I wrote this story while it was fresh in my mind after hearing it. I was at the NGO in Eastern Province, Zambia, where I stayed for a few months. Sitting in the shade from the hot hot sun, drinking tea and sharing banter. Isaac and I became good friends and I always loved it when he had time to reminisce. In return he would push me for stories so it was two way traffic. Our senses of humour were pretty similar so I look forward to seeing him again when I go to take the money for Ketty’s first school year. I tell you, there will be a great reunion, a great homecoming, when I meet all those new found friends again, in December. Cool!
These stories were designed as tales of gentle humour…. you’ll find no great plot, with denouement that you’d never have guessed. Just a playing with words in an effort to share some of the love I have for this country, it’s people and their caring culture. Please enjoy.
Just after Independence…..
Isaac and I drink tea together as he reminisces. Rhodesia and Nyasaland. That was the name for what became Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi. I think if I’d been around at the time, I would have been one of the English who ‘went native’. According to Isaac there were many of them; marry a Zambian woman, blend into the scenery.
But the other mzungus (whites), well, lots of them stayed in positions of authority, effectively operating social apartheid even after Northern Rhodesia was history and Kenneth Kaunda became the first president of Zambia. So Isaac was edged out of the meteorological service in Lusaka despite his knowledge and training. And shunted into the railways. Whence the source of our afternoon stories today.
It seems that social apartheid even applied in the cab of a Zambian Railways steam locomotive. Fairly obvious stuff. Driver… white, fireman…. black. Friendly banter to while away the long journey? No way!
Driver glances at the plume rising from the smokestack, falling like a barometer as the train starts losing power. That’s all. Maybe a raised eyebrow at the fireman if he hasn’t already jumped into action. Not a ‘Hey brother, lets get some coal in the box eh, get some steam up drive this beast a bit faster, what say?’ Nope, just the merest glance serving as a demand for some serious shovelling.
Thus Isaac paints the scenery, the backdrop to our story.
The driver, badly hung over, the usual pack of supplies, food and drink, forgotten in a bleary rush to get to his locomotive on time. Now, the fireman’s ok, got his supplies for the long trip, no problem. Driver sees him swigging from his water bag as he rues the absence of his own, constantly reminded of his thirst by the foetid post-alcohol dryness on his swollen sorry tongue. A signal stops them, driver breaks silence as he brings the train to a halt,
‘Store over there, go get me cigarettes’.
As the fireman goes on the errand, the driver takes a big swig of the other guy’s water. A black man’s water bag, unthinkable to a racist bigot white guy, unless he’s desperate. Fireman returns.
So this happens twice more, each time a long draught from the water bag down the driver’s illicitly demanding throat. His tastebuds are so blasted by the previous night’s drinking extravaganza that he doesn’t even realise the fireman’s carrying grade A home-brewed hooch; a cloudy beer with the clout of kerosene. The fireman can handle it; hard work, sweat, familiarised and accomplished liver cells scurrying to the detox party with aplomb. But driver, he’s already on the ropes from last night’s bout with the booze.
Well, people still talk about the locomotive that lurched and staggered into the station that day. Braking with a sodden alcoholic sigh; the last act of an unlikely victim of apartheid just before he surrenders to encroaching coma.
Now to divert down a siding. Into the shunting yard to be precise. Isaac tells me how the more menial task of standing on the ground, to indicate where the coupling is at the start of the trucks to be shunted, falls to an African of course. The driver, reversing the locomotive onto those trucks, maybe early evening as the light’s fading, calls out,
‘Smile dammit, can’t see you until you show your teeth’.
Ah, my friends, I was told when I came here, ‘The people will be kind to you but you’ll always be an outsider to them’.
To which I reply, ‘Are my friendships back in my country some intimate, bonding, soul-secret affairs?’ Sure, some of my friends I love deeply. But I can plunge into new friendships, accepting whatever they have to offer, wherever I may be. Always have. And some people I’ve known for years will always
remain at arm’s length. There are no rules, except that I won’t let anyone try to limit me with their own personal clichés. Ultimately no one is English, or Chewa, or Chinese. Just a human. Get born (did you fill in a form to say where you wanted to get born, before you got popped into a womb somewhere?). Die. And in between those events, live … we all do the same stuff… look for food, look for shelter, look for happiness, look for a mate, look for meaning. So don’t give me this stuff about ‘you’ll never understand these people’. I’ll never understand ANYbody in a very real sense; we are all unique and very alone, united only by the life-which-sustains-each-and-every-one-of-us. Hardly even understand myself. So now you know the basis, the earth on which I stand, as I go forth to try and relate to my fellow humans.
Which is a long preamble to expressing gratitude to the delightful people I’ve met here. Gratitude for them not subjecting a lone mzungu to a cold-shouldered bitter revenge of reverse apartheid. Gratitude for, on the contrary, warmth, kindness, real affection and nurturing of one who wants only to share his love of life with his sisters and brothers.