March 4, 2008

Post 57 Postscript

When I left Lusaka about two weeks ago, it was a bright, sunny morning. About 20 degrees Celsius. As we zoomed out to the airport, late as usual, the 10-car presidential motorcade forced us to pull off the road and wait, Mwanawasa having returned from another state visit somewhere. Police had lined the highway right from the middle of town to make sure he could get back to State House without the slightest obstruction.

Even if it meant us missing our flight.

At first I was concerned it was a speed trap - in which we'd inevitably be fined for going 150 km/h - but of course it wasn't. The only road police I ever saw in Zambia were the automatons that worked the roadblocks, either giving you a perfunctory wave-through or bribe-inducing hassle for some perceived infraction.

Finally arriving at the independence-era entrance, the national dance troupe - who's always on hand to welcome Father Levy back from a trip abroad - was trudging back to the highway to catch a mini-bus for the long ride back into town. You'd think they'd at least have their own designated transport, being a pretty important part of 'official' Zambian things like plane landings, ribbon-cuttings and NGO conferences. Even the universally hated ZESCO (power company) employees get their own bus.

We got through security alright, mercifully didn't have to pay the arcane Departure Tax and the porters were at their servile best. The only thing preventing me from leaving Zambia was that my flight, even though re-confirmed like they annoyingly make you do, was missing some sort of reference number. No problem, I was told, I just had to go round to the Kenya Airways office in the airport to get everything sorted out.

Now, I wouldn't call myself an 'Old Africa Hand' just yet, but I'd been around Zambia long enough to know that there was no way it would be as simple as that.

Sure enough, I get to the office and it's empty. No, 'will return' sign or posted hours, just arbitrarily deserted. I talk to a security guard, who radios another security guard. Eventually an enormous man in a reflective vest - who in no way looks like he's employed by the airline - ambles over and ushers me inside the empty office. I explain the situation while he patters away on the keypad of his cellphone, eventually making the logical transition to pecking at his keyboard. He has a go at some extensions on the landline. Nothing. Someone who's supposed to be somewhere is gone. They always are.

"Is there some sort of problem?" I inquire, agitated that my flight is leaving in less than an hour and some random guy is just fiddling around with things just to appease me. Before he can answer, an Indian family bursts into the office, a father with two small children. At first I feared they might be rival customers, but even worse, they somehow know Big Guy. Greetings, updates and well-wishes add to my growing frustration, though the presumptive employee is still plying his keypad throughout the interruption. About 10 minutes later, they leave.

"The problem is that your reference number is on our other system at our downtown office, and the girl who knows how to access it isn't here right now," I'm informed with surprising clarity.

Well, where the hell is she? Can't you just CALL the other office and get my number? Or, have all the staff there mysteriously disappeared too? Why do different offices even have different 'systems'? Doesn't this enigmatic employee have a cellphone we can track her down with? Doesn't everyone in this godforsaken country have a cellphone?!

But before I can blurt out my trite Westerner rant, the employee in question - a confident-looking young woman actually wearing a Kenya Airways uniform - comes in, exchanges in local language with Big Guy and smiles at me. With the magic press of one button on the keyboard, the dot matrix printer fires up and screams out my now-precious information.

"I'm so sorry sir," she says, snickering at what I hope to be the incompetence of her colleague, "I hope this isn't your last memory of Zambia!"

"Oh, it won't be," I respond. "I've still got immigration to go through."

February 15, 2008

Last Week: Leaving Lusaka

The past few days have felt like the anxious but exciting time leading up to a summer vacation or the end of exams. Change is coming. Gentle breezes and mid-twenties sunshine have put a finishing gloss on Lusaka that I didn't quite expect. Perhaps I was too quick to condemn the city as an over-grown post-colonial metropole. I dare say I'm going to miss it.

With the well-timed break in the rainy season, I've been doing as much as I can outside. Not just because I know a wintry hell awaits; strolling around under blue puffy-cloud skies with other smiling people (the assholes seem to be confined to SUVs) is one of the simple pleasures I bask in. And the taxis don't seem to honk nearly as much anymore. Once-heinous exhaust fumes are worryingly tolerable. More people say hello. Some ask if they can be my friend or how my family is doing. Others blurt a one-syllable “Howareyou?!” or challenge me to a foot race if I’m jogging by.


