Our final country in this year’s Motherhood Around the World series is Zambia in southern Africa. Jessica Menon is a consultant on a variety of development projects, who lives in “happy chaos” with her husband, Satish, and their three children, Veda, Surya and Sahana. They also have two dogs and two cats. And she’s expecting another baby next year! Ahead, she talks about raising “wild” children, camping with hippos and backyard drum circles for kids…
Jessica’s background: In 2014, our family moved from Chicago to Zambia for my husband’s job. He’s an engineer working on a five-year project to improve water and sanitation in the capital city of Lusaka. I’m a social inclusion and gender equality specialist also working in the development world. Back in Chicago, we were both constantly traveling internationally for work. Our kids were three and one at the time, and it was getting super hectic. When this opportunity came up, we were really excited.
On first impressions: When we arrived, I remember driving down a long stretch of road with nothing but blue skies and fluffy clouds. The clouds hang so low, it makes the sky seem so much closer than in the States. It always enthralls me. It’s gloriously lush all year round, temperate with warm summers, spring-like winters, and a short rainy season where the sun still shines. The sides of the roads are always busy with locals biking and walking. There’s a very friendly and communal feeling here — people chatting, shaking hands, smiling. Coming from cold, windy, damp Chicago, it felt like paradise — gentle and welcoming. Despite challenges and frustrations at times, Zambia still feels that way to us.
On the city: Lusaka is the capital of Zambia, so there are many shopping areas, plus a few malls with movie theaters. Although it’s not rural like many places in Zambia, it still feels like a village. Most of the roads are single lanes, and it often seems like the degrees of separation are one to two people maximum. We can’t get everything we want, but we know where to go to get what we need. On Tuesday, there’s an outdoor market with fresh produce; the Indian store sells rice, beans, spices and frozen paneer; the health food store has quinoa and almond butter. You often find out things through word-of-mouth, like a Japanese lady who sells sushi out of her home or the woman who makes amazing croissants and baguettes that you have to order and pay for a week in advance. We’re still on the hunt for a good auto-mechanic!
On language: Despite the fact that there are 70+ languages and tribes in Zambia, almost everyone speaks English. The two other main languages are Bemba and Nyanja. Our kids have picked up a bit of Nyanja. My five-year-old sees herself as American, but my three-year-old son, Surya, only remembers living in Zambia and says he is Zambian when asked. He speaks English with a distinctly Zambian accent. He’ll replace “L” with “R” and “R with L” so that “lawn mower” becomes “rawn mower,” or he’ll say, “Me, I want blead and tea.” He’ll say “Theeese one,” for “This one,” or “Mommy, come heah.” When we were India last month the kids would bust out words and songs in Nyanja, and Surya became homesick and was asking for Zambian food.
On Zambian decor: We love sitting outside and watching the kids play in the backyard. Our garden has fruit trees and a swing set for the kids. We’ve been adding Zambian pieces to our house. There’s beautiful wood here (mukwa, rosewood), and we have a handmade rosewood dining table and outdoor furniture with pillows made with Zambian textiles. Zambian art is rich and colorful and often inspired by the animals and baobab trees that are common here. We’re really happy to support local artisans and Zambian women.
On having help: Our daily routine is not so much different than in the U.S. — we work full-time, the kids go to school — except for one major factor: We have a lot of help in our house. We have two nannies, a maid, a gardener and a driver to help get the kids to and from school and activities. (Although we pay three times the going rate and contribute to their pension plans, it’s still less than having one nanny in the U.S.) So, when I’m home from work, I’m spending quality time playing with my kids and connecting with my husband. It’s such a difference from when we were in Chicago, where after the kids went to sleep, we’d be cleaning up, folding laundry, etc. It was hard to let go of the idea that if I don’t do everything myself to care for my children, I’m a bad mother. But now I just feel incredibly grateful that my children are loved by so many people that we now consider part of our family. Having multiple caretakers means my children each get individualized attention, too. In the evenings, I can have a quiet moment with my five-year-old talking about her day, while my husband plays soccer with my three-year-old and our nanny feeds Sahana — and then we rotate.
