Thoughts from Rwanda

“Do you know what your problem is?” One of my students asked as we made our way down the path to the toilet. She laced her fingers through mine and began to swing our arms as her laughter bubbled up. “You have a donkey head! A donkey/dog head!” Tickled with her discovery, the girl doubled over laughing, yanked her hand from mine, and raced off to the toilet, naming different animal heads I might also have as she went. Now, while this still baffles me a bit—Why a donkey? Why a dog?—I think this may shed some light on my blogging deficiency. The simple explanation is that my head has changed from a normal one to a donkey/dog head. Now can you blame me for not blogging in four months?

I’m sure my 6-year-old student had no intention of insulting me (it must be her idea of a funny joke), but I can’t help being reminded of it as I attend a regional gathering of PC(USA) mission co-workers and YAVs in Rwanda. Though this gathering provides a space for mission co-workers to share their personal experiences from their places of partnership, it also allowed us the opportunity to hear from many Rwandans about the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi and the incredible reconciliation work that’s been done since the atrocity occurred.

Let me give a little background to help explain what I’m getting at. I knew before I came here that the genocide occurred between two ethnic groups, the Hutu and the Tutsi. (I think that’s about the extent of the general knowledge of the Rwandan genocide in the US.) One of the things I never learned (not surprisingly) was that this division and dislike between the groups was ultimately created and fostered by the Western world. Hutu and Tutsi existed before Belgians colonized the country in the early 1900s, but the grouping was not so much an ethnic one as it was a socio-economic one. If you had more than 10 cows, you were a Tutsi, if you had less than 10 cows or worked in agriculture, you were a Hutu. Your position as a Hutu or Tutsi was not set in stone, rather it was fluid and could change if your situation in life changed. However, when the Belgians came, they decided that it would be better to make the division concrete. To do this, they required stamped identity cards—wealthy Rwandans and those with more “European” features (lighter skin, narrower noses, taller stature, etc.) were stamped as Tutsi, while those with more “African” features were stamped as Hutu. To make matters worse, the Tutsi were given authority by the Belgians and allowed to rule the land and people of Rwanda.

So, while the donkey/dog head comment was made in good fun, I can’t help but think about it and consider how harmful, how demeaning , how intrusive it is to have someone define you and your problems and your worth by their personal perception of you, especially if that person has no insight whatsoever into your personal hopes, fears, and struggles. In the case of Rwanda, years of being perceived as second-class citizens caused the Hutu to feed off of one another’s hatred toward the Tutsi until it was too much to keep bottled up. The Hutu greatly outnumbered the Tutsi, and as they were fed more and more propaganda from Hutu leadership about the Tutsi’s self-centered and self-righteous nature, they finally reached the breaking point on April 7, 1994. The Tutsi were framed for causing the crash of the Rwandan president’s plane, and chaos erupted.

In less than 100 days, over one million people were killed.

The majority of people were killed inside of churches.

One single American stayed to provide aid for the duration of the genocide. One.

The number of UN troops sent in to evacuate Westerners could have easily stopped the genocide, had they stayed. They left immediately.

Over one million people were slaughtered.

One million people.

I’m not claiming to be an expert on this horrific event—I was born during the middle of it and have only just begun to learn about it—and I urge you to research more about it from better sources. However, I can testify to some of the incredible reconciliation work being done in Rwanda today, specifically in the Presbyterian Church in Rwanda (EPR). One of the greatest things the Church has had to grapple with is the fact that the body of Christ is made up of those who were victims and survivors, those who were complicit in the violence, and those who were perpetrators. Not only that, but Church leaders outed Tutsi hiding places and churches themselves became slaughter houses.

Soon after the genocide ended, the Presbyterian Church in Rwanda realized that before they could move on towards reconciliation and healing, they had to confess their own complicity in the genocide and acknowledge that their worshipping body contained people from all parts of the spectrum within the genocide. Publicly, they confessed and asked for forgiveness. According to church leaders, it is that confession that has allowed them to move forward into the work of reconciliation.

During our week here in Rwanda, we have been given the wonderful opportunity to hear multiple Rwandan Presbyterian pastors and congregants speak about the history, event, and aftermath of the genocide, and the church’s role throughout. Rev. Dr. Elisee Musemakweli explained to us that the genocide resulted in two major reactions of spiritual crisis. The first was a reaction of accusation—you abandoned us at a critical moment, therefore your message is discredited by your actions. The second was a reaction of worldly hopelessness—there is nothing good in this world to work towards, therefore our spirituality is only oriented towards heaven. And yet, despite these reactions, the church continued forward in hope, knowing that the only way to heal the unbearable pain that had slashed through the heart of the country was through forgiveness and reconciliation, possible only with the help and guidance of God.

