This will be my final post from Zambia. In 12 hours, I’ll be in a plane aloft over Africa, and in about 36 hours I’ll be back at my hotel in Washington, D.C., trying to self-medicate jetlag with a healthy dose of HBO. (I’ll also be checking my work email account for the first time in six weeks — I can’t even imagine how many thousands of messages we’re talking about.)
It’s been quite an experience. Regrets: I’ve worked too hard, and I didn’t get to explore the country much beyond Lusaka. A cab driver today asked where I’ve been in Zambia. “Did you go to Livingstone?” Check. “Did you see Victoria Falls?” Yep. “Then you’ve seen Zambia.” Not true, of course. But many, many positives.
The Internet cafe closes in five minutes. See you on the other side of the Atlantic.
21 November 2003 |
Well, my time in Zambia is winding down. I leave Saturday morning (1 a.m. Dallas time) for a flight marathon — 10.5 hours to London, then 8.5 hours back to D.C. Actually, marathons don’t take that long. Although they do involve more caloric exertion, I presume.
This won’t be my last post (I don’t think, at least), but I figured it’s as good a time as any to recap some bests and worsts of the trip:
Best purchase: The 12-inch fan I bought about three weeks in. Yeah, US$30 was a bit much to pay, but the weeks of relative coolness that followed have been soooo worth it. Sleep has been almost bearable!
Worst fashion decision: My purchase, at a cost of $8, of a white polo shirt at a D.C. Gap just before leaving. Not that it isn’t a fine shirt, but white is not the color to wear in the Zambian dry season. Five seconds outside leave you with a fine coat of brown dust. Stay any longer outside and your forehead’ll start sweating — tempting you to wipe it dry with your sleeve, and thus leaving huge black and brown marks on your no-longer-white shirt.
Best intentions unfulfilled: My multimedia ambitions. I brought a small video camera here, thinking I might pull together something for TV. I used it once. (Although I may get something salvageable for DallasNews.com from that one time.) I’ve already discussed how my radio dreams went up in smoke.
Line I’m most sick of hearing from staff at Chachacha Backpackers: “Josh, you work too hard. Have some fun!” True, sure, but I don’t need to hear it 3,674 times.
Thing I’ll miss most about Chachacha: The way everybody puts the emphasis on the second syllable (“chaCHAcha”).
Thing I won’t miss about Chachacha: Having the room next to the bar, whose blaring music made sleep impossible before 12:30 a.m., even on those (many) nights with 7:00 a.m. appointments scheduled the next day.
Interview subject I was most tempted to pick up, stow in a British Airways overhead compartment, and ship back to the U.S.: Chileshe, a 15-year-old girl I interviewed today. She’s been HIV positive since birth and has been crushed by TB for the last six years. If you saw her on the street, you’d think she’s eight or nine at the oldest — maybe 65 pounds, if that. (And that’s up from about 55 a couple months ago.)
She stopped going to school earlier this year because she couldn’t take the teasing and discrimination from the other students. When she walked into a classroom, all the other kids would run out, or at least move to the opposite corner of the room to yell names at her. But Chileshe took action! She found a youth counselor at a local NGO and convinced them to put on a play at her school about AIDS, about discrimination, and why people shouldn’t be mean to her. Anyway, she’s still sick with TB, but she hopes to go back to school when the new term starts in January. Just a darling, sweet girl. Wants to be an accountant when she grows up, loves math. Makes doormats to sell so her mom can feed the family. (Her mom’s great, too.) If someone has a couple hundred dollars lying around and wants to make Chileshe’s day/year/life (so she can attend a private school where she won’t be brutalized so ruthlessly), let me know.
Local term I’ll remember most clearly: muzungu, which in Nyanja means “white dude” (roughly). I’ve spent much of the last week in the compounds, the dirt-poor neighborhoods of Lusaka — no running water, no electricity, no real roads, just poverty and death. Whenever I’d roll through in my taxi, on my way to an interview, I’d hear it from every direction: Muzungu! Muzungu! Normally said by six-year-old boys in a totally friendly and welcoming fashion (although occasionally by drunken teenagers in a less friendly way).
Aspect of Zambian culture that would have the American Dental Association shaking its collective head in dismay: Coca-Cola is considered something like a health drink here. I can’t tell you how many people here lump beverages into two categories: good and healthful (milk, water, Coke) and evil (beer). A Coke or three at 7 a.m. is considered a perfectly acceptable pick-me-up. (Zambians aren’t big coffee drinkers, which may explain the caffeine substitution pattern. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve even seen a cup of coffee in six weeks.)
Best sneaky good drink: The whiskey and ice cream concoction at Cafe Fra Gigi at Manda Hill. Only had it once, but boy, did it hit the spot on a sweaty hot afternoon.
20 November 2003 |
I think there’s a special circle in Irony Hell reserved for a certain official in the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), the ruling party here in Zambia.
I’ve been trying to get an interview with Levy Mwanawasa, Zambia’s president. I got in touch with MMD headquarters to see about setting something up. I said I wanted to talk to Mwanawasa about a variety of topics: HIV/AIDS, his education policies, traditional healers, agricultural development — and, I said, Mwanawasa’s anti-corruption fight.
Some background: Mwanawasa was Zambia’s vice president in the early 1990s, under MMD President Frederick Chiluba. Mwanawasa had a reputation as a pretty clean, honest guy. Chiluba, in contrast, was widely considered corrupt. In 1994 (if memory serves) Mwanawasa announced he was resigning as VP, saying the Chiluba government was too corrupt and he no longer wanted to be a part of it.
In the months before the 2001 election, Chiluba tried to change the country’s constitution to allow him a third term as president. (The constitution allows only two terms, like the American one.) There was much public outrage — the people wanted Chiluba to go. So Chiluba ended up, strangely, endorsing the candidacy of Mwanawasa, his ex-VP who had publicly called him out as corrupt.
Mwanawasa won a close election and became president. Some folks wondered if Mwanawasa had been bought off or otherwise compromised by Chiluba in exchange for his endorsement. But shortly after taking office, Mwanawasa announced a massive anti-corruption campaign at all levels of government — pissing off many in his own party, MMD, who benefited from said corruption.
The biggest element of this campaign: Mwanawasa convinced parliament to remove Chiluba’s immunity from prosecution. Chiluba and a few of his cronies are currently standing trial for embezzling about US$30 million from the government.
Enough background, but to sum up: Mwanawasa is leading a big anti-corruption fight, and he leads a political party known for graft and corruption.
So I wanted to talk to Mwanawasa about all this, but I had to go through MMD to get to Mwanawasa. The MMD official I talked to said, yes, it would be possible to talk to the president — but the price would be $100.
In other words: Yes, you can interview the president about his fight against corruption — but only if you bribe me.
I wasn’t insulted — just terribly amused. I let it be known that American newspapers aren’t in the business of giving bribes for interviews with government officials. The MMD fellow said if I couldn’t afford $100, perhaps $50 would do? I said no thank you. He said he would see what he could do.
So it appears I won’t be interviewing the president. And it appears the president has quite a bit of work still to do.
18 November 2003 |
Cultural Dissonance: Yesterday, I ate a “chicken cajun sandwich” [sic] at a Muslim fast-food place called Strictly Halal. In Zambia. I’m not sure what made the sandwich Cajun, per se — no peppers, no “blackening,” no crawfish (mmmm…crawfish). All I saw were mayo and pickles. Maybe pickles are, like, underground Cajun and I didn’t get the memo.
Why Journalists Can Appear Evil to Outside Observers, Part 3,637: When I got a phone call this morning saying that a teenaged girl had died after a long bout with tuberculosis, my only thought was, “Yes! Woo hoo!” (See, I’m writing a story on Zambian funerals and I needed to do some reporting and…never mind. I am evil.)
My Ever Declining Story Count: It appears that one of the five stories I was planning on writing is about to fall through. I had hoped to write a profile of Nevers Mumba, the vice president of Zambia. Mumba is a televangelist who got his theological training in, of all places, Dallas. Would have been such a fun story to write, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to get an interview. Alas. The religion section of the DMN would have ate it up, I bet.
18 November 2003 |
Optimist, n. 1. One who usually expects a favorable outcome. 2. A believer in philosophical optimism. 3. Someone who, despite being in the middle of a Zambian hostel with sporadic water and electricity, habitually turns on the wireless networking function of his laptop — thinking that maybe, just maybe, someone has taken the initiative in the last few hours to create a broadband wireless network within a 100-foot radius.
Well, this is the start of my last week in Zambia. After driving myself crazy with work all last week, I decided to (gasp!) take the weekend off. Didn’t do a damned thing, other than post some photos here, buy some postcards, and visit a couple art galleries.
Oh, and finish reading Lost White Tribes, Riccardo Orizio’s questionably executed book on an intriguing subject: Europeans who, during the colonial period, moved to the developing world and, in essence, “went native.” (As in, intermarried with locals, adopted local ways of living, or simply isolated themselves from their Euro peers in some way.) When colonialism ended, most white folks went back to their motherlands, leaving these strange, impoverished “white tribes” behind.
It’s a fascinating topic — I’ve always been interested in microcultures and their ability to persist within a larger whole. (It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why: I grew up in one. I’m a Cajun from south Louisiana, which means I grew up as part of a French-speaking American microculture. Issues of cultural survival, linguistic persistence, and other such Sociology 101 topics are of deep interest to me.)
I’m also, more specifically, interested in the ways European and non-European cultures interact — most notably from my last long-term foreign assignment, my trip to Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific, where about 40 half-British, half-Polynesian descendants of the mutineers on the Bounty live to this day.
Orizio’s book didn’t do as much for me as it should have. The stories of the “tribes” are left unconnected — it’s clear their origins were in distinct newspaper or magazine stories cobbled together in a book. But the biggest problem for me was the hyperflorid, hyperstylized writing. I bet it’s lovely in the original Italian, but all the translation going on in “Lost White Tribes” makes all dialogue seem stilted and artificial.
It’s understandable. For instance, when Orizio is interviewing the ethnic Poles who form a strange mountain community in Haiti, he is having Creole French translated into English by a local. Orizio then translated that English into Italian for the book; the book’s translator, Avril Bardoni, then translated that Italian back into English. Creole French to English to Italian to English — it’s not surprising the language sounds fake by the time it’s all over.
Anyway, still a recommended read — it’s only about 200 pages and some of the tales (the Haitian Poles, the Dutch/Bushmen in Namibia, and the Blancs Matignon in Guadaloupe in particular) are fascinating.
A moderately busy week ahead — lots of little things to do if I can squeeze in the time. The one thing I really, really need to do — interview someone at the Central Board of Health — has proven difficult. Five times I’ve set up interviews with people there, and five times they’ve been summarily canceled when I arrived. For three of them, my subject wasn’t even in the country. Harrumph. Oh, well — back to the coal mines.
17 November 2003 |
Random, disjointed thoughts from the last few days:
- I am singlehandedly keeping the Lusaka taxi industry afloat. In the last two days, I’ve taken 24 taxis, pumping much needed foreign capital into this sector. I’ve been here, what, 32 days now? I’ve taken at least 200 cab rides, easy. Far and away the biggest line item on my budget, well ahead of lodging and food.
- Strangest fashion connections to my home state (Louisiana) spotted so far, in approximate reverse rank order:
3. The Austrian backpacker spotted the day after I arrived wearing a Mardi Gras t-shirt from Iota, Louisiana — a tiny spot on the map maybe 10 miles west of where I grew up.
