We visited the zoo in Lusaka with our buddies from Birdland Elementary School during what was one of the most exciting days of the trip. The field trip gave us a chance to bond with the younger kids and sincerely get to know them. Among some of the animals we saw were lions, zebras, crocodiles, impalas, baboons, warthogs and mongooses (mongeese?). The kids loved the animals, and most of them took meticulous notes as our guide told us about each species. In fact, they were absolutely diligent about recording the information presented to them.
I have found that the Zambian kids are generally more mature than American kids. Not one child whined, cried, or shown any inkling of dissatisfaction during the 5 weeks that we spent together. Despite the hardships they face in their lives at home, these kids truly seemed happy. Even their education seemed beyond their years. Be it the cursive handwriting and difficult math problems in their ratty notebooks or the advanced science courses for their age group, the level of responsibility that they have to assume is tremendous for their age.
We circled up during our lunch break and a few of the Birdland kids presented short snapshots of their lives at home to our group of 17 students and teachers from Seattle Academy. We learned that after school, kids can be expected to wash their uniforms, sweep their floors, and are not allowed to serve themselves food until after their parents (or guardians, as many children have lost their parents to illness) arrive home from work. Breakfast isn't always a guarantee, and neither is lunch, which is why Olive—the founder and head of Birdland School—arranged for the school to provide a meal at break. Some families are lucky to afford chicken once a year, so the staple of many children’s diets is cabbage and nshima (thick, mushy, white maize-meal). I felt uneasy and overindulged as I listened to their stories; I’ve always lived with an extravagant survival kit in comparison.
My experiences in Africa were full of uncomfortable situations, but I learned from them that it’s hard to grow and change when one’s character is never tested. I also quickly fell into the habit of questioning myself—every day—in my sudden realization that I don’t have all the answers, and never will. Selfishly, perhaps, I now seek to push myself beyond my safe, familiar home and find what is unknown and uncomfortable to me in hopes of continuing to play the sponge as I soak up the world around me, desperate to change while not losing track of home: wherever, whoever or whatever that may be.
On the bus ride back from the zoo, I was sitting in between a group of kids that I had found a special connection with: Mercy, Sibongile, and Mwape. Sibongile was plaiting my hair while Mercy and I sang along to a song on the radio that we both knew, and Mwape was standing next to us and looking out the back window of the bus, but he was positioned in such a way that almost seemed protective as he intensely scanned the surrounding scene. In that moment—although it was simple—I felt a very strong emotional pull that almost brought me to tears. It was as though I had momentarily come to terms with where I was, and although I found myself in a foreign situation that pushed me well beyond my comfort zone, through it I stumbled upon what was perhaps the most powerfully comforting situation of all: raw, common, bonding human interaction.
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