A Travellerspoint blog

October 2008

On the Verge of New Zambia?

The tension on the high street's growing by the hour. People are more animated and vocal, and the population of Lusaka has seemingly tripled. I am at an internet cafe on the 11th floor in a city-centre high riser, and I can hear hooting, cheering and general commotion from below. Tomorrow, the Zambians go to vote for a new leader in the presidential and parliamentary by-elections.

Naturally, tomorrow is a day off. I mean, who can expect a person to vote and work on the same day? Jeez. Way too much hassle. Well done on the government for choosing a day in the middle of the week as well. Saturday simply would have not given an excuse for a day off. Most people, as the tradition goes, are not in on Friday either. What's the point? The weekend's only a day away.

I've been watching the election hassle go on for the last month, with a mixture of amusement and shock horror. Where are those democracy defenders when we need them? Only the people who registered in the 2006 elections are eligible to vote. Therefore, anyone who has since turned 18 (the voting age) is not allowed to the polls. Even more ridiculously, people must vote from the polling stations they voted from 2 years ago, which might mean a trek to the other end of a large country with expensive and disorganised transport. In a country where an average person earns 1 USD a day, that's pretty unreasonable.

What does amuse me is the media, or more precise, the lack of it. We were watching one of the candidates, Hakainde Hichilema, being interviewed, and as soon as he'd said, "it's a pleasure to be here today", the power in Chawama, one of the biggest compounds in Lusaka, went off. It came back on as the credits were rolling. Shame, we never found out what he plans to do about the energy deficit.

Quite a few traditional media channels are totally obsolete in a poor country anyway. As a lot of people do not have a TV, or cannot afford a paper on daily basis, people use other medias; a popular way to show your support is to wear a chitenge, a wrap-around dress, with a picture of your favourite candidate, complete with the slogans. This morning, I saw a bicycle adorned with dozens of pictures of the opposition leader Michael Sata, and even more funny (and scary) a bus window so full of posters that the driver had to peer out to see ahead.

Zambian media, even normally, is quite a hoot. Completely void of any international news, (albeit the coverage of the school shooting in Finland which just earned me odd looks at work) it does stories such as "minor increase on boiler production in Ndola expected". I have the internet and BBC world news, thankfully. I think I'd go crazy otherwise. The US presidential elections have had hardly any airtime, apart from the two would-be skinhead assassins who apparently plotted to kill Barack Obama, and even that I'm sure was news worthy only because it seemed so dramatic (Zambians have a taste for drama and romance). I find this surprising; with the kwacha closely linked to the dollar, what happens in the world economy probably has more impact on Zambia than the choice of president, especially since each of them seem to love all sorts of political jargon even more than their European counterparts.

We are expecting a few clashes, especially if the ruling party stays in power. A few weeks ago, an extra box of ballot papers was discovered, and it is still argued whether or not these slips were pre-marked or not. People are restless, and will continue to be restless until all the ballot papers have been received back from the distant provinces, and a new leader can be announced. This should happen by Saturday or so. Until then, I'm laying low.


Getting ready for the elections; a woman wearing a chitenge skirt of Rupiah Banda, current vice-president.

Posted by Ofelia 01:54 Archived in Zambia Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

Lusaka Mornings

It is hardly past seven a.m., but every living creature is already seeking shade and breeze. I pause quickly by the front gate, before venturing out into the world; I feel like a lion about to leave the zoo cage and parade in front of the popcorn-munching audience, awaiting for me to perform a foreign trick or two.

The dusty dirt road to Chawama centre is not too trying. People here know me already; in fact, they know everything about me. They know I'm a teacher; they know I don't go to church, but sit on the porch and drink beer; that the lights in my bedroom go off early, and that I do my laundry on Saturday mornings. They know, and yet I know nothing of most of them. A crackly old radio plays a current pop hit, and a little boy of about two plays in the dirty gutter, dancing, unashamed, to the tune. He sees me, and waves, tentatively. I smile and wave back; his face beams and he waves back, frantically.

