My time in the village of Siamuleya has come to an end.
I pulled myself from my site on Friday. The last few days were surreal. I spent my time trying to balance between cleaning out my house, processing everything, spending time with family and friends, and taking time to just do absolutely nothing. I ate my weight in nshima and enjoyed my last bit of time speaking true, deep, village Tonga with my family.
I knew leaving would be hard, but it was different somehow than I expected; harder in different ways than I had anticipated. I am always so grateful for everything my family does for me- did for me, I suppose. Getting used to the past tense is still a strange feeling. With everything that my family provided for me over these two years, feeding me and helping me do my chores and teaching me a whole world of different culture and language, I never once expected them to give me more.
I, of course, gave them a truckload of things from my hut: sugar, cooking oil, peanut butter, beans, rice, salt, powdered milk, tomato soup mix, lanterns, shoes, a hat, a coloring book and crayons for my sisters, wire, soap, chlorine to purify drinking water, sponges, old containers, candles… They’re even going to be living in my nice, sturdy house until the next Volunteer comes. I gave them everything I thought they would like to have, and never thought twice about it. I didn’t need those things anymore, and my family did. It was a completely reflexive thought process.
My family had been visiting throughout the week and telling me they had no relish - any sort of flavored dish that the nshima is eaten with, and the expensive part of the meal for those families that don’t garden their own vegetables. I gave them what I could: my sack of beans that I was going to give to them anyways, a big bag of soya pieces, whatever vegetables I had on hand… For my last meal in the village, dinner on Thursday night, my mamas made a delicious spread of soya pieces, beans, and fried veg. They cooked so much food, because they knew it was my last dinner with them.
After dinner, we sat and talked for a long time, enjoying the peaceful dark of the night. I told them about the houses back home, how they stack stories on top of each other, and about skyscrapers, because there are so many people in the cities that we need to build on top of our selves in order to not run out of space. I laughed with the kids as Thandiwe pretended to exorcise Smokey while he laughed and swung around by her hands.
My heart started to break when the girls had to go to bed, so they could get up for school the next morning. One by one, my sisters came over to give me a hug and say, “Mweende kabotu,” wishing me safe travels on my way home. Thandiwe, Mutinta, Beatrice, and Medess, who all look so much older than they did two short years ago; strong, smart, quick to laugh, and so beautiful.
Mama Evi told me they had something to give me. She went into the house and came back with a simple chitenge, the type costing the equivalent of about one dollar. She handed it to me and said quietly, “We have nothing to give you.” After all I had given her that day; after all of the food I had been able to offload so effortlessly; after all the things I owned that I could afford not to have to bring back home with me; after they had been without relish for a week, along with mama having to pay for an unforeseen trip to Pemba to sign up to receive fertilizer for her women’s group; after all of that, she simply stated that they had nothing that could ever compare to what I had given them.
It was too much for me. I had to tell them that I was tired and had to go to bed. I thanked them for dinner and told them I would see them in the morning, and went back to my hut in silent tears. I unfolded the chitenge in the candlelight, and found it to match one of Mama Laila’s, a largely caramel brown pattern with colorful Christmas-like bells. It’s beautiful. I just hope that they know they’ve given me more than I could ever express or ever repay. I felt like I was maybe starting to make up the deficit with my gifts, and then this simple, inexpensive two meters of cloth shot me right back down in to the red.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that love and kindness can grow out of nothingness and anonymity in a surprisingly short amount of time. Humans can grow to care for each other so deeply that they would risk life and limb for each other, all in a matter of so short a time as weeks. The human heart is capable of amazing feats, and culture is no barrier.
The morning that I left was filled with tears and hugs and me saying the word, “Twalumba,” over and over, thanking every single person I came across for everything that they had shared with me over the last two years. Mr. Zanda was thankfully going into town in his canter truck, so he picked me up at my house, along with my pack, guitar, water filter, and three bags of various items to give away at the Peace Corps office in Choma. He drove me straight to the office and wished me safe travels.
Now I’m here at the office, and I’ve spent the last two days decompressing and processing everything. There’s only one of my friends left here who will be leaving with me, my buddy, Chris. We’ve been packing side by side, sharing village stories, and cooking good food with the handful of other Volunteers who are here right now. Last night we put a mattress on top of the cruiser and stargazed, enjoying our last little bit of time in our home province. On Tuesday, we’ll travel to Lusaka and spend a few days getting our affairs in order there. On Friday, we “ring out” and my twenty-seven month service will officially have ended. On Saturday, I hop a flight to Thailand, via Joburg and Abu Dhabi, for a two-week holiday with one of my best friends from home. I’ll touch back down on American soil in less than three weeks from today. I’m sad to be leaving, of course, but also incredibly excited to be going back to America and all the warm people I’ve left there.
The word “home” is a difficult one for me at this juncture. Home is America, but home is also Zambia. Home is a two-story house with central heating and glass windows, but it’s also a mud-brick and thatched hut. Home is where I grew up, but it’s also this place that I’ve only lived in for two too-short years. Home is something to look forward to regaining, but also something being ripped away from me. Ultimately, though, home is not a place. Home is people.
They say, “Home is where the heart is.” I don’t store my heart in cold, impersonal buildings of any make; I store my heart in the warm hands of the people I love. I give pieces of it, bit by bit, freely and unselfishly. I take bits of others’ hearts in return, hoping to treat them as well as I hope they are treating mine. Home isn’t America because I’m returning to potable tap water and high-pressure showers and a thermostat; home is America because of everyone I miss so dearly. And home isn’t Siamuleya because of the beautiful morning light spilling over the mountains, or the lush reeds growing in the babbling river, or my swept dirt compound with its squat, strong little buildings; it’s home because I’ve given every ounce of myself to these people, and they have, so gracefully and across all cultural barriers, become my home.