2. The teenaged street vendor on Church Road who wore an Acadiana High School t-shirt — Acadiana High being about 10 miles east of where I grew up.
And the winner: 1. The boy in Mazabuka wearing a replica No. 17 New Orleans Saints jersey of Jim Everett, the team’s quarterback for about four seconds in the mid ’90s. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone in Louisiana wearing a Jim Everett jersey.
- I really wish I had stopped to interview the guy in the Acadiana High t-shirt. The street vendor phenomenon is strange and depressing (not to mention strangely depressing). Apparently, it’s a new thing, judging from the occasional angry op-ed in the Post about how “we must stop these street vendors.” They’re all boys, maybe 16 to 20 years old, and they stand in between lanes of traffic at stop lights. They each have one or two items for sale, which they hawk to drivers and passengers when they’re stopped.
The array of items is completely nonsensical. There’s always one guy selling clear plastic cell phone cases, and always one guy selling car cell phone chargers. But things get absurd after that. TV antennas. Power strips. Mach 3 razor blades. Fur hats. (Who wears fur hats in Africa? Other than Mobutu, that is.) Plastic coat hangers. Small Casio-knockoff keyboards. Nine-volt batteries. There’s one guy who stands outside Manda Hill shopping center selling a ceramic bunny. I’ve seen him three times now, still with that bunny.
It’s a strange attempt at commerce. They set up shop in the busiest commercial districts in town — at Cairo and Church, outside Manda Hill, next to the Shoprite. All places where there are plenty of other places to get all these same goods. And by targeting people in cars, they’re going after the wealthiest Zambians — but also the ones most likely to want to buy their goods in an honest-to-goodness store.
In a month, I’ve never seen a street vendor sell anything.
- Favorite African signage quirk: The fact they call traffic lights “robots” here. I know, I know, it’s not just Zambia. But I bubble over with glee every time I see a sign warning, sternly: ROBOT AHEAD.
- Zambians dress themselves well. (In Lusaka, at least.) Even what I’d judge to be the lower-middle classes — not dirt-poor, but living hand to mouth — always look good. I’m not talking flashy; just nice, conservative clothes, things my grandmother would like to see on me. Lovely long dresses for the women, lots of dress shirts on the men, even among the un- or underemployed.
But the white people here — my, oh my! Was there a convention somewhere that decided to send the least stylish Europeans to Africa? Did this continent not suffer enough at the hand of colonialism? Did it really need to be exposed to this much fishbelly-white flesh?
Every European man here is a 48-year-old, 100kg Brit who wears shorts so miniscule they might be more accurately called hot pants. And while those shorts may have fit his 34-year-old, 70kg self, they sure as hell don’t contain his blubbery exuberance now.
And the women — so much exposure! I’ve read enough Third World editions of Lonely Planet to know they all have a passage preaching caution to female travelers: Warning: Because of the way you dress, people in this country will assume you are a whore. Compared to the conservative dress of Zambian women, white women here are just a sea of endless spaghetti straps and expanses of sunburned thighs.
(I should acknowledge that I am not completely innocent of these charges. I dress nicely enough during the week, since I’m interviewing folks. But about once a week, I find myself in a t-shirt and shorts. It’s not an appealing sight, and I can’t tell you how many strange looks meet the sight of my knees on Lusaka city streets. I haven’t seen a single Zambian wearing shorts since I’ve been here.)
- The BBC World Service makes good radio to brush your teeth to. You know, people complain so much about American cultural imperialism, but there’s not much here. It’s all the Brits — BBC News, Arsenal and Man United, which servant is Prince Charles buggering today, etc. The only signs you’d find of America’s existence here are (a) the two Subway sandwich shops, (b) the rap and R&B on every radio station, and (c) Coca-Cola. But not even a McDonald’s!
The satellite TV channels are all South African, Australian, or British. The place where I take my laundry is always playing some alternate-universe version of VH1. The accents are British, but it’s just off the U.S. version by a hair. (For instance, more mentions of David Beckham and Cliff Richards than you’d find in the States.) I find it strangely enthralling — I find myself secretly hoping for a long line at the laundry so I can kill time watching it.
13 November 2003 |
It’s amazing how walking around a foreign capital with two vials of HIV-positive blood in your pocket can focus the mind.
Perhaps some day I will explain why, exactly, I am walking around a foreign capital with two vials of HIV-positive blood in my pocket. It’s an interesting story. But for now, you’ll have to do with just the knowledge of these vials’ existence.
I admit ignorance of how to best handle blood. Want someone to write up a 2 a.m. homicide? Want someone to detail both sides of a curriculum reform debate? I’m your man. Want someone to be your blood jockey? There are probably others more qualified.
For the first hour after I got the blood, I debated what to do with them. Should I just hold on to them? (The heat of my hands might warp the samples in some way.) Should I put them in my pocket? (Same body heat concern, plus potential jarring when I walk.) In my bag? (Probably gets quite hot in there.) I considered just holding them out in the open, but might sunlight damage them?
Of the experts I’ve talked to, one insists on refrigeration only. One insists on freezing. One says room temperature. Hell if I know.
The blood is currently in my shirt pocket — protected from sun, with minimal extra heat. I think it’s a decent compromise, although I think I’ll be freezing it shortly just to be safe. Wouldn’t want to leave them somewhere for a thirsty child to find.
11 November 2003 |
The last week has been incredibly busy and incredibly disjointed. My self-imposed day off (Sunday) somehow turned into 10 hours of interviews. I’ve got five fat (not to mention phat) notebooks of interviews in need of transcription. I’ve got a half-dozen high-pressure must-get interviews to line up in the next 48 hours. In other words, sorry about the lack of posts.
The last week has also meant streamlining the number of stories I have planned from this journey. An initial list of about 25 ideas gave way to 10 a couple weeks ago. I knew then that list would drop again, and it looks like it’s down to five. Much of that’s due to a restricted travel schedule: For a variety of reasons, I won’t be able to stray far from Lusaka in my remaining two weeks here. (A big disappointment, that.)
I remain under orders from my four-year-old cousin Cody — the World’s Cutest Child — to produce a photo of myself with a large animal (preferably not an elephant, I’m told). I will do my best. But that’ll probably be the extent of my non-work time over the next 13 days.
So, in a taunting spirit, I present the stories you almost certainly will not be reading about Zambia in The Dallas Morning News any time soon. They tickled my fancy at one time or another, but now they’re just dead ideas waiting for a future roving correspondent:
- The return of the black rhino. Zambia has decided its economic future rests with tourism — particularly the big-money luxury safaris that can cost upwards of $25,000 per person. But in the safari world, an African journey isn’t complete until you can check off sightings of the Big Five: buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion, and rhino. Zambia can only manage four — the last black rhinos were shot by poachers in the 1980s, their horns ground into an aphrodisiac powder for sale in Asia or turned into dagger-sheaths for oil-rich Yemenis.
But a fellow named Hugo van der Westhuizen and the Frankfurt Zoological Society is reintroducing the black rhino to the Luangwa Valley — and trying to keep poachers away this time. The first rhinos were deposited in Zambia this summer, and I wanted to see how they’re doing. Would have been a terrifically fun story to write and (let’s be honest here) a great excuse for a three-day safari to the Luangwa Valley. But I was never able to get in touch with Hugo or the rest of his rhino crew (no landlines, no cell phones, only slow-as-molasses-in-a-Northern-Hemisphere-January radio-link email). Plus, the secret hole in the story was that there actually are three nasty white rhino kept in a sort of quasi-game park near the Zim border. They’re not exactly wild — they’re kept there for the Victoria Falls tourists to check out — but it is technically possible to score the Big Five in Zambia.
- The roving Polish Jews of Northern Rhodesia. In the 1940s, after the Nazis took Poland, thousands of Poles became refugees. A large number of them were transported first to Russia, then to Persia (Iran), and finally to the British colonies of Africa — Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia) among them. The locals and the colonials built African-style huts for them, and they lived out the war here. (Somewhere on this hard drive, I’ve got an old British Pathe newsreel about their arrival saved — I’ll try to post it if I can find it.)
The refugees went back to Poland (or elsewhere) after the war. But I found the idea of 10,000 Poles roaming around Africa so interesting that I wanted to see what evidence there remained of their time here. I know there’s at least one Polish cemetery up near the Congolese border, in Mbala (known as Abercorn in colonial days). I planned to look into it and use it as an excuse to visit that area up north (where I also planned to write about some issues re: the Congolese refugee camps there). But it’s a several-days journey each way, and I just don’t have time.
- The relocation of Zimbabwe’s white farmers. If you’ve been paying attention to news from Africa the last few years, you know that Zimbabwe’s prez Robert Mugabe isn’t a big fan of his nation’s white farmers. (A small number of white farmers control something like 90 percent of the best land in Zimbabwe — a holdover from the colonial days and the evil evil Ian Smith years in Rhodesia.) A couple years back, Mugabe decided the way to settle things was to assemble a band of thugs, give them firearms, and tell them the white farmers’ land was now theirs. The result has been bloodshed, a collapse of the country’s agricultural sector (the thugs haven’t proved to be very good farmers, and the folks who really need land, the peasant farmers, haven’t gotten it), and a mass exodus of whites from Zimbabwe.
Many of those whites are ending up — you guessed it! — in Zambia. More than 100 major Zim farmers have taken up Zambia’s offer of free/cheap land, mostly in an area northeast of Lusaka. (Unlike Zim, Zam doesn’t have a shortage of good land. By one estimate, only about 10 percent of the country’s arable land is farmed.) This story would have been a chance to get into Zambia’s admirable race relations and the historical reasons why anti-white sentiments never really took root here. (The quick summary: The British were relatively decent in giving control back to blacks [relatively — compared to Zimbabwe/Rhodesia’s history, they were absolute saints]; for a variety of reasons, the Brits never developed Zambia as much as Zimbabwe, so few white colonials settled here; there’s plenty of land; and Kenneth Kaunda, the country’s first president, did some pretty admirable things to discourage race-baiting.)
Three other angles I could have hit on: 1. Some Zim farmers are bringing their black farm workers and staff with them to Zambia — a historical homecoming, since many Zim blacks were actually Zambians a couple generations back, before British labor policies forced many of them to abandon their homes. 2. Some Zambians are peeved that those black farm workers and staff are coming from Zimbabwe — after all, Zambians need every job they can get, and these Zim folks are filling them before they ever become available. 3. Will the influx of Zimbabwans influence race relations in Zambia? Let’s be honest, some of Zim’s white farmers are white supremacist jerks. And Zambians have complained recently that an influx of Zim blacks (who are used to antagonistic black-white relations) has increased racial tension in Zambia.
Alas, my trip to Livingstone was cut short a couple weeks back, which meant I didn’t get to cross over to Zimbabwe for reporting. And again, just not enough time.
- Peace parks. A South African group (backed by Mandela) has come up with an interesting way to create stronger ties between southern African nations. They’re called peace parks — national parks/game reserves that cross international borders. The idea is that if, say, Malawi and Zambia work together on running a national park, they’re less likely to blow each other up. The animals benefit — they no longer need a visa and passport to head for higher ground. (Har har. But seriously, it would allow animals larger grazing and migration areas.) And tourism can benefit too, since quite a few attractive destinations are rendered less so because their territory lies in multiple countries, making visits more of a hassle than they’re worth. (For instance, the proposed Okavango-Upper Zambezi peace park lies in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia. Now, tourists might pay $100 in visa fees to visit all parts of the park — more likely, they’ll stay in one country.)