The initial ride from the airport into town, from what I remember, was a blur of novelty. Riff-raff were trying to hitch a ride into town; wiry-looking men strained as they hauled charcoal on the backs of bicycles. Aid project signs littered the roundabouts, proudly announcing which foreign government had financed that part of the road (thanks, Japan!). At midday, everything was bright and brown and crispy from the dry season. It took my eyes a while to adjust after spending three days in artificially lit planes and airports.

Arriving in Kabulonga, my eventual ‘hood, I was expected to get out of the car to exchange money. This seemed risky. Pre-departure conditioning and embassy country briefs had trained me not to trust anything. Scruffy-looking black men were particularly distressing. Half-expecting to be mugged in broad daylight – I know this sounds ridiculous – in the 50 feet between me and the exchange bureau, I nervously fast-walked across the parking lot.

With my newfound wad of Kwachas I bought a fresh loaf of bread and some fruit on the way to the lodge for the first night. Arriving there in the afternoon, I had no idea what to do with myself. I wanted to use the internet and phone to inform everyone I had arrived safely, but could do neither for it required a terrifying ride in the local-ridden mini-bus.

Not knowing what else to do, I ate the soft bread and fruit with my hands and passed out, thoroughly jetlagged. Oddly enough, I would only wake up once in the next 16 hours – to see my first Lusaka sunrise through the bedroom window.


Sitting out on my porch the other day, it hit me how comfortable life has become here. That afternoon, my flatmate and I had walked down to the butcher (who knows us not by name, but by steak thicknesses) to get a couple of custom-cut t-bones. We returned rancid old beer bottles, bought a baguette at the specialty bakery and hired Norman, the Nyanja-teaching cabbie, to drive us home. No need to haggle for the fare: we both know what the rate is back to my place.

So there we were, Patrick and I, havin' a few on the patio under the setting sun. Classic rock on the radio and steaks on the grill. It could have been mid-May cookout in Baltimore at my dad's. But it was Lusaka, Zambia - Africa - where life, at least for me, was better than I ever imagined it could be.

February 13, 2008

Last Week: Homage to the Mini-Bus

Sitting in the stinking, hot mini-bus waiting for it to fill, it becomes clear that there is some sort of mechanical problem. It won't start. Customers continue to file in while Driver and Conductor look nervously at each other not knowing what to do.

Make it to destination with maximum passengers for minimum cost. Don't let Rival Bus poach your customers, even if that means insanely irresponsible street racing.

After one savvy customer catches on and switches to Rival Bus, Conductor shuts the sliding door and stands guard to prevent a complete mutiny. Meanwhile, Driver is foraging in the ditch for thrown-away cardboard and plastic bags. He disappears beneath the undercarriage to apply the refuse to a mystery bus part. Rival Bus leaves the stop.

Somehow the rubbish has fixed the bus. With a running push start from the conductor, the Toyota Hiace shakes to a start and we're down the road to catch up to Rival Bus. A few minutes later we spot it, erroneously trolling up a side road to mine for customers. Speed bumps and elementary school be damned, Driver guns it past Rival. At scheduled stops, Conductor shouts "Fast! Fast!" to drop customers without completely stopping. The advantage must be maintained.

Our stop approaches with Rival hot on our tail, lights flashing and threatening to pass. Another bus is oncoming with frightening imminence. As soon as we slow, Rival swings out and floors it. Disembarking, horns blare as the two buses careen toward each other, with Rival just tucking back in to avoid a surely fatal head-on collision. Conductor, watching intently, chortles. Rival has won this round. "Ze komo kwam bili! (thank you very much!)" I shout back as the bus roars back into battle, strangely sad that it will be my last ride.

February 11, 2008

Last Week: What the Bloggers Say

*A diligent effort to make one post a day before I head home*

Chris, as per usual, has used his words to great effect in describing in the emotions that go along with the feeling of impending return from his JHR experience. I'll offer my own ruminations in due course, but for now, check out his. Got me thinking.

February 8, 2008

Zambia: Music From the Official CIDA Intern Soundtrack

With an MP3 player, decent bandwidth, satellite radio and city full of people that are perpetually (sometimes annoyingly) listening to music, there's been a certain soundtrack to the intern experience. Below are the ones I know for sure; most Zambian songs blend together into one Nyanja/Bemba pop blob and I can’t be bothered to find out the track names of office gospel anthems.

