After on and off storms chasing my activities at Livingstone, it was an African-blue sky that watched over the hours-long bus ride from Livingstone to Lusaka. Lusaka would not be my destination today though. A tiny dot of a town – nay, a village – called Chisekesi would be my final hop off point. “Are you sure this is where you want to be?”, asked the conductor nervously as the bus stopped and I stood up to climb off.
I assure him – and myself – that I am in good hands, and am left reflecting on the biblical nature of that faith as the bus rumbles off into the distance
“Absolutely”, I replied – my voice not quite betraying the fact that if this was not where I wanted to be, or if Matthew – my jesuit friend from the local mission station – did not come to pick me up, I would be in a most interesting flavour of trouble. The conductor picks up on my tone. “Is someone on their way to collect you?”, he asks. I assure him – and myself – that I am in good hands, and am left reflecting on the biblical nature of that faith as the bus rumbles off into the distance and I cross the baking tar to the petrol station I believe Matthew meant when he gave me directions. It’s the only petrol station in the town and but for a handful of other buildings, almost is the town.
It’s not long before the lone stranger with the big red backpack attracts a welcome from the station attendant. He knows the Chikuni mission – it’s not far from here. I breath a baked-air sigh of relief and, on his offer, stow my pack in the shade of his office while I take a photo to prove the remoteness of this station, the brilliance of the hot day, to anyone who might doubt this story in its inflated future retelling. More attention follows. More conversations. Warm, curious discussions on who I am and why I am here. And would I take a picture of two friends, someone’s baby, a man’s newly-waxed car.
Matthew does arrive, eventually, to take me to the mission. Some kilometers down a potholed dirt road, bouncing through the landscape on the back of the mission pickup – catching up on snatches of each other’s lives. Finding a beginning to discussing almost a decade of different paths since our time in university. A strange, yet beautiful serendipity that paths departed in South Africa so many years ago would go to different ends of the earth and come to connect here, in Zambia, today. I express my gratitude at the mission being willing to look after me for the weekend and entertain my wish to see more of what they do and learn about their work in this small place for more than a century. In truth, I could never have anticipated the kindness and absolute welcoming of their community. My awkwardness at understanding Catholic mass and the work of the Jesuits giving way to slow understanding and awed appreciation at their dedication to doing good in this place, as Matthew tirelessly shows me the senior schools, junior schools, teacher training college, local parish, cultural museum, radio station, home-based care organisation and hospital.
So many different ways in which these people have come to enrich the lives of others, so far from the world of things, of power and pursuit. Their dedication to nurturing the best in everyone’s common humanity given expression in the boundless energy of the twelve-year old who, discovering my video camera, has filled it with faux news reports and dancing of his friends (which I will post when, finally, I return). In the dedication of a senior school filled with learners who manage and clean the school themselves, yet go on to study late into the night – a committment to their educations that I have never seen in my life before. In the skilled radio manager, an orphaned girl who has managed to forge a life so different now as a skilled professional in adulthood.
So many stories of the lives in Chikuni. So many more than would ever fit in a thousand posts and libraries of images. Stories which live beyond those recorded moments and on into the space where people believe and live their lives dedicated to the simple and incomprehensible purpose of making others’ better. Three days of stories which felt like a lifetime. Where that dusty petrol station in that small, hot town, now seems little more than a clever disguise to hide an entire universe from the eyes of the travelers who have no reason to stop, step off, and tell the conductor that this is where they are meant to be.
[dated 23 November, 2009]