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Makin’ Moves

Bodhi next to his Bodhi Tree, both born in July 2017

Its true what the Bembas say: “Babies don’t take long to grow, its only the pregnancy which takes long”. Bodhi is now 9 months old – meaning he has been in this world as long as he was growing in Claire’s belly. It’s hard to believe how fast he is growing and becoming accustomed to his body, his surroundings, and the people in his life. He is now crawling and standing himself up, and it won’t be long before he starts walking. He is also babbling and smiling and laughing away. It is such a miracle to see him grow.

Claire has settled in to being a mom wonderfully, and is shining in her role as caretaker. She and Bodhi have a beautiful, intimate bond and it’s clear that she is the apple of his eye (and vice versa). It is almost every morning that Bodhi awakes with a start, looks around for a split second, and then opens his mouth in a wide, two-toothed grin as he crawls between Momma and Papa. He knows our voices, and wants to be a part of whatever we are doing (cooking, cleaning, driving, chatting). It is such a blessing…

It is also quite a responsibility. Watching Bodhi, seeing how he imitates my every move, my energy, my way of doing things, has awoken in me a stronger desire to be a better person. I am checking all of my addictions, habits, patterns, wondering: is this the example I want to set for Bodhi? Would I be happy if he copied this form of behavior? The good news is that for the most part, I think we’re doing well as parents – setting an example of a balanced, happy, loving relationship. And for my part, there are not many things I would change/hide from him. Still, every day and every interaction is an opportunity to become more open, more loving, more accepting, and to set this example for our Son.

Nevertheless, I don’t doubt that he is our teacher as much we are his. Patience, tolerance, love – every bit that is required to care for him is a lesson. I find myself constantly grateful when he is in my arms. I know that, having lost my father when I was only 6 years old, every moment with this blossoming soul is a gift. I try, with conscious intention, to be present with him and thankful for every moment we share. I know how fleeting these moments can be. When we are together I tell express this gratitude. Even though he doesn’t yet speak English, I sense that he understands.

Bodhi loves the water. He loves birds. He loves looking at leaves. Sometimes he is fussy when he stays inside for too long. Once he reaches a doorway to the outside, it is like a switch has flipped, and instantly he stops fussing and starts smiling. He is happy to be held by nearly anyone. This morning when we arrived at the office, he reached for Mirriam with a huge smile – happy to leave his mom’s arms and play with ‘Bambuya’ (Grandmother).

Mirriam and Bo

Of course, there are times when he only wants to be with one of us – especially Momma. It is a mixed feeling of joy and responsibility when he is fussy with strangers or less-known people, and wants to be with us. When he reaches for me, I feel this incredible joy well up inside me, that this little being wants to be with me and is comforted simply by being in my arms. At the same time, I feel a responsibility to teach him to be happy with whomever he encounters on his path, to be independent, to learn to live without me. Then I remember that he is only 9 months old, and I grab him and swing him around and we laugh together. It has been an opportunity to break some cultural stereotypes as well, when Zambian women see that a father can comfort his baby and even put him to sleep. I am grateful to know the peace and equanimity that comes from your baby falling asleep in your arms, and would share it with all the men I know, if I could. The fussing and crying which may come before sleep are also a test and an opportunity to learn, and I find that unless I can quiet my mind, Bodhi won’t quiet either. What a little teacher!

Lest this blog become only about Bodhi, there are also many beautiful things progressing in our lives here in Kasama. This rainy season has brought an exceptional amount of rain – nourishing the land and people’s crops, bringing life and the countless tones of green that mother nature paints herself in these lush months. Three years of watering, composting, chicken manure, trimming, and love have started fruiting their rewards. We are picking guavas, eating mulberries, enjoying tamarillos and papayas, and eyeing bunches of bananas which have not quite ripened. We have also begun to keep bees, in the hopes that are lives at the farm can become even sweeter.

In town, the program is progressing and more and more people are taking the chance to educate themselves. Bakashana has moved to a new office, which we now call our own – thanks to Grandma Ruthie, an incredibly generous donor who bought the program this house and property as her 90th birthday present. After an incredibly busy 3 weeks of gutting the house – knocking out walls, adding windows and door frames, rewiring the electrical, redoing the plumbing, etc., we moved into our new office on April 1st. Now we have a space which the young women can make their own. All the walls, doors, and even floors can become works of art. We hope to cultivate this space as a place where people are free to express themselves and share their beauty – without fear of reprimand or cultural shaming. We hope that community involvement in this space will make it unique, appreciated, utilized, and sacred. As our Bakashana family continues to grow, we are grateful to all who play a part, whatever size, from all parts of this crazy world.

Life with the Little One

There is no way to describe what a life-changing miracle this little soul is. As a father, the change is both subtle and profound. For the most part, my life continues as it was. In fact, I have had much more work to help out Claire, who is now employed full-time in her life’s most important work as a mother. So, as I go about my day, and Bodhi’s not by my side, the change seems subtle. However, in the back of my mind, there is always this new understanding that something far more important than myself is waiting at home. The knowledge that this innocent little boy is completely dependent upon us is profoundly humbling and moving. There is nothing more important than him now – this little mirror reflects how small my ‘self’ really is. He is such a miraculous microcosm of the greater consciousness of which we are all a part.

Bo and his Grandmas

Since Bodhi’s birth, my days have been much fuller, especially in the first month or so. Claire’s usual tasks around the house became impossible, and it was a full-time job to keep the baby fed, changed, and happy. During that time, I really came to appreciate all that Claire does around the farm on a daily basis – cooking, cleaning, sweeping, washing dishes and diapers, etc. I tried to fill in as best I could, but of course my cooking doesn’t have the same touch. Claire has been an exemplary mother and is shining from the depth of her soul – it is the role she has always wanted, and she is cherishing it!

Meanwhile, spending time with the baby was, at first, much more difficult than I imagined. I had heard that the first few weeks are really difficult. Nevertheless, I had this naive idea that I would be ‘super Dad’, and somehow swoop-in when times were tough and calm down the baby. Turns out, he wanted Mom’s milk. Nothing else. There were a few times I held him, crying, until his pain was too much and I started crying too. We both came running to Mom, who of course gave baby what he needed. Despite these challenges, I still felt a profound connection to Bodhi even in the early weeks. All the difficult moments were wiped from my mind in those split seconds of sheer connection when he would look up at me with those big, bright, blue eyes and stare into my soul. It’s as if all the secrets of the universe are hidden in the light shining from his eyes, like he already knows everything, but he can’t tell me because I’m too grounded in this reality to understand.

In the second month, Bodhi became much more aware. When I would walk into the room and start talking, he would hear my voice and begin to look around for me. If I held him in my arms and we walked around the farm, singing, he would calm down and even sleep. He smiles frequently, especially in the early mornings. If I play flute for him, he giggles and stares wide-eyed. I feel so blessed that this little being is part of our lives. It is such a centering experience to hold him, to protect him, to feel his little heart beating against mine.

Having a baby here in Kasama has also opened us to another level of cultural integration. People seem to have a different respect and appreciation for us now – as if having the baby here in Kasama proved that we really are planning to stick around. Also, Bodhi’s middle name is Malama, and people are so happy to hear that we love and respect their culture enough to give our baby a Bemba name. Thus, Claire and I have had our names changed to Bana and Bashi Malama (the mother and father of Malama, respectively).

Our neighbors came to pay respect to us and the baby. After the week-long waiting period (to respect the parent’s privacy and keep the baby safe until the belly button dries and falls off), we had many visitors. They brought us gifts (mostly peanuts, maize drinks, cornmeal and foodstuffs), as is the custom. We felt overjoyed to see all our friends pay their respect, but also a bit bashful that so many babies had been born in our time here and we never followed cultural protocol. Now we know…

It was during this time, when the days became incredibly hot and sunny, the air became still, and the cicadas added their whine to the sharp heat of the afternoon – tempting even the most cheerful into grumpiness and the most sane into whimsical moments of hysteria – that rain came early and unexpectedly.

We were away, at a beautiful beach on Lake Tanganyika to celebrate my birthday. A call came from Kapembwa that hail and rain had come and damaged our place. While we enjoyed ourselves without a care in the world, our neighbors were suffering an onslaught of nature. We returned the next day to find massive destruction. More than 30 mm of rain had fallen in just a few hours, flooding the land like a giant river and carrying with it top soil, plants, and even some of the slate we used to make our furrows. Huge hailstones the size of softballs had ripped through all the tree leaves and pummeled everything in sight. The garden fence had been partially swept away by the flood, and all of our tomatoes and greens in the garden had been destroyed.

We knew that if things were bad at the farm, our friends and neighbors must be suffering. We knew that they had all been working hard the previous five months to prepare their dry-season gardens, and were days away from finally harvesting and reaping profits. The storm destroyed everything; the crops, the bush fruits, even the cassava leaves. After the storm people went to their gardens and threw themselves on the ground, wailing for their loss of income and pending hunger. In retelling the story of how ferociously the storm hit, my female friends were smiling. I asked them how they could smile in the face of such tragedy and one woman replied: “everything is lost, even the birds in the forest have all died, but we are still here. For this we give thanks.”

The following day I visited their gardens… Acres of tomatoes, greens, onions, all ruined by the hail. Our neighbors depend on gardening for a living – they sell their produce in town to feed their families, pay school fees, and buy fertilizer and seed for their maize. Everything was lost. Visiting the gardens was akin to attending a funeral. If it hurt my heart to see this destruction, I can’t pretend to understand what it meant to someone like Bashi Mwango, who lost an acre of nearly-ripe tomatoes, into which he had invested almost everything he had. Humbled by the strength of our neighbors in the face of suffering and misfortune, I returned home with a heavy heart.

When I entered the house and saw our baby boy smiling up at me, I cried. My heart couldn’t hold the grief. Bashi Mwango enters his house and looks at his children, with the same love that I share with Bodhi. Yet in the back of his mind, he is doubting whether they will have enough food to keep the kids healthy this year. I felt a wave of emotions running through me, ranging from guilt at having so much, to empathy for those who have lost, to absolute gratitude for the blessings we receive every day, both material and otherwise.

