Category Archives: Life’s Journey

The Journey

the-journey

One of my favorite animated movies is Ratatouille, a movie about a rat and a clumsy orphan boy. In the movie, Remy the rat dreamed to be a chef someday like his idol Auguste Gusteau, but all odds were against him—a detestable little rat. Remy became separated from his family and started to live in the sewer pipes in Paris, France while he scrambled to find food.  He eventually found himself at the skylight overlooking the great chef Gusteau’s restaurant.

Remy saw a young man named Alfredo who got hired as a garbage collector spill a pot of soup and was trying to recreate it with disastrous outcome. Remy came to the rescue and fixed the soup to perfection. Alfredo caught Remy cooking and was confronted by the restaurant owner. While the restaurant owner was yelling at Alfredo for spilling the soup, Remy’s soup got accidentally served and became a huge success. Skinner the restaurant owner orders Alfredo to kill the rat, but he could not because he discovered Remy’s intelligence and his passion for food. Remy and Alfredo decided to work together. Through their partnership, Remy uncovered information about Alfredo’s late father—Gusteau, which made Alfredo the rightful owner of the restaurant. But Remy was soon exposed and Gusteau’s restaurant closed down. Remy, Colette and Alfredo teamed up to form a new bistro, “La Ratatouille” and became successful.

Even though the story in the movie Ratatouille is fiction, the message within is just as powerful as any real life stories we have heard or seen. I find it very interesting through my own life’s circumstances that help came from the most unlikely places. We tend to underestimate and dismiss people who do not seem to carry value because of the way they look or based on their status in life. Time and time again, our perception of what we think of others is challenged when we see those we look down on excel in what they do.  Or maybe we doubt our ability to help others and ourselves excel.

So what can we learn from a rat and a clumsy young man? A lot.

My spiritual mentor spoke a lot on the importance of bridge building. He said never to underestimate anyone based on what you see or how you feel because you never know if the person you just met might be one of the bridges you have to cross on your way to reach your destination; maybe even your only way out of a situation.

When I was younger, I doubted my ability to sing, let alone tour the world. I saw kids my age with great vocal talents who could have started groups that toured the world. I did not see myself as someone who could sing until I was told that I had a good voice. There were people who were more qualified and talented than I was and could have easily attained everything I attained. And yet, here I am, having traveled the world and sang in schools, churches, and for presidents.

I met my friend Daniel in Sunday school who later introduced me to his friend Vusmas. We created a singing trio that traveled around Zambia. When our talent was discovered, we started a vocal group which became famous and toured the world. Five other groups were formed and toured under the vocal group. A lot of people have benefited and a lot of talents have been discovered in the process. On the flip side, Daniel and I could not have done everything we have done without the help of the guys in the vocal group. Together we accomplished a lot and many people have been impacted.

In the past couple of years, I have had the privilege of mentoring couple of computer science graduate students on a web project they were working on as part of their internship with College of Business and Technology.  One of the students was offered an internship position by a local business as a developer upon his graduation. He consulted with his professor and me whether he should accept the job. He was offered an entry-level pay with good benefits. We advised him to take the job so he could gain some much needed experience. He decided to decline the position because his family wanted him to move to a bigger city where he could find a job as a developer with a six figure salary. He is still looking for a job.

A lot of times, we think about the destination, rather than focusing on the journey. Sometimes, we forget we have to prove ourselves before we can go to the next level or even before someone can discover our talents. When I started to work for the university, I accepted a position as an educational support tech, which was not what I went to school for. I made the best of it even though it was not a web programming position. I didn’t know how long it would take; I just did what I needed to do with excellence. I even developed a help desk web application for the department to keep track of trouble tickets and inventory even if it was not part of my job description. Someone started to take notice, and before long, I was offered a position as a web developer creating web applications for the university.

I love the quote from Saeed, a character, in my wife’s book, Secrets Kept, “Sometimes the journey is greater than the destination.” This quote nails it for me. When you look at the journey of some of the great minds of our times; people who helped shape our world. They all have one thing in common – determination. They were determined to make the best out of what they were doing and knew they needed others to help them reach their dreams one step at a time. Some had to take odd jobs just to make a living while pursuing their true passion. In the end, someone took notice and was willing to give them a chance.

