Monday, 12 December 2005
Dragonflies bounce off hot bricks as a canopy of fruit bats flies low overhead into the dusk, scalloped wings outlined against the thumbprint-whorled clouds. Lights buzz into life; immediately the winged termites blizzard round them, a malevolent snow.
The heady wafts of potted basil trigger memories, a train of scents - parmesan, sweet tomatoes, garlic.
An arc of light from a car's headlamps sweeps over the gravel; a dog's plangent barking is echoed from one gated enclosure to the next. And in that space what I love is what I also don't. What is fenced out? What fenced in? A curlicued prison.
There is of course the delicious freedom of nakedness in the water; not here the sudden appearance of screeching hordes of children, nor a thousand eyes intrigued by every move you make. But not here either the laughter of those children, nor the giggling gossip from know-all neighbours. Silence, save for the changing of the guards. Toughened vehicles zip out of gates and zip into other enclaves.
The prisoners do not even think to use their feet to exit, say hello to workers tending lawns, buy some roasted groundnuts from the street vendors. Behind the walls you are anywhere. Behind the walls you are nowhere.
Tuesday, 6 December 2005
"Hey William, how are you today?"
"Yes, I'm good."
"We had a bit of a problem with the security last night."
"Yeah, we tried to go out at about twenty hours (to the pub! to the pub!) but there was no guard on duty and we don't have keys for the gate." **
"Ooooooh-oh." William thinks. "But the night guard was there when I was leaving yesterday."
"Really? Cos there was no-one on duty when we were trying to go out (to get booze!) at twenty hours."
William considers. "Yes, but these people. They come. Stay a little bit. Then they go home to sleep. Then they come back early in the morning and pretend they have been here all night."
"I see. Perhaps you'd better help me sort through the five squillion keys in this room until we find one that fits the gate."
I think I will apply for that UN job myself. Am now square-eyed from watching several seasons of 24 and utterly convinced I could kick ass way better than any Zambian security firm. Back at the weekend when I will have to - sob - relinquish the swimming pool, the satellite tv, the washing machine, the hot and cold running water and proximity to food and booze.
** see now I understand what people mean when they say the rich are imprisoned in their ivory towers
Saturday, 26 November 2005
The Husband's Favourite to date is learning that the workers at the oil refinery seriously suggested using a grenade launcher to keep their flare alight.
Wednesday, 16 November 2005
The cats smell happy, of dustghosts and sunshine, fur soft and warm on my nose. Neat little paws bat butterflies, chase chickens. Sometimes, I lay down on the forest floor with them. Tree bark and stones press into my arms and legs, are crushed by my back. Crickets jump over me, ants tickle the hairs on my skin.
I watch the unfettered skies overhead and fancy I can feel the earth beneath me breathe. Sticks and straw decorate my hair; some crazy lady. We play simple games, the cats and I, with twigs and leaves. We are in our own Hundred-Acre Wood.
There are no willows here for the wind to whistle in, but I have a blanket of fallen bougainvillea petals, crisp like parchment paper and a faded glorious pink. Bigcat emits a low growl; Wild Ginger Tom is crossing the edge of her territory. Littlecat pounces on my midriff, winding me. They both run off after a bee out past its bedtime.
I sit on a rock drinking a blue gin and tonic, watch rivulets of water run down the outside of the glass and over my hand. The heavy heat of the day is gradually peeled off by the cool night; the incessant clamouring of people fades out into distant drumming and the low crackle of fires, a gentle peace before the rising hum of crickets and frogs.
As the sky-light moves off elsewhere in the world I start to think about dinner. Sharp, pungent garlic will feature. And juicy mangoes picked fresh from the tree, sliced and slithery on the tongue.
Monday, 14 November 2005
The sound makes me turn from the post office counter.
The post office security guard is belting some guy. I don't know what the man has done. Perhaps he has tried to steal something, perhaps he pushed someone, maybe he called the security guard's mother a ho. But whatever it was, it cannot call for this bitchslapping him upside the head. The man does not even retaliate. In fact, he has no aura of threat or aggression about him whatsoever. Neither is he shouting or causing any commotion. The only noise is that made by the security guard.
The man tries to back away as the guard continues to hit him. A crowd starts to form. I get out of there, no desire to be caught up in it.
Out on the street I see a police truck pull up. The security guard and the police start to drag the man out of the post office. I am amazed. That there is an emergency number in Zambia. That works. That the police answer. That they have a vehicle. Which works. That they arrive quickly. In itself, this sequence of events is incredible.
The man is now quite close to me. He is still not resisting, despite the violence being inflicted on him. I would guess that he either has a slight mental disability, or possibly he is a bit drunk. The police manhandle him into the back of the truck and pull off.
"Ma'am, ma'am! Is she gonna expire?"
The police officer is leaning over me. I am leaning over my friend Rosa. I am confused. No-one has ever called me 'ma'am' before, and I don't know what he means by expire. Rosa has stretched Happy Hour into Happy All Night Long, and suddenly the path - no, the sidewalk - looks like a great place to lie down and sleep off all the margaritas. I look into the officer's face, and I see that he has never had the need to feel a cold hard tile pressed against his cheek. And then my slow brain translates the copspeak and I realise what he is asking me.
"No, of course she's not going to die." I drag her up, and we stagger off, laughing.
I am running late. Late, late, late. A crust of toast in one hand, packing my bag with the other, trying to wriggle into my coat, sprinting for the front door. Just as I get to it, the doorbell rings. Arse. I can't just ignore it, wait for whoever it is to go away, I am late! But if I open it, I will get caught up dealing with whoever it is. The bell rings again, insistently. I need to get away. I wrench open the door and try to step out. Four large men are blocking my path.
"Garda Drug Squad", says the biggest one, waving something at me. Big arse with cherry on top. I don't have time for this.
"Do you know Seamus O'Toole?" a Garda in the middle of the posse says.
"Mmm, not personally, but I think he lives in the flat upstairs."
"Fine," he says, elbowing his way in.
I brush past the others and race towards my bike. And I spend the next few weeks convinced that Seamus O' Toole is some major drug baron who will find me and cut me for confirming to the Gardai where he lives.
Friday, 11 November 2005
"Ha! I am reporting you! It is illegal for fishing here! I will get the police!"
In truth, the police get him. One occupant of the boat is startled, jumps out. He can't swim. Drowns. The other two concoct a story. The Man On The Bridge is imprisoned, awaiting trial for manslaughter. A nephew of The Man goes to see him in jail. Conditions are filthy. The Man asks his nephew to bring him a bar of soap. The Nephew runs to the market, returns with a block of soap. Now he is stopped by the police, who are bored, want a little fun.
"No entry. Visiting hours are finished. Go home."
"Can I just...."
"No!" A gun is pointed.
"But the soap..."
"You are tormenting us now, go home."
"Ok, I'm going. But could you give this soap to my uncle?"
The nephew is slung in jail too.
Thursday, 10 November 2005
Committee to Protect Journalists
Wednesday, 9 November 2005
"Can't put money to your account."
"Access nothing computer card flashy here."
"Nothing number screen now."
"Excuse me?" I think he is speaking Gerbil. It may be that I am not hearing him right, as I have malaria yet again and I fear that my brain is now permanently damaged. I give him the benefit of the doubt and try once more.
"What's the problem?"
"It's finished, the account."
"What do you mean? I just opened it."
It transpires that Barclowns Zambia have a unique way of operating their banking system. To open an account you must first fill in 957 pieces of paper, provide them with photographs, fingerprints and the right foot of your firstborn child. Then, after several months, they will open an account (if you're lucky). They will not, however, notify you that the account has been opened. As soon as they open it they will immediately charge you fees, which you have not been notified of either. This will send your account overdrawn. You are not allowed to be overdrawn. Then they will add lots of interest onto the illegal overdraft. Rinse, repeat. Then they will close your account even though you have only just managed to get it open.
*Note: previous mentions of using the ATM refer of course to my UK bank cards. Now imagine the horror of losing them in this country.
