Most of what I know about Africa comes from the movies, especially “The African Queen” with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, and “Out of Africa” with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford.
Oh, and I gathered many childhood misconceptions from cartoons about “darkest Africa” and the Saturday morning Tarzan movies. It is a sad fact of human nature that unless we unpack these early misconceptions they will stay at the back of our thoughts forever, coloring everything we hear with a stain of unreality.
Americans are generally ignorant about the world, and I am no exception. When my older daughter was invited to go along on a mission trip to Africa this summer, I could not even picture where the country they were traveling to was located. I pictured jungles and mud huts, monkeys in the trees and leopards on the prowl. I pictured darkest Africa.
Zambia, once known as Northern Rhodesia, is in southern Africa, not on either coast but landlocked in the interior not too far north of the nation of South Africa. There is a capital city, Lusaka, with a population of almost a million and a half people. You might have heard of the Zambezi River, which forms the southern border and almost certainly know of Victoria Falls, much higher and wider than our Niagara Falls, named by the explorer David Livingston after the queen of England.
The cities my daughter visited with the mission team were in the north of Zambia, near the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the copper mining region called the Copper belt. Ndola, a city of a half million, and Luanshya, around 120,000, are former outposts of the British empire during the colonial era.
It was summer here, so it was winter south of the Equator when they arrived. It was shirt-sleeve weather — Zambia is mostly high plains — and they were comfortable, we heard via email. (Email communication was spotty. The group passed around a kind of prepaid device that plugged into a laptop and gave them a few minutes of air time.)
My daughter had raised money to buy books for the libraries of the two schools, called Haven of Hope, that the State College Christian Church supports. The two schools, under the direction of a Zambian named John Banda, have around 120 students. Most of the kids are AIDS orphans or have some other kind of challenge. They come from shanty towns on the edges of the cities and poverty is the norm. But they are friendly and happy children nonetheless, she says, and eager to learn.
The first school her group visited was in the Nkwazi compound, the poorest slum in Ndola. As they walked through the streets, kids followed them as they went to visit the homes of some of the students.
The students are supported by sponsors, who pay $35 a month to provide them with clothing, two meals a day, their medical needs and an education. Letters from their sponsors are a big part of the children’s lives. The students at the Ndola school greeted the travelers with poetry, songs and dance. “It was so real,” she said. “People know about Africa, about starving children with AIDS, but there they are, just kids, funny and cute and bad, like other kids.”
In photos I can see the very young African children, more than a world away, eagerly reading the books my daughters read when they were young — “Each Peach Pear Plum,” Dr. Seuss, and others — dozens of children seated on the ground in the schoolyard, with the bright new books in their small hands. Their intent faces shine some light into the darkness of my imagined Africa.
Walt Mills can be reached at email@example.com or at P.O. Box 174, Spring Mills, PA 16875