Monday, 15 August 2005

Two Little Girls

"Hello. We've come to visit you."
"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.