Flight From Lusaka To Seychelles

We were living in Lusaka, Zambia in 1993. Multiparty democracy had not long arrived, and the long-outstayed-his-welcome president, Kenneth Kaunda been sent into retirement. The future might have looked bright but for the fact that the rains had failed in 1992 and many Zambians were starving. On top of this, the price of the national staple, maize, had anyway been going through the roof, courtesy of the International Monetary Fund, who had decided, under the new regime, that the time was ripe for the country to be structurally readjusted. The object of course was some much needed fiscal cleansing, which looks fine on paper, but somehow overlooked the effect on actual human beings. It also neglected to deal with the fact that the rich resource-grabbing nations of North America, UK et al had been robbing Zambians blind for decades, making off with cheap copper and somehow neglecting to pay their taxes. These are the same nations that call African regimes corrupt. It’s all a case of copper pots and kettles.

In the city there were people dying from AIDS, the endless funeral corteges to Leopard’s Hill cemetery. Then there was an epidemic of cholera due to polluted bore holes. Even the nation’s pigs were sick with swine fever. The Zairean Army over the border in the Copper Belt (now Democratic Republic of Congo) had not been paid, and so had taken to conducting armed raiding sprees down the Great North Road and into Lusaka. We were told if driving in the city at night never to stop when the traffic lights (robots) were on red since we were likely to be ambushed. To the east, the civil war in Mozambique was also spilling into Zambia, the fighters predating on already impoverished farmers.

Then Son of Kaunda started a campaign of national unrest ending in an attempted coup, the national football squad was tragically killed in an air crash, which depressed everyone, and I had amoebic dysentery which wouldn’t quite go away. Meanwhile Graham was based in the European Union Delegation, organising the distribution of food aid to the worst famine-stricken areas. His immediate boss was French and communication was conducted in fragmented French on Graham’s part, and confused English on Bernard’s part, and over all, they were subjected to the dogmatic rule of an envoy of volatile Mediterranean disposition who thought he spoke better English than Graham and would alter his reports. And so when the chance came to take a break in the Seychelles, we were more than ready for it.

There is more about our Zambia life at Letters from Lusaka I and II and Once in Zambia: in memoriam.  And before you join our much needed Indian Ocean getaway, I should say that I really loved Zambia – this despite the catalogue of human misery. The people we met, from immigration officials onwards, were so very gracious. It is also a very beautiful land with some of the world’s best places for wildlife viewing.

Now for some Seychelles rooftops for Becky. We were staying on the main island Mahé:

copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

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Three Hippopotamuses Or Should That Be Hippopotami? Either Way, It’s Hard To Type ~ Thursday’s Special

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Hippos can be very disagreeable at the best of times, and downright murderous if you upset them. They are probably at their most peaceable in the water, but that does not mean that they may not capsize a  passing boat if they’ve a mind to. They spend the night hours grazing on shore, and consume huge quantities of grass, around 100lb (45kg) a night.

These Lake Naivasha hippos especially like the close-cropped lawns of the lakeside hotels, so it’s not good idea for guests to go wandering around the gardens after dark. The hazard reduces towards daybreak when the grazers usually return to the water, not liking to be caught out in the sun despite having their own in-built skin care product – a red oily secretion that protects them from dehydrating and overheating.

Once when we were Zambia, on a guided walk in the Luangwa Valley, we encountered a huge bull who was late returning to the river, and couldn’t find an accessible way down a steeply shelving bank to the water. He was so furious he decided to charge us.  (See Grouchy Hippo, Laid Out Lions.) And this is perhaps one of the most surprising things about hippos, given their bulk and tonnage – their land speed capability. They can clock 18 mph at the gallop and easily outrun a human over short distances.

As to good points – they do go in for much companionable honking and grunting when a group is submerged together for the day’s wallowing. It is one of those Africa sounds that imprint on the consciousness – once heard, never forgotten.

Thursday’s Special: trio Now go head over to Paula’s to see her unforgettable puffin trio.

