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Tuesday, 30 August 2005

You Are The News

"I'm sorry, you'll have to speak up please. My wife and I were attacked last year; I can't hear properly now."

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

Agua, agua

The heat arrives unannounced. Heavy, like an anchor dropping. No heraldry, just hypnotism. It sneaks up, like a sea turning from low tide to high in what seems like an instant; mesmerised by the waves I suddenly find myself drowning. Gently opiated, smothered by the weight of a thousand smooth blankets, it would seem the very oxygen has been sucked out of the air. Flesh touching metal is seared like tuna. Around me is the visible hum of ripe bodies.

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

Monkey(s)

A man walked into the office, carrying a monkey. (So many posts begin 'A man walked into the office [something ludicrous]'. ) I don't know where he got the poor little mite from, because there ain't no monkeys in the forests directly around us. The monkey was tied up in a plastic bag with only his miserable head poking out of the top. The man asked The Husband if he wanted to buy the monkey.

"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

Lemons

Well how's this for a barrel of smugness on a Friday morning - an article in The Goonsquad by famous fabulous author Tim Clare. Never heard of him? Me neither. Tim would like to tell you all that not everybody has a novel in them. And that publishing a book is really dead simple if you're good enough. And that any "drudges" who can't get published are just "needy bumbling timewasters". Or "burnt-out English teachers". (Wonder why he bothered to take an MA when he's so dismissive?)

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

Wildlife

I walk into the dark bedroom last night and a bat flappy-flies right at my face and head. Brrgghghffff! Fffgggnnmmmrr! The Husband is of no help, laughing maniacally as I run screaming from the room. He says I am flapping more than the bat. I send him to kill it with the broom. But the broom is bald and useless. We have a new one, but it's in two parts. We keep forgetting to buy a nail to put it together. For want of a nail the bat lived.

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

Elephants

You know it's time for a holiday when the vagaries of life leave you wanting to land a punch to the face of everyone you meet.

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."
"Excuse me?"
"You will have to go and fetch her."
"What, you mean drive there and pick her up and bring her back here?"
"Yes."
"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."
"No."
"Ah!"
"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

Busybody

No time for blogging. Too busy working. Yes, even on a Sunday. Some people will be happy though. Took an opportunity and hitched a ride Lusaka way, to purchase PE equipment & Class Games for the schoolkids. See, there are some nice people in the world. A thank you to a particular school of kiddies in the UK who sent over their pocket money (or something) to pay for these. Littluns here make hoops out of reeds and footballs out of plastic bags for their PE classes. To be praised, definitely, for their innovation and creativity. But it will be nice for them to have some more durable stuff, which will last longer than one lesson, and be a bit more exciting. I want to see them bash merry hell out of the Swingball. Damn I used to love that as a kid. It was so violent. My brother and I only played so we could try and crack open our neighbours' heads, or at the very least reduce them to gibbering wrecks, curled up on the lawn eating daisies and screaming 'No, no, stop!' as we went WHACK WHACK WHACK.


Tuesday, 16 August 2005

Attack Of The Bee

I have to pull down my trousers in order to garner any sympathy.

"Look! See? It's ma-hoo-sive!"
"That's not a bee-sting, that's a helicopter launch pad."
"It is a ruddy bee-sting."
"No way."
"Way, I pulled the bastard off there myself. A honeybee no less. Not so sweet."

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."
"!!!!!"
"Something else must have bitten you."
"It is from a bee. Can I have some sympathy now?"
"Yeah, it looks nasty."
"You're just lucky I didn't go all anaph...anypho...anil..."
"Anna Phalanges?"
"You know what I mean. That thing where you swell up like the fat chick in Willy Wonka only your throat closes over and you can't breathe, and you woulda had to slash open my throat with a broken pen just to get some air in. Yeah, lucky that didn't happen. Seeing as we don't even have pens in this godforsaken place."
"True."

Humanity's Inhumanity To Others

Chief was in a car crash recently, a bad one. An imbecile truck driver decided to pull out of a side road at top speed, complete with gigantic trailer, so that he took up the entire highway. In the space of seconds Chief had nowhere to go but smack bang into the truck.

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

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?"
"No."
"Have you ever seen a boat?"
"No."
"Just in pictures?"
Silence.

It starts to get dark. Littlecat is mewling around my legs for his dinner.

"Do you have any pets?"
"No."
"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

Good Pink, Bad Pink

I'm one of those people who loves to check out foreign supermarkets and pharmacies, just to see what kind of whacky stuff they got going on in there. So tell me, is this toothpaste now widely available in the free world? Cos I kinda hoped it was an African thang. It's new to me anyway. And although it says Xtreme Red on the tube, trust me this is hot pink. Makes tooth-cleaning so much more fun. So fresh! So hot! So pink!





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

Ashes

Now is the burning time. Roadside undergrowth ablaze, we drive down the dusty track through a tunnel of soaring heat and ash. My cheeks redden and it feels as though our very vehicle is on fire. Small rodents are forced out by the crackle and pop to be clubbed to death. Later they will hang on sticks, on sale, for eating.

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

I Am, The Donkeyman

Five in the evening. Seventeen hours. A truck pulls up, in a cloud of dust. Unusual; no traffic in these here parts. A man gets out of the truck and walks into the office. He is very tall, as tall as a giraffe. He has to bend his upper body just to fit under the rafters.

"Odi!"
"Hello."
"Afternoon."
"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.
"Yes, donkeys."
"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."
"Is it?"
"Yeah."
"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.
"Is me."
"Oh. Hmmm. Can you please go fetch [Medium Cheese] and tell him that a man is here to collect some donkeys.
"Shuwa."
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. "
"Ok."

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

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.

Thursday, 4 August 2005

Morphing

Forwards, backwards. Older, younger. A cyclical dance through time-worn grooves, on sticky school-hall floorboards, dust catching in your throat, then skating on ice in front of winter palaces. The younger is the time I spend, and the fun I have, putting animal stickers just so on the pink envelopes I send to my niece, who is a Fairytale Princess. Not quite sticking my tongue out of the side of my mouth as I do it, but definitely in that childlike space, oblivious to anything but the fixing of pretty pictures. I can practically smell crayons.

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

The Comfort Of An Egg

The cold season lingers. The hot season tantalises, making a brief appearance in a blast of afternoon sunshine, but by nightfall the temperature plummets and breath is still visible in the morning air.

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

Gossiping Round The Water Cooler


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.