Our plane pulled to a stop on the middle of the tarmac. Where was the jetway? People were moving into the aisles so I grabbed my belongings and did the same. I followed them to the exit as if in a trance.
Stepping out the door of the plane I took my first breath of African air, air I would he inhaling and exhaling for two years. It was dry, hot, thicker. I was reluctant to let it fill my lungs. Was most of Africa sky?
Descending the metal staircase I followed the other passengers to a door in the lower level of an unimpressive cement building 200 yards away. Was this an international airport?
When we entered the building it was cramped chaos. I had imagined being greeted by cheerful natives singing rhythmic tunes. Instead, African women in light blue polyester skirts and crumpled navy sweaters were hollering for immunization certificates. African soldiers in bullet filled sashes welcomed me with machine guns. Their eyes were dark and ominous, their faces sober and greasy. People around me were pushing, trying to hurry. I felt smothered. And my nostrils were assaulted by a pungent smell that made me squint. So it was, with shouting and pushing, machine guns, and the strong smell of native body odor, I was welcomed to Zambia.
Like cattle we squeezed through a door frame and into the next room. Baggage claim. There was no formal system for luggage. No conveyor belts. And no hurry. A few African workers wheeled our suitcases in on rickety metal carts and unloaded them along the far wall.
The room was large and undecorated except for a pair of simple and direct posters with warnings about AIDS and sexual partners. At a few old tables African workers stood ready to paw through clean clothes with dirty hands.
My luggage passed uninspected and Dr. Keller was soon greeting me with a smile and a hearty pat on the back. “I was afraid you had backed out on us,” he boomed as he grabbed one of my bags.
“I’m thinking about it,” I wanted to say, but managed a smile instead and followed him through the airport.
Outside a small lawn lay like an emerald jewel. So there was a bit of green. Scarlet flowers bloomed around flag poles, but the Zambian national flags had wilted.
Dr. Keller’s Corolla was parked in the front. As he loaded my bags he explained how his diplomatic license plates gave him privileged parking all over the city. I headed for the right side of the car.
“I wouldn’t get in over there,” Dr. Keller laughed, “unless you’re planning to drive.”
“Oh,” I blinked as I changed my course.
“Everything is British here!” he expounded with delight. “The trunk is the boot, the hood is the bonnet, the horn is the hooter, the windshield is the windscreen, and gas is petrol.”
And so, with me in the wrong side of the car and us on the wrong side of the road, we headed for Lusaka.
All kinds of Zambian men and women walked beside the road like ushers to the city. Their ebony faces were forward and purposeful. “Where are all these people going?” I asked.
“Everywhere,” Dr. Keller chuckled. “They have no transport so they must walk.”
They wore the world’s hand-me-downs, old polyester suits, and silky shirts, wrap around skirts, ribbed turtle-necks, T-shirts, windbreakers, jelly shoes, flip flops, outdated tennis shoes and leather shoes from another era. They dressed in styles that spanned three decades.
Dr. Keller provided the background music for the scenes that came and went around me, filling the silence with talk about everything from his fruit trees to how repairs were coming along on the school pool.
There were some unusual cars on the road, European models like Peugeot and Renault, and Zambian hybrids- a make and model of one car patched with pieces and parts from another. It became apparent that tickets weren’t given for things like, loud mufflers, the emission of coal black exhaust, carrying too many passengers, or the inability to travel more than 20km per hr on a road marked 60.
Skeletons of cars haunted the roadsides. Once broken down, pillagers had descended like vultures, gutting them for parts, picking them clean to the bone.
An old green Volkswagen van sputtered along with people stuffed inside, a picture of claustrophobia. “Public transportation,” Dr. Keller explained. Arms, legs, and halves of bodies overflowed at the windows and doors. The van coughed to a stop and faces grimaced as waves of bodies leaned this way and that until a passenger popped out.
We turned and entered a maze of white cinder block walls at the top of which broken glass had been pressed into a cement frosting. Houses and yards were hidden behind the walls accessible only through large iron gates.
