It’s early morning and I hear the screen door of the back porch creak open. I instantly freeze mid spoonful of yogurt and go through my mental checklist: Did I remember to put my laundry out? Do we still have cornflakes for her breakfast? Did I pre-clean my room enough for her to clean in there today? Do I need to pay her today or next week? If she hitch-hiked a ride here it may be too early for my brain to be awake enough to answer these questions. If she walked the dusty road herself, I might be just enough cognizant to remember to brew her some tea.

Regardless of the time, I go out to greet the Zambian lady who has come to clean our house today. In the beginning she was the employee, excited about the consistent kwacha that would feed her family and pay their school fees. In the beginning we were the expats defeated by the hand-washing station, a foreboding concrete reservoir for laundry that none of our days of pushing buttons on washing machines had prepared us for.  To all Zambian women’s amusement, I still don’t know much about washing my clothes by hand, but I now know enough to welcome my guest properly, however it’s really her life and labor that is perpetually welcoming us into her homeland and guiding us through life here. And that’s why when I greet her I call her what she’s told us to call her, Mama.

Our Mama is named after a flower, but truth be told she doesn’t remind me of a flower much. For one thing she’s strong. Her neck carries buckets of water uphill and down and her hands wring out water from dripping denim like it’s a piece of dough. She’s steady, too. She’s loyal, trustworthy and kind, and beyond an eyebrow lift and a gentle smirk, she’s remained nonjudgmental of her mzungus and their quirks. She is beautiful, but her beauty doesn’t wane through seasons. You can count on the joy, strength, and purpose that mark her beauty as surely as you can count on her coming through that screen door on a rainy day, whether she had to walk the whole way or not.

She told us once that she was born the exact same day that Zambia became a country. If her name missed the mark, her birth date certainly did not. She is Zambia. She personifies the Zambian pride when she teaches us new Nyanja phrases and Zambian humility when she faithfully pauses her work and takes the time to worship with us at our grade school’s Friday morning chapel. When we wrote “Panini night” on our meal plan, which apparently means something horrifyingly inappropriate in Zambia, she had just enough grace to ask clarifying questions, but not quite enough to keep her from laughing in our faces, exemplifying perfectly the classically Zambian blend of mercy and humor.

Like Africa, she lives out the paradox of both bold curiosity and edifying wisdom. She’s never afraid to ask a question, whether it’s about something she sees in our house or if she can have a uniform. And she gushes at any opportunity to teach us to make nshima—even though one time our milimil was years expired and the whole lesson was kinda a flop (a teacher is only as good as her pupils 😉 ). She’s no-nonsense when she needs to be, her explanation for everything being, “It just did.” And yet, life never has to be taken too seriously. She’s always up for a good laugh. I’ve learned to be wary when she calls me into the next room—chances are good there’s a dead mouse she’s going to surprise me with.

Without her strength, beauty, and proudly Zambian culture, my understanding of Africa would be incomplete.  Without Africa, my understanding of God’s heart would be incomplete. Without God’s heartbeat, my understanding of the Creator of the world would be terribly and unhappily incomplete. I realize my understanding is still in a sense incomplete.  Until Heaven my understanding of God will be like an unfinished painting. But until then I’m thankful for the many around the globe whose labor, love, and life have added colors to the fresco—especially Mama.

Who is serving you abroad and helping you understand your new country more fully?


  1. Valerie Sanders September 23, 2018

    It sounds like Mama has truly been a blessing in your house…..we have had in our house in Guatemala a true blessing too…..Dona Beria for 18 years……a Christian lady who came regardless of being sick and prayed with us over each of our children……I miss her as she has now retired.

  2. Rachel VanGent September 23, 2018

    What a beautiful picture of Mama and such beautiful imagery of the painting! Your words and voice are such a gift to me this morning!

  3. Lisa September 24, 2018

    Hahaha! I thought I was uploading a picture for my Gravatar, not for the comment! I’m not trying to call myself beautiful….Oh my! I was saying the piece was beautiful!

    1. Jo September 30, 2018


  4. MG September 24, 2018

    Aww! I feel like this beautifully captures why “house helper” abroad is so much richer and deeper a relationship than what our friends back home think of when we say we have a “house helper”. It took me a long time to reconcile that YES I need help, NO I am not harming somebody by employing her in my house, and MAYBE my life will be richer because of it. The first time I took Auntie to show her our market and she got all up in the butchers face with her pointy finger shouting “YOU WILL NOT GIVE THEM THE FOREIGNER PRICE! THAT IS RIDICULOUS” she had my loyalty and my heart. Since then, she’s been our helper certainly…. but much more than just sweeping floors and doing dishes…. helping my babies learn the language and culture (and let’s be real, me too), navigating holidays abroad, advice giver on awkward social situations, cheerleader, and so on.

  5. Laura September 24, 2018

    This was so beautifully written. I don’t know how to write about having house help, so I usually don’t. But the wonderful woman who has been with us for a year and a half has been such a blessing. Not only does she clean my house without judging me (even though I am always judging myself when she walks in the door), she has developed a beautiful relationship with my children, who adore her. Last week my husband left for a trip and we were all a little frazzled and sad. She set aside her work to play with the kids so I could get away and catch up on food shopping. When I came back the three of them were painting together (she said they had insisted that she join them). I learned that they had also jumped rope, jumped on the trampoline, and played in the sandbox together. When she left at lunchtime that day I had a clean house and a happy family. What a huge gift!

  6. Tina VanGent September 24, 2018

    Beautiful! So nice to write about Mama V.

  7. Cathy September 25, 2018

    Living in western Kenya, I totally can relate to what you’ve written about “Mama”. I’ve had two women enter our home, one when we lived in the village, another now that we live in town. Both have taught me much about grace, humility, laughter, and hard work. Truly it is a great privilege to have someone like “mama” enter our lives as we try to live and serve in another culture.

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