It’s so good to have been back in Zambia for just about 10 hours.  So many familiar sights and sounds, it does seem as if we’ve never been away.  But we have been away for nearly two years.   As I reflected this morning as we emerged into the hot, dry world that we have known for 25 years, Zambia has changed a lot and also not at all.

Changed in its infrastructure.  A beautiful new airport for Ndola that has been promised for many years, is now a reality.  I spoke to a security guard for a while about the old Kitwe South Downs airport, where the caretaker used to unlock the padlock on a wire gate to let you walk across the field to the aircraft that had just landed in a clearing in the forest.  His blank look reminding me that he was too young to know what I was talking about. Good quality roads, shopping malls, hotel complexes, where there was once just red gravel and scrubland.

Thankfully not changed at all in its ability to be an ever cheerful, ever friendly, welcoming place, that does you good just to be here.  The customs officer stopped us asking if we had any medicines.  When we said no, he said “Are you sure?  I’m not talking about cocaine, but even paracetamol can feel illegal at the airport”, and he then burst into loud friendly laughter and waved us through.

As we met Kenneth Mukupa, Jeff Mulenga and Patrick Kambinga, representatives of so much of our family experience in Zambia, and then later greeted visitors to our home one by one, bringing  gifts of eggs, water and soft drinks I began to reflect on how after two years away we were enjoying such a warm welcome home.

We have spent much of the day in our beautiful garden in our home, affectionately known to all as Lunzuwa.  The garden is full of the most incredible mature trees.  Ornamental cherry trees, king palms and orange and lemon trees to name a few.  I am able to remember back when the whole area was just a patch of almost wasteland, with not much life and no shade to speak of.  We used to have to stand with our backs against the wall of the outhouses to get out of the sun.

Erica’s dad suggested that we plant some trees.  To us it didn’t sound like a great idea.  Trees take ages to grow and we wanted to see change there and then.  Resigned to the fact that that wasn’t possible, we gave way and started collecting plants and trees and spacing them around the garden in the hope that one day we would see the benefit.

Today as I looked at the very many citrus fruits hanging on the trees, and enjoyed the shade of our enormous ornamental cherry tree, I couldn’t help but understand that life is a long game.  It develops slowly and its own time.  That things of real and lasting value cannot be hurried but are born from positive decisions, commitment, cultivation, patience and resilience.

As I mentioned, it was 25 years ago that we first started travelling to Zambia.  We were excited, young and idealistic.  We had hopes, dreams and expectations for what the adventure would mean and what it would look like.  Early on we decided that whatever we were able to do or to achieve, the number one value we would give ourselves to would be relationship.

It is relationship and friendship that has guided our decisions and our actions at every major juncture.  I can’t pretend that it has been easy, or that there haven’t been times when we might have felt we had got it all wrong, or were tempted to back away and search for an easier route.

But just as the citrus trees reminded me of the values of patience, resilience and longevity, so as we sat with friends, many of whom we have known for the whole quarter century we have had the joy of being connected to this country, I started to think about why we should expect anything.  11 years after we moved away from Zambia after 6 years resident, and 2 years since we had been here at all, why should people take the time and effort to sit with us, talk about old times, share gifts, conversation and laughter?  Why should we find so much joy in being together?

It is not because our connections have been pragmatic or economic, it’s not because we have run projects together, or we have been useful to each other.  It’s because, against the odds, and against the challenge of circumstances we have quietly committed to a quality of friendship that by God’s grace will outlast any vision or project.

We have countless memories of good times spent together, so many stories that are repeated endlessly whenever we meet, dearly loved and missed friends and family that are no longer with us, but who are part of the folklore and timeline of a quarter of a century travelling together, solving problems together, overcoming extreme challenges together, laughing together and of course crying together.

Today we were able to give some pairs of reading glasses to friends.  We joked that we had got to that stage after all these years and that next time we would bring hearing aids and walking sticks.  But with the constant awareness of the passing of time, there is no sense of diminishing or loss, but rather we are growing and that what we are growing will outlive us and be carried into eternity.

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