Archive for April, 2009

What goes around again
April 20, 2009

LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — The used clothing lady comes around to the office here about twice a week, pulling an improbable amount of clothing from her shoulder bag — dresses and blouses she insists are maternity (maaateeeerniteeeeeeeee, she says, caressing the word) to our pregnant colleague, sweaters and pants she predicts accurately are a perfect fit for a buxom colleague, and various blouses, sweaters and dresses with supposedly seductive potential, that she calls “slinky.” (Sleeeeeeeeenk-eeee, Sleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeenkeee, is how she puts it. For one long, linen rose-colored, off the shoulder dress, she accompanied this with pantomimed laugh, her head thrown back, one hand holding an invisible cocktail, the other an invisible cigarette.

All the clothes are wrinkled wads when she pulls them out, so depend in part on her dramatization for their appeal.

In this way affordable scraps of American culture show up in the streets and offices here. Back home, businesspeople pay charities to use their names on donation bins where spring-cleaners stuff them, and they are eventually sold by the bale here, where enterprising women like the one who visits our office make a living from them.

In a circuitous way, some do make their way to charity, and so end up on the backs of street children here. One boy, probably no more than nine years old broke my heart my first week here when he drifted by in a Disney World T-shirt, the tumble of stars over the Magic Kingdom all I could discern in the grime.

Today another boy approached the cars ahead of mine in that most awful spot — the light at the intersection on the way out of the shopping center (where those of us who can buy things we don’t need. At least compared to food and a bed. In my case today it was four bottles of a good crisp South African white wine I discovered the supermarket sells sporadically). This boy had approached my car before, producing a crisis of conscience when he dropped to his knees next to my window rubbing his stomach and insisting he hadn’t eaten that day. He was too big, the knee-dropping to calculated, and something else I didn’t put together froze me, and I didn’t give him anything.

I realized a week or so later, when I saw him and half-dozen other grimy boys in a dazed heap on the median strip, some still drinking cheap alcohol and sniffing glue, part of what had put me off.

But today, by the time he got to me, he had given up the knee dropping routine, so his t-shirt, bearing a map of my country was eye-level. Some of the states were blue, most were red; the key underneath: Blue=Democrats, Red=Total Morons.

I gave him the 1,000 kwacha I had never stopped wishing I had given him the time before.

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Easter Safari
April 19, 2009

SOUTH LUANGWA NATIONAL PARK, ZAMBIA — Lions, elephants, hippos, impalas, waterbucks, zebras, baboons and birds are among those who make the rules here.

The Kafue Queen and Capt. Jack Russell
April 6, 2009

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KAFUE, ZAMBIA — Here is Capt. Jack Russell, who stole my heart aboard the Kafue Queen, where we went yesterday in search of water.

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Half an hour out of Lusaka in the Pajero (and we went, as the old tv movie called it, “like normal people,” against all odds, with not a single scream from me, or the hands-thrown-in-front-of-the-face routine, followed by a full-throated bellow, by him — not once), we got away from black plumes of exhaust, tooting horns, traffic lights and phone card vendors (not to mention those selling shirts, pants, laundry hangers, tv antennas, jumper cables, board games, toilet plungers and puppies at interections) it offers no animals besides the captain, but a glimpse of what the continent offered those who came to pillage rather than enjoy.

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And Captain Jack, whose ancestors came, stayed, and did well, showed the value of appreciating what is there.

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Why not? Part Two
April 3, 2009

LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — I have said it before and it holds true six weeks on — I have never met more caring, kind, considerate people in one place in more than half a century of travel than I have here.

There are bad things here, some, like the laws against same-sex intermingling (that can and do land people in PRISON), like the weekly habit the police seem to have of engaging in “an exchange of gunfire,” that adds up to capital punishment without the trial and appeals, like the habit mobs of bystanders seem to have of not waiting for the police, and thus saving their bullets for another day, by beating suspects to death . . . that make me sad to be happy here.

But those haven’t been my experiences. Except for the pain of knowing about them.

My experiences have been the people who stopped by the side of the road until both my self-inflicted flat tires were fixed, who make sure I understand their directions by repeating them again and then writing them down, and who now, where I am stationed, share everything they can think of that is good about their country with me — travel tips, bureacracy navigation tips, complaints about the opposite gender, and food.

Which is why I ate a fried caterpillar the other day.

And why I shared an nshima lunch, eaten with the fingers today. And, on command, even said Amen, after the pre-meal prayer, when I was told to.

The only hard part to coming halfway came later today, when one of my co-workers asked me what church I go to.

I was more ready to navigate than last time, which was when the hotel waitress asked me, but less ready to be baldly honest.

It started the same way: I don’t go to church.

Continued the same way: (intake of breath) Why not?!

(a cultural commentary on my part, I thought would distract from the question): People in America don’t go as much . . .

You don’t go to church?

(More than anything I don’t believe in lying about this kind of thing, but have nothing against moldable truth, which I think religion tends to be all about anyway):
I go to other people’s churches . . .

Which ones have you been to here?

I haven’t been to one here yet . . . Which one do you go to?

The fried caterpillar, you see, was much less of a leap.

The end of all that crap
April 1, 2009

LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — Nearly half way around the world from here a pipe jutting out from posh and pristine town of Delray Beach — home to women who dress exactly alike in floral prints, and men who play golf all day long — has spewed fist-sized chunks of sewage into ocean that is the area’s biggest attraction for the last half century.

Today it stopped, thanks to the efforts of a man with a gift for perseveration and perseverance, his partner who endures and supports that gift, and many others who listened.

Probably the first people who will notice the absence of sewage will be the fishing boat captains, who, when their passengers didn’t catch enough fish headed for the slick of water where schools feasted on the brown cloud that bubbled to the surface.

The next people to notice will likely be the recreational weekend divers who saw it first, when the coral reef they know like the back of their hands, and that is the jewel in the crown of the Palm Beaches, began to be smothered by human-waste-fertlized toxic algae.

The people who didn’t notice for a long time, and who may never notice that the ocean is no longer Delray Beach’s toilet are probably the people who will benefit the most — when they are no longer swimming in their own waste, when the tourist dollars drawn by marine life return and stay.

I probably won’t notice — wouldn’t have if I hadn’t been told — and can still scarcely believe that the right thing happened in my lifetime in that situation, in which many people’s short-sighted interests competed with something bigger, but harder to quantify in immediate gain, perhaps.

But it means even more to me than that, having left my home, cats, mother, and dear little Mini Cooper, as well as access to clean toilets (wherever they flush to), to try to bring change in sub-Saharan Africa through the dissemination of pertinent facts.

The end of all that crap in Palm Beach County proves it can be done.