Archive for March, 2009

Donkeys in Pajamas, Giraffes Necking and Impala Pie
March 30, 2009


LIVINGSTONE, ZAMBIA — Go to the Zambezi Sun, the managing editor of the paper where I am posted, urged. It is right on the falls.

I didn’t want to burden him with either expectations or with a grudge (I have been told I hold them, for example, against the matronly sociopathic former editor who, with an air of comforting affection, stuck me on night cops for six months of my one life), so I left the decision to the trip-planning half of our little family and hoped for the best.

For the first time in recent years, it turned out, a management-level editor made a good call.

The Zambezi Sun is right on the falls — the ones that are one of the seven natural wonders of the world. It is a three-star hotel  that in every particular except food is a five star hotel. But then,  it shares grounds with the Royal Livingstone, a five-star hotel, that in turn boasts as its best justification for the extra two stars (aside from a claim that each guest gets a personal butler dressed up in colonial costume — no thanks, and the claim they will throw flower petals on the bed for special sexual occassions — how embarrassing a call to the desk is that?) the best dinner under the stars I have had.

Both hotels are on the grounds of the Mosi Oa Tunya National Park, and that means that the animals run both. Which is just fine.

For one thing that meant we were greeted upon our arrival by this:


Then came the warnings, which endearingly began to make us feel as we might visiting the beautiful home of a delightfully eccentric wealthy couple with terribly spoiled children.

We can’t serve coffee at the scenic patio by the river — the monkeys steal the sugar and make a mess of everything.

Would you like to sit on the balcony or inside — (this for lunch) — oh, never mind, outside’s no good, there’s a baboon out there (a woman, cowering in the doorway, for some reason told me the baboon was “the same size as you” perhaps annoyed, justifiably, that I was slow on the uptake of why sharing space with a baboon is a bad thing).

Be careful around the ponds at night — the crocodiles.

And, most thrillingly of all, don’t stand within a couple of meters of the zebras — they will kick you.

Zebras. Even the thought of having a chance to see one unstriped by zoo bars, free to kick whoever didn’t respect its space, was the best hype of all.

And it happened, in droves.



Which in the course of following them (from a respectful distance) led to an encounter with the giraffe family:


It is hard to describe what it was like when the baby was born, a passing security guard told us mistily, they stayed close. If the mother had to go somewhere the father watched the little one. We have much to learn from them, he said.


It is the Garden of Eden.

Until dinner. That is where, with a smirk that belied his air of regret, the family trip-planner pointed, under entrees on the menu, to “Impala Pie.”

Impalas are guilty of no more than being a little shallow. Like most of us animals.


In their case, like most, this manifests in their mating habits. Each group of females has one male (the apparent difference — the males have horns). If you see a lone male, it means another male cut in, so to speak, crashed his party, and kicked him out. And he wanders alone until he finds a “bachelor herd” of other horned impalas. Those lone male impalas and those bachelor herds have gracefully curving horns. Their replacements — the interlopers, tend to have less developed ones; youth helped them gain their ascendancy.

Who do they prey on? No one, a guide told us. Who preys on them? Only humans, he said, embarrassedly. Sadly for them, apparently, they are tasty as all get out.

I do not know this first hand, and I don’t intend to find out. At the news meeting I attended on my return this afternoon I mentioned that having seen them alive, seeing them on the menu made me feel bad. Yes, several of the editors explained amidst the laughter, but the meat is delicious.


To market, to market
March 21, 2009


LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — You can get anything at the Lusaka City Market.

You can get a dress made, photocopies, bible covers or, as the gentelman above did, a live chicken, who will swing docilely from your hand if you hold it by its armpits and tie its feet together. . .

Except, if you’re me, shy in crowded places about taking photos of people who don’t want their photos taken,  and with a not very good Nikon CoolPix camera, a decent photo.

The women at one of the butchery counters that run the length of the place (a couple of city blocks) didn’t want their pictures taken but said to feel free to take a picture of the piles of guts and hooves that are their wares . . .


And this:hooves

And if that makes you sick . . .tired-of-sickness

More next time.

Things are different here
March 17, 2009


LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — Still a little rattled from the day at the end of my first week here when I rented a car from my hotel and got two flat tires within a couple of hours, I double-checked on my way out today to make sure I had my cell phone — in case of an emergency.

