Every time I come to Zambia, I have one selfish goal in mind: I am always hopeful for just a few moments to share with my little friend, Eva, who I met in 2009. Eva and I met by a chance encounter, she was one of so many children in Mulenga, curious about a group of white people gathering at the school. She was peeking around the corner of a wall just as I caught her eye, I reached out to her and she climbed into my arms for the day and into my life forever. We spent a whole day together that day with only one word being spoken from her lips: "Eva". It was enough to cement our friendship and we spent a lot of time together on that first trip. When I know I am returning to Zambia, I get very nervous thinking about seeing her, wondering how she is, knowing how vulnerable she and her little family are in the community. I'm afraid to think she will be moved away or sick or gone when I come back. I have to be honest and say that the little time I get to spend with Eva each time I come, is worth every penny I spend to get to her. Thankfully, so very thankfully, I did get to spend time with my dear friend, Eva, in Mulenga this week. It was such a beautiful time and I felt very fortunate to have had the chance once again to have a place in her life.
Mid-morning, I was sitting in the school in Mulenga, having been there all morning teaching kids and helping with lessons. Easton and Aidan were put to work by the teachers as well, correcting work and consulting on lessons. It was so fun. The school room is one open room but the classes were divided by age into four classes, each seated to face an opposite direction. The eldest kids, and smallest group, were nearest the door, the smallest kids faced one wall, the middle kids another and yet another group faced a blackboard towards the centre. The benches and desks were filled and small children wandered in and out of the room as well. The class I was teaching was practicing their handwriting, copying the letter "R" over and over in their books, sharing pencils and erasers amongst themselves. I scanned the room for my friend, Eva, who would normally be in with this age group. I asked Olantah whether she was sick or had stopped attending and she wasn't sure. Immanuel, who normally teaches this group, told me that she was going to another school. I assumed that that meant she had gone to another community but the girls told me she was still around and that her elder sister, Natasha, would be at the care point at noon. Moments later, through a crack in the wall, slid a photo of Eva and I together that I had given to her mother, Dorothea. I looked through the window and there was Dorothea, holding her littlest son, Calebo, who she had been pregnant with on my last visit. I went outside and she greeted me with a huge hug and smile. I met Calebo for the first time and asked after Joshua and Eva. She told me that Eva finished school at 14:00 or two o'clock. We were due to leave Mulenga just after noon, so I was disappointed thinking I would not have time to see her. I chatted with Dorothea and was happy to hear that she and the children were doing fairly well. The kids were still part of the care point and so received meals at Elizabeth's home daily. I told her that I left a parcel for her at Elizabeth's and she was excited to see the latest photos, including one I had taken of her and Joshua and Eva on my last visit. We parted ways but it was so great to see her smiling and looking so well and happy. I know that her life is very difficult and that as a mother now of four children, it is going to be difficult for a long time, but it was good to hear her encouraged and hopeful and happy.
A few hours later, at the feeding point, Immanuel asked Natasha if she could take us to Eva. I wasn't sure there was time but Blessings and Towela were more than happy to accommodate my request - they kept telling me to make the most of my time in Mulenga as they know how I love the care workers and kids in this community. So, with Easton in tow, we followed Natasha up to a local preschool and Immanuel introduced us to the teacher there who went and got Eva out of class. Immanuel remarked that Eva was always quiet and that even in class, she was sitting alone with her arms crossed in her lap, away from other kids. Eva is always on the periphery of what is taking place...although she loves to play, she's often so quiet that she goes unnoticed. Even at home, Natasha tells us that Eva is the quiet one. True to form, Eva peeks out the door to see why she is being summoned and then walks quietly over to me and takes my hand. I ask if she remembers me and she says she does. She is looking at Easton and I introduce them, Easton taking her hand and shaking it and saying "Mwashpukani". I kneel beside her and chat with her but her answers come mostly with a lift of the eyebrows or a quiet "Emkwai" of agreement. She has grown a lot and I notice her new teeth. She smiles a little but mostly she just holds my hand and listens to me. After too few minutes, I ask Easton to take our photo and she gives her sweet little half smile. I take a photo of her and Easton together and she is still. When I say goodbye, she hugs me hard and I kiss her head and that has to be enough for me to walk away with for many months or more. She stands with her teacher and waves goodbye and then watches us walk away with Natasha. Once again, I hope that all I say to her will remain with her while we are apart and be enough to remind her that she is loved and missed and prayed for by me, even while we are so far apart. Towela reminds me that although she is quiet, that our visit will be all she talks about at home for days to come. I know her mother will remind her that she has someone who loves them in Canada. I have to learn to trust that distance and absence won't erase our friendship in her mind or mine, that we will remain friends over the year and visits to come.