Monday, 7 November 2005
For the first couple of rainstorms of the season the termites come out of hiding in their millions and fly about. Mostly at me. They are particularly attracted to light, making the start of the rains at night-time hazardous. I am reading a book when the sound of the rain begins to thunder on the roof and the temperature drops. I breathe a sigh of relief at the sudden coolness, but fail to notice the profusion of winged things which have wiggled their way in to the house through the cracks in the windows, the doors, the roof. The torrent of water makes me want to pee, but when I look up from my page my exit is blocked. A wall of termites is between me and the door. Well, actually between me and everything else. But I need to pee.
I put my hands over my face and race through the termite wall. Running to the outhouse my torch-holding hand is covered in critters. In the outhouse I switch on the lightbulb. A mistake. Not even Hitchcock in his finest moments could have envisioned the horror. I am immediately swarmed. Covered from head to toe in flappy flippy termites. I am not dropping my pants in there.
But I do not want to use the longdrop in the dark, in case I fall in and drown in poo. I run out of the outhouse spitting out wings so that I can scream, and tearing at my clothes to rid myself of the persecutors. A neighbour hears my yells and asks if I have been bitten by a snake. Um, not this time, but that might be preferable to a bazillion flickering fliers hellbent on tickling my nether regions.
Yelling, I fling away my cumbersome umbrella and the torch which is attracting my attackers mid-run, getting soaked in the process, and head back towards the house. In desperation I squat down in the dark beside the verandah.
I have peed on a frog.
Friday, 4 November 2005
"I not Mr Smith."
"No, we've come to see them, they live here."
"John and Mary? Are they in?"
"John and Mary Smith. They live here. Are they in? Can you please tell them we've arrived."
"I don't think so. Not Smith."
"Who lives here?"
"I don't know."
"But you are the Security Guard, working at this house?"
"Yes, it's me, the security."
"Can you find the owner of this house please?"
"Ah, I am not owning this house."
Sound of my head banging off the gate and Mary running out into the driveway yelling at the Security Guard. Damn sure no-one's going to get past him.
Tuesday, 1 November 2005
Regular residents of Ndola are now afraid to go to the service stations, after a group of taxi and minibus drivers physically lifted up a private vehicle and literally flung it across the forecourt of one station, claiming that as their livelihoods depended on fuel they should get priority.
Some kids from our community who have progressed on to a secondary school in the area have been sent home because of rioting. See, the Headmaster died. Because the Deputy Head bewitched him. And the Deputy Head has now run off because the students were rioting and harassing him over the juju.
The Prez pulled up alongside me at the weekend, as we were trying to hitch into town. He gave a little wave, then ZP1 pulled off again.
I tried to stash my bag in the 'Parcels Here' section of the supermarket, but there was no server there. A live chicken sitting on one of the shelves clucked helpfully at me though.
I managed not to throw up in one vehicle which gave us a lift, as in the 40degree heat the 5-day old remains of a slaughtered pig which had not been washed out of the vehicle began to hum along to the radio.
We realised there was a potential burglar lurking outside the house by the sudden presence of an overpowering stench of smelly feet.
Sunday, 30 October 2005
"THAT'S MY NUMBER! THAT'S MY NUMBER BOSS! THAT'S MY NUMBER!" The shouts were directed at The Husband; we were sitting half way down the bus. As a woman I am studiously ignored in this country. If we are together, all greetings are directed at my hubby. In this instance I was glad of the fact. I curled up in a sniggering ball as The Husband began to get fretful.
While on holiday we had needed to take a coach from Livingstone back up to the capital Lusaka. Tickets are best purchased in advance as seats fill up quickly. We decided to try a new coach company, mainly because their departure time would allow us to eat breakfast first. On approaching the ticket booth a seating plan was presented with a flourish. We were able to choose our seat numbers, which were then written on our tickets. This was highly unusual. In general, it is a total bunfight to get on board any kind of public transport here and seat allocation is unheard of.
Sure enough, on the day of departure we boarded the bus only to find some other people in our seats, and everyone just squishing in any old how. We suggested that our seat occupants switch, but they refused, so we just shrugged and sat somewhere else. Thinking nothing of it, until The Giantess stepped on.
Her yelling increased in volume as her girth approached. "THAT'S MY NUMBER BOSS, THAT'S MY NUMBER!" In another setting it could have been an Aretha Franklin gig. Everyone on board turned to stare at us. Some of them opened their bags of food and settled in to watch the entertainment. The Husband lost no time in agreeing that we were indeed in her allocated seat, but that the gentlemen in ours refused to move. People ducked as she swung around yelling for the conductor. I tried very hard to hide the fact that I was laughing so much, in case she hit me. The conductor lost no time in bounding aboard to sort us all out. We explained that we were happy to give up our seats to the Fearsome Lady, but could he please get the two guys to vacate ours to avoid any more incidents? A sharp smack to the back of the heads of the offending gentlemen and the issue was resolved. They began punching each other as they made their way to a different seat. The Giantess seemed taken aback that we'd agreed to the swap, and carried on muttering and yelling loudly about her 'number'.
A slight man at the front of the bus popped up out of his seat like a meerkat. "You! You you you! You talk too much! Give it a rest."
He popped back down again. A ripple of laughter spread its honey tones throughout the bus.
Friday, 28 October 2005
I like food. I like it a lot. I'm not snobbish about food, I'll eat anything. Anything as long as it is actually food, is prepared properly and has never been mentioned even in passing by Anthony Squirrel Pompom. Is it too much to ask?
The Husband and I had a particularly bad run of Food Related Incidents on holiday. On our first night in Some Town we excitedly ran to the Indian Restaurant on the main street. Mmm, Indian food yummy. Distressingly, the temperature inside the restaurant seemed to be many degrees higher than the boiling heat outside. We paused in the doorway, wavering. It was a tough choice. Would we go for lovely curry, with the possibility of an embarrassing falling-over from heat exhaustion, or would it be fried chicken on another premises which had a bit more air? Curry won out.
The Husband paused again on the cracked lino, causing me to bump into him and almost suffocate. "Um, is this right?" He found the round brown lady sitting in the plastic box upsetting.
"Yes!" I said, marching him in. I have experience of people sitting in plastic boxes.
There appeared to be a sort of takeaway section at the front, which was milling with people, but a sign for the restaurant pointed towards the back. A waitress ambled over and we were waved through an entanglement of candy coloured plastic strips dangling from a doorway. It didn't take long to realise that we were the only people in there. I beckoned to the waitress and asked her what the difference was between the front of this place and the back, as it suddenly seemed rather lonely in the 'restaurant' and more fun in the takeaway section.
"Here is for executives."
The Husband began sniggering into his menu. I tried to kick him under the table, but on placing my feet beneath my chair they had immediately glued themselves to some sticky mass on the lino.
"Thank you. We just need a minute to look at the menus."
We ordered some poppadums to begin with. You can't go wrong with a poppadum, right? Huh, wrong.
Now, I've eaten in a lot of Indian restaurants. But chewy poppadums seem to be an Indo-Zambian specialty. Cooked in 500 year old recycled oil, they clag to your teeth and the roof of your mouth, rendering your facial movements akin to those of a 99-year old care home resident with ill-fitting dentures. The 'dums don't come with chutneys or raita either. Oh no. To accompany the chewy 'dums we get.....ketchup. Ketchup which is weeping crustily out of a filthy plastic bottle. A bottle whose rim is a bug graveyard. It is very much highly unpleasant.
We start to play a game called 'What Would Gordon Ramsay Say?' but quickly have to abandon it as soon as it becomes evident that Gordo would probably have to resort to immolation.
I have ordered a butter chicken dish and a pea-based vegetable curry for my main course, but after the poppadums I am nervous about my decision. My skittishness is not helped by the 27 ½ fans on the go in the room, which are doing nothing to assuage the heat, and everything to reinforce my decapitation nightmares.
Seasons come and go as we wait for the waitress to return; dehydration begins to set in. At least the sweat puddle which has formed underneath me has loosened my feet from their gluey grave.
The closest wall-mounted fan to me begins to make a frightening racket. I shuffle around to the other side of the table. The waitress immediately appears and is confused because I am not sitting where I was. I understand her dilemma. After all, it is very hard to do your job properly when ALL TWO of your customers insist on switching places.
We order more drinks and mildly enquire as to when the main courses might appear? The waitress looks puzzled, and stares at her pad. I lean over to look at it. She hasn't written down our full order. They are not right this minute cooking our food in the kitchen, oh no. A glance at our watches indicates that it is past the witching hour and therefore too late to try another venue. We are trapped. I repeat our order and watch her write it down.
I smell my chicken dish long before I see it, and I try not to gag into the one tiny see-through paper napkin at my disposal. A bowl of oil with bits bobbing in it is plonked down before me in a precarious manner. At first I wonder if it is a dish of floating candles, but no, I am expected to eat it. The thing is though, Butter Chicken is supposed to be cooked in butter, not boiled to death in the cheapest and most rancid margarine you can scam on the black market. The dish containing the alleged pea-based curry is also placed in front of me. I can count three round green things, no less, no more. I am very sad, and think to myself, Why are things crap? I would probably be cross but I am incapacitated by the heat. They are very clever, these restaurant people.
In comparison to the vomfest which is residing on my plates, The Husband's biriyani is Not Too Bad Considering, so I pick at that. Quickly.
On the way out we pass our cash to the round brown lady in the plastic box. I bet she eats real butter.
Thursday, 27 October 2005
One of my colleagues seems to have lost his glasses; he is squinting away trying to work. However, in removing them he has dropped age from 50s to 30s.
The aliens may be coming. Three of my female colleagues have twisted their hair into spikes sticking away from their heads. Perhaps they are trying to pick up a signal. Another one has shaved her head and eyebrows entirely; maybe she is the leader.
Tuesday, 25 October 2005
It's highly inconvenient but also quite funny. Well, funny as long as I don't get stung and swell up like a swollen thing. I think about all the offices I've ever worked in and hated, and how I'd like to go back in time and shut them down with a bee invasion. All those places with fluorescent strip lights, no air, hideous co-workers. The smell of dirty carpet and farts in the lift, cracked and dirty cups in the sink and pigeons shitting on the windowsill, freer in their filth than the pigeon-toed nutters inside. Immutable desks, back-breaking chairs, all possessed by the African Killer Bee. That tickles.
Water is heavy. I stumble carrying a full bucket into the wash-house. I catch myself before I fall, but still I project a possible future, of smashing my knee open on the step, a magic bandage to stick it closed, no hospitals open, bad stitching when it comes, a wonky leg. A scar on the front of my knee to match the one on the back – flesh gouged out to remove a poisonous spider bite. I should be afraid of spiders but I'm not. I fear rabies and snakes. And, sometimes, bees. It seems to be the time of year for the Camel Spider to breed, they are everywhere. The Husband thinks he has been told by someone that they are vicious, with a poisonous bite. They are funny, in any event. The kind of spider you would see on acid. They streak across the floor like Road Runner, and when we see one we shriek and raise our legs in the air. They are big. Like stretched out tarantulas, toffee-coloured furballs. When I Google the Camel Spider though, I find these creatures are not in fact poisonous or dangerous to humans; this is a myth perpetrated by US soldiers serving in Iraq. That figures.
It feels like a day to day existence right now, a wait-and-see life. Bobbing in a boat of normality in a sea of anarchy. When will we capsize? The first five service stations we try in town have no fuel. The sixth says they might have a delivery at midday. That means physical fights to get in the queue, and a wait of up to six hours. These days the temperature is hitting 40 degrees C. We pull off. Miraculously the seventh station has petrol and allows us to fill our jerrycan. The seventh station. Like the Stations of the Cross. The ATM is working. It often takes the money from my account without spewing the physical cash out of the wall. Sometimes you don't get all the cash, the flimsy paper chewed in the jaws of the mechanical monster. Money is worth so little I take out a million kwacha at a time. You don’t need a wallet, you need a backpack. Often the ATM doesn't work at all; it's a gamble, sticking in that piece of plastic.
They have Doritos and Heat magazine in the supermarket. I am made. They also have a bottle of wine I used to drink on the beach back home. We don’t usually buy wine, the 250% Random Tax on it makes even the cheapest vinegar beyond our means. For some reason this bottle is not so many kwacha. I drink it later; it is waves, pebbles, illicit barbeques and much-missed friends.
I have a secret. I am a fan of conspiracy theories. Hell, why not? But it's quite whacked to be privy to one for real. I know something about this fuel crisis, information which has come from the top. I bet the papers would love it, but I'm not telling. I have a secret.
It is the attention to detail I love, ie the fact that there is no water in the swimming pool.
If you have never read Andre's blog you should hop over there and take a look, he is very funny and very talented and apparently has great hair. These things are important.
Thursday, 20 October 2005
I haven't felt much like blogging anyway.
I'm hungry. I think I may be having a panic attack. There is no petrol again. So we can go to town and get food with our spare can, but then have no petrol here to get us in the next time. I feel like I went to sleep and then woke up in Zimbabwe or somewhere.
I wonder if Andre would draw me a picture? The words are kind of lacking right now.
Friday, 14 October 2005
So the ambulance managed to get out and about to do outreach. I don't know where they got the fuel. A convoy of trucks coming in from Tanzania with fuel for the country was given a police escort, but strangely the fuel 'disappeared' before getting to its destination.
When there is fuel in the country you can actually buy it anywhere along the road. The tanker drivers stop and siphon off fuel to some 'entrepreneurs' in the bush who then sell it on. It's probably not the best idea to buy this stuff, because not only is it illegal but who knows what they put in it. But then, the fuel at the service stations must be watered down, because despite siphoning off fuel along the way, the tanker drivers still have to arrive at their destination with the requisite number of litres.
You can tell which guys along the roadside are selling this illegal fuel because they stand there madly waving their arms and swinging empty cooking oil drums. At night-time they light huge fires to attract attention. What's interesting is that if you pull off to buy this fuel, you more often than not come to a traditional village with round mudbrick and thatch huts, and right in the middle will be The Fuel Man's house - made of cement, with crenellations, a huge satellite dish perched on the roof, everything painted in gaudy colours. What most impresses me is their ability to source coloured paint. It seems like the only paint colours available in Zambia are blue and black. I also wonder what this country would do if they didn't have any cooking oil drums. Everyone uses them, mostly for carrying water, but often for fuel as well.
I suspect the cats have been Out Doing Evil. In my path this morning was my chum the bright blue gecko. Except he's not blue anymore, on account of being dead an' all. He actually looked like one of those rubber toys, except for the bloodstains and the gouged-out eyes. I tell The Husband that something bad has happened.
"You mean the dead gecko? Yeah I saw that this morning."
"Those cats are so mean. They get fed. They're not supposed to kill geckos or birds or the things with the furry tails. Just mice and rats and bats."
"How do you know it was the cats? I think he fell out of the tree and died."
Yeah. Right. Of course he did. The tree he's been climbing his whole life. Absolutely, he just fell clean out of there and hacked his own eyes out on the way down.
Wednesday, 12 October 2005
Tuesday, 11 October 2005
But it's doubtful the ambulance and clinic crew will be doing outreach work this week as the ministry has been unable to deliver their fuel supplies.
The Husband has just come from a very depressing meeting with the Community HIV/AIDS counsellors. So many women walking miles to the tarmac every day to work as prostitutes to the truck drivers. They have no way of earning income and not enough food. The women have been left widowed, gaggles of orphans piled into their small houses. AIDS is not just a disease which could be cured if people cared enough; it's a situation. I have no real desire to debate the issue of prostitution, but it seems to me like it should be a choice, and when it's not that's a problem. And what of the truck drivers? Adding to the problem, or helping the women out with money? Using condoms? Doubtful. Our Food Programme already covers a massive amount of people, but it's never enough.
Another senior manager here is about to be sacked for corruption.
I just read a geographical magazine, full of photographs of landfills. Beeyoodifull.
There is a possiblity of house-sitting for some people in town who are going abroad for a while. It's tempting - they have satellite TV and a swimming pool. Not to mention electricity and running water, aircon etc. I think they may even have a washing machine.
An Irishman has won the Booker. Hurrah.
A parcel has arrived full of books and chocolate. I am going to go bury my head in the sand. I may be some time.
