I have wanted to write for a few days now, but every time I sit down to get started I can’t really figure out where to begin.
In short? Our time in Zambia has come to a close.
WOW – that was fast right?
It’s been five weeks, but they flew by. I’m feeling a twinge of whiplash as I try to process through the whole experience that we just had.
I keep thinking about our time with the kids at Elicecy and our time with the kids from homework club. Our time getting to know Cecilia and Elizabeth at the school. Our time talking with the women at our compound who fixed us food each day, and our time getting to know the other volunteers from all over the world. I also keep thinking about our time getting to know ourselves in a completely new life structure, with wayyyyy fewer resources than we are used to.
It was hard to say goodbye to the kids.
I feel like experiencing a true goodbye is something we really don’t do anymore in the USA, with the exception being the death of a loved one. Goodbyes here aren’t really true goodbyes. Through social media, I know what people I haven’t talked to since high school are up to. Without even trying or realizing that it’s kind of strange, I know if they have kids, if they are married, what hobbies they are into and where they work. (Yea….we live in a WEIRD world).
But… these people we’ve connected with in Africa – these sweet children, mostly – it felt like a true goodbye. I’m not going to see what happens to them. I do not know what direction their life will take – if they will ever leave the Highlands, or if they will stay. The one connection that will remain is with the teachers as they take on the project of building the new school. We’ll get to see pictures of how it’s going, and we can ask about the kids. But it’s still a strange feeling to get to know them, and have that just be it.
I am having a hard time putting that feeling into words, but I do want to share. SO, I’m going to do something I never EVER do and simply share the passage I wrote in my journal after our last day at Elicecy.
So many emotions right now that I don’t even know where to begin. It’s about 1:00 in the afternoon, and we’ve officially left Elicecy for the last time. Our morning was pretty epic – we threw a big party for the kids. We had finger painting and I made a big lion piñata that we filled with cookies, lollipops and bubblegum. They LOVED the piñata! The teachers had asked us a few times if we would bring cake because they rarely get to eat it. So we found a store that made big sheet cakes and brought three cakes to the school. I decided screw it on the dairy and I ate it anyway. Everyone was super excited and it was fun to see how much everyone enjoyed it! Cecilia and Elizabeth were as pumped about it as the kids were.
Everyone looked so nice. Elizabeth and Cecilia looked great in their nicest traditional Zambian dresses, and they both wore their hair today. I love that they call that out with such pride! They love their hair pieces, which are wigs that you buy in the market.
We decorated the classroom with balloons, and we borrowed a speaker from one of the other volunteers so we were able to play music. We danced and danced with the kids to traditional Zambian music that Elizabeth had picked out.
After dancing, Elizabeth and Cecilia called Luke and Jess and I into one of the smaller classrooms and said they had a surprise for us. They had Luke close his eyes and turn around while they presented him with a traditional Zambian shirt that they had tailored perfectly to his size (just by taking a few pictures of him to show the tailor!). So special! They then presented me with a traditional hand woven basket for our home. Cecilia balanced it on my head like the locals do, and with the help of my big hair bun, it actually stayed in place haha. They gifted a basket to Jess, too. (The volunteer at our placement from New Zealand).
When all the festivities were over and the cake was eaten, the mood in the room shifted as they asked us to say something to the kids.
At first I wasn’t sure what to say. What do you say to 50 little kids with cake all over their faces, staring up at you knowing that you are about to leave?
I was totally unsure for a few minutes, but then I went into the small supply room where I’d seen a word map left by another volunteer. I grabbed it and went back into the big classroom and began explaining that we’d been with them for many weeks, and we were very sad to leave, but it was time for us to go home. I showed them on the map where Zambia is, and then I showed them where our home is. Family and friends are a big part of the community here, and during our weeks at the school the kids were constantly asking about our families. So when I pointed again at Michigan I told them that it is where our families are. I explained that they were waiting for us to get home and excited to see us. I tried to explain how much we’d loved coming to see them every day and that we would miss them. That they are all so special and smart and unique and fun. That we hope they keep studying hard and listening to their teachers. It wasn’t everything I could have said, but it was nice to have the chance to say something. Jess and Luke then said something too, but I was feeling pretty emotional honestly and I’m not even really sure what they said.
Just sitting here writing this, I am still feeling really surprised by how much I softened into the experience of spending time with these kids. I’ve never been a kid person. But, here I feel differently. It’s not like it’s easy. But even on the really hard days, I have gone to bed feeling so happy about how I’d been able to spend my time that day. Like it actually mattered. It made all the other challenges of being here okay.
After the three of us said something, the teachers told the kids it was time to say goodbye and they sang us a song. “Farewell, farewell dear teacher” were the first words, and after that I was crying, and Luke was crying and Jess was crying and the kids were crying. The girls were wiping their eyes on their nicest dresses that they had worn for the party and getting cake and frosting all over themselves in the process. Looking around the room at the group and their big teary eyes – I was just like … AHH. So many emotions. Sad- happy- fulfilled- amazed- humbled- awestruck – all of it. All of it all of it all of it.