The national borders of southern African were invented out of whole cloth by the colonials, so quite a few naturally-bonded areas were divided arbitrarily. But let’s be honest: this is a marginally interesting story. It existed in my story list mostly to give me a backup safari plan if the black rhinos didn’t work out. It was an excuse for me to come up with fun verbs to describe how giraffes run and other such fun. As such, it is, sadly, toast.
Some other story ideas that you might find crumpled into a ball, tossed on the side of Lusaka’s Great East Road:
- Something on long-haul truckers, the profession whose members are the most likely to be infected with HIV. They get a lot of the blame for spreading the disease across southern Africa (they like prostitutes quite a bit, it seems). But that story’s been done before.
- I wanted to go to Arusha, in Tanzania, to report on the Rwandan genocide trials currently underway there. Arusha’s not too far from Mbala, so I thought I might be able to tag it onto the Polish refugees story. No dice.
- Flowers. A lot of Zambian flowers end up in the floral shops of the U.S. of A. (Same with a lot of African nations — lots of cargo flights crossing the Atlantic every night.) I thought it’d be interesting to track a single Zambian flower into a Dallas flower shop. But that sort of story’s been done, too (most notably with potatoes, by The Oregonian a couple years ago).
- Something on Zambia’s Muslim minority. I never got this one any more fleshed out than “something on Zambia’s Muslim minority,” so I doubt this one’ll be missed by many.
- Something on how the Internet allows philanthropic organizations and charities to be smaller and more nimble than in the old days. I was going to write about Deep Roots Zambia, a.k.a AKIN, an effort that supports the education of a small number of Zambian school children. It’s a “virtual charity” — no office, no paid staff, meetings over instant messenger, etc. But their work is in Monze, and other than a 10-minute bus stop a couple weeks ago, I never got to spend any time there.
- Something about Zambia’s decision a while back to refuse a bunch of American food aid (when the country was facing famine) because it was genetically modified. It’s pretty much the only time Zambia’s been in the international news in the last couple years. But I dreaded dipping into that GM-foods morass, and the story was old, anyway. (The irony: Much of Zambia’s current food imports come from South Africa — and it’s all GM anyway!)
- The Bush AIDS $15 billion policy’s impact on Zambia. It bores me to just type that phrase, so I’m sure it would have bored the hell out of you, dear reader. I’m not a big fan of international stories that are really just domestic stories in disguise.
- The Bush Mexico City rule’s impact on Zambia. (That’s the rule banning American financial support for orgs that provide abortion services overseas — Reagan created it, Clinton got rid of it, Bush brought it back.) Again, a partisan morass I didn’t feel like slogging through.
- Something on Christianity’s changing face in the developing world. (Narrow and focused, I know!) The hook would have been the ex-Archbishop of Lusaka, who famously got married to a Moonie not long ago. That would qualify as a “changing face,” I’d say.
There are a couple of other ideas that, when written out, sound more like sophomore-year term papers than stories I’d want to read. So I’ll spare you those.
Here’s hoping the five stories (maybe four) I end up producing prove worthy of avoiding this blacklist.
10 November 2003 |
Chachacha took a break from Eminem, Bob Marley, and Eurodance last night to play a long set of…Enya.
It so jarred me that I honestly thought for a moment it might be some sort of secret code, like the time a radio broadcast of “White Christmas” was the secret code for all Americans to finally get the hell out of Saigon.
10 November 2003 |
Oh yeah — happy birthday to me.
06 November 2003 |
Sorry for the lack of posts lately. I’ve been going crazy with reporting. I’m working on a story so exciting I won’t post about it here! (That’s exciting, no?) Unfortunately, it appears I won’t be able to get to a few of the stories I had planned — these weeks have zipped by. Anyway, more photos and deep insights into the Zambian soul to come soon.
05 November 2003 |
The office of Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s first president (1964-1991), sits behind cinder block walls and an electric fence on Serval Road, in Lusaka’s old colonial-favored Kabulonga neighborhood. It’s just a few doors down from the home of Frederick Chiluba, Zambia’s second president (1991-2001). From the waist-deep potholes on Serval Road, it’s clear that political power drops precipitously when one leaves office in Zambia. It’s hard to imagine potholes going unrepaired outside Richard Nixon’s house or Bill Clinton’s house.
I’m sitting in a taxi with three men. James is the driver; it’s his cab. He’s the one taxi driver in Lusaka smart enough to realize that Chachacha Backpackers is filled with white tourists who just might want to take a cab somewhere. He’s outside Chachacha every morning, and I get the impression he’s done well for himself, as Zambian cabbies go.
In the front passenger seat (on the left in Zambia, remember) is Benson, another fellow who’s figured out how to profit from Chachacha’s denizens. I had asked Benson to get me an appointment with Kaunda (or KK, as he’s universally known). Benson and James had been fighting for the entire drive over, and I’m left with the impression that James may have had more to do with getting the appointment than Benson.
With me in the back seat is Sephiwe, a man about my age seeking self-discovery. Sephiwe was born in Lusaka to a Caribbean mother and a South African father. Dad had been a member of the African National Congress; when the apartheid government banned the ANC, it had set up headquarters in free Zambia. Sephiwe now lived, oddly enough, in Dublin and was backpacking around his country of birth. At Chachacha, he’d met Benson, who’d mentioned that I was meeting with KK. He, too, wanted to meet KK, who as one of the most important supporters of the ANC and black nationalism for decades had been something of a hero of his.
Our appointment had been at 6:30, but there was no sign of movement around Kaunda’s offices. (“They’re working on Zambian time,” James lamented.) Benson and James were arguing over something, half in English, half in Nyanja.
Finally, around 7 p.m., a late-model Japanese sedan pulls up. Inside is Sunday Musonda, KK’s chief of staff (or that position’s equivalent). He tells us that KK will meet us at his residence, not at the office, and that he will drive Sepiwe and me there.
Five minutes later, we’re at another electric fence and more cinder block walls, waiting for an armed guard in army fatigues to open the gate. (I’d later learn that Kaunda’s residence is government-owned, a perk of past-presidency.) A moment down a winding tree-lined lane and we’re at Kaunda’s back door.
We walk up to the sliding glass door and I immediately see what Kaunda has chosen to make the first thing visitors see upon arrival: a photo from the 1980s of him dancing with Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher, for her part, is all smiles and seems thrilled. I think for a moment how much more dance-centric the life of a female British prime minister must be than a male’s. No one would expect John Major or Tony Blair to dance with Kaunda or Robert Mugabe or Ronald Reagan, after all.
Sephiwe and I are ushered into Kaunda’s living room. Its major colors are brown, tan, and white, and the furniture looks like the high end of a Barcalounger dealership — comfy and leather, even if a certain class of people would find it too proletarian. Sunday apologizes for KK’s making us wait while he remains upstairs, in his private quarters. “It’s a very bad time — his excellency is watching the news,” he said.
In my mind, I’d debated how to address Kenneth Kaunda. He’s certainly the essential man in Zambian history. He led the fight against British colonial government in the ’50s and ’60s, and done it in a thoroughly admirable way; an admirer of Gandhi’s, he advocated nonviolence, and Zambia was born in nearly bloodless fashion. He’d served as president for nearly three decades and was a strong supporter of liberation movements throughout the rest of southern Africa.
Yes, Zambia was poorer when he left office than when he arrived. And yes, he did have autocratic tendencies (most notably banning all opposition parties in the early 1970s), and yes, his choice of friends could be questioned (Saddam Hussein and Tito most prominently). But no one called him a kleptocrat, and he had always been an opponent of divisive attitudes among races or tribes. The fact that Zambia’s 70-plus tribes get along fine and the fact that anti-white attitudes are rare are both credits to his legacy.
And when public pressure mounted for a return to multi-party politics, he voluntarily legalized the opposition and held elections considered free and honest. When he lost to Chiluba in 1991, he stepped aside with no fuss. He hadn’t caused trouble (Chiluba claimed he was involved in a coup attempt in 1997, but no one I’ve met believes it). And now he had devoted his waning years to fighting AIDS, an issue few African heads of state are willing to broach openly. I find all that admirable.
But I wasn’t sure what to call him. “Mr. President,” following the American model? “Dr. Kaunda” (he’s received countless honorary doctorates)? Was “KK” too familiar? And now Sunday was calling him “His Excellency.” I wasn’t sure what to make of that.
In any event, the news on ZNBC finally ended, and Kaunda came downstairs. He was dressed in black pants, a black polo shirt (with an embroidered red AIDS ribbon pinned on), and brown slippers of the style old men have earned the right to wear around the house. “Hello, my young friends!” he called out. I shook his hand, told him it was a pleasure to meet him, and thanked him for making time in his schedule for me. When the exchange was over, I realized I hadn’t called him anything - not Mr. President, not KK, nothing. Conflict avoided.
We sat down in those big leather chairs and began the interview. Kaunda has the freedom that seems to only come to politicians when they retire: the liberty to say exactly what you mean and the authority to be taken seriously. As a result, he was an excellent interview subject — blunt, honest, and forthright.
I asked him mostly about AIDS, since that’s my main subject and his main interest these days. He says a man in his position has to remain optimistic, but he doesn’t sound it. “I don’t think we have a future in education,” he said at one point when I asked about the masses of dead teachers the disease has left behind. “Zambia has no future in education.”)
AIDS is a personal issue to KK. In 1986, his son Masuzyo died of AIDS. In a move that seems courageous compared with the shameful silence of many African leaders, he talked openly about the disease. ” Soon after the burial, I talked to Mrs. Kaunda, and said ‘We must make this public,’” he said. “I held a press conference at State House and said what had happened. I began a campaign from that time.” Some church leaders attacked him for promoting condom use, but “I told them, ‘Look, those who don’t do what I say, they’ll be dead soon!’”
It’s sad that in a country where 20 percent of adults are HIV positive, Masuzyo is still the closest thing to a Zambian celebrity to openly die of AIDS. The stigma is still so strong that the death of prominent 30-somethings is still blamed on “long-term illness.” “There’s a lot of shame attached to STDs in this country,” Kaunda said. “I wanted to talk about my son because no one could shame me. Nothing could happen to make me shut up.”
Kaunda is 79, and while he certainly still has his wits about him, he did seem to be moving a bit slowly. But he held in one hand a white handkerchief, and whenever an insect would buzz around his head, he’d whip that handkerchief at it with the force and speed of a teenager.
After an hour or so, I asked my last question. Kaunda had to get up early the next morning to fly back to Boston (where he’s currently doing a term as Balfour African President in Residence at Boston U.), and I didn’t want to keep him too long. He chatted for a few minutes with Sephiwe, then we readied to leave. Before we could go, though, Kaunda wanted to sing me a song. He’d been famous in colonial days for bicycling around the country with a guitar on his back, singing songs of freedom to rouse feelings of independence in the locals. He’s taken one of those songs and changed up the lyrics; now the last two lines are:
We shall fight and conquer, in the name of great Africa,
We will fight and conquer AIDS.