P.S. Hippopotamus – the name is derived from the Greek meaning river horse. Hippos have no horse connections but are distantly related to pigs.

copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

Once When We Were In Africa At The Foot Of The Ngong Hills…

In December 1993 we returned to Kenya after nearly a year spent in Lusaka, Zambia (Graham had been overseeing the distribution of European Union food aid during a period of extreme drought in southern Africa). For much of the preceding year he had been in Kenya working with a team controlling Larger Grain Borer, a crop pest introduced to Africa in consignments of U.S. food aid. (Short-term emergency assistance can too often lead to unintended long-term chronic consequences). The reason for returning to Kenya was to wind down the LGB project. Predator beetles had been bred and released in affected areas; it was time to let them do their work and leave Kenyan scientists to monitor progress. We were thus not expecting to be in Kenya long, but somehow that ‘not long’ stretched to January 2000. For some of those years I kept a journal. Here is the first entry:

Sunday 19 December 1993

Our first trip out to the Nairobi National Park since our arrival back in Kenya. We had thought of it often while we were away. Of stately giraffes. Yellowing plains beneath the hazy blue of the Ngong Hills (the four peaks  said to be the knuckles of a giant’s clenched  fist). Groves of fever trees along the Athi River.

Now we have returned well prepared with map, camera, binoculars and a picnic. But as we pull into the main entrance on Langata Road we see that there have been changes since our last visit: the stand of  tall eucalyptus trees that lined the approach have been felled, and their ground carved up, exposing the red raw earth of a building site. It looks as if a new wildlife service administration block is nearing completion. We had heard about Richard Leakey’s large loans from the World Bank: this must be one of the newly funded enterprises. But at the entry gate little has changed ; there are still negotiations over the size of the Land Rover and its appropriate tariff and much accompanying paperwork. It is worth it though. As residents, a day’s pass costs us a mere two pounds thirty pence.

Once through the main gate we drive slowly through open woodland and dense shrubby undergrowth. Judder over the sleeping policemen meant to slow you down because it is quite likely that a giraffe will step into the roadway here. Even on to the asphalt. And the presence of a tarmacked road in a game park always takes me by surprise. But in this instance it was probably laid for the benefit of dignitaries going to the famous ivory burning ceremony in 1989. It took place just a kilometre or so within the park, a big show involving President Daniel arap Moi setting light to the retrieved tusks of nearly 2,000 poached elephants, an act intended to demonstrate Kenya’s commitment to conservation. There is a monument to mark the event and a picnic site where you may get out of your car and  feel the grasslands wind on your face. The Athi Plains stretch out below.

But it is not a wilderness view by any means; perhaps even challenges the sincerity of the grandiose ivory burning gesture. To the north, where a hundred years before there were only empty plains, city high-rises glint in the sun. Directly behind the wire fencing of park boundary there are more recent developments: grey-stone apartment blocks whose half-built elevations have all the charm of a post-war bomb site. Then as we turn towards the plains a large passenger jet takes off from nearby Jomo Kenyatta airport and soars into the blue above us. It seems an unlikely spot for game watching.

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But just as we are turning on to the dirt road, a blue Land Cruiser approaches and pulls up beside us. The driver is English. His accompanying family look red-faced and querulous. He, though, is excited.  “There’s a lion back there guarding its kill. Just follow the track. There’s a group of four trees. He’s under the one nearest the road.” He pauses. A wrinkle of doubt. He has clearly had a hard morning with cross children. “If you’re interested?” He adds, half query, half-throwaway remark.

We are. We drive off – full of hope. Will the lion still be there?

We drive slowly, scouring a landscape dotted with low bushes, hoping the four stunted thorns will make themselves obvious in this terrain of few landmarks. They do. A stone’s throw from the track lie the remains of a large antelope. But there is no sign of the lion. Any other time we would have driven on, but being forewarned we pause for a better look.

