Letters from Lusaka: Part II

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In 1992-1993, during the first years of Zambia’s multi-party democracy, we were posted to Lusaka, Zambia’s capital.  The Team Leader was charged with distributing European Union food aid to drought-stricken Zambians. (Part I is HERE). For the first couple of weeks, and the irony was not lost on us, we lived in the 4-star Pomodzi Hotel, in air-conditioned luxury.

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Notes from an aid nomad’s life in Zambia

While we are still at the Pomodzi I do the unthinkable as far as white locals are concerned. I walk out of the hotel grounds and down a couple of avenues to the Ridgeway Hotel. One of the visiting NRI chaps has told me that it has a good gift shop, and there may be the possibility of finding some local books.

I set off on the basis that as I am not travelling by car, I will not be car-jacked. I am not. I buy a wonderful Tonga basket and a small olive-wood elephant for luck, but there are no books. I do find a map though – Lusaka one side, Zambia on the other. I study the country’s boundaries, trying to make sense of colonial cobbling that created a nation whose North Province lies to the east of its Central Province.

The country nestles in the heart of southern Africa between eight countries. In outline it resembles a foetal chick curled on its back within a protecting shell. In reality, though, I soon learn that Zambia has no such protection. It simply has too many borders and not enough military personnel. There are only some 300, 000 taxpayers in a population of eight million, which is not enough to pay for more soldiers. The north-west border with Zaire is lethally porous. Members of President Mobutu’s own unpaid armed forces regularly drive into Zambia’s Copper Belt and conduct armed pillaging campaigns against innocent drivers and householders. Sometimes they come as far south as Lusaka.

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Pomodizi Hotel

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We are told that when driving at night we must never stop at red traffic lights (locally known as robots), since this is the moment that car-jackers will choose to pounce. Over in Eastern Province the threat comes from the conflict in Mozambique as RENAMO guerrillas cross the border to shoot up Zambian buses and steal food. In Western Province UNITA fighters from Angola’s war terrorize Zambian villagers. Famine, then, is only one cause of death; there are many others, and the mineral resources that Cecil Rhodes sought so hard to control through his dark-hearted dealings with local chiefs are high on the list.

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AIDS awareness down on Cairo Road.

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Then there is malaria and tuberculosis, and as the rains bucket down through December, the cholera season begins. Overflowing septic tanks and pit latrines are polluting the city’s boreholes. At first, oblivious of such dangers, we eat out at downtown restaurants. We are down in Livingstone, near the Zimbabwe border, G checking out the contents of grain stores, when I am stricken with amoebic dysentery. Again it is the Delegation secretary who comes to the rescue and directs us to the mining companies’ private clinic, downtown on Cairo Road. The diagnostic facilities there are impressive, the British-born doctor patronizing. But after a three-day course of very large pills, I recover. I am lucky. Of course I am.

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Sable Road - compound pool

Six or so houses share the gardens, including a very small pool.

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We like our little house. It is red brick, single storey with a sheet iron roof that, during the rains, resounds as if someone is firing bullets into a host of upturned buckets. The living room has French doors opening onto a tiny high-walled garden. There is a big avocado tree in the corner where African sparrows come twittering in to roost in late afternoon. Above the wall, when it is not raining, arcs the blue Zambian sky. To the rear, a small kitchen gives onto a walled back yard and a patch of grass. There are two bedrooms, a tiny study and a bathroom. Outside the front door is a communal garden and terrace – garden seats set by a small swimming pool, a tall palm that rustles endlessly in the high plateau breezes, a sweet scented frangipani tree. No house overlooks any other and there are shady walk ways in between each property.

Sable Road our sitting room

Home in Sable Road

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The gardens are tended by a gentle young man called Stephen Nyangu. His name suggests erstwhile connections with the Nyanja royal clan. But Stephen’s situation is a far cry from tribal pre-eminence. He sweeps, mows, weeds, plants, prunes and waters six days a week, from seven in the morning to five in the afternoon. Then he cycles the couple of miles to his compound home in Leopard’s Hill Road where he lives with his wife and four children. The gardens he cares for bloom strangely under sub-tropical skies with tea roses, violets, pansies, Sweet William and Madonna lilies. He also washes all the cars and hefts all the dustbins to the big compound gate to be emptied once a week. For this he earns twelve thousand kwacha a month, about eighteen pounds. He has no leave beyond national holidays, and after work he runs a cigarette stall.