Not everyone is willing to work for the life they want to live. Life’s journey is not as simple as following the seven steps from a prosperity book or getting degrees from acclaimed universities. It is a journey that is uncertain, full of challenges, yet beautiful as we find our talents and help others in the process.

What’s your life’s journey? Do you remember people who helped you reach your destination, or are you just getting started?

It’s Never Too Late

never-too-lateDreams can be reborn – sometimes a little different than expected.

When I was about 7 years old, I had a bad allergic reaction to some food I ate and my skin was breaking out with a rash. My mom took me to a hospital some four miles away from our home. While at the hospital, I saw a lot of children suffering. They were scattered with their parents all over the floor with different types of ailments, all waiting to see a doctor.  After a long time waiting in line, I was finally in the doctor’s office.  On the way out through the hallway, I saw a lady holding a baby, weeping uncontrollably. I asked mom why the lady was crying, and she told me that her baby had just died. I remember feeling very sad. We walked home from the hospital with the picture of a crying mother holding her deceased child still in my head. I had never seen that much pain and suffering all in one place.  Funerals and diseases were not new to Kalingalinga. I had seen children die from preventable diseases almost every week. What I saw that day was different; so many children afflicted with pain and death. I wished God had given me super healing powers to heal the sick children all over the world.  I hated going to hospitals from that point on.

My desire of becoming a doctor grew. I figured that would be the only way I could help people who are suffering with illnesses.  How can this huge dream be accomplished in such a place as Kalingalinga?  Who will pay for medical school? My dad’s $40 per month income? It would have to take a miracle.

In my last two blogs the Rain Maker and The Timeline, I shared a little bit about my journey, the challenges I faced growing up, and how mom’s old sewing machine literally became a miracle that helped us through the toughest times. With me working about 10 hours a day making clothes and also taking care of the family, it was impossible for me to go to school. Children my age are supposed to be in high school, not taking care of their families. I had kissed school goodbye; the dream of traveling the world and becoming a doctor was shattered. I had no desire to return to school. I lost my childhood. Even with an opportunity to tour the United States, singing in schools later on, the desire to go back to school was never rekindled. The thought of having to take subjects such as algebra, physics, and chemistry made me cringe. I wouldn’t know where to start.

When the vocal group traveled to different schools across forty states, we encouraged students to work hard and stay in school. We had one simple message, “Do not let your circumstance dictate your future; with a dream, education, and self determination, you can achieve whatever you desire in life.” We had sung in some of the toughest schools in the inner cities, from Dallas, Texas all the way to Cleveland, Ohio. We shared with students that nothing can stop them from achieving their goals here in America.  My mission in life was to help others accomplish their dreams. I figured at least part of my dream to travel the world had been fulfilled and nothing more.  I was pretty much content with where I was. I did not want to put myself in a stressful situation where I could get into depression again.

Several years had passed. Our road manager encouraged us to enroll for classes at a local GED center. I told him it was too late for me to get into school. I wasn’t even sure what I would study if I ever went to college. He told me not to worry about anything but focus on getting my GED out of the way. After his constant nudging, I enrolled in some GED classes, and a month later I had taken a GED mock exam and passed. I was encouraged with the result and saw a glimmer of hope. Few weeks later, I took the actual exam and passed it. My desire to go back to school was rekindled.

During our tours, we had met a family doctor in Ennis, Texas where we went for our medical checkups. He and his wife would invite the group to visit their home often. At the end of our final tour, they sponsored me and three of my friends to attend school at a junior college. My first semester was scary; I did not know what I was going to study. The last time I was in school was in the seventh grade.  I decided to go for general studies until I could figure out my course of study.

I enrolled in a music class, a basic computer course, and was involved with couple of the college choirs. In my first computer class session, I found myself sitting in front of a computer for the first time. I always had a curious mind. When I was growing up, I would take things apart to learn how they were put together. I had learned how to make clothes by taking apart my old pants and shirt from the seams. I even got in trouble one time when I opened my dad’s radio to see what was talking inside.  Now, I wanted to know what makes a computer work.  After my class, I had found my course of study – I would become a computer engineer. I wanted to learn how to design computer systems.