1. M.I.A. - "Paper Planes"
Given my distaste for Zambian immigration, the "If you catch me at the border I got visas in my name" line and multiple gunshot sounds fuelled a dark fantasy of murderous omnipotence at customs.

2. Akon - "Don't Matter"
Sung along to poorly in at least three different countries. Is this song as stupidly popular in Canada? Belt it out and people will join in, guaranteed.

3. Sean Kingston - "Beautiful Girls"

This song had me feeling suicidal at times. Catchy, though.

4. Kanye West - "Stronger"
The song that made me so desperate to download music that I found the Russian $.15/track dealy (

5. J Dilla (ft. Pharoahe Monch) - "Love"

Asthmatic solidarity and admiration for Monch's singy-rap over one of Dilla's best beats. Props to SC for the heads-up.

6. Lucky Dube - "Slave"
First real African (Akon doesn't count) on the list. A sentimental choice as the poorly-named Lucky was murdered in October just as I was getting into his music. Pour one out for a Lusaka taxi legend.

7. Saul Williams - "Tr(n)igger"
Politically incorrect for Caucasians to like, but a stellar hype track for running or general stress relief.

8. Foo Fighters - "Next Year (live)"
Besides the lyrics applying to my temporal situation, I liked the accordion they threw in on the Skin & Bones live version.

9. Danny - "Kaya"
The song most likely to drift over the wall from Kalingalinga (the upscale slum close to my place) when I'm trying to sleep. Crazy Zambians all hopped up on shake shake.

10. Lupe Fiasco - "Paris, Tokyo"
Globalization, a mention of Africa and the challenges of maintaining long-distance relationships. Relevant much?

11. Jay-Z - "Party Life"
"When you're used to fillet mignon it's hard to go back to Hamburger Helper." Indeed. But what about the other way around?

12. Timbaland (ft. Justin Timberlake) – “Apologize”

After initially despising this song, I found myself singing it in the bathroom after hearing it about five times during a recent night out. Embarrassing perhaps, but worthy of inclusion.

13. Amy Winehouse – “He Can Only Hold Her”
There’s something about this whole album that’s just meal-makin’ music. We tried it at the Scottage in the summer before I left and it caught on.

14. 9th Wonder – “Sun is in the Sky (Instrumental)”

With three months of straight-up sunshine in Lusaka, this soulful instrumental from a favourite hip-hop producer became an early anthem.

15. Pharoahe Monch – “Desire”

The title track from my favourite rap album of 2007. “Who am I? The poetical pastor/Slave to a label but I own my masters”

16. Seu Jorge - "Team Zissou"
Not one of his more famous David Bowie covers, but full of Latiny goodness. Hard to believe this guy is Knockout Ned from City of God. Going to South America next.

17. Dangerdoom (ft. Talib Kweli) – “Old School”
“I draw on anything for inspiration/A fond memory, a piece of paper, walls in a train station/It’s just that I’m Old School like that/Roll that rap over soul loops like that”

18. Tom Petty - "You Don't Know How it Feels"
An odd list-ender, perhaps, but it's what reminds me most of the 'Classic Rock' station on satellite radio, the usual setting for barbecues and house parties. This classic sing-a-long TP track seemed to be in rotation every time, bring a spirit of togetherness to housemates and bewilderment to neighbours.

February 4, 2008

'Lusaka's Ditch Flower'

Go for a walk anywhere in Lusaka - even in my yuppie suburb - and you'll invariably come across an empty carton of cheap 'beer' rotting in the ditch.

Owing to the fact that my Zambian friends and colleagues would never touch the stuff and it's only sold in compound areas, I hadn't tried the fabled 'Shake Shake' opaque beer until last night. And soon, provided I can get it back safely, so will you.

Often sold out of a vat in the back of truck, I tried the far less dubious factory-made variety (see picture). For about $2.50, I got four litres in a bag that smelled like stale beer and socks. Not surprising considering the cartons aren't completely sealed; a little hole needs to be left in the top to facilitate escaping gases as a result of the ongoing fermentation process inside. But evidently, this also leads to a little bit of the liquid squirting out from time to time.

