No Problem in Lusaka



In January 1997 Dennis Kennedy, then a lecturer at Queen's University Belfast, travelled to Zambia to discuss an EU-funded project involving several European universities and colleges in developing countries. Here is his diary of the week in Lusaka.

Thursday January 9, 1997.

The jumbo from Gatwick is stuffed; not an empty seat. Three hundred and seventy something people packed into a large box and hurled half way around the world in half a day. It is either marvellous or terrifying, but which ever the effect was, it was rather spoiled at Harare, where we stopped to off-load three quarters of the passengers and change the crew. We had to sit on board for an hour or so, and the onward flight was then delayed further because, as we were informed over the intercom, we had to wait for the pilot., who had overslept at his hotel. The hotel had failed to give him his wake-up call, we were told, as if this is an adequate explanation. Perhaps it is; after all we are back in Africa.

At Lusaka airport we come down the jumbo steps in warm rain. The airport is not bad, and we are through customs, immigration and everything else in half an hour. I search in vain for the promised forms on currency importation - with memories of once in Tehran, where I had somehow failed to fill one in, and was almost detained at the Ayotollah's pleasure when I tried to leave without one - but here there are none. I ask, and am told not to worry, but I do, a little. Is this a third world ruse to generate hard currency?

Surprise, surprise, just through customs there is a solemn African gentleman holding aloft a piece of cardboard inscribed Dr Dennis Kennedy. It is Singabole L Bongo himself., so I am spared the Traveller's Challenge - that is finding the cheapest way possible from airport to strange city or hotel. To take a taxi and pay what is asked is chickening out. Better to waste hours, walk miles, and even end up paying more, than simply to give way and do the easy thing.

The only walk this time is to the car park, perspiring freely. Mr Bongo's car is modest and thoroughly thief-proofed. We drive out onto roads instantly familiar from a previous life in Africa - potholes, puddles, edged with lush vegetation and gashes of read earth, plus the occasional army checkpoint. The landscape is flat - no hills, let alone mountains - yet I know from the atlas we are at a considerable altitude. I ask Mr B. how high Lusaka is, what is its altitude. He says he does not know; he never thought about that. (I later inquire from him the name of the rather exotic trees with fern like leaves which line the road. He says there is no name; they are just ordinary trees. I can see Mr S L B. is going to be a mine of information.)

We reach the hotel without ever finding Lusaka - at least we pass no city, just lots of greenery, and then tree-lined roads with occasional houses hiding behind hedges, gates, storm ditches. The Fairview Hotel is modest; certainly no sign of a pool; definitely not 'international' class. But the staff are friendly, the room reasonable - twin beds, TV, trouser-press, fan (broken) no air conditioning, bathroom with tub and shower, and all clean. By now it is two in the afternoon, sorry 14 hours, as everyone talks in 24 hour clock time. After a lemonade with S L Bongo on the terrace, which, after the rain, is blistering hot, I retire to Room 112 to try to sleep.

But much banging and talking echo through the hotel so give up and decide to have a shower. The shower does not work - that is it delivers no more than a vertical dribble. I decide to complain. At reception the girl points out that I have a tub, and can use that. I say I also want to use the shower. She suggests moving me to a room without a tub, but with a working shower. I say no. She says she will ask 'maintenance' to look at my shower.

Then out of the hotel onto what S B. has told me is the main road to the city centre. I stride along the dirt track alongside the rather busy road, under the Ordinary Trees, towards some high buildings. One of these, on my left, turns out to be the College of Applied Arts and Commerce - this is painted in large letters on a wall, beneath which women are cooking large corn cobs on braziers made out of the metal centres of car wheels. The corn is for sale, as is much else in an increasing profusion of make-shift stalls along the road.

Things become more city-like as I cross the fly-over, the main road rising over what turns out to be Lusaka's main railway station, and dropping down to Cairo Road, the main thoroughfare. From the fly-over I can see a supermarket, shops, more stalls, lots of people, hawkers, beggars. Looks a bit like Addis Ababa thirty years ago, though less interesting and less busy (also no donkeys).

