Learning the Art of Reconciliation from Rwanda

As I descended the steps on a rainy afternoon, my mind was flooded with countless overwhelming emotions. It was the day after Easter, and I was entering the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda. We had arrived in Rwanda two days earlier for an African Regional Conference and had spent the day before celebrating the resurrection of Christ with an energetic Rwandan congregation. The change of tone between the two days was extremely jarring. I tried to prepare myself beforehand but experiencing the memorial was not something that I could prepare for. At the memorial, there were feelings of pain, healing, guilt, and a million other emotions. Adding to it was the fact that we were there during the time of remembrance, the anniversary of the 100-day time period that the genocide took place. So there I was, walking around in that context, amidst people paying respect to loved ones, trying not get overwhelmed. I did the only thing I could do at the time. I saved all my thoughts and feelings, held them in for a few days, and then processed them when I felt ready to do so.

At the memorial, there was a genocide museum that depicted events and the experiences of individuals. We heard stories of people whose neighbors, friends, and even some family members had turned against them, resulting in the deaths of loved ones. We heard about people that fled to churches to find sanctuary and instead found what a Rwandan minister we talked to referred to as “a slaughter house.” We heard about bodies being dumped all over the country, making identifying all the bodies impossible. It is also hard to identify everyone because there were cases where entire families were completely killed off, so there wasn’t anyone that could identify them. At the memorial site in Kigali, over 250,000 thousand are buried but only 40,000 have been identified. In total, at the end of the 100-day time period, around 1 million Rwandans were killed.

The genocide left the country in a tremendous amount of pain, with many long lasting effects. One of the survivors said that she is incapable of trusting anyone anymore and I can’t blame her. We also heard about perpetrators that have guilt, and many of them may keep that guilt for their entire lives. Many children became orphaned and had to grow up without their families. This massive pain in the country needed a response. It was decided that, for healing to occur, reconciliation had to happen.

The concept of reconciliation and forgiveness is a difficult one for me to process. Maybe it’s because I don’t like to open up to people about my feelings and to forgive you need to admit that you’ve been hurt, often to the one that hurt you. That often brings up the event and all of the pain involved with it, and I’d much rather move past it and bury everything. I understand that my way of handling pain is not healthy, and I’m working on changing it. So, with my own personal feelings on forgiveness out in the open, I find it incredible to see the amount of forgiveness that has happened here.

One place where reconciliation is happening is with the Presbyterian Church in Rwanda (EPR.) After the genocide, the EPR had, like many churches in Rwanda, a complicated history with the genocide. They had lost 16 reverends and many church members. There were also reverends that betrayed their church members and were involved in their executions. The EPR, and most churches in Rwanda, where not the same church before 1994. After a few changes to the church leadership, the EPR started the process of reconciliation. First, they recognized the need to reconcile with itself. In 1996, the EPR made a public confession of complacency and involvement with the genocide. They are one of the only local church governments in Rwanda that has confessed to its involvement and they did that in 1996.

They also decided that speaking words wasn’t enough. Some of the programs they did included shelters for widows, scholarship funds for orphans, restoration of the Theological Seminary in Butare (which was completely destroyed), creating dialogue between the new leadership of the church and those that were exiled to the DRC, and the construction of memorial sites at two churches that lost a significant amount of church members. Reconciliation through the church is not finalized and it might not be. It is a process that will take time, but it will prevent this sort of tragedy in the future.

Another example of forgiveness and reconciliation here in Rwanda is The Light Group. The Light Group is a 45-member group containing 17 survivors and 28 perpetrators. The ground work for them was laid in 2007, when perpetrators were starting to be released from jail for their crimes. Pastor Jerome started to train elders and church members to be peace keepers with the intention of trying to help resolve conflict in the community and church. To further the reconciliation, they decided to create a peace keeping group of both perpetrators and survivors. As you can imagine, this concept is one that has taken years to fruition and there is still opposition to the idea of it. The group does a variety of activities together. They go to different events telling their testimonies, visit each others’ houses, and take turns tilling each others’ land. We had the opportunity to meet with three members of The Light Group. Two of them are survivors and one of them is a convicted perpetrator that spent years in jail for his crimes for murder.

