You are the only woman I know, anywhere in the world, who wanted to own her bar and jolly well went and did it all by herself. You were the hero of every aspiring girl in Chipata. I loved how they listened to you and called you Aunty. I loved how respected you were. I loved it that you told me I could call you Aunty too but soon you became Alice.
I thought I would come back.
I thought we would sit at your bar, Options, and drink brandy and I’d tell you how I started dancing as exercise instead of running and you’d be pleased. You never did understand the running.
I thought you would tell me all about running your own business and how staff always let you down and I would remind you that having independence was what you always wanted and you would agree. And then you’d pour me some more brandy.
I thought I would tell you that I still wear the wrong outfit to occasions but the Zambian dress you had made for me—the one that fitted perfectly right down to the small bust—travelled with me across four African countries and I got three guys to put it on. Sometimes the dress went dancing without me. It was the kindest gift if I’ve ever received.
I thought I would tell you we have a new female prime minister in New Zealand and I knew you would be pleased as you really liked Helen Clark when she was leading. Then we’d chat about Hilary Clinton and how we both love Michelle Obama and then, knowing you, we’d talk about Kim Kardashian’s bum and why is it everywhere.
I thought I would tell you that I had a boy and a girl, just like you, and we’d have a laugh about our post birth bodies and what they do. Especially after the laughing.
I thought you would tell me about your grown up children and how they always need their mama, and all about Mrs Chief, and how many more women are riding motorbikes in Chipata.
But you can’t.
And I can’t.
I can’t thank you for showing me what to do when I was the only mzungu in the room—be myself and for goodnessake dance!
I can’t thank you for listening to me when I messed up and reminding me we’re all human.
I can’t thank you for teaching me that all you need, wherever you are in the world, is one great friend.
I can’t thank you for understanding me (except for the eating disorder part, I loved it that you thought bulimia was some kind of accountant).
I can’t thank you for showing me that a woman from New Zealand and a woman from Zambia want the same things. We all want love and acceptance. We all want to live without fear but somehow we don’t.
I can’t tell you that you were right, Alice, when you told me to jump. Don’t hesitate.
I’m sad I’ll never hear your beautiful deep voice again.
And wise wise words.
Or feel the slap of our hands when we agree on something.
And the click of your tongue when we don’t.
I’m sad you won’t laugh at my dancing anymore.
Or make jokes about useless ex husbands.
I’m sad I can never introduce you to my guy.
Or let my children fall in love with you.
I’m sad I never made it back to Zambia to say hello again.
And I never got to say goodbye.
When I was 33, I ditched life in Wellington to volunteer at a radio station in Zambia. I thought that leaving safe, easy New Zealand and depositing myself in not-safe, not-easy Africa would turn me into the woman I always hoped to become. I was so naive. With no experience I blundered through my new life with all the grace of a warthog at a disco. Plus I didn’t really know anything about radio stations. I hardly even listened to the radio. The best thing about my time in Chipata was becoming friends with two people: Senior Chief Nzamane and Aunty Alice. Chief Nzamane helped me realise Africa was not a place to change but a place to change me, and Alice helped me let go. She was the kind of woman I hoped to become: strong, independent, funny, kind and fearless. She took me to her witch doctor when I needed some advice. I helped her with her bar as I had some experience in that department. But mostly we made each other laugh. Recently Chief Nzamane told me Alice passed of a disease that gets too many people in Africa. Rest in peace dear Alice. You’ll forever be in a soft, funny, fearless corner of my heart.