“In America, it is normal to have few children, yes?”
“Why don’t they have more?”
I considered the question. How was I to explain the demographic shift to my Zambian friend, a woman who at 26 had three children already, who was sharp as a tack but had only her grade 12 certificate, who had probably only been outside of Zambia once in her life?
“Some do.” It seemed only fair to start there. “But in America, it is very expensive to have children. Most people choose to have only one or two, which costs less, and then put a lot of effort into making sure they do well.”
“But how is it expensive?” Unspoken in the air between us hung the idea that having children is not that difficult. And in Zambia, children are a source of labor, an extra pair of hands to cook or clean or work in the field.
“Doctors are very expensive.” I fumbled for words. “And clothing.” I knew that having children is expensive, but struggled to come up with concrete examples that would make sense in this context. “School fees.” School supplies were like school fees, yes? “Someone to watch the children if both parents work. And in America, food is expensive. My mother spends as much money on groceries in a week as I spend on everything in a month here.”
She stared at me, completely shocked. “Why don’t they have gardens?”
I thought about it, taken aback by the question. I had always thought of Zambia as barren and dry compared to the eastern seaboard of the US, less fertile, unfriendly, a place where a garden had to be hacked out of dry ground by dint of sheer labor — and yet it was true: many Zambian families grow a huge percentage of their own food.* How could my green and fertile US be so unproductive in comparison? I tried to explain the work involved, that even with a garden, Americans can grow only a portion of their own food. It didn’t even occur to me to talk about growing seasons, or about the differences in the ways Americans and Zambians eat, or that most Americans probably wouldn’t know how to cook produce from their own garden even if they had one, much less what to do with grain.
I’ve been thinking about that conversation a lot recently. The area of Somerville I moved to has some sort of industrial past, and between that and generations of lead paint on the houses, the soil test from our garden that we sent off to the UMass Soil Testing Laboratory came back with a lead level more than ten times the recommended level, on the high end of the “Children and pregnant women should not interact with the soil” range.
I look at the cheerful garden my upstairs neighbors have planted, and hope that they take the copy of the soil test I gave them seriously enough to not feed those vegetables to their grandchildren. At the same time, every time I walk past the cheerful childish handwriting on the sign that reads, “Eat your vegetables!” I am sad to crush that enthusiasm.
How would I explain that to my Zambian friend? “Where I live now, there is poison in the ground, and we cannot eat anything that grows from it. We must buy new soil from a store, and containers, and carry them to our house on my bicycle or on our heads, and even then we will have enough for only a few plants. Likely it will cost as much, if not more, than just buying the vegetables from a store.”
I’m not even sure she would believe me. And why should she? Surely it’s a crazy way to run a world.
*And many Zambian women grow a surplus of produce to sell at market. Not farmers, not devotees, just women with a big garden and good source of water, and maybe a lot of kids to help out. (In fact, one of the books I read before going to Zambia indicated that in some regions there is a linguistic difference between mwafwamu, farming maize to sell to the government or companies, and cultivating sorghum and other crops for family consumption, a distinction that could lead to statements like, “Women don’t care about farming, they just want to cultivate sorghum.” It’s not something I specifically noticed, but it would not surprise me if a similar distinction existed in Tongaland.)