As the electricity flicks off, a mother in Zimbabwe contemplates the paths not taken

Her son and friend look for treasure at the bottom of the garden, and she discovers her own.

"Can we go to the tunnel, Mum?"

I close my laptop with a sigh. In the kitchen, I collect the things two small boys will need for a picnic: a flask of homemade lemonade, the remains of a packet of ginger cookies.

Sam and I found the tunnel soon after we moved to our red-roofed cottage in eastern Zimbabwe. Half-hidden in the bushy scrapland at the bottom of the garden, it's a five-yard-long pipe that's wide enough for an adult to shimmy his way through. At the height of Zimbabwe's rainy season, a trickle of water flows through it. In the dry April-August months, the pipe is empty and echoey, a magnet for small boys.

"Auntie Kate, can we build a fire there?" Seamus, Sam's friend, is jumping up and down with excitement.

I add a bundle of cotton balls and a tub of vaseline to the picnic basket. I did not know how to make fire lighters when I lived in Paris nearly 10 years ago.

A peanut-butter-colored kitten, the smallest of our tribe, trails the three of us as we traipse down the slope. The boys scramble into the pipe with shouts of glee. They coax the kitten in, drink their mugs of lemonade, and ask for more.

"This is so cool," Seamus says. His "cool" ricochets off the smooth concrete walls of the pipe. "Cool... cool."

A few yards away, I collect sticks for the kindling I need to make tonight's fire. The electricity will flick off soon, as it does most days.

I had an e-mail today from a former colleague at the international news agency I once worked for in France. She's now the head of a news bureau in Asia. "My flat is in a modern Western-style building with a gym, a pool, and a shop," she writes. "I have a housing allowance so it's all free."

I love getting e-mails from my friends. Sasha, a speech and drama teacher, tells of toy libraries and her son's Wii games in rural middle England. Louise, a freelance editor, writes of buying a flat in London and blogging in Spain. Emma, who sat next to me in Dante lectures at university, fills me in on a recent holiday she took in Florence with her infant daughter. "I couldn't remember how to say 'crawl' in Italian," she laughs.

My friends' missives are fascinating windows into lives that I can't help feeling might easily have been my own. Occasionally though, those e-mails can send me spiraling into self-doubt.

My 6-year-old son knows how to make a spinning top with a ripe loquat fruit and a toothpick. But will he miss having a Wii game? If I'd persuaded my Zimbabwean husband to move with me to Paris, would we now be taking minibreaks in sunny European cities?

Would I have achieved more if I'd climbed a corporate ladder rather than launching a freelance life in a beautiful but politically torn African country?

To compare yourself with your contemporaries is human. But it is also good, I'm learning, to try to find contentment where you can. If today I lived in Paris with my family, we would visit the Musée d'Orsay and the Pompidou Centre. Maybe we'd eat croque-monsieur in Montmartre on Saturdays.

But there would be no tunnel at the bottom of the garden. My child wouldn't live in a place where "blessing" is one of the most common words you hear.

When bread, fuel, and sugar were in short supply in Zimbabwe four years ago, I spent hours searching for basics on the main Herbert Chitepo Street. I was astonished by the number of shoppers who, in response to my rhetorical: "How are you?" answered: "I'm blessed."

"Why?" I asked an acquaintance once, an elderly lecturer with degrees in classics and child development. "We don't have much," he explained simply (his monthly salary then was worth around $18). "But we have friends and homes and we made it through another week."

Zimbabweans believe in blessings so firmly that Chipo (which means "blessing" or "gift" in the local Shona language) is a favorite baby name.

It's 5 o'clock. In a newsroom above the Place de la Bourse, former colleagues will be pushing scheduled stories onto the newswire.

I hear a crackle of twigs. Seamus's mother struggles her way through the undergrowth. "You guys look like you're having fun," she smiles. We pour a bucket of water onto the embers of our fire and trudge up to the verandah.

Later, I go back to the tunnel to collect the boys' mugs. I flash my torch inside to where they were drawing cave pictures with bits of charcoal from my coal scuttle.

In smudged letters, one of them has written the words: "Treasure. Here."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.