Sunday, June 9, 2013

Life in Lusaka

I’m aware that some people think the life of a history graduate student is rather glamorous because it involves reading dusty documents in far flung places.  And those of us labouring in the Country of Africa are thought to be living a particularly exotic existence.  While I’d have to rain on that parade wherever I was plumbing the archives, this is a particularly inaccurate interpretation of my life in the archives in Lusaka.  Here, I have walls, a roof, a nice mosquito net, hot showers, access to a kitchen, and interesting neighbours, including, but not limited to, a staff member from Kasanka National Park, the irrepressible Dr Sargazi of the Sargazi Medical Foundation, and a water pump expert from Oxford.  The other morning morning, by chance, I met the ex-wife of a former Provincial Game Officer who had operated in Northern Province in the 1950s! 

Work in the National Archives is a stodgy affair.  I troop in when they open at nine, take ten minutes for lunch around one o’clock, and then start home at four-thirty when they close.  I have to admit that a persistent case of jet-lag has sent me home early two days this week.  However, I’m somewhat pleased to report that I’m not the only one who gets a bit sleepy in the archives.  One day, someone at another desk managed the neat trick of falling asleep sitting bolt upright in their chair, snoring volubly.  Most of the others working in the building are not there for research, but are instead making use of the archives as a place for quiet study.  Some of them are students.  Others are professionals who are taking certificates and are doing a bit of cramming in advance of the exams that they hope will move them up a salary scale or open the way for a promotion.

The extent of my excitement comes when I run across a particularly interesting-looking document, something that I might be able to use in a chapter, or which changes the way I’m interpreting events in a particular time period or place.  Friday’s files involved poaching black lists, the work of honorary game wardens, elephant control duties, and mining operations in the national parks of Zambia...all mildly interesting in and of themselves, but nothing earth-shattering.  On some days, I confess, the most exciting moment comes when the clock hits 4.25 and I can begin packing up to go home and work on my chapters on the Tsavo Elephants, NGOs, and anti-wildlife politics.

Walking to work is not without its excitement, although traffic here is tame compared with Nairobi or Kampala, and since I was here last, they’ve finished construction on several corner buildings, meaning that there are now sidewalks to traverse, and that pedestrians are not engulfed in periodic dust storms from the construction sites.  One day, the good citizens of Lusaka were out in force collecting rubbish and pulling weeds alongside Church Road and its offshoots, carrying signs which read “Yes We Can”. 

The only real perilous part of my walk to work comes, funnily enough, when I pass the Road Transport and Safety Agency.  This is where aspiring drivers come to make the case that they should be unleashed onto Lusaka’s roads, and judged by several near escapes I’ve had in the vicinity, not all of them are ready just yet.  I’ve now learned to duck and roll into a ditch the moment I see a car bearing an “L” (for “learner”) barrelling down the road towards me. 

I set my chapters aside, took Saturday off, and with Jess, a neighbour from Calgary via Oxford in search of water pump data, set off to explore Lusaka’s hidden attractions.  Our first stop was an elephant sanctuary some miles out of town, down dusty tracks and past well-watered fields that stand in sharp contrast to their browning surroundings.  Palatial housing tracts peer from between stands of trees, sharply at odds with the tiny one-room dwellings and their shambas which appear at intervals along the rural road.  The Elephant sanctuary provides a temporary home for orphaned elephants from various parts of Zambia.  Here, they are given care and comfort by their keepers until they are well or large enough to be reintroduced, whereupon they are taken to Kafue National Park and gradually integrated into a local herd. 

We arrived just in time for their public feeding, and after rushing to get their bottles, the plucky little pachyderms gambolled about in an open mopane area under the viewing deck, like so many unruly teen-agers, their antics occasionally interrupted when one would test its vocal cords, emitting a wee version of the spine-tingling sound—somewhere between a scream and a roar—that is rather less cute and amusing in the bush.

We got a ride part-way back into town from a kindly Canadian expat, and used the stop as an excuse to get lunch, which turned out to be pizza, the procurement of which was a bafflingly Byzantine process.  After lunch, we caught a minibus back to town.  These vehicles (known as taxis, dala dalas, and matatus in various regions) ply their routes, conductors leaning out of their creaking edifices bellowing their destination (“Town!  Town!” in our case).  These vehicles remind me of the Christmas story in which successively larger animals cram themselves into a mitten until it explodes, an eventuality minibus drivers happily seem to have a knack for avoiding.  Once seated—Jess was perched on the knee of a fellow passenger in back, head scraping the roof—we careened off towards town, through light Saturday traffic, past street vendors who in the normal course of things would be selling snacks and framed photos of President Sata, but who today were selling Zambian flags and jerseys in anticipation of the national team’s thumping of Lesotho. 

We disembarked in town and lost ourselves pleasantly in the districts surrounding Cairo Road—the heart of Lusaka—before wandering over to the anonymously located National Museum.  I’d like to assume that this charming establishment has seen better days, but I’m not so sure.  The bottom floor was filled with an eclectic assortment of artwork, and a rather dilapidated vehicle, the provenance and historical significance of which wasn’t quite clear. 

The upper floors outlined Zambia’s history, with the use of a map (we developed some pneumonic devices for memorising African countries), some dioramas of ‘village life’, and a smattering of photocopied documents from the archives, pasted to boards and accompanied by photographs.  It’s nice to see a clearly underfunded institution doing its best to convey some sense of the country’s history, but it could use some sprucing up and more narrative form.  Perhaps if the currently academic job market reduces me to panhandling on Telegraph Avenue, I can get a gig as an historical consultant.  In the ladies, Jess interrupted a group of school girls who were taking advantage of the apparently-expansive mirror to practise a dance routine.  The gents offered no such surprises. 

From the museum, we wound our way homewards, through the city’s peaceful leafy back roads, and the inestimably lovely day left me re-charged for a Sunday full of writing, and another week back in the archives beginning Monday. 

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