Banakulu Mpundu

After some weeks of anticipation and preparation, my mother arrived in the Kasama Airport on time and in good spirits. The journey had taken her more than 48 hours, and despite her four-plane, transatlantic journey, she was full of energy and happy to see Claire and me. It was wonderful to receive my mom and welcome her to our home with a long awaited hug – and a needed opportunity for us to connect and for her to share in the joy and friendliness of the Bemba culture.

mom claire me

We arrived at the farm in the afternoon, and showed Mom around. The rains of March and April had painted the landscape countless shades of green, gracing the farm with a lush, tropical feel. Mom really liked the guest house, where she felt instantly at home, and was overjoyed and taken aback by the peaceful, loving energy, the proximity of the cool, crisp Lukupa River, and a warm hug from Kapembwa.

The first few days we hung around the farm, walking the boundary and taking in as much as possible, sharing in the experience of being. Mom had many interesting questions about how we live, with whom we connect, how our daily lives are lived. Luckily, she was able to stay for long enough to get a real feel for what it is like for us to live here in Lukupa. The first week was spent socializing, cooking, gardening, walking, and connecting. Still, I could acutely feel Mom’s hesitation about the place. It was like she knew that if she loved the place and the life we live here, she would have to completely accept that her son lives thousands of miles away, in a different world.

Mom with Banakulu Nsenga, the Matriarch of our village
Mom with Banakulu Insenga, the Matriarch of our village

The first weekend we took Mom to the Chileshes’, so that she could spend time with and meet our Zambian family. There, Mom had “the best chicken of her life”, enjoyed stories and warmth with the Chileshes who honorably called her ‘Banakulu Mpundu’ (the grandmother of twins), and discussed life in Zambia and its contrasts to life in the United States. Amid many questions from the Chileshes about our culture and my Mom’s perspective, we reached a tense moment when discussing the politics of Zambia and the US.

chileshes w mom

Many people here have the misconception that US governmental systems, especially legal and political, are not corrupt and offer equal rights. Most people, including the Chileshes, view their own political systems as riddled with corruption and greed at nearly every level. This ‘grass is greener’ view is typical, and it is not uncommon for Zambians to express what I could term ‘cultural shame’ – the idea that their culture is somehow not adequate when compared to western cultures. That this cultural shame is inexorably linked to missionization and colonialism makes its roots strong, deep, and constantly reinforced – even today.

After listening to Mom explain her perspective, including the idea that things in our country could definitely improve, I felt an opportunity to share my opinion and set straight some misconceptions expressed about the US. Mostly, I interjected that corruption in the US was concentrated at the highest levels of Government, away from the eyes of the public and any hope of accountability. Basically, here in Zambia corruption is tacitly accepted, despite public campaigns denouncing it, in part because such campaigns are planned and implemented by some of those most guilty of sustaining the same practices they are supposedly trying to eliminate. In the US, by contrast, we have simply made corruption and bribery legal, and changed its name to lobbying.

Puppy and Kitten to break the tension
Puppy and Kitten to break the tension

This comment offended my mother, and it may offend some people reading this blog. But the interesting question for me is, “why is such a comment offensive?” Many people criticize the high-level corruption in the US and the Government’s inability to represent its citizens. But sometimes, words can scald like a steaming iron, and the relentless nationalism drilled into our minds as children (remember pledging allegiance to the flag?) create reactions of anger and defensiveness when the “US” is criticized, as if it were a personal attack on our character.

The Chileshes held quiet, and tried to make light of the tension between my mother and I – the Zambian culture is not accustomed to open conflict or direct disagreement. After some time, my mother and I had the opportunity to walk to the fish ponds, and watch the sun set on the dense jungle lining the heart of the marsh at the edge of the Chileshe’s property. She explained that I had no right to make such comments, that I was being unappreciative and disrespectful of the system that had given me so much opportunity, and provided me the education and ability to become the person I am.

This was an interesting and not altogether new point from her perspective. But time away from relentless media and cultural pressure has helped me to introspectively solidify my own truth. I must give credit that the system in which I was raised allowed me the opportunity and socio-economic freedom to become the person I am. However, I mostly see the debt I owe for this opportunity to my family and community, not ‘the system’ at large. I am grateful to my Mom for all that she has done for me, emotionally, educationally, parentally, financially. I told her so. I am grateful to my family and friends in the United States who have offered love and support, and helped me develop as a person. If I haven’t told them before, I’m telling them now. Thus, I owe a great debt to those people, and in many ways it is fair for my Mother to express disappointment that I have, in a manner of speaking, shirked my responsibilities to those people in order to move across the world and live a simpler, and what I see as more meaningful, life.

