Saturday, June 2, 2012

Lusaka, Getting Orientated

Winter is coming.

No, I haven’t been reading too many George R R Martin novels.  The weather really is changing in Zambia in terms of temperature.  In Uganda people were putting on sweaters and scarves, but I couldn’t discern any real difference.  I still sweated on my way to work, all through the day, on my way home, and all night.  Sure, the country was in the midst of the rainy season, but it was still warm.

In southern Africa, on the other hand, the rains are over but the temperatures are dropping.  It’s pleasant during the day, and stepping into the shade (or spending most of your hours in the National Archives) takes you out of reach of the sun, which feels strong at Lusaka’s 1,500 meters.  At night, temperatures drop, and I think I’m going to have to rummage around in the closet for a quilt.

Last night, the manager of the hostel where I’m living, a Brit, walked by grumbling about how few people had showed up for supper that evening.  “Probably because it’s colder than the North Pole”, he muttered, and indeed, it was the first night that I had worn long sleeves since being atop Mt Kenya in February. 


A few days ago, I met Furtemba Sherpa, who has been travelling around the world since 2003 on his bicycle, promoting peace and an environmental ethic.  He has visited eighty-something countries, although as he spoke, I could tell that his home country, Nepal, was never far from his mind, particularly as it is now gripped by a political crisis which threatens to resuscitate dangerous social divisions.  He is visiting schools, government ministers, and civic institutions here in Lusaka to spread his message, and has several impressive binders of newspaper clippings—a testament to the warm welcome his cause has assured him around the world.  He’s met many dignitaries in Europe, Asia, the Americas, Australia, and Africa, but amongst the people he’d sat down with, I’d most have liked to have met Sir Edmund Hillary.

There are always interesting people coming through town, and some nights a researcher with the Zambian Carnivore Programme, or a guide of 18 years’ experience in southern Africa’s national parks show us pictures and regale us with stories of their work in national parks and game areas.  A guy cycling around the continent told a hair-raising safari about being besieged in his tent at night by carnivorous safari ants.


Compared to Kampala, Lusaka is a low-key sort of city, particularly in the tree-lined by-ways and closes which make up the more suburban part of town where I’m staying.  It makes for a nice change from the cheerful chaos of Old Kampala.  The National Archives are in the section of town dominated by government offices and embassies, and there are precious few people walking on the streets.  Lusaka is a very car-oriented city, and if this means that I can walk speedily along the sidewalks, unhindered by the presence of pedestrians who trace their antecedents to the Galapagos tortoises, it also means that drivers aren’t so used to pedestrians, and flinch violently if you come within about a mile of them. 

A few days ago, I was walking home and stopped in the middle of Independence Avenue to wait for the oncoming traffic to dissipate (not having been able to shake my East African street-crossing methods in this comparatively orderly city where cars actually obey the lights).  All at once an oncoming car stopped and waved me across.  In shock, my first thought was that he was trying to lure me out in front of his vehicle, whereupon he would slam down the gas pedal and turn me into a little smear of humanity on the pavement.  But it turned out that he was genuinely letting me cross in front of his car, and I was a bit light-headed as I waved my thanks and hurried on my way.

Like people everywhere, Lusakans love to complain about the traffic.  But they don’t realise how fortunate they are, and have clearly never seen anything like the 405, the Bay Bridge, or a city like Kampala...


The National Archives itself is a veritable paradise on earth after the scorched-earth sphere that comprises historical record repositories in Uganda.  Staff here in Lusaka are cheerful and knowledgeable, and there is no shortage of relevant historical material, so I am a happy camper.  I find myself waking up each morning wondering happily what I’ll find on that particular day.  They keep somewhat restricted hours, and so I can have a relaxed morning before starting off for work at 8.30.  And at 4.30, when I emerge from the library, the sun is still shining, although these days it has that early-evening look to it, as the winter days grow shorter. 


A German neighbour suggested that the next time I walk past KFC I take a look at the clientele.  And sure enough, they were mostly businessmen, dressed in smart suits and ties.  I would never have guessed that KFC could be quite so socially upscale!

My preferred trough is an Indian restaurant just around the corner from where I’m staying.  For approximately $5 you can get an all-you-can-eat vegetarian thali—three curries, nan, and rice in endless quantities.  Given that Lusaka is fairly expensive—much of the food and most other products are imported from South Africa—this is a splendid deal.  And best of all, it’s extremely tasty.  Zambian food itself leaves much to the imagination, being predictably bland.  In this part of the world, ugali goes by the name of nshima, but gains nothing in the way of taste in the translation.


There’s a friendly orange cat that lives on the premises.  Well, it’s friendly sometimes, especially if you’re eating dinner, at which point it mews anxiously and attempts to hypnotise me into dropping my fish and chips on the floor (it’s quite successful).  I’ve named it Paka (‘cat’ in Kiswahili), and have tried to train it to respond to Swahili commands, but this only seems to work if I happen to be sitting at the dinner table.  Otherwise it gives me that feline look which suggests I need to get lost. 

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