The first survivor that we talked to lost her husband, most of her children, and her house in the genocide. On top of the great pain and sadness during that time, there was also great uncertainty. She told us that it was a long journey because she was alone, and she didn’t know if one of her children was alive or not. She told us that she prayed and remained near to God. In the aftermath, the government gave them shelters but their conditions were extremely challenging. She eventually received the peace keepers training. She talks about how this was the most important thing she has received in the aftermath, even more so than the government shelters. She told us that she forgives the perpetrator because God forgives us all, but that didn’t make it easy. She described the act of a survivor going into the house of a perpetrator, knowing what they did and often who they did it to, as Gods miracle. She then dropped a bomb shell on us and said that the man sitting next to her actively participated in the murder of members of her family. Now years later, they are go to each other’s parties and speak at events together. She says that she has hope. She sees it in her three surviving children, that are all married with children, and she sees it from The Light Group.

The perpetrator began his talk by telling us that he participated in the genocide. He accepts these things, because he did them openly. He then stated, “as long as I’m alive, I continue to ask God to forgive me and to forgive all Rwandans.” While in jail, the prisoners didn’t think that they would be released from jail or if they did, they thought they would be released into the forest. They thought that they would live in the forest like animals because they did not see themselves as human beings anymore.  They were shocked when they found out that they would be allowed to return to their community. He told us that the church made the process easier and helped in ways that they might not have had otherwise. In the culture, it is accepted as the norm to keep secrets from the rest of the world, but the light group is about being very open about a shameful event in their lives. He said that it has changed him. He is now married, not only to a Tutsi, but to a member of the first woman’s family. He says that inter-marriages, like his, are the vision of a united Rwanda.

The last survivor showed us how difficult the process is and how events that happened 23 years ago can still feel like they happened yesterday. She lost all of her children, including a baby of 2 months. She told us that she has not yet arrived at healing, but she is on the way there through the group. Her brief time of sharing was extremely impactful, since it was one of the most visible examples of the continued pain that is still experienced daily by so many survivors.

The whole experience has given me a lot to reflect on and I’m sure that I will still be reflecting on it for years. I think the impact it had on me is best exemplified by this blog. I have been struggling to write a blog for over three months and, immediately after experiencing Rwanda, I felt a strong tug on my heart to unload and share. I think one thing that Rwanda has taught me is the price of staying silent about my life and feelings. It is something that I struggle with but with their example, and maybe a little help from you all, I think I can start to change my ways. I’d like to end with a phrase told to us about the genocide. I think it can be applied to all of our lives about the things we don’t want to share to the world. The Reverend Dr. Pascal Bataringaya said that the genocide needs to be talked about because “forgetting means silence and death. [The phrase] ‘never again’ will have no meaning.”


The Interview

During my time in Zambia, I have had the opportunity to teach English and math to grades three, four, and five. I am not a teacher, I have never been a teacher, and I don’t plan on being a teacher someday. So why am I doing this? What could I possibly bring to the table to help these wonderful students further their education? How can I, a man that has never been to college, be anywhere near qualified to help these kids?  How can I do more good than harm? I don’t have the answers but I ask myself these questions often. While I think that there are people more qualified than me, I have moments where I feel like I am in the right place. When I first started writing this, I had been teaching for about two months. I thought that was enough time to reflect on where I was and what I was doing when my computer ate over half of my finished blog post. I decided to wait awhile before I attempted to finish this blog post again. That became a challenge because I have not been in the same optimistic mood that I was in when I first wrote this post. I’ve been going over my options, since the end of November, on how to move forward with this post. Should I try to finish the post as if my current feelings don’t exist and pretend to be overly optimistic? Should I completely rewrite this post in a way that accurately portrays my current feelings? Should I just drop this post altogether? I didn’t want to give up on the post, because the post is about my favorite experience here in Zambia, but I didn’t know if I could convey my feelings about it honestly anymore. Well, I awoke this morning and I had the idea to mix my original thoughts with my new feelings. My hope is that you can see how mixed my thoughts and feelings have become. If you want to play a fun game, you can try to guess where the original post ends and the new one begins.

