Had lunch today with two representatives of a major international non-governmental organization (which, for our purposes today, shall remain nameless). They took turns tearing into Zambia’s problems — a pathetic economy, political corruption, educational collapse, rampant disease, drought, floods, starvation. One told the tale of a Norwegian fellow arrested a few weeks ago on trumped-up charges (for arguing with a cabbie who ripped him off), secretly held in jail overnight, and released only after a friend gave a bribe of 20,000 kwacha (all of four American dollars). She was clearly disgusted with the place.

I asked: “Is there any reason at all to be optimistic about this country?”

Her reply: “Well, the sun is shining.”

Some of you may be wondering why I picked Zambia as the site of my fellowship. One reason is that the country’s failure seems so nonsensical. Think of what the country has in its favor: It’s English-speaking, a major plus in the world economic environment. Unlike so many of its neighbors (Angola, Congo, Madagascar), it hasn’t been crippled by civil war. Unlike its fellow former British colonies (Zimbabwe, South Africa), it isn’t shackled with a poisonous racial environment. It didn’t have to fight for its independence 39 years ago, and it hasn’t been at war in the years since. And when it emerged as a nation in 1964, it was (by African standards, at least) pretty well-off — it’s income levels were the second highest on the continent, behind South Africa.

But since then, the place has gone into the tank. Sure, there are reasons: The economy at independence was based entirely on copper exports, and the price of copper took a dive in the 1970s and has never recovered. The government quickly abandoned an early investment in education, stopping the black middle class before it ever started. And HIV/AIDS has been tough and will only get (much) worse over the next decade. But I just can’t gather up much optimism for the place’s future. I mean, if Mugabe ever gets tossed in Zimbabwe, you know that they’ll have a chance to recover. If the new guy in Liberia can settle things down, you can see how that country might make strides forward. If Congo can stop the bleeding and get some stability, it’s got the natural resources to be a regional power. But Zambia just seems like a sad case.

Then again, just a couple posts ago, I was criticizing a backpacker for making judgments about a country just after landing, so maybe I should shut up. There are good people working to fix all these problems, and they just might figure something out yet.

Today was my first big day of interviews, starting at 7:30 a.m. I was meeting two 40-something Zambians to talk about AIDS and set up some further interviews. Yesterday, Felix and Israel had suggested we meet at the Helen Kaunda Bus Station. I told my taxi driver that this morning, and he was confused: Why is this white guy going to Helen Kaunda?

Turns out the Helen Kaunda Bus Station isn’t a building at all, just an indentation in the curb on a dusty road. (Then again, they’re all dusty roads. I’m going to need better adjectives than that to make it through the next six weeks.) Helen Kaunda was the mother of Kenneth Kaunda, the man who won Zambia’s independence and was its president/socialist-humanist autocrat for almost three decades. Her bus station is really just a bus stop, unmarked at that.

In any event, that interview turned out quite different than I’d expected. I thought I’d arranged to meet with someone whose sister had died of AIDS. (Nope, miscommunication with Felix.) Then I gathered (from context in things Felix said) that Israel was HIV positive. But I wasn’t sure, so I had to ask. He isn’t. (Few things are more awkward than feeling a twinge of disappointment when learning someone isn’t HIV positive. We journalists are vultures, aren’t we?)

Anyway, from there went for a briefing with Nameless Non-Governmental Organization, then ended up with some interviews at the Ministry of Education. I’ve been happy so far to see that government officials, at least, aren’t afraid to speak the truth about the country’s AIDS crisis. If I can get a similar level of honesty out of schools and teachers, I’ll be all set.

Anyway, back at Chachacha, the utterly obligatory Bob Marley is blaring from the stereo. I think they remove your hostel from the next edition of Lonely Planet if you don’t play Legend in its entirety at least once a week. Chachacha is safe until next Wednesday, at least.

16 October 2003


16 October | 21:52  |  Sinclair

Hey, the light grey is so much easier on the eye! I know you described the press before but I didn't think you meant it. I have my 2 nephews visiting this weekend - we'll make press passes on Sunday if it rains ;-)

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