Friday, 14 March 2014

Toilet Trouble and the Pied Piper of Kasama

When negotiating my placement details I wasn't majorly enthused about the idea of Kasama, it being a provincial town 840 clicks north of Lusaka the capital.  I was leaning towards the idea of being based in Lusaka.  That was more than likely borne out of an insecurity of mine more than anything.  Its natural to, in some ways, cling to your comfort zone and Lusaka certainly offered me that.  Much less of an adaptation and the security of a life that’s in some way familiar.  A large foreign population and many of the western creature comforts were in plentiful supply there.

But the experience that I was likely to get in Lusaka was gonna be pretty half-arsed and if I was to spend one year of my life living in Africa, I really should do it properly, immerse myself fully in Zambian life rather than that of an ‘expat’ (that word makes me feel quesy).  The other factor was that Irish Aid were the donors for the Kasama project and they were keen that this was where I’d be involved.  The Irish Government have had a long presence in the Northern Province (and Zambia generally) which I’ll go into at a later date.

We took off on the 10 hour journey north towards Kasama in our Toyota Hilux 4x4 that we’d been given for the year.  Us being Paul, a 28 year old Ugandan (doing Monitoring and Evaluation), Laia (Auditor) also 28 a dutchie from Haarlem, Andrew (Socio-Economic Planner) a 60 odd year old from Zimbabwe and Simon, the driver from Kasama.  The four of us are working together for the year and Simon driving us about.  He’s a pretty cool guy, a Gooner who lived in London for 7 years and a good guy to have around.  The fact that he lived in Europe means that he appreciates the cultural difference that exists for foreigners like myself.

Paul is also an Arsenal fan. In fact half of Zambia appears to be! Easily, twice as many Arsenal jerseys about compared to any other team.  Many say it’s the playing style, could also be the strong African connection over the years (Kanu especially is an African icon who transcends national boundaries) but others have said that it just appears this way as the United fans have their jerseys well and truly hidden away! We’ll see…

Eventually we arrived in Kasama and sought out Laia’s joint (she’s got her own place and the three buckos were stuffed in together. Equality me hoop!).  Her house is quality, a nice old colonial brick building with a massive garden (like 1200m2), with all sorts of fruit trees, a small swimming pool and out-buildings for her 4 dogs to sleep in.

This was the third house I’d seen now where they’d housed people so it was with a fair bit of optimism that I awaiting our arrival at my home for the year.  3km later from Laia’s place (which is close to the middle of town) we arrived at our gaff.

Optimism misplaced – fuckin shit pit it was !! Cos it was Kasama they hadn’t actually come all the way up here to pick it but relied on some other schmo’s to do it.  It reminded me of one of these really bog standard 80’s holiday bungalows in the west of Ireland that are empty for 10 months of the year.  The joint was massive – 4 bedrooms, 4 bathrooms but a dining room with no windows into it, a kitchen with a sink and a 1m2 workspace and no storage and a sitting room the size of a warehouse which made our couch and two chairs look like furniture from a dolls house!

The last 1km of the road was something I’d only experienced twice before: the road from Siem Riep to the Thai border (in 2002) and La Paz to Uyuni (2004) ie a lunar-like topography that requires every bit of the 4x4’s manoeuvrability to negotiate.  Ok I admit, these were all first impressions and much has changed since.  I got onto HQ in Lusaka a few days later and let them know the score.  They were pretty apologetic and said there was no issue with changing if we found somewhere else.  Grand job, I’d get onto it.

The Road to Perdition
Next obstacle, Paul and Andrew said that unless I could guarantee them en-suite bathrooms in the new place they weren’t prepared to move.  “Eh wha ??” I’d never had a fuckin en-suite in my goddam life and these two goons weren’t prepared to share a jacks!  Paul confided that on his last placement in Rwanda, he had lived with a Danish guy whose toilet habits had left him so traumatised that he was close to quitting the job.  Now Jesper the Dane must have been a nightly guest at the only curry house in Kigali or I was dealing with one very precious Ugandan !!