I spend two hours a day with my grade five students. The class was a class of five students, but due to financial reasons, we now have only four. They are four very active boys ranging from age eleven to age thirteen. Over the past two months we have covered shapes and basic geometry in math class, we have worked out of the English book (which leaves me with questions about how much English is actually able to be taught from that particular book), and we have read a children’s version of Treasure Island. The boys really enjoyed Treasure Island and that excites me. You see, the children at the school have a varied level of English comprehension and reading capabilities. The contributing factors include; which schools they have been to before, their ability to maintain regular attendance, and if the child has any learning difficulties. This means that many of the children have a hard time reading and don’t have the desire to learn how to read.

When I started reading Treasure Island to them earlier this month, the boys soaked-up every detail. They loved the character Billy Bones and the songs he sings. They were concerned for Jim Hawkins when Israel Hands was chasing him on the Hispaniola. They booed when (SPOILERS) Long John Silver got away at the end (END SPOILERS). When we finished the book they were disappointed when I told them that the next book would not be read until the following school term in January. I think that the small selection of children’s classics might be the way to get them excited about learning to read. Since finishing Treasure Island, I have seen one boy in particular have a change of heart about reading. I’m not going to write his name here in my post, or include his photo, because I only have the child’s permission and not his parents’.  The boy really wanted me to talk about him to people in America because he said that he “wants people to know that I am here”. That being said, I don’t want to constantly refer to him as him, my student, or the pupil, so I’m going to refer to him as Daniel.

One day, right before lunch, Daniel came to my desk and asked, “John, can I interview you?” I had no idea that this was going to happen and I was caught a little off guard. The only interviews I have ever had were job interviews and I don’t think of myself as someone that deserves to be interviewed otherwise. I said yes, but only on two conditions. The first was that we wait until lunch and the second was that I could ask him questions as well. He agreed and he waited patiently. When lunchtime came around, we both took out our food and started the interview. It is important to note that when he saw that all I brought was a sandwich and an apple, he wanted me to have his food. Of course I said no, but I think this shows his personality well. I’m going to include part of the interview but there is another important thing I want you to know about it first. Daniel has a really hard time reading and writing so between each answer I gave, I would spell out my answer to him.

Daniel: What is your whole name?

John: John Stuart Black

Daniel: How old are you?

John: 23, but I turn 24 at the end of the month.

Daniel: Where are you from?

John: The United States.

Daniel: And which state?

John: California.

Daniel: What is your favorite food?

John: My family makes a special Mac & Cheese that I love. What is your favorite food?

Daniel: Not macaroni and cheese. I don’t like cheese; it makes me sick. I like chicken.

John: I understand why you don’t like it.

Daniel: How many brothers and sisters do you have?

John: I have one brother and no sisters.

Daniel: You only have one brother? What is his name?

John: William.

Daniel: When do you leave Zambia?

John: Not until July.

Daniel: Good.

This went on for quite some time. He asked questions about America, my family, and my likes and my dislikes. After a while I asked him a question that had been on my mind for the entire interview.

John: Can I ask you a question?

Daniel: Yes.

John: Why are you interviewing me?

Daniel: I want to remember you.

That sentence broke me and it was really hard to continue the interview. The way he answered the question confirmed that he was writing it for himself. The significance of this is that Daniel can’t read most words that are longer than a few letters long. This meant that he was writing it for a future version of himself that could read. It meant that a kid that really struggles with English sees it as something he will conquer. What he said also hit me hard because I have some self-image issues. I don’t think of myself as someone that should be remembered so to hear Daniel say that he not only wants to remember me but that he is going to do so by learning a skill that is challenging to him really shook me.