So, how does one even begin to work towards reconciliation after something so horrific? In the case of the Presbyterian Church in Rwanda, they began creating groups, such as the Light Group, that welcomed both survivors and perpetrators into their folds. These groups encourage all members to spend time with one another, listening to each others’ stories, helping each other farm, and visiting one another’s homes. We were fortunate enough to hear from three members of the Light Group—two survivors and a perpetrator. They sat together at the front of the room. The woman in the center spoke first. The genocide had completely destroyed life as she had known it. It left her without a husband, without half of her children, and without a home. And yet God, she said, God never left her side, God always guided her. She joined this Light Group to help her heal, and she closed her talk with these simple, incredible words: “I forgive because God first forgave me.”

Next, the man to her right stood up. He was a perpetrator of the genocide who had killed many people, including children. He had also killed family members of the woman sitting to his left. He had gone to prison and never expected to be released. He believed that if he ever was released, he would go to the forest to live like an animal because he had completely lost his humanity through his actions. And yet, he had admitted his crimes and was released back into Rwandan society. He married a survivor, a relative of the woman to his left, and has become a part of a family he helped to destroy.

Finally, the third member spoke. Also a survivor, this woman told of the family she had lost. As she spoke of the deaths of her four children, including a two-month-old infant, the pain resurfaced and tears began to flow. She spoke of the headaches that plague her every April (the month the genocide began) and of the continued lack of peace she finds, especially in this month. Through her tears, she admitted that, even though she is walking on a journey towards healing, it is still a process that she has not yet completed. Perhaps she never will, but she continues to walk the walk in hopes of a less painful tomorrow.

When they finished speaking, the room was filled with a solemn peace, a quiet incredulity, an unspoken sense of togetherness. Soon, members of the Light Group broke into a Kinyarwanda song telling of the power the blood of Christ has to bring us all together, even when we are strangers. Their spirit was contagious, and soon enough, many in our delegation of the “frozen chosen” were dancing alongside them. We had witnessed only a glimpse of the immense suffering this nation had seen, and yet, as our translator told us during the tearful testimony of the third group member, pain is a universal language that needs no translating. We felt the guilt of our own complicity and inaction when our nation turned its head, ignoring their cries for help. Pain, and unanswered questions, and anger, and guilt swirled around us in that room, but together we sang, together we danced, together we tried to forgive ourselves and one another, together we were one in the body of Christ.

I am unsure of how much of the population is reconciling themselves to one another in such a way as the Light Group is, forgiving one another to such an extent, but what I saw was amazing. It is my prayer that we all may look at the enemies, the destroyers, the hurtful ones of our own lives with eyes like theirs, that we all may we listen to their stories without resentment, and that we all may do our best to forgive, knowing that forgiveness is possible because God first forgave us.


The Best Worst Day

I’ve always considered myself to be a rather patient person. I’m usually late to things, so I understand when other people are running a few minutes late as well. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time working with children, and anyone who’s ever spent time with children (or anyone who’s ever seen children, really) knows that patience is a must. But, for some reason, whatever patience I pride myself in goes completely out the window when I enter a kitchen. I know that a watched pot never boils, but I absolutely hate waiting for my food to finish cooking or baking. When I’m not the one in charge, I have no problem waiting. But, put me at the helm and I start to get agitated. I check the food constantly—is it through yet? How about now?

I think that part of the reason I lose my patience in the kitchen is because I’m not comfortable there. I like to go exactly by the recipe, and I like to double check with an experienced someone before I make some sort of fatal cooking mistake. I don’t have that instinct or experience of knowing just how much to put in or how long to bake, and I don’t have the courage to wing it and experiment with amounts. Though I do enjoy fixing food with people who know what they’re doing, I’m an absolute mess when it’s left up to me.

So, when Amai Busa put me in charge of making her birthday cake, I agreed with a smile while internally screaming, “No! No! I don’t volunteer as tribute! Don’t make me do it!” But, no Katniss came to my rescue, so there I was, stuck with the most daunting task I could imagine. I began preparing a week ahead of time, surveying the few people I could contact for easy cake recipes that they knew of. Several people sent me suggestions, but I found one online that I thought would be even easier (and had even fewer ingredients). I gathered what I would need throughout that week, and Sunday evening, the day before Amai Busa’s birthday, I came home from church steeling myself to begin the baking. Not five minutes after reaching the house, malighte ayenda (the power went out). When the power goes out in the evening, it won’t be back on before 21 hours, usually, so that killed my chance of being proactive with the baking. That evening we also realized we were out of baking powder, so I would have to go get that in the morning, as well.

The birthday morning dawned with dark clouds and scattered showers here and there. (I know, very ominous.) Amai Busa, Abusa, Mirriam, and Joshua were heading to the farm for most of the day, so I was left at home with Memory, Esther, and Junior, and the job of baking the cake. Part of me was glad that they wouldn’t be there to see me bumbling around the kitchen, and part of me was very worried about not having someone to check my recipe and my methods. After waiting for shops to open and fetching the baking powder, I headed back home to wait until a little after 8 to make sure the power would stay on for a bit longer in the morning. At 8:07, my impatience made me start mixing the batter, and promptly at 8:17, once I’d added everything but the milk, the power went out. So, the batter sat and sat, and for 5 hours I sat nearby and cringed at the task still hanging over me.

