As I rolled my bike out of my freshly-mopped house, I heard thunder roll in the distance and wondered if I should nix the biking idea and just try to catch a bus or a hitch. But the sky was still sunny, and I hadn't biked to Mbala since May, always justifying a ride to myself because I (a) needed to look nice upon arrival, (b) was leaving at the end of the day, when dark was falling, so as not to miss a class or other work obligation, (c) hadn't been feeling so hot and thought the ride would be torture, or (d) some other excuse. A hitch can be free; bus transport is K10,000, or $2--easily manageable on a Peace Corps Zambia volunteer's budget. K10,000 will also buy me a box of chalk (100 pieces), or an imported Cadbury bar, or a taxi from the supermarket to the Peace Corps office when I'm in Kasama. So it's a bargain when you consider it can get you 35 kilometers in half an hour; biking takes over two hours and a tremendous amount of energy, despite being on tarmac the entire way. But although I have the option of bus transport, many villagers don't. K10,000 will buy a lot of vegetables--several meals for a family--and a lot of household budgets are tight. Besides, I earn respect when I bike the distance, and the view is spectacular.
So off I went, checking my time: 14:01. The post office closes at 16:00 on Fridays, so beating two hours was my goal. I chomped on a piece of gum and raced away, exhilarated by the mini-adventure ahead of me.
Ten minutes later, my temples throbbed and I was already tired. Darn gum and overzealousness. But I kept going, trying to channel an amazing yoga instructor from the Wilkes County, North Carolina YMCA, who reminded us to soften the muscles around our jaws and eyes (and elsewhere). Passing many houses along the way at the prime time for "tutensy-ing," or sitting around outside chatting, meant the exchange of greetings was non-stop. "Muli uli mukwai!" "Ningo sile!" (“How are you?” “Just fine.”)
After a while, the clouds above-- at first a wildly fascinating horizontal whirl, shifting in a way that reminded me of film camera tricks, like when you zoom in and pull back quickly and simultaneously--began to darken. The hint of thunder became real, and I wondered if I should pull over at a house or roadside shop/shack to wait out the rain that seemed imminent. But there was no rain, yet, and it can go for hours, so I decided it'd be best to get as far as I could and pull off the road when really necessary.
The sky got darker, the wind picked up, the thunder grew regular. But still no rain. I was surprised--it seemed odd--but grateful. I passed Katito, which I generally assume to be the halfway point, and still no rain.
Then the skies opened, and the heavens poured down in all their authority. The drops fell swift and sharp, like pine needles pricking my skin at each contact. "Well," I thought, it was nice while it lasted." Within minutes my tan cargo pants were soaked through. There were no houses in sight. I thought about pulling over under a tree, but the rain was falling so strongly it didn't seem like a tree would provide enough coverage to make a difference. Plus, there was lightning, and standing under a tree seemed unwise. I thought back to my wilderness counselor days--if you see lightning while canoeing, you get out of the water. But I’m not in a river, and the water is still falling all around. Is it safer to stand or to go? My bike is metal, but the tires are rubber, the seat and grips and pedals all plastic or rubber of some sort. It seemed safest to plow ahead.
But the lightning got closer. I tried to remember the old trick to determine distance--count the seconds between lightning and thunder, divide by some obscure figure--I never did really know it. And the thunder was sounding before I saw lightning--wasn't it supposed to be the opposite? But it seemed close. Not flashes in the distance but around me, near. Do I stop? Go? Call my family, just in case? Could I really die here, struck by lightning? I began to pray, fully aware that people do this all the time when they smell death and then promptly forget about it once danger's past. My faith has been malleable lately; some particularities about my religion that once seemed absolute to me no longer do, but I didn't apologize for this. I prayed for safety and basically said, "I hope I've lived a good life," then prayed again for safety, repeating the prayer to St. Michael, which as a child/teenager I often used for comfort and protection, particularly when I was alone and in the dark.
After a time, I saw a cluster of houses and a thatch hut where chibuku, or local maize beer, is sold. I raced into it and embraced the dryness and shelter it provided. A stone's throw away was a cell phone tower, so it seemed as safe a place as any during a thunderstorm--surely lightning would be attracted to it, rather than to me, right? I checked the time--15:20. Easily 2/3 of the way, hopefully more, I guessed.
I waited, shivering. The thatch got me out of the rain, but I was soaked through, and the wind rushed in all around. Twenty minutes, maybe more--the rain let up a bit, then poured down again; the lightning and thunder did not relent. "This is dumb," I thought. "There's two houses right there--one with metal roofing. They're not vacant. Go knock." (Or, rather, call, "Odi"--the greeting that replaces knocking here.)
