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Friday, 5 August 2005

Welcome To Lusaka!

Thundering downhill, as the sun sets to the right and behind, the approach into Lusaka from the North gives one the impression of entering into a dustbowl. Pollution and dirt hang low and heavy in the air, lit up by the sun's dying rays. To each side of the tarmac road is more dirt, and a sudden breeze whips up a fine spray of sand. There are no paths.

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.