After a few turns in the maze we pulled up at the Keller’s residence where a Zambian guard appeared in a blue jumpsuit with a broken zipper. His small black fingers worked the padlock and pushed the gate aside. He stood in salute as we drove through a sparse yard and parked beside the white one-story home.
As I entered the Keller’s house I was greeted by two carved giraffes as tall as myself. I was about to smile in admiration but a giant African mask on the wall discomforted me with its gaze.
Dr. Keller’s wife Madge soon appeared followed by another woman. I remembered Madge from my interview in Wisconsin. Where Dr. Keller was robust and jovial, she was thin and serious. Madge gave me a stiff but welcoming hug and then introduced me to Jean.
Jean, a newly hired teacher in her mid-40’s, was to be my housemate. And just as Madge was Dr. Keller’s opposite Jean was mine. I was small and slight, she was large and looming. I was quiet and unsure, she was loud and confident. My hair was shoulder length and blonde, hers, a little brown cap. When I held out my hand in greeting, Jean pumped it heartily.
The Keller’s had a lovely house built around a small atrium. I had expected a thatched roof and matted floors, with water hauled in buckets from a well. But, the roof was clay shingles, the floor was hardwood and the bathroom, much to my delight, was westernized, and lacked only the water pressure for a shower.
On our way to the living room we paused in the kitchen where a Zambian house worker was fixing lunch. In the same breath Madge said, “Jackson, this is Miss Brask one of our new teachers,” and “Be sure to boil more water to run through the filter.”
“Hello Madame,” Jackson nodded to me. “Yes Madame,” he nodded to her.
We settled on khaki couches in the living room while lunch was finished being prepared. On the coffee table before me sat 12 magnificent stone eggs in a polished wooden tray. I reached for the amethyst. As I admired it Dr. Keller explained how each egg had been fashioned from a stone indigenous to Africa. Tigers Eye, Malachite…
Next he was handing me a creamy-colored oval item the size of a small loaf of bread. It was lightweight, slightly patterned, and had a hole in one end, which I looked in. “Guess what this is?” Dr. Keller said. I had no idea. “An ostrich egg,” he smiled with delight. I was genuinely fascinated.
Dr. Keller was a curator in his own museum of African artifacts. In the next half hour I was shown a variety of carvings called curios, a collection of handcrafted walking sticks and a series of African oil paintings. Each item had a story behind it, where it was purchased and how it was bargained for. Everything was beautiful of course.
We sat down to tuna sandwiches and potato chips. The chips had come from the commissary, a little store on the grounds of the American Embassy where specialty foods that Americans liked could be purchased.
After the blessing Dr. Keller launched into a detailed report of the six Marines posted in Lusaka. At first I didn’t understand why he was telling me about them, but then it became embarrassingly clear that he was trying to determine which one would be the best match for me. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to interrupt, but he was enjoying himself. When he was finished and ready for my opinion, all I could say was, “I did not come to Africa to find a man. I came to teach.”
After lunch I called home to let my parents know I’d arrived safely and was amazed by the connection. It sounded like my parents were just down the street instead of two whole days and one large ocean away. I drank in the sound of their voices and gave them an upbeat report of my arrival, projecting more courage than I felt. When a lump began to rise in my throat I said, “Goodbye.”
Later Dr. Keller took us to see the school. The American Embassy School of Lusaka was located about five minutes from the Keller’s in a large house that had been a home to the Dutch Ambassador. As we pulled through the gate a Jacaranda tree stood like a lavender umbrella over the drive. I thought it was enchanting.
The two story white stucco building was elegant and friendly, with rounded front steps, arched entryways, beautiful woodwork, and blue and white checkered floors. The 130 or so faculty and students just might feel like a giant family.
My room was in the front and to the left. It was painted light blue and was ready for occupancy with nine small desks and one larger one, mine.
I wound my way through the other rooms and happened upon a quaint little library. All the books were unusually lovely- new, hard cover, and obviously the highest quality issued. I had never seen so many beautiful books and was excited about the prospect of checking one out for myself once school started. One in particular caught my attention, The Hobbit, a classic which I had never read.