I cannot imagine what schizophrenic mix of luck, karma, blessings, and fate have allowed Claire and I to live with such material and economic security. Living in Zambia is a constant challenge to my perceptions and boundaries. There isn’t a day that goes by, or a purchase that I make for myself, when I am not considering how that money could be better-spent helping someone around us. We can’t hide from the economic disparity here – it is a part of reality that we live with. Finding a balance within this situation is very difficult, and may be a major factor explaining why so few Muzungus actually move to Zambia. I used to get angry when people would ask for loans or money – with the typical western view that money shouldn’t get between friends. The longer I live here and the more my heart opens, the more I realize that this anger comes from within – from the depth of my heart where I know that I can and should always give more, that I could say ‘yes’, that perhaps I should. Also, I’ve learned that in Zambia, if there isn’t money between you, you aren’t friends.

In this case, we scrambled for resources to help the afflicted families in our community. Our nearest neighbors and friends included seven families. With the help of some Bakashana donors and money from our organization we helped each family with beans, seeds, cooking oil, and chicken manure. These meager offerings were enough to get people back into the gardens right away, since the chicken manure works quickly to transform soil health. We are grateful to those donors who offered money to support the cause, and to all donors to Bakashana who trust our small, nimble organization to use money in the way it will make the most positive impact.

At the end of the day, everyone around is still eating. However, this coming rainy season will be a trying one for families who already weathered late fertilizer inputs and the resulting suffering last year. It is difficult to reconcile why such open-hearted, hard-working people have to face so many challenges while we live with such relative security. I have never doubted if I would have a meal. Neither has Claire. I pray that Bodhi will not either. Yet he will grow and learn and frolic alongside some children who are not sure when their next meal will come.

Caring for this little being has changed me. In the subtlest of ways, he was in my heart as I mourned with our neighbors over the storm. He won’t suffer from the hail, but he is connected to this community. In the most profound of ways, I felt true empathy – the depth of which I have never felt before – for those families struggling to keep their own kids happy and healthy. Knowing the depth of love for this child has opened my heart to such joy, and also the sadness to which that joy is inexorably intertwined.

Baby Bo

As the months passed, Claire’s belly kept growing. It was really an amazing thing to see. Of course every mother’s belly grows, but it was indescribable when Claire – the person whose size and curves and figure I’ve known relatively unchanged for the last 9 years – started radically changing. She handled the pregnancy so well – she never complained, and until the last trimester, we were still cycling together to work. Even when she abandoned the bike for the safer (and much slower) method of walking to the road-side and hitching to town, she still managed the situation with astonishing patience and grace. Sometimes when in the house, she would have her back facing me, and it would catch me by surprise when she would turn and her belly would show in full profile. “Oh yea, we are gonna have a baby!”.

Claire at Chishimba Falls, July 7th

It was always the plan to have the baby in Kasama. This is our home, we never felt the need to go anywhere else. At first, we were hoping for a home birth. Due to lack of investigation on our part, we learned in the fifth month of pregnancy that, due to a myomectomy that Claire underwent late last year, her pregnancy was considered “high-risk”, and home birth was not an option. Serendipitously, around the same time that we learned this, a well-respected Doctor found us. Dr. Chishimba is the only OB/GYN in Kasama and also happens to be the superintendent of Kasama General Hospital. An easy-going man with a happy, rotund face quick to light-up with a broad smile, he impressed us immediately – both with his knowledge in his field and his open-mindedness about our ‘alternative’ birthing requests.

Dr. Chishimba with Bodhi

When we first arrived, about 8 weeks before Claire’s due date, Dr. Chishimba let us know that, like nearly all other doctors in his field, he would be requiring Claire to have a Cesarean because of her past surgery. Claire fervently expressed her desire for a natural birth, but the Doctor was persistent. Claire was crushed – her dream has always been to give birth naturally. The next few days were difficult as Claire adjusted her expectations and began to accept (after extensive research) that a scheduled Cesarean two-weeks before the due date was the medically accepted approach for the grand majority of those who have previously undergone a myomectomy.

When we returned to the Doctor a few weeks later, he checked Claire’s lab-work and scan, and assured us that everything was normal. He then began discussing with us the possibility of trying a natural birth, making a casual plan of ‘letting the baby show us’ how it wanted to enter the world. Claire tried to hold back tears as the whirlwind of emotions swept her up again – she had finally accepted that a scheduled c-section was necessary, and now the possibility of a natural birth opened up again. There was so much uncertainty!

We resolved to wait and see what the baby would show us. We returned 3 weeks from the due date, and the doctor let us know that the baby was very low, and in good position, and wanted to engage soon. He said he would be surprised if the baby waited until the due date (July 9th), to make his/her appearance. He let us know that the risks of the baby being born naturally after its due date were too high, and so if the baby had not come by the morning of July 9th, then he would perform an elective C-section. We agreed, grateful that this experienced doctor was willing to allow Claire to have a chance for a natural birth.

Sue and Baby

When Claire’s mom, Sue, heard the news that the baby might come early, she quickly re-arranged her travel plans and jetted to Zambia. We had a wonderful reunion, full of tears and love, and the happiness and relief was clear on Claire’s face – nice to have mom here in time! Sue was also full of excitement to be part of the birth of her first grandchild.

Now there was only one piece of the puzzle missing – our dear friend JoAn, who was one of Claire’s best friends during our Peace Corps service. JoAn, a beautiful woman with a strong spirit, wonderful heart, and a contagious laugh, has stayed in touch and is a wonderful friend, and she recently became a Doula. Given her new profession, our friendship, and her love for Zambia, JoAn was a perfect fit to be present at the birth, and was so full of love and support that she was even willing to fly to Kasama to help us! JoAn arrived two days after Sue, on the 3rd of July, and now the birthing team was complete, in combination with our dear friend Steph (Claire’s best friend, and the only ‘musungu’ we know who has given birth in Kasama General Hospital).

Joan with Baby Bo

Claire and Steph

When JoAn arrived, it was wonderful to catch up on old times, and have a chance for Sue and JoAn to get to know one another. Quickly, everyone was laughing and getting along wonderfully. The mood became more serious as we approached the due-date; we all became very focused on the birth of a new life. It was an incredibly spiritual time, in the company of such powerful, focused women. It was a rare and special time as a man to participate and glimpse women’s profound power of creation.

A New Day’s Creation, Lukupa River
A New Day’s Creation, Lukupa River

The power of the feminine encompassed the farm, and every night, in the meditation circling crafted by Kapembwa in the middle of our garden, we circled Claire in meditation under the naked light of the growing moon, with the garden furrow’s soft sound of water meandering through our prayers. Each meditation ended with our hands on Claire’s belly, praying and inviting the baby to come. With each meditation our energies became more aligned, and even the days shifted their focus to Claire’s belly, and the life we prayed would soon join us. Kapembwa was present as always, keeping the farm in good order and beating his metaphorical drum to keep the rhythm of our farm life, but he mostly kept to himself during this time – within his culture men don’t often mix within feminine energies.

The Bush Baby Basket

It was interesting as a man between cultures, trying to balance myself within this femininity. I feel blessed to have been welcomed, and was happy to take a back seat as JoAn used her variety of crystals and stones to bless Claire, and Sue called on the power of our collective ancestors to help bring this baby from their world to ours. I too felt the strong presence of my deceased father, and my mother, who was geographically distance but spiritually present with us. On July 7th, in the evening, we prayed longer than usual – sensing our time was wearing thin as our window for a natural birth was closing. Claire assured us that the baby was coming on the full moon, the night of July 8th. She had been asserting this same thing since the day in December that she had calculated the baby’s due date. Claire was also born on a full moon, and had a strong premonition that her firstborn would follow suit.

Claire once told her mother, when asked why she wanted to get a Master’s Degree, that she needed it so that ‘Justin and I can move back to Zambia and run an NGO while living in a small, round house on a river’. What that had to do with a Master’s Degree was foggy, but the lesson of trusting Claire’s premonitions was crystal clear.

On the morning of July 8th, Claire had her “show”. We waited eagerly and trustingly that day, celebrating with delicious food while dancing and laughing into the afternoon around Claire’s round tummy. Steph arrived to complete the birthing team in the afternoon, and we fully circled Claire in meditation, loving energy on every side. After our evening meditation, basking in the full moon’s glory, Claire began to feel what she thought might be contractions. Steph and Sue -the mothers in the circle – glanced knowingly at one another. Just wait, Claire, when it starts you won’t wonder if they are contractions…

We lit a fire, drummed, sang, and danced. The energy was building. After a short time, Claire had her first contraction – she was sure this time. We waited and continued in our merriment, knowing there would be lots of time. After about an hour, we hopped in the car and drove the 45 minutes to the hospital. Claire’s contractions were really consistent – one every few minutes. I continued asking questions – seeing if she could be distracted. She came out of one particularly long contraction and stared at my shaggy sweatpants – ‘are you going to wear those pants during the birth?’ she asked exasperatedly. We both laughed. ‘I love you’ was my affirmative response.

Upon entering the quiet hospital, we were greeted with empty halls and the strong smell of bleach and methylated spirits, which – despite their pungency – cannot quite rid the place of the suffering experienced there. Thankfully, we had reserved a ‘high cost’ room for $40 per night. The nurses immediately began telling us how it wasn’t possible for us to deliver in that room – that Claire would have to be in the delivery ward. I pulled the nurses aside, trying to keep Claire from hearing (and thus imagining the mob of people and unwanted attention that would follow a ‘musungu’ giving birth in the public ward). A quick call to Doctor Chishimba sorted out the misunderstanding. He arrived, assuring us that we could be free in our room, and verifying that Claire was in fact in labor, though she had only dilated to 1 cm. He told us he would return at 6 AM – it was then about 11 PM.

The story of the ensuing night is beyond any description that I might muster. I had no idea how strong Claire is – how strong all women are. After participating (albeit passively) in the labor process, I could never agree that men are stronger than women. The physical, emotional, and spiritual energy required to withstand the onslaught of pain, I cannot imagine. With each contraction, for hours on end, one of the team attended to Claire. During the time we shared together, I joined in her focused breathing – trying to bring myself closer to her experience, wishing I could take some of her pain that she might feel it less.

