It had been a more productive day than Chelsi had anticipated. She had spent the whole day amending the tops of her garden beds, having finally finished removing all the jungle grass, and was on schedule to start planting New Year’s Eve. In addition to having the garden finished by the first of the year, she wanted the birdhouse to be completed, roofed and placed on its stand two yards from the ground, before she went back in to town the first week of the New Year. She was really feeling the pressure of the self-imposed deadlines doing all the work on her own, until this morning when Menace, the 9th grader from down the road, arrived to start building the stand for her bird house. He had mentioned the previous day he would come to help, but this was common among Zambians; to make promises that they had no intention of keeping. And while Menace displayed this trait sometimes, more often than not he stuck to his word, much to Chelsi’s satisfaction.
“It’s looking good!” Chelsi shouted over the tall grass between the edge of her compound and cleared bit of turf where Menace was burying the support columns. She could just see him starting to stand up as his head peeked over the grass.
“Yeah, it’s looking nice.” Even in the low light of the end day his face glistened with sweat. He began making his way out of the grass and on to the clear bits of Chelsi’s compound.
“I want to have the bird house up there by New Year. Do you think we can make that happen?”
Chelsi waited a few moments but there was no response. Not uncommon, Chelsi often wondered if Zambians had trouble detecting questions in English since half the time she would have to continue prodding and still no response would come. So she tried a different question to get the conversation going, “how does the garden look?”
“Mmhm,” he started, surveying over the fenced in area just beside Chelsi’s house. “It looks nice.”
Chelsi turned round and started in to her house saying something about when he might be able to come back and help finish when he cleared his throat and spoke up,
“Ba Chels,” she stopped and turned. “Do you have any books?”
As rule Chelsi did not give out anything for nothing. And she had gotten really good at saying no without it upsetting the reset of her day.
‘Give me bicycle pump; help me with candles; give me your chitenge; help me with fertilizer and a shovel.’
‘No, no, no, and definitely not.’ She would hear the word give and no was out of her mouth often before they could finish. A generation of hand-outs via foreign aid had conditioned people to ask the nearest white person first, before trying to acquire something on their own. Not to mention ‘you broke my last bicycle pump; you already take the half burned ones I forget on the porch; you’re already wearing a chitenge; I’ve been teaching about fertilizer alternatives and can’t afford a shovel for myself!’ But Menace’s request made her stop.
First she noticed that it was polite; a character of speech markedly absent from common kiikaonde and so rarely making it into the lexicon of even the best English speakers in her village. Second, he was dependable, regularly coming to help her in the yard and next to never asked for anything in return. She could remember him asking for a pen once.
“I don’t really have a lot of books right now,” the truth, since she did the bulk of her reading via ebooks through her cell phone.
“It can be anything.” His voice was insistent.
“Alright, let me look to see what I have.” She disappeared inside the house.
The book self was in the bedroom. She had to click on the light to see it. He’s going in to the 10th grade, she thought. Love in the time of cholera, she had not read it yet but from the naked woman on the book jacket she knew it would not be Zambian culture appropriate. Jane Austin’s Persuasion sat next to a termite eat copy of the Return of the King; no, no and no. She hesitantly reached for Special Edition issue of Time magazine, American History 1776 to 1900 in pictures, but they had flipped through it briefly once before together and he had told her to put it away because it was too depressing. Other than that all she had was a small stack of picture books she had found in a box at the Prov house back in May. She thought maybe she would read one or two a month at the community school, but it just had not worked out yet. One in particular caught her eye just then. He had said anything. She plucked it from the shelf and quickly flicked her thumb over the pages.
She clicked off the light and rejoined Menace on her unfinished porch outside. “Okay, try this,” she said passing him the book.
“Whales and other Sea Creatures,” he slowly sounded out the words.
“Is that okay? It’s about fish and whales. All I have right now are picture books.” Though now that she hear him stammer through the title, she felt these would be perfect after all.
“No, it good,” he said through a big approving smile. “What is the biggest fish?”
Without even thinking about it, Chelsi launch herself into a lecture about the differences between bony and non-bony fishes. And it was not until she was reaching out to take the book, to look for a picture of the whale shark, which she figured she would surely find between its pages, that she stopped. “Wait a second. You take the book home, read it, then come back and tell me what the biggest fish is.”
Menace laughed, “Okay.”
“Give yourself a couple of days, come back Tuesday or Wednesday. We’ll work on the bird house a little bit more and we can talk about the book. And if you do well, I’ll exchange it for a different one.”
“Tukamonaangana,” she bid him farewell for the night.
This is good, she thought to herself, now back inside her house starting to prepare dinner. She had been several weeks into community entry, some six months ago now, when she had first begun to understand the impact books had had on her life. She remembered that day: some of the younger boys in her family spent that afternoon swinging axes randomly at trees, cutting a lot of the smaller ones down. She had asked her host brother-in-law what they were doing, ‘playing with the trees,’ had been his response. In her bewilderment she thought to herself, What? Cutting, playing with trees? That’s not playing. Why don’t they do something constructive? Why don’t they… why don’t they what? Read a book, was her natural answer. But as soon as she thought that it filtered into her consciousness that nearly all of them would be illiterate. And even if the older ones could read some kiikoande, local language were very few and far between. Not to mention, expensive. For Chelsi, reading had been the platform on which she developed an imagination, expanded her understanding of the world and wiled way countless hours of 7th grade math class. Her host bothers, most of her villagers, would have none of that. Once becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer, it doesn’t take long for most people to cut their lofty goals of ‘changing the world’ down to size and Chelsi had come knowing she could find satisfaction in make a difference in just a few people’s lives. And this is it.