But the ‘system’ is too abstract to thank. The ‘Government’ does not represent me, despite the painfully ironic name given to those ‘representatives’ who dig into corporate coffers to sustain a whirlwind of delusional consumption and materialism. Thus begins a fundamental hypocrisy and contradiction faced by many who are seeking and questioning. I have benefited as a direct result of a culture whose fundamental concepts of reality and perceptions of what’s important differ strongly from my own. How do I shed the guilt of knowing that I benefit from a consumptive history whose foundations depend upon exploitation and violence? When do I owe thanks and gratitude? When should I speak out about injustice and delusion? Am I being disrespectful and unpatriotic, or am I fulfilling my responsibility as a citizen of a broader, deeper constituency than that of the ‘nation’ in which I was born?

We both knew there was something deeper. My mom began to cry. She was deeply hurt and saddened that I have chosen a life away from her, away from my family, where I am difficult to reach, difficult to see, and difficult to relate with. She mourned her unborn grandchildren, who she feels she may hardly know and who may hardly know her. And she admitted to feeling personally attacked by my harsh words.

Cards with the boys and Nikki
Cards with the boys and Nikki

Growth starts at the roots. We had reached our real point of tension. Being able to express her hesitation and sadness for the path I had chosen, while trying her hardest (as the wonderful mother she is) not to influence, dissuade, or discourage my decision, was a trying task for both of us. It is incredibly hard to see the hurt and sadness that my decision – made in good faith and with good intentions – has created. For her part, my Mom was able to feel my happiness with Claire in this simple, humble existence – where gentle breezes and birds’ songs substitute for pop radio, and gardening and visiting with neighbors around a fire take the place of mind-numbing Television shows. She was able to hear my fears of raising children in a world removed from the wisdom of nature, and the love and heart of the Divine Feminine. We hugged and reconciled, both accepting that the love between us is infinite, though we embrace across worlds.

After that moment, it was like a complete change in the energy between us. Claire noticed it immediately. My mother became more interested, more relaxed, more loving, more inquisitive, and more comfortable. She let herself feel free to fall in love with the gentle, friendly ways of the Bemba people, to flow with the breeze and wake up each morning to be carried by the current of the river, and to share in the love and light we are cultivating each moment here in Lukupa.

Our Lukupa Family
Our Lukupa Family

We took a trip to Mpulungu, to visit a truly pristine place – Luke’s Beach. We spent three days removed from the world, free to find ourselves. Amid Yoga, meditation, cards, conversation, and swimming, my Mom and I deepened our relationship and understanding of one another. With guards down we really heard each other, and she taught me many lessons. At the same time, Mom’s acceptance of our situation, and the openness it helped create, allowed her and Claire to connect on a much deeper and more meaningful level.

I will never forget the boat ride to the beach. Mom boarded the local boat taxi that everyone in Mpulungu uses to travel back-and-forth to their homes. The rickety wooden boat is tall and shaky, and its open hull and thinly spaced wooden cross planks make entering the boat akin to completing an obstacle course. Mom managed to find a seat on a mattress in the middle of the boat. She is an incredibly strong and determined person – so much so that after numerous physical and emotional challenges she is still able to successfully and happily navigate some of Zambia’s more remote locations. With awe and respect, sometimes I forget she is 70 years old!

Mom in her element
Mom in her element

After finding her seat, mom began chatting with the local women on the boat. This is especially significant because they don’t share a common language. Yet her ability to relate with people beyond words, and the universal relation between elders, between women – gained through wisdom and experience – is beyond any language. Soon she was holding a baby, singing to it and comforting it during brief periods of crying. She held the baby the whole ride, and was overjoyed by the freedom and connectedness of the mothers of the boat – all of whom entrust one another to care for their children. ‘It takes a village to raise a child’. These cliché words moved us deeply when experience caressed them.

When we arrived near the beach, I prepared Mom to jump into the water (as an easier alternative than trying to disembark from the tall, ladder-less boat). To everyone’s surprise, Mom did a perfectly graceful swan dive off the hull, and with hardly a splash, she experienced the cool, endless waters of Lake Tanganyika. The boat was filled with laughter and clapping, and Mom was happy to be at the center of the energy. Her ability to relate with people, chat for long periods, greet everyone, and never become overwhelmed with attention made her a perfect fit in this culture. We all felt it.

Mom’s love for singing and community is also a common thread in our discussions. She showcased this in what she would later call the highlight of her trip. She was invited by a church choir who was filming a music video at Chishimba Falls to be front and center in their production. Check out the video below. The light in her face and happiness in her eyes was apparent to all, and she really shined in her moment in the spotlight. We look forward to finding the music video once it is professionally edited and released. All Mom’s practice in her Sweet Adeline’s singing group and her dreams of professional singing as a child have come true in Zambia. She is now the star of a music video!

Video-music Star!
Video-music Star!
We accompanied Mom to Lusaka, to see her off and make sure that she knew how much love and respect we share. The visit was a good length, and while she was ready to leave, she also had gained a more complete understanding, through experience, of our little world here in Lukupa. She was already talking of returning, and now when we speak on the phone, she is able to picture our kitchen, smell the wood smoke, and feel the love and energy of the place. While we are many miles apart, in many ways, we are more connected now than ever before.


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