Sometimes I feel as though I lead multiple lives, transecting different worlds. The contrasts of my life in Canada with my life in Zambia are extreme. My environment, my friends, my food, my work, my thoughts and my surrounding culture and wealth are all over the map. This can be unsettling, really, but over the past few years I have come to understand something.
I am the same person wherever I am because at the deepest level of my ‘self’ and my values, there is continuity. I am ‘me’ regardless of my physical location and surroundings. My complete experience, mainly the people in my life, has cumulatively contributed to who I am, and I am me, whether in Zambia or Canada or anywhere else.
My biggest struggle though is not with myself, it is with others. Often I feel far and disconnected from those who are important to me at home regardless of how much we talk, email, or SMS. Since I’ve been gone people have been married, babies have been born, and family members have died. I have not been around for these glorious and grim happenings, and it hurts. I try to stay up-to-date, and I even share and talk about it here, but my friends here have a difficult time truly understanding the world from which I come.
Similarly my experience in Zambia is also rich with changes and events, with ups and with downs that my friends and family back home can never really understand. They are interested in what I’m doing and we do talk about it, but the reality in which I live is somewhat incomprehensible for someone who has never been.
But 21 days ago this suddenly changed. My two worlds collided.
21 days ago, my twin sister Lindsay and my brother in-law Brett stepped off the plane and the dust of their shoes met and mixed with a new dust, slightly redder and a bit drier. All of their questions leading up to departure, “what should we pack, what will we eat, will we get sick, where will we sleep” were dropped somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean.
God it was nice to see them! We were soon out of the calm airport and into the swirling capital city of Lusaka. To me Lusaka has become normal. I had long quit starring out windows and moving wide-eyed with curiosity, but seeing Brett and Lindsay, and their reactions to this place, made if seem foreign and exotic all over again. On the dusty busy streets, they exuded a mix of excitement and caution, curiosity and trepidation.
The next three weeks were action packed! “We’re up for anything” was there motto and anything they got. They ate nshima and pigeons, learned how to wear a chitenge and carry a baby, travelled on sketchy buses and boats, met with traditional chiefs and loving mothers.
They lived in a village, saw babies born and named, helped butcher and roast chickens. They got too close to hyenas, elephants and buffalo and got way too close to a lonely lioness. They drank wine at sunset, jogged at dawn, transported blood for the ministry of health, taught English in a school, chlorinated their own water, gazed at the stars, bathed in the river and got attacked by killer ants.
They toured a mission hospital, felt the thunder of Victoria falls, harvested maize, rice and sweet potatoes, killed a snake, learned some losi, enjoyed some mosis and made many friends. They got an in-person glimpse into my work with Engineers Without Borders and got a personal introduction to the life and times of Zambia.
No matter how much you’ve prepared yourself, one’s first face-to-face with extreme poverty is overwhelming and emotional. Some things made Lindsay and Brett laugh and smile, others perplexed and confused them, some frustrated and angered them, some caused fear and others made them deeply sad and others happy. Coming to know the injustices of our world is powerfully sobering and raises a lot of questions. “It’s just not fair and I don’t get it” Lindsay exclaimed emotionally while sitting around the fire.
For three months leading up to their arrival, the people in my village were asking if they were really going to come. They counted airplanes in the night sky figuring which ones were coming from Canada, planned gifts and meals, doubled checked the arrival date and practiced saying their names. When the time came, when they finally arrived, they had an entourage and warm welcome.
I think Brett and Lindsay were blown away by the generosity and reception they received. They were given gifts of chickens and vegetables, invited to eat and sleep in people’s homes. They were never out of place and they were always welcome. Here they needed help and they got it. The people of my village had special guests and they wanted to share their riches and their homes and make them feel as welcome as possible.
For me the best part was my brother and sister from Canada meeting my brothers and sisters in Zambia, my roommate and friend Monde hugging my twin sister Lindsay, and my good pal Bo Richard eating with my brother-in-law and friend Brett. Families’ coming together is always a good thing and this is when I really felt that worlds were colliding.
For Lindsay and Brett it was probably a once in a lifetime opportunity. It was an accelerated jump into rural Zambian life and they got a good look at a different world. I was impressed by their ability to adapt and accept, their adventurous attitudes, their humble demeanours, their quick learning, and their genuine interest in the people they met.
Will their lives be changed? I don't really know, but I’ve got a feeling that some of the things they saw, and some of the people they met, will stick with them for a long time.
I have a particular group of friends, people with whom I've shared times together in distant lands or in trying circumstances. It’s a small group, but with them I have an indescribable bond and a deeper shared understanding of life. I think through this visit, even though short, Lindsay, Brett and I now share such a bond.
In the end, this collision of worlds turned out to be more of coalescence of realities. It felt good to see my friends in Zambia laughing and enjoying with my family from Canada. Worlds have not collided, they have connected, and that puts a huge smile on my face.