A Travellerspoint blog

September 2008

Real-life cliches

This is the serious stuff, the stuff I hardly ever write anymore, since I've changed my philosophical approach to a more-favoured, sarcastic one. Maybe it has something to do with a certain ago, too; as a teenager I used to spend hours just thinking, gazing out of my window into a world I knew nothing about.
So stop reading now, and come back next week if you are looking for irony, sarcasm, and wittiness. It's not here today.

I've heard so many cliches about life, the world and everything in between, that I've become quite jaded and sceptical, and like any fairly educated adult, cringe at the thought of a well-worn cliche. Sure, they sound cheesy, but they might have just originated from a hint of something true. And, after taking in the African way of life, some are starting to surface.

Cliche number one: We have so much in the Western world, and yet we do not seem to enjoy it. I have only been here a few short weeks, but I feel cared for, and needed. When I walk back to the house each evening after work, I'm greeted by everyone I meet. Purity (the mother of the family I am staying with, and a wonderful person) sees me and she exclaims "I missed you today!". It makes me feel warm and happy, like I really do want the world to be a good, happy place. I cannot ever remember being told that in England, or in Finland, for that matter. People here make you feel like you are automatically a part of their community: you don't need to win anyone over, or impress them. Everyone has their own part in the society, however small. We have, in Europe, pretty much everything we can ask for- people to clean our clothes and tidy our houses, transport to take us to where we want, opportunities to train into almost any imaginable profession, and the cash to pay for it all. Yet, when we get home from work, have our nice dinner, and sit in our comfy sofa, flicking through the dozens of channels which are there just to entertain us, we feel this sudden sadness, a certain hollow feeling, which says: Is this it? Don't tell me you've never felt it; we all feel it occasionally. It's almost like we've concentrated so hard on making our lives just the way we like it, that we've forgot to enjoy it.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not going through some sort of an "amazing Africa crisis" where I want to run off and live in a mud hut. That's not the point. I miss London, almost everyday, and the solace of the familiar, but I am starting to understand why I've always been so restless. Things seem clearer here, when all the crap is erased- it almost feels like your life needs to be stripped down to basics to see what really matters. Do you really care about finding the optimal parking space or your favourite loaf of bread in the supermarket? We hear cheering each night on our compound, when electricity gets switched on, after hours of darkness, putting your children to sleep in candlelight and cooking on a coal stove. Here, people are grateful. There, people would riot.

Cliche number 2. It's not what you have, but what you make out of it.
Remember when you occasionally see photos of kids in various sub-Saharan African countries? They have torn t-shirts and muddy feet, but they are always smiling. You know why? Because they've just built a football out of plastic bags, and they are happy. We live in a fast-food society, where everything is quick, easy and available. Everything is replaceable. Torn your favourite cardigan? Just nip to the shops and buy a new one. Don't enjoy your job? Quit, and find something else. Had a massive argument with your boyfriend? Easier to break up. There is no commitment or consistency left; we're almost afraid of actually applying ourselves.

Few days ago, I heard a nice story (my cynical London friends, look away now and keep the sardonic comments to yourselves. Or at least send them to me privately). There was a man who was desperately in love with a girl down the street. The girl had a boyfriend, but the man thought that he'd wait, just in case, because he never found anyone quite like this girl. He never spoke to the girl, but used to leave his house everyday just to pass her on the street and to get a glimpse of her- and this was enough. Can you imagine a poignant story like that taking place where you live? We have no catherines or heathcliffs left; we shrug our shoulders, let go and move on. We persist with nothing, and yet keep asking ourselves what this is all about, what our roles are, forgetting that we do, indeed, occupy a significant space, however small, and it is usually in the hearts of the people who really care about us.

In the light of the horrible news today from the Finnish (and international) websites, that I know have shocked everyone, please call someone you love and tell them you missed them, even if you only saw them ten minutes ago. And don't just do it today- trust me, you'll feel amazing; there is never quite the kind of comfort that exists in someone knowing you well.