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Stephen Nyangu works day and night to keep his family.

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On my first day in our new home, it is Stephen who knocks on my door. “Good morning, madam. My name is Stephen. If there is anything you want me to do, I am just out there.” He gestures in the general vicinity of the pool. “Call me.” He is the only person on the compound who bothers to introduce himself. In ten months we scarcely see any of the other tenants beyond the Sikh couple who live next door. They nod to us. They have two much pampered, miniature Pomeranians and a maid called Isa. Isa looks a good-hearted soul and she works in several of the other households on the compound once she has done her daily tasks for the Sikhs. These include much furious chopping at seven a.m. Perhaps she is chopping for the Pomeranians. When she is left in charge of them for three months while their owners go on leave, she grows so fed up with their insistent yapping that one day she yells SHUT UP. And so shocked are the indulged little canines, that they do just that. I want to hug Isa.

I further decide that my house is scarcely big enough to justify even a once-a-week cleaner, this despite the constant slick of red dust that blows in every day. I thus do my own housework.

Our compound is on Sable Road in Kabulonga, the heart of the diplomatic quarter. Our next door neighbour is the Egyptian Embassy. At night the guards fire off rifles. We never do know what is going on there, and sometimes it sounds like a siege. Our compound is one of the least fortified on the road. The iron gate has open railings instead of sheet metal armour plating, and our day guard, Sammy, always leaves it unlocked  anyway during the day, while he plays draughts with a neighbouring house-guard. He’s a bit  nonplussed by my habit of going out on foot, and at first dashes from his game to open the gate as if I were a passing vehicle. We soon come to a silent arrangement whereby we greet each other, I open the gate for myself and he keeps on with his game. 

We soon discover that our household security provision falls short of official standards. European Union and British High Commission employees are advised to have internal security gates installed, external security lights, roof siren, alarm buttons, window bars, a pack of Dobermans and ridgebacks, a two-way radio and armed twenty-four-hour guards. The fortification of a property may cost around £5,000. Somehow we survive without most of these devices, although the top of our garden wall, which also forms the rear of the compound, is quite high and is further cemented with shards of broken glass.

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Sable Road in the dry season.

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The nights, though, can be nerve-wracking. Rounds of automatic gunfire are common after dark. Some European locals, we hear, have made a ritual of standing on their front lawn at 9 pm every night and shooting off their sporting rifles – just to let “the thieving bastards” know what’s what. These are the same people who will tell you that, when they are not trying to relieve you of all your worldly goods, the Africans are really very charming. But gunfire aside, it is anyway hard to sleep in the perpetual gloaming of the security lights dotted around our compound. The insects, too, grow louder as the night draws on, and then the dogs wake us.

Elite suburban living

Expatriate living: guard house and armoured gates.

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I call it the Kabulonga Howling. It begins with a solitary keening which swells into a relayed dog lament that spreads from compound to compound until a monstrous crescendo resounds across the suburbs. Once reached, it quickly subsides, to be replaced by the insistent beat of Zambian disco music, thrumming away beyond our perimeter wall. We have no idea who lives behind our glass-spiked rampart. I have tried standing on the brick barbeque in the back yard, but I still cannot see over the wall. Instead, I often hear a Zambian boy badgering his little sister whose name is Lorna. Lorna is always being ordered to do something or other. There is meek compliance in her little voice. It is the lot of many Zambian women to defer to men, and my heart aches for her. One day I find an arrow in the back garden – a stiff plant stem tipped with a bent Mosi beer bottle cap. For a moment I examine it like Robinson Crusoe finding unsettling signs of life on his confining island shore.

