Open post

A Pile of Dirt – one childhood in a Failed State

I keep thinking about my childhood in Zambia. Images of sunshine in the clouds, beautiful tall trees, huge ants on the flagstone, red ants under the avocado tree bark, the squabbling chickens, our three huge dogs, those turtles after the rain, dry lightening storms, and yes, a pile of dirt that arrived every spring and was dumped by the fence. True, there were no screen-entertainment options – not even T.V. The one-channel state media came on at 5:00 p.m. every evening; once a week my brother and I could watch an hour of Sesame Street or I recall seeing “Gilligan’s Island” (but maybe that’s made-up), before the news came on. 

Zambia in the late 60s – early 70s was a “failing colonial state”. It was a time for reinvention and remorse, a time to come together or to blame one another. It was a time for religion to open its many hearts or splinter us. We could either reinvent our destinies or leave. My family tried to reinvent itself and then we left. We were not missionaries or teachers or bankers or escapees from South Africa. We were Zambian. Our hopes for Zambia were as great as the sunrise on the Zambezi river. Our home was a place of much mirth, many gatherings, conversations about a “new politics”, and the door was always open, no “warning calls” needed. We had pool parties every Sunday.  ANYONE was welcome – ethnic backgrounds were irrelevant, friendship was not.

We kids knew how to play – mostly because adults were busy with this new world. We built forts in the bushes, houses in the bamboo, and played-out stories in the enormous strawberry patch. Our dogs were fellow-characters. There was much ado about nothing. 

But, that pile of dirt was one of my favorite places to play alone. I climbed it and stood on top, feeling the breeze and seeking out the little girl who lived next door. I told stories to myself and molded them in the soft, pliable, (manure) soil. I ran down and lay in the grass, gazing at the story-clouds. Apparently, I was there all day. And by the end of a day, I was so stinky that a full-force hose was turned on me before someone threw me into the tub. 

I did not feel my parents’ insecurities very often. Their worlds were exploding. Once a thief broke in to our house and I remember us sitting down all together with the police the next morning. I heard that the robber had actually crept to my parents’ bedside tables to look for jewelry and money. I think I slipped away through the side door to find that centipede I’d been playing with the day before. And, I remember my father talking about how difficult it was to get his trucks across the country (he ran THE moving & storage company for Central Africa). Thieves were pillaging and attacking the trucks and their drivers. I remember that we had to get an armed guard. I did not know why.

I don’t remember that my dad was gone for several weeks, seeking a new home for us somewhere in the world. I don’t remember that my parents and all our cousins disagreed about where we should emigrate. I don’t remember how the last day arrived. When it did, I felt the grief. But, I felt no fear. We were on an adventure. Together.