And what a liquid it is. Rancidly sour, yet sweet with floating maize meal bits and notes of "sour green apple and barnyard." Stomaching a small glass felt like a Fear Factor triumph.

Read more reviews of 'Chibuku' here. They're appalling. A mouthful is compulsory for attendance at the Importation Party. It is International Beer, after all.

February 1, 2008

Yay or Nay: Victoria Falls

It's come to my attention that I have roughly two weeks left in Zambia, and have yet to see it's biggest (some say singular) tourist attraction: Victoria Falls.

It's been more coincidental avoidance than deliberate ignorance, but it'll take deliberate effort to make it there. I'm not sure if it's worth it. I made the comparison of 'If you were in Ottawa for 6 months and leaving Canada imminently, would you go to Niagara Falls?'

Thus, I put the question to you: should I take time out of my not-so busy schedule to see what the locals call 'The Smoke that Thunders'?

- With the rainy season at its peak, the Zambezi is going to be in full flow going over the edge
- As co-workers that have seen both Niagara and Victoria Falls attest, Vic is bigger, better and far less gawdy
- After seeing the better part of the entire country, a trip to Southern Province would be a good Zambian capstone (note: I hate the word 'capstone')
- Mosi, the national beer that I've drank in copious quantities, is named after the waterfall
- The vendors might be selling 'The Smoke that Thunders' bongs
- My Scottish ancestry and interest in African history dictates that I should learn more about Livingstone (the explorer who 'discovered' the falls)
- If there are any retarded curios I haven't bought yet - like that life-sized buffalo coffee table - they'll have it down there
- I can see Zambia's last remaining rhino with it's two-man anti-poaching security detail

- It's six hours (at best) by bus or a ridiculous 18 hours by train
- I promised myself I'd avoid road travel and potential 'Bus Plunge Horrors'
- It's allegedly one of those 'Now what?' natural wonders
- I think other people will be more disappointed than me if I don't go
- Everthing there is overpriced, of course, and I'm running seriously low on funds
- I might find myself in the ultimate annoying tourist situation: not being to take a picture without getting other picture-takers in the shot
- The river might be so raging as to prevent good views (from the mist), flyovers or rafting
- A bridge or road washout could mean not getting back to Lusaka in time to go back to Canada
- I'd like to perplex people by not doing the 'Annoying African Safari-Goer' things

January 24, 2008

Rules for My Return

With February 18 fast approaching, social obligations are starting to add up. Thusly, as a general guide, I'd like to lay some ground rules to avoid oft-asked questions, gross speculation and misconceptions.

1. Don't ask me: "How was Africa?" I wouldn't ask you about North America. Zambia, fine. Lusaka, better. But not the entire continent. Unless you have an entire night for a ground-covering conversation over drinks, which I'm fine with. I'll blab for hours if asked this question.

2. Don't expect a curio: As much as I would love to bring everyone an ebony serving spoon with a warthog carved into the handle, I hate craft markets.

3. If you ask me questions I've obviously answered through the blog, I'll be mildly annoyed: Not to be a jerk, but if you really wanted a general sense of what I was doing here or the places I visited, you could have checked this place out once a month.

4. No, I didn't get (too) sick: Save a month-long bought of diarrhea at the start, I've been as healthy as I would have been in Canada. Knock on wood - no malaria, worm infestations or flies laying eggs in me. Thanks to a much more natural diet and climate conducive to outdoor exercise, I actually feel great.

5. Yes, I got robbed: But it was all in the totally-my-fault-for-being-careless kind of way. One Gillette Fusion razor shaft and a few hundred dollars in Dar-es-Salaam isn't too bad, but I don't want have to recount it over and over again.

6. Don't ask me to speak with clicks: I have the most superficial knowledge of Zambia's predominant languages - Nyanja and Bemba - neither of which have clicks. Those are South African languages like Zulu and Xhosa, of which I'm totally ignorant.

7. I haven't become a bleeding-heart 'save the world' type: I'm not about to organize any benefit concerts, toy drives or go on any Bob Geldof-approved rants about how we need more foreign aid. If anything, I'm more skeptical about the West's attempts to help places like Zambia, including things like CIDA internships, media training and importing our idea of human rights.

January 23, 2008

Soccer Night in Africa II

Over at Out of Africa I've been blogging about the African Cup of Nations, and figured I would offer something of a more candid update in here.