By day G. drives off early to the EU Delegation. It is only five minutes’ drive away. I begin to tend the back garden, sowing beans, courgettes, carrots. Things quickly sprout, but the land snails are as big as my fist. I write and read, although finding books is a challenge. We can find no bookshops in Zambia since the nation can no longer support a publishing industry. Once a week we drive down to the British Council on Cairo Road to borrow books from their library. We do this, ignoring white Zambians’ warnings that our Suburu will be car-jacked if we park anywhere downtown. Whenever we go to the library, most of Zambia’s students seem to be studying hard, filling every seat. It is hard to gain qualifications in a land without books.

Newsprint , too, is hard to come by. Newspapers sell out quickly each day and I have to rely on G. bringing the Delegation copy home at lunch-time for quick scan through. Soon we hear that four Zambian Daily Mail accountants have been arrested for ripping off their own company’s limited newsprint stock and selling it to a rival newspaper.

Then there is the challenge of household shopping. Our local shop is Kabulonga supermarket where I frequently search the shelves to the strains of  Michael Bolton’s The Lady in Red. A beautiful girl in cobalt blue chitenge and matching head-cloth that is  tied with great flourishes, is often on the till. She has the poise of a princess.

When it comes to shopping, it is a matter of buying whatever is in stock and then thinking of something to do with it. Treats include cartons of delicious and imported Ceres grape juice, and jars of sweet pickled beetroot. The local yoghourt comes in big tubs, plain or strawberry. Other staples include corned beef and South African wine. The supermarket smells of countless forms of perfumed cleaning products that at Christmas time are parcelled up into gift packs to make the ideal gift, along with small bales of second hand clothing.

Kamwala roadside furniture market

There are plenty of roadside artisans. We bought our bed from traders in  Kamwala Market

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There are of course shopping opportunities everywhere along Lusaka’s streets – cigarette and second hand clothes stalls, a man selling bread, another with his scrawny hens, fish from a freezer connected to nothing, caterpillars dried or roasted, large woodland mushrooms the colour of cygnet down, little pyramids of tomatoes. If I buy two piles of tomatoes from the young woman in the photo, she gives me an extra tomato as a “special gift”, and then wraps the lot in computer print-out.

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I also walk down to the Maluwa Cooperative in the hopes of something more interesting than beetroot and corned beef. Again I never know what I will find there: perhaps, if I’m lucky, a good mission-reared chicken in the cold cabinet, or button mushrooms, some Gouda cheese, broccoli, new potatoes, French beans, bunches of roses. If he catches me walking, an elderly white Zambian in a pick-up, (his ‘boys’ in the back), always insists on giving me a lift. He means well, and it is easier to comply with his desire to save me from imagined predations of Zambians than to argue.

But I like it out on the road. There is so much life there outside the high walled, razor-wired residences of the elite. People greet me. A taxi driver trying to mend his broken-down car offers me a lift, presumably in hopes that if I agree, his vehicle will conveniently right itself. I grin and say no thanks. I like his style though. As I step out again on the dirt road that has lost its asphalt, my footprints are impressed in the dust among the countless prints of others.

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G. spends his days rushing round to meetings with aid agencies. There are fears that donations of free maize will dissuade farmers from planting their own crops, despite the good rains. Too much free maize is also likely to depress the economy, and this must be avoided. Much is given out as payment for working on public enterprises such as road building or making bricks for the building of clinics. Unemployed women, in particular, are keen to do such work. Receiving a sack of mealie meal, sugar, beans and cooking oil in return for their labour gives them independence from menfolk who might otherwise take any cash earnings. G. also has to travel down south to Choma and Kalomo to oversee the distribution of EU maize by the Red Cross. There are more trips out east and to the Copper Belt.

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Villagers coming to collect cooking oil and maize meal from Red Cross food aid distributers.

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A farmer shows Graham his empty granary.

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In March G. comes home saying there is a bit of flap on. Brussels has phoned the E.U. Delegation saying that the BBC has reported a coup in Zambia: is everything all right there, they ask. The diplomats scratch their heads. No coup has been observed, but a few days later it is clear that something has happened. Major Rezi Kaunda, son of the long-serving and recently supplanted, ex-president, Kenneth Kaunda, has been arrested. He is reported as being under armed guard. Further details explain, somewhat bizarrely, that he is sitting in the yard of Woodlands police station with his flask of tea and a radio. Fourteen plotters in all have been arrested both in Lusaka and the Copper Best. These include the editor-in-chief of the Zambia Times.