The antelope is lying in the shadow of the little tree. We scan the scene with binoculars. Nothing. But just then a mighty tail flicks up above the grass. Graham turns off the car engine, and in the next moment up comes a mighty head to go with the tail. He fixes us. Yellow eyes. Yellow mane. Then his head flops back into the grass and once more he is invisible. We wait and decide to eat our sandwiches – pastrami and horseradish. Perhaps the lion catches a scent of them for suddenly he is on his feet. He is massive. He is staring at us. He is heading our way. A frisson of fear, despite the sheltering Land Rover. But no. He has merely risen for a stretch. Then he returns to his tree and sits down with his back to us,  a posture that reminds me of the yellow labrador I once owned. The similarity is, of course, misleading. Then down he flops. An occasional tail twitch, a momentary fix of an eye, a large yellow lion stretched out in a clump of bright yellow daisies. We leave him in peace and drive on.

And it is hard to register such sightings. Are they real? Here we are out on a Sunday morning drive. We have just picked up the newspapers from the street vendor, driven past crowds of citizens on their way to church, are barely beyond the city limits. We are not at the zoo, nor in a contained English safari park. The animals that browse and hunt here are wild; they come of their own accord. For although the boundaries with the city are well fenced, there is still an open corridor to the south-west which allows the game access to and from the Maasai Mara. And as we push on along the dirt road we see Maasai giraffes with their lacy butterfly markings, strung out along a low gully, peacefully browsing the short-rains greenery of the acacias. And behind them, towering on the skyline, the garish blue and red construction of the Carnivore restaurant’s water splash.

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It puts you in a quandary. Part of you yearns to recreate the illusion of out-of-town wilderness,. Perhaps a planting of quick growing gum trees to screen the areas of urban spread. But then, despite their commonplaceness here, eucalyptus are not natives, and they might just suck the plains dry of their precious moisture. Some indigenous forest trees then. But they would take longer to establish. Would have to be fenced off from the foraging herbivores until they reached maturity. And anyway, how could you possibly blot out the airport and the cement works?

Leave it as it is then; an ungainly halfway house between the natural world and city living. As outsiders we would rather see the plains teeming with wildlife and no ugly signs of human enterprise and industrial development. But it is too late for that. And besides, who are we to complain? Our empire-building forebears had their chance to manage well and wisely this land of plenty. And for the most part they ignored both the needs of its wildlife and, more particularly, the needs of its indigenous peoples.

So no, we have no room to criticise.

All we can do today is be grateful that we can drive out to the Athi Plains in our car and see a lion, or watch the quiet grazing of wildebeest, gazelle, eland, kongoni, zebra and know too that there is always a chance that we may just spot a family of cheetahs out hunting, or come upon a reclusive rhinoceros browsing quietly. But that within an hour we can be back inside the well-tamed confines of our suburban Nairobi garden, drinking a cup of tea. But perhaps it seems too convenient, too small a challenge; almost as “easy” as the early white settlers had it, when they looked out of the newly installed drawing room windows to find a pride of lions stretched out on the veranda.

copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

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Sun And Rain In The Seychelles

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We were living in Zambia at the time – in Lusaka, a city that in 1993 was  beset by cholera from infected boreholes, rumours of military coups, incursions over the border by predatory gangs of Zairean military making up for lack of pay, and the populace being structurally readjusted courtesy of financial rigours visited on them by the International Monetary Fund. Elsewhere in the country, people were starving due to severe drought and high maize prices; there was an outbreak of swine fever that caused small farmer chaos, and reported figures for HIV infection were sky high.

It was thus a relief to leave for two weeks of quietness on Mahé, the Seychelles main island. The place was blissful, but there were twinges of guilt nonetheless as we wandered barefoot on near empty beaches: we had the means to take a break from Zambia when most of Zambia’s ten million citizens did not.

For more of the Zambia story: Letters from Lusaka part 1 and part 2,

Once in Zambia: in memoriam

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Ailsa’s Travel Theme: Rain

Six Word Saturday

Interesting The Things Your Stats Tell You

Tish Great Zimbabwe (2)

Actually this is probably just an excuse to post yet again this very old photo of me at Great Zimbabwe. We were living in Lusaka, Zambia at the time, Graham on a year’s attachment to the European Delegation, in charge of food aid distribution. You can read that story at the link.

