I had always wanted to be called Bwana. It somehow invokes memories of Livingstone, Burton and other intrepid explorers of the Dark Continent. Now, somewhat less romantically, whenever I stop at traffic lights I am surrounded by street vendors asking “Bwana, you buy my bananas?”or apples, papaya, oranges, replica football shirts even puppies or kittens. For some strange reason, Scrabble sets are a popular item for sale as well. As you can guess, I am now in Africa.
I left Indonesia at the end of March following the completion of Oxfam’s tsunami recovery programme, spent a few days in Singapore and then flew to Sri Lanka to catch up with friends and places from my time spent working there. I arrived with just a few Singapore dollars in my pocket so went straight to an ATM only to find my card had been blocked. No cash and my Indonesian SIM card wouldn’t work in Sri Lanka so what to do? I jumped in a taxi and went to Sutami’s house in central Colombo. She runs a guest house much frequented by NGO workers where I used to stay when visiting the capital. Fortunately she was at home, lent me enough cash to pay the taxi and use her phone to get my card unblocked. Apparently HSBC’s computer suspected a fraudulent use with my card having been used in Singapore in the morning and then tried in Sri Lanka in the afternoon. I can understand banks need to crack down on card fraud but what would I have done had Sutami not been at home? Lesson learned – let your card issuer know your movements.
I was so disappointed to see so many checkpoints on the way from the airport and so many armed troops on the streets of Colombo. The struggle between the government and the Tamil Tigers had obviously intensified in the time I had been away. This in contrast to Indonesia where the horror of the tsunami led to a peace accord between the rebels and government which is still holding. Things were no better on my journey to the south east with the bus stopped and passengers searched some 7 or 8 times on the 10 hour journey. But it was lovely to get back to Akkaraipattu and meet up with friends and colleagues from my time there. I called in at Mahashakti to say hello only to be greeted with “Mr John, while you are here would you help us with our savings and loan system?” It was pleasing to see that a system I had developed with them some 3 years previously was still in use but disappointing to realise I had not given them enough confidence or knowledge to expand it further. But I was happy to spend 2 days with them.
Going back to Aragum Bay where I was at tsunami time was a little upsetting too. Yes, the infrastructure had largely been rebuilt and even the new bridge across the lagoon was progressing well alongside the temporary Bailey bridge built by the Indian Army. But there were no tourists and without them the locals are struggling. During my 3 days there I didn’t see another white face. Of course it doesn’t help when all travel advice says not to visit the north and east of this beautiful country because of the war. But other than the military presence and checkpoints I met nothing other than smiles and friendliness.
On 26th May I flew to Lusaka the capital city of Zambia to start my new job with Zambart (Zambia Aids related TB Project, www.zambart.org. Zambart, set up in 1994 as a joint collaboration between the London School of Tropical Medicine and University of Zambia School of Medicine, as the name suggests carries out research and clinical trials into the dual pandemic of HIV/Aids and TB. The Zambian government states that 19% of the population are affected by HIV/Aids although most believe, and empirical evidence suggests, the true rate of infection is much higher at more like 30%. With their immune systems weakened, Aids sufferers are of course very susceptible to other diseases and as TB is highly contagious, many victims are suffering both. The emergence in South Africa of drug resistant strains of TB, which is spreading northwards, demands that more research is done.
Zambia is a landlocked country lying between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Equator. It’s roughly the size of the UK and France combined and home to 11 million people. Lusaka has a population of 1 million and a further 1.5 million live on the Copperbelt. Thus the rural areas have a low population density and the country retains large tracts of wilderness. UNICEF estimates that some two–thirds of Zambians live on less than $1 per day so perhaps it’s not too surprising that life expectancy averages only 38 years. I guess that also helps explain why almost 50% of the population is under the age of 15. Anthropologists and linguistic experts have identified some 16 different tribes speaking 72 different languages and dialects. Fortunately for me, except in remote rural settlements, English is widely spoken. But these statistics say nothing of the warmth and friendliness that one encounters.
Lying on the high plateau that forms the backbone of the African continent, Zambia has an altitude of between 1000m and 1600m which moderates the intense heat of the tropics. At the moment we are just coming out of “winter” (May to August) with daytime temperatures of around 28/30c. Nights have been surprisingly chilly at somewhere between 9c to 12c but at least that means I sleep well. It hasn’t rained since I have been here and from September to November it will stay dry but get progressively hotter to about 35c and then the rains are expected between December to April. Fortunately Zambia is blessed with the greatest amount of water resources in southern Africa and no shortages are expected before the rains come.
This part of Africa is of course famous for its game and most visitors will spend time on a safari. Zambia doesn’t have the spectacle of the mass migration seen in Kenya and Tanzania which attracts many wildlife fans but this is a blessing in other ways in that it doesn’t suffer from overcrowding in the parks. But all the large predators are here – lion, leopard, cheetah, wild dog and hyena. Elephant and buffalo occur in large herds and antelope are plentiful particularly impala and puku. I haven’t seen too much myself so far other than a long weekend recently spent in the Lower Zambezi National Park. The 2 guys I went with are keen fishermen so we stayed in a lodge on the banks of the Zambezi in the corner of the country where Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique meet. Much of the day was spent on the river fishing for tiger fish and, although not an avid fisherman myself, it was rather relaxing drifting down river with a rod in one hand and a cold beer in the other. Plenty of hippo and crocodile were evident but perhaps the best time was in the evening when the other animals came down to the river to drink. Lying in bed listening to the roar of lions was quite exciting.
For those of us not living on a $1 a day, life in Lusaka is easy and apart from the frequent power outages, not too much to complain about. A good climate, a decent house, plenty of bars and restaurants and supermarkets well stocked with South African products. It’s not cheap however, with prices comparable to the UK and well beyond the reach of the majority of Zambians. After the experience of Shariah Law in Aceh Province of Indonesia, this is a relaxing place. It’s certainly a relief not to be woken at 5am with the first call to prayer.
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