Friday, 14 March 2014

Shtory Zambia

After spending a fantastic month at home for Christmas Operation Zambia was upon me.  A 3 day pre-departure training course in England was my warm up.  I’d already done a goddam three week online course and I was to have completed another 10 hour online preparation course for this one that I was frantically trying to wrap up as the train pulled into Cambridge Station.  Time had gotten the better of me in the days leading up to my departure.  My arrival at the venue was a bit fraught being 5 minutes late and thinking I was underprepared for an intensive 3 days.

Turned out the whole set up was a nicely relaxed affair and I spend three wonderful days getting a crash course in life as a development worker and the peculiarities and challenges that Africa may present me with.  There were about 20 of us there and it was an incredibly enjoyable and rewarding experience spending time with others who were in the same boat as myself, facing a step into the veritable unknown.  The average age is 41, which was kinda surprising cos it’s usually something you associate doing when you’re young but they prefer using people who’ve got good work and life experiences behind them as they’re more likely to have a greater impact.  The whole weekend was great craic, really informative and focused the minds towards what lay ahead.  Most people were heading off to various parts of Africa and a few to Asia over the next 3 months.  I, on the other hand, was due to fly out the very day the course finished.  This seemed to be far more alarming to others than it was to me!  In a way the more time to think over things the more fretting people seem to do.

I met my fellow Zambia departee, Greg, who I was to travel out with, and we got on straight away.  It’d be difficult not to get on with this guy – a sound fella from Dublin in his 60’s.  He’d recently retired after working as an economist for years and had done quite a lot of work for the Department of Foreign Affairs.  We ended up rooming together in Lusaka for our first 10 days or so.
Myself and Greg Boy
We arrived in Lusaka via Nairobi and Harare and checked into the Lusaka Hotel, our temporary home for our stay in Lusaka.

I was pretty excited in the run-up, never having been to Africa before.  And really, I’d never planned on visiting here either in the foreseeable future, always something I thought I might do later in life.  But when I’d made the decision to do developing work and Zambia came up, I’d slowly begun to get pretty excited by the idea.

A little on that, and how I found myself swapping the comforts of Melbourne living for the dirt roads and mud huts of Africa; international development was something I’d been heavily interested in during my college days.  Put a fair bit of thought to pursuing it workwise but couldn’t really see a tangible long term outcome that appealed to me, so instead I went down the planning route.  But I’d always told myself I’d do it sometime and it kind of annoyed me that I hadn’t.  I absolutely hate saying I’ll do something and not do it so it was gnawing away at me a little.

I had also shied away from doing one of these general volunteering missions, eg I didn’t see the point in me spending three weeks teaching Russian to blind orphaned lepers or something.  Essentially I’d be the main beneficiary.  It wouldn’t be an enabling process.

Then after about 6 years working in Town Planning and Urban Design, I ended up living with Amy and Nis in Melbourne who were both studying International Development and essentially that re-triggered a latent interest in pursuing the idea of working in a development context.  By this stage I’d actually developed some proper experience and skills to make a meaningful contribution.  I was also eyeing up the departure lounge of Melbourne Airport and the chance to pursue this before returning to Europe was spot on.

My initial idea was to get something in Asia but there were fuck all opportunities to get involved in Urban Design or Planning in a development context.  I was initially luke warm about the idea of Africa but fuck it if I was gonna work in a developing country I may as well go all out.  It ended up being the hardest job I’d ever gotten, I’d three pretty challenging interviews and a multiple choice exam, everything based on personality behavioural traits and life experiences with zero on any technical topics.  Placing people in an expensive task I suppose and they need to know you can hack it.  Because Irish Aid were funding the placement, they were keen on me from the start, which helped!

Anyway, where was I. Yeah, it wasn’t quite at the same level as the giddy anticipation I’d experienced before embarking on my trips to South-East Asia in 2002 and South America in 2004 but nevertheless my excitement had been piqued and I was extremely eager to discover what lay in store for me.  Like those other trips I enjoyed not having a strong picture in my head about what Africa and Zambia looked, smelled, felt like.
Ole Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti from the window seat of my Kenyan Airlines flight
Our time in Lusaka was spent mainly between our hotel, the office and Levy Junction, one of the recently arrived god-awful South African built shopping malls.  Lusaka is an odd enough city.  The centre is predominantly a financial area which straddles Cairo Road (built with the idea of Cecil Rhodes of linking Capetown and Cairo), a wide boulevard that has large 1960’s modernist buildings peppered along it.

After 6 the centre is eerily silent and not a majorly pleasant environment to be in.  In a ring surrounding the city is where all the rich Zambians and foreigners live, in these leafy suburbs that also contain these shopping malls that seem to engender so much excitement, as in any developing country I’ve been in.  Out beyond these areas is where the majority live, in the cramped shanty towns of grime and squalor.

While it probably gave me the gradual introduction to life here I needed, I was frustrated by the lack of any Africa-ness to my experience.  It was essentially like any other characterless faux western city I’d been to.  But with black people in it.  Only when I went out wandering about at night (against the advice we’d been given) in the streets behind the hotel that I finally felt I was in Africa.

There I found real life, full of people selling their wares, all sorts of bizarre new and second hand goods, the streets teeming with activity.  At this time people were packing up for the day and loading onto dozens of mini-buses with their full stalls wrapped up in blankets and stuffed into bags, all destined for the slums they lived in.  Not having any possessions on me I didn’t feel in anyway insecure.  Really, any warning I’d received was about getting pick-pocketed rather than being jumped but with practically every second guy I walked past their eyes quickly dropped to look at my pockets.  But the one consistent thing that met me were the massive grins and rows of shiny teeth.  It was seriously infectious and a real rush, the interactions, the greetings, all pleasing, warm and relaxing.  Positive vibes abounded.

People of all ages from aul grannies to young girls working away with their babies strapped to their backs, it was the first true sense of Africa that I’d felt and the buzz and excitement that to my frustration evaded me on arrival had finally, belatedly kicked in.

No comments: