Ch. 4: “Zambia, The Real Africa”

 

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.

 

 

Chapter 3: The Passage

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“From the Forests and Highlands we come, we come.”

                                                   (Out of Africa page 2)

 

I was walking on a bridge from the old to the new, from the familiar to the unfamiliar.  It was a melancholy walk, a walk of mixed emotions.  I hated to end things, but longed to begin them.  I was reluctant to go, yet eager to leave.

“Remember, people are helpful,” my mother said as I stood at my boarding gate.  My family and some friends were gathered to see me off.  Hannah had returned early from her honeymoon just to say good-bye in person, a wonderful surprise.  My parents were passing out sheets of labels with my new address on them.  (Since I would be in the care of an American Embassy I had a Washington D.C. address.  This helped greatly as any letter or package could be sent with U.S. postage.  That meant nothing would be opened or pillaged through along the way as it would travel in what was called “the diplomatic pouch.”)

They called for boarding and I said my final goodbyes.  As I walked toward the jetway I looked back into the earnest gazes of the people I loved.  Their smiles were urging me forward, their hands reluctantly waving “Good-bye.”     

I settled into my seat and tears filled my eyes.  When the plane took off the only spot of land on which I had ever lived disappeared from view.  I cried all the way to Chicago.  The man next to me occasionally patted my knee. 

Three hours later I was on a flight to London.  After dinner was served they dimmed the cabin lights, but I couldn’t sleep.  I kept thinking about how I was flying over the Atlantic.  Suddenly the earth was huge, and I so small on it.   

Four hours later the sun came up and I caught my first glimpse of green in an ocean of blue.  England.  Sure I had seen Lady Di’s wedding via satellite, but here people were living on a completely different piece of terra ferma.  While I had been paying out dollars they had been doling out pounds.  While I had been waking up to coffee they had been sitting down to tea.       

I landed at Heathrow Airport and entered a world of delightful British accents.  After exchanging some money I headed to a small shop for a snack.  Picking up what looked like cookies, but was labeled “digestive biscuits,” I walked to the counter.  I held the biscuits in one hand and a fist full of coins in the other.  The clerk picked through my coins and I became aware that each was labeled, pound, pence, or shilling.  I felt embarrassed for acting like a child. 

When I asked a man for help in finding my way and he said “Are you from America?” 

“Yes” I replied.

“Oh yup. Ah cahn tell iyt,” he smiled as he offered assistance.

I took a shuttle to the Gatwick airport and boarded a train for London.  I found a window seat and enjoyed watching the English countryside roll by, old farmhouses, cows, gentle hills, long grasses.  All were beautiful in the early morning light.  As we entered the city hundreds of houses stood shoulder to shoulder as they watched us chug through their tiny backyards.  Each had fresh laundry waving on the line and nodding bunches of blooming flowers.  It was a fine welcome.

When I stepped onto the platform at Victoria Station I stopped for a moment to take in the place, the cathedral-like ceiling with its ancient wooden beams, pigeons roosting, flying and flapping about, rows and rows of train tracks with fresh steam rising from them…  I felt I could almost see the millions of good-byes that had taken place there, soldiers hugging loved ones, ladies running along side trains weeping and waving.  Something in me loved the place.   

Near midnight I was back at the airport waiting to board my flight to Lusaka.  I had spent the day touring London in the top of a red double-decker bus.  I saw Big Ben and those men with the tall fuzzy black hats standing guard at Buckingham Palace.  I bought T-shirts and key chains, and paid a shilling every time I used the restroom which was called the water closet, WC for short.  I even took a nap in Hyde Park.

As the minutes dragged on I found myself looking around at the others who were waiting to board my flight, wondering what their stories were.  Across the room I saw an attractive young couple.  Like me they were slumped sleepily in their seats.  She had dark hair and the face of a china doll.  He was blonde, handsome and tall.  Jealousy pinched at my heart.  I could never have gotten anyone to come to Africa with me I thought as I did a quick inventory of boys I’d dated.  I glanced around at the other passengers.  Everyone had someone it seemed.  Even those who sat alone had their wedding bands. 

The steward broke into my thoughts and called for the boarding of British Airways flight 1251 to Lusaka.  I tried to shrug off my loneliness as I shouldered my bags and boarded the plane.  A half hour later we taxied and took off for the Dark Continent.

After a dinner of beef fillets in gravy the cabin lights were lowered.  All was quiet except for the hum of the engines and the hushed tones of mothers and lovers.  Using my jean jacket as a pillow, I laid across an empty seat and fell asleep.  Everyone in my dreams had British accents.

When I woke up the sky began to lighten.  I was rummaging through my carry on for my toiletries when I noticed an envelope my mother had shoved into my hands at the airport in Minneapolis.  “Open it as you are flying over Africa,” she had said dramatically.  I didn’t want to.  It would be hard to see her handwriting, to read her parting words.  Yet as she wished, I tore the envelope’s seal and removed the contents, a bulky card with snowy pine needles on the front.  Opening it, I found that each of my parents had written a short message.  I read my mother’s first.   

Dear Dana,

Two things I want to send with you. One, the snow on the front.  The second, a promise from God’s word.  It goes like this: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not to your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths.”  Well okay, three things, the pin, to add a little class to Lusaka

                                                                                                                   Love you, Mom

 

Taped inside the top of the card was a gem filled pin and earrings I had admired on our last shopping trip.  What a kind thing to do.  I don’t know why people’s parting words are so powerful but they are.  As I looked at the verse my mother had written I hoped it would stay in my heart and become like a little compass pointing the way when I felt lost or wondered what to do.

Next, I read what my father had written.   

 

Dear Dana:

I look forward to the next two years as a wonderful opportunity for you.  I will be praying for you continually.  I believe it will be a truly special time in your life.  God is going before you to prepare the way.  He will guide you and protect you while you are there, and bring you safely home. 

                                                                                               God Bless You. 

                                                                                                    Love, Dad                                                                                         

“Bring you safely home,” I liked those words.  And there was my dad’s trademark “God Bless You.”  I don’t think a day ever went by that my dad didn’t say “God bless you.”  But in that moment, for the first time ever, I lingered over his words, really cherished them.

I stuffed everything back into the envelope and returned it to my bag.  In need of a distraction I found my toiletries and headed to the lavatory.

As I brushed my teeth and tied my shoulder length blonde hair with a pink ribbon my eyes connected with those in the mirror.  One of me was asking the other, “Will we make it?”  Would I, now uprooted, survive the transplanting?  I smoothed my wrinkled jean dress, gathered my things, and willed the butterflies in my stomach not to take flight as I walked back to my seat.

The cabin lights came on and breakfast was served.  I sipped hot tea and nibbled a marmalade covered scone as I looked out the window.  When the plane began to descend, a lump rose in my throat.       

I will never forget my first view of Africa.  The lush beautiful country I’d dreamed of was bare, brown and flat.  Nothing but a few scrappy bushes broke the monotony.  Where were the coffee planations?  The long grasses?  The jungles?  What I saw was a land so desolate, so endlessly dry, I wanted to cry, to water it with my tears.  I was devastated.  It was so unlike what I had imagined.

All at once I felt as if I had been jerked awake from a pleasant dream, a dream that clashed loudly with my present reality.  My thoughts raced as I inwardly started to panic.  What was I thinking?  What had I done?  I wanted to yell at the vehicle moving me forward, “Take me back!  I want to go back!” 

Was this how realizing a dream felt?  Like a mistake?  Like a punch in the stomach?  Like gasping for air?  I would tell Dr. Keller I’d made an error, pick up a carved giraffe, and take the next flight back to… life as I knew it.

Why had I signed that contract?  Made a promise of all things?  “Two years is nothing,” my dad had said.  “It will be over in no time.” 

No time?  Two years suddenly felt like an eternity.   

My nose began to sting and my eyes filled with tears.  I knew just one blink would send them pouring down my face.  I will not blink I told myself.  I will not begin with tears.  Hold your eyes open wide, will them to dry, I preached to myself as the plane made its final approach.   

And so with eyes wide open I landed.  Not on a movie set, not on a book page, but on a small tarmac ribbon laid across the middle of the real Africa. 

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Chapter 2: Ndapita (“I’m Going”)

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There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven… a time to plant and a time to uproot…  Ecclesiastes 3:1-2  

I was attending the University of Minnesota, living at home and working to pay my tuition (my father did not believe in school loans).  It was getting late and my mom stopped by my room.  I was out of sorts and began complaining to her about how all my friends were leading such exciting lives.  They were studying in Switzerland or taking European vacations while I seemed to be forever sitting at my desk, trying to concentrate on my books, scratching my brain for something to write in my papers.  My mother simply said, “Your day will come.”

And it did.

Dr. Keller, principal at The American Embassy School of Lusaka, invited me to Eau Claire, Wisconsin for an interview.  He asked me to bring one of my parents along so he could be sure I had my family’s support.  My dad drove me to the meeting.  We met Dr.Keller and his wife Madge at a McDonalds.  There he asked his second, though no less unusual, interview question.  “You’re not running away from anything are you?”  He caught me by surprise.  I hesitated.  He went on, “Sometimes people apply for a job overseas to escape something unpleasant in the states- you know a break up, a debt, a problem of some kind.  You aren’t running away from anything like that are you?” 

“No.” I said.

He looked at my father for confirmation.

“She’s not,” my dad said.

“Does she have your support in going overseas?” Dr. Keller asked.

“Yes, she does,” my dad assured him.

“Good, it’s best that way.” Dr. Keller replied.

Then Dr. Keller was reaching for something.  It was an envelope, not an envelope of questions or paperwork, but of… photos, snapshots.  In the blink of an eye Dr. Keller was smiling and spreading before us pictures of beautiful animals and landscapes, talking about Africa’s big five (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, rhino) and regaling us with stories of game drives and of the unusual things he’d found in the African markets.  Of course he showed us a few pictures of the school also.  After that there was a discussion of timelines and traveling details. And before I knew it I was picking up a pen and signing a two-year contract to teach 2nd grade at The American Embassy School of Lusaka, Zambia.  I couldn’t believe everything had happened so fast.  Or gone so smoothly.

On the way home my dad took me to the government building in downtown Minneapolis so I could get a passport.  I had four weeks to get packed and ready to travel overseas for my new job.           

People reacted to the news with all kinds of remarks.  “You?  Going to Africa?” one said in utter disbelief.

“Yes,” I nodded a bit embarrassed, as if I had won some kind of contest and couldn’t believe it myself.

“That’s awfully far away,” another said wistfully.

“Did you know there’s a war in Mozambique?!” a person at work barked. “That’s like people killing each other in Wisconsin!”

Oh well, I thought.

There were lots of questions too.  “Are you afraid?”

“A little.”

“Will you be going on a safari?”

“Yes.”

I knew I was an unlikely person to go overseas and live.  I had never traveled out of the country and, well, I had never really even been interested in other countries, or, I’m ashamed to admit, other cultures.  Growing up it was my twin brother who watched Big Blue Marble and read old National Geographics.  I watched The Brady Bunch and looked at fashion magazines.  And my brother was the adventurous one.  When we went skiing he flew off jumps and did summersaults.  I always held back and looked forward to drinking hot cocoa in the chalet.  I had never been outgoing either.  With friends I was fine, but in other social settings I was nervous and insecure about meeting new people.  I never knew what to say.  One friend had labeled me a hermit, another, a hopeless romantic.  And my former boyfriend, when he learned of my African dream, declared “You can’t go to Africa, you can’t live without Daytons!” (Daytons was the upscale department store I had worked at and shopped at when I could afford it).  I knew living in Africa would be a stretch for me.  But I also knew that if God himself had made a way for me to go, he had to have a plan to help me live there.

Soon there were 2 large crates in the middle of my parent’s family room.  Everyone, including the cat, watched as I began to fill them up.  I took everything- teaching supplies, textbooks and favorite novels, my sewing machine, the patchwork quilt my grandmother made, two years worth of toothpaste and other toiletries, cassettes tapes and a tape player, even the duck head book ends I got for Christmas, the ceramic ballet shoes that hung on my wall and the beautiful purple Laura Ashley shoes I had recently worn as the maid of honor in Hannah’s wedding.     

I got a years worth of malaria pills and a bunch of vaccines as well, cholera, typhoid, polio, yellow fever, tetanus, diphtheria, plus a gamma globulin shot to boost my immune system.  After each dose or injection, a note was made in the immunization booklet I was told would be asked for and inspected.        

About two weeks before I was to leave, I went in for my final immunization and a problem arose.  The nurse refused to give it to me.  She said that too little time had elapsed since my last shot.  My mother pressed her, but she would not budge.  I had to cancel my flight and delay my departure.  Not only that our travel agent told my dad, who was handling all the logistics for me, that she could not find any other flights that would get me to Lusaka in time to start work.  I was upset and anxious.  And I am sure I was getting on my family’s nerves.  Rarely did I handle an emergency with the composure of my policeman father and registered nurse mother.  “We must pray,” my mother entreated.  Then she sat me down and prayed like she always had, no dramatics, just simple statements about who God is and what it was we needed.  Moments later my dad called.  He managed to find me the flights I needed by calling several airlines on his own.  “Remember this moment,” my mom said emphatically, and with tears in her eyes, “God can do anything!  If your earthly father cares for you this much, think how much more your Heavenly Father cares.”  I would indeed, remember that moment.                 

Soon I was looking with sorrow at the landscape I loved.  The oaks and maples I’d known my whole life would change color and lose their leaves without me.  Their empty branches would stack with snow and create the winter fairyland I loved.  The lakes would freeze for someone else’s skates.  The hills would hide under deep blankets of snow to be marked by another’s boots or skis or sleds.  I would miss it.

People as well would go on through the patterns of their days and years without me.  They would sing happy birthday, carve turkeys, open Christmas presents, count down the New Year, exchange wedding vows, and have babies… all without me.  I would miss it.         

My friends threw a farewell party for me and it was perfect.  They served cake decorated with a big pink Africa on it.  There were carved wooden necklaces and safari shirts.  Newspaper torches peppered the lawn and hand stenciled African animals hung like clothesline.  I felt so loved.  Is it okay to say I felt like a star?  I did.  We ate, we laughed, we danced, and then it was over.  A chapter ended.  I had a plane to catch.       

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Prelude and Chapter 1: The Dream and the Dreamer

I will never forget my first view of Africa. I saw it from the plane window at about 1200 feet in the summer of my twenty-third year. It was a land so flat, so desolate, so endlessly dry I wanted to cry… to water it with my tears… Where were the coffee plantations, the grasses, the jungles? Was there nothing green? Things were not as I had imagined. So I should I have known then that Africa would be full of surprises, heartaches, discoveries… things that would change the landscape of my heart and leave me longing to one day return.

African Sunrise

The cricket cries, the year changes.

-African Proverb

I remember when it all began, when I got the notion that I must go to Africa. I wish I could say that I had longed for it since childhood, or that I had acquired the dream in a noble way, but that would not be true. I was not wanting to go to feed the hungry, spread the gospel, or to do some peace corps kind of thing. I was a dreamer not a lover of reality. I was a poetry reader and a wish maker. I was always hoping for what was unrealistic and longing for the stuff fairy tales are made of.

I was twenty-one and should have been done with dreams when I saw the movie Out of Africa. I sat in a green velvet seat four rows from the screen. It was a sad movie, but I paid no attention to the sadness. I was lost in the scenery. From the moment Baroness Blixen first tried to “shoo” the elephants to a final scene with her reciting over Denys’ grave “The time you won your town the race, we chaired you through the market-place…” I wanted to pack up my Limoge, my crystal and my beautiful starched cotton outfits (though I had none of these things) and go myself to plant coffee, and to dance with Denys Finch-Hatton on New Year’s Eve. My dad said I just wanted to go and have Robert Redford wash my hair in a river.

Hannah was my best friend, and the sister I never had. When I would spend the night at her apartment we might end the evening in the bathroom where she would lay pajama clad in an empty bathtub loudly reciting Robert Frost’s poems, while I sat on the vanity soaking my ever cold feet in a sink of hot water. Hannah could always be counted on to embrace my dreams wholeheartedly. We had both memorized lines from Out of Africa and when we would see each other on the cold and snowy campus of the University of Minnesota, we used those lines to greet one another. How funny people must have thought it was to hear us saying, “Oh let it go, this water lives in Mombasa anyway” or “Insurance is for pessimists.” Yes, that’s how it all began.