I still don’t think that I’m the most qualified person to teach these kids. I struggle daily with issues that a trained teacher would be able to handle with ease. With that being said, maybe I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. It has now been months since I started writing this post, and a lot has changed. I now teach math, English, science, and Creative Technology Studies to grades three and four. This means the grade five boys, which are now in grade six, no longer are a part of my daily teaching schedule. I still see them at school and I interact with them almost daily. Another one of the boys I taught comes into my class daily to ask me questions. He has been curious about space recently and wants to learn more about the planets. He asked me about Mars on Thursday and Neptune on Friday. I’ve been able to pull up pictures and facts about the planets for him and he is really fascinated by it. Additionally, Daniel has been asking me questions as well. I’ve been thinking about offering a reading club during part of lunch. I had the idea because the grade six boys have been curious about the book we are reading in class. The book is a children’s version of Moby Dick. Despite the fact that it is a children’s version, there are parts of it that are hard for me to read to my Zambian class. The phrase “savage” has been used to describe many characters, which is true to the original, but the phrase only is used to describe nonwhite characters. I’m seeing a book that I’ve read before through a completely new set of eyes.

I’m getting off topic and need to wrap-up this blog post. I know that even if I don’t help these students significantly in their education, I’m still impacting their lives. I have to remember that fact going forward so I can be mindful of the memories that I’m leaving them. I also have to remember to enjoy the way these kids are changing me.

Johan Soko and the Lost Blog Post

The Search for the Lost Blog post begins, like many grand epics, with a legend passed down from long ago. Many moons ago, a Young Adult Volunteer had the idea to write a blog post about a specific aspect of his Zambia experience. He worked on it rather quickly and finished before the Zambian Day of Independence. Then Independence Day came and added a new layer to the blog post. This YAV, historians refer to him as Johan, tried to weave in this new journey into the now fabled blog post. Time went by and the blog remained unposted. Many people made inquiries about its whereabouts, but they all received the same response from Johan, “I’ll post it soon.” As many new thoughts and experiences began to add to the mind of this YAV, our hero realized the need to post this rumored story, so that these new tales would not become lost as well.

He went one day with his laptop to a public Wi-Fi location, where he intended to reveal the blog, when tragedy struck. As he was about to move the blog from the document where it was housed, a massive boulder came rolling towards our brave protagonist! Seeing the incoming doom, Johan did the only logical thing that he could do, he put the blog back in its document, and ran away. When he returned to the safety of home, Johan reflected about why he couldn’t post the legendary transcript. He thought about the specifics of the blog that remained so close to him, but yet so far from the rest of the world.

The specifics of the blog are unimportant but to continue further along you need to have a vague glimpse of the blog titled, Let’s Talk About Race. Johan had the idea to talk about what it is like being a minority for the first time in his life. The blog also included the topics of white privilege, hospitality, and a rather blunt political message about how America needs to work on race relations. Johan realized that even though these topics still matter to him, the way he was using the topics was rather forced. It was at that moment that Johan realized what the metaphorical boulder chasing him was, it was a crushing fear that he was manipulating his experience in Zambia into something it wasn’t.

I came to Zambia with one primary purpose in mind, to find a purpose for myself. I didn’t come here to create a soapbox for myself to stand on and manipulate some of the facts of my experience to get my politics across. In the now infamous post, that remains covered in dust in the archives of my computer, I had kept some details of my experience out to better get my point across. Even though I really wanted to add my thoughts to the internet, before the divisive election, I knew that I would only be sharing partial truths. I knew that even if my views were valid, expressing them in that now infamous blog post would poison my intentions. I knew if I posted it, I would no longer be the protagonist of this tale, but a minor villain.

It’s like Watchmen, either the movie or the comic (by the way if you have never read Watchmen and enjoy dark crime noirs with superhero flair, read it now). I won’t spoil the ending, but the villain makes some dark decisions for the survival of the human race. It leaves the reader asking if the outcome justifies the means to achieve it. Right now, the United States is in a very vulnerable place. Since the election people have spray painted swastikas on a playground with the president elects name next to it, the president elect is tweeting out messages that seemingly are telling people to stop using their first amendment rights, millions are scared that changes are coming that will target them for just existing, and millions are celebrating because they feel a positive change for them is coming. In such a time as this, it is important to express our opinions to the world around us, but we can’t betray our values to do so.

