Most of my worst enemies are under four feet tall.
They commandeer my insaka and porch and then act obstinate when I deign to encroach on their territory. They ask me constantly what I’m doing and where I’m going, feeding this information through the village grapevine so quickly that everyone in the next village over knows that I boiled water for coffee ten minutes before it actually happened. They crowd around my windows pestering me to come out when I’m cooking or reading, and then when I toss cups of dirty dishwater through the windows at them they just laugh uproariously and clamor for more.
They are basically evil.
However, it’s hard to hate them for long because they’re also my closest friends and staunchest supporters. They fight each other for the honor of sweeping my front yard, chase away drunk men who wander too close to my hut, and race ahead of me to the borehole with my buckets when I go to fetch water. They bang on my front door, concerned for my health, when I’m still not up by the worryingly late hour of 6am. They welcome me home with a chorus of cheers when I return from a trip as if they’ve been waiting the entire time for me to come back. They probably have.
Their shouts and laughter and cries are like a playlist for my day-to-day life on perpetual repeat, and even though sometimes I get the urge to strangle the little buggers, my service here would feel strangely empty without them.
Meet some of my favorite kids:
Chungu (3rd from left) is my next-door neighbor, a precocious 6-year-old with the longest eyelashes I’ve ever seen. He’s cheeky, impudent, and can be incredibly obnoxious when he so desires. He mimics my facial expressions, ignores me when I address him, and won’t shut up when I’m trying to read. We’re pretty much besties.
Willie (back, 3rd from right) is a quiet 8-year-old who often sits alone at my insaka and just looks at me with big round eyes. He’s less manipulative than Chungu but more histrionic, given to impromptu bouts of crying when an older kid looks at him sideways. He often asks to sweep my porch and more often asks me to play guitar. I’m flattered until I obligingly haul it out and start playing, and two minutes later he tells me to stop. Willie and Chungu are the two mainstays among the revolving cast of iwes that frequents my house.
Mwape (2nd from left), 10, is Willie’s older brother. This age is particularly annoying because he’s old enough to not scare easily but not so old that he gets bored of tormenting the muzungu. Mwape is always genuinely helpful though when I ask him to do something, like chase down another miscreant for me so I can whack the offender with a brush.
Kalu (far right), 6, pals around with Chungu and Willie and has a disarmingly innocent, gap-toothed smile that belies a dedicated fondness for sneaking up on me and pulling my leg hairs. Hard.
Febe (left) is a confident, bossy 12-year-old with her baby sister perpetually strapped to her back. Febe has the distinction of owning the loudest voice in the village; I get hearty laughs from the other kids (and mock indignation from Febe) when I tell them that I can hear her coming from across the village.
Maenez (2nd from right) is a tall, pretty 15-year-old who teases me so mercilessly it borders on harassment. We scowl at each other and she makes me squirm by asking questions using words in Bemba that she is fully aware I don’t know. She has a fake boyfriend in the next village over that she tells me she’s going to visit when she sashays past my house, daring me with laughing eyes to refute her.
Maggie (right) is a cheerful 11-year-old with a round head, closely cropped hair, and omnipresent grin. We make faces at each other as she passes by on her way to draw water and occasionally she stops long enough to smack one of the younger boys in my regular entourage.
Daenez (center), 12, is Chungu’s older sister, easy-going but imperious, with a keen eye for business. Daenez is my umusalu supplier, delivering vegetables like Chinese cabbage and sweet potato leaves straight to my door on a weekly basis. This morning I had a half-hour conversation with Maggie and Daenez on my front porch about family names not matching kids’ names, and whether or not the girls want to have kids/husbands/houses when they grow up. They’re not sure yet. Smart girls.
Joni (back, sticking her tongue out) is a playful 13-year-old who tries out new hairstyles and extensions with Maggie and Daenez and parades them in front of me, fishing for compliments, when she’s not keeping her 5-year-old sister Kapata in check. This is a full-time job, because Kapata (second from right) is the devil reincarnate.
Priska (bottom center), 4, is the devil reincarnate’s understudy. She and Kapata totter around terrorizing the neighborhood at all hours of the day, and they like to play a game called see-how-many-times-you-can-reach-out-and-slap-the-muzungu-before-he-smacks-you-with-the-brush. By my last count, they’ve gotten up to five. The only reason why this game even exists is because Priska is utterly adorable. This tiny imp has me grudgingly wrapped around her little grubby finger.