At 13:30 (1:30), malighte abwera (the lights came back). I hurried back to the kitchen to add the milk and stick that sucker in the oven. I was supposed to be making a big cake and a small cake, so I decided to bake the smaller one first (both wouldn’t fit in the oven at once) as a test run. I slid the pan in the oven, and, after a minute or two, began hearing a faint hissing noise issuing from inside. I opened the door and smoke came billowing out. Once it cleared, I realized that the batter was leaking out through small holes in the bottom of the pan and burning on the oven bottom. Memory ran next door to borrow a pan from the Ngombis while I yanked it out and tried to stop the batter flow. (Mom, don’t read this.) Wanting to stop the smoking, I leaned in the oven to scrape the burnt batter off the bottom with a fork—not my brightest idea, but in the heat of the moment (pun intended) it made sense. When Memory came back with another pan, we dumped the remaining batter in it and shoved it back in the oven. Then we waited. The recipe said bake for 40-50 minutes, so I took the middle ground and, after 45 minutes had passed, took the cake out. Excuse me, took the pancake out. The cake had risen a grand total of about 1 centimeter.

I consoled myself with the fact that this was only the small cake—I could just add a little more baking powder and have a perfectly tall and fluffy big cake, right? Praying that I would have a good cooking instinct for once in my life, I did just that and slid the second cake into the oven of death. About halfway through the baking, the rest of the family returned home and, much to my chagrin, I had to explain the situation. If you ever want to feel about two feet tall, may I suggest doing exactly what I did that day?

It was hard to see the big cake through the oven window to check its progress and, surprise surprise, that was because it hadn’t risen enough to peek out over the top of the pan. I will give myself a little credit—this cake did rise about 2.5 centimeters. Comparatively, that’s something! When it was time to remove the cake from the pan to let it cool, I did just that, only to have it break apart, half of it remaining firmly fixed to the pan. Laughing, Amai Busa said she thought we had enough ingredients for her to make another cake, we just needed butter. Desperate to get out before I broke face in front of them, I practically ran out the door to get the butter. When I returned, Amai Busa had pieced my big cake back together and told me it would be perfect, just to ice it and no one would know the difference. So, while I slathered my runny, overly-sugary icing onto my failed cakes, Amai Busa tossed together (from memory) the recipe for another cake—one that would turn out to be perfectly browned, moist, and tall. I still felt horrible about ruining the first two cakes, but as I sat there and iced while Amai Busa baked and helped Mirriam pluck and cut a chicken and prepare the rest of the dinner for fourteen people, I couldn’t help but be amazed by the positive and hardworking spirit of this woman—of so many Zambian women. As I iced, she and Mirriam kept complimenting my baking and icing skills—and not sarcastically. “Susannah, she knows how to bake. It tastes good! Next time she’ll do even better.” Once her cake was in the oven, I urged Amai Busa to go sit down and rest. It was her birthday, for goodness sake, and she hadn’t stopped working since 5:30 AM. She laughed off my suggestion; “I’m alive! I’m celebrating by working, by getting things done.”

And she didn’t rest until everyone had eaten to their hearts’ content and literally danced the night away. I thought, perhaps, that we would just serve her cake to the guests and save my cake for the family’s eyes only, but she was excited to share both of our cakes with everyone. We laughed about how dense and sweet my cake was (most of the kids loved it, at least!) and, amazingly, what I had thought would be one of my worst days turned into one of my most treasured Zambian memories.

So, English major that I am, I can’t help but see this baking extravaganza as a pretty good metaphor for my time here. Most of the time, I’m the uncomfortable baker in the kitchen of Zambia. I don’t really know why people put me in charge of something, where the ingredients are, or how to measure them. I can’t understand (or even find) the cookbook, and I left my comfort zone when I walked through the doorway. I struggle day in and day out to wait for electricity and spend a day on an activity that might normally take an hour or two, and I frequently feel very alone as I complete the tasks that I need to do. Some days I just want to hide my face in my pillow and hope for someone else to come along and bake the cake for me.

And yet, what a difference it makes when people step into the kitchen to help coax the cake(s) into risen life. What a difference it makes when people piece your broken cake back together and sincerely compliment your shoddy icing job. What a difference it makes when people are happy to share your iffy work with others and what a relief it is when others accept and even enjoy it. I’ve had so many people be the Amai Busas and Mirriams of this story during my time here that I can’t even begin to count them all. I thank God daily for all the people who are able to turn my discomfort and uneasiness into days brimming with more joy and laughter than I could have hoped for. I pray that we might all do our best to step into each other’s kitchens, bringing with us the love and support that encourages us to move forward, to laugh at our mistakes, and that reminds us that we are never truly alone.

