A Travellerspoint blog

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)

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)

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