T.I.A. This is Africa.
I am told that this is a line from Blood Diamond (the Leonardo diCaprio move) and the line is often used by expat volunteers here in Zambia as a catch-all explanation for a situation or experience that defies the muzungu (foreigner) logic or paradigm .
Lusaka is the capital city where my intake of volunteers (all from Western Europe except me) spent one week on training. Its sights and sounds were not totally unfamiliar. I have been to Africa before. This was the Africa I knew.
Yes, we had to walk 30 minutes to get there, but there was a strip mall 30 minutes away from the dormitory where we were housed. This temple of commerce, although smaller than what I am used to back home, was familiar and comforting. How could anything go wrong if you have access to a money exchange center , a Subway outlet and a supermarket selling aromatherapy candles?
That Africa seems so far away today.
I am on my second day in Kalomo, 400 kilometers away from Lusaka. I am living in a guest house while my permanent residence is being readied. The guest house is clean and safe and the people working here have been very helpful. I shouldn’t ask for more. I don’t have to report for work until tomorrow.
This morning, I walked the dusty footpath from the guest house to the town market to familiarize myself with the place that will be home for the next six months.
As soon as the market was in sight, my senses went immeidately on overload. The heat of the late -morning sun was merciless. I could almost feel the oil on my scalp and face sizzle. The chitengas wrapped around the women’s bodies and heads were wildly vibrant and unapologetic in their mix of patterns and colors.
My nostrils were engulfed with so many new smells, not all unpleasant but each one with an in-your-face aggressiveness to demand attention . A cacophony of noises (words I do not understand, roosters crowing, trucks honking, drums playing on a loudspeaker, children shouting) surrounded me.
I had to stop to get my bearings. For a few seconds, time seemed to stand still as I reminded myself where I was and why I was even here.
I looked around and realized I was lost. I didn’t know where I was or how I could get back to where I started my walk.
People were looking at me. I relaxed when I sensed no hostility. Their faces and eyes were friendly. I greeted them with the few words in the local Tongan than I have managed to learn since arriving…… Mwaboka Buti, Muliwutsi, Kabotu (Good morning, How are you? I’m fine)
A woman passed by running after a passel of young children. One young girl of about four – skin dark as ebony, pigtails tied with a red ribbon and with big round eyes - stopped in her tracks, turned around, stared and then made a sign towards me. I did not understand. The woman laughed and explained to me in English - She is blessing you. She is saying welcome.
I felt my heart tighten and my eyes sting. What else could I say but - Twalumba (thank you). The little girl laughed and ran away with the woman chasing after her.
I took a deep breath and let my senses take everything back in. I found my way back to the guest house. My clothes, shoes and face were covered with a layer of red dust.
Six months seems like such a long time. But, today, the people of Kalomo see me. They acknowledge and seem not to mind my presence, this stranger among them. I see them too, these people who will become my neighbors, friends and protectors.
For now, that is enough.
This is Africa. This is my Africa.