If we are not completely truthful, to ourselves and others, then we are just adding to the chaos that is happening around us. I’m not saying that now is the time to be quiet, but instead it is time to choose each word with extreme precision. It is time to stand up for what you believe, as long as that belief does not discriminate against others, because it’s not a guarantee that someone else will speak up for you. Right now, there is a lot of hurt on both sides of the US that will take time and effort to repair.

To wrap this up, it was not the time to share that blog. Maybe, after more time and editing, parts of it will make their way out of the ancient archive, where they now reside. If they do resurface, Johan Soko, the daring and dashing archeologist, will make sure that they will be seen with all of the facts available. See, the Indiana Jones style was leading somewhere! I promise that I will speak up when it is needed, and I promise to not alter the truth for my own purpose. If I stoop to the level of sharing untrue information for my own gain, then I am just contributing to the problem. So as I leave you now, while pulling my fallen hat through the other side of the closing door, I just want to wish y’all the strength to stand up for what you believe.

Smoke and Hot Milk

The following post was written two weeks ago. Due to poor internet connection and availability I am just posting it now. I have another post that is finished and I will post it in about a week. 

While I don’t believe that our past experiences define us, I do think the past can alter how we see a situation. Like all people, I have a history with both positive and negative experiences. Growing up on a mountain has made my nose sensitive to the smell of smoke. As a kid and a teenager, I had to evacuate my house due to forest fires several times. In 2007, the smell of smoke and the effects of fires became a reality when my house burned in a forest fire. It has been about nine years since that incident, but the aftermath is still present. I have a mild phobia of fire and my nose is hyper sensitive to the smell of smoke. What does any of this have to do with living in Zambia? In Zambia, there are fires burning all the time. They are used for burning trash, clearing weeds, and other various purposes. I have been here for over a month and I am still having a hard time fighting what my nose tells me is the smell of danger, the smell of loss, and the smell of pain. I know that my past does have merit in this response, but I also know that I am in a safe situation. I think, for this year to truly be an effective one, I need to learn how to move past the past without forgetting it.

On Wednesday, I moved in with my host family. The Soko family has been extremely welcoming to me. I was given a room to call my own and enjoyed a delicious lunch with the rest of the family. In the afternoon, we went to a grocery store to buy the ingredients for dinner. I made macaroni and cheese. Cooking becomes interesting when you have to plan your meals around planned power outages. After we lost power, we transferred all of the food to a charcoal burner. Luckily, by that time, the mac and chees was finished but we still had chicken and potatoes to finish. All in all, I think the dinner turned out just fine.

The next day, I had to return to immigration to continue the quest for a long-term visa, but alas, the quest is still in progress. I will return to immigration at some point next week. Due to this side adventure, I had to wait a day to visit my new school. On Friday, I finally saw my school in action and was given information about what I will be doing. I will be teaching English, Math, and RIE (a religion class) to grades two, three, and four. I will also be teaching social studies to fourth grade. My fellow teachers were extremely helpful in getting me settled in and making sure I have the proper curriculum. The curriculum was different than what I have experienced previously. The approach starts with a little bit of instruction followed by copying down questions that I have written down on the chalkboard. I then go around and check every students’ answers. I’m going to see how to work both with the curriculum and with what works best for the students.

Besides meeting my coworkers, I also had the opportunity to meet the students. The kids have introductory phrase that they say every time they greet someone. They stand and say, “Good morning sir. How are you?” I then respond to their question and ask them how they are doing. Their response is, “Fine, thank you.” Then I let them know that they can be seated. I’m not sure if I will be able to change this morning greeting to something more informal yet or if we can come up with a more informal name for them to greet me yet. They have been told to call me either teacher John, teacher Johan, Sir John, or Sir Johan. Whether we come up with a new name or not, it was great to see that the children were very respectful and kind. The whole visit was very encouraging for me because I no longer feel like I’m going into this situation blind.