Wednesday, 5 October 2005
Tuesday, 4 October 2005
I am Concerned now with a capital C. I'm hoping it doesn't develop into full-blown paranoia. We're almost entirely out of food, and re-stocking will necessitate the 3-hour round trip to town. I can't even grin and bear it and live on Nsima, having just had to throw out two sacks of maize meal which were wriggling off the shelf of their own accord.
The whole country is YET AGAIN completely out of fuel. We have an emergency can of petrol, which would get us in and out of town to buy food, which is obviously necessary. But if we use the emergency fuel in that way, we have no way of replacing it right now. This is not funny when you live in the bush which is full of snakes and rabid wildlife and other Dangerous Things which might constitute a Medical Emergency.
It is an hour and a half's drive to the nearest hospital, or, five and a half day's limping if you have no fuel. The options seem to be (1) use the fuel to go fetch food and risk being stuck in the bush with no fuel and possibly dying some hideous death by attack of the monster locust, (2) Starve, safe in the knowledge that at least we have fuel to get to hospital if necessary.
Planning ahead is a waste of time here. As with the fuel, we try to have emergency cash, for the times when the ATM doesn't work. Thing is, it rarely works, so the emergency cash gets used up. As with the so-called emergency fuel. There are rumours of planned riots in Lusaka this weekend. What fun ho! Somebody somewhere needs to sort this stuff out. Me, I am signing up to become a biodiesel producer.
And for your amusement, below is a little test for anyone who is thinking of working in development:
Test: You are required to help your colleague resize some digital photos, which are only available on her hard drive, and email them to the UK office. Your colleague's computer is running Windup 88. It does not have email. The floppy disk drive is broken. Where there should be a CD-Rom drive is a gaping hole. It will take a memory stick, but no other computer in the office will. Some of the other computers have CD drives which work, some have floppy drives which work. No machine is fully functional. Two of the computers are randomly networked. There is only one printer. There is a portable CD drive which works sometimes. One of the computers which is connected to the internet has no email system set up on it. The only computer with email and internet is password protected and the person who uses it is not in the office. You have 30 minutes in which to complete this task. This is not a Rubix Cube.
I need booze...
Sunday, 2 October 2005
Also, would people please stop dying. The funereal drums are giving me head pains.
Friday, 30 September 2005
A: Ampersands, or, a supper of gin&tonic and M&Ms.
On a work note I have nothing but good things to say about our local government District Health people. Not only have they kept their word and continue to supply more than enough fuel to run the ambulance we donated to the clinic, started HIV testing, counselling and ARV facilities, they are now coming up trumps with disposable supplies for malaria testing once we supply a microscope. It just shows that governments are more than willing to invest in basic needs once they have the opportunity. I just hope debt relief begins to loosen the coffers at the District Education Board, even getting a reply from them is like getting blood out of a turnip.
Tuesday, 27 September 2005
"Ok, that's it, I'm coming for that camera."
See it and weep! That thar is the POOL at the lodge we stayed at in South Luangwa National Park. Look, look at all that water! Bliss. Especially with a constant parade of lion, hippo, elephant, antelope etc trooping past on that dusty bit in the background.
Friday, 2 September 2005
Tuesday, 30 August 2005
The simple lines are not referred to, they are not even a conversation-stopper, but they are like a punch to the guts for me. For I have heard similar before, and each time the shock is like a little bomb-blast of somone else's reality. The man speaking is a Zimbabwean we have just met, and the weight of his words hang heavy. There is no need to ask him about the attack, or even, actually, to feign horror. I know what he is talking about. The vicious and unprovoked attacks on large-scale farmers in Zimbabwe has been an item on the news for so long now that we have almost become inured to it. But you cannot be impassive when it's sitting next to you over a cup of coffee, when the speaker speaks of trying to rebuild a new life in Zambia, when so many decades and centuries of livelihood in another country have been wiped out in one blow. Or many blows, raining down, leading to hearing impairment and who knows what else. Which isn't to say that large-scale farmers are the only ones in pain - all sectors of Zimbabwean society are currently being made homeless and subjected to violence.
Shocking words, spoken in a matter-of-fact manner, can jolt the listener from the hum-drum. You are at once moved to question your own existence, what you take for granted, the things you never give a thought to, your easy dismissal of people you don't know because you never take the time to ask. I guess, though, this does depend on being a listener, rather than a hearer. Or non-hearer (no deafness implied).
I knew what the Zimbabwean man was talking about, but I wasn't always so quick. In a previous incarnation I was an EFL teacher. Some of my students were refugees of the war in Bosnia. In an elementary class I taught was a young man named Ali. Like many of his compatriots, his eyes were haunted. He couldn't sit still for very long; against all rules he would leave class every ten minutes to smoke a cigarette. One day I started a dictation exercise with the class. Ali became very agitated, and with what little English he had, stammered over and over again that he couldn't do it. I tried to jolly him along, telling him it was just a listening exercise, and to simply jot down any words at all that he heard, that it didn't matter if he couldn't write sentences. In due course I came to realise that Ali was in fact illiterate. It wasn't the English that was bothering him, but the paper and pen. It hadn't even occurred to me that somone might not know how to read and write. Ali was learning those skills from scratch in a foreign language. I thought I would learn from that lesson. I didn't. In a later class we did some frivolous exercise on using the phone – how English speakers speak on the telephone and so on. The exercise included questions on how often the students used the phone, how much it cost them, which countries they telephoned. Round the class we went, the students calling out their answers. Ali's seemed a bit odd. He was spending an inordinate amount of money and calling many different countries across Europe and I thought he had misunderstood the questions. I gently probed him about his answers.
"I calling everywhere Germany France Italy Switzerland UK. All friends family moved everywhere after war. No-one here. My girlfriend, she in hospital Italy." He proudly showed me a tattered passport photo of a young woman. Stupid dumbass teacher.
It didn't stop there though. In an advanced class was Ivo. Ivo was a phenomenally goodlooking man, a rock star back in Bosnia. The level of English in the advanced class was impeccable, some days I really didn't know why they were there. We mostly spent the time having philosophical debates. On a particular day I chose to discuss 'Euthanasia – Right or Wrong?'. I had used it before, and as euthanasia at that time was not legal anywhere it seemed a fairly abstract topic. We had barely even begun when Ivo spoke up. And subjected us all to a story about him fighting in the war and finding his best friend practically slashed in half by a bomb. Ivo wept as he told us that despite his friend's obvious agony he just couldn't 'put him out of his misery' and kill him, as it is always wrong to take someone else's life. We fell silent and I sent everyone out for a break. It's never really just a philosophical debate is it, if it's someone else's reality? And it's never ever just some old story on the evening news, because ordinary people's lives are always affected.
Sunday, 28 August 2005
A haze hangs, a Vaseline thumb-smear across the sky. Brittle tree-bones crack underfoot, and sweat dries as it forms, leaving dusty salt crystals on my skin. Dizzy leaves yellowhiteyellowhiteyellowhite fly in formation across my path; a child shaking a packet of crisps, an adult shaking a bottle of Goldschlager. Fighting torpor; torpor wins.
Somnambulant. I try to speak but I cannot muster the energy, only the zzz zzz of a worn-out battery. The dry hiss as a tap is opened but nothing pours forth.
Saturday, 27 August 2005
"Absolutely not, you must put it back in the forest."
"You don't want to buy?"
"If I bought it I would release it."
"Ha ha ha ha ha ha. Then I would just catch it and sell it again."
What is wrong with people?
Friday, 26 August 2005
Mr Clare shows that he knows very little about the publishing industry when he denies that it is a giant cartel. He clearly has never had an insider's view. But a flick through Carole Blake's From Pitch to Publication should bring him back down to earth with a bump. He claims that if anything, publishing is too open to newcomers. I think he is confusing this with the inexplicable trend of some publishers to put any old rubbish into print.
