Above: Tina Aponte, Innkeeper at Royal Chundu, and the women of Mushekwa
Everything has a story. Every story has its characters. You might recognise the title of this story from one by Alexander McCall Smith. But these characters are something wholly unique. I’m sure McCall Smith won’t mind us borrowing his title; because while no less distinctive, the women who feature in our tale today, set on the banks of the Zambezi River in Zambia, are just as bold, their stories just as courageous, as those that feature in the celebrated author’s tales of Botswana. And as far as cheerful ladies go, they are the definition of cheer. Our definition: Patience, faith, optimism. And greenfingers.
We arrive at the Mushekwa village, a short boat ride downstream from Royal Chundu. There has been a passing of an elder in the village, but instead of turning us away, matriarch, the mother of Mushekwa, Edith Mushekwa, whose father founded the village, calls us to the riverbanks with her waves and that smile that takes over her whole face. That comes from her whole heart.
Edith is one of the characters of this story, the humble protagonist you could say. She walks with us, through the community veggie garden. The maize, eggplant, tomatoes and cabbage that grow here depend on a woman’s touch to thrive, on Edith and the other ladies of the village. They’ve been away, seeing to a funeral, and the crops have wilted without the company of their cheer. Edith tells us she is trying to get the kids in the village more involved. Kids will be kids wherever you are in the world.
Royal Chundu donates seeds to the villagers, who in turn grow the crops and sell them back to the lodge for an income. The garden also feeds the village and guests at Royal Chundu. Many of the plants are used as medicine, such as moringa, which treats a range of different ailments, including HIV. It will take time, birthing new greenfingers, but until then the Cheerful Ladies are in charge. I know, when I return next, as I have before, the garden’s crops (organic, fresh and tasty) will tower over the walkways between them, with tens of little hands sharing Edith’s touch.
And abiding cheerfulness
Can accomplish everything on earth
― Sri Chinmoy, The Jewels of Happiness
A similar project between lodge and village is at play with the bream fish breeding project set in a large lily pond at the entrance to Royal Chundu. The fish are released into the Zambezi River, and, after time, the local fishermen catch them to sell back to the lodge.
Edith and two more ladies – Bettina and Josephine – guide us through the village, their long dresses sweeping the earth, their amble slow and strong. The Cleopatras of Zambia. Zambezi River Pharaohs. The owners of those future greenfingers trail after us, as the scene of our story is set, as the senses are called upon. A fire burns somewhere close by; an African fish eagle circling above calls out in competition with the chickens in their roost. Edith holds up a small brown nut for us to taste, the nut of the manketi tree, a nut they grind for oil.
Further on, beneath a reed canopy, a modest market has been set up. Here we meet up with the other ladies (the men are out fishing). The beautiful handmade Chitenga cloths that wrap around our leading ladies are draped before us – the colours of Zambia, the patterns of the nation starring alongside carved wooden animals, bracelets, mats and baskets for us to purchase.
This is daily life in rural Zambia. This is how a team of ladies supports a village. Being in their company, you can see it takes something more, however. It takes a big heart, a light heart, and unwavering patience, faith and optimism. That’s what cheer is… patience, faith and optimism. (And greenfingers.) And here, it’s a cheer that doesn’t stop at Edith, Bettina and Josephine.