Despite heartbreaking power cuts (see: in the middle of Nigeria - Ivory Coast), the tournament has been a cultural spectacle and a convenient excuse to socialize and drink. The perfect way to ride out a mostly reponsibility-free last month. And the football's been pretty damn good, too.

On Sunday, Ghana belted a last-gasp winner to start the tournament. Monday, the Ivory Coast narrowly edged fellow West African favourites Nigeria through Salomon Kalou's zig-zagging wonder goal. Last night, Egypt stormed out of the gate with a surprise 4-2 victory over Cameroon, including this cracker from the auspiciously-named Zidan.

Later in the evening, it was Zambia's turn against hard-to-cheer-for Sudan. With the power out again and only two hours until game time, it was a race against time to find an adult beverage establishment with a back-up generator. We ended up at Smuggler's Inn, the same seedy joint that I wrote about in September when Zambia shocked South Africa to qualify in the first place. After hearing horn-blowers and seeing national kitsch for the better part of the day, I was ready to brave the near-riot atmosphere, pesky prostitutes and eventual drunk drivers to see the nation's gloriously-named Chipolopolo (Copper Bullet) Boys.

Though Sudan's equally ridiculously-named Nile Crocodiles are previous tournament winners, they looked wholly outmatched by Zambia's enthusiasm, and, dare I say, organization. It was champagne football from the Copper Bullets; three minutes in, a clever one-two passing move opened up space for Chamanga, who drove in a determined shot from the edge of the box. To everyone's delight, domination ensued and Zambia ended up winning 3-0, sending us into a night of erratic, honk-filled driving.

"We want Eto'o! We want Eto'o!" was the chant nearing the end of the match (Eto'o is one of Africa's most famous players and plays for Zambia's next opponent, Cameroon). I can't wait until they get him on Saturday - I'll be watching intently.

January 19, 2008

An Evening in Lusaka

Since the rainy season started a couple months ago, mornings have become a dreary affair; always damp, overcast and breezy. Warm oatmeal and coffee makes up for not having hot water for a scalding morning shower. My Cord hoodie has replaced a tank top as the standard around-the-house attire.

Afternoons are even darker: sometime between 10am-1pm, the grey morass of sky coagulates into hideous black storm clouds. Once the wind picks up and the internet or satellite TV cuts out, the t-banger (thunderstorm) is imminent. Locals scurry about with umbrella in hand, hoping to reach their destination before it starts. Others huddle under awnings and mango trees, hunkering down to wait out the storm.

By 5 o’clock the rain has stopped and people are heading home from work, trying to navigate flooded roadside paths choked with mud and fetid water. On my route to the mini-bus, I strategically criss-cross the street to avoid the worst ponds and walk on the asphalt when vehicles aren’t whizzing by.

Around 6, the clouds part and the first daily glimpse of sunshine radiates the earth, producing that sun-drying-out-wet-earth smell. As I head out for my nightly jog with the sun at my back, there’s often a full-arc rainbow in the east for me to run towards. Leaving the apartment complex, I pass by full-blooming gardens and trees swollen with fruit, the smell of roses mingling with the evaporating rainwater. With the usual regalia of confused stares, I’m out of the walled compound and off on my route.

I plod along past the serious-looking Chinese workers building a private hospital across the street; wave to the guards I recognize; politely decline taxi offers and thank people for moving out of my way. The only annoyances are packs of commuting school kids and marauding clouds of vehicle exhaust. With Saul Williams or N.E.R.D. piped in though your earphones and the exercise endorphins coursing through your body, it’s easy to forget where you are and get lost in an inner monologue.

By the time I race past a long homestretch of flowering vines and come to a stop at the Cypriot embassy, the road is nearly dry from the day’s rain. Ambling to my front veranda as the sun begins to set, I drink water and stretch before sitting down to take in the evening noises. The compound cat meows and prances around, eating the nymphs that begin to stir at dusk. Zambian music filters in from over the horizon as the bars gear up for another weeknight of all-night drinking. Crickets, frogs and some strange bubbling noises complete the strange symphony.

I usually sit out on the front stoop until the timed lights buzz to life and turn on, interrupting my thoughtful solitude as I head inside. It's something I'll really miss about this place.