The last week has been incredibly busy and incredibly disjointed. My self-imposed day off (Sunday) somehow turned into 10 hours of interviews. I’ve got five fat (not to mention phat) notebooks of interviews in need of transcription. I’ve got a half-dozen high-pressure must-get interviews to line up in the next 48 hours. In other words, sorry about the lack of posts.

The last week has also meant streamlining the number of stories I have planned from this journey. An initial list of about 25 ideas gave way to 10 a couple weeks ago. I knew then that list would drop again, and it looks like it’s down to five. Much of that’s due to a restricted travel schedule: For a variety of reasons, I won’t be able to stray far from Lusaka in my remaining two weeks here. (A big disappointment, that.)

I remain under orders from my four-year-old cousin Cody — the World’s Cutest Child — to produce a photo of myself with a large animal (preferably not an elephant, I’m told). I will do my best. But that’ll probably be the extent of my non-work time over the next 13 days.

So, in a taunting spirit, I present the stories you almost certainly will not be reading about Zambia in The Dallas Morning News any time soon. They tickled my fancy at one time or another, but now they’re just dead ideas waiting for a future roving correspondent:

- The return of the black rhino. Zambia has decided its economic future rests with tourism — particularly the big-money luxury safaris that can cost upwards of $25,000 per person. But in the safari world, an African journey isn’t complete until you can check off sightings of the Big Five: buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion, and rhino. Zambia can only manage four — the last black rhinos were shot by poachers in the 1980s, their horns ground into an aphrodisiac powder for sale in Asia or turned into dagger-sheaths for oil-rich Yemenis.

But a fellow named Hugo van der Westhuizen and the Frankfurt Zoological Society is reintroducing the black rhino to the Luangwa Valley — and trying to keep poachers away this time. The first rhinos were deposited in Zambia this summer, and I wanted to see how they’re doing. Would have been a terrifically fun story to write and (let’s be honest here) a great excuse for a three-day safari to the Luangwa Valley. But I was never able to get in touch with Hugo or the rest of his rhino crew (no landlines, no cell phones, only slow-as-molasses-in-a-Northern-Hemisphere-January radio-link email). Plus, the secret hole in the story was that there actually are three nasty white rhino kept in a sort of quasi-game park near the Zim border. They’re not exactly wild — they’re kept there for the Victoria Falls tourists to check out — but it is technically possible to score the Big Five in Zambia.

- The roving Polish Jews of Northern Rhodesia. In the 1940s, after the Nazis took Poland, thousands of Poles became refugees. A large number of them were transported first to Russia, then to Persia (Iran), and finally to the British colonies of Africa — Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia) among them. The locals and the colonials built African-style huts for them, and they lived out the war here. (Somewhere on this hard drive, I’ve got an old British Pathe newsreel about their arrival saved — I’ll try to post it if I can find it.)

The refugees went back to Poland (or elsewhere) after the war. But I found the idea of 10,000 Poles roaming around Africa so interesting that I wanted to see what evidence there remained of their time here. I know there’s at least one Polish cemetery up near the Congolese border, in Mbala (known as Abercorn in colonial days). I planned to look into it and use it as an excuse to visit that area up north (where I also planned to write about some issues re: the Congolese refugee camps there). But it’s a several-days journey each way, and I just don’t have time.

- The relocation of Zimbabwe’s white farmers. If you’ve been paying attention to news from Africa the last few years, you know that Zimbabwe’s prez Robert Mugabe isn’t a big fan of his nation’s white farmers. (A small number of white farmers control something like 90 percent of the best land in Zimbabwe — a holdover from the colonial days and the evil evil Ian Smith years in Rhodesia.) A couple years back, Mugabe decided the way to settle things was to assemble a band of thugs, give them firearms, and tell them the white farmers’ land was now theirs. The result has been bloodshed, a collapse of the country’s agricultural sector (the thugs haven’t proved to be very good farmers, and the folks who really need land, the peasant farmers, haven’t gotten it), and a mass exodus of whites from Zimbabwe.

Many of those whites are ending up — you guessed it! — in Zambia. More than 100 major Zim farmers have taken up Zambia’s offer of free/cheap land, mostly in an area northeast of Lusaka. (Unlike Zim, Zam doesn’t have a shortage of good land. By one estimate, only about 10 percent of the country’s arable land is farmed.) This story would have been a chance to get into Zambia’s admirable race relations and the historical reasons why anti-white sentiments never really took root here. (The quick summary: The British were relatively decent in giving control back to blacks [relatively — compared to Zimbabwe/Rhodesia’s history, they were absolute saints]; for a variety of reasons, the Brits never developed Zambia as much as Zimbabwe, so few white colonials settled here; there’s plenty of land; and Kenneth Kaunda, the country’s first president, did some pretty admirable things to discourage race-baiting.)

