Maggie Johnston is part of the Birmingham DIG community. She is the director of Camp McDowell Environmental Program and joined DIG on this year’s Donor Trip to Zambia.
As a young child, I would thumb through my father’s National Geographic magazines and dream of Africa. Can you relate?
Wild giraffes, lions, zebras, elephants wandering across the plains. Half clad, dark skinned African people using primitive tools to make a living from the land. I have grown up in a world of plenty and with good health. Blessed, many would say. On my first journey to Africa, with the DIG team, I was also blessed. This was no typical tourist trip. Let me tell you a story of my perceptions of Africa.
Our journey began as we, five strangers, met in the New York airport. Some of my family considered me a bit crazy to set out on such a trip. Not the first time they have wondered that about me, I bet! The trip consisted of three DIG staff, Sarah, Cat and Noah, all three amazing and energetic folks, out to help make the worlds a better place, and four “donors”, David, Eric, Art and me.
Arriving in Lusaka, the capital city, the next day, sweet Sarah Koch met us and whisked us away to the small community of Kafue, just an hour away. First impressions included…
- Warm, loving people who embraced us as friends and helpers.
- Children, lots of children. Many with dirty hands, faces, runny noses AND BIG SMILES!
- Cleaner than I expected… compared to my travels in Haiti and Central America.
- Dirt streets. One narrow busy highway between towns and cities, filled with cars, trucks, bikes and wildlife.
- Nshima at meals. Nshima is maize (corn) meal and water, stirred vigorously toward the end of cooking to produce a thick, white staple of the Zambian diet much like our grits
One magical part of the journey was getting to experience the Zambian culture personally. The DIG gardens in Zambia are planted near clinics for HIV positive mothers. What a marvelous idea. Provide healthy foods and an income for moms to help them stay healthy and strong for their children, as well as to feed the children. We visitors, were invited into the homes and gardens of these ladies.
Janet, a grandmother raising her grandchildren, led us down a winding well-worn path through head high bush grasses to visit her home and garden. She is also a seamstress and offered to make me a skirt from the vibrant African cloth they all wore. I am going to be wearing it to my next DIG event. Janet is kneeling front and center in the picture below.
Sheila, also a grandmother, took me to the market where we purchased fresh fish and vegetables. We then went to her mud-sided home where I learned how to cook over an outdoor charcoal burner and how to prepare their staple dish nshima. When we sat on her floor to eat, she laughed as she watched me struggle learning how to grab the hot nshima and knead it in one hand to create the utensil they use to eat all food. No spoons or forks here!
Although life is tougher than we are accustomed to, there is lots of laughter and singing. Children and young men play soccer (football) in any open area. Most of the “balls” are old rubber tires tied together with string and wire. But, Boy, you should see them handle those balls down the field in their bare feet! Then our little troop had the exact opposite extreme of the African experience…a Robin Pope Safari. We flew into the South Luangwa National Park and were greeted at our safari camp by a hostess with cold damp towels on a silver tray. These camps host only 12 guests at a time, so the staff outnumbers the guests in most cases. We stayed in plush lodging on the banks of the Luangwa River, where hippos grunted all day and foraged around your lodge at night. Crocodiles were sunning on the banks. A wonderful river to gaze upon, but not inviting us in for a skinny dip! At dawn, or just before, African drums woke us and called us to an outside breakfast watching the sunrise over the river. Then we were off on an early morning game drive in open air Land Cruisers.
We watched the wildlife I had dreamed of in their natural habitat in the bush of Africa. Impala and puku were too numerous to count and became common place. Zebra and elephants were often spotted. Three huge, adult male lions roared back and forth to each other as we sat in the truck listening and watching. They found each other and lay down to sleep much as kittens in a litter would do, spooning and turning in unison. We had just spotted out first giraffe and everyone was leaning forward with binoculars, when we noticed a beautiful little picnic spread under shade trees… director’s chairs in a circle, people grilling meats over an open fire, a cloth covered table filled with cocktails and treats. My first thought was, oh my, we are interfering with someone’s nice picnic. Then we all seemed to realize about the same time that it was all for us! We ate our delicious lunch while a giraffe grazed the tree tops across an open field from us. There were magical memories made daily. The passion for creating a better world that the DIG staff share. The new friends who are now more like family. Children like Bestina, whom I wanted to adopt and bring home. Thank you DIG for what you are doing in Africa and for allowing me to share just a brief moment with you.