Each bed has nets to keep mosquitos away.
Our kids generally call their nannies by their first names, Joyce and Brenda, but sometimes it’s “Auntie Joyce” and “Auntie Brenda.” Joyce often refers to our youngest, Sahana, as “mama,” and sometimes refers to herself to Sahana as “ambuya,” which means “grandmother.” When she comes in the morning, Sahana’s face lights up. My kids are just as excited to show their artwork or science projects with Joyce and Brenda as they are with us. One picture Veda drew of our family included a house with sunshine, trees and big butterflies. She drew herself, her brother, a tiny person who is her baby sister (who wasn’t yet born), and an adult woman. She told me the adult woman was Joyce. When I asked where Mommy and Daddy were, she happily responded, “At work, they’ll be home later.” It made me a little sad at first, but then I realized here is a picture of how my daughter spends a lot of time at home in her sunny garden with her brother (and soon-to-be sister) and her beloved nanny — and she’s happy.
On wild kids: The slow pace of life here is magical with kids (albeit often frustrating for work), and with the weather it means 12 out of 12 months of the year, we leave all the doors of our home open during the day. The kids go to a French school during the week from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., but when they’re home they are generally roaming around the backyard. Of course, our nannies are here to take care of them, but there is not much directed play. It makes me happy that they can create fun for themselves. I realized this when I came home from work a few months back and my five-year-old exclaimed to me, “Mommy, Mommy, look what I can do!” And off she went on a two-wheeler bike without the training wheels — I thought we were supposed to teach her that but she just taught herself!
On kids’ classes: The kids have music, art and sports in school and extracurricular activities, but one term, we organized our own drumming class with a well-known Zambian musician. I had met Moses Sakala at a music center for kids in town and we ended up chatting about how he wants to focus on teaching music and making music more accessible to children and more diverse groups of Zambians. I suggested doing something for the neighborhood kids and he said sure — he’s pretty famous, but things are that informal here. We gathered in our backyard with about ten four- and five-year-olds. It was basically an outdoor drumming circle under the jacaranda tree.
On health care: A large majority of the Zambian population lives in poverty in rural areas, which are long distances from clinics with lack of transport, equipment and adequately trained health personnel. Through my work, I have seen that the biggest challenge many mothers face is the lack of access to family planning and good health care — hence high maternal and infant mortality rates in Zambia. Delivering a baby is dangerous prospect for a lot of mothers in this country, and, along with many others, I’m working to help change that.
We are very lucky to have a great Zambian pediatrician that our kids visit for routine check-ups, vaccinations and the occasional flu. If there’s anything more than a minor ailment, expats and Zambians who can afford it generally medically evacuate to Johannesburg, South Africa, which is a few hours flight.
On delivering a baby: For high-quality medical care, we flew to Cape Town, South Africa, a month before Sahana’s due date. We rented an Airbnb, and our whole family came. I delivered her there — I had a water birth at a birthing center. My husband took the older kids home to Zambia a week after she was was born, and I stayed until her passport was sorted. We’ll do it again with the new baby. We have international health insurance which covers medical anywhere in the world, other than the U.S. and Singapore, and Cape Town is an amazing place with top-notch health care and great medical facilities.
Catching a double rainbow in the mist.
On Victoria Falls: Victoria Falls is a 45-minute flight on a puddle jumper. It’s a magical place. Zambians call it “Mosi-o-Tunya,” which means “The Smoke that Thunders” — since the mist can be so thick it looks like smoke and the sound of the water crashing is as loud as thunder. We walk around little trails, where we’ll be greeted by some warthogs, baboons or monkeys. The monkeys can be assertive — once they grabbed a package of cookies from my daughter, but she was totally delighted. The kids think it’s the funniest thing in the world.
On camping (but not swimming) in the wild: The kids love camping, and we go almost every month. On one trip, we found a beautiful spot near a river. The kids liked “bouldering,” or climbing over the rock formations to get to a rock pool, where we could swim. (We usually can’t swim anywhere in Zambia because of crocodiles or hippos.)
We also go camping right on the river in Lower Zambezi. At night, we zip up our tents and listen to the wildlife around us. You can hear hippos chomping on grass right next to our tent. Although we’re camping in the wild, it’s still a very well-managed park with a guard who makes sure any predatory animals, like lions and leopards, stay away. We feel protected, so we’re never scared, just excited. During a recent trip to the U.S., our kids were squealing with delight when they saw squirrels. Rodents are exotic creatures to them, while they take impalas and zebras for granted these days!
On Zambian food: For lunch, many Zambians eat the traditional food of nshima every single day. It’s pounded corn maize, commonly served with a stew of tomatoes and onion and rape (like kale). Sometimes it will be served with chicken, goat or fish. My son loves it and misses it when we go to the U.S. For breakfast, Zambians usually have white bread and rooibos tea — my son loves that, too (it’s decaf). For dinner, many people will have more nshima or more bread and tea.
On having diverse friends: One thing we love about Zambia is how easy it is to meet friends from diverse backgrounds. We are a mixed-race family (I’m white American with European heritage, and my husband is first generation American from India), so we value how easy it is to expose our children to an environment that is very racially and culturally integrated and generally tolerant. The French school my kids go to is so diverse — it’s 50 percent Zambian, and 50 percent every other country in the world. I’ve made friends with a lot of moms — my closest friends include a Zambian, a Burundian, an American and an Italian. I think there are many more similarities between Zambians and people in other countries than there are differences. My close friends, no matter where they’re from, enjoy eating different cuisines, chatting about our experiences and families, parenting, etc.
On taking a village: There’s definitely a more laid-back approach to parenting and an “it takes a village” mentality. We hang out a lot with other families — we’ve found it easy to meet people because things are so relaxed and informal here. Because there’s not much else do here, it seems there’s always an invitation to a “braai” (outdoor barbecue) at someone’s house, which usually involves grilling meat. We lay out picnic blankets and play croquet and bocce ball.
If there’s a conflict between two kids, a parent friend is just as comfortable reprimanding my child as their own. It feels like we’re all in it together. My kids also feel comfortable asking other parents for things — to give them a snack, to play a game, even to watch the dance performance they’ve created. They take the hands of other parents and go sit in their laps, and other kids will do the same with us.
On power outages: Last fall, we started having daily power outages that lasted from eight to twelve hours. Every day! Zambia uses hydropower, and drought and governmental mismanagement have created widespread power issues that affect everyone, especially the poorest people. At first we found candlelit family dinners romantic, but after three months of changing a newborn’s diaper in the dark, it got old! We installed a solar system with inverters so our power doesn’t go out completely anymore; we just can’t use the bigger appliances like the washing machine, the microwave and the hot water heater during the outages. It’s been a great way to teach the kids about energy conservation. We’re working to help others figure out solutions, too.
On wanting to stay: My husband’s contract is up at the end of 2018, but we’re trying our best to find a way to stay longer. As working parents with three (soon to be four) kids, Zambia offers us a slow-paced, family-focused, sometimes boring life. But it’s a great quality of life. The first words out of my husband’s mouth when I told him I was pregnant with our fourth child? “Well, I guess we’re never leaving Zambia.” When we went home to Chicago last year, the kids enjoyed going to kids’ plays and children’s museums; I sometimes wonder if they’re missing out on those types of experiences. But Zambia is so beautiful, and the vibe is peaceful and calm and freeing.
Thank you so much, Jessica!
(Photos courtesy of Jessica. Interview by Megan Cahn.)