We spent the night without sleep, present at Claire’s side. We burned incense and Palo Santo, played meditative music, and made the room home – it became our spiritual sanctuary from the grim reality in the hospital surrounding us. We even managed to give Claire a bath by heating water in two electric kettles, hour after hour, and pouring the water painstakingly into the bath-tub whose drain was plugged with a beer bottle. Bathing Claire, sitting with her by candle-light, I have never been so in love. What a strong, courageous woman. I prayed more than I’ve ever prayed, that she would be safe, and that we would have a healthy, strong baby. I was grateful for the strong spiritual presence of JoAn, who helped bathe Claire in the early hours of the morning, for the wise presence of Sue, who’s strength helped Claire in the toughest moments, for Steph whose calm demeanor and experience lead the way and showed us what was possible – a birth at Kasama General.

The experience was surreal. Claire’s eyes glowed a blue so pure I couldn’t believe they were of this world. In between contractions, she was so present, so vivid, so connected. With each contraction, it was as if she was approaching the spirit world – as if with each concentrated breath and each pained exhale she was thinning the line between our physical reality, and the reality from whence this new life was coming. And in a very physiological sense, that line was thinning. By 6 AM when Dr. Chishimba returned, Claire’s cervix was dilated to 6 CM.

Joan and Steph helping Claire through a contraction

We began the morning with hope and progress. The baby would be coming today, one way or another. Claire was exhausted but found energy to keep breathing through her contractions. Steph dipped out for a minute, and returned with food and coffee. The sustenance provided much-needed energy, and I wondered to myself how Claire was managing. I had been so exhausted the night before, both physically (from using my body to apply pressure to Claire in different areas during her contractions), and emotionally, and constantly reminded myself that however tired I felt, it must be nothing compared to how Claire felt. If she kept going, how could I rest?

After about 3 more hours, Dr. Chishimba returned. He let us know, matter-of-factly, that Claire was still at 6 CM. She was not progressing, and he could not give her medicine to help her dilate because of the danger of rupture (due to her past surgery). He would have to take Claire in for a C-section.

Claire’s face showed a mixture of disappointment and relief. She had labored for more than 16 hours. She was a warrior and she wanted to have the baby naturally. She was also ready for the baby to come, and she was exhausted. The Doctor gave us one more chance, he would break the “waters” and wait one more hour. After joining us a couple of hours later, it was clear that the baby had decided how it would be born. The Doctor had prepared us for this – if there were any delays or complications, in order to safeguard Claire and the baby, a C-section would be required. Upon learning this news, Claire seemed to relax a bit . Though she was disappointed, the end was in sight. We had no idea what was yet to come, and how difficult the ensuing hours would be.

Claire breathed her way through 4 or 5 more contractions as the surgical team prepared itself. These contractions were more difficult – she knew now that these trials were not bringing her closer to the goal. After about an hour, Sue, JoAn and I accompanied Claire, lying on a stretcher, into the operating room (where the Doctor assured us there was no problem if we watched). We found Dr. Chishimba in the ‘Theatre’ (which is what Brits, and thus Zambians, call the operating room), dressed in gumboots, a plastic apron slick, and a full-length blue gown. I remember thinking he looked like a butcher…

Upon entrance to the ‘Theatre’. The red spots on the floor are paint – decorations?

They gave Claire a spinal injection for the surgery, as she insisted that she wanted to be conscious for the birth of the baby. She wanted the baby to be placed upon her chest immediately after birth…

After about 10 minutes, the Doctor began the surgery. Claire couldn’t feel when they cut her open, and so everything seemed to be going fine. The Doc showed incredibly confidence – it was clear he had done this before. Still, once he opened Claire up, things seemed to move in slow motion. Claire began to moan and cry in distress. She could feel them moving her organs, could feel them reaching in to pull the baby out. The anesthesiologist assured her she could only feel pressure, and it was normal, but Claire was clearly suffering. I asked if we couldn’t give her more medicine, but he refused.

It took the doctor a long time of prodding and pulling (10 minutes to be exact) to finally pull out the baby. He asked for a stool, and he and his assistant were pulling so violently. It was so far from the spiritual entry we had envisioned! All the while, at every push and prod, Claire suffered. It took me by surprise when our baby finally emerged, pulled into this world by skillful hands. I remember wondering why he wasn’t crying, but then I was also so concerned about Claire that the baby had become, somehow, a second priority. As he showed himself fully, I saw that our baby had testicles – its a boy! Then, I wondered if I was mistaken, since his testicles seemed to be massive as compared to his body – maybe I was confused, somehow. I also had the thought that the baby was so blue he didn’t look white. Where did this baby come from? He looked like a smurf, and he certainly didn’t get those huge balls from me!

Bodhi, 10 Minutes Old

The delivery team grabbed the baby and took him to the incubator. After about 30 seconds he began to cry, and I have never heard such a beautiful sound. I left Claire’s side just for a minute, and looked at our baby. He looked so alien, so small and so foreign, and yet there was a feeling of familiarity so strong it overwhelmed me. I was filled with so much emotion it started pouring out of me. I was just trying to hold back tears, and focus my attention again on Claire. The Doctor was busy stitching up her uterus, and then he had to jostle her to get the organs back in place. She was crying and suffering, and I could tell that the ordeal was really traumatic for Sue. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, they had everything back in place and began stitching up her skin.

Claire was in so much pain she wasn’t ready to see the baby. She looked more exhausted then I’ve ever seen her. We all wished they had just put her under. They took the baby back to our room, but Sue and I stayed with Claire until the surgery was completed. I dipped back to the room quickly to grab a receptacle to save the placenta, and had a chance there to hold my son for the first time. I looked at him, so small and vulnerable and beautiful. I held him and wept – from joy, from relief, from exhaustion, from gratitude. He was okay!

The moment was short-lived, as I was eager to make sure my love was also okay. I found her groggy and not herself – the 15 minutes of agony had left her distorted somehow. We wheeled her back to the room, as she was slowly returning to this reality. When she got into the room, she was finally ready to hold her baby boy. He immediately latched onto her nipple and started feeding, and she was relieved that at least one thing had happened easily that day!

The Doc came in later and confirmed that everyone was healthy. He said that it was the most difficult C-section he had ever performed – that the last doctor who had performed the myomectomy had done a poor job, and that was the cause of Claire’s inability to dilate properly. It was also the cause of the incredibly long operation (he said it usually took about 3-5 minutes). He assured us that everything was fine, baby was healthy, and Claire was sewn up properly.

In the shock of such a traumatic, spiritual, exhausting event, the silence was surreal when Claire and I were alone with our baby boy. While it wasn’t the storybook ending we had dreamed, it didn’t matter. We were together again, and now with our baby boy. We were all healthy and whole. I was grateful for Dr. Chishimba and ‘modern medicine’, without which I shudder to think what could have happened. For the first time, we were a family. I have never been so thankful.

The coming days were filled with joy and relief, and a profound sense of responsibility. We had succeeded, and our baby was with us. Now came the realization of how completely helpless, and dependent this little guy is. This is the most important responsibility either of us will ever have, and it is sure to come with many lessons, trials, and tribulations. This little boy, a mirror of ourselves, whose perception and understanding of this reality will be shaped so significantly by us, his parents.

I pray every day that we will be living examples of happiness, compassion, and love. Every time I hold him I feel profoundly the presence of Spirit. I am falling in love with Claire all over again when I see how she feeds and cares for this little being. I feel confident that he was brought to us so that we can teach each other, our souls intertwined in the dance of life. Welcome to this world, Bodhi Malama Hostetter! We love you!

Presents of the Present

The New Year has brought with it new hopes, new fears, new trials, and new successes. It’s like the backlog of rain prayers piling up in Zambia has finally been cleared, and the skies have opened. Usually the rain starts in late October, is good for a few storms in November, and comes in full-force in December. 2016 was not kind with rain. Here, people often blame ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’. Elders, more in touch with ancestral explanations, claim that the cutting of trees has reduced rainfall. I often wonder aloud whether the rain has stopped because people have stopped dancing for rain, and ceased praying to their ancestors for its life-giving waters.

A View from Our Front Door

Luckily, most farmers heeded the warnings and waited until early or mid December to plant. Since late December, and especially since the turn of the year, the rain has been steady – every day, often many times. And people are thankful – rain is not just a relief from the relentless sun and heat, it is also the giver of life – to the soil, to the trees, and to the crops which nourish the souls who plant the grain.

The Lukupa River has begun filling, along with our hopes for a good harvest bringing neighbors, friends and family a year of plenty. Although Mother Nature has done her part this season, the Government has failed to provide the money it promised farmers for fertilizer. With each new budding hope comes another challenge. Each year those who produce our food are pushed to the brink. It’s as if the powers that be are testing how far small-scale producers can be stretched before they break. Bashi Mwango laughs nervously when we talk about the situation – he has a hectare of maize awaiting fertilizer – his family’s livelihood awaiting long-ago promised inputs. His chuckle reminds me that sometimes laughter is all that can keep us from crying. How is it that those who produce the food suffer, while we the consumers overeat? How have things become so out of balance, and where do we begin to recalibrate the scales?

Ruined maize in the fore-front, with thriving maize behind

The difference between those who managed to get fertilizer (background), and those who didn’t (foreground)
It’s a difficult question – especially because each community has its own tinkering which is needed. Here, we have the privilege of viewing things from ‘an outside perspective’. Zambia is lucky – it hasn’t poisoned its soil beyond repair, yet. But things are moving rapidly, powered by the brainwashing system that we call ‘advertising’. The move away from expensive and untimely inorganic fertilizer towards organic and naturally-available alternatives is not easy. Soil is a living thing, it takes time to recuperate after being overloaded with nitrogen and pushed out of balance. It takes money, time, coordination, and love to remember time-tested ways of cultivation.

Kapembwa and I are slowly embarking on a path of farming maize without fertilizer. Rather than advise without expertise, as I did in Peace Corps, I find that a better path is to try it ourselves first. If it works for us, it can work for others. Each person can come to view activities on our farm and then ‘transplant’ whatever techniques she/he thinks will fit within her/his individual farming set-up. Along these lines, in June, we are bringing in a Peace Corps Extension Volunteer couple named Liz and Ray to live with us and help us learn and teach organic agriculture. They will be living in the house of Samuel, who has returned to his home in Kansas to be with his family. He will still be visiting us from time-to-time, and is still very much a part of our family.

