In the warm heart of Africa, I crossed a concrete bridge linking tarmac to terminal as tropical sunshine blazed away an end of rainy season drizzle. Fronds of palm leaves and trumpets of yellow blooms curled in the warm breeze, and a tiny bird bedecked in scarlet plumes flitted through a patch of lush green.
This continent that birthed the human race so long ago is now home to my niece, Rachel, who works as a researcher for one of the many non-governmental organizations in Lilongwe, Malawi. When she arrived to pick me up at the airport, I greeted her in Chichewa: Moni. Muli Bwanji? I have practiced the simple Hello, how are you? many times on the plane, but these short phrases don’t stay in my travel-soaked brain for long.
Rachel’s long brown hair was twisted up into a ponytail bun, and she moved gracefully as a gazelle as she loaded my bags into a borrowed car. In her, I see my sister’s keen intelligence shine out from a darker version of my own mother’s eyes. But most obvious to me in my niece are her dignified beauty and her distinct laugh, a ha ha reminiscent of all her female relatives. In Africa, Rachel introduces me as her “little mother,” sister of her own mother. For twelve days, the topic of motherhood weaved through our conversations like a golden thread.
The day after I arrived, Rachel and I took a three-hour bus-ride across the border to the town of Chipata, in Zambia, where she worked for several months before going to Malawi. Rachel spoke four languages in one short taxi ride, chatting in Hebrew on her cell phone, speaking English to me, then switching from Malawian Chichewa to the closely related Nyanja dialect. My polyglot niece doesn’t get to practice her French, Spanish, or Russian very often while living and working in Africa. I, however, thanked a Zambian immigration officer by saying Gracias, and I greeted Rachel in the morning as I do my sons at home, in my mother’s Icelandic: Godan daginn allan daginn. It means “good morning, all day,” but Rachel gave me a quizzical look in response.
We hired a shared car to drive us to our two-day safari in Zambia’s South Luangwa Park. Shared cars work like this: you agree to a price before departure to get to your destination. Then along the way, the driver picks up other passengers or cargo as he is able, and makes short detours for drop-offs. Driver profit and efficiency maximized, traveler hurry and seat belt expectations minimized.
Outside one village, a young teen girl and a toddler approached our car. The older girl held a small clacking chicken by its wings and tucked it into the trunk between my suitcase and a bag of rice. After tucking the little one next to me, the older girl perched next to the window, face-forward and intent on the road. She wore a brightly patterned traditional wrap over a pink t-shirt. The toddler looked up at my foreign face in wide-eyed fright over and over, her dark eyes filling with tears. After a several miles, I stopped resisting my maternal instinct and briefly cupped her small head in my palm. She slowly let her head fall to the side in sleep. I wished the petite teen to be her sister, but I knew she was her very young mother, unlikely to be educated, and quite likely to suffer during Zambia’s “hunger season,” a hard time that lands almost every year here before the harvest. Little mother, indeed.
At the Marula Lodge, hippos pop their heads out of the Luangwa river, open their eyes to inhale, then flap their ears before plunking under again. I spend my writing time wishing I could slumber all day like they do under the cool river water, coming up for a quick breath to peek at the world and then swim-doze the day away. Mesmerized by the adorable ear-flapping, I can’t look away. My laptop goes into sleep mode. At this point in the trip, I am the dependent one, following my niece around like a baby duck to mooch off of her WiFi hot spot and translation skills. Rachel makes me coffee and cooks me oatmeal before she opens her computer and starts running data sets for her project–actually working–as I gaze at the fast-flowing river.
Rachel and I join an evening safari drive. We bounce along a track in the lush game reserve, sighting grazing zebras and an enormous pond ornamented from end to end with snow-white water lilies. A small herd of elephants enjoying dinner become annoyed by the stink of our guide’s Land Rover. Matriarch and child use their ears as protest flags, first the mother, then the imitating baby waving their ears in synchronized tempo before ambling away to snack a different set of shrubs. I surprise myself by wanting to cry. The elephants are so wild and intelligent, so distinctly and fiercely familial.
As the sun skimmed the horizon, our small group stood by the river bank in red-gold light as yet more hippos snorted laughter and growled yawns in picture-postcard poses. For two years, during one of her father’s diplomatic postings, Rachel and her family lived in Zimbabwe. On a camping trip in Africa, when she was four, the young adventurer resisted her parents’ rule not to explore outside their family’s tent, where hyenas roamed.
My parents visited Rachel’s family in Harare during the grace-filled years of my mother’s sobriety, when both of my parents were healthy and eager for adventure. Rachel tells me, I remember Amma playing the pumpkin pie game with me every night. I had pajamas with a pumpkin pattern printed on them, and Amma had those long sparkly fingernails. She would pretend to scoop out pumpkin from my pj’s, then mash it into a pie and bake it. Rachel was enthralled by this game. My mother tapped the “pie” into a pretend oven to bake, then they giggled together about their pumpkin pie feast. As a young version of my mother’s laugh echoed around us, I tasted the sweetness of their time together.