Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Leaving Lusaka

A belated travel post.

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It’s a truism of historical research that slogging away in the archives—whether they’re in London or Lusaka, Kampala or Cambridge—can be a lonely business, particularly if not taken in reasonable doses.  In Britain in winter, you forget what sunshine looks like (which to be fair you could also do if you were outside all day long in one of the country’s soggy summers).  Fresh air becomes a valuable commodity, and when you emerge owl-eyed at the end of the day, you’re either famished for human conversation or hightail it at the sight of another living human being (I’m told that I tend to the latter, although that might just be in general).   

When the days are spent within the same four walls, it’s the small stuff that begins to matter.  Which explains the thrill I experienced on one of my last days at the National Archives in Zambia when, taking a break to head to the loo, I discovered a liquid soap dispenser there...full!  I wanted to find the individual responsible for this act of kindness and shake their hand.  This came just a week after the Archives had installed new ceiling lights, and these two events made my departure from the laid-back city all the more bittersweet, because they merely added to the pleasantness of what is already a good place to conduct research.

The archives quickly become a home away from home, which is most certainly not true of every record office in which I’ve whiled away months.  Those in Nairobi come closest.  The fact that there was no central archive defined my Ugandan experience, and bureaucratic hostility my absence of a significant Tanzanian archival experience.  While the Manuscripts Room of the Library of Congress in D.C. was highly-professional, the main Library edifice was a rabbit-warren of inefficiency (if this were really where members of Congress got their information, it would explain a lot), rivalled only by the British Library, which developed a knack for sending me the wrong files down from the north of England, meaning that I’d arrive fresh off the crowded morning train from Cambridge and come in out of the cold only to discover that no, I should come back in a few days, and maybe then they’d have the correct files.  And although incredibly efficient, you could not with the best will in the world describe the staff at Kew—the British National Archives—as particularly cheery. 

But in Lusaka, the staff are friendly and helpful, and the files are well-organised.  They retrieve documents quickly, they will help readers to puzzle out where to look for elusive documents, and someone is always around to answer questions. 

I will miss my dusty commute on foot from the Rhodes Park area into the government quarter, at the end of which I probably looked like I’d just come out the wrong end of a tornado, shoes buried in dust.  Speaking of shoes, people are big on shoes.  I’m pretty sure that when you first meet people, they often cast an eye downwards to your footwear as a means of evaluating your character, status, and the care you take in your personal appearance.  I can tell that I’m a dismal failure in each of these respects, as the corners of the mouth turn downwards and there comes the almost imperceptible shake of the head in despair.

It’s always interesting to hear what other researchers are working on.  Dr. Marja Hinfelaar, lately of the National Archives’ digitisation project, and patron saint in Zambia of international researchers, is coordinating efforts to commemorate the 50 years since independence that Zambia will have counted off next year by editing a journal based around the topic.  Ken Opalo, a Kenyan political scientist from an institution across the water which shall not be named, was working at Zambia’s parliament on a comparative study of Zambia and Kenya’s parliaments after independence.  And Hikabwa Chipande, a Zambian historian from Michigan State was heading into a year of research and fieldwork on the history of football (soccer) in the context of Zambian nationalism and development. 

Football is a subject about which Zambians are enthusiastic, and Chipolopolo, as the national team is known, has one final Zambitious shot at making it to the World Cup if they win a match against Ghana next month (a tall order).  I didn’t make ‘Zambitious’ up...it’s an Airtel advertising slogan, and the phone company is not alone in capitalising on the country’s name.  There is Zamtel, another mobile provider.  And Zambeef, which is self-explanatory.  Restaurants will describe themselves as Zamlicious.  And people will tell you that nshima is Zamtastic! 

I made the last bit up, but people are pretty into their nshima, which is a maize-based staple taken as a kind of comfort food with most meals together with veggies, maybe some chicken, and hopefully a bit of relish for flavour, because nshima’s defining characteristic (aside from its ubiquity, of course) is its utter tastelessness.  On my last day at the archives I crossed the street to splash out on a lunch of pork chops, vegetables, and nshima.  I will never be a skilful handler of the oh-so-Zambian dish.  I’m told that I lack technique, and in spite of my best efforts, I’ll never quite be able to compensate by way of enthusiasm.  On this occasion I managed to burn all the feeling out of my fingers working a big gob of the stuff into shape to make a grab at some beans.  

After lunch I made a final swing through some files and after bidding the staff a fond farewell, ended my final day in the archives on a note of patriotism and bureaucratic defiance, listing my country of origin on the sign-out sheet as “The Republic of California”.

The weather had been getting nice in Lusaka, but that night there was a bit of a cold spell.  Nonetheless, I braved the waning Zambian winter to do the obligatory farewell supper at Mahak’s (of the bottomless veg thalis) with the long-suffering Canadian Comrades, Jen and Jess, who had another couple of weeks of their work and research in conjunction with the University Teaching Hospital.

As I took a taxi to the airport the following morning, after bidding farewell to Dickson and the other good people at the Lusaka Backpackers, the city was gearing up for the annual agricultural show.  What the Royal Ascot is for Britain, the Ag Show is for Zambia...the social event of the season.  There was some dismay that there were no VIPs from abroad in attendance—one fear being that Robert Mugabe’s prominence at last year’s show has tarnished its brand.  Maybe, like Mugabe himself, the show will make a comeback next year.

At the airport, the men’s loo was out of order and under construction, but that didn’t stop the guy ahead of me, so I too pried my way through the yellow tape and clawed my way through the rubble.  Shortly thereafter, I was airborne, looking a bit sadly back towards a very nice country and hoping that I will return to revisit it and its historical repositories.  The Kenya Airways flight touched down in Lilongwe to let people off and refuel.  Bizarrely, a group of Malawian soldiers, in scarlet uniforms, came marching across the tarmac like some sort of honour guard. 

And then we were off, and soon passing over the massive expanse of Lake Malawi.  The country itself was covered by thick clouds which created a topography all of their own: rolling hills, plains, what might have been forests, and spectacular plateaus.  The high country drops abruptly to the water, rimmed by strips of beaches and small towns.  Then we were heading over Mozambique, cruising over verdant vales, dry ridges, sharp escarpments, and dusty towns. 

Even as the plane left the Lake behind, its presence was still identifiable...a long, narrow gap in the clouds running north.   There were dense clouds over Mozambique and Tanzania, but in some places they looked like cotton that had been stretched to the point of translucence.

Before long we were touching down in Nairobi, and I was through passport control at Jomo Kenyatta International in no time, unaware that the immigration offices and arrivals hall would be a smoking wreck a week later.  As I got a cab I breathed in the Kenyan air deeply...and was promptly reduced to a fit of coughing which was an appropriate beginning to the two-hour cab ride into the traffic-ridden, smog-filled, and yet somehow still lovely city. 

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