Dust billows into the shafts of dry, sub-Saharan light that fall rigidly through the windows onto the uneven detritus of a mornings work. Fair skin is stained red with the russet-coloured mist expelled from the crumbling walls, peppering my hair and obscuring the beige of old trousers, now paint-stained and covered with several days’ worth of grime. It takes more than a second glance to be convinced that I am actually on holiday.
I’m in Magurumeno village, Zambia. Two days ago, I was on my first safari, skimming down the Zambezi in open Canadian style canoes mere metres from the grey, wrinkled bulk of a wild elephant. But now we’re back to work, helping to renovate two classrooms that constitute a village school. Throat sandpaper dry,
I pause to sip from my water bottle, and step outside into the barren patch of stony dirt which serves as the playground.
It’s even hotter outside, a fierce unrelenting heat that is hard to escape on the dusty paths of the small village, even under the shade of an infrequent acacia tree. As I step out, a shoal of children corral and whirl around my legs, curious and wary in equal measures. I wave and smile – it’s possible not to – and one of the older girls, dressed in a pink gypsy skirts two sizes too big for her, steps forward with a sassiness that translates into any language, and says something I don’t understand.
“I’m sorry?” I ask, British to the core.
She squirms and her friends giggle. Her little brother stares at me with undisguised shock. White skin is rare around here.
In a fit of boldness which surprises her as much as me, she throws a small blue ball at me. It doesn’t take long for an
impromptu game to develop. In a flash of pedagogical brilliance, I attempt to teach them how to say ‘throw’ and ‘catch’. Her grasp of English is far from fluent, as the first time I ask, “Can you say catch?” she responds with a polite, “Yes, I’m fine” – but they pick up any variation on the game instantly. And soon they are flooding into the classroom with rudimentary tools, basically sticks, to help with our work inside, prepping the walls ready for the plasterer.
Four children are milling around my ankles as I scrape flaking old paint from the walls, exposing the bricks. Over the crinkling and dry snaps of the paint, I hear the hiss of their whispers form a now familiar word: muzungu. The fluff of clouds had barely been skimmed off the wings of the hulking Boeing 767 before we heard it for the first time from our guide, informing us that we’d hear it regularly over the next 11 days in Zambia.
Muzungu means white person, and for the two schools we visited – Kampasa, in one of the poorest areas of the capital Lusaka, and Magurumeno, a rural community on the banks of the Zambezi – pale, in places sunburnt, skin is borderline incomprehensible. I glance down at them, an action which scatters them in a salvo of delighted, embarrassed giggles to different sides of the classroom.
I think I’m doing well at making friends at this point. But nothing prepares me for what I hear next: a small chorus of pre-pubescent voices who have learnt a new word that has proven much more exciting than ‘catch’.
“Josh!” they cry, bouncing on the balls of their feet and swinging around the empty doorframe. “Joshi!” the young ones squeak, “Jossssshhhh” the boys hiss and carouse – all trying out the strange new name on their lips. Josh, one of the volunteers, looking pleased but a bit abashed, waves back. Nobody has even been so excited to learn his name before. “Josh!” they squeal delightedly as poor, unprepared Josh tries to take his newfound fame in his stride. Their yells echo behind us as we finish up the days’ work and meander down to the banks of the Zambezi, where more hippos, crocs, elephants and eagles await.