Then I realized I wouldn’t know who to call. Then I realized, I wouldn’t need to call anyone. My neighborhood, and perhaps this is why I picked it, has two of these impromptu Tire Kingdoms on facing corners at the first big intersection. Even in less favored surroundings, someone will not be far who can and is available to fix something for you that needs fixing. That is an improvement, sadly, from the world of road clubs and tow trucks I come from. I once waited two hours, in the dark on the side of I95 in West Palm Beach for AAA to come when I had a flat.

It took me a while to figure this out, but if you need a plumber, just look for this:


Giving until it stops hurting
March 11, 2009


LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — A tall teenaged boy darted up to my car window when I stopped for the light at the exit of the shopping center and dropped to his knees yesterday.

Please, he said, rubbing his stomach, I haven’t eaten today.

And he kept saying it until another car pulled up behind me.

I don’t know why I didn’t give him anything and I really don’t want to think about it.

If I do think about it two bad things will follow the bad thing that already happened. One is that I will be reminded, once again, that I’m not as nice a person as Iwant to think I am. The other is that in an effort to avoid that reminder, I will start thinking of the reasons why I didn’t give him anything — the way I feel cornered in the car, the knees, the people selling things on the side of the road who don’t look as strong as he did, and then, conversely, the habit I am developing of saying no at red lights to the myriad of things people try to sell there, mangoes, tomatoes, peanuts, laundry hangers, jumper cables, chess boards, machetes, a used skirt many sizes larger than my size, men’s belts with DG on the buckle, dog leashes, puppies . . .

But that kind of thinking is a slippery slope, as the list of factors that don’t pertain to the plight of this boy and the plight of my conscience pile one on the other and digress even further from the simple request, and my simple refusal. The list leads to rationalization, a really slippery slope that helped contribute to the doubletalk of compassionate meaness that our nation just spent the last 8 years inflicting on itself and the world.

At the same time, I have a history of rationalization that precedes the recent shameful past — from the time my sister told me in one of the less fortunate countries where our family vacationed that giving to beggars was counter revolutionary, to now, when I’m reading Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo, that shows the havoc wreaked by self-congratulatory charity.

The truth is that I could give a few thousand kwacha ($3000 would be about 75 cents) to each person every day who asks me for money in exchange for nothing, without ruining anyone’s life, causing corruption, or derailing plans for an effective social service system, and I probably wouldn’t notice the deficit to my budget. I have given to the three of the previous half dozen who approached me — all as it happened, very small children leading around blind elders (that is really true, and honestly, I only just now figured that out — hint: Oedipus at Colonus — odd) .

And the other truth is I make purchases for more money without consulting a nebulous and shifting philosophy in the process.  In fact, I am likelier to find myself justifying having made a purchase, than justifying not having made one. Which introduces the inescapable element of selfishness, how much easier it is to know how to meet one’s own needs than those of others.

One of those needs is turns out, is feeling one has addressed a problem. That doesn’t happen here, because there is too much going on that is problematic. “We have been good at peace,” a Zambian man who works for an organization promoting contraception and health care access said to me the other day, “but we haven’t been good at prospertiy.”

Instead, the citizens of this country, at least of this city, seem to have gotten good at paucity. Which may be part of the reason I forget sometimes how bad it is. Instead, I have been lifted by almost unfailing good humor and kindness, honesty more often than I am used to finding in more lavish surroundings, and a commitment to aesthetics (as the poorest woman’s patterned cloth wrappings — chitenges — worn as skirt, baby sling, cushion for baskets carried on the head shows) and a spirit of enterprise and cooperation. More often than not for free.

I went out with a friend the first week and as she parked her car a teenaged boy approached her mumbling something. She mumbled something back and moved on. I assumed he had asked her for money and she had refused, and I wished I hadn’t left my bag in the car, hidden under the seat as it was. But when we returned to the car he lingered there still, and finally as she got behind the wheel she let down the window and handed him K1500. She explained, and then it all made sense, of course, which is all I want.

“For watching the car.”

Somewhere else, she added, it would have been for not hurting the car.

I hope next time I think faster or not at all, and give sooner.

It won’t hurt.

Missed by the entire family
March 7, 2009

LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — A walk in a cemetery always tells a story. Here, tombstones, one after another that said “missed by Mum and Dad” caught my eye. I saw more people of my generation and younger memorialized in this cemetery than I am used to.