While we are excited to welcome Liz and Ray to our family, they are not the only new additions we expect in 2017. Claire is about 5 months along, and is proudly showing (she can’ t hide it anymore). We are excited about bringing a new life into this world, to live with us on the farm and teach and learn with us. I think of all of the personal and spiritual growth that a child will bring, and I am filled with happiness. We are sure to face lots of tests – and grow as people – as we invest ourselves so thoroughly in the life of our child. Claire is beaming – it’s like she was born to fulfill this mission of mothering. I am also thankful for the connection we share, and the new link that will further unite us. I look forward to strengthening our relationship even more through the beautiful and spiritual experience of birthing and raising a child.

Claire, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen
Claire’s Baby Belly
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We just hed a wonderful visit from each of Claire’s parents. Her mom came first, and stayed at the farm for 3 weeks, enjoying the rain and the river. It is a rare person who can make the transition into this culture and just relax, laugh with people, and just be. It was nice that Sue stayed long enough to really see how we live, and immerse herself in our daily patterns of outdoor living (cooking over a fire, watching the birds, working in the garden, and swimming in the river being a few of the highlights). We miss her presence, but know she’ll be back soon. The birth of a first grandchild is not an event to be missed…

Just after Sue left, Bill (Claire’s dad) came. His visit was also filled with joy and relaxation. He came first with his older brother George (who stayed 10 days), and then Bill remained for another month afterwards. We chatted, visited with neighbors, traveled to Lake Mpulungu and the local waterfall, and generally just enjoyed each other’s company. It was nice to have Bill here for such a long time – I feel like it is the first opportunity we have had to get to know each other, and of course Claire was happy to spend time with him. Upon leaving, he mentioned that we should make our farm a therapy center for relaxation and reconnection with nature. It dawned on me that we already have – it’s just that our clients are friends and family, and they reciprocate with love and generosity beyond measure. I feel blessed that both of Claire’s parents are such open-hearted, generous and easy-going people. It’s not everyone who enjoys the company of their partners’ parents!

Billy Boy get his hair did
Billy Boy gets his hair did

Things in town are going well. The program is growing, and Claire’s ability to help people and relate with the girls is astounding. Earlier in January, the beginning of the school year here, at least 10 women each day would be lined-up outside the office looking for help. Claire has such a big heart, she would just help everyone if I didn’t put on the ‘accountant’ hat and stop her. It’s a difficult thing to watch – so many hard-working, strong, spiritual women who have little or no means to make money.

Certainly a culture of dependency has been created through years of poorly applied socialist policy, combined with aid systems claiming to ‘help’ but whose end results are often detrimental. When Bana Mulenga comes to the center looking for work because none is available, I remind myself that it’s important to empathize with HERstory, rather than push aside the flood of feelings her struggle unleashes within me by stereotyping her using grandiose theories of social stagnation rooted in HIStory. What would I do, if I were her? Probably pray for rain, and fertilizer, so that I could grow enough food to support my family. And ask those who have to help – since that is our cultural and moral duty.

So we do what little we can, thanks to help from many of you! And each day we are humbled that what seems so little from an American perspective is so significant here in Zambia. Another scale that needs balancing…

Sarah Mwango (a promising Bakashana Grantee) and her family
Sarah Mwango (a promising Bakashana Grantee) and her family

The girls in the program are now 44. Twelve of them are boarding in the office which we rent in town – a five bedroom house which now holds 15 computers and offers free computer classes to women in Kasama. We have also been granted another three years working with MTV (yep, Music Television – they offer grassroots charity support now), to work with traditional female leaders (BanaCimbusa) to integrate HIV/AIDs sensitization and women’s empowerment into their customary ceremonies for young girls.

Computer classes at the resource center
Computer classes at the resource center

Of course, we men need to be sensitized too, and Claire and I have discussed how that might look. For now, time and money won’t allow. I suppose I would try to integrate the trainings with agriculture, because that is the main livelihood for people here, and so people identify with it. Of all the scales, the one which is most out of balance is the patriarchy here (sound familiar?). The decision-makers are almost all men. We, as a sex, tend to be more self-interested, and children and familial concerns are left to women who are often not given the means to resolve them. It is a system which leaves many hard-working women without means to support themselves, without the right to refuse their husbands, only the obligation of “obeying thy husband”.

Yet maybe balance lies in perspective. After all, it’s the women who have continued to save the culture – through their ceremonies, through their songs and togetherness, through their smiles and laughter. I have some great friends here who are men, though they are not as plentiful as I would like. It is hard for me to empathize with men who take what little money their family has and throw it down the bottomless pit of alcohol.

The heart of this place is good. It shows itself every day. Living here is a beautiful lesson in patience. People are close to the land and the lessons of Mother Nature, which we can quickly forget when living in the illusion of control created by modern, technological society. Yesterday I rode my bike to the market to get some rice for a workshop we are having with the Bakashana grantees. On the way, I noticed that most of the stalls had been emptied of wares, but it was still early afternoon. While I am worthless at predicting rain here (it can come from any direction!), locals know – it’s like a sense or understanding I can’t perceive. I bought rice just in time to encounter a torrential downpour. In the market, with winds raging against rickety market stalls and rain pounding on iron sheets, it resembled a kind of battle.

The woman selling me rice quickly ushered me into her storage place, where we would stay dry. She then rushed back out to cover her things – if her rice or maize got wet, it would spoil the grain and her livelihood. We stood huddled in the cramped room for almost an hour – the rain hammering so loudly on the roof we couldn’t even talk. So we sat with our thoughts, watching footpaths turn to streams, and roads turn to rivers. My thoughts flowed along with the water, from near to far, wondering how I ended up in this place, with these people, far from the world I once knew.

As we watched the rain, I found gratitude for the contemplative time that Mother Nature had set aside. Such moments of presence should be every moment, but without her reminders I often forget to be here – as my mind races to and fro. It is through Mother Nature that I am relearning, every moment, to simply be grateful for what is right in front of me.
I think of the agendas of ‘development’ and the global push toward ‘progress’: if this place could just ‘develop’, the paths would all be paved, and all the stalls would be indoor stores. If this place would ‘modernize’, then all the roads would have drainage, and potholes would not slow us down. If Zambia would just ‘westernize’, then people would spend more time making money to buy more things, rather than treating time as if it is a rubber band. Would people be happier then?

And then my mind relents: I sit here, right now, with a woman I don’t know, huddled against the rain, as we share a part of our mutual existence together. The lessons of Mother Nature fall from the sky – presents of the present – not to be lost in the hum of machines and the honking of cars.

Passing Possessions

Claire and I were preparing for a camping trip with some friends. I found myself increasingly frustrated when packing my bike. All these things! Two tents, two ground pads, two yoga mats, a flute, a headlamp, and some food – all strapped to my bike. On my way to town, I left my bike at a friend’s by the roadside (in an effort to hide the exaggerated amount of things I was carrying – a stark contrast to the material humility of those living around us). I then walked the half mile to another friend’s, whose granddaughter had passed away the night before.

I arrived to women wailing, and sat with my friend Remy. His eyes stared blankly at the ground, as if he could gaze right through the hard earth and what lay underneath could somehow show him meaning. He looked tired, and sad to have lost his granddaughter. I offered my condolences, went into the house, and mourned. Once inside, many women wailed and men sat stoically, as the story of the deceased was repeated. This is the culture of mourning among the Bemba. It’s almost as if the family has to repeat the story countless times, to help the reality of the situation sink in. Remy’s daughter had two children, now they have both passed away. She sat outside on a stoop and wailed – asking God why he had taken her children.

After maybe an hour of sitting in silence next to my friend, with some few words exchanged, I left. He walked me down the road, and we chatted casually. About halfway to my bike, he said goodbye, and we shook hands. I wished there was something I could do – anything to see this beautiful, bright-spirited man smile. It’s so easy to find meaning in happiness, but suffering is the true test of one’s faith.

I walked back to my bike, rode to town, and arrived at the house of our friends Luke and Steph. It was a good old ‘Musungu’ gathering, and I found about 10 friends sitting, chatting, and having some beers. I found the adjustment difficult, as I often do. I often tell Bembas when they ask about the differences of our cultures: “Here, you have too many friends and not enough materials – in our country, we have too many materials and not enough friends”. Maybe, as I think about it, the difference is more about spirit than friendship.

As I sat in Remy’s house and prayed, I couldn’t doubt that spirit is real, that this reality is paper thin and that other dimensions drift about, mixing and melding with this one like currents of an interdimensional sea. Yet here at Luke and Stephs, surrounded by drinks and food and plenty, this world seemed thick and impenetrable – almost suffocating. After 5 years here, the disparity is still hard to reconcile. Why do we have so much, while so many are caught in a race, running just to get by? Where is the balance between a culture so attached to the material that greater meaning is crushed by the weight of all the things, and a people whose hunger and pain keeps spirit too close for comfort?

As the night progressed, I eased further into the world of the ‘Musungu’. I ate wonderful, tasty food and drank a bit of wine, knowingly numbing my spirit to sleep. I awoke at 5am to start my meditation, and found that my bike was not outside where I had left it. I looked up and down. I woke up Luke and asked if he had moved it. The bike was gone, with all the things strapped to it. I looked at the ground where the bike had stood, and found the only thing which remained was a wish lantern which had fallen from the bike during its escape.

I went to the police station and filed a report with a middle-aged man dressed in green camouflage. He went through the motions, asking me what was stolen and where. Then, he asked me to make an estimate of the value of goods stolen – this seemed, from his perspective, to be an absolutely critical point. I shouldn’t guess, I should be sure. I sat down and thought it out – tents, mats, the bike, the flute, and came to about 5,000 kwatcha (500 bucks). Of course, the sentimental value of a gifted flute is more, but he just wanted a figure. He didn’t seem in the mood for a philosophical conversation about ‘value’ being a concept inadequately described by currency.

Right at the point when I realized that he didn’t give a damn about my bike, and that all ‘my’ things were gone, I started feeling sorry for myself. If I’m here helping people and I need the bike to do it, and if that flute brings so much happiness to me and those around me, why were they gone – destined to be mistreated and soon discarded?

Amidst these thoughts, a young man entered. He was about 25 – he looked tired and disheveled.

