Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Life in the Archives

Seven hours of sitting hunched at a desk over faded files in dim light takes a lot out of me, whatever the thrills of finding something new and exciting.  So I’m always a little shell-shocked when I finally stand up, unplug my laptop, tidy up my desk corner, hand back my finished files and put a little ‘reserved’ sign on the unfinished ones,  and stumble out into the dying hour of sunlight after bidding farewell until tomorrow to the cheery, helpful staff at the desk.

Yesterday must have been a particularly long day, because when I was a hundred meters or so out of the gate and down the road, I realised that I was still clutching ZNA.SEC/6/196 in my clammy hands.  I gasped with horror at my inadvertent theft and hurried back to the building to surrender the precious file to the desk. 

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I saw a speed indicator on Church Road in Lusaka the other day.  It flashes out the speed of passing vehicles, but I couldn’t tell whether it was having any effect on the light but consistent traffic that churns around town. 

It’s a bit sad to see the preponderance of unnecessarily massive SUVs coursing around Lusaka.  Given the rough roads beyond the capital, some people undoubtedly do need a heavy-duty vehicle, but many of these are sufficiently shiny that I feel comfortable saying they’ve never gone beyond Lusaka’s suburbs.  As in the U.S., it seems that owning a massive car is more of a status thing, and it’s a preoccupation which is undoubtedly costly to those who breathe in the city’s polluted air, brave its traffic each morning and evening, and face its under-regulated and under-serviced public transportation on a daily basis.  It’s too bad that the west’s costly experiment with the “bigger is better” philosophy hasn’t informed the decisions that other societies take about how to get around and how to build their cities.

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I was reacquainted—solely through various secretariat files (SEC ), thankfully—with Mr Muspratt, a world-class ranter whose efforts put my own harangues against officialdom to shame.  In this case, Game Department officials gave as good as they got, the long-suffering director referring to Muspratt as “a gentleman of independent means, neurosis and strong political feelings”.

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I found myself waiting in the immigration office the other day, and suddenly noticed that several of the men also waiting in the front room were speaking Kiswahili with one another.  Guessing that they were Tanzanian, I tried out my mangled Swahili, and they were thrilled, in spite of my basic unintelligibility and their total lack of English (it must be difficult for them to work in Zambia).  They got a real kick out of hearing that young American students at Berkeley High have the opportunity to learn Swahili, and one of them proudly bragged to one of his comrades, “See, Swahili is a global language!”

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If ever I die coming or going from the archives, it will most likely be the fault of a trainee driver who fails to look where they’re going when they turn out of the Road Safety Agency that I pass every day.  But last week, those maniacs were given a run for their money when I nearly walked into a pick-axe being wielded with more abandon than precision by a worker tearing up a strip of concrete outside the ministry of finance.  I was day-dreaming as I meandered home, and only the intervention of his co-worker prevented my head being cleft in two.

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There were bed bugs in one of the neighbouring hostel blocks over the week-end, and the pest control officer was summoned.  His arrival was heralded by a squeaking and clanking sound, and he soon rattled through the gate on a bicycle that had seen better days—possibly back in the mid-twentieth century—all of his equipment perched on the back.  He cheerfully proceeded to blast the offending room with chemicals which, he assured the spectators, were “environmentally friendly”. 

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I’m happy to report that I’ve met some Cal alums around Zambia.  There was a former football player and sometime Peace Corps worker, who’d stayed on in the country and was heading briefly back to Bakersfield before returning to start up a farm and agricultural development program in Zambia.  And then there was a Dutch student travelling around Southern Africa who’d done a semester abroad at Berkeley, and had wonderful memories of the experience.  And I got a lift home one evening from a water aid worker who lives up in Samfya and had an engineering degree from Cal.  I also met a Norwegian political risk analyst who asked if I knew that his country’s Crown Prince had briefly attended Berkeley (he had, in fact, stayed at the International House).  It’s good to see former residents of the People’s Republic scattered around the world doing good works. 

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The spot in Lusaka which shall always be dearest in my heart is Mahak’s, an unpretentious Indian eatery off of the Great East Road.  The Sunday dosa special was a bit skimpy, and the price of the bottomless veg thali may have gone up, but the latter is still an excellent deal, and various other dishes—lamb vindaloo, chicken hydrabadi, and chicken kolhapuri, for example, best taken with garlic nan—are exquisite.

Although I have to admit that there’s something nice and comforting about facing a big pile of nshima, the flavourless staple which inevitably accompanies vegetable or meat dishes in Zambia.   

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