I'm the third person on the bus, and patiently take my seat and wait for the bus to fill up. The commotion of the entire village seems to have centered around my bus. A woman chooses chickens from a tiny wired cage. She sucks her thumb and points at the three fattest ones. The vendor picks up each, non-plussed, breaking their wings and making their nervous cooing cease as they accept their destiny. I zone out during the ride in, and gaze out of the dirty, greasy window. Chawama Business Communications Centre, a sign declares, and underneath, almost as an afterthought, a small scribble: Also relish sold here. The bus pulls up to the hectic Soweto market, and I fiddle with my mp3 player, swapping the calm morning music to something angrier, louder. I pick Beck, I pick PJ Harvey, I pick Franz Ferdinand. I step out, over a pile of rubbish and accidentally kick a plastic bottle. It rolls underneath the next bus entering the station, and pops loudly. I negotiate my way to the main street; the place is buzzing. Anyone in not constant movement on the market road to Kanyama is annihilated. A huge human domino rolls on; a few cab drivers, same guys each morning, shout something at me, but the music drowns it out, and I disappear further into the swarming mass of noise, sweat and dust.

A man with a wheelbarrow filled with wilted green vegetable, rebs, is pushing past the pedestrians, cutting them like weeds; a woman with a basket on her head and a regal posture steps past me. Every last of my senses is assaulted, the screeching breaks, the smelly dried kapenta fish, the colourful market stands. I pause down for a second, letting a car pass, uncomfortably close, a woman steps in front of me, look my sister, what a beautiful chitenge, I make you a good price. I try to smile, but it comes out as a grimace. Another wheelbarrow, with planks of wood sticking to each direction; a second-hand underwear stall; a scrawny child staring at me, under his brow. I try to walk quicker, I can feel the sun on my neck. Another minibus, the driver literally hanging outside, chanting the destination's name. A man with gumboots for sale, so close to the roadside that cars nearly run over them; I step into the stalls, then almost to the middle of the road to let another wheelbarrow past, negotiating my way in this complicated dance only I know steps to.

And suddenly I'm there, I take a steep turn to the left, gather my skirts and hop over a gutter and I'm there, inside the relative early morning calmness of our centre. I open the door to my tiny little concrete office and switch off angry PJ, until I need her again that afternoon.


Some photos of the road and the vendors along the way in Kanyama, and around City Market

Posted by Ofelia 01:53 Archived in Zambia Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

The Great Visa Chase, Chapter 2

The guy with the rifle slung across his chest taps me on the shoulder. He doesn't say anything, but just looks at me vacantly and gesticulates. I'm standing in the shade, and obviously a little too close to the ATM he is guarding. I move across and tie my scarf again, a little tighter around my exposed scalp. I'm loitering, waiting for the immigration office to open again. This is my third visit, and I'm well aware of the complicated procedure that is required just to access the building.

The air conditioning has broken down, and the guy at the wooden desk is sweating profusely. He uses a brown dishtowel to wipe his forehead, and he leaves greasy fingerprints all across my certificates, letters of recommendations and everything else. I have printed out an equivalent of a small forest in paperwork, and yet I'm no closer to a work permit I was a month ago. I smile. I am like a small, smiling buddha, seated patiently, silently, in front of this guy who has trouble spelling my name and who is in charge of either sending me home, or stamping my passport. He has reached a verdict, and clears his throat. "You're missing your police clearance. We cannot do anything without it." I reach across the pile of paper spread on his desk; my entire life in neat, white A4 sheets. Suddenly, the pile seems small and almost pathetic. "Here you go. This is it". I point out to the CRB check done in UK earlier this year.
The man's brows knit together as he examines the paper.
"This is done in Britain. But you are Finnish. We need one from Finland". I am, absolutely, determined to be patient, but cannot help a small note of stress in my voice. It rings across the office, clear as a bell.
"I was told last time this is ok. I live in the UK. I have lived there for ten years. And anyway, it's done through Interpol anyway." I have no idea if this is true. But I have noticed that people's main priority in Zambia is to get rid of you. So I insist, but gently, almost flirtingly.
The mans scratches his ear, and looks at the papers again. The air conditioning starts, then stops again. The place is full of all possible nationals, and the heat is oppressing.
We go back and forth, back and forth. I read out my qualifications. I point to the references from the UK. I give him two passport photos of me, looking both red and pale at the same time. Finally, we have an agreement. I obtain a Finnish police clearance, but they will extend my visa for free in the meanwhile, and my application will be logged onto the system. This is huge. My papers are finally in.

I then queue to the cashier, who takes the Barclays cheque from me, and stamps my papers. I then queue back to the same guy, who now has a group of loud Americans to deal with. One of them complains. The man huffs, and pulls me past the queue. The Americans eye me, the evil queue-hopper, and the guy at the desk looks smug- look, if you argue with me, I'll deal with the quiet Finnish girl first. I leave my papers. I queue to get my passport stamped, and when I reach the desk, they tell me I need desk eight, not nine. I join the queue at desk eight. There are six people in front of me. I wait.

