Tag Archive: Zambia

“Is that smoke,” I asked, pointing to the cloudy billows on the horizon as we headed toward Livingstone.  “No,” I was told, “it’s the mist from Victoria Falls.” In Tonga, one of the local languages here in Zambia,  the name for the falls is Mosi-O-Tunya, which means “the smoke that thunders.”  Now, as we approached from a distance, I could see why.  The falls are amazing and grand. The smoke appears first, from out on the highway before you even get to Livingstone.  Then, as you approach the gateway to the falls, you hear the force of water, a thunderous whooshing that is too strong to be taken for wind. As you walk toward the sound  you see and feel the spray, and then, suddenly, or so it seems, an immense wall of sheer gushing water.  The water force is so strong that the thick showers of water falls and rises with a bounce, with droplets breaking off and defying gravity, so that it feels like it is raining from above and below at the same time.

The rushing water, cool mists and sunny skies had me dizzy with delight.  Soon I was hoping for a rainbow, and I was not disappointed.  In fact, it seemed as if every time I asked,  the universe indulged me with colors of reassurance. So many rainbows on demand couldn’t be a coincidence!  Eventually I had to accept that miracles are ordinary and everywhere.  If you are looking. And if you remember to ask for them.

Our stay in Zambia was short, yet we had seen and learned so much.  I had wanted to see the falls, to put my toe in if I could, and now we were here.  Water in abundance,  rushing like thunder, cold sprays, powerful currents that can sweep you away.  The gift of color.  Again and again.

Hiking just above the falls we came to the still headwaters. It seemed impossible to me that I could stand so close the edge without being swallowed.  In spite of the kinetic frenzy just a few hundred feet away, the headwaters were a quiet pond.  There was so much more underneath the still current, and, I knew, so much more below the surface of this country, Zambia.

On the long ride to the Falls I had insisted that our friend and guide, Ali Sad, teach me a Zambian song.  It is an absurdly short visit, I reasoned, there will be no evidence that I was here at all if I don’t at least learn a song.  He taught me the following song/chant which is often sung when people gather.

    Nchale wo wau, nchale chi wau tu,

    Nchale wo wau, Nchale chi wau tu.

It means, loosely translated, “Everything is good.  It should be like this.”  And then it repeats, so there is no mistaking about anything, “Everything is good. It should be like this.”

Zambia — just a toe in….

“You cannot save what you do not love, and you cannot love what you do not know.”

Aldo Leopold said that, or something close, and I think of it as I enter Zambia’s Mosi y Tuna National Park to experience my first safari game drive.   It is  6:30 am, and it is cold. I am wearing a coat, I am under a blanket, and the jeep’s windows are all shut.  As Jason Paltzer, who is driving, tells us about an encounter he had with an aggressive elephant in this very park,  I am both disappointed and comforted by all the layers between me and the animals that we hope to see …. After a few moments, the grimy pane compels me. I open the window, leaving only air between me and wild nature.

Soon we see an impala.  It looks fragile, knowing.  It freezes, but then, at the sound of a camera shutter, it runs.  Its effortless gait reminds me of the way my daughter Kristen runs.  I love the impala for a moment, and then move on.  Next up is a warthog, awkward and muscular.  There is nothing beautiful to recommend this animal, yet we are taking photos and saying his butt bounce is cute. If we can love the warthog as he is, maybe there is hope for us?  We slow down for some guinea fowl who walk in the road in front of our jeep, seemingly unaware of us.  For some reason completely at odds with ornithological precision, I am reminded of Flannery O’Connor and how she loved her pea hens, and saw a map of the world in their plumage.

Next I am struck by the eyes of the giraffe, plaintive and loving, not unlike my golden retriever at home.  Then the zebras amaze me.  They are all perfect specimens, as if a doting zookeeper has been following them around. Their stripes are so contrary to any idea of camouflage. They don’t want to hide.  Instead, they are designed to find each other,  for the purpose of solidarity and survival. Their stripes also cause them to blend into each other, which makes life safer for the young and vulnerable. They have no natural predators in this park.  They pretty much thrive in peace.

I am the first to spot the crocodile.  He is underwater, but I see his long slender nose.  In the face of this fast, sharp-toothed endangered species, loving wild things becomes complicated… He is the reason we cannot swim in the river. I want life for this crocodile, yet the idea of his extinction provokes a whisper of relief in me that I cannot deny.