The supermarket turns out to be well-stocked with food and hardware. Even has Genuine Scotch Kippers, and an appalling range of plastic toys, including a distant cousin of Barbie. The meat at the meat counter/abattoir is plentiful and rich, the smell overpowering. At the one exit from the supermarket two security men check each shopper, matching the till receipt with the contents of the bag, and then solemnly tearing the receipt. Back to the Fairview.

About 7 in the evening, sorry 19, I decide it is time to eat, having had nothing since part of an awful British Airways breakfast twelve hours earlier. I descend towards the dining room, to find a dance in full swing - about 20 young Zambians hopping around to live music. I retreat to the Bar/Coffee Lounge and take a seat. A young waitress comes in and I ask her can I eat here. No problem, she replies. What can I have, T-Bone and chips, or chicken. What about fish? No problem. What sort of fish? Bream, no problem. I order bream and chips, to which she replies No Problem.

One hour later she returns with the bream and chips. The bream, small and black, but whole and entire, eyes me suspiciously from its bed of bright yellow-orange chips, garnished with lettuce and tomato. The bream, inside his black skin, is delicious. Not so the chips, but they are eatable. Fanta, that most African of drinks, has to serve as wine, as the latter comes, no problem, but only in a full bottle.

It has taken five minutes to dispose of bream & co, so I order coffee. No problem. Fifty minutes later Miss No Problem returns with the coffee - that is with a tray holding a cup and saucer, a bowl of coffee power, a jug of hot water, and a jug of hot milk. She carefully measures a spoonful of coffee powder from the bowl into my cup, adds the hot water and leaves me to stir it. This DIY coffee making continues throughout my stay at the Fairview, though at breakfast the politeness of the white bowl is dispensed with and the coffee tin itself appears on the tray. One is, however, invited to approve the amount of coffee on the spoon.

And so to bed. The room is comfortable, if rather warm. No mosquitoes. I read, sleep, waken and read. About 4 o'clock I realise with horror that I have almost finished all the reading matter I have brought, and this is still my first night. I finished Don Akenson's Small Differences on the 12 hour flight, and now I am three quarters way through the Michael Dibden thriller I brought. I take a couple of aspirin and fall asleep thinking what a waste of time and effort the whole thing is. This is partly a reflection on the EC-funded project, about which I have profound misgivings, and partly a familiar feeling of hopelessness that always overtakes me when I am faced again with the reality of 'underdevelopment', particularly African underdevelopment. Zambia looks even worse than Tanzania did a decade ago. I had noted a complete absence of post cards at the hotel reception.

Friday January 10th.

Surprise, surprise, I get up to find the shower had indeed been fixed during my walk yesterday. Now it offers a steady stream of water - cold water. I decline the Full English Breakfast and help myself to bananas, toast and delicious mini-croissants from the buffet. I seek out the Irish Aid Tourism Training Project which is located in a part of the hotel, and meet Mr Gerry Hughes, originally from Strand Road Sandymount, who is head of it. He arranges to pick me up that night and take me to the Frog and Firkin.

Mr S L Bongo arrives on time to drive me to the Ministry of Education where I meet my first 'expert', an EU-funded, British Council Canadian. After that meeting I explore the Holiday Inn next door, and realise how far down market I am at the Fairview. Then by taxi to the College of A A and C to meet S L B and his staff. The college sits in about 70 acres of ground, not well-tended, but not scruff either. The Business Studies Department is housed in a modern red-brick building of Swedish design and construction which must have been quite striking when it was built about 10 years ago, I would guess. Inside it has open areas in the centre, surrounded by galleries with striking murals and exposed pipes (like the Pompidou Centre). But it is too gloomy inside for anything to grow in the open areas, and the floor and wall tiles are starting to disappear.