I stumble out of the immigration, and am blinking at the strong sunlight in the posh area of Kabulonga; I've been at the immigration for four hours. I sincerely wish I can post my Finnish police check when it comes through.

Posted by Ofelia 01:52 Archived in Zambia Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

It's not Negativity, But Just the Way It Is

I was finishing my last class today, in our baking oven -style classroom, where the computers churn and add even extra heat to the already impossible work environment. I'd sent the girls home- my favourite class, the tailoring section girls, most of them who've never even seen a computer before, and who are now getting excited after discovering the thrill of copying and pasting their name fifteen times in a row.
I looked out. The sky had gone dark. "Andrew," I said, poking my head out the window, "I think it's going to rain."
He didn't look up. "No. The rains only come at the end of the month, you silly white girl". He turned the page in the paper and dismissed me with a hand wave. I looked out again, this time actually stepping outside.
"Andrew," I shouted, "I might just be a silly mzungu girl, but unless someone is spitting from the roof, it's started raining."

The sky simply opened up, and the big fat raindrops made the dry dust momentarily fly everywhere. Soon, the whole yard was drenched. I had planned on leaving and coming to the internet, which now looked impossible. I frowned.
"So", I said, "what do we do when it rains?" I had already listed all the possible cab numbers on my phone. Andrew looked up from the paper, indifferent to my internet problems, and said, "We wait. If it rains, it'll eventually stop."

Welcome to the world of zambian thinking. If the car is not here, the car must be somewhere else. If the computer is broken, we can't use it. Wrong. My thinking is: If the car is not here, find out where it is, and get it here. If the computer is broken, we need to fix it.
It seems that I do, sometimes (or actually, most of the time) live in a sphere completely different to the zambians. When I got to the internet today, one of the computers was free, but no one was sitting there, despite the queue of people. "Is that one broken?" I asked. People clucked their tongues in a way that says Noooooo........but I don't really know. Someone pointed out, helpfully, that the computer was locked by the administrator. I turned around to the woman attending to the library. "Can you unlock this one for us, please?" She looked surprised. "Sure" she said, "here you go."

Although it is easy to get frustrated, as I often do in my normal life in the UK, you know, when trains are delayed for five minutes, or the shop has the skirt I want in my size but not in the colour I want, I think I'm much better here. I have accepted certain truths. If the bus can break down, it will break down. Unless you are early, in which case the bus will speed through, knocking out a few unsuspecting pedestrians at the end of the food chain, and you'll be there ridiculously early, waiting for a zambian who'll stroll in at least an hour late. It like the universal law of bus windows, which came to me one very cold night riding from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem a few years ago; if it's hot, the windows won't open. If it's freezing, the windows will be stuck and won't shut. I dare any backpacker to dispute this.

But, as it is, I am running late of my dinner of maize porridge (nshima) and vegetables (probably impwa today, as it's my favourite) and I bet the bus will hang around the bus stop forever, just waiting for it to fill up. It's not negativity, it's just the way things are.


Cooking dinner outside during one of the many power-cuts; chicken feet cooked for the kids, and catepillars, which are surprisingly tasty.

Posted by Ofelia 01:50 Archived in Zambia Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

Polish Mafia Meets Future Husband

It's getting ridiculously hot. I know I've been a bit smug about the nice weather here, but the last few weeks, it's gone past my comfort threshold. In the evenings, I sit outside on the porch of the electricity-less house, and listen to the pop music from the bar next door blair out in bemba, a language which I don't understand. It does mix nicely with the chittering of the cicadas, and I drink beer, stare at the stars and wait for the rains. Any week now, they'll come.

I feel funny here. I have seriously had to slow down. Everything happens so much slower- It takes me ages to wash my clothes, and I sit with Purity on our doorstep, with a big soapy bucket of water, chatting and scrubbing, wearing a chitenge, a traditional long wrap-around cloth in bright colours, which I love. Handsen, the father of the family often remarks that we look like a stereotype of two African women going on about our daily things. I find that comforting. Their family has been so welcoming to me, and I feel incredibly relaxed living with them. I never thought I'd be quite so happy in a family accommodation. The odd thing is that it took me about four days to realise that the house does not have a mirror anywhere. I left my little hand mirror in London, thinking it was an unnecessary vanity, and now, every time I step into a lift or go to a slightly nicer store and come across one, I get a slight shock. Each time, I am browner (skin) and lighter (hair).