There was no convincing either of them. Out voted: Uganda-Zimbabwe Alliance 2-1 Daly !!

I took it on the chin and got to work on the landlord.  In fairness they’ve been good about it giving us extra furniture and putting in a full kitchen which has been a major help in making the joint habitable.  I’ve put my interior design skills to good use with my bedroom which is pretty decent at this stage and I’m getting some extra furniture made to deck the place out.  It must be said that the area we live in is very nice and leafy with a pleasant feel to the place and lots of sociable friendly heads about.

As Zambian towns go Kasama in generally charming place to be.  It has a population north of 200k but like most developing countries (maybe due to their dense living environments) it feels like a town of about 50k (but I’m pretty sure that it’ll bore the shite out of me after a while).  The centre was well designed back in the day by the Anglo colonisers, it is easy to get about and it’s full of life.  Well when it’s bright that is.  Even though we’ve got our own driver, I generally walk home from work and it really is a pleasant experience.  Maybe it’s due to the big blue sky, the lushness of the greenery around or maybe it’s the warmth in the evening air but it really brings me back to my teens and the summer evenings in Ballyferriter in West Kerry strolling home after a day in Irish College.

The Stretch
Apart from the fresh air, the exercise and the nice scenery, my walks home generally leave me grinning from ear to ear from the reactions and interactions I have with people on the way.  It varies from situation to situation and the degree to which this occurs will diminish over time as they get used to seeing me about.

A very common scenario is one in which I’m about to walk past a group of kids who are all jabbering away together.  All of a sudden one of them will see me and a blankness will pass over him, his face will lengthen and silence will slowly descend over the group (purely based on this kids reaction).  The group will then slowly turn to see the apparition that this one kid has witnessed and then I will look over to see a gang of children just staring wide-eyed at me with a ‘what the FUCK is that thing’ look plastered across their mugs.  One of them will have muttered Muzungu (whitey/honky etc) by this point.

To break the awkwardness of the situation I will (while struggling to keep a straight face) wave at them.  Another 4 or 5 seconds will pass without even the blink of an eye, then one of them will wave back.  Then tension generally eases at this point and by the time I’m well passed them they’ll individually begin to shout at me “ow aaaah yoooooo, ow aaaah yoooooo” while jumping up and down and laughing hysterically like I’m the funniest thing they’ve ever laid eyes on.  One evening this happened when I was out jogging and a group of kids started legging it after me laughing and shrieking uncontrollably (like ‘whats this guy running away from’).  I eventually stopped to say “hello, whats your name?” etc.  They also stopped 20m back, but wouldn’t come near me.  This happened 3 or 4 more times until they decided to stop running after me and went home.

The reaction I get completely depends on the audience.  Usually parents of these kids will smile warmly at me as their children have epileptic fits.  Generally teenage guys will initially stare at me in surprise then just play it completely cool and maybe muster a nod towards me.  But it’s always pleasant - Zambians are very placid and warm people.

If I go for a jog there’s one decent route that I’m now kinda reluctant to use.  The last time two times I went there I had a gang of kids join me and run along with me (12 the last time) for about 10 minutes absolutely pissing with laughter.  They react to me to in a way that reminds me of my reaction when I’d see an ice-cream van turn slowly turn down our street as a kid.  It’s hilarious for me too but I half feel like Mohammed Ali in When We Were Kings training in Kinshasa (“Ali kum-bia, Ali kum-bia”) and half like a complete tool!

I’m kinda hoping that if there’s some Zambian fella living in Cork going out for jogs he doesn’t get 12 lads chasing him down the road.  A man could get the wrong impression from something like that !

The other thing that completely gets them is if I say a few words in their local language.  English is the official language nationally but up here not everyone can speak it and mostly they speak Bemba to each other.  Mulishani basically means “hows the form” (or “faaks it gaan kaaant” or “spiffing day old boy” to the Australians and English among you).  They’re amazed at it and start laughing their asses off again, who’s this honky and whats he doing speaking Bemba.  Then they start yabbering at me, asking me all sorts, at which point I smile blankly understanding none of it and leg it….

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