For a year I held tight to my dream of going to Africa. I purchased khakis and put a carved zebra on my Christmas list. While working at Trout Lake Camp I often skipped lunch in the dining hall to eat Wheat Thins and underline beautiful phrases in the book Out of Africa. (“If I know a song of Africa… does Africa know a song of me?” page 83.)

And so I longed for Africa, but how would I get there? I had no money. And what would I do? I certainly didn’t know how to run a farm.

I had just finished my degree in elementary education when it dawned on me that I might be able to go to Africa as a teacher. So, I signed up with an overseas placement service in order to receive vacancy bulletins for teaching positions around the world.

But, my hopes were soon dashed as I repeatedly read the awful words written by each listing “two years experience required.”  Discouraged I stopped opening the bulletins and began throwing them away as soon as they arrived.   With reality encroaching in the form of bills to be paid, I moved my zebra to the bottom shelf, replaced my khakis with jeans and went to work at a daycare since the teaching market in Minnesota was saturated. My dream of Africa began to die.

The pleasure of the true dreamer does

not lie in the substance of the dream

but in this: that things happen…

all together out of his control.

(Out of Africa page 91)

Weeks went by then months. I spent my days wiping runny noses and monitoring nap time, but each night I found myself on my knees by my bed talking to God. I felt small as I asked Him what I should do, where I should go. I asked God to give me the courage to go anywhere and the willingness to be pushed to my limits. And I ended each prayer by saying “Dear Lord, please give me the courage to keep praying this prayer.”

The prayer was not without effect. For one day when another vacancy bulletin arrived, without really thinking, I opened it.  And I found a position available at The American Embassy School of Lusaka, Zambia. “No experience required.”

Could it be true? And Zambia? That sounded kind of African. Was it? My heart began to race as I stood on my chair and fingered my way across the giant blow up globe my father had given me for graduation. Was Zambia in Africa?

It was! There, right smack in the middle of Africa, was a “vacancy!”

My dream began to stir.

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I had no resume, but I quickly developed one and sent it, along with a letter, to a Dr. Keller who was in Wisconsin taking applications for the job. I was not expecting the call I promptly received.

The night Dr. Keller called is etched in my memory as we had a most unusual conversation beginning with his question, “Are you promiscuous?”

Did I hear him correctly? Wasn’t there supposed to be some kind of question about classroom management or how to meet the individual needs of students? “Excuse me?”

“Are you promiscuous?” Silence.

Somewhat flustered, slightly offended, and unsure of how to respond I said, “Well… I don’t believe in premarital sex… and I have never had sex… if that is what you mean.”

Dr. Keller went on to explain that according to the state department, since they were responsible for hiring me, this was a priority issue. “We cannot be hiring people who run around breaking up family units overseas,” he explained.

“Oh,” I said.

Next, he asked me about being a Baptist. He noticed on my resume that I had taught Sunday School in a Baptist church. He thought this was good as there were some Baptists my age, “Journeymen” he called them, working in Lusaka. He suggested I might hang out with them since finding a social life in Zambia could be a problem.

That was it. Dr. Keller didn’t ask me any questions related to teaching and having discussed those two items he ended the conversation by telling me that he would get back to me for an interview if my transcripts checked out.

That night the girl I shared a house with gave me the news that her parents were moving back in and I would have to move out.

I then knew two things. God had heard my prayers. And I was going to Africa.

My African Journey: Introduction

african-journey-introIntroduction

After graduating from college, I signed a two year contract to teach 2nd grade at The American Embassy School of Lusaka, Zambia. Living in Africa was quite an adventure for me, seeing the animals, climbing a mountain, meeting a handsome guy…

While in Africa I kept a journal, which I tried to turn into a story. Not long ago I found myself in the attic rummaging around, looking for that story. As I began to read it, I couldn’t help myself. I found I had a soft spot for the young lady who lived it and wrote it (me). I will post the chapters here as they unfold.