One thing I seriously hate though is Kanyama, the not-so-nice area of Lusaka where I happen to work. Lusaka is an ugly city, built by Dr Seuss, where nothing works and no logic is put into anything. The city sprawls to every possible direction from the few main roads, creating a shack-like buildings right next to the high risers. The road to Kanyama is full of vendors of everything imaginable, and as the road is dangerously narrow, pedestrians often get hit by cars, wheelbarrows or bicycles. People call out to me all the time. I feel like putting a sign on my neck that says "yes, I am white, and yes, I am still the same white woman you saw yesterday. And last week. And no, I will still not give you my phone number".

A strange man keeps coming into my office. I swapped offices now, and sit with Oscar, our accountant, who is hilarious, and who lets me play my mp3 player on the company laptop. This little man, who's name I cannot make out, comes in, sits down, and occasionally chats. Usually, he just stares at me. Eventually, a few days ago, he asked me if I was "engaged". I almost slipped a sarky remark, before I remembered that people here really do not get sarcasm. They are just too nice, almost in a naive, in a slightly child-like way. I used to get some very odd looks about my sense of humour. Now I just do it to entertain myself.
"No", I told him, "I'm not"
"Ooh." This seemed to delight him. "So, if you are not with anyone, you can go out with me. I"m sure I can show you some new stuff"
I bit my tongue, and hurriedly said "Oh, you meant a boyfriend. Yes, yes, sorry, I do have one"
He seemed a bit down. Then he looked at me up and down, and said "Really? What's his name?"
I panicked. I couldn't, for the life of me, think of a single male name, except my brother's and father's, and let's face it, that's just weird. But he was staring at me, expectantly.
"Vernon", blurted, and immediately mentally kicked myself. Who, I ask you, is called Vernon? Who, under the age of ninety?
"Vernon", he said. "What does he do?"
Vernon bloody kicks your arse, I thought darkly, but said, slightly pompously, "he is a doctor".
"Really? How great. What kind of a doctor"
"A paediatrician" Lets face it, children's doctor is by far sexier than, say, Ear, Nose and Throat consultant, right?
I got a little carried away, and explained that Vernon was setting up a new practice and therefore incredibly busy. But when I went back, we would get married. I think I stressed this point a few times, and now there seems to be a rumour at work that I am, indeed, engaged.
Not that it matters. I am quite happy being almost-married to a handsome, witty paediatrician. And, the great thing about Vernon is that whenever I want to, I can simply file him away somewhere in the back of my consciousness and not worry about toilet seats being not put down.

Friday night, I went to the Spar supermarket in Chawama to buy presents for the kids, beer (not for the kids, but me, of course) and liquorice allsorts, and had a shock of my life. There were, not one, but two white girls looking at me over the frozen chicken tub. TWO WHITE GIRLS! How strange. Chawama is a lower-class suburb where people have outside toilets. It's no place for a tourist. Apparently, the two girls were polish, absolutely lovely, and working as volunteers in an orphanage. They'd planned a trip the next day to Munda Wanga Environmental Park, and invited me along. So we swapped phone numbers over the rice sacks, like it was the most natural thing. I've picked up a girl in the supermarket. How many guys can claim the same? :)

We had a wonderful day. We had 35 children with us, and as soon as we let them loose in the park, we didn't see them till the evening. The gardens are stunning, and after the hustle and dust and orange dirt everywhere that makes up Lusaka, it was paradise. The kids swam in the two massive pools, and we all had a tour of the zoo. The polish chicks were joined by a bunch of others, all Polish, all volunteers. They were loud and happy and totally took over the whole park I called them the Polish mafia, as the normal Zambian families seemed a little frightened by us all. On the Sunday, one of them introduced me to a free internet at the local church office, and we got stuck inside, after everyone left and forgot about us. We opened the electronic gate from the inside, then pressed it shut, and ran across the yard to get out before the gate closed in again, and fell into a fit of giggles when we made it out. Ok, it did make us feel a bit like we were in mission impossible or similar. See, I did say there were very few evening entertainment possibilities here.


From the top: Flowers in Munda Wanga botanical garden, the Polish Mafia.

Posted by Ofelia 01:48 Archived in Zambia Tagged volunteer Comments (0)