Before my second semester, I had consulted with my academic adviser to select the classes I need to take towards my degree.  All the classes I had dreaded taking were on my schedule. I would start out the second semester with college algebra, university physics, a programming class, and of course my two choir classes, and a music class. I felt intimidated, but I was determined to work hard. My first class was a programming class in the morning. During class, the instructor had handed out a computer code written on a piece of paper. It all looked gibberish to me.  I had trouble understanding what he was saying and had asked him to repeat what he had just said. He looked at me and told me that if I can’t understand the concept of this basic computer program, then I will never be a computer programmer.  I couldn’t believe what he had said right in front of the whole class. I grew up listening to the little voices that said “You will never amount to anything. Kalingalinga is a dead end place. Nothing good can come out of Kalingalinga. There is no way out.” Little did he know that he had just given me ammunition to work hard; I was not going to give up.  I decided to change my major that day, and I would become a computer programmer instead.

In the coming semesters, I took on even harder courses; Calculus 1, 2, and 3; University Physics 1 and 2, and Differential Equations. Everything was hard to say the least, but nothing was going to stop me. After I graduated with my associate degree, I challenged myself even further. I went on to a four year university to get a degree in computer science. Before I walked the stage to receive my degree, I looked back at the mountains I had to climb; the sleepless nights I spent studying for exams. What a journey; a roller coaster ride. I have finally reached the summit. I am done. I am a computer programmer.

Dreams can be reborn. What about my friend Daniel? He also had many challenges as much as I had growing up in Kalingalinga. His story is that of perseverance and determination.  He went on to medical school and is currently a licensed general surgeon near Cleveland, Ohio. My circumstances took me on a different path; a path that birthed something even greater than I had anticipated; a passion for children — a passion that helped build a school for nearly three hundred underprivileged children in Africa.

What are some of the challenges you faced growing up? What motivated you to move forward?

The Timeline

the-timelineHow the past can make or break us.

Years back, McDonald had put out a really neat commercial. In the commercial, there were two boxers. One of them was getting hammered and was about give up when his coach reminded him of something that happened in the past. The coach told him, “Remember when you were six, and we took you to McDonald’s for your birthday? All the kids? All the fun? All for you, son? Remember when someone stole your fries and we never found out who? It was him. ”  Even though the McDonald commercial was fictional, it reminded me of how the past can either motivate us to do something extraordinary or cause us to be paralyzed by fear and shame.

A timeline by definition is a graphical representation of passage of time. Using a timeline, we can go back in history and look at the chain of events that shaped our world, good or bad – slavery, wars, famine, natural disasters and of course, some of the great inventions of our time, such as electricity, automobiles, airplanes, computers, and the list goes on. These things of the past have greatly impacted and changed our lives forever.

On a personal level, the things we have experienced shapes who we are and how we do things. Things like marriage, parenting, divorce, loss, disappointment, success, abuse, etc. Sometimes it seems that the negative experiences impact us the most. There are two different types of negative experiences. Ones we have no control over and ones that derive from our choices. It all comes down to how we handle it. Whether we learn from it or make the same choices expecting different results yet find ourselves facing the same consequences. We can chose to let it strengthen us or embitter us.

In my last blog post, The Rainmakers, I highlighted a little about the people who made a difference in my life; people who helped me to be who I am today. I also talked a little bit about my two young sisters, Maria and Chuma.  In times when I felt like giving up; when I felt that there was no way out, my sisters had become a source of strength. I did not want to fail for their sake. They became an inspiration for me to be innovative and to find ways of providing food and shelter for the family. I became like a mother and father to them.

When the time came for me to travel internationally with the vocal group, it was hard for me to leave my two young sisters behind. I was scared for their lives and what might happen to them in my absence. As the plane was getting ready to take off, I took one last look at the crowd standing at the balcony of the airport waving their goodbyes. My sisters were not waving, but instead they had covered their faces, weeping. I knew it had to be painful for them to see someone who took care of them leave. The images of seeing them cry at the airport burned in my head. I doubted myself, and I had all these unanswered questions. Am I making the right decision?

Our trip to Moscow was very uneventful. My heart and mind was still back home. I wondered how my sisters were doing. Did they have food for the day? Would they make it without me? I had a hard time eating, I had lost my appetite. I felt guilty and that God would punish me for being selfish. If I loved my sisters so much, why did I leave them behind? I did not only provide food and shelter for them, but I was also their security. Kalingalinga was still a very dangerous place to live.