“What do you want?” The officer asked without nearly the same smile or respect he gave to me, the white man, just minutes before.
“I need to file a report.” The man responded.
“For what?” Snapped the officer.
“I had all of my things stolen from my house.”
“What things – and their total value?” The officer indifferently probed.
“A pillow, mattress, pots, pans, and some clothes. The total value was about 300 kwacha ($30).”
“Sit down, I’ll be with you…”

The man sat down, piercing the ground with a hard stare reminiscent of that which Remy had used the day before. I had to fight back tears in the middle of the police station. Tears of anguish and guilt. Here I was feeling sorry for myself about having lost a bunch of expensive things – all things that I would be able to replace. Meanwhile, the man sitting next to me (surely a teacher crossing my path), had lost everything he had – and its value, looked at economically, was almost nothing. So much for my strivings towards non-attachment… It was a strong reminder of how far I am from letting go of the material.

After another 30 minutes, I left the officer with his report and little hope of recovering my things. As I walked back to Luke and Steph’s, I remembered my frustration the morning before. I had to stop and laugh. The universe is so clever! I was so angry about having to carry and pack all these things – I wanted to travel light and be unburdened by so much ‘stuff’. So spirit listened, and that evening – sneakily and inauspiciously – my things were carried off. I was unburdened. “Don’t want those things? No problem… they’re gone!” Hah!

The following night, we all circled around the wish lantern. We each made a prayer as we lit the wax inside the paper, and held it aloft until the heat carried it away. I prayed for forgiveness. I prayed that I would take this lesson and push myself to become less attached to things. I vowed that I would walk more, aligning my pace to that of the people around me. I prayed for Remy, and the man whose possessions had been stolen. I felt incredibly grateful for my family and circumstance, who assure that I need not worry about money or material goods. And I prayed to forgive those who stole from me.

The lantern lifted itself into the sky, its light dimming and shrinking as it floated away. Hunger pushes people to limits far from the understanding of those who have eaten. The things stolen from me are needed more wherever they are now than they were needed while in my possession. They were, after all, never ‘mine’. They just were – and they still are. They’re just somewhere else, with someone else. As the lantern’s light flickered and faded, the lesson became clear. By challenging my attachment to possessions, I have been given the blessing of another lesson in impermanence.

Nshiku Shilebutuka (The Days Are Running)

I have been meaning to write a blog for some time now about a not-so-recent new addition to our Lukupa Family, our new brother,Samuel (Chipasha in Bemba), who has been living with us since November of last year. We met Samuel last year at Ukusefya Pa’Ngwena (The Bemba cultural ceremony which translated directly means ‘to party on the Crocodile’ and last year was the inauguration of a new Senor Chief of the Bemba people, Chitimukulu). Samuel approached us in a straw hat and Chitenge shirt (my kinda guy) and we struck an immediate rapport. Samuel was a Peace Corps Volunteer working with local farmers in Central Province for 2 years before extending for a third year with Catholic Relief Services, working with savings and loans clubs on the village level.

Our Brother Samuel Chipasha with his host family
Our Brother Samuel Chipasha with his host family

He came by to spend a night and check-out the farm about 2 weeks later. We sat by the fire sharing stories and connecting, and with his love for Yoga,wholesome food, meditation, chanting, and discussion of deep cultural, personal and spiritual issues, we all got along swimmingly. Even more impressive, when we sat with Kapembwa and chatted, Samuel was able to effortlessly switch into Bemba (the place where he lived as a volunteer spoke a similar dialect). I was very impressed, and I have to admit that while I didn’t think I had an ego about my IciBemba language proficiency, I had to check myself when I realized that he was better than me!

Sam and Me at farm

During that evening we discussed many things, from introspective investigation and profound pontifications to day-to-day living in Kasama. Samuel was living a stone’s throw from a loud bar in town, where we was awoken frequently by the noise. He yearned to live in the village again, in the Zambia he knew and loved. Claire joked, saying “just come live here with us!”. We all laughed, but there was definitely an air of uncertainty about the moment – was she joking? It seemed like a really cool idea.

Sunset over Lukupa
Sunset over Lukupa
House Construction
House Construction

As we pursued things further, we began wondering how such a situation might work. He could stay in the guest house, but then he would have to camp if guests came – and then, who would want to come if they knew they were putting him out? Eventually, as we got more serious about the matter, Samuel spoke with his employer who agreed to pay rent. With that rent money, we were able to build him a home with an incredible view of the river. This time, the process was very smooth. By now, we know who we can trust to do quality work in the community, and the process was seamless (well, relatively speaking). Samuel really took initiative to make the place his own, and did some impressive landscaping (which we are sure to imitate) and, with his green thumb and organic farming know-how, made himself a nice little garden by the side of his house.

Samuel’s Garden
Samuel’s Garden

Now Samuel is living with us, and it has really diversified our little community. He is full of light and positive energy, and he is able to help Claire, Kapembwa and myself as we all push each other to be more centered, focused, conscious beings. Samuel, Kapembwa and I meditate together at least once per week as the sun’s first light glints off the dew on the trees of Lukupa.

Bridging the gap between two such disparate cultures has been a challenging and interesting endeavor, and it has become clear that it is a very rare individual who can juggle the two worlds we inhabit here.

Samuel’s Home
Samuel’s Home

As far as juggling these differences, Kapembwa is the most unique Zambian I have ever met. He is able to integrate and live with us like family, with no reservations or difficulties. That has taken time, experience, honesty, and a lot of communication. Samuel, since he loves Bemba culture and speaks the language so fluently, is also a natural fit in Lukupa. Still, as we move forward, trials and tribulations and their corresponding lessons are also part of the story.

Ba Kapembwa Besu
Ba Kapembwa Besu

As for now, Samuel has gone home to be with his family stateside for some time. We are eagerly awaiting his return to Lukupa so we can stay together as a family again. His last night with us was incredibly special. Kapembwa’s other name is Singoma, which in his tribal language, IciMambwe, means ‘the one who drums’. Kapembwa got out the drum, and I got all the instruments we keep in the house (a few meditation bells, my flute and guitar, and some other locally made trinkets). Kapembwa, keeping the beat of the rhythm of our Lukupa Life, held us together as we danced around the fire and sang, chanted and played. It was a powerful evening in which the love and light we are cultivating here was elevated beyond what words can describe, or senses can perceive.

Through it all I was profoundly thankful for our Lukupa Family. Claire, whose heart, beauty and vision have inspired us along this windy road. Kapembwa – our teacher from the Bemba world- the one who’s drumming keeps the heart of our little farm beating, humbly and subtly, with positivity and light. And our brother Samuel, whose light and consciousness help us to keep dancing along the tightrope, tottering between cultures and perspectives which, without such faith and love, may prove irreconcilable.

What a gift!

A view from Samuel’s Home
A view from Samuel’s Home

Ancestral Auras

A Beautiful song from the choir at Bana Nsenga’s Funeral

They say “When it rains, it pours.” I have never seen this cliché ring more true than here in Zambia. I returned from the US to find that our beautiful little farm had become a jungle, overgrown with head-high grasses and trees which seemed to have doubled in size in just the few weeks we were gone. I was welcomed warmly by Kapembwa and our friend Samuel, who is a Kansas-born Peace Corps Volunteer who now lives with us and graces us with his presence (More on that in another post). I was happy to be so well-received, and relieved to be home after such a long, taxing and emotional journey.

I spent the next two weeks working in town every day to select the young women for the Bakashana program while organizing details for the MTV Grant that we received and also keeping the computer training going at the Resource Center. Focusing so much on the program, and taking over all of Claire’s work for a short time, I gained a real appreciation for how hard she works, and how multifaceted her skill-sets must be to balance so many things at once (all without writing them down!). I made many lists, so that I could manage to keep my sanity.

The Young Ladies (Bakashana)
The Young Ladies (Bakashana)

It was a difficult readjustment, being so busy and unable to pursue my passion of working on the farm, all the while missing my partner and trying to hold together the program. I was grateful for a visit from two old, incredibly close friends (Helmi and Karo), an Austrian-born couple who hosted us graciously and lengthily at their farm in Colombia back in 2012 (more in the same, later post). Claire returned to find us eagerly awaiting her, yet our reunion was bittersweet as she found me sick in bed with Malaria. We slowly reconnected, trying to reconcile the staggering loss of Sri, and also piece back together our life so far away from US family and friends.

Bana Nsenga
Bana Nsenga

Shortly along this journey, as we connected through the depths of mourning, we received another lesson in impermanence. Banakulu Nsenga – the wise grandmother who sold us the land where we’ve built our home, and who taught us so much about life, culture, and the area in which we live – passed away. The family had been anticipating her death for some time, and we had visited her eldest daughter’s home several times in the previous week, bringing some porridge powder and just sitting with our dying grandmother. Near the end, she was no longer eating or responding – the only sign that she clung to this world was the labored breath in her lungs. She remained that way for a week before I received a call from her son, Bashi Mwango (to whom I’ve referred as a great teacher in previous posts). “Bamayo Nabafwa” (My mother has died).

We came home from town and went to visit the family. Her body was kept at the mortuary in town, but the room where Banakulu Nsenga had spent her last days was full of mourning and the echoes of prayers. Entering into the house, the atmosphere was thick with sadness and the musty scents and auras of other worlds. Wailing which could pierce and soften even the hardest heart erupted from the room, and upon entering I was overcome by a wall of grief, tangibly thick, and tears from the depths of all the loss I have experienced poured forth.

Wailing and Singing from the Funeral

Outside, I found Bashi Mwango and his wife and a host of others attending to endless details for the hundreds of visitors preparing to come. He had bags under his eyes from lack of sleep, and looked as disheveled as I have ever seen him. His grief was veiled under a hardened demeanor, focused on accomplishing all of his cultural requirements. I asked how we could best help, and he responded – honestly and with hesitation – with a request for food. He explained that it was his responsibility to feed all of the people coming to mourn, and that because Bana Nsenga was very old and very respected, the entire village, as well as the extend family and members of other villages, would be coming.

After retrieving dried fish and vegetables from town, I returned and spent the day with Bashi Mwango. We ate together, just the two of us – a simple meal of caterpillars and canola (and Nshima, of course). I was impressed by the humility of this beautiful man – eating so little and so modestly while women were busy preparing chickens and goat for the incoming family and friends.

