Per Amama’s instruction, this letter should be something beautiful about what it means to be Zambian, from aunt to newborn niece. A 15-page gift for your future self from your naming ceremony.
From the videos my cousins in Zambia occasionally share on our WhatsApp family group—Banja—a proper ceremony would be held in the wealthiest relative’s sitting room. Uncles would be reclined in leather sofas, sipping on sweating bottles of Mosi. Giggling children, listless drumming, and nostalgic kalindula music would all clamour to be heard over the aunties’ joyful ululations.
In Zambia, Amama, your grandmother, would whisper your name. Then she’d bless you by spitting onto your forehead and then slowly massaging her saliva into your pulsing fontanel.
Your actual naming ceremony, north of loud family gatherings and the equator, is taking place at my parents’ townhouse in downtown Minneapolis. The living room is 1999 Lusaka, but for the frosty purr of the AC in the corner and the twenty-one years that have gifted us eye bags and drawn-out silences. All three thrifted couches are wearing crocheted white doilies––thin veils Amama stitched together to cover the stains which wouldn’t budge, neither to the persistence of her scrubbing nor vinegar soaks.
My parents and yours, my two older brothers and I are now congregated against the commotion of cushions arranged above the doilies. The younger half of the two generations are trading whispers to nudge the time along as we nurse fat coffee mugs filled with Coors Light. In truth, we’re waiting for the politest time to mutter, ‘Well, we should do this again soon,’ which is Minnesotan for, ‘I’ve socialized enough now; bye!’
Adada, your grandfather, is slurping his drink out of the World’s Best Dad! mug from several Father’s Days ago, each noisy gulp making his tongue looser. At his elbow, Radio Christian Voice is streaming from the speaker sitting on a stool between him and Amama. My mother can’t figure out how to reset the WI-FI password or find the temperature between searing and freezing on the thermostat, but somehow, she manages to stream her favourite radio station from 8,000 miles away every single day.
When the last chords of Kirk Franklin’s Imagine Me died out, Amama wound the volume down, hunched over your cradle and kicked the ceremony off with, ‘Zina lako ndiwe Nanozga.’
Startled, you extended your arms like maybe you’d let out one of your massive wails. But it’s your mom, Masozi, who shifted in her spot, hovered over your bassinet a third––no, fourth— time, with a wet film in her eyes. You instead curled back up, sucked your thumb and continued sleeping quietly.
Your muted reaction to Amama’s statement––Your name is Nanozga—meant the same thing here as it would’ve in those Banja videos; you had accepted your name.
Both your parents grinned, tasting the three syllables on their tongues, ‘Na-no-zya.’
Amama chanted the meaning of the name into your downy head. ‘God has made everything beautiful, in His own time.’ She rose, spun around and shot her jubilation at the ceiling with ear-splitting ululations. But when a neighbour pounded, ‘Shut the fuck up!’ through the thin wall, Amama stilled, tongue-to-roof-of-mouth, and sunk back into the couch. She dug into the satchel she keeps beneath the side table and fished out a notepad. ‘Well,’ she declared, ‘I think we should all write Nanozga a letter, ehn?’
Adada immediately objected. ‘A letter for what? The child is a fucking week old.’ He was past slurring, well into drunken swearing, on his way to stumbling, tripping over nothing and crashing to the floor if he rose for another drink just one more time. ‘Kid prolly smells like hospital bleach if you lean in close enough.’ He belched, his expression the lick-of-freshly-sliced-lemon sour, then said, ‘Kidding, kidding.’
Amama stuffed the ensuing silence with ‘I thought,’ and ‘maybe’ and ‘wouldn’t it be lovely if we just wrote her something beautiful, ehn? About what it means to be Zambian.’
‘What it means to be Zambian,’ Adada scoffed, ‘And why must we write it? We all dying tomorrow or what? The child moving ‘cross the goddamn oceans? No? Then we’ll tell her our damn selves!’
‘I just thought,’ her voice crumbled. ‘Since we can’t do the ceremony properly––’
‘Properly? That shit flew out of the window the day your daughter decided to spread her legs.’
The scorned daughter, your mother, leaped from her seat.
