feeding their kids eggs, they can’t always buy eggs, so they want to lay their own, and all of a sudden we have a project that may fail in a few months as so many do, but the important thing is that we have made the first steps towards trying. And it is because of them that we are doing so, not because of me. They are the ones who can make this work, and they may just be starting to understand that. And I walk away, grinning, cheeks hurt so bad. And I know that moments like this are what make all the tougher ones worth it. That this is what I was waiting for. And this is what I am here for.
The mornings are cold. The air bites your cheeks as you wake up and see it’s light out. You roll over, pull the covers over your head, curl your legs up to your chest. You yank the covers down again, impatiently. It’s still cold. It’s still early. You go through the options in your mind. You could read in bed, but that requires your arms to be outside the covers, and then they’ll be cold. You could try to go back to sleep, but you already know that’s not going to happen.
You pull the covers up again, burrowing into the corner of the bed, toes touching the end of the short mattress, fingers clutching at both the blanket and the open sleeping bag on top of you, making sure they are doing their jobs, pulling them up and around your head, cocooning.
You can hear the construction workers not so far away blasting their music already, getting ready to work. The bass translates through to your hut. You can’t ignore it. You can hear the kids next door. The bell rings at the school for the beginning of classes, in the distance you can hear kids running around the schoolyard. Sleep is not going to come again: you know that.
You abandon your bed. You throw the covers back on top clumsily, you promise yourself you’ll make the bed as soon as you’re warm. You go outside to use the bathroom, you come back in and curl up on your couch under another sleeping bag. From one bed to another, essentially, but this one has music access.
You think about breakfast. You know that, logically, the sooner you make yourself get up and light your brasier, the sooner you’ll be warm. You ponder that thought for a while until, used up, it thins out and slips out of place and disappears. You forget what you were thinking about, thoughts wearing out and fading away again before they bother to become fully formed.
It’s still cold. That thought sticks.
Cold season has hit fast. It stops raining, the storms fade away. One last storm comes in the afternoon, crashing in in a matter of minutes and fading out within the hour. The last storm of the season would like to announce its presence. It would like to make a statement: we’re done for now, but we will be back. Back with a vengeance.
The clouds spent a week coming in early in the morning before burning off with the heat of the day, and then one night you go to bed and it is cold. And you wake up in the morning and it is cold. There are no clouds, just the cold biting your feet as you step into the air outside. And you close your window before going to bed to keep your space a little warmer at night. And you anticipate the cold coming on as the sun falls below the horizon, and the sky opens up and there is nothing to block your view of a hundred million stars lighting up your breath in the air that swiftly drops away the heat it maintained for so long during the day.
So after you get up and after you warm up and the sun is up a bit, enough to start warming the day, but it is still cold, you go out to the clinic in your leggings and with a cardigan on top of your dress. Bundled up. You think about wearing a scarf, but realize that you don’t need it. Yet. And you get to the clinic, and the sun has come out, and the sun is scorching down, and the heat permeates everything. And suddenly it is too hot for your cardigan. It is too hot for the long leggings. And you think about this morning when you were lying, shivering in bed. And you smile.
And in the afternoon you go to sit outside, but it is too hot in the midday sun, and you go to sit inside, but it is too cold with the cool of the brick hut. And you sweat and the sweat cools too fast once you go inside. And cold season cannot make up its mind. But it is still the beginning. Still just the start.
And when you drive along the roads in your bus you watch the sun rising over the trees and over the fields of grass. And the grass is drying out, getting brown. And the trees aren’t quite as bright as they used to be. And you recognize this. You know what this is. You know these colors and these winds and this sun warming the middle of the afternoon and blowing away the biting cold of the mornings. And the sun comes up, and it is day, and the cold wind blows in through a crack in the window next to you and you pull up your hood and curl a bit closer to yourself in your seat and you realize: it feels like fall.