Back at the house, we prepared another meal without electricity. I made some mashed potatoes and fish. I found out that on Sunday I’m going to learn how to make nshima! Nshima is made from maize and is formed into balls. You then shape it in your hand and use it to pick up the other food that is on you plate. The next day, I was able to sleep in for the first time this week and it was as great as it sounds. Then at breakfast, I discovered another cultural difference, hot milk. I said that I was going to have some cereal for breakfast and some milk was heated up on the stove top for me. I’ve never had hot milk in my cereal and I explained that I normally have cold milk with it. This was one of many instances where both sides were able to observe similarities and differences between our two cultures. A similar moment happened when my host mother discovered that I don’t drink tea with sugar or milk. She then tried it my way but said that she preferred it best with sugar and milk.

I am extremely excited to experience more hot milk experiences. In those instances, we are able to learn together through our similarities and differences; we are essentially all the same. Even if we all have different history, what we have in common are the same needs, emotions, and desires. This year, I plan on soaking up all of these exchanges so I can learn the difference between the smell of smoke and smell of hot milk; only then can I truly stop the past from interfering with my decisions. I will finally be able to see things for how they are instead of my jaded ideals of how they should be.



Young African Volunteers

I’ve spent the last five days trying to start this blog post. Every time, I would get stuck after the first sentence and then erase it. Why was the first sentence so important to me? In the end, the exact words used to start off my tale in the village doesn’t truly matter but, for some reason, I knew it needed to be just right. I realized it was because I was trying to tell about my time accurately, respectfully, and without judgement. I think doing it without judgement is the most important part but also the most challenging thing to do. Throughout my four days in the village, I struggled and, at times, failed to keep my own biases separated from the experience. I know that I’m in no place to judge anyone, especially a culture that I’m just beginning to experience. As I continue to write these blogs, I ask that you also take in what I post with an open and judgement free mind.

We arrived to the village of Chimwangombe on Tuesday morning. We were greeted at a prayer house and were introduced to some of the congregation as YAVs. They then told us that for the next four days YAV no longer meant Young Adult Volunteers but instead it meant Young African Villagers. The reasoning behind this was that, during our stay there, we were supposed to live the life of a villager. We then drove to where the Sakala family lived.

When we arrived, I quickly discovered that I was going to have a different experience than the other YAVs because of my gender. We were invited inside the main house and I was offered the largest stool there and, throughout our time there, if I ever sat on something else people would give the big stool. My fellow YAVs were to sit on a mat during our stay. On that first day, we were given our first of three live chickens and we were expected to kill it. Well, the other YAVs were expected to kill it because women kill the chickens. For the rest of the day, I sat with the rest of the men while the other YAVs did the daily chores with the women. Their responsibilities included cooking meals, collecting fire wood, sweeping, doing repairs on the house, and many more. It was hard for me to watch them work that hard while I had to sit there. I’m a helper by nature and I was put in to a situation where I couldn’t help. I knew that I could speed things up or make some of the task easier on someone else. That entire aspect of the village experience was extremely challenging for me.

The next day, we walked to get water. Now when I say that I mean that all the women carried water while I just walked with them. The trek was somewhere between three to five kilometers and the water source was a pond. We were told that each day the women and children would get water twice a day in order to get their daily supply of water. When we got back, I finally got to do some work: cutting down trees. I was excited to finally do some work and I have some experience with cutting down trees back home. The main difference however is I’m used to having a chainsaw and we used axes. My accuracy was way off but we cut down a few trees in about fifteen minutes. Then we stopped. I thought that it was going to take hours but that was not the plan. For the most part, that was the only work that I was allowed to do all week.

During our time, I had a chance to listen to both the men and the women of the village. The men told me details about how they used the natural resources around them in order to be self-sustaining. From the women, through the help of our cultural interpreter Mabuchi, we learned the facts of being a woman in the village. We heard about many things, including accounts of forced marriages due to pregnancy, girls that had to quit school because their husbands didn’t want them to attract the attention of other men, and that, if a woman refuses to work, she may either be chased from the village or she won’t eat. The significance of either happening is her children won’t eat either. It is the selfless love that these women have for their children that keeps them there and going strong. The more we learned about these women, the more respect and admiration I had for them.