Putting the “Pro” in Procrastination

The longer I wait to share a blog post, the harder it becomes to feel satisfied with anything that I write. So, naturally, I keep doing what I do best and procrastinate. But, I realize that I’ve lived in my host community for over 2 months now, and I have yet to truly share anything about life since our YAV in-country orientation ended. So, perhaps it’s time for me to just sit down and hash out a speedy, brief overview of life in Zambia, and then I might be able to focus on (and complete) more thoughtful/insightful/heartfelt blog posts in the coming weeks. My apologies to anyone back home who has waited with baited breath (for over a month!) for this post—be warned that it’s not Wordsworth!

On September 28, 2016, Olivia, Kim, John, and I packed up our bags, closed the doors to Justo Mwale’s TOF Guest House for the last time (until our October check-in), and headed out into the real Zambia. Of course, Justo Mwale Theological College is definitely a part of the real Zambia, but we’d had a month of living and learning primarily with other Americans, so our cross-cultural interactions before that date were few. The four of us were heading out to live in four of Lusaka’s compounds, each about 15-45 minutes away from each other by bus—Olivia to Kanyama (which means “little meat” or “little animal”—which I find funny), Kim to Chaisa/Mandevu, John to Matero, and me to Chilenje. On that day, each of us were welcomed into a family, a congregation, a community, and a culture very different from our own. I believe that by that time we thought we were ready for whatever lay ahead, but I don’t think anything can fully prepare you for all the extreme joys and extreme struggles of full cultural immersion. But, it was time so, at 3:30 p.m. I pushed myself out of the comfort zone of Sherri’s car and was greeted by the sound of singing and clapping, as a number of the Chilenje CCAP congregation gathered my suitcases and ushered me in to my new home. A representative from each of the CCAP’s three guilds—Men’s, Women’s, and Youth—all prayed over my coming and entry into the community. Looking back on it now, I see it as the most wonderful introduction to the tight-knit community of faith I would grow to be a part of and love.

Since our move-in date had been pushed back from Saturday to the following Wednesday, that left me with only half a week to acclimate myself to life in Chilenje (and life with the Chilenje family) before beginning to work at the Chilenje CCAP Preschool. After an hour or so of observation on Friday, I jumped into to teaching full swing on my first Monday. Though the enrollment of my class is around 18 to 19 two- to seven-year-olds, on average only about 12-13 would come. Chilenje does not have a classroom block like most other community schools, so we hold our classes in the sanctuary. I live in the manse, which is about 35 steps from the church building. This makes getting to school quite easy and is a blessing when I forget things (at least twice a day) and have to go back to the house to get them. It is a little confining, though, when the three primary aspects of my life are focused on one rectangular plot of land (church, work, and home), giving me little reason (or excuse) to get out and move around. I work with 2 other co-teachers—Teacher Solomon and Teacher Esnart—and I am very grateful for their guidance and assistance. (Most 2-7 year olds have a hard time giving their full attention to a woman who barely speaks their language, and understandably so.) Though this term I have been in charge of teaching most of the subjects (Social Studies, Environmental Science, and Math), we are working towards making the teaching-load more even among us. Next week, the other teachers and I will be attending a week-long workshop intended to help train CCAP Early Childhood teachers in creating a more child-centered (and less teacher-centered) classroom environment. I’m looking forward to this workshop and am excited about the changes that we have already made and will continue to make as we learn more about this type of teaching.

On my move-in day, I gained not only a new family, congregation, and community, but also a new surname. I am now Susannah Chilenje (sorry Mom and Dad!) and I am the “firstborn” of 5 Chilenje kids. After me, there’s 13-year-old Joshua, then 11-year-old Memory, followed by 8-year-old Esther, and bringing up the rear with endless giggles and dancing is 3-year-old Joseph Jr. I also consider 20-year-old Mirriam to be my host sister, though, technically, she’s my host first cousin once removed, since she is my host father’s cousin. My host father is Reverend Joseph Chilenje, whom I call Abusa (meaning Reverend), and my host mother is Miriam Chilenje, whom I call Amai Busa (meaning Wife of the Reverend). I can’t stress enough how much I appreciate each member of this family, and how grateful I am for the welcome and support they continue to give me now, over 2 months later. The greatest gift they’ve given me as I go through this adjustment is to treat me like a true member of the family. That means that I have responsibilities like the rest of the family, but it also means that I don’t feel as much like a long-term guest and outsider. (Some of my responsibilities include sweeping, mopping, scrubbing, and wiping the floors of  the bathroom, dining room and my bedroom every morning, washing dishes when it’s my turn in the rotation, helping cook when I’m needed, helping in the garden, and leading the family in a nightly song and prayer when it’s my turn.) I don’t want to sugarcoat things and make it sound like living fully immersed in a very different culture is easy and goes on without any hiccups, but the Chilenje family has gone above and beyond to make my time here flow as smoothly as possible. I think I knew the Chilenje family was going to be a good fit for me when, on the 2nd or 3rd night there, we spent over half an hour figuring out the harmonies in “Kum-ba-ya” and singing it over and over again—that’s my kind of evening activity (seriously, no sarcasm here).