Posted by Ofelia 01:47 Comments (0)

Kitchen Parties and the Agony of Love

"oh my god, you are stressing yourself out", my boss said today when I came into my office holding a pile of paper I just copied. We had electricity for two hours today, which is good, and I managed to copy some mock exams for the IT students. I slammed the pile on my little desk. I had printed them off the internet, seeing that I am teaching IT and know virtually nothing about it. "Well, Andrew, it's not like I'm not used to it", I said, thinking back to the ridiculously hectic days in recruitment. I had copied 20 pages and taught one class since 8am. It was now one o'clock in the afternoon. The day stretched on, it seemed, and 5pm would never come. Luckily my mum called, which was nice. Having a local number has made me feel so much more settled. Except that I frequently get asked for it. Especially by cabdrivers, security guards and pretty much any male zambians. But still. It was nice talking to my mum. I told her I had to teach two computer classes tomorrow and was therefore a Busy and Important Person. She sounded doubtful. "But...you don't know anything about computers!". Hmph. Why do people keep fixating on that?

On Saturday, I was invited to a Kitchen Party by Mrs. Banda, who teaches our tailoring class. Like most invitations in Zambia, it was done spontaneously and without consulting the person who's party it was. Not that it mattered, though, as everyone is welcome everywhere here. I said yes, without having the faintest as to what a kitchen party is. Never mind. If there is one thing I know, it's parties. I told my colleague, Oscar. He looked amused and worried at the same time. "it's like a hen night" he said, "but it is strictly only women and done at a rented function room". Ok, I thought. That sounds fine. Oscar still looked gloomy. "Just whatever you do, don't close your eyes. At any time". Right....

I arrived late for the party on Saturday, because I was caught up with my Finnish friend Hanna at Manda Hill. Manda Hill is the only place in Lusaka I have seen other white people in. It is a shopping centre, not especially glam, but the sort of place you find in Leicester town centre or Plymouth high street. But it has coffee shops that sell real filtered coffee, and no one stares at Hanna and me. To me, it's an oasis. The supermarket there stocks Crunchie bars, diet coke, tampons and face cream, which to me sounds like the promised land. I had bought a nice present for the bride, and rushed in, an hour late. Being an hour late in Zambia is a norm, so how was I supposed to know that Kitchen parties are one of the only things that run on schedule? The place was pumping with traditional drum music, and before I could even look inside, a woman grabbed me by my wrist and pulled me along "Where have you been, my dear? You are very very late! We have expected you!" I had never seen this woman in my life. She dragged me through a space as big as a football pitch, filled with roaring women, and up onto a stage where the bride was sitting and the ceremony master was dancing, wiggling her hips. People were screaming, clapping and singing. Someone took my bag and wrapped a traditional scarf around my hips. And I knew what was coming. I panicked. My eyes furiously scanned the crowd for Mrs. Banda. Surely she would save me? Jesus. They wanted me to dance. In front of all these 200 women. And not just dance, but to do that hip-wiggle that I sometime practice in the privacy of my bedroom when I know no one is watching.


As a mzungu, though, I get away with most things. So I just hopped around like a paralysed frog for a bit, before leaving the stage. Someone passed me a beer. It was a 14-year-old girl, whom I loved more at that moment than anyone in the world. They made me dance with everyone. I got photographed with every woman in the house. I felt bad for sealing the thunder from the bride, but she didn't seem to mind. I just wished I had brushed my hair beforehand. Then, it all ended as abruptly as it had begun- by 7pm, the place had been cleared and I was staggering back to the hostel, ears still pumping.


The evenings are a little quiet here, as Lusaka is hardly the most happening of cities. Sometimes I meet Hanna, or Miriam for a coffee, but generally I'm in the house by 7pm. And I have learned to love the TV here. Until the novelty wears off, of course. And seeing the only themes are fanatic TV preachers, bad swahili pop videos and nigerian soaps, that might be quite soon.