We also got an opportunity to visit a community school, which was exciting because I will be working at a community school this year. The children had to walk many kilometers to make their way to the school. If you add the distance that they have to walk, several of them without shoes, with the fact that they aren’t feed at school and this trek becomes an impressive feat. We did a few activities with them, including math, singing, dancing, net ball, and football (soccer for my American readers). The excitement and energy level was reassuring to witness. Was the school perfect? No, but what school is. For many of the kids, school was a chance to truly do something that they enjoyed doing. I really needed the school experience on several levels. I’m not a teacher. Yet, that is what I will be doing this year and that has been mildly stressful. What if I do more harm to the students’ education than I help? At the school I had no major issues while helping with the math assignment. I also felt comfortable leading songs with my ukulele. The entire school experience renewed confidence in myself that I can do this.

As I look at my time in the village a few things come to mind. First, the fact that I’m going to be pushed by experiences that’ll contradict my point of view. Second, it’s not my place to state my point of view on how things should be. Third, even through the hardships I’ll have this year, life will find a way to surprise me with moments of peace and joy.

Meet Johan Soko

After we landed in Lusaka, we were greeted by a welcoming party from the CCAP (Church of Central Africa, Presbyterian).  From there we went to the local seminary, where we will be spending the first few weeks, before we move in with our host families. The ride from the airport was the first time I have been in a car driving on the left side of the road, which is something I’m still trying to adjust to. After we moved into our temporary living quarters, we went out to get cell phones and dongles. We were quickly introduced to the Kwacha, which is the currency used in Zambia. During the drive around town we were given little bits of information about life in Zambia. We talked about the elections that had just taken place, where we could find different goods in the city, and other useful bits of information. After we came back to the house, we had a traditional Zambian meal of Nshima and vegetables. Nshima is made from maize and is formed into balls. You then shape it in your hand and use it to pick up the other foods on you plate.


Over the next several days we did more exploring of Lusaka. We went to a few malls to get a few things we had forgotten and some food as well. By day two I was feeling comfortable with using Kwacha. I however wasn’t used to the time difference. From California to Zambia there is a nine-hour time difference and coming to Zambia was my first international flight. It has been a few days and I’m still a little jet lagged. I think my only saving grace is that I spent a week in New York before flying out here, which means I only needed to adjust for a six-hour time change. We used Thursday as a chance to really recover from being jet lagged by not leaving the campus at all. It was nice to slow down for a day and absorb our new home at a slower pace.


Then on Friday we were given a chance to use the minibus. It’s hard to describe because it is unlike most modes of public transit I have been on. The buses will stop at different unscheduled stops along a route on their way to bus stops and eventually town. In town you can change buses to get to a different route. The topic of mini buses is a perfect time to talk about a delicate subject for me, my size. As most of you know by now I’m not a small person and that hasn’t gone unnoticed. On the mini bus they try to put as many people in it as possible. You can see, as evident by the photo below, that I take up a lot more space on the mini bus than the average Zambian. I’ve also been told that if you are overweight you are considered to be rich. The concept is if you have enough money for an abundance of food then you must have more money than the average person. So that on top of the fact that I’m a muzungo (a white person), I really draw attention when I go places. I am really uncomfortable when I draw extra attention to myself, so this has been a little uncomfortable for me. With all that said I think it is important that I am uncomfortable. Too often we have the tendency to live life wanting it all for ourselves without considering implications that it has on the outside world.