This post has barely skimmed the surface of life here in Chilenje, but it will have to do for now. Nshima and my favorite relish (veg mixed with groundnuts) are waiting for me on the table. Everyone is out of school so we’ll all eat together, and after we finish, it’s my turn to wash the dishes. Tiza onana!

You’re Welcome

“Hello, how are you?”

“I’m doing well, thank you, how are you?”

“Ahh, fine, I am fine. You are welcome. You are very welcome.”

Here, I present to you, roughly, the typical greeting the YAVs receive when meeting a Zambian. When I first experienced it, I’ll be honest, I was a little confused. Was the “you’re welcome” a response to my “thank you?” Or was it truly a welcome to their house, their church, their compound, their country? At the time, it seemed like a trite question to ask, so I kept it to myself. Luckily, as we received more and more greetings, the answer became clearer. Frequently, Zambians will say, “You are welcome, you are welcome here,” so I came to understand the response to your well-being as a genuine welcome into their space and, consequently, their life. It was strange at first to not be simply welcomed by the word “welcome” standing on its own, or perhaps followed by the place we were being welcomed into. Most of the welcomes I’ve heard back home are constructed: “Welcome to        fill in the blank     .” And while there is absolutely nothing wrong with that welcome—I’m sure I will still use it for the rest of my life—there’s something special about the change in emphasis within the welcome here in Zambia. Instead of reinforcing the mindset that newcomers are outsiders moving into a space which is not their own, a space that belongs to someone else, the Zambian welcome emphasizes who it is that is welcome—that it is you.

However, in the past two months, we have become painfully aware of how much we stick out here in Zambia, how obvious it is that we are not in a space of our own. Our skin and hair are the most obvious indicators of our foreignness, but other things, such as our greater amount of mobility due to Sherri’s car, our personal computers and smart phones, our lack of knowledge on how to properly and respectfully greet others, especially elders, and our inability to communicate in anything other than English, remind us and others that we are very white, very American, and very privileged. Our differences have garnered us all kinds of looks—looks of envy, of resentment, looks of awe, of surprise, looks of excitement, and even looks of fear (mostly from babies,thankfully). Many places we go we are followed by pointing fingers and the sound of “mzungu, mzungu!” or “white person, foreigner!” It’s impossible to feel like you fit in when the things that make you different are so obvious. And yet, you are welcome. I am welcome.

One of the greatest worries that I, as well as Olivia, Kim, and John, have about our year in Zambia is that simply our presence here as privileged white Americans will perpetuate the “white savior” concept, birthed by colonialism and developed into the conceited and vicious adult it is today. We’ve been constantly asking ourselves the question, “how do we live as volunteers in a developing African nation without reinforcing the colonial idea that our skin color, language, nationality, and wealth give us the right to go into spaces that are not our own and tell people how to live their lives or to help people in a way we see fit without questioning the desire for or sustainability of our aid?” I think this is something we will struggle with the entire year, but I’m reminded of what YAV director Richard Williams told us on our first day of orientation: “In each of your placements, you are not needed, but you are wanted.”

Many us in the YAV program signed up for our year of service with the mindset that we would be the ones doing the helping, that we would be making a difference—it’s us serving them. What many of us didn’t consider is that this mindset in and of itself creates a power dynamic completely unconducive to fostering strong relationships and healthy growth.  Luckily, it looks as if our YAV year will teach, or remind us, that true service is a two-way street. It is wonderful to help others, but we must always remember to allow others to help us. We can suggest ideas and share our thoughts, but only after we listen to the thoughts and ideas of those around us, remembering all the while that they are the ones who know their community and situation best. Sometimes, simply walking beside someone and giving them an ear to listen to their story and a mind to be taught new things is the greatest service we can provide.

A week or so before we moved in with our host families, Sherri took the Zambia YAVs to meet Abusa Ngambi, the head of the Church Youth Fellowship (CYF) of the CCAP (and my next door neighbor in Chilenje). After introducing himself and greeting us with a “You are welcome here,” he showed us into his house and then office, commenting (joking?) “soon you will be Zambian!” He was happy to tell us all about the CYF and its role as one of the three pillars of the denomination. “The youth, the women, and the men are equal and strong parts of our church. Some pillars are not spectators while the others take charge—no, all are welcomed and encouraged to participate and to lead.” Later, he welcomed us again, this time as new members of the church. “You are a gift,” he said. Not because of where we come from, the color of our skin, and the resources we may bring, but because we are children of God and we will be able to share our God-given gifts with a community who is already sharing and discovering their own gifts. We will each join a community that will teach us and guide us and share with us and comfort us and help us and welcome us. The congregations would get along without us, but our gifts will add to the many gifts already there, creating a space to learn and grow and walk together in faith. Thanks be to God for a love that covers all nations, a peace that passes all understanding, and a welcome that embraces all who seek it.


(The signs made by my host family to welcome me to my new home–they’re still hanging up around the house a month later!)

(Chi?)Nyanja 101

Welcome to Susannah’s crash course in Nyanja! If you’ve always dreamed of learning just enough of Lusaka’s primary language to garner plenty of confused looks and/or chuckles when greeting others, you’ve come to the right place.