I locked the bike, grabbed my bag, and ran through the rain. I went to the second building, with a thatch roof, on the porch of which 3 goats were seeking shelter. "Odi," I called, but as the word was uttered I realized that the door was secured with a lock from the outside. At the same time I peered around and saw a woman across from me, at the back door of the metal-roofed house, looking a bit quizzically at the strange, sopping mess that I was. I tried to explain that I had been biking but was caught in the rain, but I fumbled with my words and accidentally substituted inyele, hair, for invula, rain. I asked if I could stand on the porch of the locked house, but she beckoned me around to the front door of the house in which she stood.
I could feel warmth as soon as she opened the door. The house was a typical Zambian one--sparsely furnished but clean. A large bowl of corn kernels sat on the floor next to an antique Singer pedal sewing machine--typical of what you'd find in a seamstress's shop here or a in museum in the States. She offered me a stool; being wet and dirty, I opted to sit on the floor. The walls were hung with a filmy, diaphanous white fabric, presumably to brighten the room since the walls are brown, made of mud smear. Seeing me shiver, the woman closed the metal door and opened a window so that we wouldn't be sitting in complete darkness. We began to chat--the usual conversation about where I'm from, where I live, my job in Peace Corps, yes I know Mambwe--at least, I'm learning, panono panono ("bit by bit"). At times, we just sat. It would have seemed very awkward to me had I observed the scene 8 months ago, but I know now that Zambians often just sit silently. My fifteen-year-old Zambrother will sit for an hour or more, sometimes up in the tree just outside my door, while I cook, read, bathe, or go about business. We often talk, too, but it's comfortable either way. (Except for that one time I threw my cutting board across the room and told him to go away. That was unfortunate. But more on that some other time.)
From the curtain leading into the next room, I saw a small hand stretched out on a rug. "Does this woman have a dead body in her house?" I wondered, half-indulging my imagination for a moment, though knowing that the idea was preposterous--it wasn't a real question so much as a quip I would have made if we had been talking in English. Still shivering, I rubbed my hands together. On the bike I was cold, but moving--quickly. Now, I realized just how wet and cold I really was, despite being sheltered from the wind and rain.
The woman, whose name was Judiss (Judith? Spellings are very malleable here) brought in the brazier, a small metal tray, of sorts, which holds a charcoal fire over which we cook, and the heat was wonderful. My pants began to dry. The child woke but was understandably disturbed by the strange white woman dripping in his house, and soon crawled back into the blanket on the rug, drifting back to sleep.
Other family members came--a woman and a man, one of whom was a child to Judiss, and their baby. A big basket of groundnuts (peanuts) was brought in and we began to ukutongola, or shell them, putting both the shell and nuts (minus those who made it into our mouths) in a sieving basket. Judiss's husband came home, and in the now-filled sitting room, Judiss began telling the others all about me, based on what we'd discussed alone together. She was a regular expert by that point.
The rain and thunder didn't seem to stop, and it was getting late. It had to be at least 17:00. Mbala was still a long distance off, and it could be dark as early as 18:00. Plus, the friend I had been going to see (the plan was to meet her in her village, another 90 minutes' ride north of Mbala, but she had been really sick so she planned instead to meet me in Mbala where we would stay in a guesthouse and where she'd have the comfort, at least, of an indoor toilet) was probably still at home, stranded by the rain. There was no way I'd make it all the way to her now. So I could--if the lightning stopped--just continue in the rain to Mbala. But what might I find? An empty room, at K50,000 ($10--the discounted Peace Corps price at a well-known guesthouse, but still a big fee to shoulder alone), possibly without hot water or electricity, since it cuts out city-wide frequently. Here, I had heat, I was beginning to dry, and I felt comfortable.
We saw, through the now-open door, a few go by on bicycles. I looked out and realized the rain was not nearly as heavy as it sounded by the amplification of the metal roof. I hadn't heard thunder in a while. But by now, darkness would be setting in soon, and the invitation had been extended a few times--more as a statement than an offer--"Mumalala kuno." ("You will sleep here tonight.")
The peanuts shelled, Judiss began to sweep up the detritus that had fallen on the floor. I offered to help, but such was refused. The younger man asked for my key to bring the bike to a more secure spot; Judiss's hat-wearing husband, who'd been drinking chibuku since his arrival home (he even warmed it in a pot--something I'd never seen before) and I moved into the small kitchen/pantry area. Still wet, I changed into a sweater and citenge (an all-purpose 2-meter cloth wrapped as a skirt and worn by all women here), the dampness within lifting as I removed the sodden clothes.