When we got to Russia, we were told that our flight to New York had already left and it would be three days before we could catch another one. To make matters worse, we met a guy at the airport who had missed a flight. He told us he had been at the airport for several weeks and that the Russian government would not give him a visa to leave the airport and find a hotel. Since I was already filled with guilt, missing our flight was an indication that God had already started to punish me.

The Russian airline had petitioned for a three day visa and had put us in a hotel. They also provided meals for us. We had less than $100 as emergency money. Our road manager was already making his long drive to meet us in New York from Texas. We needed to inform him that we are not going to make it in time. My friend Daniel and I had gone into downtown Moscow to find a place where we could make an international call to the United States. We were told the charge will be about $80 to make a 5 minute call. Since we had about $95, we figured that would be enough money to make the call. After we made the call, we gave the attendant $80, but we were told they didn’t accept dollars, only Russian money. He confiscated our passports until we could pay for the phone call. After we converted the $95 next door, we came to learn that the Russian money was not enough to cover the call. We went back to the hotel without our passports, helpless and fearful of what would happen next. How would we ever leave Moscow?

That evening, we went up to the 9th floor of the hotel to lounge and have a pity party. People from different countries gathered for some coffee and fellowship. We started to sing softly in the corner, providing entertainment for the hotel guests. A man from Italy jokingly offered to be our music manager. He took off his hat and passed it around. People started to put money in the hat for the group. The guests got excited and danced around the room with us, but then the Russian police came and stopped the festivities. We raised more than $100 that evening and were able to pay the rest of the phone bill and got our passports back in time for our flight.

After about three months in the United States, my guilt worsened. I became depressed. I would not sleep. Every night while in bed, my mind would play all the negative things that had happened in my life. The worry I had for my sisters; the condemnation for leaving them. I couldn’t  shake the guilt. How could I be so defeated in the land of opportunities? Life is supposed to be better here. It seemed like my past was once again showing its ugly face with a vengeance.

It wasn’t  until a year later when I realized that no matter what I did, all my life experiences would remain on my timeline. I could either accept my past or live in denial for the rest of my life. For the first time, I was able to grieve my mother’s death. For so many years I had lived in denial. I had become numb to pain. I did not want to show any emotions. I thought showing emotions was a sign of weakness. But this time, I had made a choice. I would not allow my past to dictate what I would become.

I often hear people say “just move on” or “life goes on” when others have experienced disappointment or loss. But the stuff is still on the timeline. That painful, hurtful moment will always be there, a part of you. You can’t just move on. Avoiding it doesn’t  help. If we deny it, ignore it, bury it, we will not be able to heal. Instead of becoming stronger, we allow it to hinder us.

We need to accept our past and stop fighting it. Take time to heal. No amount of beating ourselves over the head will change it. All that is, is wasted energy and time. The past is but a memory of which we do not have any control over, but we have control of what we do in the now, the impact we can have in the lives around us and beyond.

The Rainmakers

rain_makersThe journey of one touched by many

With the child mortality rate of about 19 percent, many Zambian children were not expected to survive past the age of 5.  2 out of every 5 children had no chance of ever setting foot in a classroom. Life was a dead end. I was like a little plant in the desert going against all odds. I could have been one of the many children who did not make it had it not been for the  rainmakers–people who caused it to rain, providing physical and spiritual nutrients for me to grow. So, how did I make it?

My parents were born and raised in the village. They believed in personal liberty, strong work ethic, self reliance and living in a strong village community. As a British colony, Zambia had gone through some drastic social and economical changes. The British way of governance had changed much of the village life resulting in an influx of Zambians migrating to the cities to work.  After Zambia’s independence, my parents were among the new immigrants to the city to find work in the commercial farms, construction, mining, and other new industries. Many had no formal education or technical skills, and worked menial labor, working for less than a dollar a day. Adapting to city life was challenging for my parents. They move around a lot before finally settling in a shanty compound built on a farm which was previously owned by an Indian farmer called Kalingalinga. The compound was eventually named after him.

Kalingalinga grew and so did the challenges. Houses were built out of mud and covered with tin roofs with no running water or electricity. By the time I was born, this makeshift town had grown to about 10,000 residents. Mounds of garbage piled up on every street corner. A quarter of a mile from my house was a huge hole where waste from nearby industries was dumped. Every year during the rainy season, there were outbreaks of waterborne illnesses such as cholera and dysentery, and many children lost their lives from these preventable diseases. There were funerals everyday in the community, of which most were children. There was so much hopelessness and devastation.

