Notes From Zambia

Garbage smoke.

Garbage smoke.

Greetings from the land of contradiction, the lovely and tragic Lusaka, where no matter how you try to sort it into matching African piles, so you can avoid saying blithe and stupid things on your blog, you will still fall backward into the land of hopeless paradox, praying for mercy as you try to explain.

Here’s kind of what I mean by that:

Rickiey, our favorite team carpenter who speaks oddly prescient and accidentally hilarious things, spent an advance week with the orphans in Chongwe.

“These people don’t need us here,” he reported to the team. “They don’t. They’re happy, they’re content.”

He’s wrong of course, but he’s also deeply, inarguably right.

Charity and the water.

Charity and the water.

Hugh and Rickiey spent four frustrating days replumbing the orphanage before the rest of the team arrived. Through the miracle of southern engineering they managed to pipe water into it after three deep, expensive bore holes failed to yield new water.

When Charity, one of the three teachers for 150 kids, saw water running out the kitchen faucet, for the first time in three years, she cried.

Do they need us? Yes.

But on our third day in Zambia’s capital city, I asked our local friend Chase why, with four million people in Lusaka, the streets aren’t more crowded.

“They are mostly in the compounds,” he said. “Some people will never leave them, never walk on Lusaka’s pavement a mile or two away.” There’s no reason to, he said, they can’t afford it.

The compounds are massive urban ghettos, some with upwards of 40,000 people living in their dirt streets. Concrete huts that once housed two families, have been subdivided to house six. Pit toilets behind the houses and shacks are predictably too close to the shallow wells which makes dirty water and sick kids. Same old story.

And here we come, two van loads of Muzungas to check it all out – something that feels condescending and necessary and horrifying because I really want a bottle of water but I can’t yell out the window for one, saying, “Does anyone have change for a hundred kwacha?” That’s twenty bucks.

Do they need that? No.

And I know those people would trade places with the rich Muzingus in a minute, they would take hot showers, eat more than just shima – the local cornmeal staple – and not watch their kids die of malaria.

And what? So they can die of loneliness and depression like we do?

Are our lives better because we have the money to fix diarrhea and sleep safely in our homes? Yes.
Are contentment and gratitude our natural response? No.
Is kindness to strangers a national priority in America like it is in Zambia?

Lima Compound

Lima Compound

As the van inches down the dusty alley with open pits on each side, from which kids fill water bottles for reasons we hope don’t include hydration, they check us out shyly. If any of us waves first, they erupt in smiles, big white, bright eyed smiles. The adults do too. This happens all day every day, everywhere we go.

One kid even yelled, “Look, Chinese!”


So are we helping? Yes.
Is a large portion of Zambia’s GDP fueled by the Christian Industrial Complex? Yes.
Are a lot of those Christians doing thankless and spectacular work? Yes.
Is our work a meaningful response to systemic, global economic injustice? I doubt it.
Does Jesus require it of his followers regardless? Yes.

In an hour, we leave for Chongwe where a troupe of orphans have prepared songs in our honor. We will set up the clinic, build school benches and chicken coops and maybe welcome a baby into this fearsome, magnificent place.

And as we sleep under the stars of the Southern hemisphere, maybe The Lord will call us out of our huts, and dare us to count them.