03 November 2003 |
For those of you itching to see more gorge jumping, I present another video (5 MB). This one is of some random Australian guy doing the backwards-fall jump. Freaky.
(I apologize in advance for my having filmed the jump with my camera turned 90 degrees. I thought I could easily fix it to make it right-side-up, but I haven’t a clue how. So get ready to turn your head a bit.)
02 November 2003 |
When I posted about wacky stories in the Zambia Daily Mail last week, I knew the temptation would be strong to do it again. There’s so much fun stuff in these papers, most of it unintentionally so.
Take the front page of today’s Post, for instance. The Post, as the only daily not owned by the government, styles itself as the independent, investigative voice of Zambia. “The paper that digs deeper,” they call themselves. There may be some truth to that, but after three weeks of reading it, I can also say it’s the paper with the dirty mind.
It’s the one most likely to write about sex. It’s the only one (so far) to feature topless teenaged girls on its front page. It’s the one that plays up child sexual abuse stories more than the others.
(Aside: One of the Post’s most notable recent front-page headlines came on a story where Zambia’s First Lady, Maureen Mwanawasa, said child abusers should be dealt with much more harshly. “Castrate Child Defilers, Urges Maureen” was the banner headline. The only problem was that the defiler Maureen and the Post were, on that day, all worked up over was a 29-year-old mother who has molested her 7-year-old son because a witch doctor had told her doing so would save her marriage. I don’t think castrating her would have done much good.)
Anyway, today’s lead story in the Post carries this huge block-letter headline:
ENJOY YOUR WIVES NOW
…there’ll be no marriage after resurrection, advises Rev. Chileshe
The rev in this case is one Lawrence Chileshe of the Lusaka Pentecostal Assemblies of God. The headline fairly summarizes his message: Men, have as much sex with your wives as possible, because nobody gets play in heaven. Women, serve your men sexually as much as possible.
The relevant quotes: “After resurrection, a woman will be like a holy sister and you can’t even touch her breasts.”
And: “Women in Zambia must wake up from their sleep and learn to entertain their husbands at home for fear of losing them to other women who are not married.”
And let’s not even talk about the Post’s health advice column, written by “Dr. M.” Lots of letters from men worrying that their “manhood” is too “slim.” In today’s column, under the heading “I’ve an itching sensation inside my thighs,” R.B. of Lusaka writes that he’s having trouble getting his girlfriend interested in sex. “I am confused about this girl. I would want to ‘have’ her, you know? What is the best way to do it?”
But I’m not typing this entry just to titillate you with sex talk — no, dear reader. I’m here to share with you one of my very favorite pieces of recent writing, one that I am willing to violate all Zambian copyright laws to bring you. It’s from the “Kids Corner” page in today’s Mail, it’s by a gentleman named Alfred Mumba, and it’s genius. The headline:
HOW HUSKY THE HARE BEAT UWI THE HYENA TO MARRY PRETTY KARINA
The story, unedited (meaning grammar errors are Alfred’s, not mine) and in its entirety:
One summer morning, Husky the hare and his old friend Uwi the hungry hyena took a long walk in the wild country. It was a very hot day that the hare couldn’t stand the heat on the ground. Instead he got a lift on Uwi’s back.
“Gosh! It is really hot today,” said the hare.
Uwi stared back at his friend. He yawned, stretched his legs and said: “How I wish it could rain today so that I can have a bath!”
“Me too…” said the hare, wearily.
After walking for many miles, the two creatures met a very beautiful girl. Her name, she told them, was Karina. She lived in the human kingdom where Uwi once lost one of his legs.
“But what are you doing all alone in the bush?,” asked Husky.
“I’m looking for firewood. But I can’t find any,” said the girl sadly.
“That’s no big deal,” said Husky. “My friend and I would help you find the firewood. But in return we would need some water.”
“Yes, we need water,” said Uwi the hyena. “We haven’t washed for almost a year now” — the girl promised the two creatures to wash their dirty bodies if they helped her ffind firewood. She invited them back to the human kingdom. At first Uwi refused. But after Karina promised that no one would hurt him, he changed his mind.
At the village, Karina’s family welcomed them. They thanked the two creatures for helping their daughter find enough firewood.
“If you don’t mind,” said Karina’s father, “you can move in this kingdom. I will be giving you enough food to eat and water to wash in every day.”
Husky and Uwi couldn’t believe it. Husky turned to his friend and said: “Humans are friendly. If we stay with them for a long time, we could grow fat.” Hearing this Uwi agreed. Together, they two promised the girl’s parents that they would behave well whilst living with humans.
“Good,” said Karina’s father. “Now, whoever behaves well and works hard in the fields will marry my daughter Karina!” — the creatures were more interested to hear this. That afternoon they started showing off their behaviour and prowess to Karina’s father if one of them was to be blessed with Karina, the most beautiful girl in the village.
The hare said he was good at ploughing and feeding chickens. Uwi said he was good at eating, telling Karina’s father that he could eat six big pots of nshima with mashed potatoes.
So when the time to be given the tasks came, Husky was directed to the fields and chicken houses. There he fed the chickens twice a day. In the field he ploughed and planted crops.
Uwi was directed to the kitchen. There he ate whatever the women cooked. In an hour, he ate pumpkins, watermelons, sweet potatoes, bananas and a lot of nshima. He ate in view of Karina’s father so that he could see that he was a great eater. But Husky was against his friend.
“Eating is not a good idea to have you marry Karina,” said the hare one day.
“You are jealous, eh?” said the hyena.
“No, I’m not jealous,” Husky said, “I’m just concerned because no woman can love a man for eating too much.”
The hyena looked at his friend and started singing: “Husky is jealous, Husky is jealous, Husky is jealous.”
But Husky insisted that he was not jealous. What he was trying to put down on his friend was that too much eating could be unhealthy and sometimes embarrassing. But Uwi didn’t listen.
So the day to select who had behaved well and worked very hard finally came. It was also the day of the wedding. A lot of food was prepared. Since that time, Uwi had never gone far from the food. Now and again you would see him chewing and drinking something. He wanted to show Karina’s father that he was the man capable of marrying his daughter.
Before the selection, however, rumour had spread all over the village that the hare had won, and that he would marry Karina. Uwi was not happy. He approached Husky in the fields and hit him with a stick on the head. Husky fainted. Uwi dragged him in the bush and tied him so tight that it wasn’t easy for anyone to untie him.
At the selection and wedding ceremony the hare was nowhere to be seen, not even when Karina’s father called him to take his daughter as a wife.
“Where is he?” asked the man, looking at Uwi the hungry hyena.
“I don’t know, sir,” he said. “In fact one can never tell where the hare hides when he is unwilling to marry.”
Reading the time with the sun, Uwi said, “by now he should be back in the animal kingdom.”
Karina’s father had no option but to give his daughter to Uwi. But during the wedding ceremony, Uwi developed a stomachache. He moved very slowly to the altar where Karina’s father was to pronounce him husband to his daughter.
Just when he was to receive Karina’s hand, smelly excreta ran down his legs. People started to laugh. Uwi the hyena couldn’t take it any more. Looking this way and that, he scampered to the bush, and headed back to the animal world.
There word reached him that Husky the hare finally married Karina, and that the couple would soon visit the animal world. This was after a village farmer found the hare and untied from from the tree.
Is that not the best story of all time? So much to work with! So many questions! Such as: Why was Karina’s dad so anxious to marry her off to an animal? Was bestiality a status thing in his culture? When “Karina’s father had no option but to give his daughter to Uwi,” were there no, I don’t know, humans around to serve as an alternative? Why don’t we ever find out how Uwi lost his leg to the evil humans? Who in their right mind thinks competitive eating is the path to a girl’s heart? If they hadn’t seen water in ages, why were Husky and Uwi so anxious to get washed up and evidently not at all concerned about dying from thirst? How close could Uwi and Husky been if Uwi was so quick to club his bunny buddy over the head? And the “smelly excreta” — we won’t go there.
The story’s even better in the print edition, because it’s accompanied by photos of a real-life bunny and a real-life hyena. The caption: “Uwi the hyena (right) could not help living in the human kingdom after failing to contain his excreta and emptied his bowels in public. Husky the hare eventually married Karina.”
02 November 2003 |
Every Saturday at 2 p.m., a group of people — some HIV positive, some not — gather in a small third-floor room next to the Shoprite on Cairo Road. They’re the Post Test Club, a group of people who’ve volunteered to be tested for HIV and are interested in the disease.
I’d heard about the club from the guys at New Start — you may remember them as the ones who led me to a non-existent anti-AIDS rally. (I learned today that the rally had, in fact, been pushed back a month at the last minute — I was at the right gas station.)
So rather than spend my Saturday roaming the local market, I thought I’d drop in on the PTC meeting. I arrived at 2 and found…no one there. (Sensing a pattern with these New Start guys?) But within a few minutes, people started arriving. Emmanuel, the guy running the show, brought in some beach chairs so there were enough seats in the cramped little space. I introduced myself to a few people, including one guy who said he was in charge of today’s two-hour meeting.
That guy (I never got his name, so let’s call him Tim) stood up and called the meeting to order.
“Thank you all for coming,” Tim said. “We are fighting a battle against stigma, and I am happy to see all of you are fighting with us.” This is good stuff, I thought, scribbling down notes.
“We had planned to have a presentation on HIV prevention today, but the man who was going to be here had a change of plans. So today, we have a visitor who will be giving today’s presentation. This” — he points to me — “is Josh, a reporter from the United States. He is an American expert on the disease, and he will talk to us about the differences in how our two countries view HIV and AIDS.”
It took a moment for his words to register. “An American expert on the disease”? I was making a presentation?
I was seated in a corner of the room (the better to blend into the surroundings, I thought). Slowly, the people between me and the front of the room started getting up, moving their chairs, and clearing a path. I walked to the front, thinking on the way what wisdom I could offer in the field of comparative disease analysis.
I don’t even remember how I started out — probably something about the huge gap between the U.S.’ infection rate (less than 1/2 of one percent) and Zambia’s (20 percent, give or take). I rambled on for a bit more, then started taking questions.
For the record, I am far from an “American expert on the disease.” I know precious little about AIDS in America. AIDS in Zambia, sure, but in America, I’m just a guy who reads newspapers and tries to stay informed.
The questions started rolling in. Do they teach children how to use a condom in America? (Well, in some schools, depending what the school board says.) Is it true that blacks in America get infected more than whites? (Yes, the majority of new infections are now African Americans.) Is it true that the condoms you use in America are more pleasurable than the ones we get in Africa? (Hell if I know.) When Africans visit the United States, do Americans fear them because they think they are infected? (No, not really.) Why don’t the rich countries spend more on curing AIDS? (A question for politicians, not for me.) Is there polygamy in America? (I gave a brief history of the Mormon church.)
It ended up being a nice conversation, even if there was perhaps a bit too much giggling at the condom talk. Next thing I know, Tim’s saying, “Could we wrap up the questions, please? Josh has been standing there for two hours.” I looked at my watch: It was almost 4:30.
The finale of my debut as an AIDS lecturer: Tim asking, “Josh, would you please lead us in a closing prayer?” Those of you who know me will no doubt find that amusing, but I didn’t feel it was the time or place to start a theological discussion. For an instant, I considered claiming I was Jewish, but feared the potential followup questions. (“Oh! Reform, conservative, or orthodox?”) So I summoned up a few our-heavenly-fathers and our-lord-and-saviors and was done.