Many well-written novels are rejected for tenuous reasons which are rarely to do with the quality of the writing. Their subject matter is not 'trendy' enough, it's too 'difficult'; the book is set in the 'wrong' country; it's too big; it's too small. And other such whimsies. It's worth bearing in mind too, that someone who is skilled at creative writing might not necessarily have the aggressive and tenacious personality needed to market themselves and their work. In fact many writers prefer to work alone with their creations; the idea of having to face agents and endless rounds of PR fills them with dread. Does this really make them "disaffected and untalented"? I think many many people have a novel in them, a good one. Just not everybody manages to get it published. There is a difference.
A quick google search (what on earth did we do before google?) finds this quote by Tim himself: "Naturally, like most foolish rookie authors, I think what I've written's rather good... " Didn't take him long to switch from a foolish rookie to a pompous knob, did it? Well it would seem his book has stalled on its way to the public, because Amazon has never heard of him. Keeps directing me to books about The Burren, in Co. Clare, Ireland. A lovely place, should you ever get the chance to visit it, and most likely a far nicer way to spend a Friday than reading over lemons. And while we're on the subject of fruit, it might interest Mr Clare to know that a kumquat ("accountants with ulcers the size of kumquats") is about the size of a grape. I think, perhaps, you were searching for a larger fruit analogy. Who wants to read you showing off your Scrabble words?
Thursday, 25 August 2005
I get up this morning, leave the bedroom, and walk smalk bang into a giant cow with ferocious horns. Moo! it says. Moo! I say back. Perhaps it is inspecting the verandah?
And there I was thinking we needed a break, a holiday, a little safari somewhere, watching animals. Silly me, it's all here. The Husband though, is hunched over his desk, playing with rocks. Should I worry?
On a positive note, the cats are bored and listless and have FINALLY decided to hunt the chickens. Hurrah. I hate chickens. Littlecat even made an attempt to biff the cow. I'll make a lion out of him yet.
Tuesday, 23 August 2005
Our esteemed and beloved leader President Levy Mwanawasa, democratically elected ruler of Zambia, has decided that when he leaves office he would like to take a large wodge of cash with him, to the tune of £80,000 equivalent or thereabouts. Well, wouldn't we all like to take that home with us? How marvellous. This has been announced out of the blue. He somehow feels he deserves a big payoff, despite the fact that he is already entitled to a presidential pension and perks such as secretarial services (that always amuses me), car, house, international flights, yada yada yada when he departs his position.
Before he went into politics he was a qualified solicitor with his own practice. It's not like he couldn't work if he wanted to top up his already substantial pension. The newspapers have been fairly neutral in their reporting of this latest development, probably because it is a criminal offence in Zambia to criticise El Presidente. It's one thing to let the government off the hook with their lack of support for primary needs such as food, healthcare and education when they literally do not have any money. It's quite another to see Zambia reach HIPC point, have all kinds of promises made to them for debt to be written off, and then the first thing the leader of the country does is announce that he'd like to write himself a big fat cheque.
Yesterday I went to Some Town in Zambia. There was an infamous green slip at the post office, indicating there was a parcel for me. I tried to collect it but was told that they couldn't release it as Customs wanted to open it and inspect it. Great. You would think that as long as a parcel didn't contain something dangerous such as bomb-making equipment that if it's addressed to you, legally it's yours and they can't hold it. Pah!
"Ok, so where is my parcel?" I ask Post Office Man.
"Oh it's here. But I can't give it to you. Customs must inspect it."
"Right. How do we do that?"
"Oh, sometimes the Customs Lady is at the post office, but sometimes not. You will have to go and fetch her."
"You will have to go and fetch her."
"What, you mean drive there and pick her up and bring her back here?"
"Are you serious? She will just get in our vehicle and come with us?"
"She will come, surely."
I turn to Johnson our driver. He shrugs his shoulders. You couldn't make this stuff up. We drive across town to the Zambian Revenue Authority. The offices are full of flashy computers and filing cabinets, smart desks and workstations. It's pretty much empty of people though.
A woman strolls out of an office.
"Excuse me," I say, "we're looking for the Customs Lady."
The woman gives me a disdainful look. "Ah, she is coming."
How very helpful, not.
After about 20 minutes the woman wanders back again. She gestures for us to come into her office. A sign on her desk indicates she is in charge of licensing. She asks for my name and shuffles through some papers. She thrusts something at me, saying, "We were supposed to post this to you. You have to pay us money." Excellent.
Eventually Customs Lady wanders into the office she shares with Licensing Lady. Customs Lady chews on a doughnut. For half an hour she chats with Licensing Lady, shows off her new handbag, packs up her things in a giant bag la la la. Eventually she says hello to us. Or rather, what she says is "You have to pay me money."
The problem seems to be stemming from the fact that as well as drawing materials for the school and books for the library, the parcel contains 3 mobile phones to be given out to the community.
"What are you doing with these phones? You have to pay duty on them."
What makes me mad is that these people in government offices are Power Mad. There is no recourse to make complaints or ask for a supervisor because they are all crap. They call all the shots and you have to go along with it. They make some random decision and you are not allowed to dispute it. Johnson and I explain that we work for an NGO, the phones are donations, we are helping some of the poorest people in the country, as an NGO we are exempt from such charges etc etc. She doesn't give a rat's ass.
"This parcel is addressed to you. You must give me money."
Her colleague, the Licensing Lady, who actually has absolutely nothing to do with Customs apart from sharing an office with the doughnut-muncher, is insistent that I am charged for the phones. Licensing Lady is puzzlingly vitriolic in her insistence to her colleague.
Johnson turns to me and whispers, "Ah, she is Lozi that one. Those people are not friendly." Whatever. This is just insanity.
Customs Lady follows us to our vehicle. Licensing Lady also jumps in. Does anyone actually do any work at the ZRA? We drive to the post office. Where ensues further argument.
I wouldn't mind if there were rules, laws, things written down. If something is a certain way in a country I am happy to abide by it. But where is a written list of items which are subject to duty? Where is an explanation of why they are subject to duty? Something official on paper to show how they calculate what that duty is? Information for NGOs on how they get around paying this? Nothing, nada, simply another official with not so much a chip on her shoulder as a great big sack of potatoes. She is quite possibly the most unhelpful woman I have met here, and that's saying something. She opens the box and examines everything s..l…o…w…l…y.
"Are you at a school?"
"We are providing education to over 800 kids as well as many other projects."
"Ha! Well, this is a small box of pencils. How can you give it to 800 children?"
Actually right now I would prefer to shove them up your nostrils.
I mutter something at her.
"How much are you going to pay me for these phones?"
See what I mean? Shouldn't she be telling me?
"Give me £30."
"I'll give you £3."
She is outraged. "I am only doing my job."
"So am I. Any money you take from me means less money to those who need it."
"Phones are not essential items, not like food." She wipes a doughnut crumb off her lip.
Phones ruddy well are essential if you live out in the bush. And who is she to make such a decision? If a community member has access to a phone they can call town to check what price produce is going for, if there is a demand, ask someone to help them transport their goods, so they can sell it, so they can pay school fees and buy clothes for their children.
I barter her down to £15 duty payable. It is a figure plucked from thin air. Yes, she is only doing her job, but as there appears to be absolutely no guidelines what is to stop her from saying 'Oh look, these are old and broken phones, no duty chargeable' instead of clawing money from people who need it?
I tell Customs Lady I will pay the duty and then figure out how to claim it back. A smug smile crawls over her face.
"Oh with this receipt you can't claim back. For duty exemption you must ship things, and get the government to pay the shipping agent."
This is a really helpful tip. Because the one and only time we shipped things they took six months instead of the promised 30 days, and were opened and pilfered by customs officials in over 3 countries.
She takes an inordinate length of time to write my receipt. And then she says,"Now you must take me back to my office."
I grasp my parcel firmly in my arms. "You want a lift? No problem. The charge will be £15." I turn on my heel and walk out. She doesn't follow.
I need a holiday. Communing with elephants. While someone else cooks on a twig fire because it's been six weeks and there is no gas in the entire country because believe me we've tried everywhere. Apparently there is a 'national crisis'. Still on fuel shortages, and bare shelves in the supermarket. Never mind, it is excellent practice, because, Rest of World, these fuel crises are coming your way and they ain't pretty.
Sunday, 21 August 2005
Tuesday, 16 August 2005
"Look! See? It's ma-hoo-sive!"
