Saturday, June 16, 2012

Lusaka: Sights & Activities


Well, the truth, as even the Lonely Planet book has to admit, is that Lusaka is not a happening place in any conventional sense.  There are no spectacular palaces, overwhelming museums, resplendent cultural displays, particularly lively markets, or picturesque waterways to be found.  There are malls, which for affluent Zambians are apparently the place to go.  If you want to go to a cafe, your best bet is a mall, which for me defeats the purpose of the whole enterprise... 

But there are lovely (albeit dusty) tree-lined streets, disconcertingly serene in comparison to the byways in many other capitals on the continent.  There are, in many parts of town, sidewalks which, after Kampala, might as well be the Champs Elysees, so much space do the handful of pedestrians in the city have to gambol about their business.  Lusaka’s basic pleasantness and rather stodgy atmosphere makes it the perfect place to work.

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There is, of course, the National Archives, a set of structures which are admittedly more functional than elegant.  The doors screech against the floor, my shoes squeak obnoxiously, there’s neither paper nor soap in the loo, and as the weather’s grown colder I’ve noticed a sharp air-current cutting through the library from somewhere.  But it’s well-organised, professionally-run, and the staff are infinitely friendlier (and more efficient and reliable) than their counterparts at the Library of Congress or the British Library who were born with over-sized chips on their shoulders.  They’re also considerably more human than the computer consoles through which you manage your documentary delivery at Kew.  I haven’t met anyone here who matches Richard Ambani’s inhumanly encyclopaedic knowledge of the Kenya National Archives, but they have good catalogues and an on-going digitisation process to make up for it. 

Digitisation will be a boon for future researchers, and not only because the process promises to make the historical record more accessible.  In too many archives and libraries that I’ve visited in East Africa, files are literally crumbling away year by year.  Kenya’s National Archives are situated in a rather grand colonial-era building on a busy road downtown.  This location, however, means that documents and researchers alike suffer from the hazards posed by the lack of a temperature-controlled environment, noise, movement, and pollution, all of which expose paper records to a substantial rate of decay.  The digitisation project in Zambia is sponsored by the Finnish Embassy, and seems worthy of emulation.

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Generally, work for me at the archives follows a predictable pattern of turning up at nine, taking a five-minute lunch break just before one, and then stumbling it out, bleary-eyed but contented shortly after four.  But a couple of weeks ago I met a two siblings who’d come down to Lusaka to investigate a cousin’s inheritance right involving a chieftaincy, which shall go un-named.  It seems that their cousin is a claimant to a higher-ranking chieftaincy which would put him in running for a paramount chieftaincy in northern Zambia.  If they find the documentation they’re looking for, they will have to submit it to various levels of authority to determine whether the claim will go forward.  I know that a high percentage of users of the National Archives at Kew are there for genealogical purposes, but the stakes are presumably seldom as high as this! 

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I’ve picked up some bad habits during the course of my research trip, particularly when it comes to traffic etiquette, and these are liable to get me killed upon my return to the U.S.  On Friday I found myself in the middle of the intersection at Church and Independence Roads, fumbling through my wallet for the correct change to buy some ‘talk-time’ from a vendor who was whistling impatiently as he scanned the cars roaring by on all sides, each passing vehicle potentially a lost-customer.  Enveloped in exhaust from a passing big-rig which passed so close that I could almost feel it, it was difficult to distinguish the 1,000 kwacha notes from the 10,000 ones that I needed to be able to get sufficient time to call my mother to let her know that I’m still in the land of the living and haven’t been eaten by lions—BEEP!—or abducted by pirates—HONK!—or—SQUEAL!—flattened by some irresponsible driver. 

The land-rovers and assorted SUVs that rumble around Lusaka seem a bit over the top at first glance, but when you consider that swathes of the country are practically under-water for months at a time after the rains, they make a bit more sense. 

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I’ll spend part of my week-end sitting out-of-doors pining after a California summer, reading from my Mark Twain anthology.  But just now I’m going to retire indoors with a mug of tea to escape the cold and lick my wounds after my abortive attempt to make tortillas and gorditas using breakfast maize meal.  Something in the consistency was off, and I might have to wait to satisfy my cravings until late-August.

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