We continued together for the afternoon, Bashi Mwango taking care of the needs of all his visitors while I tried to help as best I could. It struck me as unjust that instead of mourning his mother, he was obliged to host and look after visitors. Despite his obligations, he didn’t seem to mind. He told me, when I asked him about the situation – “These are our friends and neighbors, and they have come to provide moral and spiritual support, to ensure that my mother’s soul happily and successfully leaves this world. The material strain for us is heavy, but is of secondary concern”. Another reminder of how far I am from releasing the materialist perspective ingrained in my psyche.

We spent the whole night together, along with nearly the entire village, around bonfires of full trees towering overhead, raging for warmth and to ward off mosquitoes.

Claire with Bana Nsenga
Claire with Bana Nsenga

The women stayed separate from the men, many of whom (including Claire) spent much of the night mourning and wailing inside the house. I found the men’s mood to be resolved, and few spoke of the loss or the sadness they felt. I am not sure whether this veiling of emotion is culturally programmed or the ‘nature’ of our gender. I feel more sure that such hardness is rooted in ego and a fear of showing weakness, and that embracing a softer method of grieving which embraces less anger and more sadness (which requires the relinquishment of the illusion of control and power) could go a long way to healing the wounds of this world. While men have placed themselves in positions of power, it is the emotion and softness of the feminine which holds the proverbial strings of this world together, and can restore balance to humanity and Mother Earth.

Such were my thoughts as I slept fitfully on a sack on the ground, huddled between Bashi Mwango and his cousin and scores of other friends and family from around the village. The fires burned deep into the night. Each time I awoke, I was amazed to hear the Catholic Choir (the church at which Bana Nsenga prayed) melodically singing. Their energy rose and fell with the wailing and grieving of the family and friends in attendance, and the 20-some singers remained on their feet all night, their harmonies so powerful they seemed to harness and draw energy from beyond this world.

bonfire

In the middle of the night I found an old woman hovered over me, dressed all in black. I was amazed and startled when I realized it was Bana Nsenga. She was immersed in the energy of one who has left this world. She reached down and touched me, and my whole body was overcome with a feeling of warm tingling, bringing with it peace and tranquility. I was grateful to have known and been touched by such a wise and wonderful soul. I awoke further into consciousness of the world around me, not sure if I had been dreaming, to find the first light of the sun flirting upon the horizon.

That morning, we buried Grandmother Nsenga. At the body viewing, the wailing of the women softened my heart, and I cried for Bana Nsenga, and for Sri, and for all those I’ve lost. I cried for the slow acceptance that my life is steeped in the impermanence which creates the foundation of this reality. Some other men were softened to tears, as the body was carried to the traditional graveyard, deep in the woods. The thud of dirt sounded hollow as it covered the coffin, as if her spirit had already left. Those who remained wailed out their last goodbyes to a beautiful woman.

Bana Nsenga at her Granddaughter’s Wedding
Bana Nsenga at her Granddaughter’s Wedding

When walking back to the house, I found myself in a conversation with an old man, hobbling along with a hand-carved walking stick. I asked him “Bashikulu, what happens if it rains the night before burial, with all mourners gathered and sleeping outside? What do all the people do? Where do they sleep?” I had asked this question of others, who either avoided answering, or said flat-out that they did not know. This surprised me – it seemed such a pragmatic concern. It rains almost every night in the rainy season, and funerals are frequent; it must be a consideration.

He looked me in the eye and his eyebrows rose in unison with a slight twinkle in his eyes emanating from deep in his soul – “We elders know how to commune with the ancestors. We ask them to keep the rain until the spirit of the departed has left this earth”. I thought “Oh, of course. That makes sense.” I realized later that this acceptance is a reflection of how long I’ve been here, and how much this place, its nature and its people have changed my perception of reality and what is possible. Our conversation meandered to the maize harvest, and he discussed the drought which we had been experiencing. He told me, in hushed tones, that if it didn’t rain soon, many people’s maize would fail, and suffering would be widespread.

After a short period of socializing at Bashi Mwango’s house, I parted ways and headed back to the house with Claire, Samuel, and our friend Bana Mpundu (the Mother of twins). We hastened our pace as the winds picked up, and the sky darkened to the west. We arrived home just in time to batten down the hatches. The skies opened and the ancestors released their grief. What began with infrequent large drops quickened into a frenzy of rain, which developed into a full-on downpour. With the wind howling and the rain soaking the cracked earth, I thought of Bana Nsenga. She is now an ancestor, looking over this place and her people – providing her family with needed rain, and her son a needed chance to rest and grieve in peace.

For the Love of Sri

Sri Flowers

Sometimes we meet people who are exceptional. Even within a short period of time spent with such a person, he/she may impact our lives in momentous ways – both perceptible and imperceptible. Sri Shim was one such person in my life. Sri is Claire’s stepfather, although such a term falls short of describing their relationship. Regardless of such technicalities, I was blessed to spend about 10 months, broken up in short stints over the period of 5 years, in Sue and Sri’s home. Sri taught me so much about life that I couldn’t know where to start explaining. But one thing he imparted on me was his love for surfing.

Anytime I got to surf with Sri was a special opportunity. His energy – always positive, beautiful, excited with every moment, was especially heightened when surfing. I’ll never forget his voice, I can still hear it as clear as the sunrise on the last day we surfed together – “That’s the one, Justin!” “Go, Justin, Go!” With Sri, it didn’t matter if that wave was barreling overhead, or barely small enough to catch on a longboard – it was THE ONE.

Sri surfing and loving life
Sri surfing and loving life

Sri and I usually went out to ‘Castles’, a long-boarding spot with what are normally very small waves and no crowd. I like this spot because I am a lousy surfer who doesn’t have the skill or strength to shortboard, or the Ocean presence to be out in big waves. Sri patiently helped me learned to surf, and –very slowly- how to read the ocean and its waves. After enough visits to Sri and Sue’s, I started desiring bigger waves – to push myself to learn more about surfing, and about the ocean.

On my last trip to Hawaii, Sri decided to take me out to his favorite surf spot – Ala Moana bowls. This spot is a local favorite, and the waves are much more defined and often much bigger than at Castles. The day we went, the waves were ‘small’ – maybe about shoulder high (my shoulder, Sri’s head) on big sets. Of course the waves looked small and manageable from shore – they usually do. We paddled out, fighting through waves which, when lying flat on a surfboard, looked much more intimidating. What’s more, I’ve always been a bit intimidated to sit in a ‘line-up’ – a group of surfers waiting for a set to come through. There is lots of unwritten surfing etiquette and cultural custom as well, to navigate.

The first set came through, and Sri was after the very first wave. Watching him surf was a gift: everything was graceful – no wasted motion, every action precise, and the guy just didn’t miss a wave. After watching him effortlessly, suavely catch the wave, I lined myself up for the next one. I started paddling, to get up to speed. I felt that all the variables were correct – I was in the right place both regarding my distance from shore and the left-to-right alignment of the break. I paddled into the wave, and was excited to have gotten everything right. Except one thing… This wasn’t Castles, and there were lots of other surfers around. Just as my tip broke the plane of the wave I looked left to see that another guy – an older local – had already gotten in the wave. I saw him too late, and as I pulled back on the board to get out of the wave – and his way – the momentum was too much. I managed to avoid colliding, but his leash tangled with the tip of my board, and I saw him come crashing into the wave.

He looked over at me as he came up, frustrated but not angry, and reprimanded me: “You gotta look behind you before you get in the wave!” I apologized profusely, and then paddled back out to the line-up – where I now was even more timid. Here I was, that haole (white guy) who isn’t local, surfing out of his ability level and cutting off Uncle – who’s probably been surfing here longer than anyone else around. Except, of course, Sri.

Sri surfing his favorite spot – Ala Moana Bowls
Sri surfing his favorite spot – Ala Moana Bowls

He came paddling out after his long ride into shore, beaming with the smile of his which is beyond description yet will never leave me. He paddled right into the middle of the group, right next to the Uncle I had just cut off, and started greeting everyone by name. They all knew him – he’s been surfing that spot longer than anyone out there. More than 40 years. And then he introduced me to the group as his son-in-law. And suddenly, everything was love. People were glad to meet me, chatting and asking questions, and even letting me have some waves that they rightfully could have caught. And for that day I was the ‘coolest’ that I’ve ever been. Maybe the ‘coolest’ I’ll ever be.

That’s the kind of man that Sri was. Just knowing him was enough to be accepted, to be loved and treated with respect and kindness. It’s like his energy was so beautiful and so strong that just by being near him, I became a better person. Just by having him in my life, seeing the sincerity and love and bliss with which he lived every moment, I gained a new perspective of what is possible – of how I want to be, and who I want to be. And so did everyone that was blessed to have him in their life.

Sri with his dancing face on. The light of the party.
Sri with his dancing face on. The light of the party.

Though I was in Zambia during the ceremony celebrating his life, I still felt his energy strongly here. I sat alone praying and meditating at a local waterfall. As I walked through the darkness, trying to find meaning in the tragedy of loss, trying to understand why such a beautiful soul would be taken prematurely, I smelled flowers. I stopped and looked around, and found a beautiful clump of white flowers blooming under the full moon. I stopped and felt Sri’s presence. Through tears of emotion so strong that joy and sadness blended into indescribably acute awareness, I felt Sri’s love. And then I understood that Sri’s wave had come, and his soul was riding a cosmic wave of love and light. “That’s the one, Sri! “ “Go, Sri, Go!”