01 November 2003 |
A quick, peeved aside: I was supposed to be doing a few pieces for public radio while on this trip. I spent $500 on recording equipment at an online retailer and had it shipped to my office in Washington, D.C.
It was supposed to get to D.C. a week before I left for Zambia. It didn’t. Five days before I left, customer support told me it had been shipped the day before and would arrive the next day (although she couldn’t provide a tracking number). It didn’t.
I boarded my flight for Heathrow with no equipment, figuring that everything would arrive in D.C. the day after I left. O, the luck!, I thought.
Today, I got an email from that same craptacular online retailer, telling me that my order shipped yesterday, nearly a month late. Gotta love it.
28 October 2003 |
[Ed. note: I’ve been away from reliable Internet access since Friday, so today I post three entries written over the last few days. Notes from my Kaunda interview coming soon. Also note: lots of new photos posted.—Josh.]
I’d signed up on Friday to go white-water rafting on the Zambezi River Sunday. A Canadian couple I’d met in Lusaka, Geoff and Lonna, were going along with some friends of theirs from Jolly Boys. After Saturday’s gorge swinging (and gorge climbing-out-of-ing), I wasn’t sure how well I’d hold up for a day on the river, but I was willing to give it a go.
White-water rafting is the original Vic Falls adrenaline rush — everything else (bungee jumping, the swing, riverboarding, microlight flying) has come in its wake (ha). The 23 rapids downstream from the falls include some of the world’s toughest; the 1995 world rafting championships were held here, and there are a handful of Class 5s (the highest passable) to go with a bunch of 4s. (There’s also one Class 6, Rapid 9, nicknamed “Commercial Suicide.” All the rafting operators walk around that one, although top-notch kayakers can sometimes go through it.) The Zambezi’s water level is at its annual low right now, which makes this the absolute best time for huge rapids. (It also makes it the absolute worst time to see the falls, unfortunately.)
There were eight of us in the raft: me, Geoff and Lonna, an Australian couple, an Irishman, a…um…fellow from a Commonwealth nation (sorry, can’t remember which one — nice guy, though), and our river guide, a short, wiry Zambian named Babyface.
There’s one thing you should know before proceeding: I’m an awful swimmer. Just awful. I’m not the world’s most athletic person under any circumstances, but swimming holds a special venom for me. Those of you who know me may be able to recall instances where you’ve invited me to go swimming somewhere and, invariably, the fact that I didn’t go. I don’t like swimming, I don’t like beaches. I don’t much like water.
That said, the first couple of hours were hella fun. Babyface did a fine job of keeping us oriented and doing the right things, and the rapids were just right: dangerous, perilous, but survivable. We got soaked on every one, but we stayed in the boat.
(Well, I stayed in the boat. Babyface fell out twice in the first five rapids, which didn’t do much to inspire confidence.)
I was feeling good, feeling confident. Then came Rapid 8. It’s nicknamed “Midnight Diner,” Babyface told us, because we had a choice. We could tackle the right side of the rapid, which was only a Class 3, nicknamed “Kentucky Fried Chicken.” The middle was a Class 4. The left was a Class 5, nicknamed “Star Trek.” It was almost guaranteed to flip the raft and dump us into the river.
Having forgotten my senses back at Rapid 1, I joined the raft’s chorus in support of Star Trek.
We survived the first couple surges Star Trek threw at us, but in an instant, the raft’s front was pointed skyward and we were flipping end over end. We were all thrown into the water. I, stupidly, held onto my paddle. (Did I not realize they float just fine on their own? Was it a sign of loyalty to the raft’s owners?)
I’ve since seen the video of this spill, and everyone else on the raft pops up out of the water in about one second. For some reason — I assume it’s related to that damned paddle — it takes me about half an hour to come up. (Okay, it only seemed like half an hour. But it was actually about five or six seconds.) I surfaced, tried to take a breath, and went under again, for another four or so seconds, still holding on to that damned paddle.
One difficulty: Babyface tightened our life jackets before every rapid — tightened them within an inch of our lives. Taking a full breath was impossible in a jacket that tight, even on a calm stretch of river. Underwater, I barely got a teaspoon of air before going down again and inhaling a few gulps of water.
I finally came back up, vaguely panicked at the prospects of swimming to the raft, now some distance away. I grabbed onto one of the Australians, who was offering her arm, and was starting to feel better about things when I realized we were still in the middle of the rapid — and that another huge wave was coming. I went under again, for another five seconds or so.
Life really sucked right about then.
In the end, I somehow grabbed onto the raft and got dragged in. I was wiped out. I was having trouble breathing, even after loosening my jacket a bit. I had the worst headache I’ve had in months, and I had a spacy, glazed look on my eyes. The fun was over.
The rest of the day was an exercise in damage control. I was determined not to flip again. Luckily, I had an ally: Lonna had suffered some sort of ear damage on the Star Trek flip, and she was concerned that another flip would screw up her eardrums. She pleaded with the rest of the raft that we not try to flip; I provided silent support for her efforts.
Luckily, the afternoon rapids are less intense than the morning’s. There was only one rapid that provided much flip-risk: Rapid 18, a.k.a. “Oblivion.” Three-quarters of all rafts flip there, and it would take luck for us to avoid that fate. Unfortunately, the Australian guy was something of a daredevil and he was always trying to find ways to flip us — standing up in the middle of a rapid, jumping around the raft when he was supposed to be paddling, etc.
Thankfully, Oblivion proved anticlimactic. We didn’t flip. The other four rafts in our group did. Much happiness ensued. Other than Rapid 8, it had been a great day.
Unfortunately, after finishing up at Rapid 23, you have to get out of the gorge. The climb out is about twice as hard as the one to return from the gorge swing. Took almost an hour. Then it was an hour’s drive on mud-tracked roads back to the rafting company’s lodge. I was beat, beat, beat.
When I got back to the place I was staying, I made a phone call back to Lusaka. It turns out that Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s founding father, was willing to talk to me — but only the next evening, before he flew back to the U.S.A. Which meant I had to cut short my trip to Livingstone by a couple days, cancel a bunch of interviews, and take a six-hour bus ride back to Lusaka the next morning.
I have to admit I’d been looking forward to this Livingstone trip as a source of relaxation. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I don’t think “relaxing” would be the first adjective I’d use to describe the weekend.
28 October 2003 |
So I spent today jumping off a cliff.
Before I go into that, may I just point out that Livingstone has a significantly higher bug quotient than Lusaka? Creepy crawlies everywhere. I’ve got a room at Gecko’s Guesthouse, a hostel on the southern edge of the city that targets older and family backpackers — they market themselves as a quieter alternative to Jolly Boys and Fawlty Towers, the two mega-backpacker places (and Chachacha equivalents) in Livingstone.
Nice place, and there’s even a fan in my room (major bonus points there). But bugs all over. Not just bugs — stupid bugs. Bugs that look like flies (they have wings!) but for some reason appear interested only in walking. Try to squish them and they can’t seem to get properly motivated for evasive maneuvers.
I’m lying in bed right now, and every 90 seconds or so, there’s another one on me. I take my time to make visual confirmation (yes, that is a bug), evaluate the situation (this bug is a nuisance to me), and create a plan of attack (I do believe I shall crush this bug). I could calculate pi to 100 digits, run a 5K, and issue a press release announcing my intention to end this stupid bug’s stupid life, and it still would not have moved. It gets crushed (no resistance) and swept away, only to make way for his stupid little friend 90 seconds away.
They’re not even bugs I can have a proper respect for. Stupid bugs.
Anyway: As mentioned a couple days ago, I’m in Livingstone now to write about the adrenaline sports industry that’s popped up here in the shadow (in the spray?) of Victoria Falls. The highlight for me was the package offered by Abseil Zambia, which runs the Zambezi Swing. For $95, you spend the whole day knocking yourself out on their four activities:
1. Rappelling down the Batoka Gorge, a vertical drop of around 160 feet.
2. The rap-jump, which is just like rappelling except you’re facing down at the ground, sort of running down the cliff.
3. Flying Superman-style across a high wire spanning the gorge (about 400 feet or so)
4. The gorge swing.
Rappelling’s fun and all, and the high wire rocked. But the star power here is clearly the gorge swing, one of only two of its kind in the world (the other’s in South Africa). The company has strung a high-tension wire across the gorge and suspended some sort of anchor from the wire’s center. From that anchor hangs a looooong rope (of the rock-climbing variety, not the bungee variety). You stand on one side of the gorge, attach the rope to your harness, and jump off.
You freefall for about 160 feet (twice as far as the Vic Falls bungee, which is one of the world’s tallest). Then the freefall becomes the world’s largest tree swing, sending you at about 90 mph across the gorge, back and forth. It’s awesome.
As proof, I offer the first video (4.1MB) in zambiastories.com history, of me making my first gorge swing. Luckily for both of us, you won’t be able to make out what I’m screaming right after the leap.
It’s really a wonderful sensation. The freefall is exhilarating (and noisy, between your screams and the rush of the wind). Then comes the swing, which is completely silent — your speed slows enough that the wind noise drops away and you’re left with a beautiful calm suspended in the middle of the gorge.
I should point out this was only the first of my three swings. For the second, I fell off the platform backwards. The third was the scariest of them all: stepping off the platform backwards, so for the entire freefall, you’re staring at the cliff’s rock face only about 10 feet away. If I can surmount some technical difficulties (sidenote: anyone know what it means when DV plays back poorly and the words “16 bit” flash on the video screen?), you may someday soon see videos of those other jumps here, too.
Only two things could damper the day’s happiness. The first was the fact that each jump meant a lengthy, arduous climb back out of the gorge. The first 15 minutes of that climb were perfectly pleasant; the last 15 were thigh killers, rock scrambling up a roughly 35-degree incline. Making that climb five times (three times after swings and twice after rappelling) made me yearn for the introduction of escalator technology to the bush.
The other downside was figuring out the economics. The place had around 20 customers today, which means about $2,000 in revenues. All the jumps are run by a staff of 22 young Zambian men. I chatted one of them up, and he said Abseil Zambia pays them each $1 a day. $1 a day! Scarily enough, that’s actually above the Zambian average income (barely), but it’s absolutely pathetic that the company’s labor costs were only $22 today. (There is one other employee — a woman who manages the operation and doesn’t seem to do much other than sit around all day. She’s also white, and I’m damned sure she makes more than $1 a day.)
Abseil Zambia is a South African-owned company, and a couple of the workers said SAf companies never pay well. I guess they’re used to artificially cheap black labor. I hope Abseil figures out some way to better share the profits of their excellent product.
28 October 2003 |
Surprising fact: Duct tape is an unknown concept in Zambia.
I’d have imagined that it’d be ubiquitous. It fits a classic Third World paradigm: many uses packed into one convenient package. What repair can’t be made with duct tape? (Other than, of course, a broken heart.)
Yet I spent an hour roaming Lusaka for duct tape and was left wanting. My lame “leather” duffle bag (purchased for $17 at a gas station in Natchitoches, Louisiana — so you expect quality) was falling apart. One handle had already been ripped off, and I needed to reattach it. Duct tape to the rescue, right?
I went to a convenience store — they directed me to the street one block behind Cairo Road where all of Lusaka’s hardware stores sit. It was Zambian Independence Day, so most stores were closed, but all the hardware stores were Indian-owned and open.
