The passenger goes in the ditch

passenger

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.”

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