Okay, let’s get started! Nyanja is one of 500 Bantu languages that make up the Bantoid language branch of the Niger-Congo language family. Nyanja is thought to have originated in Nigeria and Cameroon, migrated through the DRC, and ended up in its present location: Malawi and the Eastern and Central provinces of Zambia. Though not as widespread as Bemba, Nyanja is spoken by over a tenth of Zambia’s population and is frequently used to communicate across provinces as a common language among the 72 tribes that still exist in the nation.

I suppose some of you are wondering why a question mark remains in the title of this post. Susannah must speak this language pretty poorly if she doesn’t even know its proper name, you might be thinking. Indeed, you are quite correct. To my knowledge, the language is called Nyanja, BUT “chi” is a prefix that indicates a language, so it is sometimes referred to as Chinyanja. NOT ONLY THAT, but the language has a second name: Chewa. Add the “chi” dilemma to that and you have four name options. I have yet to figure out when to use which name, so, for the time being, I grant you all permission to use whichever you prefer until I am better informed.

On to greetings!

If you would like to greet any person at any time of the day, the go-to phrase is, “Muli bwanji?,” which means, “How are you?” Now, I’m sure some of you might find this surprising, but the correct response to this question is not, in fact, to repeat that exact phrase back to the initial greeter! After about a week of confidently responding to the question, “How are you?” with a broad grin and the same question of, “How are you?,” I realized that the correct response is actually a statement explaining your wellbeing, such as, “Ndili bwino,” (I am well), or “Sindili Bwino” (I am not well). If you’re feeling ambitious and want to throw the time of day in there too, you can greet someone with “Mwauka bwanji” (How are you this morning?), or “Mwachoma bwanji” (How are you this afternoon/evening?).

I’m slowly getting the hang of the muli’s and mwauka’s and bwino’s and bwanji’s, but my favorite/most used word is “Zikomo.” Someone helps you set up your wifi dongle? Zikomo. Someone fixes your water so you can take a hot shower after a week of cold bucket baths? Zikomo! Someone brings you a live chicken (or three)? Zikomo kwambiri (thank you very much)! Someone helps you rinse nshima off your hands after a meal? Zikomo! Need to stop someone to ask directions to your church? Zikomo. Need to nudge past someone in the crowd outside Manda Hill shopping center? Zikomo. If you haven’t gathered the meaning from context clues, Zikomo is used to say “thank you,” and also “excuse me.” It has also become my reflex word, so on the rare occasion that a Zambian attempts to say something to me other than the precise greeting that I know, my response is usually “Zikomo.” I say this is a rare occasion because most Zambians in Lusaka, polyglots that they are, take one look at me and immediately switch to English.

Another one of my favorite words is used to announce one’s presence at the entrance to a room. Many houses or huts in Zambia don’t have a door in every doorway, so instead of knocking, you call out, “Odi!” This simply means “knock knock” and asks permission to enter. With it being the simple, 3-letter, 2 syllable word that it is with no required follow-up question/response/exchange of more Nyanja words, I’ve taken it to heart and now use it at most doorways I come to, even if there is a door.

The third and fourth weeks of our orientation in Zambia are being spent at the FENZA Faith and Encounter Centre in Lusaka. Here we are taking classes in the morning on Zambian culture, history, politics, religion, economics and many other topics. Our afternoons are then spent learning the Nyanja language. We have a wonderful teacher, who we know as ‘Abambo,’ and who, like other Zambians, chuckles at our mistakes/accents?, but then encourages us to keep trying. He assures us multiple times a day that “Nyanja is very easy!”

14374556_10211123634271763_1337381486_o(How the YAVs feel when we’re told of the simplicity of Nyanja.)

He has yet to convince me of this, but it’s still nice to pretend that I’ll pick it up in a month or two. I’d like to share with you a short list of my favorite new (and apparently very easy) vocabulary words from the first few days of class.

Mtengo                Tree

Cingwe                 String

Khasu                    Hoe (n.)

Lima                       Hoe (v.)

Uta                         Bow (as in one with arrows)

Mpeni                   Knife

Dengu/Thadza/Mtanga/Basiketi     Basket (I’m very happy that 4 of the 30 words I know are  for “basket”)

Fodya                    Tobacco

Nkhokwe            Bin/Granary

Nyumba               House/Hut

Pepani                  Sorry

Feluka                   Fail

Gonzera               Scut/Get a ride hanging on the back of a car

Dula                       Cut

Cotsa                     Take off, remove

Ona                        See, look

Iai                          No

Amai                     Mother, Ms. (with respect)

Abambo               Father, Mr. (with respect)


Please feel free to call me on Whatsapp at any time to practice asking if I can “cut the string,” “drop the knife in the basket,” or to inform me that, if I cannot work, I should “leave the hoe in the house.”