We are staring at an enormous angry red raised patch of skin on my leg, which measures about 15cm square.
"Nah, can't be from a bee."
Chief is lucky lucky lucky to be alive. Streaming blood, he crawled out of the wreckage, to find a gaggle of people staring at him. He refused to go to hospital immediately, as he (probably rightly) believed that if he left the scene the truck driver would immediately move our vehicle, destroy any evidence, and buy off any witnesses. He wanted to make a statement to the police first.
In the space of an hour he made several anxious calls to a police station nearby. No police officers came. Finally one of the bystanders offered to go in a taxi and fetch the police. Chief gave the guy some money for the return taxi journey. The man ran off with the money and was never seen again. Luckily a passing man stopped – this now almost two hours after the accident – and tried to take Chief to the hospital, but again Chief asked for the police. The man managed to get the police to come. Having filed their report the police then wandered off, leaving the bleeding man to his own devices.
Chief began to try and hitch-hike into town. Despite the evidence of the crash and the obviously distressed state of Chief, nobody stopped. The passing traffic carried on, ignoring the problem. Another hour later, one more kind person finally pulled over. They took Chief to the hospital. At this point Chief could not walk, from blood loss and shock. When they carried him into the hospital they refused to treat him until he had paid some money upfront. When they were finished examining him they sent him to the government pharmacy within the hospital. The shelves were bare. He had to pay for his medicine in a private pharmacy.
The truck driver never even bothered to report to the owner of the haulage company that he had almost killed someone. Our project vehicle is a write-off. The lack of a project vehicle means we are seriously limited on what outreach work we can do at the moment. I hope nothing bad ever happens to me in Zambia, because I sure as hell wouldn't want to be depending on the majority of its citizens to help me.
Monday, 15 August 2005
"Oh. Right. Hello."
Two little girls show up at my house, uninvited. One wears a mumu in a bright African print, her fat braids tied with a blue ribbon. The other wears a stiff nylon merringue-style dress, of an indeterminate pink colour. These nylon monstrosities are beloved of Zambian parents; perhaps the itchy-scratchy items are considered the height of fashion. The two little girls look around them. They decide to park themselves in the deckchairs on the lawn. They settle in, smoothing their skirts down like two queens. Merringue's English is considerably better than Mumu's, so she takes the lead.
Zambian adults, I've found, are quite formal. Zambian children can be similar. I quiz the two small girls until I have found out their names and who their parents are. Then I run out of things to say. They have fallen silent, offering up no conversation, simply sitting and looking at me. I am unused to this. My own niece back home is a livewire who could happily entertain a conference room of people, so I do not know how to deal with these silent beauties. Sugar! I think, and go inside to fetch them some orange squash and biscuits.
They finish their snack in record quick time, and return to staring at me. They seem particularly fascinated by my toe-ring. After sugar my second standby is drawing materials.
"Would you like to do some colouring?"
"No," says Merringue.
I am taken aback. Bad luck, you're doing it anyway.
I collect up some colouring pencils and paper for them, instruct them to get on with it, and return to my own hellish paperwork. It is some minutes before they start drawing. Mumu covers the entire page in pictures of foodstuffs. I wonder if she is hungry. Merringue draws a boat on the water. Zambia is a land-locked country, and this part of the Copperbelt area is far away from major rivers or lakes.
"Have you ever been on a boat?"
"Have you ever seen a boat?"
"Just in pictures?"
It starts to get dark. Littlecat is mewling around my legs for his dinner.
"Do you have any pets?"
"Oh. No cats or dogs?"
"We have four chickens."
I wasn't expecting Merringue to say that she had pets, but anything to make conversation. In a country where people struggle to feed themselves, pets are a luxury. And yet taking care of a pet is one of the ways kids learn about responsibility, about the fact that there are others who need taking care of apart from themselves. But then I'm sure Zambian children get all that from looking after their many siblings.
I invite the two small girls into the house to help me feed Littlecat. I put all his grub in a bowl and ask Merringue to carry it through to where I feed him. Littlecat is so excited by the smell of the wretched kapenta* that I have to hold him, wriggly biggly that he is. I turn to Merringue –
"Ok, you can just put the food down there now."
She holds the bowl aloft, on high, and proceeds to tip all of the food out on to the floor. I bite my lip. This is the funniest thing to happen all day, apart from when a bee stung me. No wait, that wasn't funny…
"Oh no dear, I keep the food in the bowl. Never mind."
I scoop all the food back in the bowl, trying not to laugh, while Littlecat is slobbering all over me, the floor, the girls, the bowl. Why not tip the food on the floor? How was she to know?
"Ok now we're going."
"Ok. Do you want to take your drawings?"
"Yes," says Mumu.
"No," says Merringue.
Mumu snatches up her paper with such ferocity I hope she's not going to attempt to eat the pictures she's made of food. Merringue changes her mind and takes her paper too. They run off into the night.
*This fish is dried (for preservation purposes) and sold everywhere in Zambia as a source of cheap protein. It stinks like nothing on earth.
Thursday, 11 August 2005
This, on the other hand, I'm sure is not widely available. Thankfully. It is vile. The ingredients list is: Maize, sugar, colour, flavour. But as it's liquid, I think there must also be water in there. A favourite drink with the urban population of Zambia, costing only a few pence. The acid coloured cartons can be seen littering the towns - available in yellow, orange, purple...depending on the 'flava'. In Namibia the schoolkids had a similar drink - they never opened the top but preferred to chew off one of the bottom corners and suck it from there. Who knows why.
Wednesday, 10 August 2005
At night-time the sky is an eerie orange, and the galloping fingers of flame sound strangely like rain. Fire-Water. Bricks too burn. Hand-moulded from clay, and burnt to harden. Charcoal also. Smoking mounds turning once-trees into now-coal.
Patches of black soot, brush already eliminated, reveal thousands of small grey termite mounds, poking up like so many endless tombstones. Skeletal trees fork upwards into a cloudless sky. We pass beneath the power lines, swooping low like tangled wool; a sorcery so close yet not ours, a miracle bypassing the regular wo/man on its way to the President's farm.
Now is also the time of the wind, whipping sand into whirling dervishes, spinning-tops to leave grit in eyes, nose, grinding against teeth. Reed mats for purchase flap wildly on poles. Everyone is watching, waiting, for the rains. It is many months off, and already streams are reduced to puddles of mud. Where once were local laundromats now are water-lily ghosts.
Time is marked by no clock, but by produce. On the roadside stalls women in woolly hats tout the last of the squashes, the sweet potatoes. The fat watermelons are already past their best. Avocados are gone; green peppers linger.
I look at this life around me as we make our way into town. The Husband, meanwhile, is busily selecting his Fantasy Football team.
Monday, 8 August 2005
"How are you?"
"Very fine. And you?"
"Fine. How can I help you?" Goaway getlost buzzoff. I am the only one in the vicinity and not in the mood for visitors.
"I have bought some donkeys. I've come to collect them."
"Some donkeys?" I didn't even know there were donkeys for sale.
"Hmmm." The Big Cheese is in hospital, the Medium Cheese is in bed with malaria. I would look for The Donkeyman, but I don't think we have one. I huff and puff a little bit. "Everyone's gone you know. We finish at sixteen hours."
"Oh. But I've come to collect the donkeys."
I think we established that Mr Giraffe. I think a little bit. Perhaps Lonely the Security Guard can help. He is a very nice and helpful man, in a smart uniform with polished boots. I go outside to look for him.
The Giraffe follows me. "Do you have any milk?"
What? Milk? From the donkeys? From the cows? How is the cow's milk related to the donkeys? "No, I think it was all sold this morning."
"So you haven't done the milking yet?"
Do I look like a milkmaid I wonder? "I don't think there's any milk."
No-one is there, where the Security Guard should be. I sigh a little bit. A man I have never seen before in my life pops up from behind a pile of straw. He is wearing a red Noddy hat.
"Oh. Have you seen the Security Guard?" I ask him.
"Oh. Hmmm. Can you please go fetch [Medium Cheese] and tell him that a man is here to collect some donkeys.