The last-born child (I learned that Judiss had borne eight, six of whom were still living) returned home from her Grade 9 classes an hour's walk away. She was strikingly beautiful and wore tight jeans--I wondered where she had changed out of her uniform. We talked about the mock exams (woefully written, unfortunately) administered at the end of last term as Judiss cooked. I had a moment of worry--"What if it's nshima and kapenta?" Nshima I enjoy and eat with my Zamfam almost daily, but tiny dried-and-fried fish are not my thing. I could manage a few, for politeness, I decided, and I'm not all that hungry. The worry went away. The family composition had changed a bit as the couple with the baby had left to go to their own house a few minutes’ walk away, and the parents of the baby who’d been napping on the rug had arrived, the father drinking some chibuku and giving some to the 2-year-old son, whose name was Future, as well. We kept chatting and enjoying familial comfort and shelter together. Soon, the grade 9 girl came to my side, "Tien--ivyakulya." ("Come for the food.") We ate together, just the two of us, at the table in the sitting room-- one dish full of rice, sweetened with sugar, 2 spoons. It was delicious.
Afterward, we sat again for a time in the kitchen. I had been asked if it would be ok to sleep alongside the daughter in the sitting room. “Anything is fine,” I responded, “thank you.” I knew it was likely I’d sleep directly on the floor, perhaps on a reed mat. The girl brought in a mat and laid it out on the floor. She covered it with a blanket and brought a sheet and two more blankets. She had jerry-rigged a light from batteries and a mix of flashlight pieces, and it was kept going throughout the night—perhaps so that, if I woke, I wouldn’t be afraid. (I was, after all, in a strange house.) I asked to be shown to the icimbusu (outdoor toilet), and I was escorted out with a light, where I ducked in to brush my teeth, use the small hole for its intended purpose, and send a quick text to my friend, explaining my no-show in Mbala. Then we all said goodnight, and the girl and I curled up on the mat, each with a separate, thin wool blanket. She gave me a lumpy sort of pillow, she herself using a sweater or something else for her head.
I don’t remember much thereafter, so I must have been out quickly, though it couldn’t have been much after 20:00. I woke numerous times in the night, as the blanket was thin and the mat hard. Each time, I turned a bit, pulled the blanket taught over my body and head (to shut out the jerry-rigged light and fend off any mosquitoes, since we weren’t sleeping under a net), and quickly fell back asleep.
In the morning, I woke to roosters crowing. I retrieved the scissors that acted as a clasp to secure the back door and went outside to use the icimbusu. It didn’t have a roof and the ground around the hole was spongy. I checked the time; 4:50. It was still dark, so I crawled back under the blanket, but there was no more sleep. After perhaps 30 minutes, I rose and switched back into the pants and shirt I’d warn the day before, now mostly dry, if still dirty. I scrawled a quick note, “Nataizya,” (“thank you”) and my village name and left it, with a few hard candies I had in my bag, on the table. As I went to go, the three in the house woke to escort me out. My bike had been stored in the locked building behind, and it was brought to me. Then, in the early morning air, we bade farewell. I didn’t know their surname; to this day, I don’t. With the moon still high to my left and the sun just breaking over the horizon to my right, I continued to Mbala, arriving in about an hour’s time, and made it to the guest house (my friend had made it there, after all) to meet her.
The trip to Mbala was a bit of a bust. The package from my mother (with sign-language books I need to work with Katito, mentioned in an earlier post of this blog), had not yet arrived; there was only one letter since my last visit a month ago. I couldn’t find a few items I needed, and the big market I’ve yet to visit turned out to be too far to reach and still take the time I wanted to explore properly. I did, of course, get to see my friend, which was worth it. But it turned out that, rather than being an unfortunate inconvenience, my Zambian sleepover in itself was the best part of the experience. I got caught in the rain and slept in the home of complete strangers. What’s more, it felt completely comfortable, natural. We conversed in Mambwe. I understood the norms of Zambian households, so I could predict almost every move they made. And I didn’t fight the reality of limited options. Moreover, I was happy with this option as it presented itself.
Back in the USA, I’ve slept in my car on numerous occasions, generally to make good time on long drives or to save cash when a hotel stay would be only providing a bed, not an intentional getaway (as when I had a flight arriving in Charlotte around 18:00 and another leaving before 9:00 the next day and didn’t see the purpose of driving two hours home just to double back after a few hours’ sleep). In the States, I’ve never gone to a stranger’s house expecting to be accommodated with open arms. I’ve never had to stay in a place where there were no hotels available, where I really had no shelter in the form of a car or empty airport lobby or wherever I spent the night dozing. In most places in the USA, there’s somewhere that you can wait the night out, sitting awake and alone, or where you can sleep for a price. If you don’t have the money, that’s a personal problem; if you get in to New York Port Authority at 2 a.m. and force yourself to stay awake reading at a coffee shop until dawn breaks and you can go on your way, that’s your choice and you’re on your own. That’s the beauty of removing money –and convenience—from the equation. There was no hotel to stay in, and I was caught in an uncomfortable and potentially quite dangerous lightning storm, with impending nightfall. So my choice was to stay with this family or endure the rest of the trip to Mbala. I knew that, they knew that. They welcomed me. It was a beautiful thing.