Baboons are a nuisance, we have been told. A few weeks ago one of them actually fought a tourist for a candy bar (or something), knocking him to his death, near Victoria Falls.  Now several baboons are prowling around our truck.  I am uneasy, and avoid looking them in the eye, afraid I will accidentally send the wrong message.  Then we see one in a tree — likely a female, she has a baby in her arms.  Slowing down for that we see another, also with a baby in her arms.  Once I know how to look, I see that the tree is full of mother and baby baboons, as if it is a scheduled play group!  This incredible act of social organization fills me with awe.  I decide to defend the baboon from now on.  It seems they are judged unfairly.

After an hour or so we arrive at the far end of the park where we can get out and stretch before we head back. There are some guards and another car nearby.   I wish I could walk alone for a bit.  I wish that the cars, and my friends, and even the strip of road that we rode along, were gone.  I would linger here, trust the peace, and accept the occasional predation– which seems to be the price of this particular kind of beauty.  I would live from truce to truce like the animals, abiding by their cautious rules of engagement.  Would I be able to freeze and run and fight at the right times, I wonder? ….  I stand under a tree for a bit, then explore a little ways in each direction, but I don’t stray too far from my tribe.

As I get back in the car I realize that there are things that I will never do–like hang glide, or swim with crocodiles, or walk alone in the wild.

I am 35,000 feet in the air, moving at 550 miles per hour toward Lusaka, Zambia. It is -47 degrees Farenheit outside. Although I have been travelling for 27 hours, it is only now, on this final 9 hour leg of the trip, that I begin to seriously contemplate the freefall that is possible from here.  During the first 4 legs of the journey I had been distracted by a missed flight, several reroutes, 2 “flying pills,” and 4 compensatory glasses of wine. But now that I have procured the desired place in the air, I am hit with the realization that I am seriously and dangerously far from everything I know and love.

The other passengers seem nonchalant, even confident, completely unaware of how helpless and absurdly unfit for life we are up here. None of us could withstand the cold temperatures at this altitude for more than 30 seconds, we could not breathe without the pressurized cabin, and there is only enough food and water for a day or two. We are physically incapable of getting ourselves home, both in terms of physical endurance and temporal feasibility. None of us would know the way home anyway.

I am so far away from my children! This thought makes the vertigo the most profound. I try to put down what I feel in my veins, turning my attention to the numbing mechanical buzz of the plane. But the mental and emotional clarity lingers. This trip which I have chosen, not just once but as a regular part of my life, is completely contrary to the instinctual logic, be it maternal, human or animal, that is hard wired  into me. Better to measure things in time than distance, I reason. It is only 10 days. They go to camp for a week in the summer…Going 7000 miles away to a landlocked country in Africa is sort of like that, isn’t it?

I have never been to Zambia, but as I watch the locator arrow move across the map of Africa I am comforted by the idea of getting there. Right now I am in an unnamed space between Cairo, Addis Ababa and Johannesburg. The Lybian Desert and Darfur Mountains are labeled, but other than that I cannot say where I am with much precision. Zambia, a landlocked country the size of Texas,  is still 2500 miles away.  Formerly Northern Rhodesia, the culture is a blend of Bantu and European influence.  It is one of the poorest countries in the world, per capita income is about $1000/year, life expectancy is 41 year of age,the  infant mortality rate is 119/1000 and the maternal mortality rate is 591/100,000.  The economy is showing hopeful signs of growth, with copper and agricultural as principal sources of livelihoods.  Zambia is home to 13 million people, and 3 or 4 of those people are expecting my arrival. I am going to work with a variety of health and social service programs, and visit a village where my colleague Jason worked and lived for two years. I hope to see a hippo and avoid altercations with baboons, and I am going to stand in the mist of Victoria Falls.

I know I will be able to fall asleep soon, and the flight is beginning to feel normal.  I realize that the noplace between places is always like this. God makes a flash appearance, reminding me that this space, so many miles above everything, is something sacred, to be savored. I am the same distance from everything, and from here the world is interconnected and whole. I will try to enjoy how large and small the world is. I will trust sleep and time to take me where I am going, and home again.