On Saturday we met our host families for the first time. It was both exciting and terrifying. These wonderful people have offered up a room in their house so an American, that they have never meet, can join both their community and their family. What if I didn’t live up to their expectations? When I was introduced to my host family they started to talk about their new son, Johan Soko. It took me a hot minute to realize that they were referring to me! Johan is easier to say and more common than John. This was when I truly realized that I was part of the family. When my host parents were saying that they have nine daughters and two sons, I was one of the two sons. After all the families had gathered we went to Kalimba Farms, a crocodile farm. The members of my family that were present were my host parents, 2 granddaughters, a niece and a nephew. The niece and nephew have lived with them ever since their parents passed away years ago. It was great to see the children watch the reptiles. Beyond crocodiles they also had many different snakes and a chameleon. After lunch we did a round of mini golf which was fun because it was a new experience for them. It was really reassuring to see how accepting the family was to me and they put any concerns that I had to rest.


On Sunday we went to worship with my new congregation. There was a women’s retreat there that weekend and communion was also that Sunday. Even though I could not understand most of the worship because of language differences , I could feel the weight of every word spoken. The joy and excitement level of the service was also something that I’m not use to. After five hours of worship we went home and had our first afternoon of rest. There was so much to absorb and still much more to come. On Tuesday we left to spend three nights in a village but that deserves its own blog post.



I’m Not Prepared

When I landed at Newark last Monday for a week of orientation I was excited. I knew that I was going to be spending a week at Stony Point Conference Center and I would be meeting most of the other YAV’s for this year. I was told that we would have time to go into New York City but I was not given specifics. All in all, there was a lot of uncertainty about the week. If only I had really known how eye opening the orientation would be.

I arrived at Stony Point at around 7:30 P.M. with a traveling group that I had met at the airport. We arrived right as worship was beginning and had missed dinner. Luckily the YAV staff is wonderful and had saved some food for us. Jumping into worship wasn’t difficult because of the week of discernment in April in Little Rock. Having been at the discernment event also let me meet several of the YAV’s early. There was a sentiment spoken during worship that really stood out to me, “you are not needed”. After worship, we spent the rest of the evening getting to know each other and conversing

Tuesday and Wednesday were especially intense as we spent a large amount of the time talking about racism and the lenses with which we view the world. We had an in-depth conversation about the privilege that many of us at orientation have and being mindful as we go into communities with different perspectives than what we are accustomed to. We then had the opportunity to go to New York to bring home everything we had been discussing. This was the first time I had ever been to NYC and I had wanted to do a few things that I had thought of as part of the essential New York experience. Instead, we went to different parts of the city walking through the neighborhoods, giving us a chance to get a small glance of the lives of the people living there.

My group went to Jamaica Queens, armed with only five dollars each for lunch. As we were walking on Hillside Street we were truly able to see the impact that we had just by walking through the neighborhood. People were getting out of our way as we were traveling through their neighborhood, which was giving me a real uneasy feeling. We then walked a few blocks down to Jamaica Street, and what a difference in atmosphere. Jamaica Street is in the process of becoming a travel hub due to its proximity to the JFK Airport. This has had some drastic changes in the community as this has given a reason for chains of restaurants and shops to move into the area, as opposed to Hillside which still consist of mostly small businesses. You can tell by the building that apartments and local businesses has been swept aside for the new developments.

Having seen the impact that I had on this community I started to truly realize what my impact on my new community might be. One of the main focuses of the YAV program is to live in an intentional community, but what does that really mean? How do I come into this new community with fresh eyes and the desire to learn as opposed to impose the cultural tendencies that I have devolved over a lifetime of soaking it all in? That was the moment that I realized that I just am not ready for this year, but that was one of the points. I came into this program with so many thoughts about what I have the opportunity do here that I didn’t truly think about what this year would do to me. Here I am only a week in and yet I’ve already challenged myself on a fundamental level.


As I sit here writing this, my mind is still going a million miles an hour with all of the possibilities this year has in store. I am currently writing this sitting in the back of an airplane during a fifteen-hour flight to South Africa before I take another plane to Zambia. I am not ready for this year and that is okay, in fact, I think it would be a bigger issue if I was ready. So ready or not, here I come!


I have since landed in Zambia. I want to spend some time to truly take in the country before I post my next blog. What that means is my next post will probably be up in a week. Thank you to everyone for your support and prayers,

John Black