As the day’s hot unforgiving sun fades into the maize fields on the horizon in Siambele Village, a cool respite takes over the farm and I walk into the chikuta. The mud bricks in the worn and well-used kitchen are blackened from years of open wood fires that have been keeping 18 people fed, washed and warm. The grass thatch roof has seen better days; patches of new thatch are scattered in random spots, shoved into the old grass wherever there was a leak. A large pot of water is on the roaring fire, waiting to boil in preparation for that night’s meal.
I take my spot next to the fire perched on my small, wooden wobbly 8 inch stool. Carved especially for me and my large American bottom, it’s the newest by many years and one of the few that aren’t broken. As I watch through the large open window of the chikuta, the sun’s remaining light completely disappears from the horizon. Bamaama comes in and the baby is quickly plopped into my waiting lap.
Rushing in and out of the chikuta, the entire family is focused on finishing chores before nightfall envelopes the farm. Everyone is chattering, the eldest sister yelling at the younger siblings to ensure everything is completed and in order for tomorrow’s work. The older sisters are washing the toddlers, dirty and dusty from a day roaming, exploring and playing on their own. The boys are still running around with their sling shots, hoping to shoot bats with small pebbles. Bamamaa is completing her business with the neighbors, hoping to sell the last of her spare vegetables. Batataa is sitting outside the chikuta, trying to get reception on his short wave radio that has a broken antenna.
I sit with the baby, enjoying the hustle and bustle. A sister comes in with clean clothes and hands them to me, it’s my job to dress the baby. I complete my task while the toddlers trickle in, shiny and clean from their baths. As I check the pot on the fire, I let the sisters know that it is boiling and ready for mealie meal to be added. Every night, we eat the same thing, nshima, a hard boiled ground maize concoction. All carbs, it’s not meant to taste appetizing, it’s meant to fill you up so you don’t feel hungry. But if you have nshima, you are lucky. After a tough harvest, most in the village only have small, plain, boiled sweet potatoes to eat.
As the family settles in from a long busy day, Bamaama, the girls, me and the toddlers sit inside the chikuta. Bataata and the brothers sit outside. The larger portion of food is divided up and served to them, a strong signal to the entire family that boys are worth more than girls, even though girls outnumber them 3 to 1. I get served next, since I’m the American guest they have been tasked with taking care of. I always ensure that I take only a small bit of vegetables so that the others have plenty to fill their empty bellies. We eat and chat about our day in a combination of English and Chitonga, the local language that only 1 million people in the world speak.
We all finish and our empty plates are collected and placed into a large bucket that is then placed in the rafters of the chikuta. It’s too dark, so the dishes will be cleaned in the morning. The solar lantern that my grandparents brought on a recent trip is brought out and turned on. Some of the girls have school work that they need to work on. I’m lucky that, even though the boys are deemed more important, my Bataata has ensured that all of the girls go to school to get an education. He sees the power of being educated, especially in a rural community, and Bamaama ensures the funds are there to make it a reality each school year.
Bataata and the boys come in, so we can all discuss our day together and finish with a family prayer. We pray for our health, the harvest, our school work and even my family in America. I’m not a religious person, but I’ve come to enjoy this ritual. Despite all our of differences, in this moment, we all become people, just trying to survive this tough, challenging world. We retire to our own houses, quickly fall asleep and wake up to another day that will end the same way as all the previous days.