Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Beginning at Z...

Zambia. Flying into Zambia in the early morning light, it felt strangely familiar. As the patchwork landscape rose up to meet the plane, it was reminiscent of fall in the prairies or the scrubland of the Australian outback. I felt I’d seen this land before. As we dipped lower, the landscape changed and the corrugated tin roofs of small clusters of homes and the flat tops of acacia trees revealed themselves and Zambia differentiated herself from any other land I’ve experienced. We arrived on the tarmac and disembarked and began the long walk to the airport buildings. It was warm already although still very early. We made our way through customs and out to the front of the arrivals area where we were met by Kristal, James and Dickson. Kristal, my beautiful friend, was such a welcome sight and it was wonderful to stand together for those first few moments realizing that we were in Africa together, a place we’d often talked about. It became very real in that moment. And James! I couldn’t believe he made the five hour drive just to greet us at the airport. Meeting James was an amazing moment for me, for all I’d heard of this man, his strength of character and determination to alleviate the suffering of widows and orphans in his land, he could have been very overwhelming. Yet, he was warm with a gorgeous smile to match his reputation and he was instantly a friend. And Dickson, our driver, we’d heard of Dickson from the team that preceded us and knew that although he was reserved, in no time he would be a friend to each of us.We began our journey to the Copperbelt region. Driving through Lusaka, like most of the team, I was wide eyed and trying to fathom that I was in Africa. It was reality that we were finally where we’d planned and dreamt of being for so long. The jacaranda were in vibrant purple bloom and beautiful. The bougainvillea in their full red and purple glory lined cement walls and provided startling contrast to the red dirt along the roadside. Already, before barely getting through Lusaka, Zambia revealed herself as a country of contrasts. We skirted the city and caught glimpses of modern infrastructures, streetlights and traffic circles as well as aging cement buildings and walls, littered streets and people walking, walking, walking. The sheer number of people walking along the roadsides was one of the first indicators that we were in a foreign land.As we moved out of the city and onto the road leading north, we began to see the land stretch out. The landscape in the dry season is an orange and red canvas dotted with scrub brush and trees wearing a dusty coating of dirt. The only smattering of colors come from the people who are walking along the roadside. Children in tattered clothing, men on bicycles loaded down with charcoal or thatch, women with brightly colored fabric wraps carrying babies on their backs and water containers on their heads. Small wooden stands dot the roadside set out with a few tomatoes or oranges for sale. Charcoal bundles line the roadside, offered up as a means to make a living by whoever lives down the dirt path leading to the proffered goods. Charcoal would become a symbol to me of Zambia. As we travel further north, we are met with the smell of smoke in the air and there are fires burning everywhere. Tiny communities of several thatch huts begin to dot the landscape, cleared of any surrounding bush or trees. The native forest is being stripped bare to make charcoal for sale to buy food. These are not bush people, these are educated men and women eking out an existence after losing their livelihoods and modern survival skills in the midst of the broken modern history of Zambia’s independence.Zambia was handed over to independence in the 1960’s and the remnants of that modern time are evident in tattered detail throughout our journey. As we enter Kabwe and Luyansha, we see simple small mine housing neighbourhoods that look like an early 60’s housing subdivision you would find in Britain or in Canada. There are hedges around the homes and narrow streets lined with trees and yet, in these home, nothing functions - testimony to the broken aftermath of the industrial colonization of Zambia. When Zambia was given independence in the 1960’s, the infrastructure worked for a while but unattended, and with little experience for preservation and maintenance, the decay has taken over. The infrastructure is now decades past its prime and stands as a reminder that for all the modern ingenuity mankind can put forth, time and neglect are waiting to prove its futility.The people of Zambia are quiet and so gracious. They are struggling with the poverty ridden history that has been passed on to them. Many who had skills and employment found themselves without means of survival. After living a modern societal existence, there was no exit strategy for these workers and their families as the copper industry that once thrived and supported their country began to be superseded by the new era of IT and computer chips in other industrialized nations. Many of these urban working families found themselves destitute with no means of supporting themselves and in many cases, these families moved to the bush where they could build a shelter of sorts and eke out an existence making charcoal or selling fruit along the road. On the road to Luyansha, I am reminded that this could be Canada or Britain or any other industrialized country’s fate. It’s a sobering thought.For those who are fortunate enough to remain in the towns, there have been adjustments as well. Flush toilets don’t function properly, nor do sinks. Water comes once a day in most cases and perhaps not from your tap. Power is shared with other towns and villages so more often than not, the power is out and sporadic at best when on. Few can afford electricity for cooking so they use charcoal and grates in the yard to cook their meals. The cost of living is high as we discover en route to Kitwe. Stopping for a meal or drinks costs approximately the same as a meal or drink would cost at home in Canada.We travel farther north and the roads become very rough. Dickson slows the bus and dodges potholes that would render an axle useless in short order. Small boys run out from the roadside with rough hewn tools and fill in potholes and then ask for a toll to pass. Dickson waves them off and James explains that regardless of how often you travel this road, the same boys are working on the same potholes. He tells us to look behind the bus, and we see the boys heading back to their roadside vantage points to wait for the next vehicle in hopes of a payment. They lean on their tools and when they see a vehicle coming, become very industrious looking as they seemingly labor to improve the road. I admire their entrepreneurial skills and James laughingly agrees when I tell him that is a useful skill set for boys so young if only we could harness that energy and ingenuity!We drive past parked fuel trucks lining the road and then farther on drive through fires burning so close to the roadside on either side that the bus heats up so quickly it wakes those on the team who have been sleeping off their jet lag. The fuel trucks can’t pass safely through these roads when the land is burning and so they are delayed en route to delivering the fuel to the northern towns ahead.All these factors assault me before even stepping off the bus at Kachele farm where we will be staying while working in Mulenga. In itself it is a reminder of better days in Zambia’s history. It is a beautiful property bought by Hands At Work to house teams. It was owned by a family who farmed it and there stand outbuildings and fruit trees and an empty swimming pool to attest to the previous beauty of life in Zambia. The farmhouse is in good repair thanks to Oswald and Matthew who live on site and are caretakers of the property. We are privileged to stay here. The well is deep and the water is good. We can drink from a tap and have a shower at the house. We are enjoying these things as the luxuries that they are. Only one day did we go without electricity and we sleep well at night behind a locked door and glass windows. It was a long first day, my mind is tired from the excitement and observations and anticipation of what the coming days will bring and as I crawl into bed under the mosquito net, I lay listening to the sounds of night in Zambia, it is loud with animals and birds and wind and vegetation. Night comes early and by 7 pm it is absolutely dark with a gorgeous display of stars that only the southern hemisphere can lay out before us. The noise provides the backdrop to a very good night of sleep, my first night in Zambia.

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