A fun Nyanja fact we’ve come to realize in the last few days is that R’s and L’s are interchangeable! Even in our textbook! This translates to Zambian English as well, so, as Sherri informed us, it’s always fun to hear Subway’s ad on the radio: “Subway. Eat flesh.”

And with that, I shall leave you all with one final tidbit of Nyanja wisdom: “Panga panga sapangika,” or: “Mr. ‘Do Do’ (pronounced “Doo Doo”) does not get things done.” If anyone has a hunch about the meaning of this proverb, please share your ideas! (I do actually know what it means—my Nyanja book helped me out—but I’m very curious about other people’s initial impressions!)

Tiza onana futi!

(We will see each other again!)

Cockroach in a Bowl

Several days ago, I woke up to the sound of my 3rd alarm and a rooster crowing from somewhere on the campus of Justo Mwale University. It was my third full day in Zambia and my body clock was not yet adjusted to Zambian time, 6 hours ahead of EDT. The morning air was cool and I pulled on a sweatshirt to head into the kitchen. The bedroom door creaked closed behind me, and as it did, one of my fellow YAVs, Kim, yelled from somewhere in the small guest house, “Susannah! Don’t move that bowl on the floor!” Slightly worried that some sort of massive spider (or perhaps a small snake?) was under there, I gave the bowl a wide berth and headed toward Kim’s voice for an explanation. “Susannah,” she said, “I saw a gigantic cockroach in the living room this morning. So I put a bowl over it.” I began imagining the most enormous cockroach possible that would still be able to fit under the rather small cereal bowl on the floor. “It was around the length of my pointer finger.” Ah, so it was about the size of an average SC cockroach (or Palmetto bug, as I’ve learned to call them over the years)! I could handle this! I wasn’t quite convinced of my coordination to be able to both pick up the bowl and smack the cockroach in one motion, so Kim took bowl duty and I readied my Chaco for the kill. It was a successful team effort. (Thanks, Kim.) I sat down to breakfast feeling relieved, and, surprisingly, closer to home. Yet another welcome to Zambia, I thought. Seven thousand nine hundred fifty-three miles away, and still coexisting with the same bugs. (To my biology friends, I’m sure it was not exactly the same type of cockroach, but it sure looked pretty darn close.) What a huge, tiny, complex, simple, diverse, and interconnected world we live in.

My cockroach welcome reminded me, amidst drastic culture shock, that some of my year in Zambia will echo my life at home. The differences are obvious and everywhere, but the essence of life here in Zambia is quite the same as life back home in South Carolina. I realize that this is an extremely simplistic way to begin looking at my year in Zambia, but now, after a week of intense (dis)orientation at Stony Point Conference Center in NY and 2 weeks of life in Zambia (including time in both urban and rural settings), it seems appropriate to begin by easing in with a reminder that family joys and struggles, community growth and deprivation, and individual hopes and fears and dreams and frustrations are universal experiences. That people may have different ways of addressing a problem, but though methods are unfamiliar or even uncomfortable, they are not necessarily wrong. That people face the minute problem of dealing with unwanted critters in their homes no matter where they live or what walk of life they come from. The basics of life are not as different among cultures as we might choose to believe. We are not as separated from one another as we might like to think.

If only we could realize how much there is to learn from one another when we recognize our similarities and then walk together to explore our differences…

Much of the rest of my blog will explore cultural and environmental differences that I have already and will continue to experience during my YAV year, but for now, let’s meditate on the fact that we all have cockroaches in our lives, and we all deal with them in some way or another. If that’s not a good way to feel connected to the human race, I don’t know what is. Go ahead and embrace the roaches.

(ATTN: YAV Kim is in no way afraid of small critters such as cockroaches. Simply seeing one early in the morning and coming from the strange land of Virginia where, apparently, cockroaches are abnormally small, her first instinct was simply to cover it with a bowl. To be honest, it was a rather genius idea.)

Ewe Thina (We Walk God’s Way)

I didn’t know what to expect as I drove to GSP to catch my flight to Atlanta and then to Little Rock for the YAV Discernment Event. I was hopeful for a year of service, a year of work in the real world, a year to better figure out what it is I might be called to do in my life. As the pot-hole-filled pavement of I-385 stretched out in front of me, I mulled over the sites I was considering–Little Rock, New Orleans, Denver, South Korea, and Scotland–but no single site stood out as a clear choice above all the others. They all looked exciting and interesting in their own, unique way, and whenever I read about one, that site would become my favorite for a time, at least until I looked at the next one. All in all, I felt content in thinking that I would be excited for any placement I received. What I didn’t expect was for things to veer off course in the way that they did, or that I would be so excited about this change in plans when it occurred.

Maybe it was flying that boosted my confidence. I don’t know what it is about traveling by myself, but the few times that I’ve ridden solo on a bus, train, or plane, I always get a rather strong sense of accomplishment upon reaching my destination. This probably has something to do with growing up in a small town with zero public transportation (the many trains that pass through Clinton carry coal and other freight, not people!). I know it seems silly–I just have to get myself to the terminal or station and my work in traveling is done–and yet arriving at the right place and (more or less) at the right time always manages to make me feel as if I’ve done something at least slightly substantial. I’m no longer stationary and complacent. I’ve moved, and, in moving, I’ve realize that what once seemed daunting is now manageable, if not even exciting.