One day I was at church with my mother when I met a boy named Daniel. Daniel and I became best friends instantly. We had dreams to become doctors and travel the world; even though it wasn’t really the world, but countries that surrounded Zambia, nonetheless this was the extent of our world. Later on, we started a musical group that sang in funerals and some local churches. We had hoped to someday travel around Zambia and eventually to all of Southern Africa. Naïve to the challenges we were about to face, we were determined and nothing was going to stop us. We dealt with the challenges of living life and people’s stereotypes about Kalingalinga, hearing constant little voices that said we will never amount to anything; nothing good can come out of Kalingalinga. We believed education was the key to our dreams.

In the early 90’s, an American educator and his wife came to Zambia to help with a school zvgat our church. He had heard our group and was impressed with our vocal talents, and the fact that we had no formal music training. He promised to help sponsor the group to travel to the United States to sing at a student convention and schools. He encouraged us to practice every day, so we did. For several years we had practiced six days a week for at least three hours and had opportunities to compete in music festivals around Lusaka, the capital city. We had gotten better. We were even invited to sing for the head of state at the State House. Things started to look very good. We were finally getting somewhere.

And then it ended.

One evening my mom became mysteriously ill. We did not have the money to take her to the hospital, and the next day her situation was getting worse by the minute. By evening, our neighbor managed to raise money to take mom to the hospital. With Zambia’s extremely poor healthcare system, doctors did not fully know the cause of her illness until it was too late. The doctors said her cause of death was a stroke, but we later found out it was bacterial meningitis. With the death of mom, dad’s alcohol problem became worse. About a year after mom’s death, he had severely hurt his back and was unable to work anymore. I had to be innovative. So, I quit school and looked for ways to provide food for the family. My dreams of becoming a doctor died.

My mom had an old hand-powered sewing machine she received from her older brother. She used it to make quilts and patched holes in our clothes from time to time. Never in my life would I ever think that the little machine in the corner of the living area gathering dirt would become my lifeline. All I had was 3 shirts and 2 pants for clothes. I had to sacrifice my clothes to learn how to sew.  I took the seams out, laid them on the floor, studied the patterns, and practiced sewing them back together. I did this daily. My younger sister thought I was losing my mind after she saw the pieces of my clothes lying all over the floor in our little mud house. I was determined to learn.  In about three months, I was able to create my first outfit. I later started a small sewing business from my mom’s old leftover fabric. The business grew, and I later opened a shop at a local market.

A year and half later, the education missionary came through with his promise. He had managed to sponsor the group on its first international tour to the United States. The group traveled to over forty States, singing in over three thousand schools.

I have heard this phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” being thrown around a lot. You might say I was innovative to use my mom’s sewing machine to create a business from the ground up, but I look back and see an army of people who helped me along the way. You can only pull yourself up by the bootstraps if you have boots; in my case I had nothing. Had it not been for my uncle giving mom the sewing machine, my pastor who became like a father to me,  and the many other people who helped us with food during the time I was learning to sew, there was no way I could have made it. The army of rainmakers in my life continued during our tours in the United States. From my American mom and dad who had three of their own biological children and us ten adopted Zambian children all living in one house,  to a family doctor and his wife that kept and sponsored three of my friends and I for our first year of college. We had families that loved us and supported us with their time and resources.

james-at-schoolIf it wasn’t for others raining blessings in my life, I would not have been here. Let us think twice before we tell someone to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps”. We all have been helped by someone to become what we are today. I can’t do enough to pay back all the people who helped me; the little I can do is to help someone else. We all can be rainmakers, making a difference in someone’s life, one person at a time.  Do you have someone that has had an impact in your life?

A Life Changing Moment

a-life-changing-momentWhat changed my life is not what my father said, it’s what he did.

I was born and raised in a shanty compound east of the capital city of Zambia. Kalingalinga was one of the poorest communities in Lusaka. An average worker made about $30 a month. Poverty, crime, diseases, witchcraft, and prostitution were rampant; there were more bars than there were churches. The nearest schools were about four to five miles away. People called Kalingalinga the dark city because of all the crime.

