Sunday, October 16, 2005

Lusaka, Zambia.

I’m not sure that Lusaka fits the description Greg gave me when I was in Oz, of clean and green, although he was right about the absence of razor-wire Joburg- style. And certainly, compared to Luanda it is cleaner but the roadsides are still littered and you see women washing in rubbish-filled drains. But that, sadly, is Africa.

He may well be ultimately right about the ‘green’ however, but, for the moment, as the season dictates, the leaves are dressed in a heavy coat of dust. When the rains come in a few months time the tree-lined streets will no doubt be a picture. Although the Jacarandas are in gorgeous purple bloom now and they are abundant here, breaking up the otherwise dun-coloured horizons with gorgeous abandon. The orange-flowered Poinciana’s have yet to burst into bloom, but the white and pink blossomed Bauhinias are beginning to bud, and so too are the frangipani and the bougainvillea.

Sadly, the most common thing that one sees ‘blossoming’ here is the ubiquitous plastic bag, fluttering in branches, lining the roads, crammed into drains. For whatever ‘gift’ it may have provided to the world, the plastic bag is an ugly ‘curse’ in Africa.

Lusaka has the same brown, square, dusty feel to it that I have seen in many other African cities. You can blame the communists for a lot of the ‘squareness.’ In Lusaka’s case it was the Chinese and in Luanda’s it was the Russians. The communists seem to have turned block-ugly architecture into something approximating an art-form and Africa is one place where the skill has been most finely honed

But, unlike Luanda, the buildings here are not pock-marked with bullet holes and the roads are not bone-shatteringly pot-holed. Although I am told that the state of the roads, and by that I mean the main roads, has improved only in recent times, through the efforts of the Japanese.

The roadside vendors are not as prolific as one finds in Joburg or Luanda, but they gather at some major intersections, selling everything from plums to puppies and avocadoes to air compressors. They also appear to be singularly good-natured but then that seems a given for Zambians in general.

This country, in the heart of Africa, although ringed on all sides by war-torn neighbours, has managed to remain relatively peaceful. The lack of one dominant tribal group is given as the reason, but whatever it is, the Zambians are clearly fortunate and perhaps they know it, living cheek by jowl as they do with the Congo, Angola and Zimbabwe. Not to mention also sharing borders with Namibia, Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique.

Zambia has been described as a great butterfly spreading its wings in the heart of Africa but studying the map in the guide book, it looks more to me like a large liver, resting slightly to one side in the body of Africa. The liver is probably the most miraculous organ in the body, given its power to re-generate. Perhaps that is Zambia’s secret.

The ancestors of the present Bantu speaking peoples, the majority of whom have origins in the Luba-Lunda kingdoms slightly to the north in the present Democratic Republic of Congo, came to Zambia between the twelfth and eighteenth centuries. As late as the eighteenth century, the people of Zambia had hardly any contact with non-Africans. Due to its location, the country was largely ignored by the great powers of the day and remained a vast unmapped tract of land between the Zambezi and Lake Tanganyika, until it was drawn into the world economy through the slave trade.

The importance of the region was recognized and exploited by the Swahili, Arab and Portugese slave traders, but European interest only really took off after the arrival of David Livingstone. By 1889, sixteen years after Livingstone had died, Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company was administering Zambia. At that time it was split into two regions, known as North-Western Rhodesia and North-Eastern Rhodesia. In 1911 the two areas were amalgamated as Northern Rhodesia until the independent republic of Zambia came into being in 1964, under the leadership of Kenneth Kaunda.

Lusaka is situated some two hours flight north of Johannesburg and about the same distance, south of Kinshasha and Dar-es-Salaam. Harare is a hop, skip and a jump away by comparison although given the state of things in Zim, there is not a lot of incentive for tourists to make the relatively short drive.

And so here, now, in my latest home, I am learning something new about somewhere new. In the particular sense, home for the moment is The Holiday Inn. The lawns at the front are lush, green and ruthlessly trimmed. It is a popular place for weddings with little girls in white meringue dresses playing in the shade of two enormous trees while photographs are taken of the happy couple. At least three flower girls and three page boys seems to be de-rigeur, and three bridesmaids, usually dressed in a rainbow-bright long skirt and firm fitting short-sleeved top.

We have a large room called a suite but suite-looking only perhaps in terms of size. It is pleasant enough although seating constitutes two not particularly comfortable cane chairs and the coffee-table for the moment is the suitcase rack, topped with a suitcase, covered with a sheet. We went out yesterday and bought a bar fridge to replace the tiny cooler fridge that was hardly a cooler and certainly not a fridge.

Living in hotel rooms for extended periods (a year in Bombay) is demanding and it is nice to be able to have some food to eat in the room and more importantly, a chilled bottle of wine, given that the drink of choice here seems to be beer and wine by the glass only comes out of a box. Too much of anything is never a good thing and that includes eating out. As experience has taught me, familiarity does not necessarily breed contempt but it always breeds familiarity, and familiarity’s handmaiden is boredom. I am reminded of how little people have in Africa as I make that comment, and feel instantly guilty that the comforts we have should ever be experienced as boring. But all things are relative and in relative terms, while my less may be someone else’s ‘more’, it remains my ‘less,’ and is judged accordingly.

Perhaps the lesson is, as the Quakers teach, to find in the moment, no matter how trivial the experience or the action, a depth of appreciation that transcends judgement and transforms any ‘less’ into ‘more.’