Towards the end of this posting we drove down to Zimbabwe, and spent a couple of weeks touring around. Back in the 1990s it was a fabulous country to visit. We simply followed our noses, and drove on near empty, but well-kept roads, one of which brought us at last to Great Zimbabwe. We pretty much had the place to ourselves too. It was astonishing.

Anyway my stats of the last few days suggest to me that somewhere in the U.S. a bunch of students has been given a Great Zimbabwe assignment. I know this because they’re all opening a post I wrote 3 years and 2 blog themes ago: Abandoned: Great Zimbabwe. This happens periodically, although sometimes it’s Zimbabwean students searching for material on why the place was abandoned. It’s one of my perennial posts – not so much viral as chronic. Every year the traffic has doubled. Last year 1,311 people dropped in there.

But nothing gets as much traffic as my post on Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton. Caught Inside A Kikuyu Garden. This was also written three years ago, and so far has clocked up 12,715 views. Of course I have no way of knowing if all these people have actually read the piece, but I find it intriguing. I also sometimes wonder what would happen if I had a ‘Karen and Denys’ blog, and didn’t bother to post anything else. Funny old activity – blogging.

Many Shades of Grey in Africa

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Grey days in Africa can be incredibly dull. It is a strange effect: as if the light has been sucked out, but without it actually turning dark. This photo was taken around noon on a July day – Southern Africa’s winter. The sky weighed down in a way that was almost palpable; like walking through a Welsh sea mist, except it was dry; or as if you were looking at the world through gauze.

We had driven down from Lusaka in Zambia to spend a couple of weeks exploring Zimbabwe. The objective was to meet up with two Kiwi friends who were flying into Harare, and take them sightseeing before heading with them (via Victoria Falls) back to our house in Lusaka. The day this photo was taken we had just spent the night in one of the guest bungalows in Hwange National Park, and assembled a picnic of sorts in the Park shop.

Hwange Park has metalled roads which detracts somewhat from the notion of wild Africa, and so whenever a dirt track presented itself we took it.  Even so, we saw very little game apart from some kudu. It was mostly dry bush, and more dry bush, which soon grew rather boring. In the end we pulled up by the dwindling waterhole in the photo, and ate our lunch.

The waterhole had been empty when we arrived, and then quite suddenly, as is usually the way with elephants, this small family group appeared. The photo looks like a water colour, or a colour plate in a vintage travel book. I only had my little Olympus Trip, and I often had it on the wrong setting. But the other thing about elephants (and I think this image captures it) is that even when you are there, and can see them with your own two eyes, and are close enough to catch a whiff of their musky hides, it is still hard to believe in them. They come and go like mirages, walking always on the tiptoes, their heels supported by fatty pads that deaden the sound of their footfalls. It is thus very easy to be sneaked up on by an elephant.

Of course if they’ve decided to do a little tree felling, since they like to clear land to encourage their favourite grass to grow, or are seeing off some deemed intruder, then you hear them alright. Indeed, there is nothing quite so alarming as a trumpeting matriarch, clearing a waterhole of potential threats to the family’s infants. On this day, though, all was dreamy peacefulness, and concluded surreally enough in the Game Reserve Hotel at Dete where we were the only guests, and the only food on the menu were pieces of very tough meat  that took an hour to chew.

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The next day, though, we woke to a new kind of dream – golden sun through a mist of coal dust that hangs like a heat haze over the vast Hwange Coal Field. And so we quickly turned our noses from the industrial smog and headed for the border and Victoria Falls.

Hwange - smog over the coalfields

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

For more shades of grey please visit Ailsa at Where’s My Backpack

The Night Guards, Downtown Harare

Harare night guards waiting to go on duty

A big thanks to Yvette who is Paula’s guest over at Thursday’s Special for giving me the chance to post this photo again. Her challenge is street portraits, and this is one of my favourites, taken on a brief trip to Harare in Zimbabwe.

