Two hours had passed – maybe three. I couldn’t tell. The dense jungle canopy above me had eliminated what little moonlight there was and plunged me into inky blackness deep in the Zambian bush. I lay very still, listening for the armed rebels and wondering how long it was until daybreak, not knowing if I’d survive to see it.
With my body shaking and my brain frozen with fear, it was hard to remember how I’d ended up there, 6,000 miles from home. An 18-year-old Scot and former pupil of the prestigious Fettes College, I had come to Africa with hopes of helping some of the world’s poorest people. But my gap year had become a living nightmare when I inadvertently found myself caught up in the fringes of the Congolese War.
Gunshots echoed through the bush and seemed to be getting closer. I couldn’t imagine the awful, sporadic acts of violence that were being committed as the village was ransacked. Fear and anger for the children consumed my thoughts. Part of me wanted to jump up and make it all stop, but then I heard shrill screams and shrank back into my hiding place.
As the night ticked interminably by, I tried not to think what the rebels would do to the ‘skinny white muzungu with long angel hair’ if they found me. Clenching my jaw to stop my teeth chattering, I squeezed my eyes shut and reminded myself how I’d come to be a central character in this horror story.
I could hear the voice of my mother, Rachel, in my head: her soft Scottish accent always sparks memories of my childhood on the outskirts of Edinburgh, where I grew up with my brother, sister and our many pets – even a boating lake and a secret garden. We had everything we could possibly want and were very happy – until the day when cancer took our mother from us and everything changed forever. She was only 53.
My sister fled to college and then went travelling, while my brother threw himself into work, following in our father’s footsteps in property. Needing my own escape and hoping to continue my mother’s mission to do good works in faraway places, I’d accepted a position as a volunteer at a commercial fishing lodge in Zambia. It was the most remote country on the list I was given and the one most in need.
“Find a bolt-hole as soon as you get there,” my father pleaded. “Somewhere to hide, just in case.” I’d laughed and assured him I’d be fine but now here I was on the jungle floor, in a fragile minefield of vines crawling with potentially lethal creatures – including the dreaded rain spiders, up to twelve inches across.
My innocent dreams of teaching the villagers English or educating them about the world now seemed ridiculously naïve. With a cheery smile, I’d waved goodbye to Dad and jumped on a plane to Africa without researching anything about its tumultuous political history or realising that my destination – Lake Tanganyika – was just miles from war-torn Congo.
Life was idyllic at first, a gap year student’s dream. My new home was beautiful and I made close friendships with the local Bemba people. I learned some of their language, planted a vegetable garden and created a little school under a Mukusi tree, writing about my experiences in my diary. I was still struggling with the loss of my mother and found special comfort in my bond with Zimba, a six-year-old orphan girl with HIV who called me “Ru-eese”.
But I soon learned that Africa is rife with hidden danger. I witnessed random acts of violence, contracted malaria and had close encounters with lions, elephants, crocodiles and snakes. As monsoon season came and went, the Hutu-Tutsi conflict in neighbouring Congo began to escalate and then spill over into Zambia with repercussions all along the lake. Thousands of people were displaced and we heard brutal tales of rape and murder.
Then one day, without warning, armed rebels descended on our bay. Taken by surprise, I spent a night huddled with others in an old straw hut, hoping not to be found as we listened to the engines of the rebel boats drawing near. The next morning, I was faced with a dreadful dilemma. Should I stay and care for Zimba, risking my life? Or flee to the safety of my family and break her heart? The rebels would surely return and the plane to take me home wasn’t due for several weeks. Torn, I wept for my mother and for myself as I hadn’t wept in years.
A mail plane arrived unexpectedly a few days later and – with its propellers still rotating – its pilot offered me a ride. But as I made the decision to board, Zimba ran wailing from the village and begged me to stay. So I did, but within days the rebels came again. This time, I had no choice but to flee alone in a desperate attempt to stay alive. For hours on end, I remained on the jungle floor with no idea if I would make it or if any of the people I had come to love would survive. During my months in Africa I had become part of the same story that my mother started when she spent time administering medical treatment to the natives of Papua New Guinea as a young woman, but suddenly my story didn’t look like it was going to have such a happy ending.
How had I come to be in such a place and for what? To prove myself worthy of her? She would never have wanted me to end my days like this. That was when I knew, deep in my heart, that it was time to go home.
My time in Zambia, and especially that long night in hiding, is imprinted on my mind now as a defining coming-of-age moment. It was the point at which my appreciation of the fragility of life – already shaped by my mother’s death – was fully realised.
Now that I’m a grown woman living in California and pursuing a very different dream – as an actress and film producer – I know that the skinny white girl once so incongruous in Africa still lives on inside me. Even in this world where I’m supposed to belong, I still sometimes feel out of place. Whenever that happens, though, I try to remember a smiling gap-toothed child with HIV whose greatest joy was to sit on my lap and drink from a bottle of Coca-Cola. Zimba taught me many beautiful words but the one I like the most is Nsansa. Happiness.