But average life expectancy here, where the HIV rate hovers around 15 percent, where at least 700 women out of every 100,000 die from childbirth, life expectancy is about 42 years old.

March 7, 2009


LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — So I brought a bunch of Obama Inauguration memorobilia — key chains, flags, a pen, bracelets with me, for goodwill gifts. Coals to Newcastle.


At home in Villa Elizabetha
March 5, 2009


LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — The photo above, of view from the front door of my apartment in the morning is not among those I sent to my mother.

She might not have found this level of security reassuring. I am not persuaded it is necessary, and as you can see the owner of the across the way apartment is not either.

The first night here I left it ajar (yes, I locked the door and all the windows), because it occurred to me that a moquito was likelier to come in and kill me as I stood there wrestling with the heavy padlock than a person if I didn’t. When I got up in the morning I saw one of the caretakers had pushed it shut, and took the hint that I should make use of it.

“No offense, but people say the Americans like those,” the real estate woman had told me, when she was showing me around a flat that had one of these jailhouse doors inside, between the bedroom and the rest of the spacious, well furnished rooms

I don’t. In fact that, with the fear that it inspired that someone could come along and cage me in the bedroom was one of the reasons I didn’t take that flat. The other was the long turning stretch of rocky dirt road that would have slapped my brains around the sides of my skull for about five minutes every time I came and went.

So I jumped on this one — more than that, I conducted a day long sit-in at the real estate office after the woman there told me someone else wanted it, until she gave me a lease to sign. Compared to my hotel room, this seemed like home.




All of which is to say if I had not been extremely eager to move, I might have done better.

The neighborhood to the north of the several residential streets blocks of Villa Eliabetha is light industrial — there is actually a sign up that says “Industrial area” — and to the south are the pedestrian and car-jammed, ugliest-part-of-the-Bronx-looking streets that make up this city’s downtown. The owner of my hotel had reservations about it. Other people have said it’s fine. There aren’t very many other Americans around here, although there are other foreigners.

“All of the Americans live in Kabulonga,” according to the girl who sold me my car, who, come to think of it, had a flair for shameless pronouncements.

Which made me not want to. I didn’t leave my home and my hammock, drag my main squeeze here and leave mother and cats behind to live among Americans. I can do that without going anywhere. Duh.

But then my new friend, a Zambian journalist, drove me through the streets of Kabulonga, an eastern suburb about 10 minutes away in good traffic, and I saw the point. Flourescent lights mounted on the walls that surround every home in every neighborhood here lit the roads there, and people promenaded the footpaths at night. It looked like the cohesive, social streets of small town America suburbia of an earlier time.

“The American Embassy won’t let its people live anywhere else,” another real estate woman told me. She was trying to sell me on a Kabulonga flat with a cloudy green swimming pool. It was being rented out by a whining English woman who wouldn’t make it available soon enough. It had more space than I needed and was a longer, more hair-raising ride to work and shopping. And I had this place on the line, which I already had decided was good enough for me.

And I was tired of moving my eight suitcases from one place to another.

So I am left not knowing if I would have been willing, with a little more temptation, to be one more American in Kabulonga. My father, whose influence set the direction that led me to this year in Africa, would have preferred this neighborhood. After he left our apartment on the upper East Side of Manhattan, he was very happy in a similar, bustling, multi-ethnic neighborhood in Jackson Heights, Queens.

Like there, I can walk out and be in the thick of things.


Then I can come back, lock myself in, and I am home, for now.




It even has a little guest room. It is small, so don’t all come at once.


The passenger goes in the ditch
March 3, 2009


LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — This is how I keep from pulling into oncoming traffic now when I’m driving and how I remember to look the right way when I’m crossing the streets here:

“The passenger goes in the ditch, the passenger goes in the ditch,” I repeat this to myself until it turns my head in the correct direction for a place where everyone drives on the wrong side of the road. Of course they have their steering wheels on the wrong sides of their cars as well, which is why this mnemonic works. It’s the same where I come from — the passenger goes in the ditch.

But it runs through my mind now even when I’m not trying to orient myself at intersections, because it has a funny ring to it.

The young woman who sold me the car, a four-wheel-drive tank-like diesel driven Mitsubishi Pajero, taught it to me, and said it in a merry way that stuck in my head right away.