‘No, that’s a good idea, Amama. It’ll help us all keep it down in here. She, I mean Nanozga, doesn’t sleep very well at night.’ This placation Masozi whispered in the velvet sound that is her voice; an applause-arousing gift that earned her the lead in every musical all through high school.
And with that, Adada threw his arms into the air and offered Masozi his wonky smile.
‘Good,’ Amama said, ripping out and handing us each a sheet of paper. ‘Then it is agreed. Remember. Something beautiful, ehn? About what it really means to be Zambian.’
A younger me, who could blame my sarcasm on the flaming hormones scalding my face with acne, would’ve swiftly pointed out the living room clock, a copper face shaped like the map of Zambia and the fact that Amama is draped in a chitenge dress, whose flowers are the green, orange, black and red of the Zambian flag. But twenty-eight-year-old Tiyo is as even-tempered as my Oxy-smooth skin. So, I nodded along with everyone else at Amama’s instruction.
I took a swig of my beer and googled What is Zambian culture?
In approximately 1.33 seconds, 5,620,000 results appeared. Five million six hundred and twenty thousand! That means, if you want to learn one of the 72 languages, plan trips around Zambia’s 20 traditional ceremonies or order yourself a 2012 AFCON-winning Chipolopolo T-shirt with NANOZGA etched at the back of the orange jerseys in 2036, you can do it without the help of any letter.
Amama––like she could read my mind––aimed her frown at me. Something beautiful about our culture ehn bitten along with her bottom lip as she turned Radio Christian Voice back up.
I didn’t roll my eyes, didn’t cry, ‘What?’ or complain about her always assuming the worst about me. See? Even-tempered. I am writing the letter, yes. But instead, I’ll let you in on some Ndhlovu family culture. A cheat sheet for how to not disappoint your Zambian parents. At least not in the ways we do. Besides, we’ll all seal these letters ourselves, and I can rest assured that you’ll find your spit blessing intact in the one Amama is writing to you.
Caveat: I’ve refilled my mug a couple of times already, so excuse the handwriting.
1. Be born first (and male) AND MALE.
Amama’s favourite lie is that she loves all four of us exactly the same, à la God of Romans 2:11. Her proof is our photos, framed in identical 8x12s, hanging on the wall next to the dining table. As if four pictures arranged in order of birth can erase three decades of naked favouritism.
Masozi and I came six years after Amama and Adada already had Lusubilo, their boy, to carry the Ndhlovu name, and five years after Chawanangwa, the spare. But in the small picture of our naming ceremony glued to the back page of a family album, Amama stares out from the glossy paper with big, depleted eyes. Masozi and I are the bundles of white cradled into the crook of her arms, the source of her exhaustion since January 1990. Beneath the picture, our twin names echo our parents’ sentiments: Tiyowoyechi & Masozi––What can we say? & Tears. Unlike the praises which mark my brothers’ first photographs. Lusubilo. Hope. Chawanangwa. Blessing.
In Zambia, it hadn’t mattered. Not as much anyway.
But, after they hauled us to America, there was no sweet wet dirt aroma to mask the smell of eggs and bacon while Masozi and I yawned awake. No squawking chickens in the backyard to offset the crackle of grease bubbles in a frying pan at dawn. Sure, Amama scrubbed the evidence off their plates and offered us two slices of toast in its place, but the porky stench betrayed her every time. It crept into the threads of her chitenge wrapper like a secret and settled there. So, when I reached up to hug her good morning, I was wrapped in the aroma of her cocoa-butter lotion lingering with bacon fat.
‘Women, Tiyo,’ Amama told me the one time I questioned her on it, ‘should not eat pork. Bad for your womb and worse for your skin.’ And that was that.
You won’t have that problem, though. Even though Amama was all kissed teeth and ‘You know what children are like; they don’t listen. They do whatever they want,’ to her church friends about Masozi’s pregnancy, she now can’t stop telling us how ‘Bazukulu bakunowa kulusya bana.’
Grandchildren must indeed be sweeter than children because Adada’s face grows so soft whenever he holds you, his frown lines near fading at the mere sight of your face.
I know you’re here on purpose because I was the one who found the unopened strip of Alesse pills in Masozi’s cabinet months before her stomach swelled, the one who held her hand the entire five minutes it took for the two lines to stain the white pregnancy test pink. Before I could offer up solutions, tell her it would be fine, Masozi’s cheeks dimpled; she flashed me a smile, and I knew.