All doors boast stout pad-locks. S L Bongo's office is large, by Queen's University Belfast standards, and we have a staff meeting around his table - about seven in all. It is very sticky at first (no wonder, given the lightweight nature of my project) but then it goes OK, and one or two of the younger staff (all Zambian at this meeting) begin to spark up. They are well-up in their subjects, and the meeting is helpful.

Back to the Fairview - five minutes on foot - and decide on a snack lunch on the terrace. I order a chicken sandwich (there is no other). An hour later it arrives, very small, and containing scraps of warm chicken. I meet again the African chicken, that mixture of small bones, bits of gristle and sinew, with the odd tiny jackpot of flesh. I retire to the horizontal in my room to finish off Dibden, and waste two hours. Then back to meet S L Bongo. This time I bump into one of the staff from the morning meetingwho introduces me to a young(ish) Dutch lady who lectures in computing. Chat to her and find out a bit more about life in Lusaka and about the college, where to shop, where to find a book shop. Better still she offers me the freedom of her book shelves.

I abandon the college, find a taxi and head for the bookshop, in a different part of Lusaka. This is Northmead; busier than Cairo Road, and with a small market. It is almost a relief to be pestered by hawkers, selling mostly malachite and silver. I buy some, find the bookshop, spend US$16 on Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and escape by taxi.

Back at the Fairview things are hopping. The terrace is now occupied by a pop group belting out 'live' music. I retreat to my room, and try to read. But the terrace opens out of the end of the corridor - uncarpeted - on which my room stands, and the corridor acts as a very efficient amplifier of the music. I try television, but another pop group is belting out similar music there. So I decide to go down to the lobby and wait there for Mr Gerry Hughes. As I pass the terrace I notice that the band looks rather familiar - it is the one I have just seen on TV.

On the way down I pass a couple of posses of what can only be the local houris out for business. In the lobby all becomes clear - tomorrow is the Big Match between Zambia and South Africa, a soccer world cup eliminator, and the hotel is in for a bonanza week-end, as are the houris. The arrival of a coach party from Johannesburg (36 hours by road) is imminent. I park myself in a corner of the lobby and watch. They arrive, and spill from the coach - all shapes and sizes, and colours though mostly black, singing and shouting and lugging crate after crate of beer. The houris swoop on the lobby, cases get lost, chaos reigns supreme. Soccer mania African style is not much different from anywhere else, though at the moment seems much more good humoured. Bafana, Bafana is the cry.

G Hughes of Strand Road is late, and I find myself in the middle of the maelstrom in deep conversation with the 400 metres hurdles champion (ladies) of Zambia, whose sister and brother in law have arrived on the coach, and whose desperate need to find a rich sponsor has drawn her to the only muddy grey complexion in sight - mine. Gerry arrives and hauls me off before I am tempted into major sports sponsorship.

We drive to the Frog and Firkin, which he describes as one of the better watering holes, much favoured by the Irish. It is a bit like a large shed, with a classy entrance. Inside it is all loud music, noise, and Irish aid workers. It is, in fact, a mini-brewery, with a long bar along one wall, and the other three housing the vats and pipes or whatever it is they use to make the beer. The house beer supplements the endless stocks of Rhino. It is packed mainly with Zambians I realise after we have penetrated the crowd of Irish near the door. After an hour we are invited along to a party at somebody's apartment. We drive in convoy - drinking and driving cause neither moral nor legal problems here, it seems - and arrive at a modern (sort of) block of flats, where an Irish aid worker is entertaining a motley collection of locals, expats and others.

Stay for an hour, and then Gerry drops me back to the hotel, near midnight. Everything going full blast. My bed vibrates; reading impossible, never mind sleep. Sometime between one and two the music stops, and the voices and the slamming doors fade. I go asleep remembering I have had no dinner, and practically no lunch.