Sri shim memorial

Free Flowing

Adam Melin, one of my closest and oldest friends, came to visit us recently. His visit was a blessing in many senses, as Adam is one of the few people I know who is arduously and persistently questioning his culture, his upbringing, the very roots of his foundation, so that the light of inner truth my shine upon him. We spent nights around the fire discussing our lives and intentions, dancing with words and meditating when words fell short of the primacy of felt experience.

adam fish

Adam’s questioning of both us and himself were inspiring and insightful. We talked about issues I have seldom discussed with anyone, ‘getting deep’, as he called it. His visit was profoundly impactful. It is a friendship which is truly reciprocal and free. His way of connecting with Claire and I, as well as Kapembwa and our neighbors, shows an intuitive light which shines well beyond his well-crafted words.

home view

A river trip had been on our minds for some time. We discussed the possibility with Claire, and at the last minute, she was able to clear up some days for us to take a journey. So we grabbed some bread from the roadside, packed up some rice and lentils, a few blankets, a tent, and we were off the next day. We embarked from our house, putting the boat in the water just where the river laps the shore of our home and fills our spirits with possibility. I had briefly looked at a map – one whose scale was too large and whose accuracy was doubtful. There is a road with a bridge, somewhere downstream. We didn’t know how many days it would take to reach it, what the river would look like along the way, or what obstacles we may encounter. As the Lukupa River flows, so does the river of life…

boat
Starting Off
Starting Off

The first morning was filled with joy and excitement. We turned the corner on the River, and arrived in unknown territory. We enjoyed chatting, leisurely paddling, taking in the pristine Zambian floodplain and its unique language, expressed through birds, frogs, lizards, snakes, the purr of water and the sigh of the wind. The longer we journeyed, the more intelligible the language became. The first stretch of the river was slow and pristine, and we spent long periods of time in silence, becoming one with nature and dissolving the boundaries created through the noise and delusion of our minds. The sun was hot, and the water pristine. We caught some fish with Adam’s spinning rod, stopped for lunch in the cool shade of a flowering tree bracing the riverbank, and discussed our lives and their meaning.

We continued on in such a manner for some hours, and I began to think of the possibilities of such a journey – anyone could do this, and everyone would enjoy it! I wonder how many adventures I’ll have before I will stop projecting the beginning into the end. Experience and wisdom teach that all things are constantly changing. The flows of the Lukupa River are thus. We were in the childhood of our adventure, immersed in existence without worries.

fish

We came upon a man and his son, who had just caught a fish from the river. We greeted one another, and he let us know that the river was difficult up ahead. The energy changed with the wind, and we prepared for the unknown. After some bends in the river, we approached a dense, lush jungle with a full canopy of mature trees. As we passed silently through the jungle, we came upon a downed tree crossing the river. Our first obstacle. The water was moving slowly, and we simply stepped out onto shore, lifted the boat along the grasses, and passed by the tree.

We continued further, but now the current was increasing. We had to paddle the 10-foot boat arduously – it was bulky and slow to react. We passed by downed logs and around trees, trying our best to keep the boat from hitting the foliage on either side of the river. Soon we heard the sound of rushing water, and pulled the boat to the side of the river to scout an incredibly beautiful cascade which hurled itself down the rocks and offered its song to the jungle waiting at its feet. We spent some time stretching, meditating, and admiring the beauty of the place. Pristine, distant, untouched.

first waterfall

We carried the boat about 200 yards downstream, put the boat back in the water with our gear, and continued the journey. The fishing time was over now, and our concentration was on paddling. The river had quicken and narrowed, and we were paddling to keep centered, while ducking branches and learning to control our craft. The journey’s adolescence.

Further down the river, we encountered a fish trap. Fishermen in the villages make dams out of logs which extend the length of the river, and leave only small places which fish can travel through. The small pathways flow into large, woven reed fish traps, which become progressively smaller at their length, forcing fish in with no hope of escape. We had to stop and admire the workmanship – so many trees, so much effort, so much ingenuity. We carried the boat around and continued.

Not long after that fish trap, we found ourselves in another thick jungle, and we passed over a sharp stick facing against the current. We heard no sound, but the bottom of the boat began to deflate. We continued, and came upon a rapid which looked manageable for the boat. As people often do, we overestimated our abilities, and how nimble we could be given our situation. The journey was maturing.

fish trap

We found ourselves abrasively sliding over a big rock, a quick ripping sound, and the bottom of the boat completely gave out. Luckily, the boat is three sections, so we were able to sit on the outer sections and paddle to shore. We found a tear in the bottom so big that water was entering the compartment, and no air would hold.

We were in the jungle. We had little idea where we were. We were lost. Or were we found? The journey was now real. It felt incredibly liberating. I sensed a similar feeling of freedom from Claire and Adam, and was grateful to be surrounded by such centered, loving, and adventurous people. One worried thought can prove cancerous in such a situation. We heard voices and followed a footpath through the trees to the nearest house. After hiding in shock, two young women emerged from their immaculately thatched, round home. After offering us some fruits and welcoming us to their home, they waited to hear our story. We asked where we were – which must seem a strange question to those who have lived centered in one place their whole lives. We are here, where else could we be? Touché. But in the material sense, where are we? What is the name of this village? Mwamba – the Chief’s village.

The ladies insisted that we were close to the bridge. It was ‘just near’. So we hopped back in the boat, the gear laid in the deflated center of the boat on an inflatable seat which still held true. We sat on the outsides, and paddled heavily, since the middle section was now taking in water. It was slow going. We encountered several rapid sections, where Claire and Adam would walk along the bank with our new posse (The two young women, and two of their brothers, were now walking along the bank following us and inquiring about our craft, our origins, our intentions). Meanwhile, I would take the boat by the rope at its bow and slowly wade through the rocky rapids, trying not to tangle my feet in the rocks or be swept away by the force of the Lukupa.

After two hours of this, still with our convoy close by (we gave them a short ride on the boat, just for the experience), we still had not reached the bridge. The sun was beginning to tire from its perch above our heads, and its rays were softening to the golden glow of the evening. The kids let us know that no cars passed over the “near-by” bridge. It was not the paved road we sought – the illusions of the middle-aged journey.

setting up camp

We came upon another fish trap, pulled the boat to shore, and found our home for the evening. After setting up the tent and repairing the boat, we lit a fire and cooked our meal, enjoying a rest on the ground and the sputtering, rushing spirit of the water as it jumbled its way through the fish trap. We talked and reflected deep into the night, discussing the Lukupa River, and the life lessons its flow offered. We slept on the hard ground, huddled against the cold.

morning medtation

The next morning the rising sun woke us to a world covered in dew, cold and damp. We lit a fire and cooked breakfast. The patch hadn’t stuck completely – the boat would hold air, but it was leaking. At least no water was entering. We started off, and managed to navigate successfully through rapids, around fish traps, and through jungles. We passed the Mwamba bridge, (which was not ‘just near’, as we should have known), and continued downstream. The river changed once again, opening into tall trees of Miombo woodlands, with sheer dirt banks on either side. Thick trees lined the bank, and we had to stay exactly centered in the river to avoid them – we were all more wary of how fragile our craft truly was… not long for this world.

Soon we came to a log jam in the river, which looked to have once been a bridge. The current wasn’t strong, so we let it push us into the logs, with the plan of stepping onto them and carrying the boat over the obstacles. Hidden in the grasses on the log was a sharp stick, which quickly punctured the outer section of the boat with a load pssssssssssssssssssssssst.

flute

We pulled over and surveyed our options. We were now very far from the road we had passed (which very few cars use). Yet with the hole still leaking in the center section, we could not continue with a leaking outer section. The only option was to repair the leak and wait for the patch to dry. Sometimes sitting still is the best way to move forward. We sat in the shade of the trees, jumping from their branches into the cool water, and waited for three hours. The patch looked okay, though we knew that ignoring the ’12 hour’ drying time might cause problems. We loaded up the boat and started again.

Shortly, we found more fish traps – then more rapids. At one point, we could not remove the boat from the water and were dodging in and out of branches and brush. The patch came off at the same time that one of our paddles broke in half. We were now really a site to see. One and a half paddles, with someone consistently pumping air into two leaking sections of a heavily weighted boat, while minding the rapids and periodically pressing down the patch whose glue had not dried.

We came upon a huge black snake, which swam up to shore and watched us. At the same time, we were pushed by the current into the same shore, and needed the shore to carry the boat around an obstacle. Adam and I hesitated, but Claire jumped right out, chased the snake off with a paddle (probably a Black Mamba, but she wasn’t worried), and we continued on our way. What a woman!

clare flower

Once again, the sun started to wane. We were just near the time when we would need to decide whether or not to spend another night. We still had no idea how far we were from the road. But we were really getting the hang of paddling the boat, and most rapids now were less rocky. We were running them with great joy and more control. We had accustomed to the journey, and accepted its eventual end.

We pushed ahead. Soon, the wind changed and the energy became lighter. Claire declared ‘We’re Close’, in one of her intuitive reactions I have learned not to question. We took a few more rapids, dodged some more trees, and soon we came upon 15 naked boys swimming in the river. After running away from us, they slowly crept back, and responded affirmatively to my question of whether we were at the road. We had reached our destination, but the journey was not complete.

Claire went back to Kasama, and Adam and I visited the closely situated Chishimba Falls. After dinner and some conversation, we went to meditate at the bottom of the massive falls. Watching the falls glisten in the moonlight, we could feel the energy of the water in our ears, in our heads, in our bodies. I took Adam to a cave underneath the waterfall, and we entered inside and began to meditate. Now the spirit of the water was everywhere.

chishimba

I have meditated in this place before, by myself in the middle of the night, and I got the distinct feeling that I was a log floating in the river, and that I must do all I can to stay afloat, so that I could continue on my path without sinking, and reach my destination (the bridge, in this case). This time, after days of connecting with water and the spirits of nature, I simply asked the spirit of the waterfall to teach me. And it offered the most profound lesson I have ever experienced – one which compounded on the last meditation I had experienced in the cave.

The sound of the waterfall echoed infinitely through my being, and I became water. I was fluid. For short moments, I was carried by the flow of the universe. I got the distinct idea that, regarding existence’s metaphor simplified to my dull understanding, people are of three basic categories. The densest are rocks. They rarely move, and do not see the light of the sun through the depth of the delusion pinning them to the rivers’ bottom. Others are sticks – they float through the river, trying their best to stay afloat and keep moving to their destination. However, a stick is often getting stuck or retreating in eddies, delayed from its destination – though it knows not where it is headed: only that it must stay afloat. The spirit of the waterfall offered to me that night a glimpse into the last type of person. One who is simply water. Those who are water have relinquished all desire to reach a destination, for they are simply the flow of existence and consciousness. They cannot be said to be a single molecule of water, since such arbitrary human distinction is not relevant. They are both one and everything all at once. The flow of water, free from self, dissolving and reforming. And for some fleeting moments, I flowed like water over the falls of Chishimba, free from my ‘self’ and one with all existence. The waterfall told me that those who are truly water live every breath with such freedom and awareness.

