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(Funny?) Tales of the City

I spend half my life in Zambia waiting. I wait for buses, for people, for something to happen. It's hot, mid afternoon, and I'm trying to gather up my colleagues, trying to usher them together in the middle of the yard like a flock of birds; I always lose a few. The car is waiting; the driver's asleep, we're late and I cannot find anybody. So I sit down on the steps, with the two puppies of the school, Barack and Obama, falling asleep at my feet. I wait. Eventually I get up to use the bathroom, and when I come back, they're all sitting in the car, dozing. "Get in", shouts Andrew, "We've been waiting for you!" Grr.

We drop the others at various points around Cairo Road, the main thoroughfare, and head towards the posh area of Long Acres, and the Zambian Examinations Board. When we arrive, the office is closed. Andrew's not too bothered, despite the huge mounds of work piling up at the school, and so instead we walk to a near-by cafe and have a sugary soft drink after another, and wait.

When we get back, Andrew pays the fees at the gate, and we're ushered into the sprawling main building, where a bored-looking official glances at our papers and waves indifferently towards the endless corridors and hallways ahead. The building looks like it should immediately be torn down; in fact, it begs to be torn down. The concrete walls are cracked, the floor boards loose, the people and the cockroaches hide between boxes and boxes full of files, papers, complaints, requests, other people's lives from years back. We climb to the top floor past the stairways filled with sickly yellow light- few people stare at me, but politely look away when I notice. We find office b26-1 and boldly step in. The man greets us, elaborately, our papers get examined, we miss a stamp. Andrew hands me the papers and I move to go back to the reception, because, this is, in fact, my moment. This is the reason I've come along today. I can play the White Person card.

Usually, I pay White Person Extra. It's not very much; usually a few hundred kwatcha more than everyone else, in public transport, in the markets, but on a bad day, enough to really irritate me. But it does, actually, come with perks too. Because sometimes white people get preferential treatment, without asking. Often, I find myself being pushed to the front of the queue; I get to use the staff-only clean loos; I get given the best cuts of meat at dinner. And now I'm deliberately going for it, only to find an abandoned reception downstairs- the guy has simply decided to finish the day at 2pm. I go back up, past the tiny cubicles and chipped paint, and hand the form back to the guy, smiling away. He takes it, sighs, and looks at me. I smile. Andrew positively grins. He promises to take it without the stamp. We thank him and say goodbye in fancy words. As we step out into the baking sun, Andrew is purring. I have fulfilled my role.

Leaving the government offices, we drive past the Intercontinental hotel. I stare at it, longingly, because I have, I confess, a fantasy involving the hotel. See, I went there once, and was taken aback by the beautiful setting, the quietness and the cleanliness. I would love to go and spend a night or two there, have continental breakfast with a knife and a fork, whilst people call me "madam". No one would stare at me, and I could lounge around the tropical pool, in the air conditioned bar, drinking cocktails without judgment. This is a stupid, pointless fantasy, and as we speed past, in a car with air so hot I can't breathe, I watch a smartly-dressed young couple come out and step into a cab, laughing, and I feel slightly cheated out of a life I never even had.

Instead, the taxi drops me off at Chachacha Road, and I emerge into the relentless sun, exhaustion fumes and dirt that manages to move in the windless air. I am standing by a very tall building, a place which I saw on my first day in Lusaka, and which has continued to intrigue me ever since. Mainly because it is completely derelict, empty and simply standing in the middle of modern buildings with nothing but just a frame. At first, I thought it must have been gutted by a fire, but on a closer look, it seems fine. Finally, Hanna solved the problem. Apparently, the land where the building stands, was owned privately by an individual. Somehow, the government forgot this slight detail, and sold the building to a property developer, who rapidly erected a tower block on the premises. One day, the owner of the plot walked past, saw the building, and thought, what the hell, there's a huge apartment complex on my empty plot! A very slow and uninteresting lawsuit followed, but eventually one or both parties ran out of money and therefore, the building could neither be demolished nor completed, and there it still stands, half-finished. This happened sometime in the mid-eighties. You have to love a country like that.


Some photos just outside our school, virtually taken from the front gate.

Posted by Ofelia 01:59 Archived in Zambia Tagged volunteer

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