Saturday Jan 11

It's Saturday - no appointments, and its the Big Match. At least I can watch it on TV. At breakfast I sneak an extra banana as possible lunch or dinner. I read for a couple of hours, then walk up to the Pamodzi Hotel (about a mile away). Very plush with its own health spa and a single room, no breakfast, at 120$ US. Even so it is also stuffed with soccer fans, many of them South African, including a sprinkling of South African whites waving their new ANC/Afrikaner flag. But again most are black. Wonder are they paying 120$ a night. Wonder if I have the brass neck to walk into the health spa and have a swim. Probably not in both cases.

I opt instead for a comfortable seat in the lounge, and order coffee and scones. (This is an 'international' hotel, so the waiter mixes the coffee powder and water before he brings it to your table.) Turns out coffee and a scone means two scones, small but rather delicious, with butter and apricot jam. Decide this will be lunch today. In the event it is also dinner.

The Big Match (on TV) is a big bore and I sleep peacefully through parts of it. The result is a national disaster, for the 0-0 draw means Zambia will find it very hard to qualify for the World Cup finals in France. Not sure what this result means in terms of my getting any sleep tonight. In the end, not too bad; all the Zambians must be in mourning. I spend most of Saturday evening looking forward to Sunday and lunch with John K. of the Accountancy project, who, through Bongo, has invited me. I am, to ring him at eight tomorrow morning to confirm. About one am I wake up and suddenly think what a crazy arrangement; surely I should have phoned him at 8.00 on Friday morning. Why on earth 8.00 on Sunday? Was it really his home number Bongo had given me. Worry about it all night, until 8.00 when I get the hotel to ring the number (have found the phone in my room is ornament only). My friend the receptionist says sorry, no reply. I try again at 8.20, at 9.00 and at 10.00. No one is replying, I am told. I then try my friend Gerry Hughes to see if I have got the right number. He does not know, but gives me the number of someone who might. I try him and assured that the number I have is the right one. I try it again, and again, and about mid-day I give up and resign myself to my own company for the day.

By way of compensation I decide I will walk to the Holiday Inn and buy myself the best lunch kwatchas can buy. Hotter and dustier I arrive at the Holiday Inn to find the main restaurant closed, and the classy grill room not open until 1900. My only hope is McGinty's Traditional Irish Bar, which looks OK, has fetching waitresses and offers pub grub. I opt for leek soup and lamb curry with rice. The soup is almost untouchable; the lamb curry has rice and curry sauce, but the lamb consists almost entirely of bone, gristle and unidentifiable bits. It is positively frightful. I dissect it in search of tiny pieces of lamb. At least the glass of red wine is good. I order 'peach dessert' and hope for better things. It never arrives, so I pay the bill and leave.

For the rest of the day I overdose on Gospel, on my TV set. Zambia seems overrun by it - mostly American (black) but with one big local programme too. It is almost all Pentecostal, with much 'slaying' and healing. It all seems the reverse of what happened before - then it was the natives who had the voodoo and the witchcraft, while the missionaries brought them beads. Now the missionaries bring the voodoo and the witchcraft and the natives sell them beads of malachite. Listening to gospel preaching in Lusaka on a thundery, hot afternoon it all sounds incredibly superstitious, a lot of juju. 'Jesus is alive' - in other words the dead man walks, the dead man is watching you. Was I once part of all this?

Anyway, the voodoo, Kate Atkinson and a rather good thunderstorm get me through a very long Sunday in room 112.

Monday Jan 13

Things are looking better. First, I had a good night's sleep. Albeit in instalments, and then, miracle of miracles, hot water. Lots of it. (Not in the shower, of course, but in the tub.) I am so carried away I order the 'full English breakfast', except the baked beans. Very promptly I have a plate with three tiny bits of very salty bacon, and one sausage, sliced longitudinally. And decorated with parsley and a carrot cut up to look like a tree. The sausage is not English; very highly spiced, inedible.