Three other angles I could have hit on: 1. Some Zim farmers are bringing their black farm workers and staff with them to Zambia — a historical homecoming, since many Zim blacks were actually Zambians a couple generations back, before British labor policies forced many of them to abandon their homes. 2. Some Zambians are peeved that those black farm workers and staff are coming from Zimbabwe — after all, Zambians need every job they can get, and these Zim folks are filling them before they ever become available. 3. Will the influx of Zimbabwans influence race relations in Zambia? Let’s be honest, some of Zim’s white farmers are white supremacist jerks. And Zambians have complained recently that an influx of Zim blacks (who are used to antagonistic black-white relations) has increased racial tension in Zambia.

Alas, my trip to Livingstone was cut short a couple weeks back, which meant I didn’t get to cross over to Zimbabwe for reporting. And again, just not enough time.

- Peace parks. A South African group (backed by Mandela) has come up with an interesting way to create stronger ties between southern African nations. They’re called peace parks — national parks/game reserves that cross international borders. The idea is that if, say, Malawi and Zambia work together on running a national park, they’re less likely to blow each other up. The animals benefit — they no longer need a visa and passport to head for higher ground. (Har har. But seriously, it would allow animals larger grazing and migration areas.) And tourism can benefit too, since quite a few attractive destinations are rendered less so because their territory lies in multiple countries, making visits more of a hassle than they’re worth. (For instance, the proposed Okavango-Upper Zambezi peace park lies in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia. Now, tourists might pay $100 in visa fees to visit all parts of the park — more likely, they’ll stay in one country.)

The national borders of southern African were invented out of whole cloth by the colonials, so quite a few naturally-bonded areas were divided arbitrarily. But let’s be honest: this is a marginally interesting story. It existed in my story list mostly to give me a backup safari plan if the black rhinos didn’t work out. It was an excuse for me to come up with fun verbs to describe how giraffes run and other such fun. As such, it is, sadly, toast.

Some other story ideas that you might find crumpled into a ball, tossed on the side of Lusaka’s Great East Road:

- Something on long-haul truckers, the profession whose members are the most likely to be infected with HIV. They get a lot of the blame for spreading the disease across southern Africa (they like prostitutes quite a bit, it seems). But that story’s been done before.

- I wanted to go to Arusha, in Tanzania, to report on the Rwandan genocide trials currently underway there. Arusha’s not too far from Mbala, so I thought I might be able to tag it onto the Polish refugees story. No dice.

- Flowers. A lot of Zambian flowers end up in the floral shops of the U.S. of A. (Same with a lot of African nations — lots of cargo flights crossing the Atlantic every night.) I thought it’d be interesting to track a single Zambian flower into a Dallas flower shop. But that sort of story’s been done, too (most notably with potatoes, by The Oregonian a couple years ago).

- Something on Zambia’s Muslim minority. I never got this one any more fleshed out than “something on Zambia’s Muslim minority,” so I doubt this one’ll be missed by many.

- Something on how the Internet allows philanthropic organizations and charities to be smaller and more nimble than in the old days. I was going to write about Deep Roots Zambia, a.k.a AKIN, an effort that supports the education of a small number of Zambian school children. It’s a “virtual charity” — no office, no paid staff, meetings over instant messenger, etc. But their work is in Monze, and other than a 10-minute bus stop a couple weeks ago, I never got to spend any time there.

- Something about Zambia’s decision a while back to refuse a bunch of American food aid (when the country was facing famine) because it was genetically modified. It’s pretty much the only time Zambia’s been in the international news in the last couple years. But I dreaded dipping into that GM-foods morass, and the story was old, anyway. (The irony: Much of Zambia’s current food imports come from South Africa — and it’s all GM anyway!)

- The Bush AIDS $15 billion policy’s impact on Zambia. It bores me to just type that phrase, so I’m sure it would have bored the hell out of you, dear reader. I’m not a big fan of international stories that are really just domestic stories in disguise.

- The Bush Mexico City rule’s impact on Zambia. (That’s the rule banning American financial support for orgs that provide abortion services overseas — Reagan created it, Clinton got rid of it, Bush brought it back.) Again, a partisan morass I didn’t feel like slogging through.

- Something on Christianity’s changing face in the developing world. (Narrow and focused, I know!) The hook would have been the ex-Archbishop of Lusaka, who famously got married to a Moonie not long ago. That would qualify as a “changing face,” I’d say.

There are a couple of other ideas that, when written out, sound more like sophomore-year term papers than stories I’d want to read. So I’ll spare you those.

Here’s hoping the five stories (maybe four) I end up producing prove worthy of avoiding this blacklist.

10 November 2003


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© 2003 Joshua Benton