I Spent 6 Years In Poverty-Stricken Zambia: Here's Why It's The Best (And Worst) Thing That Ever Happened To Me

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I moved to Zambia in 1982, a bride of six weeks married to a blue-eyed boy from the Netherlands. He's an agronomist, my husband. And he spent most of his time traveling to villages in Zambia to help and teach the region's farmers. We stayed six years, stayed in a village that took two full days of travel to reach.

After all those years, she is mostly sand and grit.

Imagine a 26-year-old North Dakota girl taking a 10-hour bus ride west across Zambia, getting off that dusty bus and carrying her suitcase down to a small, sandy harbor where she finds a banana boat with a 35-horsepower engine. Imagine her crawling on board and situating herself on a wooden plank. There are no life vests, canopies, or cushions.

She sits on that wooden plank, sits in the blazing sun, as she travels deep into Lozi country, past herds of long-horned cattle, past women on the riverbank bathing their children, past thatch-hut villages where people look up at the sound of the engine and wave.

Ten hours later, the canoe stops at a bend in the river and she gets out, sunburned, wobbly, and stiff. She has arrived in Kalabo Village, where five languages befuddle her ear: SiLozi, Luvale, Nyengo, Mbunda, and Nkoya. She cannot tell one from the other.

This girl will spend her days boiling germs out of drinking water, finding enough food to survive, washing clothes by hand. She will give birth to two children in the village and bury her best friend.

Imagine her becoming quieter and quieter. Imagine her losing more than her voice; she is losing her way. She arrived in Zambia a newlywed and left six years later a mother of two children. After all those years, she is mostly sand and grit.

I am that girl. I know what it is like to be lost. I know what it is like to hide my own story. I know the hopelessness of trying to forget.

I remembered the color of the weaverbird nests. I remembered the blue-tongued lizard and the baby geckos falling in in my bathtub with their cute, froglike, padded hands.

When we left Zambia we spent a year in England and then three in Indonesia. After ten years, we moved back to North Dakota and closed the door on our expatriate life. I expected to pick things up where I'd left off. But the girl that I had been no longer existed. And then, the nightmares began.

A Zambian woman named Pity came to me every night for 20 years.

She walks into my dream, wearing a threadbare chitengi, holding a newborn baby. A red-haired 3-year-old clings to her leg. His skin is patchy and white. His belly is large, a lack of protein has weakened his abdominal muscles. He's slowly starving to death.

Pity’s firstborn daughter sits in the sand. She is perhaps 6 or 7 years old. Her eyes are milk-colored and staring. She tilts her head in the way blind children often do and stares into the void.

I look at them, this little family, and turn my eyes toward Pity.

We are the same height. Near the same age. Every night we look into each other's eyes and I watch as the flies settle on her baby's face, as the sores on her child's legs weep.

My husband teaches farmers nearby. He stands tall and blond under the shadow of the mango tree, busy and talking, while I lock eyes with Pity.

When I wake, my body sweating and hot, my arms flailing, brushing at the flies in the corners of my eyes, I am crying.

I am always crying when I dream.

And when I wake, I write.

Writing brought Africa back to me in a new way. Writing brought back the beauty.

I write about the difficulties of cross-cultural marriage, civil war, starvation, malnutrition. I write about giving birth to my first daughter in Kalabo Village. My writing shapes itself into essays, and I begin to submit, amassing rejection letters like candy. I accumulate just shy of 100 before I get my first acceptance letter.

My husband doesn't understand the need to write. He loved Africa—his dream job. And my memories clearly baffle him. "Your Africa was very different from my Africa," he says one day. If I wrote a book, it would be very different."

Yes it would. I came home bitter from his work and long, long hours and all that blatant fortitude.

After fourteen years of writing out the sorrow, the anger, the fear, something happened that surprised me completely.

When I came home from Zambia, I was bitter about life and the long hours of work and all that blatant fortitude. I came home sick in body—bilharzia, hepatitis, giardia, dysentery—and sick in spirit. Words became my surgery—the cleaning out, the stripping away, and, later, the healing balm applied over the sutures.

Words rescued me. They also upset me deeply.

Imagine this:

Imagine that you are in a truck with your 18-month-old daughter playing finger games beside you. Your husband's driving. Imagine slowing down to twenty miles per hour and pulling over to the opposite side of the road to pass the bus parked alongside. Imagine tall elephant grass, yellow and dry, taller than your vehicle.

Imagine your truck shuddering, coming to a sudden stop, a girl lying in the road. She had run in front of the truck.

She was 12 years old. We drove her to the hospital, her breathing awful and sporadic as she lay gasping for breath, held in her grandfather's arms. We drove for 30 miles to the nearest hospital; the doctor wasn't in.

She lived 12 hours.

I had to write it. My husband said I couldn't. He yelled. I cried. We stood, two hurting human beings, wounding each other again and again.

Writing is not for the faint of heart. I cannot tell you the courage it took to open that particular Pandora's box.

But this is what writing memoir did: It opened up long-closed silences between my husband and me. It allowed us to talk about the Zambia I had experienced and never known how to be honest about.

After fourteen years of writing out the sorrow, the anger, the fear, something happened that surprised me completely. I remembered the color of the weaverbird nests. I remembered the blue-tongued lizard and the baby geckos falling in in my bathtub with their cute, frog like, padded hands. I remembered my daughter carrying a newborn puppy tied to her back, like any other African mama. I remember her first, teeny blond pigtail tied up with a pink satin ribbon.

Writing brought Africa back to me in a new way. Writing brought back the beauty.

And then, after I'd written out so much pain and so much joy, all of it falling onto the page [for] four or five hours a day, I got up one morning and sat down to write, and my hands sat still on the keyboard. I didn't have a thing to say. I'd written Zambia away.

That night when I went to bed, I didn't have a nightmare.

I have never dreamed of Africa since that day.

I spent the next year shopping my manuscript around. I became a grandmother. The day after my first grandson was born, a publishing company emailed and asked me to call.

Imagine a woman sitting with a cellphone in her hand, listening to it ring. She's dazzled over the birth of her first grandchild, still feels the gentle weight of him in her arms.

A deep voice answers the phone and says, "We want to publish your manuscript. It won first place."

Imagine this woman's sharp inhale and how she has to ask him to repeat himself. Imagine her sitting in a 1960s rambler in a small town in Minnesota. She can't stop smiling. She won't be able to sleep for the next 48 hours.

Once a week, I teach journal writing to female inmates at a county jail. We talk about losing our voices as women, about filling in our own silences. We talk about the things we are afraid to remember. A woman thirty years younger than I am told me my story inspired her. Gave her strength.

How is it that words I wrote reached out and touched a woman in jail? How can a story written about a small village in the middle of the African continent seep into another woman's heart? How can those tiny black scribbles on a piece of paper give another woman courage?

I do not know the answer to these questions. But I do know that words are one of the most powerful things in my life. I will never let them go.

This post was adapted from an essay in The Magic of Memoir.

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