We had started our journey with the intention of reaching a destination. Yet the true learning came from the unexpected consequences of the flow of the river of life. We thought we knew where we were headed, but the further into the unknown we passed, the less the destination guided our intentions. We simply began to trust the flow of the water. Now the journey is over, but in the broadest sense it is just beginning. Can we let go of our destination? With true devotion and enlightenment, all beings can flow like water through the cosmos.

flow

Banakulu Mpundu

After some weeks of anticipation and preparation, my mother arrived in the Kasama Airport on time and in good spirits. The journey had taken her more than 48 hours, and despite her four-plane, transatlantic journey, she was full of energy and happy to see Claire and me. It was wonderful to receive my mom and welcome her to our home with a long awaited hug – and a needed opportunity for us to connect and for her to share in the joy and friendliness of the Bemba culture.

mom claire me

We arrived at the farm in the afternoon, and showed Mom around. The rains of March and April had painted the landscape countless shades of green, gracing the farm with a lush, tropical feel. Mom really liked the guest house, where she felt instantly at home, and was overjoyed and taken aback by the peaceful, loving energy, the proximity of the cool, crisp Lukupa River, and a warm hug from Kapembwa.

The first few days we hung around the farm, walking the boundary and taking in as much as possible, sharing in the experience of being. Mom had many interesting questions about how we live, with whom we connect, how our daily lives are lived. Luckily, she was able to stay for long enough to get a real feel for what it is like for us to live here in Lukupa. The first week was spent socializing, cooking, gardening, walking, and connecting. Still, I could acutely feel Mom’s hesitation about the place. It was like she knew that if she loved the place and the life we live here, she would have to completely accept that her son lives thousands of miles away, in a different world.

Mom with Banakulu Nsenga, the Matriarch of our village
Mom with Banakulu Insenga, the Matriarch of our village

The first weekend we took Mom to the Chileshes’, so that she could spend time with and meet our Zambian family. There, Mom had “the best chicken of her life”, enjoyed stories and warmth with the Chileshes who honorably called her ‘Banakulu Mpundu’ (the grandmother of twins), and discussed life in Zambia and its contrasts to life in the United States. Amid many questions from the Chileshes about our culture and my Mom’s perspective, we reached a tense moment when discussing the politics of Zambia and the US.

chileshes w mom

Many people here have the misconception that US governmental systems, especially legal and political, are not corrupt and offer equal rights. Most people, including the Chileshes, view their own political systems as riddled with corruption and greed at nearly every level. This ‘grass is greener’ view is typical, and it is not uncommon for Zambians to express what I could term ‘cultural shame’ – the idea that their culture is somehow not adequate when compared to western cultures. That this cultural shame is inexorably linked to missionization and colonialism makes its roots strong, deep, and constantly reinforced – even today.

After listening to Mom explain her perspective, including the idea that things in our country could definitely improve, I felt an opportunity to share my opinion and set straight some misconceptions expressed about the US. Mostly, I interjected that corruption in the US was concentrated at the highest levels of Government, away from the eyes of the public and any hope of accountability. Basically, here in Zambia corruption is tacitly accepted, despite public campaigns denouncing it, in part because such campaigns are planned and implemented by some of those most guilty of sustaining the same practices they are supposedly trying to eliminate. In the US, by contrast, we have simply made corruption and bribery legal, and changed its name to lobbying.

Puppy and Kitten to break the tension
Puppy and Kitten to break the tension

This comment offended my mother, and it may offend some people reading this blog. But the interesting question for me is, “why is such a comment offensive?” Many people criticize the high-level corruption in the US and the Government’s inability to represent its citizens. But sometimes, words can scald like a steaming iron, and the relentless nationalism drilled into our minds as children (remember pledging allegiance to the flag?) create reactions of anger and defensiveness when the “US” is criticized, as if it were a personal attack on our character.

The Chileshes held quiet, and tried to make light of the tension between my mother and I – the Zambian culture is not accustomed to open conflict or direct disagreement. After some time, my mother and I had the opportunity to walk to the fish ponds, and watch the sun set on the dense jungle lining the heart of the marsh at the edge of the Chileshe’s property. She explained that I had no right to make such comments, that I was being unappreciative and disrespectful of the system that had given me so much opportunity, and provided me the education and ability to become the person I am.

This was an interesting and not altogether new point from her perspective. But time away from relentless media and cultural pressure has helped me to introspectively solidify my own truth. I must give credit that the system in which I was raised allowed me the opportunity and socio-economic freedom to become the person I am. However, I mostly see the debt I owe for this opportunity to my family and community, not ‘the system’ at large. I am grateful to my Mom for all that she has done for me, emotionally, educationally, parentally, financially. I told her so. I am grateful to my family and friends in the United States who have offered love and support, and helped me develop as a person. If I haven’t told them before, I’m telling them now. Thus, I owe a great debt to those people, and in many ways it is fair for my Mother to express disappointment that I have, in a manner of speaking, shirked my responsibilities to those people in order to move across the world and live a simpler, and what I see as more meaningful, life.

But the ‘system’ is too abstract to thank. The ‘Government’ does not represent me, despite the painfully ironic name given to those ‘representatives’ who dig into corporate coffers to sustain a whirlwind of delusional consumption and materialism. Thus begins a fundamental hypocrisy and contradiction faced by many who are seeking and questioning. I have benefited as a direct result of a culture whose fundamental concepts of reality and perceptions of what’s important differ strongly from my own. How do I shed the guilt of knowing that I benefit from a consumptive history whose foundations depend upon exploitation and violence? When do I owe thanks and gratitude? When should I speak out about injustice and delusion? Am I being disrespectful and unpatriotic, or am I fulfilling my responsibility as a citizen of a broader, deeper constituency than that of the ‘nation’ in which I was born?

We both knew there was something deeper. My mom began to cry. She was deeply hurt and saddened that I have chosen a life away from her, away from my family, where I am difficult to reach, difficult to see, and difficult to relate with. She mourned her unborn grandchildren, who she feels she may hardly know and who may hardly know her. And she admitted to feeling personally attacked by my harsh words.

Cards with the boys and Nikki
Cards with the boys and Nikki

Growth starts at the roots. We had reached our real point of tension. Being able to express her hesitation and sadness for the path I had chosen, while trying her hardest (as the wonderful mother she is) not to influence, dissuade, or discourage my decision, was a trying task for both of us. It is incredibly hard to see the hurt and sadness that my decision – made in good faith and with good intentions – has created. For her part, my Mom was able to feel my happiness with Claire in this simple, humble existence – where gentle breezes and birds’ songs substitute for pop radio, and gardening and visiting with neighbors around a fire take the place of mind-numbing Television shows. She was able to hear my fears of raising children in a world removed from the wisdom of nature, and the love and heart of the Divine Feminine. We hugged and reconciled, both accepting that the love between us is infinite, though we embrace across worlds.

After that moment, it was like a complete change in the energy between us. Claire noticed it immediately. My mother became more interested, more relaxed, more loving, more inquisitive, and more comfortable. She let herself feel free to fall in love with the gentle, friendly ways of the Bemba people, to flow with the breeze and wake up each morning to be carried by the current of the river, and to share in the love and light we are cultivating each moment here in Lukupa.

Our Lukupa Family
Our Lukupa Family

We took a trip to Mpulungu, to visit a truly pristine place – Luke’s Beach. We spent three days removed from the world, free to find ourselves. Amid Yoga, meditation, cards, conversation, and swimming, my Mom and I deepened our relationship and understanding of one another. With guards down we really heard each other, and she taught me many lessons. At the same time, Mom’s acceptance of our situation, and the openness it helped create, allowed her and Claire to connect on a much deeper and more meaningful level.

I will never forget the boat ride to the beach. Mom boarded the local boat taxi that everyone in Mpulungu uses to travel back-and-forth to their homes. The rickety wooden boat is tall and shaky, and its open hull and thinly spaced wooden cross planks make entering the boat akin to completing an obstacle course. Mom managed to find a seat on a mattress in the middle of the boat. She is an incredibly strong and determined person – so much so that after numerous physical and emotional challenges she is still able to successfully and happily navigate some of Zambia’s more remote locations. With awe and respect, sometimes I forget she is 70 years old!

Mom in her element
Mom in her element

After finding her seat, mom began chatting with the local women on the boat. This is especially significant because they don’t share a common language. Yet her ability to relate with people beyond words, and the universal relation between elders, between women – gained through wisdom and experience – is beyond any language. Soon she was holding a baby, singing to it and comforting it during brief periods of crying. She held the baby the whole ride, and was overjoyed by the freedom and connectedness of the mothers of the boat – all of whom entrust one another to care for their children. ‘It takes a village to raise a child’. These cliché words moved us deeply when experience caressed them.

When we arrived near the beach, I prepared Mom to jump into the water (as an easier alternative than trying to disembark from the tall, ladder-less boat). To everyone’s surprise, Mom did a perfectly graceful swan dive off the hull, and with hardly a splash, she experienced the cool, endless waters of Lake Tanganyika. The boat was filled with laughter and clapping, and Mom was happy to be at the center of the energy. Her ability to relate with people, chat for long periods, greet everyone, and never become overwhelmed with attention made her a perfect fit in this culture. We all felt it.

Mom’s love for singing and community is also a common thread in our discussions. She showcased this in what she would later call the highlight of her trip. She was invited by a church choir who was filming a music video at Chishimba Falls to be front and center in their production. Check out the video below. The light in her face and happiness in her eyes was apparent to all, and she really shined in her moment in the spotlight. We look forward to finding the music video once it is professionally edited and released. All Mom’s practice in her Sweet Adeline’s singing group and her dreams of professional singing as a child have come true in Zambia. She is now the star of a music video!

Video-music Star!
Video-music Star!
We accompanied Mom to Lusaka, to see her off and make sure that she knew how much love and respect we share. The visit was a good length, and while she was ready to leave, she also had gained a more complete understanding, through experience, of our little world here in Lukupa. She was already talking of returning, and now when we speak on the phone, she is able to picture our kitchen, smell the wood smoke, and feel the love and energy of the place. While we are many miles apart, in many ways, we are more connected now than ever before.

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