I walk over to the College and meet Mrs Vos, the Dutchwoman and arrange to borrow some books. Then on to the Accountancy Centre and meet Ronan (Irish) and John (English, from Cork) - my lost host of yesterday. I tell him I tried ringing, but there was no answer. He says Oh Yes, his phone did ring once or twice, but there was no one there when he answered. Clearly my non-appearance had not spoiled his Sunday, whatever it did to mine..

Both of them are very downbeat about my project. Back to college and the Dutch lady. She lives in a bungalow of sorts in the 70 acre grounds. Modest but not bad. I take Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and two thrillers. Lunch at the hotel is a bottle of Fanta and a bag of crisps (not very nice crisps.) In the afternoon I take a taxi to the Zambia Export Board building in Cairo Road and have two unscheduled meetings with an expert at the board, and another with COMESA. (The Common Market of Southern and Eastern Africa - as I actually happen to know, being co-author of Regional Trading Blocs, Multilateralism and the New Gatt Agreement. I think I might actually have sold a copy to one of the experts.)

Anyway both are deeply sceptical about my project, and not too polite either, but well-worth talking to. As I leave the clouds have rolled up and it is starting to rain. No taxis, of course, so I hoof it back to college. Business Studies is deserted; so is S L Bongo's outer office. I knock on his door. No answer, so I walk in. There in the gloom is S L Bongo, sitting at this desk, fast asleep. I greet him warmly, and loudly, and he inquires how my day was and then drives me home, to the Fairview. Raining heavily now, so it looks like dinner chez moi. Meanwhile I note the Catholicss have joined the TV voodoo club, albeit in somewhat restrained fashion..

Dinner means friend Bream again. Full menu is less than £5, soup and dessert included. The soup is leek and potato and not bad, only someone had spilled the pepper pot into it. This bream was like his late cousin, only bigger (slightly) and better. Dessert was banana gateau - very good, very sophisticated and very banana. I go mad and have a bottle of wine, Nederburg Baronne from Paarl, at 35,000 kwatchas. Almost worth it. It is almost 30 years since I was in Paarl. Wonder what happened to the nice Anglican vicar and his wife who entertained me then. By the same token it is almost 30 years since I first tasted wine from Paarl, on the Brown Train (not the Blue) from Cape Town to Johannesburg (was down market even in those days, ever the cheapskate, which is why I am now in the Fairview eating bream instead of the Pamodzi). Nice and cold in the room tonight after two hours of solid rain.

Tuesday Jan 14th.

Still raining this morning, twelve hours now and everything is very fresh. Bananas have disappeared from the breakfast buffet. I ask why and am told they have to get some more out of the store. S L Bongo picks me up to go and see his pal at the Ministry, the Director of Planning. Big embarrassment; he is not there, he has been called away. But his deputy is splendid. He must be some sort of albino for he has bright ginger curley hair on top of a big round very African face. He is very jolly and polite, but looks just like Coco the clown. I escape from Coco and Bongo to the air conditioned luxury of the Holiday Inn.

From there by taxi to the 'Irish Embassy' - it is not an embassy, but a Development Cooperation Office. There I have a useful chat about the college and my project. As we are miles out, I ask the gateman to find me a taxi. I wait five minutes and am then called out to find a taxi, with the driver buried under the bonnet, with his head in the engine. He assures me I will not have to push, and retires to the rear of the car with a small stick in his hand. It turns out to be a dipstick, for he uses it to dip into the petrol tank to make sure he has petrol. He then takes the petrol lead to the carburettor in his mouth, sucks hard, spits, and reattaches the pipe. We drive off to the Intercontinental Hotel.

This is another new experience. Once again we are in the other world of the international hotel. This one even has shops, and quite good jewellery and shirts. Back to the Fairview, and I decide to try the Frog and Firkin for lunch, and combine the walk with a sortie into town to take photos. No bother, have a kebab at the F&F, then buy two bananas and a handkerchief, and return to the Fairview. Now almost 17 hours, and the rain has come on again, so it is the hermit life for me, and two bananas and the remaining half of the Nederburg for dinner in my room. Wakened at one by loud voices from the kitchen, which is just down and across the garden from my room. No sleep until the voices subside around 3.

