Zambia, like many African countries, is a collection of dichotomies. Life and death happens around everyone in quick succession. For many years, particularly in the 80’s and 90’s, people were dying faster than they were living. AIDS struck like a thief in the night, taking both adults and children.
I have been reading a wonderful memoir called Warrior Princess by Princess Kasune Zulu, who grew up in Zambia but now lives in Chicago. She has been a great force in providing help to her people here through a variety of organizations and networking. But as a child and young adult, she was surrounded by the specter of death and dying.
In the short time I have been here, several relatives of teachers and staff have died. Traditionally, the relatives do not change their clothes or bathe until the body is laid to rest, sometimes days later. The “funeral” encompasses all of these days. Also, many travel far distances to attend the final day of this funeral. As a kindness and in the spirit of many small businesses, the Village supports many of these funeral days for staff by providing food and transportation and often, even the burial plot and stone.
At the same time, there have also been several births, most recently a young son to a teacher. Births are not an easy thing here. There are no medications of any kind, the women must bring to the hospital their own blankets, plastic sheeting for the afterbirth, a bucket, large bottle of bleach, and food. The women are discouraged from crying out in pain and therefore, endure much pain in silence, tears flowing freely. Children often go without names for some many days: after all, the child could die.
Today was a different kind of funeral or memorial service, primarily a white one. Kathleen and Benedict (my hosts), were asked to officiate the service for the 95 year old mother of a family friend. It was held outside on the beautiful grounds of Ibis Gardens (a conference center/resort across the road from the Village). The teens who sing on the worship team at the Village of Hope church were invited to participate in the service. There was an odd mash up of people, the Ibis owner and his extended family, the staff, and a few of us from the Village. After the gentle service, lunch was served to all, made in lovely Ibis fashion with traditional foods as well as simple fare. One relative had a rescued monkey whose mother was killed for food, another friend’s pre-teen daughter climbed the tree, many ate their meals on the grass, and still others clustered in small social circles for conversation. Most dressed nicely but casually, and generally sandals were the norm, no matter the age of the person.
There are other examples of life and death. Pets are generally around for service (cats are mousers and dogs are watch-animals). The cats live as they can and eat what they forage. They have kittens: some live and some die. It’s survival of the strong. Chickens roam free and often become a meal. It’s rural and it’s Africa. And that’s just how it is. Life is a challenge. Death is pushed away as long as possible. But there is a toll to be paid.
Hard to know, really, what is a true memory and what is based on an old photograph. I hate that. I hate the fact that my childhood memories are such a blur. I know the reason, I didn’t review them. Somewhere along the line, I must have decided that the memories weren’t valuable. Too late now.
There are a few stand out memories of my father nonetheless. I can remember walking the neighborhood streets with him. Back then, it didn’t really matter where we were going; I liked walking with him. He always wore a hat, a fedora, and carried a cane. I’m not sure he actually needed that cane; I thought he looked distinguished. He always held my hand, although it was rough with calluses, it was a very large hand, a carpenter’s hand, and it completely encircled my own. I felt safe. That is, except for the times I had to stand outside the store and wait. I was never allowed inside that store with the lower half of its windows and door painted jet black. I couldn’t see inside, I couldn’t see if Papa was coming. It was some years later before I realized our walks had a specific destination: the local liquor store.
My father was a drunk, an alcoholic. These are words I learned later in life. Back then, it was a walk and a smell. I have a few cursory images of him arguing with my mother and on a few occasions, he would be unwieldy and unsteady, and my mother would do her best to get him to bed. Considering that he was probably 6 foot and she was only 4’11”, this was no small feat. The worst memory for me is seeing my father passed out in a chair, half naked. It was my first glimpse of a man’s private area and it was frightening. How old could I have been?
Other flashes are of card games with men friends, feeding one of our critters (no, that’s a lie memory, we have a picture of him doing that), reading the Latvian newspaper, and smoking. He smoked everything from pipes to cigarettes; did he smoke cigars? I don’t remember.
The strongest memory of all is the last one I have of him alive. We were visiting him in the hospital, my mother and I (was my brother there?). According to my mother, he had been there a month and although there were days when he was doing very well and was up and about, on this day, he was under an oxygen tent (old school). I was too short to see him from the side of the bed because of the tent, so the nurse pulled out the side table and I stood at the up left corner, near his head. He swiveled his head and looked at me, really looked at me. I cried. He wept. But what did he say? What did he say? What did he say?
A few days later, my brother woke me up to get ready for school. He stood at the foot of my bed, shook my feet and told me to wake up.
“Papa is dead.”
“That’s not funny, Zig.”
“I’m not trying to be funny. Papa died last night. Mami went to the hospital. We have to go to school. get up.”
He was only fourteen. I was nine. And we went to school that day, without a father.
This is one exchange that has already found a home in my fiction, in Swan Children, when the mother dies and the oldest must tell his sister that the mother died. “That’s not funny.”