We were living in Zambia at the time, and had driven down to Harare to meet friends who were flying in from the UK  to spend two weeks with us in Zim and Zam. At the time, life was a bit tense in Zambia. The first year of multi-party democracy had already yielded one attempted coup. Destabilisation by stirring up a crime wave was part of the strategy. The national football team had been killed in an air crash and left the country devastated (see link * below for this story). There was cholera in the townships and members of the unpaid Zairian army were coming down to Lusaka on looting sprees. It was thus a relief to find ourselves in a city where the atmosphere felt so open after Lusaka. This was in 1993 I might add. I know Zimbabwe’s seen some bad times since, and Zambia’s fortunes have greatly improved. Things can change so rapidly on the African continent.

But it’s the spontaneity of the security guards’ reaction that I love. I’d just crossed the road from the post office, and they were about to start the night shift and waiting for a lift.  Smiling faces like these are what I remember most from our eight years spent living in Zambia and Kenya.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

 

Related:

Letters from Lusaka part 1

Letters from Lusaka part 2

Once in Zambia: in memoriam*

 

Street Portraits Lost in Translation

on a knife edge at victoria falls

Zambia's Victoria Falls looking along knife-edge to Zimbabwe's falls

Hang-gliding over the hundred metre precipice at Victoria Falls is not to be recommended. Nor had I intended to take the plunge, my ‘sail’ being nothing more than a wet kanga-wrap, held up to fend off a tropical deluge. Somehow, though, circumstances (and a lack of sensible forward planning) had led us to the Falls’ knife-edge just as Zambia’s 18-month drought was ending, and the rains beginning. Even without  the hang-gliding it was a heart-stopping moment.

The prolonged drought across Southern Africa was of course the reason for Team Farrell’s presence in Zambia in late 1992. The Team Leader, Graham, had been seconded to the European Union Delegation to manage maize flour and cooking oil distribution to foodless villages across the nation. We had only been in the country a couple of weeks when G was directed to go down to Livingstone on the southern border to inspect a newly arrived consignment of maize. His boss suggested he should drive down on a Saturday and take me too. Naturally Nosy Writer (that’s me) was only too pleased to head off on a several hundred mile safari.

Looking back, the diplomat’s suggestion that I should go was possibly a kindness in disguise. Nothing was spelled out, since we were newly arrived, and Bernard (aka the boss) did not wish to scare us before we had found our bearings. But security in the capital Lusaka was not good. President Chiluba, the newly democratically elected leader, had been in office for barely a year, this after ousting the incumbent of decades, Kenneth Kaunda.

Later it transpired that Kaunda’s army officer son, Rezi, had been intent on destabilizing the country, and was apparently behind the city’s upsurge in violent crime. On top of that, in neighbouring Zaire (now DR Congo) President Mobutu had not been paying the army, and so gangs of gun-toting soldiers would drive down to Lusaka for a spot of night-time car-jacking and house-breaking. In a nation of impoverished people, the diplomatic quarter was the obvious target. Better, then,  that I should not be left alone. Not that I knew this then. Nor had G’s company thought to mention any of this before offering his services to the EU. As they say, ignorance is bliss.

Zambia's Victoria Falls in the dry season

And so one Saturday morning under a wide blue, and seemingly ever rainless sky we set off south. The road, once clear of the city, ran on mile after mile after mile with hardly another vehicle in sight. We passed through landscapes of rolling woodland, the tall-tree miombo which, at first glance seemed more like Europe than Africa. After nine months in Kenya the vistas, too, seemed curiously lacking in drama –until, that is, we reached Livingstone.

Our hotel stood beside the Zambezi, and after tea on the lawn in the English manner it was off to the nearby Falls. The photo above was my first view of them. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh, cry or simply stare open-mouthed. Where was the water?

The drought had much to do with it of course. But the other reason was that Zambia abstracts large volumes of water to run its hydroelectric plant.

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The Falls as seen (and ‘discovered’) by  David Livingstone.

Engraving from Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa 1857

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G told me the best view of the falls was across the border in Zimbabwe, and that if we had remembered to bring my passport we could have walked across. Most frustrating.

