(Originally published in Christian Courier, Dec 2015)
For many years, author Jill Kandel barely even talked to close friends about the years she and her husband spent in Zambia on a placement with a Dutch agricultural organization aimed at fighting hunger.
“I moved to Kalabo when I was 26 years old. Nothing but a black-soil prairie girl from North Dakota. A bride of six weeks married to a blue-eyed boy from the Netherlands,” she says in the prologue to her memoir about this time, So Many Africas. “We stayed six years, and then we moved away. . . . I put Africa behind me. I moved on. Or at least I tried to, but I could not dig deep enough to forget.”
As I read this intensely personal story, the rhythms of Kandel’s lyrical fragments and sensory-rich scenes made me feel as if, just by reading, I was helping her slowly unearth memories kept shapeless and silent for so long. I was right there with her from the first chapter’s scenes of a day early into her Zambia life. It was a day of sharing flycovered meat dripping with blood with a friendly stranger, going about laborious housework and praying for working electricity – a day of “tiredness and questions.”
Kandel infuses her exotic surroundings with what is familiar and personal. This is not just a story about someone, anyone, in Zambia – it is her story, and she comes to it with her own past and personality. The flies and water buckets and starry skies stars of her surroundings cause her to recall the popular nursery rhymes and songs from her childhood. The challenges of building a life in her new environment – from cockroach infestations to a well-intentioned but ineffective housekeeper – bring to mind the adages her mother told her as a girl (“You can handle anything” “You can laugh or you can cry”).
As Kandel writes of her time in Zambia, decades ago, she uses the present tense. It is a common yet potentially risky choice for a memoirist, since it requires the reader to see a then experience through an immediate now lens. The moment feels present, but is also, of course, being remembered, so it’s easy for after-the-fact reflections to slip into a scene. She divides the book into two sections –“Zambia” and “After – and establishes, from the beginning, that these are experiences that freshly bring up grief and awe. By doing so, she emphasizes the ever-current, often visceral imprint of memory.
Even these decades later, Kandel is still astonished by the goodness of those days – the deep friendships built with her housekeeper and other community members, the physical beauty of the rivers and valleys, and the parental milestone of giving birth to their first child, safely. She still marvels at the resilient joy of the men, women, and children in Kalabo.
Yet the trials of that chapter also linger. Since her husband traveled so much she had many long, isolated days of little social interaction. It was heartbreaking for her to see so many Zambians suffering from hunger and disease. A tragic traffic accident involving a young girl haunts her dreams and thoughts with particular severity. There was laughter, and there was sorrow.
In both the Zambia and post-Zambia chapters, Kandel’s central struggle is this: reconciling what she is feeling with what she believes she is supposed to be feeling about her Africa years.
She silently bristles against the expectations of her husband, her immediate community and the larger expectations she knows are placed on those who serve in similar ways (missionaries, aid workers, global volunteers). Should she have these pockets of loneliness and unhappiness? Shouldn’t the beauty of the landscape, the good results of the work, and the provision of God be enough to sustain her – in all chapters of her life?
Despite her internal wrestling, Kandel goes quiet among others – even when she is back among her friends, family, and church members.
“You learn not to talk about Africa. Especially in church,” she says. “No one wants to hear, your Christian friends most of all. They like victorious stories with happily-ever-after endings, full of angel wings and rapture. And honestly, so do you. But you don’t have a story like that, not the beginning, or the middle or the end. You close your mouth. . . . And time passes until you begin to think that you’ve forgotten them. But they aren’t gone.”
It may be especially hard for Christian readers to hear the church talked about as an unwelcome place for the complicated, heavy, and messy stories – our “Africas.” But Kandel’s feelings here will no doubt resonate with many readers.
After all, don’t we all have stories that are paradoxically beautiful and difficult – uplifting and draining – familiar and new?
Out of fear we may try to bottle them up, put them away, and even try to laugh them off. But as Kandel demonstrates, this can do us great harm by making us feel distant from our true selves, our loved ones, and even our God.
So Many Africas is a gorgeously written account of one woman reclaiming her voice. Yet it is so much more than that. For readers – especially in Christ-follower communities – it is also a challenge to create listening space for the experiences that wound and astound us without a tidy “happily-ever-after.” And a call to trust the beauty and truth that can come from their telling.