Sunday, August 5, 2012

Lusaka to Nairobi

Returning to the YMCA in Nairobi always feels a bit like coming home, so it was nice to arrive in time for a hearty dinner of fish, rice and sukuma.  I was, however, a bit sad to leave Lusaka, where I’ve had very productive days in the archives and met many an interesting traveller and resident.

On my last day in town, I went to get my hair cut.  I go to Paul, who has a busy if crumbling shop in the dilapidated Northmead market, tin roofs on wall-less shops held down by metal chair legs, chunks of cement, and plywood.  The market stalls and shops are built on a large dirt area that becomes a bit of a maze.  In the ladies’ salon next to the barber, you’ll often see one woman patiently sitting on the ground while a half dozen people surround her, manhandling her hair into whatever is the latest style in Lusaka.  Paul cuts hair for what I regard as a pittance, and is the only one of the barbers in the shop who will touch a foreigner’s hair (even though mine is pretty basic).  I could tell that winter was in retreat because Paul had ditched his usual cap and scarf for a Zambian soccer jersey. 

I was first sent to the barber at Northmead by Dr. Shahab Sargazi, who left Iran many years ago and is a sometime fellow citizen of the People’s Republic of Berkeley.  He’s now been in Zambia for a few years and does a daily health information segment on Muvi-TV’s “Sunrise” Breakfast Show.  A cross between the energiser bunny and a genial inquisitor, he has become the scourge of official indifference and social ennui, broadcasting on topics ranging from HIV and violence against women to heart disease and obesity.  Such is his celebrity in Zambia that the political cartoon, African Parliament, has created a character for him, complete with a Zambian interpretation of an Iranian accent and the Doctor’s trademark gestures.

The most committed traveller I’ve met in Lusaka has been Furtemba Sherpa, who is on a 17-year cycling tour of the world to promote world peace and environmental sustainability.  He crosses continents pulling a tiny trailer behind his bike, the handlebars bedecked with the Nepalese flag, peace flags, and the banner of his current country.  The regulars—all of us in danger of coming down with the Lusaka Twitch (I don’t know if even Dr. Sargazi could find a remedy for that)—also enjoyed the company of Noeline Tredoux, a South African motorcyclist, gamely making her way around the continent while blogging and taking some wonderful photos. 

One of the taxi drivers on permanent duty outside of the Lusaka Backpackers, James, has the energy and commitment of men half his age.  Not only does he ferry people to and from the airport and all around the city, he works tirelessly for the Lusaka Funeral Association, a locally-run organisation which seeks to tackle the many problems associated with a death in the family in a country like Zambia.  The association not only strives to cover the cost of a coffin, but provides support and vocational training for spouses left behind, and runs its own school for the children of the dead who would otherwise be unable to afford instruction.  James, who experienced life on the streets first-hand as a young man, has repeatedly said that he believes that children should be able to live life as children for as long as possible.  I’ve had many a fascinating conversation with James, who is a regular presence on Zambian TV and radio, about society and politics in Zambia, and he proves the old adage that taxi drivers can be the best source of information about all facets of their city or country.

Speaking of taxis, on my penultimate day in Zambia, I was dragged to a pizza dinner by an intern from the Centre for International Forestry Research and a volunteer in the Matero compound, the former from Germany and the latter from Nebraska (I know, I had to look at the map too).  The pizza, though excellent, was slow in coming, so we opted to take a taxi back once we’d finished.  To make conversation after we’d browbeaten him into lowering his price, the taxi driver asked where we were from.  The Nebraskan said “Nebraska”, and he responded, puzzled, “Is that a real place?”, or words to that effect.  When I said “California”, he cried, “Ah, California, what a good place!”  What could I do but agree? 

The pizza was good, but the eatery that shall ever remain dear to my heart and prominent in my dreams long after the copious amounts of tasteless nshima I’ve consumed have faded away will be Mahak, an Indian restaurant on the Great East Road.  The menu is a mile long, offering among other things, curry with “black paper”, but veterans don’t go past the first page: for a mere 25,000 Kwacha (five dollars), you can have the bottomless Veg Thali, which consists of three vegetarian curries, nan, another type of flatbread, yoghurt, and some vegetables.  Did I mention that it’s ‘all you can eat’?  The chicken hydrabadi, the ‘mutton’ vindaloo, and numerous other dishes are also excellent (I’ve spent more time in Mahak than is healthy, but food with flavour’s not easy to come by, and the price is right), and they all go best washed down with some masala tea, although my efforts to get the kitchen to crank up the heat on some of the dishes to non-African levels were ultimately futile. 

A word about nshima.  Kenyans and Tanzanians are mighty fond of their ugali, Ugandans would struggle without their posho, South Africans wax nostalgically about their pap, and Zimbabweans more or less live off of their sadza.  But nobody loves their maize staple—which can range in consistency from a porridge-like substance to a brick which could be wielded to deadly effect in a bar fight—like the Zambians.  Badmouth nshima and you have insulted the entire Zambian nation.  Wars have been fought over less.  Suggest for one moment that the sticky maize-flour, made palatable by the accompanying veggies, sauce or chicken, is anything less than a gourmet meal, and be prepared for the dressing-down of your life! 

But all good things come to an end, and so after sharing a cab to Lusaka’s airport with a Coaches Across Continents volunteer on her way back to the U.S., I found myself walking across the warm, sunny tarmac to climb onto the Kenya Airways flight, buffeted by the draft of an arriving South African Air jet, and shortly thereafter, arriving in cloudy, moist, cool Nairobi just in time to hear about another bombing in Eastleigh and to hit the sort of traffic coming into town that would make the Lusakans who complain about their gridlock put things into perspective.  The taxi driver updated me on the latest political gossip, and I gasped with horror and plugged my ears as he casually revealed that he’s in the business of writing essays for students at American universities to make some extra cash to pay for the law degree he’d like to start in due course.  He apparently writes about all sorts of interesting topics, and I’m hoping that none of his handiwork has ever come across my desk.    

The YMCA is as cheery as ever, largely unchanged (the staff have some nifty new uniforms), and it’s nice to be back in Nairobi, which bustles in a way that Lusaka just can’t manage.  It’s still quite cool and grey here, the weather apparently not having looked at the calendar (usually things begin warming up at least a little bit in August), and the Nairobi Java House staff have their winter fleeces on.  When I arrived at the archives, I did a double-take as I mistook the archivist for an Alaskan seal hunter, so well-wrapped was he.  There was no mistaking Mzee Richard Ambani, patron saint of researchers, as he crossed the threshold to take my request slips. 

I couldn’t resist the lure of the superb Prestige Bookshop, and I’m currently dividing my time between Richard Peet’s Unholy Trinity: the IMF, World Bank and WTO, and one of Laurie R. King’s Holmes and Russell mysteries, the latter on my trusty kindle.  Life, in other words, is good. 

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