Instead, we walked along the path beside Zambia’s waterless gorge.  But trailing through dead vegetation while staring at the stark basalt cliff face felt more and more oppressive. It made me think of Tolkein’s Mordor. We gave it up and went back to the hotel.

Our room theoretically had a river view. In reality all we could see was its empty bed, with huge boulders and clumps of palms here and there. But on Sunday afternoon I noticed that people walking across it. “Let’s go,” I said.

The sun was shining when we set off, and soon we were joined by a boy who appeared from nowhere and offered to guide us to the best Falls’ viewpoint. We duly followed, picking our way round oily looking rock-pools, mammoth sized boulders, and piles of fresh elephant dung.

We must have scrambled on for nearly a kilometre when the sky started to turn grey. I began to feel nervous, glancing upstream and expecting a wall of water to come rolling down. Or to walk round a boulder and into an elephant.

And then the rain came down. Fat freezing drops. We made a dash for cover, which happened to be some trees on Livingstone Island, the very spot from where the explorer had first viewed the Falls in 1855. We crouched for ages under dripping trees until at last, thoroughly soaked, G asked the boy if the ‘good view’ was much further. On discovering that it wasn’t we made a final dash. And here it is. The view:

Victoria Falls, looking over the knife edge in a rainstorm

Not much to be seen for the spray coming up, and rain coming down. I took this quick snap, and then held up the sodden cotton wrap that I had been wearing earlier to fend off the sun. As I stood on the knife-edge the sudden gust of wind that filled the wrap was enough to lift me towards the abyss. I stepped back in shock. I’d had more than enough of Mosi-oa-Tunya (the smoke that thunders). So had the boy.  Soon he was sprinting away without even waiting for a tip, and that really had me worried. What did he know that we didn’t? We slipped and slid, back the way we had come. More phantom elephants. More imaginary flash floods. More getting lost in outcrops of giant boulders. It seemed a long, long way back to the hotel.

It was not until several months later that we finally got to see the Falls, this time from the Zimbabwe side. On this occasion we only got drenched from the spray, while I took yet another wet and misty photograph, but thankfully avoided all inclination to hang-glide.

Victoria Falls and Zambezi

copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

 

Related:

The Smoke that Thunders

Letters from Lusaka I

Letters from Lusaka II

Once in Zambia – in memoriam

 

Daily Post Photo Challenge: adventure for more bloggers’ photo-adventures

Grouchy Hippo, Laid-out Lions

It always seemed astonishing to me that, should you be lucky enough to locate them, you can simply drive up to dozing lions and take their photographs. Even if you sit doing this for half an hour or more, they will barely deign to register your presence. These big cat shots were all taken in Kenya, but it was while we were living in Zambia, and visiting South Luangwa, that our young South African guide briefed us on the proper protocol when encountering lions.

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lions in the Taita reserve 1992

At the time we were driving around a Luangwa salt pan where we had come upon a pride of lions lying about in the thorn scrub. The guide told us that as long as  our profiles remained within the frame of the vehicle (in this case an open-topped safari truck) the lions would not give two hoots about us. To them we would appear to be part of the truck and from which they perceived no particular threat.

South Luangwa - out on the salt pan lion hunting

Out on the Luangwa salt pan, me in the back seat. The lions had been spotted earlier before the sun came up.

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Not a good photo, but the light was poor and I had only my Olympus trip.

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However, I was scarcely reassured by this newly acquired knowledge of how-not-to-upset-a-lion when the next day, at 5 a.m., the same guide took us on a hike through the bush. It is all so very different on foot. For one thing, it can be hard to see  far ahead, what with all the tall grasses and potato bushes. The guide, though, seemed perfectly relaxed. He had already led us to within thirty paces of a browsing elephant, and assured us that it was entirely peaceable since its ears were not out, nor its trunk thrust to the side in charge mode. He had explained, too, how elephants move silently, in effect walking on tiptoes, the backs of their feet cushions of fat. For a time I kept looking behind me. It had never occurred to me before that something as large as an elephant could sneak up on me.