Your birth is not like ours, the first disappointment.
2. Become a doctor.
Your Uncle Lusubilo fulfilled his fated role as the first son of immigrant parents by getting accepted into pre-med. Amama and Adada already called him Doc, the way other parents might shorten a name. Every 29th of April, Amama piped Happy Birthday Doc onto Lusubilo’s cake. So, of course, she made him wear his bone-white Dominican University T-shirt the entire week before his first semester and paraded him on all her errands. Of course, the whole family crammed into the battered Sienna for the 10-hour drive that could’ve been seven, max, if Adada didn’t insist on crawling at 50 mph on the I-94 ‘to save gas.’
It was 10pm by the time we delivered Lusubilo safely to his dormitory, a nondescript grey building tucked between pristine lawns. On the paved walkways bathed with white light, the four of us children posed for a photo. Afterward, Amama mailed a copy of our washed-out faces to every family member with a PO Box in Zambia. DR. LUSUBILO SAMUEL NDHLOVU’S FIRST DAY OF MEDICAL SCHOOL! announced her note.
Instead of graduating––instead of brandishing his stethoscope for our parents’ friends during Sunday lunches and reassuring Amama that no, her dizzy spells were not because of low blood pressure, she just didn’t eat enough protein––Lusubilo dropped out. To become a writer, of all things, which was not on the list of expected professions.
‘You’re doing what?’ Adada’s voice shook into the phone when Lusubilo made the call.
I picked up the hallway handset as Adada was screaming, ‘Doctors write, Lusubilo! Don’t doctors write? Doctors write useful things. Like prescriptions and medical books! What is this foolishness about wanting to be a writer? Better stop with this fucking nonsense!’
A choked silence met Adada’s rage while Amama said, ‘Oh my God,’ again and again. I didn’t realize I was pacing in circles until I had wound the telephone cord around my waist, inwardly begging Lusubilo, Answer them; answer them.
But silence is Lusubilo’s confidence.
Uncertain, he might have stammered, ‘P-p-please,’ but 30 long seconds later, he was still quiet.
When Adada finally spoke again, his Tumbuka was carefully enunciated. ‘Upulikenge,’ he said. As if, by demanding, Listen to me, in Tumbuka rather than English, Lusubilo would remember himself––the obedient firstborn Zambian son. ‘You’ll stop this foolishness right now. We didn’t come all the way to this country, we didn’t make so many sacrifices, just for you to throw it all away!’
Amama chimed in to beg then. ‘Doc,’ she said. ‘What about my blood pressure? You know these doctors here don’t take my distress seriously. You are my only Hope,’ she said. Her last resort––reminding Lusubilo of the meaning of his name.
Usually, Lusubilo would agree. He’d placate her with ‘You’re right, Amama,’ arms hanging limply by his sides, caterpillar eyebrows in a bunch. But in the safety of distance, Lusubilo replied, ‘But this makes me happy, Amama. You do want me to be happy, right?’
It was their turn to be quiet.
‘Lord, what have I done to deserve this?’ Amama croaked.
Slowly, I unwound myself from the cord, pulled the phone away from my ears and gently replaced it against the magnetic black button, so they wouldn’t hear me hang up as Lusubilo’s silence was supplanted by the dial tone.
That was the second disappointment.
3. Become a lawyer.
To Chawanangwa’s credit, he, at least, graduated from law school and as valedictorian too. Amama ordered doubles of his commencement pictures from CVS so that she could mail them to Zambia through FedEx. Three weeks via USPS simply would not do. ATTORNEY CHAWANANGWA NDHLOVU! penned in Amama’s crisp block letters at the back of each photograph, in case it wasn’t clear without the white wig and bib which lawyers donned back home.
Amama didn’t have to wait for Chawanangwa to pass his bar exams for her to sniffle ‘My son’ and ‘Thank you, Jesus,’ while Chawanangwa swore to ‘support the Constitution of the United States and that of the state of Minnesota and conduct himself as an attorney and counsellor at law in an upright and courteous manner, to the best of his learning and ability.’ So help him, God.
