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Monday, 16 August 2004

An Audience with an African Queen

A woman with a regal bearing, an enormous headpiece, and glittery clothes walks in to the office. I think it is the local Chieftainess. I think you’re supposed to crawl on the floor to greet her. As I’m working here in her queendom (?), does that make me one of her subjects? I cower behind my computer screen hoping not to be spotted (some hope, bright white Muzungu skin in a sea of black). She looks around the office. What should I do if she approaches? Stand up, sit down, crawl, smile, don’t smile, look her in the eye, don’t look her in the eye, shake hands (or is it rude to touch??). She moves off and I breathe a sigh of relief. She is looking for The Big Man, the Zambian Director here. AKA Chief. I call him that to preserve his identity. But now I see it might be confusing. He’s not a real Chief, and he’s not married to the Chieftainess. But it’s what I call him, so there you go. Her Royal Highness walks into Chief’s office, despite the fact that he is in the middle of a meeting. What HRH wants, HRH gets. The Husband is in the meeting. He tries to leave, but they make him stay. I wonder if he is crawling on the floor in there? I think that at least he will be able to tell me what HRH wanted, but then I remember that the demands will probably not be in English. He will be bored in there.

The Husband comes out; I have been summoned to meet HRH. I ask him how I should greet her. He says I should kneel and clap my hands. I can’t do it. I can’t do what I consider to be a subservient gesture, especially to someone I don’t know. I just smile at her and sit down. I will probably be bewitched. She is very beautiful with big apple cheeks, and so clean she is shiny. I have never seen anyone so clean. Her husband does all of the talking. She just sits and smiles and waves a bone-handled horsehair fly-swat. The conversation is in English, but riddled. They tell us they are building a new palace near to the project. There seems to be some suggestion that the project ought to fund HRH’s new community. Hmm…watch this space.