“I just remember, ‘the passenger goes in the ditch,'” she said, with a smile that seemed complicitous — as if this is established to be a good thing, and, in any case a general fact of life.

She was a very young woman, working with an aid organization here, and was selling me the car because she is going back to the States. She had been helpful and honest, even automatically knocking an inflationary $500 of the price that she had explained she put on because everyone negotiates here. “But you shouldn’t be penalized for not knowing that,” she said kindly.

Still there was something about her, her presence here, my presence here for that matter, but less so, as I am on my own and not handing money out, that bothered me. I have seen too much bad already in the two weeks I’ve been here — horribly ill and damaged people begging on street corners, children in rags, a daily count of cholera deaths — and not enough good to tell the story of what all the do-gooders, like her, are doing here.

Perhaps it is because I am now reading Dead Aid, a book by Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo criticizing the effects of more than half a century of foreign aid, and highlighting the similarity of such aid to the colonialism people here fought hard to free themselves from.

Alternatives she suggests include microfinancing that would allow recipients to play a part in their betterment.

Because what happens when all the aid is driven by those not living with its outcomes? The phrase runs through my head yet again: “the passenger goes in the ditch.”

99 years
March 2, 2009

LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — It is nearly 13 years since I went on my first date with the person who has since become my main squeeze. I was not young even then (at least at 39, I didn’t think so) and with a full generation on me, he was even less so.

So I was surprised when he said, “I have a mother; as you can imagine she is quite ancient.”

I couldn’t imagine, and didn’t try, as I assumed I wouldn’t get a chance to get to know her very well.

But I did get to know her, enough to be impressed, as much as she annoyed, exasperated and, at times, oppressed me in the years that followed. And while she already steadied herself with a cane — a special plexiglass one with blue flowers twined inside that required  mulitple attempts to cut down to her diminutive size, she really wasn’t quite ancient then.

Instead, for all the anachronistic prejudices that clung to her like her Scarlett O’Hara accent, she was quite relevant. Although she didn’t vote by the time I met her, her preferences invariably did, and had, forecast the winner of each presidential election. If she had been feeling better and hadn’t moved to an assisted living facility near her other son up north, she could have spared me a lot of anxiety during this last election.

She went for good looks and optimism, both traits she had possessed in abundance.

She died today — or yesterday (with the time difference it is hard to  tell) and I imagine she would be as surprised as I am.

We thought she was immortal.

As it is, she absorbed and adapted to an epic amount for one not very adventurous lifetime.

She was born in the north but became permanently southern when her mother died and she was sent to live with relatives in Alabama. She was an accepting person by nature, and perhaps that led her to accept the segregated world around her as the natural order of things.

But in her 99 years, during which her enjoyment of life — of bridge, of a good laugh, of the carefully selected antiques that surrounded her — probably helped her outlive both of her sisters, she found herself with a diverse set of descendants — a grandson as well as nieces and nephews with heritage from races other than her own, and adjusted — and adulated her half-Asian grandson.

I probably deceive myself when I say she came to accept me more than I accepted her, but that is testimony to her generally good-natured manners. My own mother — more eccentric, more intellectually curious, more liberal,  was in awe of her social expertise, and liked her very much.

I am glad her long life is over, because it had become unenjoyable at the end, but I am glad I knew her. She set a good example, on the whole.

When the right thing isn’t the good thing
March 2, 2009

the-postLUSAKA, ZAMBIA — Here is the Post Lusaka-style, where apparently, Page Six meets National Geographic, with a little National Enquirer thrown in. It is the only major independent newspaper in town. The other two are government owned.

Of those, the Daily Mail claims to deliver the news “without fear or favour,” but that’s a tall order when the publisher runs the entire country, and the Daily Mail tends to run stories that rely only on government officials for information.

The Times makes no such lofty claim, and accordingly, often reads like campaign literature for the ruling party.

One would like to support the Post, then, which recently seems to have brought down a cabinet minister who seems to have benefited from a shady deal with Zamtel, the nation’s telephone company. It is hard to tell exactly what she did though. This paper, which often reads like campaign literature for the losing party, is all inside baseball. And its owners is embroiled in a scandal of their own. Between launching attacks on its enemies and defending itself, it is, sadly, more often than not, the most unreadable of the newspapers.