I went door-to-door, from shop to shop. In each one went a conversation like this:
Me: Do you have any duct tape?
Indian Hardware Store Owner: [Silence.]
Me: Duct tape? [pronounced more slowly this time, accompanied by a duct-tape hand gesture of my own invention]
INSO: What is this duck tape?
Me: It’s a kind of gray tape, about this wide, on a roll. It’s very strong, and is constructed with a fibrous structure that makes it very useful in common household repairs — even for sealing leaky pipes in the kitchen or bathroom!
INSO: That sounds like an excellent product.
Me: Indeed! Do you have any?
Just to make sure, I asked several times to see the shop’s complete tape supply. No duct tape. In fact, I am here to report to you today that Zambia’s tape needs are woefully underserved. Most shops could offer only some weak freezer tape, with only an occasional electrical tape sighting. Perhaps this is the secret to Zambia’s economic difficulties! Duct tape for all! One Zambia, firmly fastened together!
One hesitates to think of the social revolution a little Super Glue could bring.
28 October 2003 |
It didn’t make sense: Why hold a protest rally at a gas station?
(Assuming you’re not protesting high gas prices.)
On Tuesday, I did some interviews at New Start, the biggest of Lusaka’s VCT (that’s voluntary counseling and testing for HIV) clinics. I briefly met Emmanuel, the guy who runs the clinic’s Post Test Club, a sort of AIDS-awareness group for both positive and negative. Emmanuel mentioned offhandedly that the club’s members would be having an HIV/AIDS rally Thursday morning at 9 a.m. to publicize the crisis and ask government to pay more attention. There would be some traditional dancing and drumming, he said, and some local celebs were supposed to show up. Kenneth Kaunda himself might make an appearance.
The location: a filling station called Ody’s, on Kafue Road, south of the roundabout at Kamwala Market. I double-checked to make sure.
So about 8:15 this morning, I asked a taxi driver to take me to Ody’s on Kafue Road. He seemed to know where it was, and a few minutes later, I was there.
No dancers, no drummers, no signs, no protesters.
Maybe I was early, I figured. So I wandered around the gas station, which is attached to a supermarket and a small cafeteria. Immediately, every passing cab driver started honking his horn at me. (Cabbies here assume any white person walking — hell, standing — is a fare waiting to happen.) The clock ticked closer and closer to 9. No sign of anyone.
I scanned over every African face I could find, thinking: “Does he look like an AIDS activist?” I looked in particular for Emmanuel, but unfortunately I barely remembered what he looked like from our brief meeting. I remembered he bore a resemblance to Avery Johnson — that’s about it.
(Maybe this is bad of me, but I find myself remembering some men’s faces by comparing them mentally to NBA players. So I know lookalikes for Brendan Haywood, Gary Payton, and Jalen Rose. Oh, and Mos Def and Don Cheadle.)
Finally, this guy started walking up to me, striding with purpose. I figured maybe he was attached to the group. Then he called out to me: “You are very white!”
Yeah, I know.
Turns out Joseph (his name) just wanted to me to give him money so he could go move to the United States and work in a restaurant. He asked me if I would take him back to the U.S. with me. No build up (other than the comment on my paleness) — just an expectation I’d put him up back in Dallas. I gently said no. I told Joseph about my situation. He said this place was indeed often used for protests and marches (why I still don’t know — it’s a crappy location). But he didn’t know anything about an HIV rally today.
I expected to see other reporters or news organizations at the gas station. After all, the local press doesn’t do much other than cover events and speeches. (It’s not the most aggressive, investigative media I’ve seen.) But I saw nothing.
Bored, I picked up copies of the three local papers (the Post, Times, and Mail). Newspapers here aren’t sold in stores — they’re hawked exclusively by street vendors. Pelekelo explained a couple nights ago that they buy the papers for 1,600 kwacha (about 32 cents) and try to resell them for 2,000. Unfortunately, if they can’t sell all their papers, they’re stuck with a loss — the papers’ owners don’t accept returns. So if a vendor buys 50 papers in the morning and sells 35 of them, he’s actually lost 10,000 kwacha. Doesn’t seem like a good business model for the vendors. So I’m always buying papers to help them out.
Nothing too exciting in the papers today, except for a minor update on the Big Brother House case. See, the people who produce Big Brother did an extremely popular version called Big Brother Africa, in which 20 or so folks from 20 different African nations vied for reality-television supremacy. In conservative Zambia, local ministers railed against the show, calling it an abomination (presumably because unmarried people shouldn’t be living in such close quarters) and asking state-owned TV not to carry the show.
But then the Zambian woman on the show, Cherise, won the whole thing. Immediately, the nation turned around — Cherise became a huge celebrity, and even the ministers were talking about how stirring her victory had been. The government made her an honorary ambassador. Everybody loves Cherise.
Anyway, last week, police in Ndola found 12 teenagers in a house where they were supposedly running a brothel and having wild orgies. The Times, never one to pass up an opportunity, named it the Big Brother House in Cherise’s honor.
(It seems some days that half of all the stories in the local papers are about sex. I talked with a reporter at the Post who acknowledged it: “You won’t see a serious issue on the front page often. It’s sex and gossip that sells.”)
By 10 a.m., I felt safe in assuming there had been some miscommunication. There would be no rally today, at least not here. I went back into town. There you have it, the perils of reporting in Zambia in a nutshell: miscommunications, trouble connecting, and time wasted. Since then I’ve spent three hours calling people and not reaching them. Tomorrow’s a national holiday, so government folks all went home around noon, apparently including the people who keep the phone lines in working order — I haven’t gotten a call through in over an hour. And on top of that, Kaunda’s people say he may be able to give me an interview — but on Saturday, which means I may not be able to go to Livingstone after all. One of my reasons for going to Livingstone is that if I stay here, my time will be wasted because of the holiday weekend; now it may be wasted waiting for a phone call from Kenneth Kaunda. Frustration!
24 October 2003 |
The weather’s turned here. The rainy season is trying its best to begin, spitting out sprinkles every morning with 20-minute thunderstorms some nights. Best of all is the temperature, which can get downright cool in the morning. Much better than the 95-degree standard set in week one.
I spend a decent portion of my day on Cairo Road, Lusaka’s main commercial drag. It’s where the Internet cafe I’m sending this from it located, and it’s also where several of my interviews have taken place. (The name is a leftover from old man Cecil Rhodes’ dream when he was running the show in these parts — he wanted the British Union Jack to one day fly over a contiguous African empire stretching from Cape Town to Cairo. Cairo Road is part of the continent-long road that was supposed to connect that empire.)
Cairo Road is a nice, buzzing place, with lots of street traffic and pedestrians. But the other day I realized something: I’ve probably spent at least 20 minutes walking on Cairo Road every day since I’ve been here. But in that time, I’ve seen a total of one white person. (Other than my own pasty self.)
Where are the white folks? There are two explanations for that, one historical and one very modern:
- Historically, Zambia has never had many white folks. Britain’s colonial aims never involved really developing what was then called Northern Rhodesia. Unlike in Zimbabwe and South Africa to the south, the Brits never committed to large-scale settlement — Northern Rhodesia was an afterthought, used primarily as a labor source for neighboring colonies. So other than the folks who ran the mines in Zambia’s north, few whites ever moved here.
And since Zambia gained its independence earlier than its neighbors (this Friday is the 39th anniversary of 1964’s independence), many whites took the opportunity to scamper off to South Africa or Zimbabwe, which remained white-controlled until the 1990s and 1980s, respectively. I’ve seen one estimate that there are only about 3,000 white Zambians today, in a country of about 11 million.
- But here’s the real scoop: All the white people are at the mall!
About five years ago, a retail revolution took place in Lusaka. Someone very smart (and, I presume, now with a fat bank account) decided to open Shoprite, the first supermarket in town, on Cairo Road. Zambians loved it, having suffered through tiny shops that offered little. The place boomed, and black Zambians still shop there in large numbers.
But a year or two later, some other smart developers realized there was a market for a good old American mall. They found a big tract of land outside town and built a shrine to commerce called the Manda Hill shopping center. It’s immaculately clean, filled with upmarket shops (well, upmarket for Zambia at least), and accessible only by car.
I went there for the first time this weekend. White people everywhere! Here a white person, there a white person, all throughout the mall. (Actually, white people and Indians. Most of the shops I see in Lusaka are owned by Indians or Muslim Arabs.) The developers clearly thought of Manda Hill as an escape from old-style Lusaka commerce for the upper classes. It’s an interesting divide — you start to wonder how much interaction these whites have with blacks in their daily lives. Probably not much, other than in the role of employer.
Last night, I met up with Pelekolo, an editor at one of the local newspapers and a friend of a friend. He wanted to drive me around; he said he wanted to show me the “real Zambia.” So he took me to O’Hagan’s, the chain fake Irish pub at Manda Hill.
I suppose that’s just as much the “real Zambia” as anything else — including the “Club Manhattan” we went to after dinner, featuring cold Mosi and a really cool, six-inch-long frog in the parking lot. (I suppose my wildlife sightings have begun.)
Anyway, reporting’s going well. I’ve had more success tracking people down, and I’m starting to see the pieces fall in to place for my main stories; keys are turning and locks unlocking. It’s still difficult to get people to be honest about HIV here, but that’s a subject for a later post. I’m trying to track down Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s first president, for an interview — I think that’ll work out. And this morning I interviewed MC Wabwino, Zambia’s No. 1 rapper/accountant, about child sexual abuse. I think I can confidently hold that over your collective head for a long time to come.
22 October 2003 |
Want a challenge? Try getting people on the phone in Zambia. I spent three hours this morning calling a list of about 20 people I want to talk to. I spoke to exactly one of them.
You really grow to appreciate things like voice mail, call transfers, and “Press 1 to continue” when you get to a place like this. Problems with either my cell network or the land lines left me out of touch off and on all morning. The Zambia phone book lists two, three, or even eight phone numbers for each major business — since at any given moment, one or more of them might be out. About half the numbers I had were “not in service,” despite being listed for major organizations in a 2002 phone book.
By afternoon, I just started showing up at offices unannounced. I got mostly confused receptions. All I have to show for my day is one interview set up for tomorrow and some worn shoe-leather.
(One thing I’ve noticed since I got here, and really noticed today: Either my hearing’s shot or Zambians are very quiet talkers. And I know it’s not the former, since the Bob Marley comes through loud and clear. [Actually, it’s a lot of Dr. Dre and Snoop tonight, which is an improvement. As Snoop might say, Ain’t nothin’ but a Z-thang, baby. Belo is the company that pays me.] That and the thick Nyanja/Bemba/Lozi accents make this seem like a non-English-speaking country at times.)
For those curious about what to expect in the near future, I’m staying in Lusaka until Friday. I expect to then head south to Livingstone, home of massive Victoria Falls. I’ll be splitting my time between great sadness (lots of orphans and dying kids — Livingstone has the highest HIV rate of any city in Zambia) and (reader warning: approaching mood shift) silly joy.
See, one of my stories is a travel piece on Vic Falls’ emergence as the “extreme sports” capital of Africa. The area around the falls has, among other things, the world’s highest-rated raftable white water rapids and the world’s tallest bungee jumps (from the amazing gorge railway bridge, more than 300 feet up). Among the other attractions: riverboarding, kayaking, jetboating, microlight/ultralight flights, and sky diving.