Wednesday January 15th.

At least today I waken up hungry, for the first time on this trip. Go to hell and have two fried eggs and bacon for breakfast (£1.60 extra.) Then hike it over to S L B's office for another meeting with the staff. Short but rather good session, and I return to the Fairview with the intention of finding the new National Museum of Zambia. I ask at the reception, but they have not heard of it, though they will find out.

I think I know roughly where it is, so set out to walk, and sure enough in fifteen minutes I have found the National Museum. It is a large new building sitting like an Emperor's palace in its own grounds, with a flight of ceremonial steps up to the entrance. Inside it is even better. The ground floor is one big open square space, with light spilling down from the ceiling, while a broad gallery on four sides constitutes the first floor. At ground level is the art collection. The paintings are interesting, some very good indeed, while the sculpture is exceptional. A seated figure, made from the top of an old copper hot water cylinder, with legs and arms of bits of piping, makes a marvellous tribal chief. There are some very witty naive paintings of colonial days, with fat, red faced white men in ridiculous shorts. It is all quite an eye-opener. I am sure Zambia needs other things more urgently than this, but it is nevertheless rather splendid.

Upstairs the museum is only beginning, but it has a formidable display of witchcraft artefacts - how to murder your neighbour, sleep with his wife, ruin his crops, cure arthritis.....

Back at the hotel and some more TV delights. Ever Decreasing Circles, the Professionals, Pie in the Sky, and, without subtitles, Hamish McBeth.

Thursday January 16th.

This is it, the last day, and a very underdeveloped one it is. It has been pouring all night, and it continues all day. Bongo wants me to try again to meet another pal, the Director at another Ministry, so we drive through potholes and puddles to a new part of the town. Horror of horrors, he too has been called away. We do a tour of offices looking for his Deputy, but he has gone too. Again every door has a massive padlock, and in addition a full wrought-iron grill door to close over at night. This is inside the Ministry. S L Bongo agrees rather reluctantly to leave, and we get as far as the front door before S L nips back upstairs to collect something. I wait for ten minutes and he reappears to tell me the Assistant Director wants to see us, so we troop back up again, and spend ten minutes with the Assistant Director, who has no reason to be interested in us, apart from the fact that he will have to give a full report of the meeting to the Director.

We eventually take our leave. By now what was to have been a five minute courtesy call has taken up an hour of our time. We get into the car and start to drive off, but are caught just short of the gate. The Director has returned and wants to see us. Back to the car park, up the stairs and into the Director's outer office. Another ten minute wait, then into the Director, who is very agreeable, and talks about the project, and then asks me to take a letter for him and post it in Belfast. It is urgently needed in Dublin.

The rest of the day, and of the visit to Zambia, dissolves in a steady drizzle, and the obscurity of the Fairview Hotel lobby. I get to a commercial gallery to look at paintings - interesting, but nothing to buy - and then try to contact S L who has promised to take me on a tour of the poorer parts of Lusaka before dropping me to the airport. I phone S L to be told he is in a meeting. I try again, but he is still in a meeting. By now it is coming close to the time when he would have had to pick me up to drive straight to the airport. My friend G Hughes, formerly of Strand Road Sandlymount, comes into the lobby and offers me a lift to the airport. I explain the Bongo situation, and say I will give it five minutes more. As the five minutes elapse and I am about to leave with G Hughes, S L Bongo phones to say he is in a garage somewhere getting a flat tyre fixed, and will be along shortly. As politely as I can I tell him of the G Hughes offer and of my intention of accepting it. No problem at all is his reply, he will just have to post the letter he had intended asking me to take home...

The jumbo from Harare to Gatwick is stuffed. Three hundred and seventy of us. At six o'clock in the morning I get off, and head for self-service. Full English breakfast - two eggs, bacon, sausages, mushrooms, toast, and no bananas. No problem.