The American Embassy School seemed a cheerful place and I was glad for it.
When we returned to the Keller’s I was offered a bath and a nap, and took both.
That evening we had been invited to the Harada’s for dinner so that I might meet two girls my age. The Harada’s were Baptist missionaries. Since I had grown up having little contact with missionaries I knew only two things; they dressed peculiar and possessed a lot of courage. I wondered if we would eat snake meat and drink papaya juice around a bamboo table.
On the way to the Harada’s we drove by the President of Zambia spacious residence. Two unflinching guards stood outside the black iron gate. “President Kaunda is trying to copy Buckingham Palace,” Dr. Keller chuckled. “You can’t take photos of any official buildings here,” he warned. “If they see you taking pictures they think you’re plotting against them.”
“Ok,” I said.
Soon I was getting driving lessons. We came to something called a roundabout. “It’s the British version of an intersection,” Dr. Keller explained. ”It’s designed to keep traffic moving.” I could see that several roads met at a circular path. “You just enter and drive counterclockwise until you reach the road you wish to take out of it.”
A few moments later we came to a stop sign and Dr. Keller drove right on through. “Never stop at stop signs after dark,” he called over his shoulder. “It’s too dangerous. You could get held up or car jacked. Just drive right on through. And don’t worry about it. Everyone does it.”
The next thing I knew Dr. Keller was telling a series of stories he had heard from others in Zambia, stories about people getting robbed at gun point, in their cars, in their homes… I began to feel frightened, but I could tell that Dr. Keller wasn’t scared at all, he was invigorated, like he was a cowboy, and this was his Wild West.
Soon we were on the edge of town swerving our way down a pot-holed road that led to the Baptist seminary.
I was surprised to find that the Harada’s also had a real house, no thatched roof or dirt floor. And no snake meat. A real chicken dinner was laid out near the side door. We stood in a small living room furnished with white wicker, and my missionary stereo-types vanished when I noticed a TV, VCR and two shelves of American movies.
Wilson Harada was a soft-spoken and gentle Hawaiian man. His wife Sarah was fair, blonde and quiet. I liked them both. They emanated peace.
We sat down to a nicely set table, and before we could take our first sip of lemonade, more guests arrived. Two young ladies that were the Harada’s neighbors came bursting through the door arguing good-naturedly about who had caused who to be late. Was it the one who was curling her hair or the one who had burned the brownies? In a happy whirlwind, they rushed over to take their seats. and I was introduced to Allie and Tracy.
I was dumbfounded. Speechless. For sitting directly across from me was the girl with the China doll face. The same girl I had seen sitting across from me the night before in the London airport. I was just beginning to wonder about the fair-haired man she had been with when someone said, “Isn’t it amazing that Dana, Tracy and Jake all came in on the same plane?” At this Tracy cheerfully took over the conversation telling of how she had arranged to meet Jake, a fellow missionary whom she had never seen, in London so they could fly down together. “I told Jake over the phone that I would be wearing a teal shirt. Then I had to spend ten minutes describing what color teal was.” The room erupted in laughter. “And, on the plane, when I had eaten only part of my meal, Jake asked if I was done, and devoured the rest of it. A typical man,” she huffed good-naturedly. As we bowed our heads for prayer, I was thinking that I had been wrong about them being together and me being alone.
I instantly liked my new friends. Tracy was tall and slim, her dark hair cut straight across the shoulders. She was polished yet friendly, and had come to Lusaka to produce a film that would educate the Zambians about AIDS. Allie had been in Lusaka for a year already and was working as a book keeper for the Baptist Mission. She was shorter, rounder, and had a head of tawny curls. She was fun loving and warm-hearted. When the evening ended, I found myself wishing I could go home with them.
Under a black blanket of African sky I climbed in the car with Jean and the Keller’s. We sped through the stop signs, circled back through the roundabout, and wove once again through the white walled maze.
I fell asleep in my dad’s sleeping bag, hoping no one would be offended that I wasn’t using the bed sheets.