It didn’t make sense: Why hold a protest rally at a gas station?

(Assuming you’re not protesting high gas prices.)

On Tuesday, I did some interviews at New Start, the biggest of Lusaka’s VCT (that’s voluntary counseling and testing for HIV) clinics. I briefly met Emmanuel, the guy who runs the clinic’s Post Test Club, a sort of AIDS-awareness group for both positive and negative. Emmanuel mentioned offhandedly that the club’s members would be having an HIV/AIDS rally Thursday morning at 9 a.m. to publicize the crisis and ask government to pay more attention. There would be some traditional dancing and drumming, he said, and some local celebs were supposed to show up. Kenneth Kaunda himself might make an appearance.

The location: a filling station called Ody’s, on Kafue Road, south of the roundabout at Kamwala Market. I double-checked to make sure.

So about 8:15 this morning, I asked a taxi driver to take me to Ody’s on Kafue Road. He seemed to know where it was, and a few minutes later, I was there.

No dancers, no drummers, no signs, no protesters.

Maybe I was early, I figured. So I wandered around the gas station, which is attached to a supermarket and a small cafeteria. Immediately, every passing cab driver started honking his horn at me. (Cabbies here assume any white person walking — hell, standing — is a fare waiting to happen.) The clock ticked closer and closer to 9. No sign of anyone.

I scanned over every African face I could find, thinking: “Does he look like an AIDS activist?” I looked in particular for Emmanuel, but unfortunately I barely remembered what he looked like from our brief meeting. I remembered he bore a resemblance to Avery Johnson — that’s about it.

(Maybe this is bad of me, but I find myself remembering some men’s faces by comparing them mentally to NBA players. So I know lookalikes for Brendan Haywood, Gary Payton, and Jalen Rose. Oh, and Mos Def and Don Cheadle.)

Finally, this guy started walking up to me, striding with purpose. I figured maybe he was attached to the group. Then he called out to me: “You are very white!”

Yeah, I know.

Turns out Joseph (his name) just wanted to me to give him money so he could go move to the United States and work in a restaurant. He asked me if I would take him back to the U.S. with me. No build up (other than the comment on my paleness) — just an expectation I’d put him up back in Dallas. I gently said no. I told Joseph about my situation. He said this place was indeed often used for protests and marches (why I still don’t know — it’s a crappy location). But he didn’t know anything about an HIV rally today.

I expected to see other reporters or news organizations at the gas station. After all, the local press doesn’t do much other than cover events and speeches. (It’s not the most aggressive, investigative media I’ve seen.) But I saw nothing.

Bored, I picked up copies of the three local papers (the Post, Times, and Mail). Newspapers here aren’t sold in stores — they’re hawked exclusively by street vendors. Pelekelo explained a couple nights ago that they buy the papers for 1,600 kwacha (about 32 cents) and try to resell them for 2,000. Unfortunately, if they can’t sell all their papers, they’re stuck with a loss — the papers’ owners don’t accept returns. So if a vendor buys 50 papers in the morning and sells 35 of them, he’s actually lost 10,000 kwacha. Doesn’t seem like a good business model for the vendors. So I’m always buying papers to help them out.

Nothing too exciting in the papers today, except for a minor update on the Big Brother House case. See, the people who produce Big Brother did an extremely popular version called Big Brother Africa, in which 20 or so folks from 20 different African nations vied for reality-television supremacy. In conservative Zambia, local ministers railed against the show, calling it an abomination (presumably because unmarried people shouldn’t be living in such close quarters) and asking state-owned TV not to carry the show.

But then the Zambian woman on the show, Cherise, won the whole thing. Immediately, the nation turned around — Cherise became a huge celebrity, and even the ministers were talking about how stirring her victory had been. The government made her an honorary ambassador. Everybody loves Cherise.

Anyway, last week, police in Ndola found 12 teenagers in a house where they were supposedly running a brothel and having wild orgies. The Times, never one to pass up an opportunity, named it the Big Brother House in Cherise’s honor.

(It seems some days that half of all the stories in the local papers are about sex. I talked with a reporter at the Post who acknowledged it: “You won’t see a serious issue on the front page often. It’s sex and gossip that sells.”)

By 10 a.m., I felt safe in assuming there had been some miscommunication. There would be no rally today, at least not here. I went back into town. There you have it, the perils of reporting in Zambia in a nutshell: miscommunications, trouble connecting, and time wasted. Since then I’ve spent three hours calling people and not reaching them. Tomorrow’s a national holiday, so government folks all went home around noon, apparently including the people who keep the phone lines in working order — I haven’t gotten a call through in over an hour. And on top of that, Kaunda’s people say he may be able to give me an interview — but on Saturday, which means I may not be able to go to Livingstone after all. One of my reasons for going to Livingstone is that if I stay here, my time will be wasted because of the holiday weekend; now it may be wasted waiting for a phone call from Kenneth Kaunda. Frustration!

24 October 2003


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© 2003 Joshua Benton