Our guide then spotted a herd of buffalo. This pleased him because he said that in Luangwa lions preyed on buffalo and the big cats were thus never far behind. And so keeping a careful watch on which way the wind was blowing our scent, he and our accompanying park ranger, White, set out to find some. This involved much careful manoeuvring, first around a small group of  passing elephants, and then around the buffalo herd.

Clearly, being on foot, the keeping-one’s-profile-inside-the-vehicle strategy would be quite useless. We had no vehicle. Instead we were told to stake out likely trees to scramble up. I eyed the leadwood and sausage trees doubtfully. A few decades had passed since I had done any tree-climbing. I did not think I could do it – not even to escape a charging  lion or buffalo.

Later I was to read a white settler tale of how if you were ‘treed’ by buffalo, they would lick any appendage you had not managed to haul high enough into the branches, and go on licking until your flesh was abraded to the bone. I’m glad I did not know that then. I already knew that buffalo were probably the most dangerous beasts in Africa, and it did not do to cross them- ever.

In the end we did not find lion. I was both disappointed and relieved. By then we had been out walking for several hours, and had only stopped for a tea break. The late morning sun burned down overhead, and we headed back to camp along the Luangwa River, me thinking mostly of breakfast. The members of our small party chatted amiably, enjoying the shimmering meanders of the river. We might have been walking in a city park for all the care we were taking. It was lucky, then, that we had White, the park ranger with us. It was he who drew our guide’s attention to the big bull hippo further along the track. The great beast was attempting to negotiate a shelving river bank, and having some difficulty. Several times he slithered half way down, but could not bring himself to take the final plunge.

The guide said it was most unusual to see a hippo out of the river so late in the day. They liked to be back in the river before sun-up, this after the night spent foraging for grass. He was clearly upset, but we were still some way off, so we stood and watched. Some of us were even laughing at the hippo’s dilemma. The bank was simply too steep. His huge bulk gleamed an angry red under the sun.

Then someone must have laughed too loudly, for suddenly the bull gave up trying to slide into the river. With a bellow he swung towards us and came charging down the path. While White took up a position behind a thorn bush, the guide urged us to move several hundred yards back along the path, across an old lagoon to where a fisherman’s big dug-out had been beached. We were to stand behind the dug-out until he came for us.

We did not need to be told twice. The boat looked reassuringly substantial, although it reminded me of the guide’s earlier tea break tale. We had stopped at a fisherman’s old campsite, and it was there that he told us how a fisherman had recently been mangled to death by a hippo. As we reached the dug-out I vaguely wondered if this boat had belonged to the poor man.

Meanwhile the ranger and the guide, held their position behind the thorn bush, and began to clap very loudly.

For too many seconds the bull came on. The ranger had his rifle at the ready. The guide kept clapping. Then at the last moment, the hippo ran out of steam and veered off into the undergrowth. There were sighs of relief all round.  When the guide came to round us up, he informed us that White had been more than ready to, as he put it,  part the bull from his brains, but they were nonetheless glad that this had not been necessary. Apart from being scared, the incident made me uncomfortable. I saw then that safari-going had its responsibilities, and was not simply an exciting jaunt. If White had been forced to shoot the hippo it would have been because we were intruding at a moment when the bull saw himself at great disadvantage. Who could blame him for charging?

South Luangwa - hippos and bull on the bank 2 wider view

The hippo when first sighted. You can just spot him under the tree on the right. Thereafter, I was running not snapping.

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South Luangwa - traditional fishermen's dug-outs on a lagoon

The dug-out refuge point, and White leading us back to the path, the hippo now vanished from sight.

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South Luangwa - dawn walk and hippos

Watching more peaceful hippo near our camp.

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Back in camp it was of course a case of ‘travellers’ tales’.  We could sit around over a late breakfast, talking of all the things we had seen that morning, and especially of our near miss with one very angry hippo. At such times, and as so often happened in Zambia, life did not seem altogether real.

South Luangwa - Tenatena camp dining room under a rain tree

The dining room at Tena Tena camp, beside the river and under a rain tree

 

© 2013 Tish Farrell

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