The two goats stop outside my door to eat the chinese cabbage ends I threw on the ground last night while cooking dinner. The female crunches away at them, happy and oblivious to my presence a foot away. The male tries one, spits it out, moves further away to eat some weeds. I pause in my book. The warm morning sun, the crunching. Peaceful in its own way. Until I move, and she notices me and runs off again.
At the clinic there are crowds of people sitting outside on the ground. Groups of 8 or 10. They sit on chitenges, not doing anything, waiting for something. There’s no program today, and I would be surprised if they were all patients, but when I go inside I learn what’s going on.
“That child. You know the one with the convulsions? I called an ambulance for him,” my counterpart says. “It’s his third time here since April. I thought he should go to the boma.
The kid is two years one month old. If he goes to the boma hospital he can be treated properly for epilepsy, if that is what is going on. The ambulance was called two hours ago and still has yet to appear.
I woke up at 6:30 this morning. I laid on my couch, listening to stand up on my speaker until the sun was high enough to be warm. I sat outside reading. I lit my brasier, did my dishes, made some coffee, made skillet corn bread. I ate my leftovers from dinner last night: chinese cabbage with eggs, and rice.
From the clinic I go to the school. The nutrition program that was supposed to be today has been moved to friday. I go home, sit on my couch. Eat half an avocado, some of the corn bread. Read my book. A chicken leads her chicks into my hut. They snoop around for a while before i bother to shoo them out.
A community health worker comes by. We discuss the program we have plans for. We talk about his daughter. She has finished grade twelve, she wants to learn about health, he says. He has no money to keep sending her to school, he says. We decide she will sit with us while we plan our program, and help with ones in the future. He teaches me some new words. I go back to my couch.
I think of things I could do, things I should do. I sit here. I should mend my pants, make some pillows for my couch, draw something for my wall, go for a run. I sit. Some goats come by, look in the doorway, walk away.
Nearby somebody plays music. I can hear the sounds of my neighbor starting water for baths. The music turns up. The sun fades its intensity.
A day gone by. Productive in its own way. Quiet, calm in its own way, too.
The baby cricket that hopped up, not high enough, and ran into the side of my pot of water with a “clink” and fell back down. It waits another minute (calming its nerves?) before trying to hop again.
The feeling of the hot morning sand between my toes as I walk to a patch of ferns to spit my toothpaste. Many times I forget to wear my shoes.
Running down the bush paths, through the tall swaying grass. Skipping to the side to choose a parallel one with better footing. Grass slapping my wrists, grass slapping my cheeks. Music playing aloud because headphones are constricting, and no one is around to care, anyway.
The way the lion on my hut stares at me, no matter what angle I approach it from. A modern jungle Mona Lisa? Just a familiar welcome home.
Greeting an amaama as I pass by her hut. She is weaving a reed mat. I stop and watch her for a while and she explains to me how she is using an old mosquito net for string. Nothing goes to waste here.
Looking both ways as I cross the river of tarmac to the tuck shops across the street. There are no cars, but it’s a habit I can’t break.
Standing on the porch of the clinic, elbows resting on the concrete railing, bathed in the mid day sun. Nothing to do but greet people as they come by and watch the kids playing by the pump.
Speaking to little kids in Lunda. She refuses to talk, even when I tease her for it. She hides in her older sister’s chitenge. The older girl smiles, answers for them both, knows not to be scared.
The goat exploring the inside of my hut leaves just as casually as she came in. No rush. Until she causes the broom to fall and runs away.
The crickets at night, the birds in the morning.
The stars. The sunsets. The early morning clouds which I mistake for fog through the window in my bedroom.
Silence which is never really silence. Sounds traveling over to me before going quiet again.
Theres been a bit of a lag lately, in terms of life and in terms of me posting blogs–I was at Peace Corps workshops/trainings and then on vacation for December and the New Years, and since then there hasn’t been much going on at site due to a combination of people being away for our presidential elections and people not working due to the rainy season!