I turn to Mr Giraffe. "[Medium Cheese's] house is some way, so if you'd just like to wait here while we fetch him. "
I turn and head back for the office. Mr Giraffe has ignored my request and is now following Noddy. I feel very bad for sending these people to someone sick with malaria, but really, there are LIMITS to just how far I am prepared to stretch my job description.
I am not The Donkeyman.
Friday, 5 August 2005
On every available centimetre of space someone is trying to scrape a living. Small wooden shacks are painted in the bright red of Celtel; here you can purchase your 'scratchcards' to top up your mobile phone credit. Under a broad squat tree is a coffin perched on a chair, a carpenter displaying his wares. Elaborately carved doors to nowhere line the roadside, propped up by their makers. Tyres for sale.
The afternoon session of school is out, and children in uniforms range round the various shacks and stalls. Some small boys push toy cars made from wire through puddles of sewage. Everything is random and dirty, squalid and rundown. Pedestrians step over burning heaps of rubbish, stopping to purchase some groundnuts, a watermelon.
Slow-moving bright blue battered minibuses, held together with some string and a prayer, lurch to a halt every few metres, tumbling over the edge of the tarred road onto the dirt, like stunned beetles. They are picking up and dropping off those majority Zambians who cannot afford their own vehicles. Golden banners in the windows of the buses proclaim Jesus is Fortunate! Allah is Loving You! All sedan cars in the city, it seems, are white. It is an unfortunate colourway given the proliferation of red dust.
We are overtaken by monstrous 4WDs, grumbling beasts which belong to the large Aid Agencies, the diplomats, the wheeler-dealers. Tinted windows hide them from scrutiny, as their mile-high walls in the nicer neighbourhoods hide away their manicured lawns.
BOOM! Washing paste is best. Advertisements are painstakingly painted by hand onto the walls which lead into the city. The few hoardings proclaim 'Advertise here!' but hand-painted signs reign.
Sitting stretched out in the dirt and coated head to toe in grey dust are the stone-breakers. Their arduous daily task is to hack great lumps of rock out of the ground, and spend hours cracking them down into small stones. The stones are then bought by those with some kwacha, to use for building work.
You could probably count the number of streetlights in Lusaka on one hand. Few roads display their names, there are no signposts. You need to know where you're going.
We are stopped on the way in at a police post. There are about eight officers milling about in the road, and it is unclear what they are doing. One of them makes our driver Johnson pull off onto a side road and park the vehicle. It seems he is doing it simply for his own amusement, as he makes Johnson re-park three times before he is happy. Johnson goes to speak with the officer to find out the problem. The officer shrugs. It would appear he is simply the Parking Policeman. Johnson goes up to each of the officers in turn, trying to find out why we have been stopped. Each one sends him to another one. Finally Johnson lies, yelling that he is taking the muzungus to the airport, urgently, and must be allowed to leave. A fierce-looking policeman orders Johnson to drive to the police station, some two hundred metres further along the road. The police station yard is piled high with junked cars; it looks like a scrap-metal merchant's. Johnson storms in.
When he returns he is shaking his head.
"Well," I ask, "what was it all about?"
"Ah! Inside there….there are women with moustaches! They are very serious those ones. They are not understanding why I am here, so I shouted at them."
"Did you have to bribe them?"
"Mmm mmmm. Not these ones. Let's go."
We pull off into the night.
Thursday, 4 August 2005
The older is the sudden fear that I am turning into my own aunt. Because no-one wants to become somebody else, no matter how good that other being is. My aunt, like me, is happily childfree. A traveller she be. As far back as the 70s she was taking full advantage of her teacher's holidays, whisking herself off to places no-one had even heard of then. She was almost arrested on a trip back from Russia, because, after all, who would possibly go there for fun?
As a child I subjected my classmates to displays of the 'treasures' my aunt would bring back in her suitcase. And they did come in a suitcase – the hard kind that knocks merry hell out of your legs – for those were the days long before cheaply available rucksacks.
I had a Babushka before they ever appeared on Sesame Street, counting. (Counting was for the Count, sometimes in Spanish. Words too – agua agua.) The thin wood of Babushka screeched as she delivered her next generations. I had neon-pink mirrored pens, from old Siam. They never worked. They ran rainbows round my room where the sun caught the bits of broken-up glass pushed into plastic, but made no mark on paper. We wondered about the unfortunate people in Thailand, my brother and I, with pens that didn't work. Strange leather belts from Malta, creaking of sherry-soaked sun. Sweets on a string from Spain, violently orange and fizzy. Such various things amassed themselves in a higgledy-piggledy fashion about my bedroom. 'Gewgaws' my mother called them, 'dust-collectors'. To me, though, they were glimpses of a bigger universe, lands and time outside of my patch of Irish countryside.
Until one day, grown-up (moody teenager), I looked around me, and came to believe that I was surrounded by tat. And I chucked everything I could into the bin. So now I am nervous, as I parcel up a piece of Africa into a pink envelope for the Princess. A bubble-wrapped bejewelled gecko, made from the finest wire and beads…destined, surely, to some day be relegated from exotica to tat from Auntie C.
Mind you, I kept my Babushka.
Wednesday, 3 August 2005
I want porridge, something hot to sit in my belly and spread its warmth through to my rigid fingers. But there is no water. No water in the tap inside, no water in the tap outside, no water in the drums outside the wash-house. I could use the last litre of drinking water, but that seems unwise.
Then I find some dirty water in the end of a bucket and decide to boil an egg. Standing next to the flame I listen to the egg rollicking against the sides of the saucepan. I lift the egg out of the pan and put it in the pocket of my fleece, where it keeps my hand warm.
The fleece is something my mother gave me in the last minutes before I left for Zambia, over one year ago now. I hate it. I hate it but I need it and I'm so thankful she thrust it into my bag when I didn't have time enough to seek out my own before departure. It's old and pilled and far too big for me, but I have no other warm clothes and it has kept me from hypothermia throughout two cold seasons.
It is, I think, also, the fact of having to wear the same thing over and over again with no variety. But then, that is what everyone else here must do. The egg slowly cools down, and in the office I reach into my pocket to retrieve it. It falls to the floor where it cracks. I pick it up. In rolling it has gathered red dust into the crevices. I make a pile of eggshell on my desk, then eat the egg. It tastes good.
Tuesday, 2 August 2005
This is Freddie Beakery. You all want one, I know this. But he's mine. All mine. Give Freddie a slap on the head and water spurts out his mouth. Poke his little black eyes and his head flips open, for re-filling. Freddie kicks ass. We don't have a water cooler here for gossiping round. Hell, we barely have water. But I got Freddie sitting on mah desk spittin' at me for all he's worth. For about $6 I have my very own happy flask, one which reminds me of a sunny technicoloured 1970s childhood. This is the kind of thing, my friends, which London homestores would file under 'retro' and charge you a fortune for. And I got it in town for next to nowt. Bless the Chinese and their tat stores.
Friday, 29 July 2005
Good: Being able to put in a cup - honey from our bees, lemons from the trees, ginger and thyme from the garden. (With anty water). Licking out the remains of the Nutella jar.
Thursday, 28 July 2005
Wednesday, 27 July 2005
Unless you are a big businessperson on an expense account (we're not) and stay at somewhere plush like the Pamodzi or the Intercontinental Hotels, you are left with a choice of guesthouses which beggar belief. Many are openly brothels. The rest charge exorbitant prices for décor last seen in Auntie Marge's house, after she overdosed on her HRT meds with too many back issues of Gardener's World and Woman's Weekly to hand.
As we drove round and round the capital The Husband was getting a bit hysterical at the thought of showing up to the reception late, in case it was a sit-down affair. I was more worried about them running out of booze, but figured that the combination of an Irish reception in Africa would mean the show wouldn't start until at least a couple of hours after the advertised time.
In the end, in desperation, we handed over all our spending money for the weekend in return for a night in the Hotel d'Horreur, and rushed to get ready. Of course the only clean clothes either of us had were cream-coloured, as this is a colour one must never show daylight to when living in the bush. So, we kinda matched. We also looked quite crumply. Our cheap and cheerful place has an iron. Hotel d'Horreur didn't. As my flat-flat flip-floppy feet climbed into a pair of heels, I thought that given the matching outfits there would surely be some Posh 'n' Becks jokes at our expense. In any event, the climbing into crumply cream clothes was done in a terrible hurry, and it was not until the next day that we realised the true extent of the Hotel d'Horreur.