But what I’m really excited about is the the Zambezi swing. It’s like a cross between a bungee jump and the world’s largest tree swing — with a running start. It sounds tremendous. (Please, no one tell my grandmother I’m doing this.)
There’s a legitimate angle to the story, too — how Zambia and Zimbabwe have always fought over Victoria Falls, and how Zimbabwe’s historically won the battle (most people think they’re in Zim when they’re actually mostly in Zam, and most of the tourists have always gone to the Zim side). And how that’s reversing now with Zimbabwe’s “troubles” scaring away rich European white folks.
A perfectly legitimate story. But you and I know it’ll mostly be about me screaming bloody murder and jumping off cliffs on a rubber band.
21 October 2003 |
I’ve only covered the courthouse beat a few times in my career, when other reporters have had the day off and I’ve had to fill in. But from the looks of the “From the Local Courts” page in the Sunday Mail, it’s a Springeresque job in Lusaka. In this week’s set of news briefs:
- “Woman fined for marriage interference”: “A 26-year-old woman has been ordered by the Chingola local court to pay K400,000 (around US$80) as compensation for marriage interference…This was found after the court found [the 26-year-old] guilty of interfering in the marriage of [the wronged woman] by flirting with her husband.”
- Two other stories I’ll mention only by the headlines: “‘I impregnated my friend’s wife’” and “Two women claim one man as husband.” (In the latter, one woman accuses the other of being an unfair temptress because she hung around the man in question while wearing a schoolgirl uniform. Zambian men, like their Japanese colleagues, apparently find schoolgirl uniforms extremely attractive — this keeps coming up throughout my research.)
- And finally, my personal favorite: “Man vows never to reconcile with wife.” I hope someday to write an opening paragraph this compelling:
“A man vowed not to reconcile with his wife because he does not know where she took his three underpants.”
The story continues: “[Husband Borniface] Mwanza told the court that his wife was fond of going to her parents whenever they quarreled and that she stayed away for many weeks. He said that on one such occasion when his wife went to her parents, he discovered that his three underwear were missing. He said that no one bus his wife could have taken them.
“Mwanza said he also did not want to reconcile with [wife Lizzy] Mwewa because she was lazy and did not do domestic chores as would be expected of a wife. Mwanza said at one time his short went missing and that he found it with one of his wife’s brothers.”
Mwewa, for her part says hubby was “a womanizer who took women to their matrimonial home whenever she went out. Mwewa said Mwanza did not want her because she was thin and short. ‘My husband told me that he wanted to marry a fat and tall woman. He packed my belongings and told me to go to my relatives,’ she said.”
Unsurprisingly, the court determined this marriage could not be saved and ordered Mwanza to pay his now ex-wife K1,500,000 (about $300) in alimony and child support.
Don’t cry for Mwanza, though, as his quest for a hefty lady has apparently been successful: “He told the court that he did not marry another woman but he was in the process of doing so.”
20 October 2003 |
If you want to get Internet access in Zambia, here’s what you have to do:
- Call ZamTel, the national phone monopoly. Wait about five minutes for someone to answer the phone (with a simple “hello” and no indication you’re calling a business). Say you want to buy an Internet account. The woman will make you repeat the word “Internet” four or five times, then seem to understand and say “Go to the main post office.”
- Think about that, realize that post offices often play multiple roles in Third World countries, and head down to the corner of Church and Cairo roads, where the main post office is. Ask the man at the counter where to get Internet access, and he’ll tell you the second floor.
- Walk up one flight of stairs to the second floor. Ask someone there if this is where you get Internet access. No, he’ll say — that’s on the second floor.
- Remember that in Europe and her former colonies, the bottom floor of a building is often called the ground floor, and what we Yanks call the second floor is what they’d call the first floor. Go up one more flight of stairs, relieved at having decoded this small mystery.
- Find that the second/third floor is apparently used only for storage.
- Go back to the ground floor and ask Mr. Post Office again. Discover he is using second and third floor as interchangeable terms, perhaps aware of the transatlantic terminology gap. Notice that this time he tells you to go up a different stairway to, well, one of the floors above this one.
- Mentally count how many armed guards you’ve passed so far (five) and how many appeared to be sleeping (one).
- Curse yourself for wearing hiking boots with thick rubber soles today, as you listen to the symphony of squeaks they make on the tiled hallway floors.
- Ask on both the first/second and second/third floors. Finally reach someone who knows what the Internet is. Listen carefully as she tells you you’re in the wrong building altogether, and watch as she points the correct building out from her second/third floor window.
- Try to walk to the new building. Find it is surrounded by an eight-foot concrete wall. Circumnavigate the building one and a half times looking for a public entrance, then decide to try your luck with the armed guard at the entrance marked “Staff Only! No Public Allowed Here!”
- Find the armed guard friendly, and go in. Climb stairs, go down halls, go down stairs, climb stairs. Wish Zambia had a stronger tradition of signage.
- Finally find a door marked “Internet Sales.” Walk in and find five employees not doing much. (Zambia, as a formerly quasi-socialist state, is big into giving one person’s job to five people.) Ask to get an Internet account.
- Fill out three forms, the third requiring the signatures of four witnesses and a process similar to notarization. Watch a woman pull out a huge ledger entry book — perhaps two feet long and a foot tall closed — and enter your name, email address, and password. Realize that every email address is Zambia is handwritten in this book. Wonder what would happen if that book got lost. Realize that no computers have been used in this process of getting Internet access.
- Go down three hallways and down two flights of stairs to a small room where you present your 214,000 kwacha (about US$45) for two months’ Internet access.
- Go back to the office and ask what access numbers one dials to use this new Internet access. Watch the look of wonder come over the woman’s face. Explain to her what an access number is; listen to her confusingly say “You’ll have to talk to the technical staff for that information.” Learn the technical staff is in another building, of course, and that you’ll know which office is theirs because it has a “wooden wall.”
- Walk to this other building; discover the whole building has “wooden walls.” Ask around; find the techs; get the access numbers; go home.
I’m coming up to the end of week one in Zambia, and it’s been a good start. I wish I’d been a bit more productive, but I’ve done about a dozen interviews and have a pretty solid understanding of what I need to do from here on out. I’ve narrowed myself to 10 stories — three specifically about the impact of HIV/AIDS on Zambia’s education system (which would likely run as a series), two others about AIDS in general, two about game preserves, one about agriculture, one about Polish refugees in the 1940s, and one about bungee jumping. (Whether my employer is interested in publishing them all is a separate matter. They might want to avoid Zambia overdose. Then again, by the end of this, I’ll probably want to avoid Zambia overdose myself.)
I’m currently rereading one of my favorite books, The Granta Book of Travel. (Introduction here.) It’s a compilation of pieces from Granta, the terrific British literary magazine. They’re less about travel than about foreign correspondence — writers trying to figure out the Sendero Luminoso in Peru (Nicholas Shakespeare), Idi Amin in Uganda (Patrick Marnham), or a coup in Benin (Bruce Chatwin). It’s all first-person, and all about the journey a journalist takes when trying to figure out a place or a situation. (It’s no coincidence that many of the pieces’ titles start with phrases like “In Search of…” or “In Pursuit of…”)
It’s the sort of writing that got me interested in overseas works. It’s a uniquely glamorous form of journalism: Writer puts himself in Dangerous Situation to find the Ultimate Truth. Each piece hangs on the obligatory moment where our fearless author discovers himself in deep trouble — rebels about to pounce, the government about to detain him — only to emerge unscathed through wit, good sense, and luck.
(It’s also the sort of writing that can only be produced in quantity by writers from a former empire — the Brits, in this case. There’s a certain romanticized, colonial-office smell about them.)
They’re terrific tales, great reading — and tremendously sexy for newspaper folks who spend their days writing about curriculum reforms and the latest putsch at the Texas Education Agency. It’s sort of a more vigorous, (dare I say manly, despite the presence of Isabel Hilton and Martha Gellhorn) version of the classic New Yorker long-form story.
Of course, they’re also all about ego and self-aggrandizement. The reporter’s always the star, not the story. In some ways, it’s more honest — putting the writer front and center puts authorial subjectivity on display. And by exposing the reporting process, it makes clear that we often don’t know what the hell we’re doing. (If a story is titled “In Search Of…” something, it almost invariably means the writer didn’t find it.) And they usually don’t tell the reader anything they couldn’t figure out from reading a few New York Times articles. But damn, they sure are fun to read.
I’m not sure if I have a point here, except to recommend the book and the genre for distant travels. I wish I were able to pull something along those lines out of Zambia, but it’s not looking good.
Finally: White folks who arrive in an African capital carrying only a backpack and an African drum — and then proceed to play said drum drunk until 1 a.m. to show how truly real their African experience is — should be shot on sight. In a nice way, of course.
19 October 2003 |
A few technical notes:
- It appears that the cell phone number I gave you needs a slight tweak. From the U.S. of A., one drops the initial zero in the cell area code. So to call me, you’d dial 011 260 97 815475 (not 097 815475).
- If you would like to call, Trisarahtops found a cheap calling card to use. Nine cents a minute! Sarah confirms that it works, too, after you jump through a few hoops.
The best part: unlike in the States, it doesn’t cost me minutes if you call my cell. So call away!
19 October 2003 |
Had lunch today with two representatives of a major international non-governmental organization (which, for our purposes today, shall remain nameless). They took turns tearing into Zambia’s problems — a pathetic economy, political corruption, educational collapse, rampant disease, drought, floods, starvation. One told the tale of a Norwegian fellow arrested a few weeks ago on trumped-up charges (for arguing with a cabbie who ripped him off), secretly held in jail overnight, and released only after a friend gave a bribe of 20,000 kwacha (all of four American dollars). She was clearly disgusted with the place.
I asked: “Is there any reason at all to be optimistic about this country?”
Her reply: “Well, the sun is shining.”
Some of you may be wondering why I picked Zambia as the site of my fellowship. One reason is that the country’s failure seems so nonsensical. Think of what the country has in its favor: It’s English-speaking, a major plus in the world economic environment. Unlike so many of its neighbors (Angola, Congo, Madagascar), it hasn’t been crippled by civil war. Unlike its fellow former British colonies (Zimbabwe, South Africa), it isn’t shackled with a poisonous racial environment. It didn’t have to fight for its independence 39 years ago, and it hasn’t been at war in the years since. And when it emerged as a nation in 1964, it was (by African standards, at least) pretty well-off — it’s income levels were the second highest on the continent, behind South Africa.
But since then, the place has gone into the tank. Sure, there are reasons: The economy at independence was based entirely on copper exports, and the price of copper took a dive in the 1970s and has never recovered. The government quickly abandoned an early investment in education, stopping the black middle class before it ever started. And HIV/AIDS has been tough and will only get (much) worse over the next decade. But I just can’t gather up much optimism for the place’s future. I mean, if Mugabe ever gets tossed in Zimbabwe, you know that they’ll have a chance to recover. If the new guy in Liberia can settle things down, you can see how that country might make strides forward. If Congo can stop the bleeding and get some stability, it’s got the natural resources to be a regional power. But Zambia just seems like a sad case.
Then again, just a couple posts ago, I was criticizing a backpacker for making judgments about a country just after landing, so maybe I should shut up. There are good people working to fix all these problems, and they just might figure something out yet.