Our house did not have running water or electricity. Mom had to go to the market every morning to buy fresh food. One Sunday morning, my mother was making her trip to the market and  was stopped by a missionary. The missionary gave mom a Bible and other pamphlets.  She politely accepted them.  My mother did not know how to read or write; she never had a formal education. Both my parents did not attend church and did not know what to do with the materials. Thus my mother used the pages of the Bible to wrap roasted peanuts that she sold on the streets to supplement my dad’s $40 per month income.

The following year, I wanted to go to school with my older brother, but the school principal thought it would be dangerous for me to make the four and half mile trip through the corn fields. I had heard stories of kids who had been kidnapped and killed taking the same gravel road I would have to take, but that did not deter my ambition to go to school and become a doctor someday.  After I learned that I couldn’t go to school until next year, I was crushed.  I attempted to teach myself to read by using what was left of the Bible. I wanted to prove to my parents that I was ready for school. My determination paid off. I had learned how to read.

The first year of school was great. I was excited to finally start learning English and how to write.  I had excelled through the third grade, but by the fourth grade, I had become a target for bullies. By then, I realized my family was very poor compared to most of the kids in the school. The kids would tease me, spat on me, and call me names. The fact that I was wearing old hand-me-down girl shoes and a patched up uniform, made the situation even worse. I started to resent school. I was afraid to tell my parents about the torture I was going through. Something had to change if I was going to make it.

I became the monster the kids were afraid of. I became mean and fearless to gain respect from the bullies. I started to physically hurt the students who teased or bullied me. I was at the principal’s office at least seven or eight times per week because of all the fights I had gotten into and was suspended from school numerous times. The principal told my parents at one point that if I didn’t change, they would have to expel me from school, but I felt respected and important, because the students feared me.

One afternoon I came home from school, I had lunch and set out to play with a friend, but a neighborhood kid started to tease and taunt us. I picked up a sizable rock and threw it at the boy as hard as I could. The rock hit the boy in the top left side of his head barely missing his eye. The boy fell to the ground and was unconscious for several minutes. He was rushed to a clinic at my dad’s work. I knew immediately that I had done something very bad and was afraid my dad was going to literally kill me. My dad gave me harsh punishments very often since I started to get in trouble, but none of the punishments would make me stop the destructive path I was taking. This incident was very different; I saw my life in a different light.

I fled and hid until evening. I had contemplated about spending the night in the nearby bushes, but the thought of poisonous snakes and spiders made me think twice. By the time I came home, I had hoped my dad, who was an alcoholic, would be gone to the bars, but he wasn’t. I came into the yard and heard him talking with my mom. My heart sunk. I had never been this scared for my life before. I made my way to the front door and stopped. Then I heard him call my name. I responded and made my way into the house. He asked me to get a stool and sit in front of him. He looked me in the eyes and told me that what I did was very bad and never to do it again. I got startled as he reached to grab something on the table next to him. I was expecting a devastating blow on my head to knock me unconscious; instead he grabbed a plate of food and handed it to me. He said bye to my mom and left for the bar.

I ate my food in silence. This was unlike my dad. I was afraid he would come home and still punish me severely. He came home three hours later that evening a little drunk and did not say a word about what I did.

For several weeks I lived in fear. I had stayed out of trouble, expecting my dad will come home one day and snap at me. I had all these unanswered questions of what made him act this way. I started to read the half Bible again. Three weeks had past, nothing.

One evening, I was sitting outside doing my homework. My dad came home and told me he had gotten something for me. He handed me a package and I opened it. It was a brand new Bible. Wow! My family did not have a lot of money and Bibles were very expensive. His simple gesture was a life changer to say the least. It was then that I knew without a shadow of a doubt that he had forgiven me. All my fears melted away.

If my father could forgive me, could I do no less for those who had wronged me? I forgave the students who bullied me, and I set out to right the wrongs.  My goal was to make a difference and to be a friend to everyone, including the least popular kids. Mothers of my friends at home took notice of the drastic change and would use me as an example for their children. It’s amazing how something so simple, an act of love and grace, but yet so powerful would change my life forever.

What are some of the life changing moments you have experienced? How did some of the things you went through shaped who you are today? Maybe sharing them here can be a life changer for someone else — you never know.