But maybe it wasn’t so much my ability to make the trip on my own as it was the people who surrounded me in my traveling and discerning that gave me the confidence to move in a different direction while in Arkansas. Sure, I felt like I’d earned my big girl britches for arriving at the Bill & Hillary Clinton Airport unscathed (and one of the first out of our group, surprise surprise!), but traveling by air also reminded me of the incredible number of people (both known and unknown to me) who contributed to my getting there. The commitment shown in so many different jobs, however simple or complicated, made my trip possible and allowed people like me to feel as if we had taken a big step simply by reaching our destination.

I know that this is how it is in almost every aspect of life–my day-to-day activities are made possible by an amazing amount of work done by people who I seldom, if ever, see. Airports always manage to draw my attention to this matter. Even in the midst of rushing between terminals, it’s easy to  look down the hall or glance out the window and see the multitude of jobs being done to help get everyone to where they need to be. On most days, it’s easy for me to ignore the work completed that allows me to live the privileged life that I lead. But, for some reason, watching as suitcases are unloaded from a plane and driven across the tarmac, then peering into the cramped, button-covered cockpit of a plane reawakens the part of my brain whose frequent hibernation gives me a false sense of self-importance, an inflated perception of my personal accomplishments. My choice to travel does not get my suitcase from here to there. My choice to travel does not get my body up in the air and from here to there. Instead, I have to rely on the effort put forth in so many different jobs, to trust the devotion of the people to their jobs, and realize that the majority of my trip is entirely out of my hands.

These traveling thoughts helped to prepare me for my time at Ferncliff Camp in Arkansas. Though the support I received while traveling was mostly anonymous, the support provided at the discernment event came in the form of around 30 wonderful people hailing from all over the world. The discernment event provided a time and a place for prospective YAVs to interview with international site coordinators, meet other applicants, staff, and alums, and spend time listening for and seeking God’s call in the process. Though only a four day event, it amazed me that such a strong sense of community could form in such a brief period of time. I think part of this can be attributed to the location–it’s easy to bond with others as you explore a new place, making discoveries together and enjoying the beauties of God’s creation (which were abundant at Ferncliff!). But another part can be attributed to the attitudes held by everyone there. Sure, everyone had different jobs to do and tasks to complete, but we also came to the event with our primary hope being for the clear discernment of God’s call. A crucial part of that discernment comes from spending intentional time with those present, be it through speaking, listening, or simply being, and the amazing thing is, when you’re intentional about forming a community, a community forms. I realize that this was a very short term living arrangement and that 4 days didn’t really warrant much time for struggles and disagreements, but living for that short time with those intentions showed me the incredible amount of support that could arise when a group was committed to being there for one another. It would have been extremely easy for me, introvert that I am, to talk to a few people and then keep to myself for the majority of the time, but the welcoming and supportive atmosphere that surrounded me there encouraged me to open up, accept that I was not in this alone, and listen to the unexpected call I felt to go to Zambia.

There are few times in my life that I have felt my heart guided so clearly as it was when I discerned, was offered, and accepted  the YAV placement in Zambia. I think I will always remember this time at Ferncliff as one of those rare times (at least for me) when God’s faithfulness to and presence in our lives smacks us in the face and reminds us that God is still very much with us and guiding us at all times. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to leave (however briefly) my busy life at school to spend time in intentional community and actively discerning God’s call–two things that can so easily be swept under the rug in our hectic day-to-day lives–and I’m grateful for the people who helped me find the courage to accept God’s call.

In the months since the event, I’ve found that it’s almost too easy to get caught back up in my old routine, slowly forgetting that focused time of attentiveness to others and to God, settling back into the place I feel comfortable–the place so familiar that discerning God’s call seems less necessary in getting from one day to the next. As my departure for Zambia draws nearer, I’ve realized how much I’m looking forward to living somewhere so far outside of my comfort zone that, in many instances, I will have no choice but to rely on God in my day-to-day decisions. However, in the meantime, I have been incredibly humbled by the people here at home who have supported my decision to go to Zambia through their interest in talking to me about it, their prayers, and their donations. Just as I was reminded at the discernment event in April, my summer has also been filled with reminders of how intertwined my decisions are with the lives of others and how any progress I make depends on the support and guidance of others. I am so grateful for the ever-growing community surrounding me, and as I prepare for this adventure, I hope that I and others will constantly strive to live into the lyrics of “Ewe Thina,” a South African hymn whose catchy melody frequently filled the gathering room at Ferncliff, as “we walk God’s way” wherever we find ourselves.

(For those of you who made it to the end of this post, thank you! I realized in writing this that I am still programmed to write 12 page English papers, so I will do my best to be concise in future posts. Also, I’m still accepting suggestions for blog titles–clever names are not my strong suit.)