Later we hear that an incriminating document, The Zero Option, has been seized. It gives detailed plans of how members of the UNIP opposition old guard, led by Rezi, intend to make Zambia ungovernable by fuelling a crime wave, infiltrating the unions and government departments. It is mooted that this campaign of destabilisation has already been instigated and is responsible for the alarming crime wave.

President Chiluba has only been in office for a little over a year. His Movement for Multi-Party Democracy defeated Kenneth Kaunda in the first democratically held elections since Independence in 1964. Kaunda Senior had been in power all that time, but on defeat, chose to bow out gracefully. Meanwhile Frederick Chiluba claims that he is on a clean-up mission of this potentially rich, but now run-down state. He declares a limited State of Emergency while order is restored.

We all breathe a sigh of relief. No need for the emergency evacuation that the High Commission is so unlikely to provide for us. Besides, G. still has much work to do, and there’s so much I still want to discover. One thing I am itching to know is how this copper-rich nation, with its deposits of sapphires and amethysts and airy upland mopane forests is one of the poorest on earth. Why are its impoverished, beleaguered but hard-working peoples being so ruthlessly structurally adjusted by the World Bank? I am beginning to suspect that the spirit of Cecil Rhodes is restless and abroad once more, but that, as they say is another story.

Eastern Province

Zambia is often called ‘the air-conditioned state’. It comprises an upthrust, tilted plateau some 5,000 feet above seal level. The natural vegetation is mopane woodland. This view was taken along the Great East Road.

Lusaka agricultural show - miniature railway

Lusaka agricultural show - kids

Lusaka agricultural show - Boy and copper belt truck tyre

Kids at the Annual Lusaka Agricultural Show. 1993’s slogan is ‘Produce to Prosper’. Produce and get a fair price  from multi-nationals would be my preferred slogan.

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© 2013 Tish Farrell

17 thoughts on “Letters from Lusaka: Part II

    1. Yes, indeed, Joan. But the great thing about these nations is that they can turn themselves around quite fast. What they need is investment with fair returns and partnerships. Then all their lovely, talented people who have left to make a living, can take their creativity home.

    1. No, but I’d like to. I gather it’s a more prosperous country now, and well worth a visit. The price of copper has gone up of course (it was at an all time low when we were there) so there has been much investment. Only problem is extracting fair returns from the international corporations, to say nothing of their taxes. But I think the de Wets would love Robin Pope’s walking safaris, and/or his lodges. And the Zambians are a gentle people.

  1. What a wonderful account of your time in Zambia, written with great sympathy. Every time I click on a connection from your current post I’m enchanted. Your writing is so clear and rich in detail. I love the image of you trying to see over the back fence, and your reaction to the arrival of the arrow.

  2. You and I would have had a great time in Lusaka. I remember the British Council library; being considered silly for walking everywhere. I also remember the delicious avocados. And, strangely, as I read this, I am wearing my Zambian amethyst and silver ring. Was the Provident Fund still operational? We had to pay our house staff, wages, rations and a Provident Fund contribution. I often wonder if they ever received their retirement funds from that.

    1. Oh I think we would have had a jolly good time. I forever wear a Zambian silver ring with an aquamarine stone bought in a little shop in the Intercontinental Hotel. It cost the equivalent of £6. I call it my engagement ring. Engagement with Africa that is 🙂
      I don’t know about the Provident Fund as we didn’t employ anyone directly, living on a little compound where someone else did all the hiring. I miss the Zambian skies – they were so big and airy.

      1. Engagement with Africa; that’s a lovely way to think of it. My Zambian items came from an elderly white couple who made jewellery in a slightly industrial area just out from the centre of town. They seemed very old 30 years ago, so are unlikely to be there now.

      2. It was interesting the kind of Europeans who’d sort of washed up in Zambia, given that Zambia was only a protectorate, and not really a place for settlers as Kenya was. I suppose people had most been connected to the mines, missions or the colonial admin.

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