A huge experience in my life is coming to a close, and I am feeling a major shift my perspective about what it means to connect and be a part of this family of humans that are spread across this earth. We are not separate.
After the kids finished, Elizabeth sang a song in Nyanja. I don’t know what the words were, but everyone was crying (including Cecilia, who is always so composed). When Elizabeth finished, Cecilia looked at us and told us to “hug our babies.” All the kids flooded forward for so many hugs! My three favorite girls, Laura, Precious and Mazinga were front and center and I felt sad seeing their puffy eyes and sad faces. These kids must be so tired of goodbyes. I had a moment of appreciation that the volunteer organization requires you to spend a minimum of a few weeks at a placement if you are going to work with kids.
This slight chaos lasted for a minute or so and then in a snap Cecilia broke the spell and said firmly “Okay- stop crying!” Haha, she was back to her normal stern self again. I realized that she kind of reminds me of Professor McGonagall a little bit.
The kids were sent out into the school yard to play, and I joined them for a bit. A few of them nearby me sang “In the jungle the mighty jungle” together and I smiled so big. I love that they know it so well now and that they’ll keep singing it after we go. I gave a few more hugs as they came up one by one, and we took a few more pictures. Luke asked me to come inside and take a picture with him and his older students, and I broke away from the 2-5 year olds to go inside for a minute. All the kids were calling to me as I walked inside, but I wandered in and took the photos for Luke and talked to Cecilia for a few minutes.
When I walked back out, the school yard was empty. The kids had left. I forgot that they have half days on Fridays and they all leave together at noon, walking home in a few big groups. It explains why they’d been calling to me when I went back in, but I didn’t realize that they were getting ready to go.
It was weird to exit the school to a quiet yard. The remnants from the piñata were all over the ground, and the wrappers from all the candy and sweets were strewn all over. Luke’s kids were still there, getting ready to go home, but it felt like a close. A natural close.
Cecilia and Elizabeth called us in then, and we had a talk. Cecelia said that we are brothers and sisters now. The two of them said thank you, and shared about what a difference the time has made and what a blessing it is to receive the money for a new school. I know that they have a lot of volunteers come and go, but I felt a special connection with them knowing that our time there and all our friends and family donating means a lifetime difference to them. I am not good at responding to thank you’s – I never really know what to say. But it was special, sitting with them and talking about the school. They kept inviting us to come back and see it when it is finished! Who knows. Maybe someday!
I had no idea how to explain all that the experience has meant to me, so I just kept saying thank you to them for everything. For the warm welcome, for having us at the school, for teaching us and helping us learn about the community.
And then we left and walked through the village one more time. The neighbors called out “hello” (bwanji!), as always. Kids we didn’t know ran in the streets in their underpants and bare feet. Other groups of kids sat outside their mud and thatch houses with each other, playing on the ground with toys like old recycled cans that they push around as pretend cars.
We took a taxi back to the compound for less than a dollar each.
Anddddd – I’ll never be the same again.”
Reading through this entry – a world away now – I’m surprised by how this experience has changed me. I knew it would, but it’s not easy to predict how.
We travel a lot. As much as we can.
Yet this experience was so drastically different, and leaving it, I feel different too.
We are back in Michigan just briefly. We are able to be with our families for Thanksgiving, and we’re repacking our bags and heading out for the next part of our trip next week.
It’s very weird to be here, even though we were only gone for five weeks. For what feels like the first time, I’m really feeling the reality of the fact that this life and all of it’s blessings are incredibly unusual for many people in this world. While I sit here on my expensive couch in my big house, typing on my computer with cold filtered water, hot coffee, and a load of laundry in the washing machine, Mazinga, Laura and Precious play outside their mud and thatch homes with recycled cans, a million miles away in a tiny community in Africa.
It’s a major snap of reality to be grateful – TRULY GRATEFUL – for my life.
Getting into bed our first night back home, I was lying under the warm covers with our cat Nico snuggled under the blankets in the crook of my arm. She was purring loudly while I pet her head. I’d taken a warm shower and dried off with a big clean towel. I watched as Luke came into the room and flicked the right light switch down – out goes the light – and the left light switch up – on comes the fan. I heard the hum of the furnace pumping heat into our room. I smelled Tide laundry detergent on my clean pajamas. And I just laid there, dizzy with exhaustion from days of travel and sleep on airport floors and small airplane seats.
At home, nothing has changed.
But everything has changed.
A friend of mine recently said to me that travel to third world countries is bittersweet. That it shifts our perspective and a new level of awareness settles over us. That you can’t “unsee” and go back to just living without reconsidering what you actually need – the resources you have, and how important it is to not autopilot through life with a constant backdrop of feeling like you never have enough. It’s a major blessing, but its also a hard one to learn.
Practice gratitude today, guys. We have so many blessings.
Happy Thanksgiving ❤️🙏🏻