But then, right after Chawanangwa’s call to the bar, before Amama had the chance to call her sisters in Zambia and beam into the phone about how proud she was of him, Chawanangwa proposed to the white woman he met while volunteering for Meals on Wheels. Amama still calls her this after all these years. The Meals on Wheels Woman. Even after Chawanangwa had explained that Morgan was a doctor; even after he rattled out her CV to Amama like Morgan was interviewing for a job in the family. His go-to asterisk on her long list of accomplishments being ‘She was a Fulbrighter too, Amama. Did I tell you?’
Amama ignored him. Assaulting him instead with statements like, ‘Morgan is a man’s name,’ and ‘You do want a wife, not a husband, don’t you?’ and ‘You know white women make their husbands cook? And with a name like that, well, you’ll be cleaning and doing all the laundry too.’
When he said nothing in reply, Amama took it upon herself to settle her feelings about Morgan not being African (criteria number one) or at least Black (the second acceptable qualification) by asking Chawanangwa’s former Fulbrighter medical doctor fiancée if she’d at least be taking the family name after the wedding. Which wouldn’t have been as bad had Amama not chosen to do it between the appetizers and main dish at the rehearsal dinner.
Morgan speared what was left of her smoked salmon and lifted it to her mouth. She chewed on the morsel so slowly that Masozi blurted, ‘Morgan, did you know, Ndhlovu means Elephant!’
Laughter rippled across the table as metal scraped against ceramic plates, the moment apparently swallowed by Masozi’s reaction to the awkwardness.
Banter returned, but the bride-to-be and Amama eyed each other with tight smiles from opposite ends of the long table.
‘No,’ Morgan announced finally.
Chawanangwa coughed and concentrated on his napkin, arranged into the shape of an angular rose.
‘Your son didn’t go to medical school,’ Morgan clipped. ‘I did.’
She meant Chawanangwa, of course, but Amama clasped that insult as tight as a rosary to her chest. So, although Amama and Adada attended the 150-guest wedding the following evening at Hutton House and grinned for the pictures against the all-white rose backdrop, Amama never let that slight go.
That was the third disappointment.
4. Become (or marry) an engineer.
By tenth grade, our parents knew Masozi would not become the engineer they hoped for. Masozi was undeterred by the Why can’t you be more like your sister? sermons which Amama delivered every time Masozi brought home another litany of Cs. But as the girl with those billboard-jewellery-ad fingers, RnB-video hips and skin the shade which Amama warned her to keep out of the sun, I think our mother’s comfort was that Masozi could at least marry one.
Masozi met Ian the day Adada finally admitted that he couldn’t fix the microwave without sparks flying everywhere and called the only Zambian handyman within 50 miles of Columbia Heights. He arrived in a navy work suit, on which Masozi remarked, ‘Fit him like a glove,’ afterward.
Six months later, when Adada said, ‘Ask your daughter why the hell she’s wearing winter clothes in summer,’ Amama replied simply, ‘The devil entered these children, and they’re now trying to kill me one by one.’ Even though it was apparent from Masozi’s swollen face, blackened neck, loud retching into the toilet and her sudden insatiable taste for anchovy sandwiches why Masozi had traded her tight tank tops for my roomy hoodies.
After that, neither Amama nor Adada talked to Masozi until I sent the ‘The baby is here ♀!’ text to Banja with a photo of you swaddled in the green-and-pink hospital blanket.
An hour later, our parents bustled into the maternity wing at Abbott Northwestern. They were encircled in a cloud of pink balloons, all, ‘God is good, all the time,’ in lieu of congratulations.
But that fuss is almost over now. Your cord stump has fallen off which is the only time it’s proper to name you. (Hey, I snuck in some Zambian culture after all!)
Yesterday, Ian popped the question with a small sapphire. After an appropriate amount of sobbing and mouth-smacking, Masozi gushed, ‘A million times yes!’ and shoved her left hand in his face.
Amama could finally exhale. In the letters she will post to Zambia, I bet she’ll say what a pity it is that she can’t have the whole family over for the wedding because of the lockdowns.
She will also say that Ian is an engineer.
But there’ll be no reception with deafening kalindula blaring through the mounted speakers––a missed opportunity for my parents to put their new American success on display.
Adada grimaced when Masozi told him that she would be taking Ian’s name. Moyo, it seems, was a good enough surname to fix the microwave and prevent a small kitchen fire but not good enough for his youngest daughter.