Today was my first big day of interviews, starting at 7:30 a.m. I was meeting two 40-something Zambians to talk about AIDS and set up some further interviews. Yesterday, Felix and Israel had suggested we meet at the Helen Kaunda Bus Station. I told my taxi driver that this morning, and he was confused: Why is this white guy going to Helen Kaunda?
Turns out the Helen Kaunda Bus Station isn’t a building at all, just an indentation in the curb on a dusty road. (Then again, they’re all dusty roads. I’m going to need better adjectives than that to make it through the next six weeks.) Helen Kaunda was the mother of Kenneth Kaunda, the man who won Zambia’s independence and was its president/socialist-humanist autocrat for almost three decades. Her bus station is really just a bus stop, unmarked at that.
In any event, that interview turned out quite different than I’d expected. I thought I’d arranged to meet with someone whose sister had died of AIDS. (Nope, miscommunication with Felix.) Then I gathered (from context in things Felix said) that Israel was HIV positive. But I wasn’t sure, so I had to ask. He isn’t. (Few things are more awkward than feeling a twinge of disappointment when learning someone isn’t HIV positive. We journalists are vultures, aren’t we?)
Anyway, from there went for a briefing with Nameless Non-Governmental Organization, then ended up with some interviews at the Ministry of Education. I’ve been happy so far to see that government officials, at least, aren’t afraid to speak the truth about the country’s AIDS crisis. If I can get a similar level of honesty out of schools and teachers, I’ll be all set.
Anyway, back at Chachacha, the utterly obligatory Bob Marley is blaring from the stereo. I think they remove your hostel from the next edition of Lonely Planet if you don’t play Legend in its entirety at least once a week. Chachacha is safe until next Wednesday, at least.
16 October 2003 |
On a different tack altogether, two non-Zambia questions for the audience:
- F.O.Z. (Friend of Zambiastories.com) Kim has pointed out that the red-links-on-green-background motif of this site gives her a headache. I agree — while I was trying to match the color scheme of the Zambian flag, the red is largely a holdover from the crabwalk.com code I so ruthlessly stole when setting up this site. So, any HTMLers who have a better idea than the current red are encouraged to speak up.
- My iBook’s power supply is rated for both American voltage and European (220V, which is what Zambia has — along with those freaky S&M U.K. three-prong plugs). But when I charge my laptop, it gets freaky hot. As in, no longer tolerable on my lap and hotter than what I’m used to from standard charging and use in the States. (Most of the heat comes from the hard drive, not the battery.) Is this problematic? Should I be using a voltage converter even if it’s technically unnecessary? Will my laptop self-destruct in 30 seconds? All advice welcome.
Just to add to the freakiness, I bought a new battery for this thing a week before I left D.C., and it’s about a millimeter too thick. It fits in the battery slot, but when it’s in, I can’t press the right side of the trackpad button.
(One plus of 220V: the battery recharges from empty in barely 90 minutes. It takes well over two hours in America.)
15 October 2003 |
One housekeeping note: As some of you know, I’m in Zambia as part of a Pew Fellowship in International Journalism. But I’m not the only one!
I set up blogs for six of my fellow Fellows as they roam the globe on their fellowships. You, dear reader, are the beneficiary! Two of them already have posts:
- MJF on Iran (I’m not using her full name so the Iranian Googlebots don’t find her)
- Noel Paul on Russia
Four others will launch soon: Antrim Caskey on Argentina, Suzanne Marmion on Iran and Egypt, Jeremy Kahn on Ivory Coast, and Jessie Deeter on Sierra Leone. (Don’t mind the test posts at those links at the moment.)
14 October 2003 |
The Lusaka airport has the same sort of shabby charm as most Third World airports I’ve been to. It’s the first impression of most foreign tourists to Zambia, so the government has tried to make it an imposing ’60s-style building. But no one would confuse it with Heathrow.
When you approach the immigration desk, you’re confronted with what appears to be the airport’s official welcoming art, a painting by Stepphen Kaputa, “Zambia’s foremost native artist,” entitled “We Welcome You to Our Safari Lodges in Zambia.” It depicts a scene straight out of a Cecil Rhodes fever dream: a half-dozen fat, middle-aged white tourists being served drinks and toured around by happy natives.
The other big sign at immigration is one directed at what appears to be a group of Habitat for Humanity folks who are building some local homes: “Lusaka welcomes the volunteers.” Together, the signs sum up what has, unfortunately, been Zambia’s relationship with the non-African world for the last few decades — a spot for occasional tourism and all-too-regular charity.
It’s about a 15-minute drive into the city center from the airport. Along the way, my taxi must have passed 10 foreign charity operations. A CDC/NIH facility treating TB. An anti-poverty program run by the Japanese government. A Programme Against Malnutrition center. Later in the day, I’d talk to an American woman doing work for PAM, and she said Zambia is almost unique among even African nations: “It’s just about the only place that’s been going downhill for 30 years. No up and down — just down.”
I don’t know enough to say how unique Zambia’s situation truly is, but I can tell you that on the UN’s Human Development Index — a measure of how easy it is for someone in a country to live a long, educated, and at least moderately prosperous life — Zambia’s been a global lagger. It was the only country in the world with a lower HDI in 1995 than it had in 1975. And while there’s been a little progress since then, AIDS is sure to knock the country back down again.
I had been planning on staying at the Holiday Inn Lusaka, a bland, soulless, but assuredly comfortable place. But on the flight from London, I came to the conclusion that I’d rather save a little cash. (Since the only people who stay at the Holiday Inn are traveling businessmen with expense accounts, they don’t have any problem charging $150 a night. For one night, that’s one thing — for a six-week stay, it’s clearly untenable.)
So I detoured to Chachacha Backpackers on Mulombwa Close. As a rule, I don’t much like backpacker places, and as the Lonely Planet-blessed place to stay in town (“Without doubt, this well-established place is the best in Lusaka for budget travellers”), Chachacha is overrun with the habitually unbathed. Much of the place smells like a toilet, and what doesn’t is coated with a layer of dirt. But, hey, it’s hard to beat $6 a night, right?
It was only six bucks because they didn’t have any single rooms, just dorm beds. (“You never know — the other beds might be filled with Swedish 18-year-olds,” advised the place’s owner, Aussie ex-pat Wade.) It was now about 8 a.m. Sunday, and I hadn’t slept since Thursday night. So I took my chances with the dorm room.
Unfortunately, standing in my way was Benson, a 25-year-old University of Zambia student who somehow learned in the five minutes between my check-in and the prospective start of my REM sleep that I was a journalist. Benson pays for his tuition by showing Chachacha tourists around Lusaka — he and a friend have a flier posted on the common room’s wall saying “We are the friendly local guys, and we would like to show you the city.”
But Benson’s true love is research. He’s trained to be a librarian, but he said librarians don’t make any money. He asked about the stories I planned to write, and he quickly proposed showing me around, pointing me toward interviews, looking up statistics for me, and so on. Sounds good, I thought. Let’s talk tomorrow.
“Oh, come on, it’s a free day! Let’s go looking now!”
“Seriously — it’s a beautiful day. [It was.] Let’s go!”
It took about 25 minutes of convincing to get him to acknowledge I wasn’t going to do anything more than saw logs today. Finally I made it to bed.
Woke up about eight hours later and wandered around. Had a few beers at the bar (the local brew is called a Mosi, named for Mosi-oa-Tunya, the local name for Victoria Falls). Got poked fun at for reading PDF files with names like “Educator Mortality In-Service in KwaZulu Natal: A Consolidated Study of HIV/AIDS Impact and Trends” when I could be acting like all the other backpackers, which would mean either:
- Getting sloppy drunk and telling the same untrue tales of your global “adventures” you’ve been spinning for the last nine weeks — coincidentally, the same span of time since you last washed your shirt.
- Making profound proclamations about the Zambian people (“They just don’t have that go-get-‘em attitude”) after six hours in country and a quick skim of the Lonely Planet’s “Facts for the Visitor” section.
- Scamming on the Scandinavian girls, who I’m sure have nothing better to do than hook up with fat 40-something Germans.
I went back to sleep, but that only lasted a few hours (surprise) before awaking at 2 a.m. Luckily, the Congolese salesman at the Radio Shack back in D.C. advised me to buy a shortwave radio for this trip, so I listened to a couple hours of BBC World Service on headphones before sunrise.
I’m not sure if it’s just this time of year, but the sun’s on an early cycle here. It seems to rise at about 5:30 a.m. and set around 6:00 p.m. It’s actually fitting in quite well with my jet lag.
Yesterday (Monday) morning, Benson was ready to go. We took a five-hour walking tour of the city, which left me with (a) a sunburn, (b) my official Zambian press pass (my passport photo gluesticked to a piece of yellow cardboard — it looks like a press pass for an elementary school), and (c) a cell phone. I don’t believe it’s working yet, but my phone number is (+260) 097 815475.
Back in the states, I’d read a lot about how crowded and charmless Lusaka was. As the economy’s tanked in the 1990s, rural Zambians have clustered in the capital (following the ancient Third World paradigm that wherever the government is, that’s where the money is), and the population’s zoomed upward. But the streets were almost empty across most of town. We wandered past some of the places where I’ll be reporting later (University Teaching Hospital, the UN complex, the American embassy). Zambians were reported to be a friendly people, and I’ve seen nothing to contradict that.
At day’s end, I realized I hadn’t had anything to eat since arriving in Zambia. (Those of you who know me realize that me not eating for 36 hours is something of a feat.) Part of me wanted to start off my trip with traditional Zambian cuisine (which primarily revolves around something called nshima, a cornmeal-based dough). But I figure I’ve got plenty of time for that, and when I venture outside Lusaka to rural areas, nshima will probably be all I can get. So I didn’t feel at all guilty about catching a cab to Danny’s over on Haile Selassie Road, the city’s finest Indian restaurant. Mmmmm…chicken tikka massala.
14 October 2003 |
I know that the next six weeks of posts will be filled with intricate details of Zambian culture, extensive epidemiological studies of sub-Saharan HIV strains, and Serious Journalism — so I figure I’m allowed a moment of boyish excitement before I hit the hard stuff:
I have been in Kate Beckinsale’s bedroom.
To explain: My flight plan first took me from Washington, D.C., to London, where I had a 12-hour layover. I’d planned to bum around the city aimlessly, with my only planned event being grabbing lunch with Tod, my newspaper’s London bureau chief. But a happy change of circumstances meant I ended up wandering around town all day long with Tod, his awesome nine-year-old daughter Fiona, and two of Tod’s journalist friends. Along with swapping a bushel of old foreign correspondent stories, we even tracked down David Blaine, Mr. Starving Suspended Magician. A good time was had by all (or at least me).
But the single most exciting moment came early on, when Tod offhandedly mentioned that the house (which he bought a couple months ago) was until recently occupied by Ms. Beckinsale, a starlet who had been a minor obsession of mine since The Last Days of Disco. (Oxford-educated, cute as hell — how can you go wrong?) I could have phrased my day’s greatest excitement in a variety of ways (“I’ve used Kate Beckinsale’s bathroom,” “I’ve eaten a croissant in Kate Beckinsale’s kitchen,” etc.), but the bedroom mention seemed most inappropriate.
After my excitement subsided, I hopped on another plane and, 10 hours later, landed in Lusaka at about 6:15 a.m. this morning. First impressions of Zambia later.
12 October 2003 |