Waking up with the mother of all hangovers is bad. But waking up with the mother of all hangovers to what looks like a slaughtered zebra draped over your bed, bright sunlight streaming in the windows, and no water in the room, is a nightmare. Having gotten to bed at 2am, I woke up again at 5am, with half the Sahara residing in the back of my throat. We had no water bottles with us, and despite the ludicrously high price we had paid for the room, no water jug there either. I wondered about drinking from the tap. I could vaguely recall brushing my teeth in the tapwater earlier, but that is a different thing entirely to drinking 500 litres of it all of a slap.
I went in to the bathroom. The bath was full of ants. I don't know what they were doing. Not taking a bath, as there was no plug. But there they were, in their millions. I tried to sit down on the loo to take a leak, but the entire seat fell off and it and I ended up on the floor. I briefly wondered if urine was toxic to ants, but then I was a good girl and weed in the loo after all.
Waterwaterwaterwater, it was becoming very important. Perhaps the breakfast table would have some. Or the bar. Surely, somewhere, was water. I pulled on some clothes and caught a frightening glance of myself in the mirror. No mirrors or lighting in the bush. It's quite good that, but not when you come to the city and see what you really look like. My hair was quite borked (new favourite word) but as I was doing a very good impression of the tall one from AbFab on the lash, I decided to roll with that.
But everywhere was quiet. No bar open, no breakfast room open, no reception open. I wavered in front of the swimming pool, but come on, I have standards. I went back to the room and was frightened again, this time by the full on view of the zebra bedspread with matching pillow. I decided to go on a little hunt around the room, to keep up the safari theme. I found:
- 3 Bibles
- One bedside lamp, but the only socket in the room half a mile away
- One electric fan, plug cut off the end, no hope of plugging it in here, there or half a mile away
- Joseph's technicolour dreamcoat, posing as a blanket
- A plantpot posing as a dustbin
- Ikea (?) handles on the concrete wardrobes
- No water
There was, however, a kettle. I decided that if I boiled the tap water it would be less likely to give me the trots. But first I had to wrench the plug of the TV out of the wall, for there was only that one socket, half a mile away. The kettle was perched on a dresser thingummy, and the cord was too short to reach the socket. So it had to sit on the floor – v dangerous.
There was no switch on the kettle itself (is this even legal?). I looked inside and saw no bubbles, so clearly the connection was dodgy. I lashed the plug into the socket with a karate chop and it started to hum. The karate chop unfortunately had now rendered the whole sockety business to dangle wildly out of the wall. LUCKILY there was a switch on the actual socket, as otherwise I would have been faced with the prospect of a boiling kettle spouting steam all over my feet and no way of ever switching it off and it's The Husband's job to set rooms on fire, not mine.
I didn't however, have a wooden spoon for flicking the switch, so I had to use my hand and hope no electrocution occurred. I made tea. I hate tea, but I thought it would be slightly better than hot water. I sat on the chair to drink my tea, but the back of it fell off and I wasn't really into a stool at that point. So I went back to bed, and sat there drinking tea, and thinking how nice it would be to be able to watch TV at the same time, except that now the plug for the kettle was jammed in the wall, so no TV. I went back to sleep.
Tuesday, 26 July 2005
The layout was admirable. Toilet immediately on the left (for you know you will need to know where that is later), free booze bar immediately on the right, and food out in the garden with dogs waiting to hoover up the droppings. It took 20 seconds for the Resident Nutjob to find us. And only another 30 for her to invite us to sleep on her floor, although she had no mattresses or bedding of any kind, and her house was very full, but she liked it that way. Indeed. Luckily the Resident Bore didn't find us until the very end, by which point I had drunk enough free booze to forget to be polite. Drink is a terrible thing. Actually that's not true. I was in fact rudely polite. Or politely rude even. I'm so sorry, I don't mean to be rude, but I have absolutely no interest in talking to you. Goodnight. Well yes it was a horrible thing to say, but the drink, the drink! Besides, if nobody ever tells him he'll continue boring people to death for the rest of his life.
Then we went dancing! It was great! In heels as well! I didn't fall over once, and had only three mystery bruises the next day. In fact the whole shebang could even have been deemed a success, were it not for the small matter of accommodation. But more of that another day.
Friday, 22 July 2005
Thursday, 21 July 2005
At around 16:00 some villagers reported smoke billowing from the muzungu's house at the edge of the compound. Upon investigation it was discovered that the muzungu had drunk too many g&ts and fallen asleep with some buns in the oven. In a separate incident Shoes the Mechanic reported seeing someone board a bus carrying a suspect goat. This was immediately dismissed by Jehosephat, as neither buses nor goats have ever been seen in the area. Loveness the Nurse was despatched to provide a banana and some panadol to Mr Shoes, to counteract the effect of whatever he had been smoking.
And finally, at about 16:30 Roger the Dodger – bicycle repair man – made an attempt to secure the title of local ne'er do well, when he threatened Chief with "blowing your brains out". Witnesses were unanimous in their belief that he was unlikely to achieve this with an inner tube and an old candle.
Residents have been advised to stay indoors and watch out for anything suspicious. Unfortunately this advice has had to be ignored, on account of no lights for watching anything, and the danger of using a paraffin stove indoors with no ventilation. We await further updates.
We arrived at JFK
"What kind of business?"
"Oh, I work in Marketing."
"Uh, you know, marketing stuff."
"What, like Sales?"
For Pete's sake don't make me try and explain the difference between Marketing and Sales. I have no idea. I write things. It makes stuff sell. The end.
"Well, kind of."
'Kind of' didn't cut it. There was clearly an answer he was looking for, and I was racking my brains to find it. Eventually in the midst of his interrogation I enlightened him to the fact that I was a copywriter in our firm's marketing department.
"Aha!" he yelled, banging his fist on the desk.
It seems I might as well have said I was a terrorist. And thus ensued another tortuous half-hour where he threatened to send me back to the UK because I didn't have a journalist's visa, and I got exasperated trying to explain that I was not, in fact, a journalist, but a mere copywriter, employed to sell American products. I eventually managed to convince GSG that I was not about to wreak havoc on New York, or America at Large, by whacking people to death with my sheets of copy, and he let me through. Meanwhile, my colleague had sailed through Security with a wave and a smile, despite the fact that he was carrying several scalpels and a large can of aerosol glue in his hand luggage… Such, it would seem, is the power of words and the almighty fear it drives into some people.
In those days it was a case of using my words to sell overpriced tat to people who didn't need it and probably couldn't afford it. I'd like to think that now my words go some way towards making a real difference to people. I posted earlier about a particular village here being in desperate need of a well. We have a great donor in Wales who likes to fundraise for us, so I spent ages writing up some publicity material for her about this village, for use at her next fundraising event. Before she could even organise anything, a neighbour of hers dropped by her house, read through my words, and promptly wrote out a personal cheque for close to £1,000 to build the well. While this is obviously fantastic, and yes, the villagers do need clean water, I am very conscious that publicity material such as this only ever gives one tiny piece of the story.
It is difficult to write all the time of people drinking filthy water on a daily basis, water which should bring life but often brings death. Of the thousands of small babies killed by malaria. Of the swathe of AIDS deaths which leaves widows caring for up to 20 kids in one household. For while these people undoubtedly have tough lives, they are not limpid beggars with their hands outstretched. They have pride, dignity, laughter. Their children go to school, even if it is under a tree. They work their farms, hard, every day. The women sit and twist each other's hair into elaborate styles and gossip about their neighbours. The men sit and gossip about the women. The rhythm of life is the same here as it is the world over. And yet it is not the laughter or the gossip which sells, but the hardship and the illness. And that is the way of the word.
*Disclaimer – I am not saying that all Americans are stupid. Far from it. (Hello American friends!) But I would rather chew off my own toenails than ever work with that bunch again.