But, with my computer set up on the small desk, a few books, CD player, ground coffee and leaf tea to hand (both brought in) it is comfortable enough. Fortunately the hotel has a few pleasant areas which provide escape from the challenges of living in a confined space.

There is a pool area, although the water is still a tad cool, despite the increasingly hot days. This is the dry season and temperatures will rise from now on . October is the hottest time, reaching 32C plus I am told. It is dry heat though and easier to take than the humidity of the wet season. Rain also brings a greater risk of malaria, which is prevalent in Zambia, although not as bad as Angola.

The three-storey hotel is built around a large lagoon and courtyard area where the priority guests appear to be hundreds of Masked Weavers. These little yellow-bodied birds with black faces and wings, weave the fascinating hanging nests so commonly seen in Africa. The nests hang like small upturned gourds from the tall palm trees and from the long lengths of reeds and canes which rise from the water.

They are cleverly constructed from grass, forming a ball with a funnel-neck off to one side, and they are strung in the dozens along the palm fronds; hanging like green and cream lanterns, depending upon how newly made, catching every drift of breeze. At dusk they seem to ‘grow’ flashing black wings as the birds hover underneath and poke their heads in an out of the narrow neck. It’s room service with a twist.

The other guests in this watery haven are crocodiles. Baby crocodiles actually which is something of a comfort. One presumes that as they grow in size they are removed. Greg says to become handbags but I prefer to think of the pool as a crèche and like to think that with greater maturity, the crocs are returned to something approximating the wild.

The baby crocs drape themselves on small mudbanks spaced between the reeds. When they are not sleeping, which is not much of the time, they tend to keep an eye on the birds. But like all kids, excitement gets the better of them and thin, long tails splash noisily, giving fair warning, should any be needed, to the dive-bombing Weavers.

But that is what being a kid is about. Possibility is always more exciting than actuality and when you don’t have to worry about where you are going to get your next meal, the sign on the wall says Tuesdays and Thursdays are crocodile feeding times, then the indulgence of possibility is yours for the taking.

The pool terrace is a pleasant place to sit at dusk although any conversation has to compete with the cacophony of the birds, a shrieking twittering that rises in waves, just as they do, careering from nest to branch, and back again, as they fulfill their parental duties.

It’s not only the Masked Weavers that have a strong sense of duty in Zambia. The place, I am told, is awash with Christian do-gooders, seeking to bring salvation to the African ‘heathens’. Then again, Zambians are considered to be fairly religious, and church attendance is recorded as high, so one assumes they are more than happy to be saved.

And to be fair, there is probably some ‘saving’ in a practical sense that could be done given that Zambia has at last count, a million orphans. Out of a total population of around 11 million, that is a lot. The Government says that 750,000 of these are the result of AIDS. Africa has always had its dangers but AIDS is proving to be the most deadly of the all.

One of the most striking things about Lusaka is the absence of beggars. Given the 60 percent unemployment rate, this is unusual for anywhere, let alone Africa. Whatever the reason it makes a refreshing change from both Angola and South Africa and lowers the general guilt gauge demonstrably.

Perhaps it is the Christian foundation of the Zambian state, or maybe the aid agencies here are that much more effective. There are certainly enough of them. Into my second week at the Holiday Inn and I can pretty much pick the aid workers. They constitute something of a feminist enclave, frequently seen freshfaced and open-mouthed at the metaphorical foot of a young Zambian man.

Goodness is big business in Africa and it seems to have particular appeal for well educated young women. Some of the Christian missionary groups seem more like a pyramid selling plan for God but one can only hope that they help as well as convert.

We had a big group in the restaurant the other night, all wearing black T-shirts with the words of a Psalm on the back. It was the ‘casting out demons’ bit that got me. Let’s hope they do. A bit of searching online later identified them as a Canadian church group that really does have a Mission statement that has more in common with Amway than angels.

But the talk at the table was of angels, hovering above the door in this particular instance, along with training programmes, God’s work, and bringing light into the darkness.

For light relief, the next night, we were sitting next to some more Canadians but this trio were hunting wild game, not souls. They seemed to have a similar approach though, with a level of passionate dedication to the task that demands to be admired for itself, if not the end result. Bob, Meg and Bill were into their third bottle of red by the time we started chatting. They all live some 400 kilometres north of Vancouver although Bill, a hunter and guide by profession, spends a lot of time in Africa.

In answer to the question: Do you eat what you kill or is it just killing for the sake of it? Bob assured me that they ate what they killed, including a warthog shot on the first day. Game hunting is very big business in Africa and there are plenty of people who are happy to pay to kill something. In the worst cases animals are bred on farms and virtually shooed into an area where they will be shot by a waiting ‘hunter’. Well, shooter really, given the clear lack of anything approximating hunting. Animals are also sometimes drugged, just to make the complicated process of aim and fire that much easier.

Bill insisted that in most cases, the groups he took out hunting, were involved in necessary culling but given how empty so much of Africa is now, it is hard to see why animals cannot be moved to empty areas, rather than shot.

In Angola for instance, the war brought almost total decimation of wildlife. In simple terms, the people were starving and so they ate everything. It is only since the end of the war that some efforts are now being made to re-introduce animals to Angola. The days of vast herds of wild animals stretching across the horizon are largely gone.

And talking of herds, I couldn’t help wondering why there were so many Canadians in Zambia? Being eminently sensible, as Canadians seem to be (having the good sense to stay out of the Iraq war for instance), I wondered if they had judged Zambia to be a safe place to visit. Which of course it is, when compared to probably all other African countries. One other reason is that quite a few Zambians have migrated to Canada in recent years.


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