Black Humour

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. Sittin’ in the shade from the hot hot sun, drinkin’ tea and sharin’ 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
Isaac

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.

za06_057r__rsz-_9a_117_preserved_kabwe_yard_21-11-2006__pfbThe 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.

‘No cigarettes’.

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

Musa, Tony, Emelia, Mwasay, Cathy
Musa, Tony, Emelia, Mwasay, Cathy

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.

Saint Francis of Tiko

Two back-to-back 8 hour flights then a 7 hour drive, and I arrive at an NGO near Katete, Eastern province Zambia. Just before Christmas. I’m there to be a ‘volunteer’, though in truth I suspect I gained more than I gave. Tiko is a backpacker lodge but has many local people working there to maintain the lodge, tend the gardens, feed any visitors.

Here a short story I wrote when I’d had time to relax into the welcoming embrace of the people who became my friends, who nurtured me with warmth and laughter. A culture where people greet you in the morning while holding your hand and looking you in the eyes. A culture where I plan to spend a lot more of my remaining life.

IMG_0565IMG_1057The centre of the lodge is the Verandah, tin roof, walls coming up to about four feet on every side, then open to the air. This is where you can work if you’ve got some paperwork to do, or sit & read, or plan the treehouse we’re making for the kids, eat lunch or evening meal, meet any visitors passing through, watch lightning displays at night. And most important, talk to people, get to know them, and they me. Become friends. Cement friendships. Slowly realise how much I grow to love them. (The housekeeper, Alice, who’s in this first story, is the mother of Ketty, my lovely little deaf friend who I sponsor through specialist school – see that project on Ulingana.)

So I give you a flavour, the mood, in which my stories were written. I hope you enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed writing, sitting there on Verandah, or sitting on the ground under bougainvillea blossoms while the seamstress sits next to me making tiko souvenirs for the occasional tourist that’s breaking their long journey between Victoria Falls and the safari parks, venturing for a brief moment into the Zambia that’s not in the brochures.

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Saint Francis of Tiko

I’ve stopped regarding the christmas decorations as anything out of the ordinary. Hanging motionless in the heat shimmer of midday 40 degrees. We’re all languid in this heat, slow walking as if we’re the funeral procession for the chicken that Agnes carries in by one wing, resignation to it’s impending execution in it’s one visible eye.

Ruth
Ruth

At the other end of the chicken spectrum, Ruth makes me an omelette for my lunch. It’s the best I’ve ever tasted; today-fresh ingredients but the magic ingredient is her smile. A few weeks back, before I arrived here, some Americans were staying. By all accounts they were caricature tourist Americans. Hard to believe such a species would roll up in these parts but there you are. Very overweight, a bit loud etc. They decide to go up to Mfuwe to visit the game park at South Luangwa, a couple of hours drive so they’re making a weekend of it. The safari lodge where they’re staying has some self-catering accommodation so they want to take food with them as they’ve enjoyed the mountains-of-eggs-with-everything breakfasts that the kitchen staff happily provided for the amply waist-lined. And so, the morning of their departure, they tell Ruth, ‘We’ll have 4 trays of eggs’. A tray contains 30 eggs, so that’s 120 in total. Ruth responds, her eyes on the copious girth in front of her, ‘Do you want your eggs fried, or boiled’. Her mind is a book I cannot read so I make no guess as to her guile, or lack of it!


Chef
Chef

Ruth and Edison (chef) run a pretty amazing operation, a tight ship, when it comes to the kitchen. Cooking in the villages is done on open fires outside (under a shelter in the rainy season). At the lodge there are several charcoal braziers, on which I’ve seen them cook dinner for about thirty or forty people! When I get to know them better, they let me into their domain, the courtyard behind verandah where those braziers sit under the lean-to tin roof, and I cook alongside them a few times, always accompanied by laughter. Laughter at little things. Also they laugh at my strange ways, my muzungu ways, but it’s with the affection that a grown-up would have for a child learning their ways and customs. And I laugh with them for pleasure of basking in their warm good humour.


IMG_0807 Let the rains come soon! This heat saps the strength and dries the land to a powdery dust that gets everywhere. But there’s water in the borehole; enough so that every morning before the heat becomes too brutal, we can water the germinating seeds and already growing vegetables. Except this morning. Zambian electricity is a random thing; trying to win us over by the ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ principle. So without the borehole pump to feed the taps we must wind up buckets from the wells over and over until the shallower ones start to run dry. I’ve taken on my own bit of garden where I experiment with high protein crops; lentils, quinoa, plus some other veggies and even some honeydew melons. If we could get quinoa to grow, it would be a great way of providing balanced protein to the carb-heavy diet here. I’m learning how to use the traditional hoe to dig the beds I need for planting. It’s hard work, and only increases my respect for the women who do a day’s work at the lodge, then go and cultivate their fields in the evening.


Does everything happen for a reason? I am lent a book by an Italian poet; stories of St Francis of Assisi. He has a dream, where a great Lady appears to him and somehow he realises that she has a mission for him, for his life. He is the son of a nobleman, but in his heart he knows his destiny lies elsewhere. The lady of his dream he realises is Lady Poverty; she is the symbol of the paradoxes that Francis reads in the Gospels. Richness in poverty, life in death, strength in weakness. These people live as if such a Lady is their Patron Saint. I give the book to Ruth to read when I’ve finished it. She, like everyone here, knows I’m not a christian, but they understand that I know, as do they, that we are all tied by the thread of common humanity, and the love that is the nature of that common thread. They are amused, then intrigued and full of questions, at the sight of me doing early morning yoga and meditation on the secluded ‘blue lizard terrace’.


Alice
Alice

Alice can’t plant her groundnuts, maize and cassava. The ground is too dry. It’s God’s will if the rains are too scanty this year. It will be God’s will that they all grow hungry. Not rumbling belly hungry, but malnutrition hungry. Stunted children hungry. Brains that lack the nutrition to imagine a way out of grinding poverty hungry. I think Alice doesn’t function on the same level of blind faith as many here. There’s a fierceness about her I love and admire. She looks like she’s ready to go upstairs and beat on some rain-god heads if they don’t get their act together.

Some five minutes after our conversation, it comes. A deluge. Crashing immense noise; millions of tons of water hurled downwards by those demented rain gods. Thunderous crescendos threatening to burst through the tin roof; sense of hearing at saturation point. The trucks hammering along the Great East Road between Malawi and Lusaka raise plumes of water fit to drown the cyclists and pedestrians that are the highway’s constant companions. Except that they’ve all disappeared; diving for cover to avoid a drenched battering from the elements.

Happy planting Alice.