Aesthetics for aesthetics’ sake are rare in rural Zambia. Beauty is a luxury only the wealthy can afford, and when most people in the village are subsistence farmers who make less than $2.00 per day, time is better spent in myriad other ways than caring about how something looks. The deep purple water lilies that grow abundantly in the swampy dambo areas, gorgeous flowers which remind me of the farm ponds back home, remain unpicked even as they bloom alongside women washing their clothes and children in the stream. The flowers cannot be eaten or sold so they are, for all intents and purposes, worthless.
But there is a kind of quiet beauty that sneaks up on you when you’re least expecting it. It’s the kind that elicits a smile upon seeing the juxtaposition of gnarled red clay anthills with neat green rows of cassava plants, the former protruding like giant weathered fossils, the latter swerving matter-of-factly to avoid collision and continuing on in otherwise unerringly straight lines. The kind that pops out in the kaleidoscope of colors radiating from the chitenges that every woman wears, no two lengths of brightly dyed and boldly patterned fabric alike. The kind that is embedded in the careful workmanship of a brushmaker who spent an hour and a half in my insaka trimming an armful of freshly shorn grass with a homemade knife and patiently binding it together with thin strips of rubber recycled from old bicycle inner tubes.
After I bought the brush, I took a closer look at the handle. By painstakingly weaving the rubber strips under and over the tightly packed grass in a deliberate pattern, the man had added a personalized flourish: a simple design of a flower.