Carole and I lived in Ukraine for four months in 1997. We lived in an apartment on our own, shopped in the market like everyone else and studied Russian at the medical institute everyday. I remember once talking to a class of students and they said we stood out, even though we had the same color of skin. We asked them what made us stand out and they said that we smiled a lot. Apparently that marked us as foreigners.
Now we live in Zimbabwe and yes, we stand out. Our skin is a different color. Our hair is blond-ish, our eyes are light and we speak with accents, at least the Americans say we do. It won’t matter how long we live in Zimbabwe, we will always stand out. We will always be ‘from away’, like we have been in New Brunswick for the past 20 years. When Lia and Naomi walk to school you can spot them from a mile away. I kind of like that, actually. There are a few white Zimbabweans around Doma, but it feels like we stand out from them too. They have an ease about life there that we don’t have yet. We still get excited about cobras and pythons in the yard, for example.
We are making steps to fit in with the Shona people. We have a school teacher come over twice a week to teach us Shona so that we can speak in their language. That is not an easy thing, let me tell you. And when you do try to say something and they laugh at you, it doesn’t help. It took me getting pretty frustrated until someone told me that they laugh because they are happy that we are trying to use their language. Oh. Good. I know I sound terrible when I speak Shona, and the laughing didn’t exactly encourage me to try harder. Carole and I also work alongside Shona people and are getting to know a lot of people just by working together.
One Friday afternoon I was home with Lia and Nae and we decided to drag some firewood up to our house. A fence was being put up around our group of houses so a line had been cut through the bush and the downed trees were stacked up. So the three of us dragged wood and made a pile by our house and didn’t really think anything of it. It seemed like a natural thing for us to do.
I found out later that the assistant foreman of the building crew, Vengai, had been watching us. I heard through my buddy Guvere, the foreman, that he was shocked to see us hauling wood to our house. Vengai said, ‘They are just like us! Mr Jeff didn’t have the garden boy to get the wood, they did it themselves! They are just like us!’ I cried when Guvere told me about this. At this point we had been in Zimbabwe about 8 months and looking back it is still the highlight of my time there.
I work alongside the men, but I still get called ‘Mr Jeff’ or ‘sir’, even by men older than me. I will have the guys into the house for coffee, but you can tell that they are uncomfortable with it and love it at the same time. It is a strange sort of space to be in. We want to be accepted into life in Doma, but realistically we won’t be. At least on a large scale. But we can be on a macro level. On an individual level.
All of this takes me to something I firmly believe in and want to walk out in my life. It is all about relationship. To me building relationships are everything. I treasure my friendships and my time in Zimbabwe was a time of building new ones that I can’t wait to get back to. It is only through relationships that I feel people have a right to speak into each other’s lives. I wouldn’t want a stranger to try to tell me how to live my life, but if someone I love and trust calls me on something, then I’ll listen. This is my approach to life at Eden. I am making new friends in Africa and they are learning to accept me and my family of foreigners.
I don’t care if I stand out when I’m tearing down the dirt road in Doma on my bike, or my kids stand out walking to school in the morning. What I do care about, is that we are loving people and being loved in return.