Bits and pieces

LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — “Sh’t, sh’t, sh’t, sh . . .” I said the other day while trying to make a right hand turn across two lanes of opposing traffic (a right-hand turn here being the equivalent of a left-hand turn at home, only complicated by no traffic light and minibuses driven by Hell’s Angels wannabees).
“I’m terribly sorry,” I added right away to my passengers. Zambians don’t use rough language. In fact the unpublishable words I’ve heard since here came out of my own mouth, almost all in the privacy of my home.
“It is all right,” my front-seat passenger said kindly. “We don’t mind at all.”
“It was rude, I know Zambians don’t curse,” I said.
“We understand that people are all different,” the front seat passenger said. “we don’t expect everyone to be like us. Besides, some Zambians do swear. We call them ‘yos'”
A new Bemba word for me to master the sublteties of its pronunciation and then remember, I thought.
“Yose?” I repeated.
Yoze,” the front seat passenger hesitated while the back seat passenger giggled. “Their people who try to act like Americans — you know: ‘yo motherf’cker, sh’t, what’s happenin'”
Oh. Like Americans.
How embarrassing, once again.
Where grace and kindness are as woven into the cultural code as patterns in a chitenge cloth, one is going to be embarrassed, or at least in awe, now and then.
At the same time, the much-touted acceptance of diversity — and it is the quality you are likliest to hear Zambians express national pride in — has well-defended borders.
For example, there don’t seem to be very many sick people here. People seem to go from being alive to dead without spending much time in that transitory phase, which is recognized only fleetingly, posthumously.
The second president was in South Africa receiving specialized treatment for a heart condition this week when news broke that his 32-year-old son died here in a Lusaka hospital where he had been briefly admitted. This was especially sad, because he is the second of the president’s two sons to die young.
In general lately, the second former president has had a tough time of it. He is facing corruption charges; his wife has aleady been convicted and spent a couple of days in the pokey before being released while appealling.
We know all about this, the wife even having given a cheerful interview during her brief interrment.
We also know how many times both she and the former president cried on their way from the plane from South Africa to the funeral home, thanks to a play-by-play account in one of the newspapers this morning.
But we don’t know what illnesses took the life of either son.
While I will continue to enjoy kindly Zambian tolerance of my American ways and endeavor to deserve it this year, the sick, of whom there are many in this country, would likely enjoy it, and already do deserve it, even more.

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