One day I was flicking through the channels and found the worst programme in the world. I was captivated. It was called "The Agony of Love", and it is basically filmed by a guy standing in the corner of a room, using a shaky handcam. When the dialogue starts, the music suddenly stops, as the two cannot be edited together. The background noise is often so bad that you can't hear the actors anyway, which is probably why they feel the need to repeat each line at least three times, in the manner of "I am so confused! Its so confusing! I do not think I have ever been this confused!". Or, that is, when they remember their lines. But not to worry, no need to cut out the parts where lines are forgotten. Just keep the camera rolling, the script will come to them in a moment. Oh, and in case you missed it- it is one of the soaps. There is a guy cheating on his girlfriend and another guy cheating on his girlfriend with the same girl. I wish they could at least throw in an amnesia or suchlike, in the grand tradition of bad telly. If an aspiring writer needs a job, there is a whole world of soap operas to be developed in Africa!

Milla is coming to visit me soon, and Lynn hopefully in December. Am hoping for more visitors, so people, start using those credit cards! I'm off to the Northern Province this weekend, and am starting to realise what a great country this is for travelling....

Posted by Ofelia 01:46 Archived in Zambia Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

First Day of School

Ever had one of those middle-of-the-night sudden awakenings when you can't remember where you are? I have them often, sort of an occupational hazard, I think. I couldn't think who I was or, indeed, place myself for the life of me, except I knew I was somewhere far, far, far- I could hear insects buzzing away instead of London sirens blearing. I reached for my alarm, realising that 4.49am was too early for an existentialist crisis. And then I remembered- after a mind-numbingly boring, painful flight, I was in Lusaka. And I wasn't quite sure what I was doing there.

The next morning, I stood by the dusty roadside of my hostel, in a pretty yellow morning light, flagging down every single minibus that came up the road, still not sure why I was there. They all look the same, blue, battered, and there seems to be no logic in routes, fares or suchlike. Yet the zambians negotiate these with such grace and knowledge, leaving me flapping my arms at every passing car. I like the mornings here. They are fairly tranquil compared to the normal hassle of the day, and they are cool. I like watching women coming out of huts in their colourful dresses, placing chairs in the shade before commencing their day of gossip and shelling beans.

Lusaka itself is hardly gorgeous. In fact, it is ugly. Very, very ugly. It is full of concrete buildings, manic traffic and littered roadsides. Sigh. I miss my pub by the Thames waterside in Hammersmith, and all that green stuff. Grass? Yes, grass. But the people are wonderful. Truly wonderful. They are the most helpful, smiley people on the planet. Last night, as I was watching a crackly Zambian government TV programme and having dinner in a little place next to the hostel, the waitress asked me kindly how long I'd been in Lusaka. When she discovered not too long ( she could tell by the way I was struggling eating Nshima, the national maize dish, by using my hands and looking like a two-year-old who'd just been given a spoon for the first time) and I suppose she felt sorry for me, she invited me to her brother's wedding on Sunday. Which is the perfect way to desribe people here. A country where life expectancy is 33, and most families have lost at least one or two young people to AIDS, you need to look after everyone around you. No one should ever be by themselves, which is so heartwarming.

I have been at my job for two days now, and have acquired many new skills. The most important ones being sitting perfectly still, and staring into the distance. I have completed one task so far, which was drafting a curriculum for the computer and communications lessons, and that took about an hour and a half. Unfortunately, as Zambia's president died 3 weeks ago, there's been a national mourning, and the students have been on leave until today. However, they are not yet in today. But see, who would start school in the middle of the week? Silly me.




From top: Me in my tiny office, the automechanic students killing an engine, the computer classroom being cleaned by our fabulous janitor Mr.Simwaba

Posted by Ofelia 01:45 Archived in Zambia Tagged volunteer Comments (0)