Random, disjointed thoughts from the last few days:

- I am singlehandedly keeping the Lusaka taxi industry afloat. In the last two days, I’ve taken 24 taxis, pumping much needed foreign capital into this sector. I’ve been here, what, 32 days now? I’ve taken at least 200 cab rides, easy. Far and away the biggest line item on my budget, well ahead of lodging and food.

- Strangest fashion connections to my home state (Louisiana) spotted so far, in approximate reverse rank order:

3. The Austrian backpacker spotted the day after I arrived wearing a Mardi Gras t-shirt from Iota, Louisiana — a tiny spot on the map maybe 10 miles west of where I grew up.

2. The teenaged street vendor on Church Road who wore an Acadiana High School t-shirt — Acadiana High being about 10 miles east of where I grew up.

And the winner: 1. The boy in Mazabuka wearing a replica No. 17 New Orleans Saints jersey of Jim Everett, the team’s quarterback for about four seconds in the mid ’90s. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone in Louisiana wearing a Jim Everett jersey.

- I really wish I had stopped to interview the guy in the Acadiana High t-shirt. The street vendor phenomenon is strange and depressing (not to mention strangely depressing). Apparently, it’s a new thing, judging from the occasional angry op-ed in the Post about how “we must stop these street vendors.” They’re all boys, maybe 16 to 20 years old, and they stand in between lanes of traffic at stop lights. They each have one or two items for sale, which they hawk to drivers and passengers when they’re stopped.

The array of items is completely nonsensical. There’s always one guy selling clear plastic cell phone cases, and always one guy selling car cell phone chargers. But things get absurd after that. TV antennas. Power strips. Mach 3 razor blades. Fur hats. (Who wears fur hats in Africa? Other than Mobutu, that is.) Plastic coat hangers. Small Casio-knockoff keyboards. Nine-volt batteries. There’s one guy who stands outside Manda Hill shopping center selling a ceramic bunny. I’ve seen him three times now, still with that bunny.

It’s a strange attempt at commerce. They set up shop in the busiest commercial districts in town — at Cairo and Church, outside Manda Hill, next to the Shoprite. All places where there are plenty of other places to get all these same goods. And by targeting people in cars, they’re going after the wealthiest Zambians — but also the ones most likely to want to buy their goods in an honest-to-goodness store.

In a month, I’ve never seen a street vendor sell anything.

- Favorite African signage quirk: The fact they call traffic lights “robots” here. I know, I know, it’s not just Zambia. But I bubble over with glee every time I see a sign warning, sternly: ROBOT AHEAD.

- Zambians dress themselves well. (In Lusaka, at least.) Even what I’d judge to be the lower-middle classes — not dirt-poor, but living hand to mouth — always look good. I’m not talking flashy; just nice, conservative clothes, things my grandmother would like to see on me. Lovely long dresses for the women, lots of dress shirts on the men, even among the un- or underemployed.

But the white people here — my, oh my! Was there a convention somewhere that decided to send the least stylish Europeans to Africa? Did this continent not suffer enough at the hand of colonialism? Did it really need to be exposed to this much fishbelly-white flesh?

Every European man here is a 48-year-old, 100kg Brit who wears shorts so miniscule they might be more accurately called hot pants. And while those shorts may have fit his 34-year-old, 70kg self, they sure as hell don’t contain his blubbery exuberance now.

And the women — so much exposure! I’ve read enough Third World editions of Lonely Planet to know they all have a passage preaching caution to female travelers: Warning: Because of the way you dress, people in this country will assume you are a whore. Compared to the conservative dress of Zambian women, white women here are just a sea of endless spaghetti straps and expanses of sunburned thighs.

(I should acknowledge that I am not completely innocent of these charges. I dress nicely enough during the week, since I’m interviewing folks. But about once a week, I find myself in a t-shirt and shorts. It’s not an appealing sight, and I can’t tell you how many strange looks meet the sight of my knees on Lusaka city streets. I haven’t seen a single Zambian wearing shorts since I’ve been here.)

- The BBC World Service makes good radio to brush your teeth to. You know, people complain so much about American cultural imperialism, but there’s not much here. It’s all the Brits — BBC News, Arsenal and Man United, which servant is Prince Charles buggering today, etc. The only signs you’d find of America’s existence here are (a) the two Subway sandwich shops, (b) the rap and R&B on every radio station, and (c) Coca-Cola. But not even a McDonald’s!

The satellite TV channels are all South African, Australian, or British. The place where I take my laundry is always playing some alternate-universe version of VH1. The accents are British, but it’s just off the U.S. version by a hair. (For instance, more mentions of David Beckham and Cliff Richards than you’d find in the States.) I find it strangely enthralling — I find myself secretly hoping for a long line at the laundry so I can kill time watching it.

13 November 2003


14 November | 18:51  |  dsaint

How are the street vendors in Zambia different from the people who sell roses or candy at busy intersections in Dallas?

15 November | 17:27  |  josh

Well, among other things:

- There's a lot more of them in Lusaka than in Dallas.

- Roses or candy make a certain degree (certain, mind you) of sense as things to sell on streetcorners. Men may realize on the way home they've been bad husbands/boyfriends and decide they need to make up for it, and quick. I don't see cell phone cases as a similar impulse purchase.

- Actually, I've never seen a candy vendor on the streets of Dallas. Do they exist? I sure as hell wouldn't buy candy from them. Roses, yeah, I've seen those.

16 November | 21:49  |  jessie

josh, you make me homesick for africa even as i'm in the heart of africa.

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