That was the fourth disappointment.
5. Or a shame to the family.
In a month, I’ll graduate with an SJD. My thesis is called The Marriage Between Secret-Keeping and Social Justice in Zambia. My parents are finally getting their doctor, even if it’s in law. But in Amama’s eyes, I’m forever 16, splayed on my bed that day she swung my door open.
In my recollection of it, her ‘Tiyo?’ is crushed in with my ‘God!’ as I thrust my hips into my best friend Mei’s mouth. Amama squeezed her eyelids shut as if shoving the image out of her mind and said, ‘Tiyowoyechi. I’ll count to three. When I open my eyes, that demon better be gone.’
Those three beats, punctuated by Amama raising one slim finger after another, were the shortest countdown of my life. I swallowed hard, yanked the sheet above my breasts and glanced around the room I shared with Masozi. I felt sure that this would be the last time I saw our twin beds, the massive poster of Justin Timberlake hanging above hers and the framed RBG quote which hung above mine. Irrationally, I read it like a goodbye to the room while Mei scrambled out of the sheets, pulled her shirt on and slipped into her sneakers––My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person; be independent.
The demon escaped through my bedroom window after murmuring, ‘Catch ya later, T.’
When her feet slammed the sidewalk below, Amama opened her eyes. She blinked, unveiling that depleted look from the baby photo as if just the sight of me sapped all the energy from her.
‘Tiyowoyechi,’ Amama said wearily. The meaning of my name imbued in her breathless whisper. What can I say?
My tongue went limp, lead-heavy with the weight of unspoken words.
‘Where even did you pick up this habit?’
The words refused to come.
‘Start talking,’ she said, ‘Before your father gets home.’
I glanced at the open window, but I remained glued between sheet and duvet, immobile, while Amama glared at me. On one side of whatever answer I offered would be Adada summoning me to the living room, flogging my back with his belt until the skin burst and wept red. On the other side was Amama dragging me with her to church, splashing holy water into my hair, letting her tears and sweat drip onto my face while she prayed the evil out of me at the foot of a wooden altar, In Jesus’s mighty name; Amen.
I weighed these options for a split second, searching the crisscrossing lines which slithered over my open palms for a solution.
I picked the second.
‘From the magazines in Adada’s box in the storage closet,’ I whispered.
Amama’s gaze snaked over me, brimming with disgust. ‘What did you say?’
‘It’s true, I swear! He keeps them in the green toy box labelled “Taxes”. Beneath last year’s returns and Lusubilo’s old textbooks.’
I may have been too old for Amama to squeeze the flesh of my thighs, but no one was above one of her biting backhanded slaps. While I braced myself for it, she stood there, shaking my words out of her head.
‘If––’ she started to say, but then suddenly, she spun out of the room.
In her wake came stomping down the stairs, a key fighting a lock, a door squeaking open, metal clanging against linoleum tiles, a plastic tub clicking opening, papers shuffling, magazine pages tearing apart, a gasp, a door slamming and then more stomping approaching my door.
I expected her to accuse me of stashing them there myself. I was ready for her admonition––how dare you accuse your own father shamelessly? But when Amama returned, she stood at my door for a long moment without uttering a word.
She raised a hand, stalked the length of my bed until she was glowering over me. ‘Upulikenge,’ she said. ‘We will never speak about this again.’
When she left, I puffed out air––a forced exhale to summon relief which would never come because to Amama, the this was me: The fifth disappointment.
In Zambia, your ceremony would end like every other party: a few hours after the aunties have said, ‘We should really be going now; it’s so late’ and done nothing about it, long after the cousins have slid themselves under the covers with a favourite cousin and all the uncles are long past the legally permitted blood alcohol concentration. Laughter and dust clouds would trail each departing vehicle, promises of future visits lifting into the night air.
Here, the letters are now completed. Amama is collecting them like test papers, without asking us any questions. Panic sheaths itself around my neck in wild wonder. Will Amama open them and read them aloud?
Instead, each folded paper Amama takes she hands to your mother and says, ‘Give them to Nanozga on her sixteenth birthday, ehn?’
In turn, we nod, smile and reply, ‘We should do this again soon.’
Love, love, love,
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