An African Memory
Flies, in search of moisture, settled on their perspiring heads, infected eyes and cracked lips. I was in the Children’s Nutrition Center in Monze, Zambia and these children were diseased. Each suffered the swollen joints and crusted skin of malnutrition and were admitted in a final, desperate attempt to save them from starving to death. Their mothers held them closely, each woman wearing the African sarong, two yards of patterned cotton wrapped around the torso, descending downwards to leathery ankles, bare callused feet and ugly spread toes.
This was my first trip to Africa. I am one of those people that carries a vague list in my mind of ambitions, passions and dreams, all deferred to some indefinite time and mentally filed under “one day I’ll…”. This visit to my missionary aunt in Zambia was on that list, along with traveling down the Amazon, running a marathon, and learning the tango in Argentina. I arrived in Monze for three weeks with grand illusions of helping, teaching, and making a difference.
The children at the nutrition center who leave will be temporarily nourished, hydrated and vaccinated. No more than one third of them will survive another year. Their mothers will be given bags of maize seeds to grow food. The tragic truth is that half the seeds will not cultivate in the drought conditions of their home villages. Thereafter, half the crop will be stolen before ripening. Whatever remains will be converted into the monotonous corn gruel that is the tasteless staple of the local diet. This is the cycle of despair that is Africa.
The mystique of Africa is utterly depressing at ground level, where statistics become people. Small bloated bellies become young personalities with smiles and affection to share. In these parts, the poorest of the poor expire anonymously and with alarming frequency. The startling bleakness of local reality left me feeling like I had little to contribute. My carefully cultivated white-collar keyboard skills were hopelessly optimistic and utterly useless here. Throughout my first week, I struggled for an adequate response to the plight that surrounded me.
If only I could do something, but what? Give money? Labor? Time?
In my second week, suddenly inspired, I returned to the nutrition center on my own personal mission. A nurse provided the inspiration, telling me that “All many of these women have left is hope for their children and the fading memories of them when they are gone.” The one local merchant that served as a gas station, food shop, butcher, photo processor, tailor and agricultural supply depot supplied the logistical assistance. This was it! Insight and a path forward instantaneously united.
Back I went again, during my final week, to gather the group of mothers and children one last time in the communal kitchen. Shielded from the sun by a large, thatched, sloping roof, we clustered around the raised cooking fire. The humidity, the smoldering charcoal, the tangy body odor, the flies, and the stench of previous meals all intermingled here.
I moved quickly back and forth, pausing, choosing and presenting my gift to each mother. Some looked puzzled, but two had immediately recognized what they were holding. The kitchen suddenly filled with scattered flies and excited chatter. The energized mothers shrieked at each other and their gifts, startling the children from their diseased slumbers. Each cradled her gift carefully, comparing without jealousy. Everyone obviously pleased with their own while inspecting each other’s with genuine admiration.
So many travelers take pictures while so few take the time to give them. That was my gift. I offered photographs to each mother with child, to sustain and share their memories back at their villages.
Paradoxically, it may be I who will never forget them. I vividly recall the arranging of hair, straightening of sarongs, and finally the approval by others as each woman prepared for her portrait. All this was quickly followed in sequence by straightening of shoulders and pride of expression as the shutter clicked. Stripped away in those moments were all my preconceptions of the abject poor, replaced by the realization that dignity is not absent in poverty, just trapped beneath its hard surface.